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.
6 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.
7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8 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.
9 The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it?
10 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
Today’s scripture reads more like the wisdom literature we read in the book of Proverbs and less like what I would expect from a prophet. The first four verses get straight to the point with common sense reasoning fleshed out with similes of vivid imagery from the natural world. Cursed are those who put their trust in humans; they are like shrubs in the desert. And blessed are those who trust in God; they are like trees planted by water and have green leaves. For me the last two verses of this passage are a little more curious. Verse nine, in particular, seems counterintuitive. The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? If anything, conventional wisdom tells us to follow our hearts, to trust what’s in our hearts. The heart is something we equate with positive attributes: love, kindness, and generosity. So I find it very interesting that in this verse the heart is declared devious and perverse. And then almost as a warning or as commentary on the previous verses, verse ten takes the voice of the Lord and reminds the reader that God tests the mind and sees the heart and gives accordingly to the fruit one bears. Other than verse nine, this passage seems so straightforward. However, it is more than conventional wisdom and truly carries the voice of the prophet speaking warning. It is very much commentary on the state of affairs for Judah.
The book of Jeremiah has been a favorite of mine for a long time because I find the story of Judah so very interesting and compelling. There are several things to take into consideration as we look at today’s scripture. First, the political reality for Judah has some bearing in that it was situated between Babylon to its north and Egypt to the south. The leaders of Judah spent a considerable amount of time shifting their allegiances between the two countries. At some point Babylon demanded ultimate allegiance and began its move to dominate Judah, culminating with the destruction of the temple and exiling many from the tribe of Judah to Babylon. The fall of the Temple and being sent into exile was interpreted as the punishment for Judah’s attempted allegiances with the rulers of these two countries, forsaking an allegiance to God.
Second, at this time in Judah’s history, the royal-priestly leaders seemed to believe that they were above the covenant theology of the Hebrew people. The covenant, of God calling and blessing and in response,Judah obeying and loving was the orienting force of life for the Hebrew children. So for the religious leaders to think the terms of the covenant didn’t apply to them created another backdrop of tension during this time frame.
Both of these elements highlight what Jeremiah is trying to convey to the people of Judah. An allegiance to God, full trust in Yahweh was the call and foundation of the covenant. And a simple trust is not enough. What did God require of the Hebrew people, but to love with whole heart, mind, and soul and then to love one’s neighbor. And when loving God and neighbor was the focus, it would be life giving. And yet, in this passage, we find Judah in crisis mode; the Temple destroyed and the people in exile. To have everything that spoke to the core of who they were as a people stripped away, would most certainly feel like a curse. Given the lens of the covenant theology, it would seem fitting to interpret their physical landscape with the curses from an angry God. And yet, we have the benefit of knowing that in the destruction of temple and the exile of Judah, God is bigger than the God of the covenant. God is a god who refuses to be God without us. God’s love for her creation compelled her to show the Hebrew people that God was always with them, and choosing to be God with them. The arc of the story in Jeremiah eventually has the prophet telling Judah to start creating life beyond the Temple and beyond the territory of Jerusalem. The people are encouraged to walk with God wherever they are and that if they would seek God, would trust God, God would be found. They were commanded to get on with their lives and to create life–in the aftermath of a destroyed Temple, and even in exile.
Today’s scripture begins with a warning to not place one’s trust in humans. This warning speaks to an orientation of the heart. And given the political tension coupled with the royal-priestly ideology, it is a call for Judah to repent–to turn around. The call is contrasted in language of curses and blessings, painting a clear picture of what will bring life to Judah and what will bring despair and desolation. It is also noteworthy, and not to be glossed over, that the prophet alludes to the fact that life can be challenging and difficult. He writes that the tree planted by the stream, those people who place their trust in God, won’t escape hard times. The hard times will be there, but because the roots have searched for water, they will have what they need in times of heat and drought.
The roots are somewhat important to helping a tree survive, aren’t they? When my daughter Kiera was born almost twelve years ago, as a gift and a celebration of her new life, our neighbor planted a mesquite tree in our front yard. It was a thoughtful and generous gift. He planted it along the westside of our driveway so eventually, our tree would provide some shade from the evening sun. However, as the months, and then years went by Kiera’s mesquite tree wasn’t growing. Come to find out, the roots were bound, meaning they had not grown out, but were still growing pretty close to the trunk of the tree. Any plant whose roots are bound will struggle to grow and eventually, will die. Derek began a more concerted effort of watering the tree, coupled with a few landscaping changes and that tree’s growth took off. It now provides a full canopy of shade for our minivan. Our scripture tells us that a tree planted by water sends out those roots so that in times of extreme heat, the tree is not anxious and will continue to bear fruit. In hard times, in challenging times how do we cope? What gives us life?
In the summer of 2002, while completing my field education requirements for seminary, I met an older couple named Netty and Nathan. We had the privilege of spending two weeks together, sharing evening meals and rich conversation. Toward the end of the two weeks and after many conversations, I mustered up the courage to ask Netty and Nathan a very personal question. You see, Netty was from Romania and Nathan from Great Britain. They both were Jewish and given their ages, I wondered how they had escaped the holocaust. So I asked how they had escaped the trials of World War II. With a gentle look in her eyes and a smile on her face, Netty said, “But my dear, we didn’t.” I didn’t press for details but both Netty and Nathan shared freely. Nathan fought with the Royal Air Force and Netty’s family, her parents, she and her sister were moved into a ghetto camp. Netty went on to give her parents credit for shaping how her family dealt with such cruelty and upheaval in their lives. Their approach was to problem solve the situation. How could they continue to live so as not to give into despair? They chose to foster a sense of curiosity in their children and to continue their daughters’ ability to learn. And that approach served Netty well for the rest of her life. She came to the United States for college and went on to obtain advanced degrees in biology. Eventually, she started her own company and was responsible for figuring out how to clean up gasoline spills. She had discovered that certain bacteria, injected into a spill site would be able to consume and clean up the toxic effects. From time to time, I think of Netty and the gift her parents gave her. The ways in which they determined to give their daughter life by imparting in her, a sense of curiosity and a drive to problem solve, during what must have been a time of extreme desolation in their lives.
It is important to know what it is that gives you life and to set about doing those things. Trusting in God, trusting in the absolute love of God is life giving. But trusting is not enough. Experiencing God’s love and then not sharing that love is like a tree whose roots are bound. We need to be a conduit of God’s love. And I see you all doing just that. The relationships we’ve built with our neighbors in the monthly Wednesday dinners, the many groups, like Moms Demand Action, who use our spaces for their meetings are a conduit of God’s love. Spending time engaging with others to create a more loving, kind, and peaceful world is life giving.
Today, we begin another week of Hotel San Marcos. Many of you have shared the stories of how your lives have been impacted as you volunteer and encounter the guests who have graced our community. I see you providing that life giving hospitality to people whose terror we may never know and whose faith has compelled them to search for safety. Your open heartedness and generosity is commentary on the power dynamic at play. We have a narrative in this country that villanizes “the other”. A narrative that says, “we don’t have enough to share and that what is mine is mine because I’ve earned it and too bad for you if you can’t earn your own. You are not welcome to share in my wealth, in fact, you are not welcome here.” And then we have St. Mark’s along with other groups and communities of faith who are telling a different narrative, who say that, “of course there is enough. In fact we have more than we need and want to share. We can’t imagine a world where there isn’t enough to go around and where the stranger is not welcomed.” Yes, your actions of gracious hospitality is commentary on a narrative that paints a barren landscape where there is no life to be found. Your commentary is a narrative that speaks of trust and abundance, knowing how to create life in the face of uncertain circumstances. Not only are you like the trees, but you also are the roots bridging the space between the life giving water and the plant.
Given the state of our national affairs, I am inclined to agree with the writer of verse nine. The heart is devious, who can understand it? And then the answer in verse ten to which I say, “thank God she searches our hearts and tests our minds.” I find it a relief to be known by a God of love who knows the good I want to do and my inability at times to make it happen. Thank God, she sees us and gives us the grace to try again. Trusting in God, trusting in this all encompassing, radical, life-giving Love, compels us to bear the fruit of love as we go about our days; even those days which are harder than others. And this God who bends beyond a covenant because God won’t do this alone makes us co-creators and infuses us with the gifts to bring life to a world which experiences deep hurt and darkness. Blessed are you who put your trust in God. Plant yourselves by the streams and send out roots. Be bearers of God’s life giving love.