Song of Solomon 8:5-7
I’d like to say something about roots. I’m speaking here the language of botany: the root structure of flowers, and plants, and trees. But first of all I have to offer something of a disclaimer. I am not a gardener. Some of the brothers in the community truly are talented gardeners. I, though, am among the ranks of brothers who are called “weeders.” “Weeders” are carefully told by the “gardeners” what we are to pull… and what we are not to pull. That’s pretty much it. Nonetheless, this is what I know about the root structure of things that grow. The roots, which are usually underground and not easily visible, provide for several essential things: the anchoring of the plant, the absorption of water and dissolved minerals which are then conducted into the stem, and the storage of reserve foods. A plant’s root system has a very determining effect on a plant’s size and health, on its fruitfulness, and on its ability to adapt to various soil types and seasonal changes in the weather. Roots are quintessential to the life and growth of a plant, and yet they are usually not visible to the eye… unless a plant has been up rooted, either by accident or disaster, or by the plant’s being trans planted on purpose. Either way, whenever you see the roots of a living thing, it’s usually quite an amazing sight. It’s not always pretty.
Just a moment ago, in the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, we heard this most evocative metaphor: to be “rooted and grounded in love.” “…That you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts, as you are being rooted and grounded in love .” I’d like to dig down into this metaphor of being “rooted and grounded in love” in light of what we know about roots.
Roots anchor the plant. We find our own anchorage in life through our personal history. We are no accident. Who we’ve become, how we’ve been formed and deformed and reformed so greatly affects (sometimes tragically infects) who we are. And there’s no ultimate escaping our roots. Life’s quest, is seems to me, is for reconciliation with our past, to make a truce, perhaps to throw a party for who we were and who we’ve become… which is not always easy. The author Joan Didion says that many of us are prone to deny or forget or try to escape our past, to “… forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” She writes, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be….” [i] And yet we need a clear conduit with all of our past to be the whole person we’ve been created to be today. We need the deep roots of our past or our inevitable shallowness will make us very vulnerable when we meet the predictable storms of life. And we need our roots, or our superficiality may expose us as being unreal or fraudulent.
I don’t think that most of us can claim our roots alone. For many of us, our roots are quite twisted, and with no little amount of darkness. And this is where people from our past are such anchors of hope for our souls. [ii] – People who knew us, especially people who cherished us when we could not cherish ourselves if left alone. People who grounded us in reality, who helped define the boundaries of our existence so that we didn’t just grow wild. [iii] I think this is what the lover is saying in the Song of Solomon in the beautiful phrase, “He has set love in order in me.” [iv] It is mostly people from our own past who help us define our identity by facing and claiming our roots, which are essential to our healing and wholeness, our wellbeing, our stability. People who stood by us; sometimes people who helped lift us up out of the mire and clay of our of our own lives, [v] people who pointed out danger like a lighthouse on a high cliff. I suspect for some of us, those people in our past who stood by us are indistinguishable from God: they are what God looked like and sounded like and felt like. Their presence was, to us, an experience of transcendence. They incarnated God, truly, and maybe for the first time in our awareness. Our roots anchor our identity, our dignity, and our courage, and most of us need this help, sometimes desperately. How wonderful it is when this kind of help is at hand.
We know also that roots absorb water and minerals, and they store food. Roots are ingenious. If you have occasion to travel in the desert, in the driest and hottest and sometimes sorriest of places, even in the dust things can grow. They must grow strong, and yet they often grow with a mysterious and yet undeniable beauty. You actually can see roses blooming in the desert, and a great deal more. Likewise, if you have occasion to visit New England in the winter [sic] in the coldest and bleakest of days, witnessing the frozen skeletons of past plant life, you need only have witnessed one springtime here to know that it all was just waiting for the fullness of time to come again. Winter is not a death; it’s just a well-earned nap for most northern plant life, and in this dormancy, water and minerals are being quietly searched out, gathered, storehoused for the great blowout in the spring and summer. If a plant is meant to be where it is, its root structure will find the provision it needs, not just to survive but to thrive. I think that’s a paradigm about life and love.
On the one hand, we could say that we learn about love, and about the love of God, because of people who have loved us “unconditionally.” If you’ve had this experience, you probably know what I mean. I think it’s true: t hat God’s love is “unconditional,” and that’s true for all of us here. That God has this passionate love affair going on with you. God has created you as you are. God knows you, who you were and who you are. God cherishes you. God longs for your companionship. In God’s scheme of things, God has plans for a relationship with you that lasts forever, a relationship which only grows in intimacy over the years. It’s like an eternal infatuation. You’re always on God’s mind: when you’re sleeping, God is dreaming up ways to be with you. When you’re working or walking or weeping, God is catching up with you in the wind across your face, in the call of a bird, in the free-fall of laughter, in the soothing touch of a friend. God’s wooing you, wanting you, whispering love ballads into your ear. You are the apple of God’s eye. [vi] Whoever you are, really; what you are, where you are, however it is that you’ve become the way you are… God knows and God desires and God loves. God can’t get enough of you. You make God’s day! – I would say that’s true, and true for all of us here. God does love you, and God’s love for you knows no end. – It’s just that I probably would not call this “ un conditional love” any more. These days, I think I would rather call it God’s “conditional love.” (I know I’m playing a bit with words here, but life is inescapably full of conditions and predicaments, and God’s love for us isn’t theoretical or cloned, it’s very real and very personal.)
And so here I go back to our own roots. The parents to whom we were born: whether we were desired by them, whether they had enough money or space or time or patience to raise us. How their love for us was informed by their own needs and desires. Whether our upbringing was for us an experience of liberation or of incarceration. Whether we learned about courage or shame or joy or perseverance or fear or patience from our earliest days was very much informed by the conditions in which we were raised. The effect our siblings (or absence of siblings) had on us; teachers, coaches, pastors, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, friends, all of them sharing in our formation or, perhaps in some ways, tragically, in our de formation. Our experiences of joy and forgiveness, of sickness and health, of acclamation and success, of justice and cruelty, of favoritism and prejudice. Our experiences of what was dependably old and what was excitingly new… in the tiniest and greatest of ways. Our experience of knowing or searching for a home or dwelling place, for a place to belong; our occasions to travel into worlds otherwise unknown. Those are the conditions in which we have experienced life, through which we must survive and ultimately thrive, we pray. Those are the kind of conditions – often times less than ideal – but that’s life, and it is a real and it’s quite an adventure.
And the reason I’m more fascinated with these “conditions” for knowing God’s love is because of Jesus who comes to us, stooping down to us at our on level. We’re no longer talking only about a God of the Law, whose ways were unknowable, whose face was unseeable, whose name was unpronounceable, whose heart and hands were untouchable, but Jesus who entered the conditions of this world as an innocent and needy child, just as we have, to reveal the real presence of God’s love. God Emmanuel: God with us, not just God above us or beyond us, but God with us. God with you in the conditions and in the relationships in which you have known life, past and present.
In the Gospel lesson appointed for this evening, when we hear Jesus ask Peter, “Do you love me?” that question has a history. This is an informed question that Jesus is asking, because his relationship has been “rocky” with Jesus, to say the least. [vii] Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” And Peter responds with a rather embarrassed ‘yes’ because he has every reason to know shame. This seems to be quelled by Jesus’ love and forgiveness for him. There’s an old adage that says, “Love is blind.” It’s not true. It’s quite the opposite. Love sees beyond the moment, beyond the surface, deep inside the other, what could be called “insight.” Love draws on the roots of memory, to contextualize and to cherish, to see the another person (or to see ourselves) through the eyes of mercy. What could seem on the surface a stain on someone’s character we may come to recognize is in actuality a scar, well won and well worn. Peter was loved by Jesus, not despite his history but in light of his history. And so for us all, I would say. The ongoing invitation to life and love is rooted in the conditions in which we have known and have lived our life.
There’s an endearing word of insight in the Talmud that reads, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”
[viii] An image from The Letter to the Ephesians 1:17-19 “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
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