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"Rooted" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on February 17, 2019 by Kathy Miller


Jeremiah 17:5-10

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.

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.


Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,

    whose trust is the Lord.

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.


The heart is devious above all else;

    it is perverse—

    who can understand it?

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.



What better text for the Sunday after Valentine’s day than one that declares the heart to be devious and perverse? One suspects that if Jeremiah were to write a Valentine’s Day card it might go something like:

Roses are red,

Violets are blue.

My heart may be devious,

but surely not when it comes to you!

It may help to realize that in Jeremiah’s time, there was no concept of the brain. Instead, it was the heart that was the seat not only of human life and emotion, but also human knowledge and intuition.

Jeremiah, while perhaps not being the cheeriest of prophets, did not, to my knowledge, have anything in particular against love. What he was concerned about was the ways in which we deceive ourselves while simultaneously convincing ourselves that we know what is right.

Last week, we read the call story of Isaiah, a prophet who was called to fail—doomed from the beginning to preach to a people who would never hear him, let alone change their ways because of him. Jeremiah, I’m sad to say, faced a similar fate.

Writing in a time of transition, Jeremiah has seen what is to come for the Israelites and it is not good. Babylon is on their borders and Jeremiah alone seems to know that they will be successful in their campaign against Israel, that God will allow the Babylonians to sack Jerusalem and send the Israelites into exile. Burdened with this knowledge, Jeremiah endeavors mightily to warn the Israelites, to scare them into changing their behavior in hopes that God will relent. And, at the same time, he tries to prepare them for what is to come.

Jeremiah knows that in the face of the approaching might of Babylon, one of the choices the people of Israel will face is where to place their trust. The temptation, he knows, will be to place it in kings and armies. After all, it is kings and armies who have the power to defeat the armed forces that they are facing. But Jeremiah urges a different choice: place your trust in God, for to do otherwise, he preaches, is to be vulnerable to shifting winds of change.

We may not be ancient Israelites facing the impending arrival of Babylonian forces, but we too know what it is to struggle with the choice between trusting in the things of this world or trusting in God. Who among us hasn’t lost sleep over the opinions of someone who is annoyed with us, wondering if we did something wrong, if their opinion might be contagious, or worse, accurate? Who among us hasn’t looked with anxiety at our bank account and thought that if we could just work a little extra, earn a little more, life would be more secure? Who among us hasn’t, when reading the news, given thanks, even if unconsciously, for the might of the US military and our relative safety in the world?

There’s a reason we tend to look to and rely on human constructs of status, wealth, and power. In the world we live in (and the world Jeremiah lived in), they carry weight. They matter. We know the ways in which a rumor can ruin a reputation, can shape our ability to find a job, a place to live, or even our ability to make friends. We know the ways that money, or the lack of it, can lead to a life lived on the perpetual edge of uncertainty; we know the cycle that poverty can create when there is not enough money to make ends meet. We have seen the chaos and fear of those who live in countries without strong militaries, who are subject to the whims of war and invasion. The world bears out these truths—opinion, money, power, they matter. They make a difference.

And yet, Jeremiah writes that those who place their trust in mere mortals are cursed. They are like a shrub in the desert that doesn’t know when relief comes.

By contrast, Jeremiah asserts, happy are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They are like trees planted by streams; whose roots reach down to the water. They will not fear drought when it comes, their leaves will remain green. In a year of drought, they will not be anxious, they will continue to bear fruit.

Place your trust in the Lord, urges Jeremiah. Ground yourself in God. Root yourself by sources of life that you might never worry when the rain fails to come or the heat is intense.

It matters where one is rooted. A tree rooted in the sandy desert will not find the nutrients and water that it needs to thrive. A tree rooted in a city sidewalk is unlikely to find the oxygen and space that it needs to withstand strong winds and grow tall. It is clear why being rooted near a stream would make a difference. A steady supply of water that is not dependent upon the whims of the rain would make a world of difference. Likewise, when we place our trust in the things of this world, we too are subject to the change of seasons—money saved up can vanish when the market takes a downward turn. Safety placed in the hands of a military can be shattered with an unexpected attack. Security rooted in the good opinions of others can disappear with the merest hint of a scandal or the false reports of a rumor. If we rely on human things for our sense of self or security, we will inevitably fall victim to the whims of time and human nature.

But roots do more than simply gather up nutrients and water and provide structural security. Given the span of most tree roots, it is inevitable that sooner or later the roots of one tree will run into the roots of another. When trees run into one another above ground, they tend to shy away from one another—adhering to an unseen plan that allows each tree canopy to get the light it needs.

Below ground, the situation is not nearly so neat nor orderly. Rather than yielding to one another, the roots of trees more frequently collide and connect, especially if the trees are of the same species.

In his book, The Hidden Life of Trees,[1] forester Peter Wohlleben describes coming across a rotted-out tree trunk that had clearly been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier. Its insides having long ago decomposed, the outer shell of the trunk remained—covered in bark and green beneath the surface. Curious as to how a tree that could not reach the sun let alone process its rays into food managed to survive, Wohlleben discovered that its roots remained connected to the trees around it. More surprising, and entirely counterintuitively, the surrounding trees were diverting some of the nutrients they need to for survival to this old stump, keeping it alive and connected to the larger grove.

Jeremiah does not claim that trusting in God will negate the need for money, reputation or power. He is saying that even if you devote the whole of yourself to those goals, you will still find that there are times when it feels as though your life is in the midst of a drought—periods when inspiration or hope seems to dry up and disappear. Times when tragedy seems to follow tragedy until you are at your wits end. Years when the winds of change blow so fiercely you fear you will not be able to remain standing.

Placing our trust in God will not protect us from divorce, disease or the deaths of those we love. It will not insulate us from the opinions of others nor the realities and catastrophes of life.

What it will do is allow us to weather the storm.

To be rooted in God is to find the sources of life that are ever-flowing and plant oneself next to them. To root ourselves in God is to discern what brings us joy, what inspires us with a sense of renewed energy, what sustains us when the world around us falls to pieces and then to make sure we do those things. To be rooted in God is to remember that no matter what is assailing your life, what you are going through, what winds are trying to knock you over, you are a part of this church—connected to all of us, and when push comes to shove, we will make sure you remain standing. To be rooted in God is to remember that no matter what, we are here, you are part of us, and you are loved.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Peter Wohlleben. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World, (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016).

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