“They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory” (Is. 61:3).
I’ve lived a fair portion of my life in Florida and south Louisiana, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, and one of the markers of that region is the Live Oak. When you think of tree-lined avenues covered with Spanish Moss, you are most likely thinking of this tree. The Live Oak tree is an American variant of the common variety, run of the mill, oak tree, with this difference: it is a near-evergreen variety that only gives up its old leaves when the new leaves come.
Live Oak trees have an extensive root system, and grow every which way. The oldest known Live Oak tree (at perhaps a thousand years) is the “Seven Sister Oak” found on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and it spreads all over the place, with a limb spread of over 150 feet. The early American naturalist William Bartram called these trees quercus sempervirens, or “ever-living oak,” which is a great name that describes a great reality. This particular oak, and its long-lived kindred, have survived the high winds of who-knows-how-many hurricanes over the centuries, that have washed who-knows-how-much salt water and debris over them. Still, the ever-living Live Oak endures, a witness to beauty and stability in the midst of the chaos.
It has been three years since the clergy of the Diocese of Tennessee have gathered for the renewal of their ordination vows and the consecration of chrism; three years marked by a pandemic that began over two years ago, and now marked by the largest land conflict on the continent of Europe since the guns were silenced in May of 1945. These intervening years in our country have also seen a Presidential election, and an attempt to overturn that election. Oh, the murder of George Floyd, of course, and a time of racial reckoning in our nation and in the world. Much indeed has happened since we were last together in Holy Week.
Our prophecy from Isaiah foretells a time of deliverance for ancient Israel. The prophet is sent “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Is. 61:1-2). God says, “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing” (Is. 61:8). A better day is coming, the prophet announces. God is coming, “to comfort all who mourn; to provide for all who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Is. 61:2-3).
The word of deliverance that Isaiah announces in our prophecy today requires witnesses to its truth and power. Can we hear the word of the prophet in our own day? Witnesses offer testimony, most powerfully in the witness of their lives. Actions speak louder than words. “You shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God” (Is. 61:6), as it says in our reading. Without this witness, from clergy and laity alike, the words of the prophet will not ring out, and the message of strength and hope will not be heard.
We are those witnesses. St. Paul asks in Romans, “And how are they to believe in one whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Rom. 10:14-15).
In an inspired moment, Isaiah likened this prophetic message and witness to the everlasting oak tree. God’s servants “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory” (Is. 61:3). If we take the Live Oak for our model, we’ll be deeply rooted, and have branches above ground that run every which way. We’ll endure over time, with faithfulness and grace, in the midst of challenge, and in outrageous circumstances. As it says in the prophecy, “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Is. 61:5). We will witness to God’s beauty and stability in spite of it all.
Remember, the Live Oak is not a true evergreen. There are old leaves to be shucked off as the new growth comes in. These last few years have seen flexibility and creativity, on the part of leadership, and a huge amount of faithful work. There has been a shucking off of the old, and a putting on of new growth. But the strength that has sustained us over this difficult time does not lie with us, and it never has. As St. Paul says elsewhere, “God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). We rely upon God’s grace, his power and presence in our lives, in order to make our way.
Richard Meux Benson, the founder of the Cowley Fathers, once wrote that it is not up to us to defend the truth of the Gospel, but rather for us to live in that truth so that it may defend us. I think that’s the role of the witness, the role that all of us are called to play. Actions speak louder than words. We renew our vows today to remind ourselves of the ground we are rooted in, and of the powerful presence of the One who sustains us. He has been crucified and raised from the dead; in fact, he’s ever-living, and standing tall in our midst.