First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
February 17, 2019
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Jeremiah 17:5-10 NRSV
5Thus says the Lord: 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. 7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8They 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. 9The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? 10I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
The family legend goes that when my dad was young, he took some willow branches and stuck them in the soil along a spring that ran through the pasture by the ranch house. Those branches grew and became trees. (pay no attention to the classy family in front of the station wagon and look beyond at the trees.)
It was in those trees where, as children, my sisters and I spent many hours climbing and building forts. The horses were tied under their branches when we took a break to have lunch. We learned to whittle whistles from their small, green branches and use the long sweeping ones as swings. And when we weren’t climbing in them or tying horses to their branches, we were under them catching frogs, tadpoles, or water skeeters along the soggy banks of the spring that gave life to those sticks so many years before.
I think of these trees as I hear the ancient words of Jeremiah: “8They 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.”
Though summers on the ranch were hot and dry and winters brutally cold, those trees stood year after year, giving shade to the livestock, breaking the strength of the winter winds and became one of the best playgrounds four city girls could ask for.
Like a tree planted by water… It shall not fear…
When Jeremiah first spoke these words, it was to a group of people living in exile. People who had a lot to fear: loss of country; loss of identity; loss of family; loss of everything and anything that gave significance to their life. It was a time of great sadness. It was a time when their future as a people, favored by God, seemed to be coming to an end.
The temptation was to leave the God of their ancestors behind and turn to something else. They were refugees, living in a foreign land, in the midst of a foreign society, tempted to adopt and assimilate into the ways of those that had taken them in when the Babylonians had invaded their lives. To whom would they turn for assurance and trust and a future?
The easy way would be to take up the foreign gods of their neighbors known through idols. Idols made of stone and wood. Idols of the gods that Yahweh was known to have defeated in the time of previous generations. Since God seemed to be quiet while the storm raged around them where else should they turn? Their holy city lay in ruin. Their leaders had been slaughtered. Their lives and livelihood were destroyed.
The prophet was telling them to trust in the Lord. He was calling them to keep their lives be rooted deeply into the promise of God. He knew there would be hardship. There already was. Fear? Yep, that too. Disappointment? Consequences for those ever-nagging bad choices made years ago? Consequences for other people’s mistakes? Yea, they’re all part of life. But those who have their roots sunk deep into the muddy banks of the ever-flowing river of God’s love and grace, will have something to tell their children’s children about some day. This is what Jeremiah said being blessed is about: a trust in the Lord that runs deep and strong. For Israel, it was about the relationship they had with Yahweh, the Lord, from before the time they were slaves in Egypt. It started out as something smaller than that: a covenant made with Abraham and Sarah that the Lord would be their God and they would be God’s people. It started as something small, planted along the banks of the river of God’s love and has been nurtured over the years through grace. Jeremiah was reminding them, and us, that at the core of a relationship with God is the blessing of trust and how that trust plays out over time, how it grows and broadens and deepens and holds fast, even in hard times.
Over the years, we’ve kind of gotten away from this understanding of being blessed. We tend to think that blessings are things, even relationships with others. We’re blessed with comfort. We’re blessed with the security that finances can bring us. We’re blessed with pleasantries and things we enjoy—things that are good for us now. Things that will protect us—for a while. Things that give us a place in the world—for now. We’re blessed with family and good friends. And while those are never bad, it’s not the blessing Jeremiah is referring to. Israel had all of that at one time but now, now, it was gone. And Jeremiah was telling them that the state of being blessed was still at hand for “blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust in the Lord.”
We’ve latched onto the idea that indications of being blessed are riches and good health and not just any old roof over our heads one with all kinds of neat “things” underneath it. We “count our blessings” as if they are things we accumulate over the years. We collect them like stamps or fine vases and put our trust for happiness within them. We work and work and work at becoming good at the things we enjoy: cooking, business, athletics, even religion. And, as enjoyable as they may be, when the going gets tough, really tough, when the pathology report says cancer, when the pink slip comes too soon, when the marriage struggles or even ends, those things we have collected might bring us a moment’s comfort but they won’t restore our soul for the long run. They won’t bring hope when they are no longer in sight or at hand. That beautiful vase may do a fine job of holding a dozen roses but it’s lousy at holding your life when it feels like it’s breaking apart at the seams. Being able to sink that layup with nothing but net might win one basketball game but it doesn’t do much to walk us through the valley of the shadow of death.
That’s what Jeremiah’s “Woes” are all about. It’s not a statement of damnation like bestowing something bad upon those who don’t trust in God. Rather, it’s a call to point out the weakness in trusting in things we make ourselves or relying on our own skills, our own strength, our good fortune, good luck, or good looks. Because, if you sink all your trust in things of your own making, when the hard things in life come along, and they will, well, lets just say that if you’ve put all your money on something you’ve created, you can count on entering into woe-ville.
Jeremiah was reminding them, and us, that, as tempting as it might be, as easy at it would be, sinking your faith into all those things that the new neighbors were into wouldn’t cut it for them. Because, well, those gods and the idols that represent them weren’t the one that freed their ancestors from slavery. They weren’t the one that led them through the wilderness and showed them the ways of love and justice. They weren’t the one that called them out of a cave of despair and whispered in the sound of sheer silence a promise of presence. They weren’t the one that rolled away a stone and filled a tomb with love. As cute as those little statues are and how fun it is to get caught up in their rituals, well, when the going gets tough, they’re not going to get tough for you. You might as well be a bush in the dessert and plan to wither up.
But that God who created the stream and then planted the tree next to its deep waters, that’s something altogether different. This is what Jeremiah is saying being blessed is all about. Trusting in the Lord. Leaning into that trust when the winds are gentle as well as when the hurricanes blow. Not because doing so will help you get that great parking space or win the lottery. Because doing so will carry your roots deep into the soil of strength, courage, hope, and grace. Because someday, that hurricane will come through town and threaten to tear up everything else in sight. But those roots, those roots planted deep into the soil of God’s grace will hold strong. And, even if the tree itself collapses, the deep, deep soil will still be there to receive the new twig and give it something to hold onto.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust in the Lord. May this blessing abound for you and for me. Amen.