Have you ever tried planting a tree upside down? Aside from being a silly sight, I cannot imagine it working too well. You’d be left with a strange scene that looks like it was ripped from the reels of a Tim Burton film. Burying the branches—big bare roots pointing sky high—the tree would fail to take hold, and thus die. It’d be a matter of time before the barren snag collapsed. Now I never took BIOL 340 Plant Structure and Classification in college (nor would I ever, science is just not my subject); but I do think, regardless your major, it’s probably fairly common knowledge that there’s a certain way trees work based on their anatomy. Roots function in fastening the tree to the ground, absorbing water and the crucial nutrients that feed it. Therefore, a tree without roots is unable to live. It is dead, decomposition for insects, fuel for the fire. Branches, on the other end, serve their own different purpose. Atop the tree, branches bear the twigs and leaves which take in sunlight, give forth pollen, bear fruit, and offer shade. No less important than its’ hidden anchor below, branches simply cannot substitute as roots. The whole tree from top to bottom and trunk in between is reliant on the roots serving as its foundation. We can all agree: to confuse the branches for roots would be devastating for the seedling altogether.
Beyond botany, what if we were to use the tree as a metaphor for ourselves? We, too, have roots by which we are grounded and receive the fundamentals crucial for life. From there, grows outward our sturdy trunk of identity, with various-sized shoots of branches, twigs, and leaves. The most outer parts are important in themselves, but they do not function the same as the foundation. What are the roots, feeder or perennial, in your life? On the other end, what could be considered the more pliable (sometimes flimsy) though still connected branches? Where is our faith in Christ positioned among all of this? What place do Scripture and Sacraments have within the living organism? How do we envision our relationships, vocations, commitments, thoughts and opinions in this image? With the exceeding polarization in our society today—if you disagree, turn on the news, pick any channel—I have to wonder if we’ve lost track of or forgotten what are our roots. Or have we idolatrously confused the lesser with the greater—planting ourselves upside down and seeking sustenance through inappropriate means, tapping from the wrong source? We appear so infatuated with what’s red, pink, or blue, who’s liberal, moderate, or conservative, which way is right, center, or left, that it seems we have tried to transplant ourselves inversely. Bunches of dead and dying trees hardly constitutes a forest. Are we letting particular branches of personal pride or partisanship define our root of faith? What is feeding, and thus shaping, what? A brittle, fractured tree is a sign of lacking minerals, starvation. A dead tree is neither good for spreading pollen for future growth nor producing fruit to be eaten, but only mulch and fertilizer.
Our faith is, and should be, that which shapes all else. It is the root from which every branch grows and flourishes. Just as the rings of bark on a tree tell stories of seasons past—showing when the timber was affected by drought, fire, or even healthy rainfall—the many areas of our daily life speak to whether and how our roots are absorbing living water and critical nutrients or not. If ever we get to a place where our politics are shaping how we read the Bible, instead of the other way around, we need to check our roots. Likewise, when personal gain precedes caring for the needs of the neighbor, such is a sign that the aquifer has become contaminated. Topsy-turvy trees are no more useful for the ecosystem than we are to the world around us if our sight is bent downward onto ourselves. Our ethics today demonstrate an obscene ignorance, if not blatant arrogance, in confusing our branches with the roots. As we and those around us call into question appalling remarks made by our leaders, reprehensible policies put into motion by our government, and shameful silent disregard by us the people, we ought to keep in mind that there is no need for bad trees. They don’t remain standing for long. Perhaps the axe needs swinging if we no longer function as we are created to be. When a branch is cut from the trunk, new sprouts can shoot forth. The Apostle Paul speaks of grafting new branches where others have been removed (Romans 11:16b-24). Only God is able to bring about new life out of the dead stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11). If we remain bottoms up—roots rotting in the wind—death is most certain. Only God, the One who raised Jesus from the grave, can bring new resurrected life to trees that have died and decomposed. We call out to God—Creator, Sustainer, and Renewer—to reposition us for sustained life. Only God can bring us to new life—fulfilling the divine promise to make all things new. We pray that God may cleanse and nourish the forest with rains of forgiveness, blowing what is loose and dead away with winds of change, and if need be, setting us ablaze that we might grow anew. God of all, set us, your creation right—so that we might live with one another and serve all—with our roots in fastened in you and our branches showing your grace, love, and mercy. Amen.
– Pastor Andrew