The Cypress and the Myrtle

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A

Isaiah 55: 10 – 13
Psalm 65: 9 – 14
Romans 8: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23

My father was never much for television. Except for the nightly news, and the occasional serial drama like Upstairs, Downstairs, I don’t remember him watching TV in the evening. He and Mum would sit in their chairs reading, either a book or the newspaper, while we kids watched whatever it was we watched, splayed out on the living room floor.

What I do remember is how quickly he would get up and turn the TV off, the instant something came on that he did not think suitable for children. This was especially true if something about the Second World War came on. In a flash he would be up, out of his chair, and across the living room, to turn the TV off and say, by way of explanation, too tough for kids. I never knew what he was talking about, until as a teenager, I began to learn about the Holocaust.

I sometimes imagine the world today as a television show, and in my minds eye, I see my father getting up, and turning the TV off, saying, as he does, too tough to watch.

In many ways, what is going on in the world these days, is too tough to watch. In one instant we see death and economic turmoil cased by disease and pandemic. The next moment we are disturbed, and even convicted, by racial injustice. We discover again the generational effects of a war we thought long over. We are appalled by the irrational and irresponsible policies of our leaders. We are shamed by privilege and entitlement. Over, and over again, I find myself wanting to close my eyes, turn my head, ignore what is happening, and I hear my father saying, too tough to watch. This time though, I know what he is talking about, because this time, it’s me, not him saying it. Too tough to watch. And the reality is, it is true, what is going on is too tough to watch, but as Christians, watch we do, because watch we must.

Just as we cannot ignore, or forget, the genocide of the Holocaust, we cannot ignore, or forget, the very real damage slavery caused, and continues to cause, to the lives of so many Black Americans for generations. Nor can we ignore the deaths of so many, and the economic disruption of the entire planet, due to a pandemic. It is easy to say that it will all end, like a miracle, but the hard work of racial and economic justice can’t be done in an instant, or wished away in a flash, as if it was never there. The hard work of containing a pandemic doesn’t end, simply because our leaders have lost interest, and moved on to something else.

What is going on in the world is indeed tough to watch, but watch we must, because only by watching, will we be compelled to act, in order to achieve the healing and wholeness for which we so long. And long we do.

As Christians we long, not simply for things to change. We long, not simply for things to get better. We long for the promises of God to be fulfilled. And what promises they are!

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.[i]

God’s people are in exile, far from the land of promise, cut off from their holy sites, and the promise of God to them, is a promise of restoration and abundance, when the freedom of God’s people will be restored, and the land will again produce in abundance, not thorns and briers, but cypress and myrtle.

It’s not an accident that Isaiah speaks of thorns and briers, cypress and myrtle. We first saw thorns and briers, or thistles, in Genesis:

and to the man [God] said,
‘Because you … have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
“You shall not eat of it”,
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.[ii]

Today we hear in Isaiah, that primal curse being turned into divine blessing, when struggle, toil, and sweat, are turned into healing, strength, and eternal life. It is this: healing, strength, and life in all its abundance, that are the promises of God reign, and are for all people. That promise of God, is eternal and everlasting, and that promise will never be cut off. And even if it is cut down, like the myrtle, it will spring forth in fragrant abundance once again.

Today the world seems cursed. All around we see thorns and thistles flourishing. Life is hard. It is a struggle. Death, injustice, and insecurity are real, and seem to have taken root, and appear to be the only things growing. We see only fear, loss, and sadness, to reap. And like the exiled people of ancient Israel, we sigh, how shall we sing the Lord’s song, upon an alien soil?[iii] Like the people of ancient Israel, we too seem so far from God’s promised land, that land of justice, mercy, and peace. We too seem cut off from God’s Jerusalem.

Yet into this curse, God speaks blessing.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.[iv]

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty.

It is this, the fruitfulness of God’s word, that Father Benson speaks of when he says:

And when we speak with [God] and [God] with us, what is the result? If God speaks with a soul, does [God] speak with it as we may speak one with another? We may speak one with another and our words fall upon the outward ear, but leave the nature unchanged. The word of God is the word of the Creator, and so the word of God never comes forth from God without a creation following it. When the word of God comes into the soul…, it creates a consciousness with the soul. It is not a mere passing articulation of sound, it is the abiding presence of the creative word which has come into the soul. And what does [God] create in the soul? [God] creates some affections, for God is love, and God creates in the soul that which is akin to Himself….[v]

The promise of God that we see spoken through Jesus, is a promise of healing, strength, and life in abundance. Where we see only thorns and thistles, God’s promised cypress and myrtle, are already taking root in our lives, for the simple reason that God is love[vi] and what God says, God effects, for God said, and it was so, and it was good.[vii]

In the midst of a world filled with thorns and thistles, it is possible to catch glimpses of cypress and myrtle taking root. We glimpse the cypress and myrtle take root in crowds of people, Black, white, brown, young and old, protesting for racial justice and equality. And God said, and it was so, and it was good. We glimpse the cypress and myrtle take root as people don masks to prevent the spread of a virus. And God said, and it was so, and it was good. We glimpse the cypress and myrtle take root every time a healthcare provider, or a grocery store employee heads out the door to work. And God said, and it was so, and it was good.

It’s a tough time right now. Some days, things are simply too tough to watch. But if we stop watching, close our eyes, turn our heads, ignore what is going on around us, we will never glimpse the shoots of cypress and myrtle springing up in our midst, and the breaking in of God’s reign of justice will go unnoticed.

The promise of God spoken through Jesus is a promise of healing, strength, and life in all its abundance. If we stop watching, close our eyes, turn our heads, ignore what is going on around us, we may never see God at work in the world around us. And if we only see thorns and thistles, how will we notice the cypress and myrtle, and join God in building the new Jerusalem here on earth?

God’s promise is a promise of healing, strength, and abundant life for all, and like the promised cypress and myrtle, they are taking root, but we will never see them if we don’t watch, and having seen them, we are invited to join them.

[i] Isaiah 55: 12 – 13

[ii] Genesis 3: 17 – 18

[iii] Psalm 137: 4

[iv] Isaiah 55: 10 – 11

[v] Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation, Of Mental Prayer, chapter 16, page 195

[vi] 1 John 4: 8

[vii] Genesis 1

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  1. Connie on July 3, 2023 at 21:17

    Such a beautiful exposition of the ever growing Kingdom. GODs love and mercy and healing come forth through us…. if we are courageous and faithful. I yearn for the days when even the bells on the horses will be inscribed with “HOLY TO THE LORD “

  2. Janice Meyer on July 3, 2023 at 07:36

    A lovely and, timely meditation.

  3. Randy LaRosa on July 6, 2021 at 13:51

    This does bring me back to my youth growing up in the Fabulist 50s.

  4. Elizabeth Hardy on July 6, 2021 at 11:36

    This makes me think of the current NHL playoffs. I can’t take the stress of watching the game so I change the channel – and then when I calm down and turn back I’ve missed my team score the winning goal and all the celebration that goes with it! We can’t fully live into our alliance with God, our citizenship in the Kingdom if we have to turn away from all the difficulties that we see and hear and live through or we miss the Kingdom moments in which God’s grace breaks through and His word creates a new and better reality. Being a Christian is not for the faint hearted for sure. Thank you Br James for reminding me of this. Elizabeth Hardy+

  5. James Rowland on July 6, 2021 at 11:00

    Br. James,
    You write: In Isaiah ” that primal curse being turned into divine blessing, when struggle, toil, and sweat, are turned into healing, strength, and eternal life. It is this: healing, strength, and life in all its abundance, that are the promises of God reign, and are for all people.”
    I was a child in the 1950’s and one day my cousin and I were prowling through his father’s things without permission and we came onto a bundle of photos. My uncle was in the Army in WWII and was with the troops which entered Germany ar the end of the war. The photos were of Nazi death camps, living skeletons, corpses and ovens. What I saw I could not “unsee”. I don’t think we told my uncle and it was awhile later that I learned what these photos were of.
    How could this happen? How could God allow this? I am 70 now and I still ask these questions. Daily I pray for healing and strength and for God’s promise of life in abundance. With 24/7 news my prayers are a challenge. Often overwhelmed and at times feeling hopeless, I can only wait and pray, “Come Lord Jesus. Come God’s reign.”

    • Rick Porter on July 12, 2024 at 09:51

      There is so much cypress and myrtle in our world that we lose sight of with the 24/7 news cycle of death, destruction, danger, and hopelessness. In the quietness of the monastery the noise of those paid to keep me focused on death, destruction, danger, and hopelessness goes away and I am blessed to experience a taste of the love and hope that is in Christ.

      Yes there will always be death, destruction, danger, and hopelessness for that is the reality of our earthly condition. But we live with the promises of the Father and His love for His children.

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