by Ellen Sims
texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Isaiah 61:11; Luke 21:25-33
So a panda walks into a bar. He orders some food, eats, then pulls out a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks bartender, as the panda moves toward the exit. The panda pulls from his panda pants a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it to the bartender.
“I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.”
The bartender picks up the badly punctuated manual, turns to the relevant entry, and, sure enough, finds an explanation:
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots, and leaves.” That’s “Eats (comma), shoots (comma), and leaves (period).” (Truss, back cover).
The punch line of that joke is the title of a bestselling book on the fascinating topic of punctuation. Eats, Shoots and Leaves* is practically evangelistic in promoting the proper use of commas and semi-colons, dashes and slashes.
The “eats shoots and leaves” joke came to my mind through today’s imagistic scriptures, filled as those verses are with greenly sprouting shoots and leaves and branches–a veritable panda paradise. But like that badly punctuated wildlife manual, these hopeful prophetic passages can be misread in some dangerous ways.
The Hebrew prophets sometimes imaged God’s just and hopeful future as springing up like tender shoots, young leaves, a new branch (Isaiah 11:1; 60:21, Jeremiah 17:8, Jeremiah 33: 14-16). The nation of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians. Generations later the tribe of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were devastated, their temple destroyed, and many inhabitants sent into captivity in Babylon. But in dark days the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah believed the devastated line of King David could yet produce a living branch, the earth could still bring forth growing things, and life would continue.
Similarly, Jesus, according to Luke’s Gospel, pictured God’s coming kingdom as the greening of a dormant fig tree that heralds a vibrant summer.
We see in all these scriptures the way the natural world reflects and perhaps affects humanity’s spiritual state. Confused and distressed people will see and hear signs in nature that will fill them with “foreboding,” says Luke’s Jesus, but when God’s ways are being enacted on this earth, the natural world will flourish. The realm of God is in some ways already here, but not yet fully.
Luke’s Gospel assumes that those who read the heavens and those who read sacred texts are looking for signs of God’s activity in the world. Turn on religious programing on television or radio and you’ll likely hear ways these texts are contorted into crazy. How to interpret these signs or symbols is a topic for another day. My short and simple—but, for some, shocking—explanation is that these ancient prophetic utterances are commentary on the times in which they were written, not predictions for the future. The Hebrew prophets were calling their people back to faithful worship of Yahweh, predicting neither the coming of Jesus hundreds of years later nor the end of the earth. Furthermore, the Gospel writers alluded to older prophecies when they created two very different birth narratives for Jesus to make certain points about the character of Jesus, not to record factual history as we understand history and not to encode clues about the end of human history.
I make this bald assertion at the start of Advent and at the risk of upsetting dearly held notions about sacred scripture because Advent is not meant to be a merely sentimental time. “The season invites us to an adult spirituality” (Richard Rohr). It’s full of paradox and wonder and potential for growth. The prophets and Jesus challenged people to participate in the coming reign of God. Giving up the idea that God has created a detailed plan for earth’s future that WILL come to pass does not leave us without God or hope.
But keep in mind that scriptures, like punctuation marks, can be read in ways that either clarify or confuse. If we naively read sacred texts (or wildlife manuals) without context or proper cues or humility, we can reach some dangerous conclusions.
Like the panda who eats and then shoots up the bar and leaves, we can read scriptures irresponsibly, without the aid of historical and social context of the original readers, or awareness of the layers of its composition and editing, or appreciation for the genre, or awareness of how we bring our own cultural assumptions to an ancient text—and in so doing, we end up with some dangerous conclusions. These simplistic conclusions can lead us to demonize groups of people, to create a God in our own image, to justify our failings, to retain a childish spirituality that is unprepared for adult challenges, to idolize important but very human stories that, like all human creations, have a limited perspective.
Here’s one way to test your interpretation of scriptures: if it does not help you grow more in your love for God, others, and self, you may not be reading from a divine perspective. The Great Commandment of Love (Matthew 22:36-40) is the light by which to read all other scriptures. It is Jesus’s ultimate test of truth, which he figuratively punctuated with an exclamation point. There’s Gospel in that exclamation point—and also in the comma, when used by the UCC to remind us “never to place a period, where God has placed a comma.” Because “God is STILL speaking.”
We believe the Bible offers an enduring word for humanity but it’s not the final word. There continues to be “more light and truth to break forth” out of God’s “holy Word,” said pastor John Robinson to the Pilgrims, forebears of the UCC, setting sail for the New World.
Misreading cues from punctuation or prophecies can lead to some dangerous behavior. Pandas shoot up bars. Religious literalists thump their Bibles at people who have different beliefs.
As we return to today’s specific biblical passages, it’s important to realize that, while a text can’t mean just any old thing, it can have multiple interpretations—some more credible than others. What’s important to me in these cryptic verses, as I read them on this first Sunday in Advent, is the note of hope for people living in dark times. As the days literally grow darker, I nevertheless read hope for new growth in my spirit, in our congregation, in our world. It’s not too late, I pray, for us to care for our planet. It’s not too late, I hope, to care for others in ways that foster their personal growth toward the fullness of their humanity. It’s not too late, I believe, to cultivate a community that grows people in a spiritual soil enriched with love. There exists a deep down vital force that produces new branches and green shoots and leaves.
Nature writer Annie Dillard celebrated this indomitable vitality after finding a big tulip-tree limb that a storm had tossed into a flooded creek and later stranded on some rocks. Although both ends of the severed branch were completely exposed and dried out, she discovered a month later new leaves growing from it. “It was like the old fable about the corpse growing a beard,” she marvels, and then she goes on to tell about someone else finding in the lower Bronx “an ailanthus tree that was 15 feet long growing from the corner of a garage roof. It was rooted in and living on ‘dust and roofing cinders. . . I can barely keep from unconsciously ascribing a will to these plants, a do-or-die courage,” she says, “and I have to remind myself that coded cells and mute water pressure have no idea how grandly they are flying in the teeth of it all.” * (Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek 162).
This Advent may find us feeling deadened in spirit, living off dust and roofing cinders. We are moving toward the shortest, darkest day of the year during dark times for our nation. In such times how can we grow greener, brighter? For some Christians, their adherence to a literal reading of the Advent and Christmas scriptures has stunted their growth. They’ve given up grownup responsibility and settled for an external authority (the Bible, maybe, or a religious figure, or a set of doctrine) to provide simplistic answers. Others, in contrast, have so demythologized and overly intellectualized the Christmas story that they’ve stripped away all mystery, beauty, and awe, leaving the tree of faith bare.
Maybe we can nurture our spirits by remaining rooted in a spiritual tradition while pruning away the deadened places so that something new can spring forth. We can remain Christian without caring much if Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth, or if he was born of a virgin. (Does that matter?) What our spirits long to do in this season of longing is grow into the fullness of our humanity. Our new branchings happen where hardship, loss, and failure have destabilized our understandings, threatened our security, excised the dead places. Our maturation occurs when we’ve been open to growth, when old ways are respected but, as necessary, corrected. Our growth happens when we love so selflessly that we are united with God’s intentions. This is grownup faith.
I think a longing for growth is what the season of Advent requires. As darkness deepens in the Northern hemisphere and a chilly stillness falls, something new may quicken within. The new, of course, is anchored in the old. Advent scriptures announcing hope are still rooted in biblical/historical stories of exile, war, and oppression with which we can identify. But now is the time and Advent is the season to consider a disturbingly deeper hope, deeper peace, deeper joy, and deeper love.
What we as individuals are birthing within is what the Universal Church is experiencing as well. Christian spirituality–rooted firmly in the Jesus Story, rooted firmly in the Jewish people’s story, rooted also in untraceable stories of the sacred predating any religion we’d recognize today–Christian spirituality, I say, will offer this world a branching we can’t fully anticipate now. And you and I may be part of the first edging out into that new branch.
Are you hearing this green Gospel? What we have is a green shoot. It’s not much. And it is everything.
I close with a poem prayer by Wendell Berry: **
Slowly, slowly, they return
To the small woodland let alone:
Great trees, outspreading and upright,
Apostles of the living light.
Patient as stars, they build in air
Tier after tier a timbered choir,
Stout beams upholding weightless grace
Of song, a blessing on this place.
They stand in waiting all around,
Uprisings of their native ground,
Downcomings of the distant light;
They are the advent they await.
Receiving sun and giving shade,
Their life’s a benefaction made,
And is a benediction said
Over the living and the dead.
In fall their brightened leaves, released,
Fly down the wind, and we are pleased
To walk on radiance, amazed.
O light come down to earth, be praise.
Berry, Wendell. A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poem 1979-1997. New York: Counterpoint, 1998 (83).
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek New York: HarperCollins, 1974 (162).
Truss, Lynn. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation NY: Gotham, 2003 (back cover).