Surviving Exile through Faith: Remarks on Jeremiah for Epiphany 6C

In reading this portion of Jeremiah, I am, I hesitate to say, reminded of  a favorite movie clip -  from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a movie in which Monty Python lovers will remember that the Knights of Ni challenge King Arthur and his knights,  who are traveling through their wood, to go and return with a nice shrub or face the consequences of  lost access to that road and through their forest.   The king and his knights are sent off to the sound of clip-clopping coconut shells, rather than hooves falling, to find a shrub – a nice shrub.  When Arthur and his knights return with such a shrub, the Knights of Ni, send them out again – to find another shrubbery – a bit taller, and perhaps then to landscape the two with a path running down the middle – Oh, and to cut down one of the mighty trees…. with a herring.   It is Monty Python at his finest, and, for some reason, the reading from Jeremiah, with its illusions to forests, trees, and shrubs, at first took me to it, and brought me some chuckles.  My apologies for the distraction.

My friend, and former teaching partner, Anne, lives on ten acres of land, part of which was the river bottom of the Skagit River.  She and her husband have a home and outbuildings that are situated on a ridge on the property which was once, I’d assume, riverfront property, beach really, and the fields below are where the river once flowed, before its meanderings took it on another path – now about a half-mile away. Those fields of river bottom hold rich soil now, having been laid down over the centuries by sediment from the waters that flowed off of melting glaciers, and fed, over time, by the organic material from steelhead and other salmon, several species of trout, and the other critters, like crawfish that populate the river.   Rich, fertile soil kept moist by a high water table from the neighboring Skagit River.  A fine place to grow things.

Until two years ago, Anne and her husband, Michael, would hay that field every season– back-breaking work, cutting the tall dry grass, and then daily turning, drying, baling, and finally bucking those bales onto a truck and finally into the barn where it was stored and used to feed their cattle and horses during the long winter  months of relatively slow growth of the grasses.

And then Anne decided that the land was for something else – trees.  And so, in her spare time, she, pretty much on her own, planted about 4800 evergreen seedlings of various species , all in neat, measured rows at the appropriate distance apart so that an optimal growing environment would exist for each little seedling. And, I asked her, “Are you going to have a Christmas Tree farm in a few years?”  At first, she said she thought so.  Then, in a subsequent visit, she said no, that the land might better be a park, a site that could serve as a place of memory for those who’d like to scatter the ashes of loved ones and who might want to return to sit and remember them.  But, lately, in watching the seedlings begin to grow and take shape, she has simply said the trees are growing, that each variety has its distinct traits that make them unique, and that what she has done is to plant a small forest for the future of her community, Sedro Woolley, and for the betterment of our planet earth.  So, every summer, when she is not teaching, she is out, walking among her little trees, working the acres, clipping an occasional branch, keeping the grass from overtaking them and shading them from life-giving light, mowing up and down the rows (by herself, by hand) and, in general, monitoring their growth by simply being among them…nothing scientific.  I feel – and perhaps so does she - that she is raising a second family. 

These tiny trees are not unique along the Skagit.  The hills and flatlands along the shores of the Skagit River have quite naturally been forested since long before humans came along.  If you stand in Anne’s fields, amidst the tiny seedlings and look south, you will behold the north side of Cultus Mountain, which is the hill on the south of the Skagit River, and you will see where native evergreen forests once stood, then were logged, and where the early signs of green and new growth and reforestation is happening.  Sedro Woolley has long been a logging community, named in part for the mighty cedars that grew there. (“Sedro” is a misspelling of the Spanish word for cedar).  It is a village built on the logging culture, as many of Western Washington’s small towns are, and a town of which I am proud to be a part.

Trees are important, and as they balance our planet’s atmosphere, taking in Carbon Dioxide, which we expel in our respirations and putting out the life-giving Oxygen that we breathe in, a symbiotic and beautiful relationship is the result. Species working together in support of one another.   Trees, and other plants, share life on this planet with us, and offer us balance, shade, and beauty, but trees need nutrition, in the right balance, and water from the ground and sun from the heavens.  Trees, and the occasional shrub, grow well next to rivers.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of trees in the forest and compared them with shrubs in the desert.  He proclaimed God’s curse on individuals who rely on the flesh, on human power and greed, and “whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Their lives are like a shrub in the desert – unable to thrive or grow and are alone in a parched wilderness.  But, he said, those who trust in the Lord are blessed, for they are like the tree growing next to the river.

Jeremiah, of course, who dwelt in a completely different time and eco-system than we do, lived in the midst of a time of critical transition. His career as a prophet began in the shadow of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  And, it ended in a time of exile.  He lost his home, as did others, when the Babylonians came to conquer and was then finally forced to flee to Egypt, probably against his will.  As the Babylonians took over his homeland, he saw what was happening and advised the people he came across to surrender or be destroyed.  And then, from today’s Old Testament lesson, and from a time a bit later, Jeremiah preached a different and troubling message – that exile was the new normal, and he posed a challenge:  How would God’s people respond? Like a shrub in the desert, with a shallow root system, and very little to sustain it? Or like a tree next to a river that reaches down and out far to bring in the nutrients in the water. Only one of those ways would indicate faithfulness and trust.

Staying faithful during a transition, a major one especially, is not always easy.  Indeed, putting trust in anything impermanent, like the future, is difficult. Jeremiah characterized those whose hearts would turn away from God to be like a shrub in the desert, constantly searching for water that could not ever be found.  It is, instead, putting faith in God that matters.

In light of the news today, when governmental strife and threats from other countries make us feel like things aren’t quite right, quite the way they should be, it is though the threat of being an exile hangs over all of our heads too, and things seem impermanent.  When will balance and order be restored?  How do we cope?

Indeed, the plight of real exiles from all over the world, from poverty stricken and war-torn countries, is the daily news.  And, the homeless are exiles in our own cities.  The jobless are exiled from meaningful employment.  To face a serious illness is to be exiled from health.  Not one of us is immune from the threat of being an exile in some way.  And so, like Jeremiah, which path were the exiles to follow?  Relying on human strength, living as if life were the desert and therefore a real struggle?  Or, relying on God and faith, and living as if rooted by a flowing river, even in the midst of being tested and tried?

The truth is that both the tree and the shrub will experience drought, or the occasional flood.  Both those who trust in mere mortals and those who trust in the Lord experience dry periods.  The difference is that the latter thrive because they send out their roots toward the stream, and therefore develop green leaves and produce fruitNutrition from the source of all that is makes the difference.  We are all challenged at one time or another, and, in reaching toward God, we are all made able to cope, but we will, no matter what our root structures, all be challenged. 

Retired Episcopal priest, George H. Martin said this about this passage, "At times we are all tempted, of course, even as Jeremiah must have been tempted – or tested, . . . to invent a second self, a self that dreams of a life without worries and challenges.  It was God’s word that called Jeremiah back to the reality of his world.  One way or another we all get called back to face the reality of our world and our need to be honest about ourselves.  Jeremiahs’ vision meant accepting the challenges of change and maybe even of exile with faith (trust) in the God who sees deep within our hearts.  The God who would test the heart was not to be feared, but only to be trusted.”[1]

From the window above my computer in my home office I look up to a hill that is covered by thousands of evergreen trees of various species.  Though our home is next to a lake, the trees there on Look Out Mountain, are watered by the rains that fall regularly on them – and not necessarily by the high water table from the lake.  In the summer’s heat, there is very little water that falls on them, and those hills can be very dry. Nonetheless, those trees reach deep down into the soil for the nutrients, the water.   But, though the surface is well watered, life on a downward slant makes it probable that water washes over them, loosening their somewhat shallow root systems.  On my walks around the lake, I have seen several of these giant beings that have released their hold on the earth, and rest now on their sides, their shallow roots exposed and useless.  Over time, an over-abundance of water had rushed over the topsoil, loosening the hold of the tree on the earth.  Or perhaps it was a combination of roots not going deep into the rich soil of the hill, or too much water, or perhaps the right wind, but there, exposed, is the bottom of the tree, the place which is meant to bring sustenance to its mighty presence, now toppled and lifeless.  It was not for lack of nutrients, but for lack of its roots going deep into what fed them, that these giant fellow creatures toppled.  On my walks I look at those trees and consider what it was that took them down and wonder how that tree and I might be alike.

We are always in the presence of God, rooted, fed, and at home in the earth.  That we may have the blessings of new life in God, we reach deeply into God’s goodness and love turning away from falsehood and illusion, and live in God, live in hope and love.  That we may also be faithful to God, putting down roots deep into the creator’s life-sustaining force - that is my prayer, and, in so doing, we glorify God. 

~ Rev. Rilla

[1] “Pastoral Perspective Jeremiah 17: 5-10” Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, (Feasting on the Word, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Publishing, 2009), 342

Featured image by Josh Heaton on Reshot