Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 3, 2000 - Pastor Diane Schmitz

Listen to this story about a woman and an old tree.

She moved into their new house in April; the buds on the trees in her yard were just beginning to open. She looked at the crabapple tree, its branches bursting with pink fluffs of color. What a delight to have such a beautiful tree, she thought.

Next year a new tradition began. The blooming of the branches coincided with Easter and so a few were cut to be brought in and adorn the dinner table. Friends remarked on the beauty and abundance of the flowering branches. Next year one of them called and asked if a few could be saved for her Easter dinner table.

Another few years went by and then the happiness that had filled the woman's house began to get fragmented. It was hard to pinpoint just what had gone wrong but the tension between her husband and she continued to grow. That year, focused inwardly, she hardly noticed what was blooming in the yard - only what was dying inside of her.

There were many attempts to save the marriage - counselors, prayer, conversations with friends - but nothing seemed able to bring life back to a relationship that had withered away from neglect.

The next spring she was living alone. One cold and wet spring day she looked out at the crabapple tree and noticed to her surprise that it had very few blooms. The couple of branches that were blooming were beautiful but they almost seemed lost among the many other bare branches.

An unexpected storm later that spring ripped away branches from several of the trees in her backyard. Torn from the crabapple tree was one of the more substantial branches. For weeks the branch lay on the ground; the woman's attention was elsewhere. Later when she lifted up the big branch that had been lying on the ground it split into several pieces. The bark fell off in hunks.

The next spring there were no blossoms on the crabapple tree; no bloom burst forth. It did leaf out but almost halfheartedly as if it felt like it was just too much effort. One main offshoot of the trunk appeared to have died. It was the offshoot from which the storm had wrenched away a branch the year before. Disease had crept in and there was no sign of life on any of its connecting branches. The tree looked lopsided. One part seemed dead and was bare. The other part looked forlorn; alive but lacking in vitality.

The woman looking out her kitchen window towards the backyard did not like the looks of the tree; it reminded her too much of her own self.

Early that summer, the woman's divorce was final. She sat out on the deck and gazed at the tree, which looked ragged. Moss covered a great deal of it; the bark was peeling in some places. She had a sudden thought. "I'll chop it down." It would be a good symbolic act for ridding herself of the pain of a relationship that had failed. It would be a great outlet for the intense anger that she still felt about her former husband. She contemplated whether her small ax used for camping could do the job. She thought about how good it would feel to just hack away at something.

Her life was busy and she didn't get around to chopping it down right away. She found it peaceful to spend many evenings sitting out on the backyard deck as summer passed. One day she noticed a small hole in the upper part of the remaining dead branch in the crabapple tree. She wondered about what had made it. Then on another day she noticed a tiny bird going into it and then on another day another bird. To her surprise the birds had made a home in this offshoot of the trunk. Awhile later she noticed another hole down below and again observed birds using it. Later on a woodpecker became a regular visitor at the tree, tapping away at the bark looking for food.

The woman began to pay more attention to the tree. She saw it with a different eye. Her assessment of it as just a useless, dying tree began to shift. Now it had become home for some creatures; now it was giving life in a different way. Later that summer the smaller birds seem to have disappeared. A couple of bigger birds came and began enlarging the whole; soon it was their new home.

That summer there seemed to be many more varieties of birds in her yard - more than she could remember from previous years. She felt something shift inside her as she watched the way the birds were utilizing the crabapple tree. She decided to let the tree be.

The winter passed and every time the woman looked out her kitchen window at the crabapple tree she smiled remembering the birds and the way they created life out of something old and seemingly dying. She found in herself a new hope for her own future and throughout the winter days she felt some hardness in herself begin to melt - making room for something whole and healing.

By next spring, the woman was finding herself smiling more. A new job had come her way - one that she would never have imagined herself doing but it was a perfect match for her. There was a new relationship in her life. All of a sudden the heaviness she had carried for so long lifted. She could feel it physically and a deep sense of joy burst forth in her. She had wearied of waiting for life to seem good again. She had tired of being patient and holding on to hope. But, just as she thought she could tolerate it no longer, it seemed as if miracles had occurred.

One brisk day in that spring she was outside to gather flowering branches with which to decorate her house. As had been her pattern the last couple of years, she went first to the forsythia in the front yard and then the flowering quince in the backyard. A few daffodils were still blooming so she picked them as well. She lifted her head and suddenly found herself looking straight at the crabapple tree. She shook her head, looked again for there on the tree were once again some flowering branches. The branches were few but they were abundant. There were new shoots from some of the branches. New life was once again visible in the old crabapple tree.

"The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made . . . a new and righteous branch will spring up."

Today we begin the season of Advent, waiting for days to come that will ever more fully reveal God's presence to us. We hope for God's transforming presence in the world to create new life and empower justice. We ponder the mystery of God born among us.

This journey calls out for us to be still and alert for the surprising ways God's love may be known in our world.

When we are still and quiet we often become more aware of the shaking around us. The "signs of distress" that are mentioned in Mark this morning can be uncomfortable and we may be tempted to "get busy" so as to avoid sitting with the pangs of something new being born. We may want to chop down the things that give us pain or seem dead in our lives. But, there is a gift in staying with the turmoil of transformation; steadfast hope amidst the anxiety of change is a powerful impetus for new birth.

For our congregation this year Advent has particular meaning. We stand on the threshold of a new birth for this church. We resist the temptation to do something just for the sake of doing. We enter into this Advent month intentionally and prayerfully seeking God's guidance for the journey we will travel in the new year.

This is a month for dreaming, for imagining. If something so radical as God being born among us can happen, then how can we put limits on what God may do with this church?

This is an old church with a history full of diverse stories. Lots of branches have grown from the roots of this congregation; it has provided a home for many. And some branches have been ripped away by storms; some have become diseased. But, God's promise is that new branches will come forth and new leaves will sprout.

Listen to this passage from Job 14:7: For there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant.

May this month of Advent be a time where we keep watch for ways this hope may be fulfilled and new branches may form on the many trees of life. May we wait expectantly for God's promise to shine through our lives, our church and our world that justice may be done, love may be abundant and peace may prevail. Amen.