When I lived in California, I was able to take a couple of trips to visit the
Great Sequoia trees, in the national parks there. If you’ve never been to such a place, to what is called an old growth forest, it is hard to forget. They are called old growth forests, because the absolutely massive trees in the forest can be as many as 2,000 years old. When you stand on the forest floor you can’t even see the top of them, their branches disappear into the clouds. They are ancient, and sturdy, and huge. They look as if they have been there forever, and as though they will always be there. But that’s not true. Even a 2,000 year old life must come to an end. And these trees do die, they do fall over making a huge crashing sound and sending vibrations for miles on the forest floor. Its remarkable to think that something that big, that strong, and that old, could just one day fall down.
Jeremiah was a prophet in the city of Jerusalem at the time of its fall to the Babylonians. At the time of the Babylonian invasion, Jerusalem had been the capital city of Israel, and later Judah, for nearly 400 years. Throughout that time the people had gone from being a rag tag group of escaped slaves and nomadic tribespeople, to becoming a mighty nation, with kings and armies, palaces, and a glorious Temple. From the tiny seed of the exodus community had grown a magnificent tall and sturdy oak. Jerusalem and Judah were the people of God living in the city of God and they were sure that God would keep things going just as they were, just as they had been for the last 400 years.
Jeremiah had the unfortunate task of telling the people of Jerusalem that a change was coming. It was not to be a small change, nor was it to be a popular one. Jeremiah received the word from God, that Jerusalem would be punished for her sins, for her oppression of the poor, and her idolatry. What’s more he received the word that the punishment would come at the hands of the Babylonians, the raging empire would come and utterly destroy Jerusalem and its Temple, and would cart off the Judeans to live in exile in Babylon. The mighty oak that was once Judah and Jerusalem would be chopped down, leaving nothing but a stump where it once stood. It was Jeremiah’s task to bring this word from God to the people. Jeremiah had to bring bad news to a people who had begun to think they were immune to it, he had to tell people that their world, the world they were accustomed to was over.
Over the course of my life, the branch of the Christian Church that I serve here in the United States, mainline protestantism, has undergone a steady decline. The heyday for our denominations, for the mainline church, was the fifties and early sixties. As people returned from war and started families in record numbers, they also flocked to our churches. If you ask Mr. George he can tell you that in the 1960s we had nearly 200 kids in Sunday School here at St. Paul’s. We even had two Sunday services just to fit everyone into the sanctuary. Things were going well, and looking even better. But as the sixties progressed, the trend towards decline began. There are numerous reasons given for why, whole dissertations and books on the subject, but whatever the cause our church’s started shrinking, and closing, and becoming fewer and fewer. This happened all over the country, and it happened here at St. Paul’s too; by 2013, this church had only 6 regular worship attendees.
This long and slow process of decline has meant that I have spent my life in a denomination that is already quite aware of the crisis it is in. The work of Jeremiah in bringing attention to the coming crisis had already been done. By the time I came of age, I was already overly familiar with the doom and gloom scenarios about the future of the mainline church; I had already heard again and again that we are shrinking, we are aging, we are in serious decline. It is good to be honest and straightforward about the challenges that you are facing, its is the only way to deal with them. But after awhile, once everyone knows that there is a crisis, continuing to preach doom and gloom is a little sadistic, instead of rallying our forces to address the problem, it leaves us in despair that nothing can be done, that no change is possible. We are a dying people, in a dying denomination, we were once a mighty oak, and now we are no more than stump.
Stumps are funny things; although they remind you what once lived there, the fully grown tree, they are more than just tree grave markers. They are often not quite dead. Its been awhile since I’ve mowed the grass around the church. Daniel and John and I get together every couple of weeks on a Saturday morning and mow the lawn here at the church, and trim the edges. Typically, I get to push the mower, the job I like best. Along the sidewalk in front of the parsonage on Eleonore Street there is a stump in the grass. It is the stump of a crepe myrtle tree which our next door neighbor chopped down sometime ago. Often we think of tree stumps as being dead, they are what’s left when you kill the tree, when you chop it down. But this particular crepe myrtle stump is stubbornly holding on to life. Everytime I mow the lawn in that spot, I can see the stump before I get to it, because it has all these brand new little shoots. New twigs growing from the stump, with new little leaves. Fresh new attempts of this crepe myrtle to live again. To again become a tree, where there once was only a stump, there is the potential for a brand new tree.
After God’s word to Jeremiah came true and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the people into exile, it was no longer necessary for him to convince them that disaster was coming; it had already come. The people are living in despair, their home, their loved ones, their whole world seemed to have been destroyed. Living as exiles in Babylon they were without hope, they were mired in despair. It is at this point that God’s word to Jeremiah changes from judgment and warning to comfort and hope. Jeremiah acknowledeges the plain truth of the situation: The House of David had been cut off, the people of Judah have been chopped down, all that remains is a stump. But this does not mean there is no hope. This does not mean that God has forgotten or abandoned God’s people. Just as brand new shoots can spring forth from a seemingly dead stump, so too will God bring forth from the stump of Judah, a shoot, a branch that will fulfill God’s promises to the people. This branch will grow to be a new, strong and sturdy tree and it will execute the justice and righteousness of God, it will save the people. Things are bad now, yes, but the days are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when God will fulfill Her promises, when the people will live in peace and security and know the righteousness of God.
When a big tee falls, when something that we have come to take for granted is taken away, it can feel like the end of the world. When people here that the church or the denomination they loved is dying, it can be overwhelming, it can be devastating. When people see their country changing in ways they don’t like, it can seem like all is lost. When we hear about the coming disaster of climate change, of whole cities being swept into the ocean, it can lead us to panic and a sense of hopelessness. But all trees eventually fall. All things eventually change. Even the tallest, sturdiest sequoia falls. The one thing that we in the Christian Church believe never changes, the one thing that is always true, the one thing that will never pass away is the Word of God in Christ Jesus. This eternal Word proclaims to us that God has acted in the past, and that God will act to save in the future as well. God saved the people from slavery in Egypt, God led the people through the wilderness, God established a kingdom in David, and God brought the exiles back to Jerusalem. This very same God caused a branch of righteousness to spring forth from the stump of Jesse in Jesus Christ who comes to us in love, salvation, justice and righteousness. Jesus Christ is the new shoot, the new branch, the new tree, bringing life from the death of the past.
It is because of God’s saving actions in the past, that we have hope that God will act again. In Jesus Christ God brought the light of the world out of the stump of Judah. Though our denomination may only be the stump of what it once was, God can still bring forth new shoots of life from it. Though our heyday of the 1960s has been chopped down, there are still living roots in the UCC and here at St. Paul’s. We continue to look for new shoots, new possibilities for sharing the gospel, new opportunities to serve our community, new chances to be instruments of God’s grace and love in our world. We must continue to tend carefully to each new shoot, each new ministry that we begin, nurturing them, allowing them to grow, and trusting in our hope that God will bring forth a new shoot of love, justice, and peace here at St. Paul’s, here in the United Church of Christ, and here in the United States. We can be so audacious as to hope in the future impact of St. Paul’s and the UCC because we base our hope in the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the one who has acted to save in the past, and will once more come to save our lives, our church, our country, and our world. May we hold fast to this hope and may we ever be on the lookout for the new thing God is doing, the new shoot of salvation of which we are invited to be a part. Amen.