Who is the Tree?

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C.
Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26.

When I was a kid, there was a tree between our driveway and the neighbor’s house: a tall cedar, not too big, but just big enough. It’s branches were perfectly spaced, and I remember climbing up it while one of my parents watched. Once (and perhaps only once) I climbed up high enough to look across to the second floor of our house, visible as through a piece of crochet or knotted lace—such was the evergreen curtain that shielded me from sun and sky. I remember feeling both the thrill of the height, and the safety of the tree itself. All I had to do was simply hold on, keeping my torso close to the striated, wooly bark. Even if I had fallen, terrifying as that would be, the arcs of the many branches offered limbs outstretched that I could reach for. In many ways, I grew to genuinely trust that cedar.

In the Hebrew scriptures the grandeur of the cedars of Lebanon are an oft-repeated refrain, but in today’s readings we encounter trees of another sort.

In the first reading, Jeremiah (who was not a popular person in his time) speaks on God’s behalf of Judah’s downfall. Just a few verses prior it says, “the sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts” (17.1) These are marks that took time to make and cannot be wiped away easily—notice the language akin to etching, the use of hard tools. Iron and diamonds are materials that must be mined, extracted from the earth and manipulated for use. The sins of the people had been repeated to the point of being worked over, and worked into their innermost being. Instead of trusting Yahweh, they relied on “flesh for strength.” That could include anything from relying too much upon rulers and leaders, or building up military power, or pushing upon the labor of others (human and livestock) to fill their baskets and storerooms. So, too, their hearts had turned away (we could say, like a flower turning away from the sun). And so they are given a warning: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.” This curse happens to take the shape of a shrub, plant life that is impermanent, placed in uninhabitable space: parched places of the wilderness, salt land.

However, those who trust in God—whose trust is God—experience blessing. What an interesting coupling there. The warning coupled ‘trust in mere mortals’ with ‘make mere flesh their strength,’ both are a kind of external seeking for something outside oneself. The invitation, on the other hand, is to (put) trust in God, for God alone to be the keeper or the source of trust. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. It is a subtle and significant nuance. To say that one’s trust is God implies a drawing near—reaching out, yes, with the intent of making that trust one’s own. There is a closeness, a connectivity that is organic and permeable. Blessing takes the shape of a tree planted by a stream, with roots embedded in moist soil. It is drought resistant, it’s leaves stay green, it can still bear fruit, even during dry conditions. Where the shrub could not see when good approaches, the well-watered tree feels no anxiety when harsh winds blow upon it.

In the first Psalm we hear very similar language repeated. Again, the image of ‘the blessed’ like trees planted near a stream. Here ‘the wicked’ are not even given full plant status—they are merely chaff, the part of the wheat that easily scatters. Anyone who does not remain close to life-giving waters (that are God’s teachings or commands, as we read in so many places), is destined to blow away with the wind. What stark imagery.

Growing up in the church, I found these passages really quite terrifying. Of course I would do everything in my (very limited, very childish) power to trust God—and certain adults who stood in for the voice of God (a trust that could be quickly shattered or, worse, disfigured). Today when I read these passages, I can’t help but think about the streams and waterways that are disappearing due to changing weather patterns, or have been covered over by streets and so-called development more generally. Even our evergreens are drought-stressed. I am also challenged by the dichotomy of being “blessed” or “happy” while others are deemed “cursed” and “wicked.” Is it really so simple? Thinking back, my fourth grader self had by then enough of a hermeneutic of suspicion that she wasn’t buying it. (I’ll memorize the Bible verses for candy, but that’s it.) Lord knows it has nothing to do with being #blessed. Too often we read the blessings and cursing passages as a manual: do this in order to avoid punishment and stay ‘good’ with God. When the emphasis is on, which one are you [thumbs up/thumbs down]; we seldom stop to ask, what else might scripture be teaching us about misaligned trust, and the ways others are impacted when we tap into the wrong source?

In the gospel reading today, we hear Luke’s Jesus also speak in the genre of blessings and cursings—the beatitudes. But here, perhaps you noticed, the blessings and cursings do not pivot on trust but, rather, on material conditions first. What we don’t read, just before this passage, is that Jesus had just selected from a crowd of disciples the twelve apostles. We don’t know how large the group was that was gathered, but are told there was a ‘great multitude’—folks that had been following him for a long time, or maybe had been drawn to hear him just that day—there is this great multitude from all over who had come out to hear him and to be healed. Jesus comes down from a mountain with the twelve he just selected, “and stood on a level place.”

(Now) The funny thing about the gospels is that there are certain phrases, certain images, that can be overlooked—particularly when it comes to place, setting, or environment—but that actually communicate a great deal. For example, here’s Jesus; he’s been wandering around, teaching, healing, getting himself nearly killed for a couple chapters now, according to Luke. In this passage, he stands on level ground with his chosen twelve, healing and teaching a crowd. Think back for a moment to John the Baptist. In Luke’s rendition, John is going all around the Jordan region, proclaiming a baptism of repentance, and saying, in the words of Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (all flesh, that’s more than human flesh.)
A little later on, in Luke chapter four, we hear about Jesus making a trip home to the synagogue. He unrolls the scroll to speak the words of (who else but) Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . .” Jesus then suggests that he himself is the one anointed “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jubilee. Jubilee was supposed to be celebrated every 50 years: a year of restitution when households, servants and strangers, livestock and land are all granted a giant Sabbath rest; property is returned, debts are cancelled, fields lay fallow. The contours of God’s salvation encompass all of creation. To experience blessing means trusting God to provide at all times, and not relying upon others to be continually overworked.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, when Jesus launches into the beatitudes, statements of blessings and cursings that differ from the words of the prophets and poets. Jesus, always unsettling what was said or thought to be known before, changes the language. “Blessed are you…” He speaks directly to his disciples and followers. “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep…” These statements pivot on people’s actual, lived experience. He’s just describing their day-to-day life. The reality of life on this planet includes wealthy and powerful persons, and a great multitude of poor and hungry. Unless there is change. So when we pay attention to the context we see he is speaking to an audience, first and foremost, of people who are likely not powerful, not wealthy, and who hold no particular status. Furthermore, he is speaking not as a prophet, on behalf of God, but as God incarnate; not as one created, but One who was there at creation, who accompanied the people of Israel, who spoke through the prophets. The way of the Lord makes the ground level. Jesus is that way. Here stands the salvation of God.

The Old Testament passages cultivate a desire to be like the tree.
The gospel invites us to recognize that Jesus is the tree of life.

In other words, Jesus is speaking not merely as one pointing people (back) to God; Jesus is speaking as Godself, as the place of refuge, a source of strength for the weary, as the keeper of trusts, and the one who heals. While the beatitudes themselves might not mimic the imagery of the Psalms and the prophets, the gospel writers know to include cues that will spark recognition. When the Israelites had land and livestock and servants, the blessings and cursings were intended as reminders of Who is the true Source. Stay connected, like the tree, to the source of water and adversity will blow over. Stay connected, like the tree, and bear fruit so that others might live. Of course, power and wealth change hands over time. And, at the time of Jesus, the people of Yahweh found themselves enduring Roman occupation, living as an oppressed minority group. So, when Luke writes that Jesus stood on a level place for teaching (sharing wisdom) and for healing (restoring people to themselves and their communities), these are intentional markers to remind the people of God’s promises for a messiah, for renewal, for a new heaven and a new earth.

Too often we read the blessings and cursing passages as a manual : do this in order to have a good life, to be happy. . . I don’t know about you, but two years in I keep finding new pockets of exhaustion.

As Epiphany closes, and we approach Lent, I invite you to do something: find a tree to visit. Notice what it has to offer. Notice, does it have year-round greenery? Does it have seeds, or fruit, or nuts? Does it feed other creatures? Is there a nest in there? Does it provide shade in hot summer and extra light in winter because it’s deciduous? Befriend that tree. As you contemplate the tree, how it draws water and nutrients, consider: where is your taproot? How would you like to extend a branch for others? Would you like to see people fed? Are you drawn to encouraging others? We ourselves are not Jesus, but we can recognize that it is Jesus who is the tree. His resurrection is the firstfruits of new creation. And we are his fruits when we allow ourselves a closeness with Christ that unites us with the very life that flows through the Trinity.

So, as you come to know your new friend, the tree, let it parallel coming to know the tree of life; and may we be moved to bring life to the world. And in so doing, we might find ourselves blessed.

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