I told you last week that there was a pond down the street from my house where I used to go fishing. Well, at this pond there was also a beautiful, flowing willow tree. There was a big rock under the willow tree, and I have fond memories of walking through the curtain of branches into the “room” created by the tree. I remember the sense of comfort and contentment I experienced under that willow tree. The willowy branches spread out over the pond a bit, so a bit of the water fell under the curtain of willow branches.
Those branches would also come in handy when taking shelter under the willow tree during a BB gun war. Nestled under the protective fingers of this motherish tree, I knew whatever BBs came my way would be somewhat deflected.
Whenever I read the passage we heard from Jeremiah this morning, I always think of this willow tree. This tree that “put down roots by the water.” It’s a comforting image, isn’t it? Perhaps there are trees in your experience which have provided similar sanctuaries for you.
The Psalmists and the prophets use trees to describe our spiritual lives. Throughout the ages, Christian mystics and theologians have also described who we are in relationship to God by referring to trees. Brother Lawrence, a French mystic, wrote of himself, “That in the winter, upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed, and after that the flowers and fruit appear, he received a high view of the Providence and Power of God, which has never since been effaced from his soul.” A very wise man I have met named Satish Kumar wrote of a similar experience in the company of a tree:
“The churches, cathedrals, mosques and synagogues, shrines and temples are not the only holy places, but the whole of creation is divine and sacred. My pilgrimage is in every moment and in every place. Sometimes I come a cross a tree which seemed like a Buddha or a Jesus: loving, compassionate, still, unambitious, enlightened, in eternal meditation, giving pleasure to a pilgrim, shade to a cow, berries to a bird, beauty to its surroundings, health to its neighbors, branches for the fire, leaves to the soil, asking nothing in return, in total harmony with the wind and the rain. How much I can learn from a tree! The tree is my church, the tree is my temple, the tree is my mantra, the tree is my poem and my prayer.
Standing under a tree by the Gapping River, I realized that the law of nature is to create energy and life by uniting. A seed united with the soil creates a tree; water united with the earth produces crops. When man and woman are united in love, they create a child. Wherever there is unity, sacred and positive energy is generated.”
Once, I was given a vision of how a tree is a mirror of our human connection with God. In my imagination I saw a tree as the community of faith. We were rooted and grounded in the creator, with our roots being our tradition and especially our holy scriptures. The trunk that gave us a connection to the Creator ground was Christ, our branches were the different cultural and denominational expressions of the Christian Church, some bisecting and branching off into many smaller branches, and the individual believers were the tiny sprouts that spring out of each small branch. The fruit that we bear—the actions in which we give life to our faith, were represented by leaves, and the movement of the wind through the tree, which caused the leaves to shimmer, was the Holy Spirit.
Now, I suppose you could also find the presence of some aspect of God in the sunshine that gave the tree nutrients and causes the leaves of the tree to produce life giving chlorophyll for the whole of the tree—perhaps the sunshine could be God’s grace, since it is by and through grace that our works have any effect on the tree as a whole.
Also, using today’s narrative to further elaborate on the tree motif, I would say that the water by which this tree is planted would also be the Holy Spirit—since Spirit is commonly pictured as Wind and Water. If our tree, if our faith life and community, is planted near the water, near the life-giving resources of the Holy Spirit, then not only will the Spirit move through our branches in the activity of the Spirit’s presence now, but we may also draw on the Spirit’s presence through the roots of our faith—particularly, as our liturgical tradition puts it, through the voices of the prophets.
The presence of the Spirit, especially through the prophets, gives our tree a source of freshness and coolness even in the heat and dryness of draught. Even when it seems the breeze doesn’t stir our branches, we can still tap into the wellsprings of the spirit if we are planted by the water. Now, how and why does this matter? How is this information intended to help you mold your life in the Way of Christ or help you live your life in the light of Christ? It is simply intended to be a visualization—a way for you to see our connection to the creator and our place in the life of God. We have something to give—our fruit that we bear in our lives, the fruits of service and love and compassion and kindness and joy and hope—these are the leaves that bring energy to the tree as a whole. We’re not intended to simply be connected to the tree—God intends for us to contribute!
Relationship with God is intended to nurture and inspire creativity and action, rather than passive acceptance of the status quo. God needs partners not puppets in healing the world. This blessed interdependence inspires grace toward our fellow creatures as a response to the grace we have received.
Jeremiah points to something rather curious—it is a motif that he uses quite a bit in his message to Israel—it is the distrust of the human heart. This may sound like an odd passage to read right before Valentine’s Day, when we typically celebrate the action of the human heart. But as we know, and perhaps have experienced in romantic love, the human heart is fickle. It is finicky. It is frustrating! Jeremiah says, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it?” Some of us this Valentine’s Day may say a resounding “Amen!” to that sentiment! Why is that? Why doesn’t Jeremiah trust the heart?
Perhaps Jesus knew why! Jesus came down from the mountain and began ministering to the people—He was sharing his power with the crowd, Luke puts it, “Power was going out from him.” Now here was a man rooted near the water—IN fact, here is a man who is so closely attuned with the water and the ground that he becomes the source and connection for millions upon millions of people throughout the ages to that water and that ground! Here is a man from whom a whole tree sprouts forth! Here is a man who embodied the Logos—that Divine Word “through whom all else came to be!”
But, here too is a man who knows the hearts of people. Jeremiah says in the Spirit, “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.”
Jesus begins preaching to the people there on the plain. He says, “Blessed are those….” And here is where things go a little counter to what we would naturally think—“Blessed are you who are poor—for yours is the Kingdom of God!” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”
You see, this is where our heart gets it wrong sometimes, because you know what...I really want to be rich. My heart would rather that than be poor. And, there is nothing quite as filling as a full stomach, now is there? And, my heart hurts when I weep, and when others hate me. God gave me a heart for a reason, right? Shouldn’t I feel this way!
That is difficult. That is counter-intuitive. That doesn’t seem like Good news to me! Especially when Jesus goes on—he doesn’t end there! He says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
You see, I told you that my heart would love to be rich—that I can feel that desire pulling from my guts—from my chest. And perhaps that is the problem—you see, I am rich! Compared to ½ the population of the whole world, who live on less than $2 per day, I’m a millionaire! And yet, in what country is the desire for wealth, the intense grabbing, and groping for the trappings of wealth so gluttonously gobbled than in our own culture, which is rich off the backs of others to begin with?
We lavish ourselves with stuff and then hesitate to give to others. We keep up with the Joneses while walking over the poor. “Might as well make the most of this life,” we tell ourselves, “because it’s the only one you’ve got!” “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6They 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.”
Perhaps Jesus simply saw how wealth and fullness and popularity tend to turn us in on ourselves. They tend to make us preoccupied with the satisfaction of our own hearts rather than being life-giving to the whole tree. This is why he says, “They have had their reward.” Wealth, and power and popularity don’t have to be our reward. Even for those of us who possess these things, they don’t have to be our “endpoint.”
This type of life Jeremiah compares to the hot, salty desert. If we put our trust in the things of this world, if we bank on the things that eventually come to an end, then we are dwelling in an ultimately lifeless place. This is why Jesus praised the poor, the hungry, the hated, the mourning. These people have had the distractions of this world stripped from them by society, and are left only with God to cling to.
God’s blessing echoes in the heart of those who have lost much, who have nothing transitory to stuff into their hearts to begin with. God’s preference for the poor, the hurting, the hated, the mourning, is apparent in the ministry of Jesus. If we don’t find ourselves in any of those camps, perhaps we too can be blessed by Christ by helping him minister to those people.
If we find ourselves planted in the desert—if we wake up one day and see that we have put our trust in things that don’t last—then the good news for us is that we can be transplanted. The Hebrew verb used in this passage is “transplanted” not “planted.” The truth is that we are all at some point withering out in the desert. The good news can be opened up in our lives when we turn from putting our faith and trust in money and power and everything else that doesn’t last, and decide that instead we should put our trust in God. That means turning our lives over to be transplanted by the water.
Once we are transplanted by the water, we will be nourished by the Spirit, we will be strong and fresh in the heat of the hardships which face us, we will be a haven for the world around us, and as the old song goes, “Like a tree, planted by the water…we shall not be moved.”