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December 1, 2004
Today's eMo is really two different meditations on texts that will be read in many churches this Sunday. The first is the usual sermon preparation eMo; the second is intended for preachers who wish to focus their congregations' attention on the work of the church among the suffering through the ministry of Episcopal Relief and Development. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow. with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.

A Shoot From a Stump

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
Isaiah 11:1

Interesting -- it is out of the stump that a fresh green shoot will come. A stump that has been hacked to the ground. Chop down a tree and leave the roots in place -- a dozen small green shoots, miniature tree branches, will sprout from its ruin.

It looked at the time of John the Baptist as if the tree of Jesse was all but dead -- hacked to the ground. Israel was occupied by the Romans, and the local political leaders were a joke. But the roots were still in place: they had their tradition, their hopeful scriptures, their longing. They had each other. And John knew that they had God, every last one of those standing there and the whole people of Israel, too. John's time was not the first time when hope seemed lost. The whole story of Israel was one of defeat and rebirth. The whole story of humankind is that story, too. My story is that story. Yours, too.

Into every life, defeat. There isn't anyone who never loses. But with every defeat, there is always the promise of rebirth. Curiously, also, it is often at precisely the spot of our wounding that our hope takes root -- not somewhere else in our lives. The new growth springs directly from the ashes of defeat.

To help a plant grow stronger, you wound it -- snip off some terminal growth and the plant bushes out below the spot where you snipped. Make a slit in a woody stem, wrap it with sphagnum and keep it moist, and it will grow new roots from the wound. People in biblical times knew these things -- they grew plants for food. They knew about shoots of hope from wounds.

We moderns won't know it from experience, not unless we are gardeners. Maybe you've never seen a plant regroup. Never seen roots grow up out of a stump. Go out for a walk and notice the plants, though, and you will not have walked for long before you see it happening: new life springing right from the scars of the old life's defeat. Then talk to just about anybody and ask her to tell you about her life, and you will see it again, maybe even more clearly than she sees it herself: something new springing straight from the death of something mourned.

Have you lost something you thought you could not live without? As long as you're alive, your roots are still in place. Watch them, and soon you will see something green begin.

Isaiah 11:1-10 * Romans 15:4-13 * Matthew 3:1-12 * Ps 72 or 72:1-8


Involuntary Simplicity

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
Matthew 3:3

To us, he embodies voluntary asceticism of a most emphatic kind --- John chooses to live where he lives, dress as he dresses and eat what he eats. For him, these rusticities are prophetic, calling the people of Israel back to their roots in the wilderness, where they were responsive to God's leading.

But there are people in Darfur today who live like John lived -- eating grass, eating insects, and sometimes eating nothing at all -- and have not chosen to do so. Not at all. They have been turned out of their homes in the night and pursued into the darkness, they hide in the rocks with their children and pray that the marauders will go away before daylight reveals them. They travel on foot to refugee camps, carrying only what they could grab in the dark. Their asceticism is not voluntary. They didn't choose it.

John is pointedly not a power person. Not a government official, a religious official, not any kind of official. John is the ultimate outsider. In Sudan, we read in the newspaper, the power people in the government and the power people among the rebels have recently agreed upon something like a cease-fire. You wouldn't know it in Darfur -- if anything, the violence has increased in the past few days. Aid workers are barred from large areas, unable to deliver the supplies they have brought to the refugees -- the mosquito netting, the plastic sheets for building temporary shelters, the polio vaccines. Meanwhile, people continue to starve, to lose their homes -- 70,000 people in Darfur have starved to death or died of disease since March of this year alone.

The repentance John preached is often assumed to be individual repentance -- turn your life around, he says. And he was certainly talking to individuals about their own sins. But his life -- his appearance, his rejection of political authority -- was itself a political act. John is poor for the poor. John's very self is political for people who are too defeated to be political. The women and children of Darfur aren't political -- they're exhausted. They just want a safe place to sleep, food to eat. They just want to live.

And how about us? Are we political? When we give to the poor, and our representatives are barred by a corrupt government from carrying out their mission of mercy, we are certainly caught in politics, even from our safe distance. We see John, strange prophet of the wilderness, listen to him denounce the powerful, know that we are not ourselves among the powerful people who will decide the things that determine who will live and who will die in Darfur. That is not within our sphere of capability. But still we can stand in prayer and support with those who will help, poised with them at the edge of the settlements from which they are barred, ready to go in as soon as they are allowed -- we from our safe distance, with our donations in support of the brave workers who will actually make the first forays back into the devastated settlements as soon as they are allowed to do so.

Hang on, mothers and children. Hang on, grandparents and wounded. Hold onto life long enough to receive our help. Be strengthened in your time of need by our prayers throughout faraway America, and we are sending help. It is on the way.
To learn more about ERD's work in Darfur, visit or call 1-800-334-7626, ext 5129.
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