Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Trees By The Stream”
Rev. Art Ritter
February 17, 2019
Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
In the devotional guide, Our Daily Bread, David Egner writes about some friends who planted two trees of the same kind and age. The first was set in level ground in the middle of the yard, where its roots went deep into the ground to soak up the water. The second was planted at the bottom of a steep bank. When it rained, the water rushed past it to the street. Both trees appeared to thrive. Then a strong windstorm came. The tree in the middle of the lawn stood firm, while the other one toppled over. Why? The root systems were different. The tree in the lawn had deep roots, while the other one had shallow roots. At the base of the bank, the water always passed swiftly over the top of the soil, so those roots stayed shallow. That tree, therefore, could not withstand the force of the wind.
A few years ago I decided to do a neighborly thing and block the view of my air conditioning condenser unit by planting a few small trees. Although I seldom see it because it is located on a back corner of my house, I was aware that one of the neighbor’s windows looks out directly upon the large metal device. So I purchased a couple of smaller juniper trees and placed them so that they would effectively camouflage the condenser. It worked quite well for a couple of years.
Three years ago, when my daughter Maren and her husband Max were living in our basement, Laura and I hired a contractor to put in an egress window. Following news of some tragic incidents, we wanted to have an escape exit from the basement in case of fire. Early one summer, the contractor did a beautiful job of installing the window, although he had to move one of the junipers near the air conditioning condenser unit to get his machinery close enough to do the work. Following the completion of the job he replanted the juniper as close to the original site as he was able – close enough that I forgot the tree had even been uprooted and replanted.
Soon the hot and dry days of summer moved into Michigan. This was the same summer that some of us here at Meadowbrook planted a pine tree to block a neighbor’s view of our new electronic sign. If you remember correctly, we took great pains to water that tree regularly. I know that I carried quite a few buckets of water across the lawn myself that dry summer! The little tree stayed green while the rest of the lawn turned brown. But I am not one to water my own lawn much, thus the surrounding trees and shrubs at my home got only a few waterings besides those provided by Mother Nature. A couple of months later, while mowing the lawn I noticed that one of my junipers was turning brown rather quickly. At first I thought it was some kind of disease but then I recalled that the tree had been replanted. I had neglected to give it the water and special attention it needed. While the sister tree was surviving and thriving, despite the drought, the transplanted tree was beyond help. It died from neglect. That fall I had to dig it up and remove it. I should add that it came up very easily! The root base, because of the lack of water, was very small.
The text from Jeremiah this week compares a shrub in the desert to a tree by the water. The prophet Jeremiah often provided an insightful witness to the complex reality and difficulty of the human experience, as well as the experience of God who enters into and participates with us in the complexity of life. Jeremiah wrote at a time of great political upheaval. The nation of Judah and its capital Jerusalem were threatened by the powerful Babylonian war machine. The prophet warned the people and leaders of Judah not to bend to the easy way of fear, compromising the covenant of God to trust in armies and alliances. He said that trust is to depend upon God and not to fear in the outcome, maintaining strong roots of faith which can tap into the life-giving nourishment of God’s love. Jeremiah told the people that faith in God will sustain. No matter what happens, when the drought comes, those who live in God will have nothing to fear.
Specifically in these verses we read this morning, Jeremiah spoke of the way of wisdom versus the way of folly. Each way has its own predictable and corresponding set of outcomes. The way of wisdom is one of trust in God who blesses through a troubled present and leads us to a future of hope. The way of folly is one that trust more in personal control, in schemes and deals and compromises and alliances. It creates a false sense of security which leads to short term success and long term failure.
Jeremiah said that those “who trust in man, who depend on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away the Lord” are cursed. They are like that neglected, transplanted juniper. They are like a bush in the desert, where there is no regular water supply. Such a person will live on the edge, always thirsting for water. Refreshment might come in the form of an occasional storm, but it won’t lead to bounty or abundance. Life will be parched and unfruitful at its core.
In a commentary on this passage Calvin Seminary professor Stan Mast says that this passage reminds him of the old song from the Kinks entitled A Well-Respected Man. I won’t sing it for you but the chorus goes something like this, “Cause he’s oh so good and he‘s oh so fine, and he’s oh so healthy in his body and his mind. He’s a well-respected man about town, doing the best things so conservatively.” But the song describes a man who is trusts only in himself, who is greedy and lustful, who can’t wait to get his hands on his father’s money or the girl next door. This is the kind of person Jeremiah says will be like a bush in the desert, trusting in self and dying due to lack of water.
Jeremiah was not saying that those who trust in God will not suffer times of heat and drought. There will be times when the future is uncertain, when the pieces of the puzzle just don’t fit, when worry and anxiety flood the mind and bring low the soul. But he said that those who trust in the Lord will continue to flourish and be fruitful even in times of trouble. Self-reliance, pride, boastfulness, deceit, justification, and selfishness will leave us empty and barren and cursed. When we construct our lives on easy answers and black and white solutions, we are bound to crumble when things get complicated. Jeremiah warned the people of his time that when they worshiped at the altars of the world, placing allegiance to self-interest, political thought, or security before the ways of God, they made the ways of God seem frivolous and self-serving rather than holy and responsible. We do the same when use our faith to suit ourselves and don’t seek the refreshment and life-giving teachings and vitality God’s way supposed to offer.
John Deschner, retired professor at Perkins School of Theology said this: “Remember, the church has only a few things to offer the world: word, bread, cup, water, and light. How we handle these precious gifts of God makes all the difference. We treat them with all the love and reverence we can muster. People will see the way we handle holy things and infer from that how we will handle the holy ones… God does not call us to trivialize the holy.”
Perhaps Jeremiah’s wisdom can be framed in a couple of questions: do we trust and delight in God like a tree planted by streams of water or do we trust in worldly things and our own priorities to take care of all things? Can we be at peace where we are, finding the things God has placed here for us to serve and thrive, or are we always looking ahead to the next place or thing we can simplify, accomplish, and conquer?
In a reflection upon Psalm 1, in whose words the Psalmist almost echoes Jeremiah wisdom, Silvia Purdie writes:
I was out walking a farm track
one late summer’s day
long since the rain had fallen
long since, grass had faded to gold
I passed a field of crops
as the dry wind whipped the struggling plants
tossing away earth as dust
the plants collapsed and withered
I walked on as the path went down
winding through willow trees
roots deep in search of water
Hidden at the bottom of the gully
under a small strip of green
I found a flowing stream
and as I followed it
there were fruit trees
sheltered from the wind
drawing on the water
apples hanging bright and full
crisp and tangy sweet
I live that my life may be
surrounded by love
inspired by truth
sustained by Spirit
bearing fruit season by season
What does it take?
What choices must I make?
What advice must I ignore?
What paths must I avoid?
The Lord watches over the way of the righteous
but the way of the wicked will perish.
The way of the water
is the way of delight
delight in the way of the Lord.
I choose to sink roots into living water
to rest my mind, my heart and soul
in stillness, in waiting, in resting
(easy to say on holiday, harder to do in a busy week!)
day and night, night and day
I belong in the living Lord.