Message by Rev Jenny Carter, February 17, 2019
(Based on Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26)
Trees are marvelous things. You can climb them, sit in their shade, and if they are a fruit bearing tree, you can even eat parts of it. Trees clean our air; provide homes for all manner of critters; are an integral part of a whole eco-systems, and here in BC, a big part of our economic system as well. To live or walk among the trees can be a form of prayer, and can free our minds. Who among us has not had an experience of sitting under a tree, where we really listened, and allowed our thoughts to settle, and all of a sudden could hear the music of the tree, as it played with the wind blowing through its branches? Trees are marvelous things.
As beautiful as they are above ground, they are just as amazing below ground. They send their roots down into the soil where they absorb and transfer water and minerals as well as provide support for the part of the tree that is above ground. There are woody roots, which primarily help to anchor the tree to the ground, and non-woody roots which are responsible for nutrient and water gathering. The roots extend 4 to 7 times the width of the drip line (or radius) of the tree. While there are some trees that send their roots down really deep, most root systems do not extend much below four feet in depth – and have most of their feeder roots in the upper inches of those four feet.
As the article I googled to get this tree root information said, it is important to plant trees in the right location. A soil devoid of nutrients and lacking in water, will not make for a healthy tree. While a few well timed rainstorms (or an over-zealous person with a watering can) might keep the tree alive for a bit, ultimately that tree will not grow, and will begin to waste away. A soil too wet and mucky, will not provide the stability needed for the tree to grow tall and do what that kind of tree was designed to do.
In our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Jeremiah is using the metaphor of trees to describe the human condition of his time. You see the country was undergoing a massive upheaval. Everything they thought they knew, everything that they believed to be an unshakable benefit of being part of the kingdom of Judah, was in the process of crumbling around their feet. The Babylonians were at the city gates, their war machines poised to level the city walls, and because the leaders of Judah had reneged on the agreement to pay tribute to Babylon, the Babylonian army was set to level the city.
Jeremiah had tried to warn them, tried to tell them that this would happen, but they did not listen. Instead of putting the welfare of the people ahead of their own greed, the leaders had brought their country and themselves to the brink of ruin. Jeremiah had counseled the king and his advisors to surrender to the Babylonians, but they refused. And now, here they were, poised on the eve of destruction.
Yet even then, Jeremiah is trying to persuade the rulers to change their ways – telling them it wasn’t too late. If they would simply remember who they were, and whose they were – that they were God’s people and should honour the covenant and put the needs of the whole people ahead of the needs of a few rich elites, then they could still survive – life for all of them could continue. He uses the metaphor of a tree and where it is planted to drive his point home. He says a tree planted by a river can send out its roots and find the water it needed to live and grow (a clear reference to returning to a covenantal way of living). But a tree planted in a salt desert had no hope of surviving (a not so veiled description of the current reality in which they were all living).
For Jeremiah it was clear. Even if Judah was to be occupied by Babylon, the people would still have a chance at a good life – they could still root themselves in their faith, in their covenant with God, and in their community. Yet to not put the people’s welfare first meant that the odds of being able to survive intact, was negligible. Of course we know how this story ends. The king and his advisors did not relent, the kingdom fell, the city was destroyed, and in three subsequent mass deportations, the populace was taken away in chains.
While we do not have the Babylonian army clamouring at the edge of Salmon Arm, we do know what it means to be poised on the brink of destruction. We might even know what it is to be destroyed. There are things in our lives that can take us out at the knees. Where one moment our lives are going along all right, and then “boom” something happens, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our lives will never be the same. We lose a love, or our home, or our jobs, or our faith, or any kind of profoundly cherished part of our living, and we can be brought to our knees. These are hard times. Scary times. Unfair times. Make us want to raise our fists in the air in defiance and scream in anger times. Yet they are the times in which we are living, and there is no point in denying it.
To which Jeremiah would say to us, just like he said to the king in his day, the times in which we are living has become for us, our new normal. So the question now becomes, “How then shall you live?” Do we can set down our roots in the salt deserts of denial, or burning anger and resentment, or apathy, or a hundred other life denying, life negating emotions? Or do you seek to put down roots in more positive, life enriching things? Things like compassion, true friendship, charity, kindness, community, forgiveness, joy, and all those things that make life worth living?
Jeremiah wasn’t trying to convey a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of theology, and neither am I. A faith system, a belief system, a way of living, needs to be rooted in the reality of life – and needs to be able to speak to, and help us navigate, the difficult and truly horrendous life events we might encounter. That when the worst happens, and it is the end of something beautiful, we need to be assured that it is not the end of us. To which Jeremiah’s words prove helpful. That we have the power to make sure it is not the end of us, by planting our lives in those things that bring life. Just like a tree that is planted by a fast flowing river, we can send our roots out and know that we will have what we need to live. Which doesn’t mean we will bloom immediately. Even trees take many seasons before they can set fruit. So we too take time to get used to our new normal. It takes time to set down the roots that will nourish our spirits and provide stability to our living.
Which is why we give thanks for the forest. We humans are like a forest, and we humans that have a community in which to live, are the luckiest trees in that forest. A stand of trees is stronger than a tree that stands alone. Trees that are close together have roots that almost hold on to one another, and provide strength to one another. So when the big wind comes, and the trees are bent in the wind, they can remain standing and rooted in the ground. If you’ve even been in the forest during a windstorm and felt the ground heave beneath your feet, then you know what I am saying is true. We hold on to one another by our roots. So, let us all be like trees and stand together, and let us tend to our roots. Our rootedness in love, compassion, kindness, joy, and all those other things that keep us finding our way to abundant life.