Jeremiah 17:5-10, “. . . like a tree planted by water . . .”
In addition to raising pigs, my father used to grow many different crops on the farm where I grew up. He grew soybeans and wheat, peanuts and corn. Sometimes he’d plant some sunflowers too. And although we would sell some of these crops, most would become food for the hogs. If corn was getting a decent price, which was not often, my father would sell some of the corn. But most of the corn went to the feed the hogs.
Hogs love corn. And we loved fat, “number one” hogs that would bring a good price at the market. So we loved feeding them corn.
Corn is a funny crop though. It grows in the heat of the summer. Yet, it is not as hardy as some others crops. It is affected by the wind and the rain, meaning you need a good bit of rain at the right times to have a good crop of corn. What you need are those slow summer storms that drop about an inch or two of rain . . . the kind of rain that is slow and gives those shallow roots of the corn a chance to drink up the rain. And you need that type of rain because the roots of corn don’t go down very deep into the soil.
Sometimes a good soaking would come out of a thunderstorm, but if that rain came too fast, the water may just run off instead of soaking in. Or worse yet, sometimes those thunderstorms brought strong winds that would tip the corn over . . . because the roots of that plant do not go very deep. After a storm that had a good bit of wind in it, you would find the corn toward the edges of the fields tipped over, those little scraggly roots pulled right out of the ground.
You would think that a plant that ends up holding those great big yellow and silver ears of corn would be stronger than that. You would think that the stalk would need to be firmly planted in the ground, but it is not.
As I read and considered this scripture this week, even in the midst of the cold and the rain, it made me think about farming in the summer, about planting, about reaping. It made me remember again about those years when the weather was dry and the corn dried up, when there was nothing to harvest. Sometimes there were difficult years on the farm. A couple at the last church that I served would tell me all the time that farmers must be the biggest gamblers in the world, because you never really know what kind of year you are going to have.
I suppose that was truer when most farmers sowed their own crops and harvested them too. This is back before what we now know of as corporate farming, farming on a huge scale, farming with huge irrigation systems that roll over the crops so that even when the weather is dry, the crop will always receive the water it needs.
One need not fear a dry year.
We have learned as a people to rely on ourselves, to rely on the ingenuity of humans, the inventiveness of humans to control our environment, to control our lives, to the point where we really believe that we deserve for everything to work out . . . and if it doesn’t, it is our job to find whatever lawyer just advertised on TV and sue whoever didn’t do their job, whoever was asleep at the wheel, whoever needs to get the blame for the situation that we are in. And while there may be times when that is the right thing to do, what it belies is the belief that the corn is really ours. What is just under the surface is that desire we all have to see that great big ear of corn and stick our thumbs behind the straps of our overalls and believe that we did that, that it is ours.
It is a story as old as that of Adam and Eve. When they ate the fruit of the tree that they shouldn’t have eaten from, when the reason that the serpent gave to them is that this fruit will make you like God. We are not God. We will never be.
But we are to be rooted in God.
And Jeremiah is urging the children of Israel, the Hebrew people, to be rooted in God. Jeremiah is looking ahead to a time in the life of the people when they would be in exile. It is also possible that some of his words would be read during that time of exile, a time of great suffering, a time that would feel like that desert, that wilderness, that uninhabitable land of salt that Jeremiah describes. Can you imagine how in need of water you would be if you were surrounded by salt, where everything was dry and dusty? Jeremiah says that we must trust in the Lord during the times in our lives when water is hard to find.
And we all face difficulties in our lives, times when we have had to learn to trust God in a way that is different than we may have had to trust before . . . the way that many of you have had to just hold on during whatever difficulties have come in your life, whatever the loss, whatever the tragedy, whatever the fear or sorrow, that you have had to learn to hold on through.
Jeremiah is telling us that the holding on is not easy, but that rooting oneself in God, being able to reach those roots into the cool, flowing stream of God’s love and support in the midst of that dry and dusty wilderness, it is by being rooted in God that you make it through, that your leaves remain green, that your braches do not dry up and break.
Jeremiah is describing something more like a tree here, not a stalk of corn. Corn has such shallow roots; it dries up easily; it is knocked over with little trouble.
Great big trees are different.
Several years ago, there was a series on public radio about large trees, about old trees. One of the old trees that they went to was a live oak called the Village Sentinel. It sits in the middle of a retirement community called Baptist Village in Waycross. It is a place where I have several aunts and uncles who moved there in the last few years. Some of the people they interviewed about the Village Sentinel remembered climbing that old tree back in the 1920s. Then they would climb back down and have ice cream and cake. The woman who recounted these memories said that it was like the tree just stretched out its limbs to take care of whoever was under it.
The residents there believe that the tree talks to them . . . maybe not literally . . . but that the tree speaks to them about the beauty of age, the strength that comes from such deep roots, from such a sturdy trunk, the way that that this tree has held up through so many years, back when it sat in the midst of a forest, back when the land that it sat on was used for a prison, and now as a retirement community. And even though the thing we notice most are the large limbs, the shade that this tree has given through so many years to so many people, what we don’t see . . . what we do not notice first, is what must be the depth of those roots.
In our congregations, we cannot assume that the work we do “above the ground” so to speak, is all of the work that we need to do. We can provide a beautiful facility, we can look great on the outside, above the ground, but unless we as the gathered community of faith, if we are not rooted in God, if we do not strive for those roots to grow deeper and stronger, when the time of trial comes, when changes come as they always do, when the tough times come in your life and in mine, and in the life of that congregation, if our roots reach deeply into the deep well of God’s love and grace and mercy, we will not go dry. We will not lose heart. We will not react with anxiety and fear; we will be people of peace in the midst of trouble, the midst of change. We will not clench our fists and close our arms for fear that the world will see our heart and that we will be vulnerable; we will open our arms and our hearts to this world, knowing that that is not easy, knowing that it may mean personal pain, knowing that we follow the Christ who opened himself even to the point of death.
I encourage all of you to be deliberate in your study of God’s word, in Christian education and as you worship. We must all work together to dig deeper, so that when the wind comes, when we are faced with the wildernesses that come, we can stand firm. We can remain green with growth. We can continue to bear fruit for this God who so greatly loved us.