The Rev. Steven Paulikas
December 8, 2019
All Saints’ Church
After living in this city for 15 years, I’ve learned that one essential thing every New Yorker needs is to have their own spot. There are eight million people piled on top of one another here. So you’ve got to have a place you claim as your own. This is New York, so you’re going to share that spot with other people, but darn it, you know it’s yours. Maybe it’s a particular table in a particular café. Or the one pillar where you wait every day at your home subway station. It might even be the foot and a half of pew where you are sitting right now. You know what your spot is in this city. And you know it’s sacred.
For years, my spot was a stump in Prospect Park. I’d tell you exactly where, except then, well, it wouldn’t be my own spot anymore, would it? You see, I guarded my spot jealously. I would walk to my stump in the mornings and sit down to pray or to read or to just be. I would look at the rest of the people in the park from my little secluded perch, see them walking their dogs or talking on the phone, and just observe life. When I hit a difficult time in my life a few years ago, sometimes I would sit on my stump and just cry. When I was out of town visiting my father in hospice care, I would think of my stump when I needed a spot to process my feelings.
This next part of the story sounds like I’m making it up, but I swear it’s true. After my father died, I spent two weeks with my mom. In that time, I officiated his funeral, acted as spokesman for our family, and spent days on the phone taking care of the awful logistics of death. All this on top of the deep feelings of grief, loss, anger, anxiety and sadness that come with losing a parent. When I came back to New York, you know the first place I went to. So you can imagine the shock I felt when I got to my spot—and the stump was gone. Disappeared. Nothing there at all.
I still have no idea what happened. Of course in my mind, the Parks Department should have sent me a letter or something to warn me. All I know is that when I thought I needed it most, my stump, my sacred spot in this brutal city, my two square feet of spiritual real estate, my tiny refuge, had vanished. Goodbye, stump.
Today’s reading from Isaiah brought me back to thinking about my stump. “Stump” isn’t a word you hear very often in the Bible, but it’s one of the images we ponder during this holy season of Advent. The prophet proclaims that a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Poor Jesse. He’s not a burning bush or cedar of Lebanon or even that cool vine that grows up overnight to protect Jonah. Nope, the house of Jesse is a tree that once was. And all that’s left of it is this stump.
Isaiah is referring to Jesse, the father of King David. Isaiah had little confidence in the rulers of Judah of his time, and he believed God would raise up a new and righteous king from the line of Jesse and David that had been cut off. Centuries later, Christians would look to Isaiah’s prophecy as the foretelling of the coming of a messiah. Jesus himself is the shoot growing out of the stump, the branch emerging from the root.
I invite you to ponder, for a moment, this stump. As the trees of the forest tower above and create a great canopy, the stump clings to the forest floor. It reminds us of a past that was happier than the present. It is significant not because of what it is, but because of what it no longer is—no longer a tree standing tall, but the remnant of a life that once was.
Now think about all the other plant images we have created to evoke Christmas. Sprigs of holly with its cheery berries. Mistletoe hanging from a doorway to invite merriment. And, of course, the Christmas tree. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good Christmas tree. But as Isaiah tells us, it is not the tree that gives rise to the shoot. It is the stump.
I wonder where that stump might be in your life. Because we all have stumps. Maybe no one else can see them, but we know exactly where they are. We remember the proud tree that used to stand over that spot. We remember the dreadful feeling of when the tree was brought down. We still feel the pain of its absence. Yet that stump still sits there, a reminder of something beautiful that used to be but is no more.
There’s this thing about Christian faith, this stubbornness. It brings us back to the stump, over and over again. It’s difficult to be brought back there, year after year, reminded of loss and absence. But we don’t return to the stump to wallow in sadness. We return to the site of loss in the joyful expectation of hope. Because in the eyes of faith, a stump is not just a stump. Rather, a stump is the place where the new shoot will rise from. It is the place the branch will grow out of. It is the place where new life will emerge.
A faith that doesn’t acknowledge the stump is a shallow faith. And for Christians, there is no faith at all without the stump. Not only does the stump of Jesse give rise to Jesus. Jesus himself guides us on this journey from absence to new life. He came into the world in the humblest of circumstances and was laid in a manger, a hollowed out log. In his life and ministry, he met people at their stumps, at their lowest and most vulnerable points. And then he had his own terrible day, that day when he himself was nailed to a tree. But his birth was our salvation. His life gives us life. And his death granted us citizenship in his realm.
This time of year can be an especially difficult one for many of us. The celebrations taking place around us can often just highlight the sense of loss we feel inside. The holidays remind us of the people we love but cannot celebrate with. They dredge up feelings from the past that are somehow easier to deal with the rest of the year. They bring us back to our stumps. But when you find yourself standing in front of that stump, remember: that’s where Jesus meets you. A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
My stump has been gone for years now. I will always remember it fondly. But you know what? Now when I go to the park, I don’t need my spot anymore. Now, I walk the paths and wander the forest. I admire the waterfall and the sky. In the fall, I look at the geese in the lake, and in the springtime I take myself on a tour of the flowering trees. The whole world is my spot, because God created it, and God created me to be a part of it.
If you’re looking for a spot in this life that can sometimes be so hard, just look around you. Because the whole world is your spot too.