In several cultures, trees play a large role. In particular, trees with large canopies, that provide large amounts of shade often become the focal point for communities to gather, to meet, to discuss the events happening to the community and to make decisions. They are places of comfort, a place to get out of the heat of the day, to rest, to play. In other words, these trees are the place where life happens.
In today’s old testament reading today, we see references made to trees. “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.” Similarly, the Psalm also brings up a reference to trees, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”
In each of these cases, we see that the reference to trees is to us, to those who believe, to those who follow God. This means that we are the metaphor. We are the trees. But in each of these cases, the reference is also made to those who trust in God, and then compared to the wicked, or those who do not trust in God. In the Jeremiah passage, the wicked and the cursed are defined as those “who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength.”
So what does it mean to trust in the things of the flesh, to trust in something other than God? It means that rather than trusting in God, we trust in our own wealth, our own knowledge, our position in life, any authority we may have, it means to trust in our strength, or even our health.
All of these things are fleeting, and can disappear in a matter of moments. One small accident, one bad medical diagnosis, war, famine, or new leadership, and suddenly those things we have trusted in can simply evaporate.
And when that happens, rather than being like trees firmly planted by the water, we suddenly become like tumbleweeds, dried up and withered in the heat of the day, living in the parched places of the wilderness, because those areas of our lives that we used to rely on are no longer there to provide us comfort.
We see this same dichotomy of thought in the New Testament reading, where Paul tells us that if we have hoped in Christ only in this life, then we are to be pitied the most among all people. He is simply saying that if we do not trust in the truth of God’s resurrection, then we are essentially trusting in the things of the flesh, and we have not taken on and accepted the blessings of God.
Then Luke makes the contrast even more clear for us. In Luke, Christ tells us that those who are poor are to be blessed, those who weep, those who are hated because of their faith in Christ are blessed, because their reward is great in heaven. It certainly doesn’t seem like that to those who are facing those situations, but they will see a reward in heaven. In other words, trust in those things that you cannot see.
And then there are those to whom Christ says “woe to you.” These are the people who have trusted in their own riches, their own wealth, their own standing in life, and those who have received the accolades of all those around them. These people, he says, have already received their consolation.
All of these passages point to this tendency all people have: to take our wealth, to take our positions in this life, to take our knowledge, authority, to take all the trappings of this life and to consider that we have it all because of who we are, and what we have done. We begin to think that the tree of our own life is rooted in our own deeds. We can easily fall into the tendency to think that we are the arbiter of good and evil and that we alone possess the truth, and that those who disagree with us ought to be cursed, and that we and those who think like us ought to be blessed. We begin to think that I am blessed, because of who I am. And from there it is a short step to go from seeing God as the master of our lives, to seeing ourselves as the master of our own domain.
Rather than looking outward at the world around us as a place where we can provide a blessing, we look inward, and begin to ask questions like, “Who is infringing upon my rights?” rather than “What can I do to love my neighbor?”
Instead of providing shade, we throw it. We don’t provide comfort and rest from the tumult and injustices of the world from our own blessing, but instead we disparage those who desperately need to see the light of God in a world filled with anger, sadness, injustice and chaos. Rather than seeing our blessed state in life as a means of providing blessing to those around us, we see our blessed state in life as a means of protecting ourselves and our own interests.
If we take this road, and we see our blessed state in this life as a means of our own protection, and our own advancement, then Jesus was right: woe to us indeed. Because then we have indeed reached the pinnacle of our blessing in this life, by trusting in those things that we have received from those blessings, rather than the source of those blessings.
Hopefully, none of us here today have taken that path. Hopefully all of us here today have pushed against this tendency, and have instead squarely turned our hearts to the source of our blessings.
When we recognize that every fleeting thing in this world – power, authority, wealth, food, and even our health – comes from God, then we begin to see our blessings as things that are meant to be shared with others. We become like trees “planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” And through that blessing, we provide shade and shelter to those around us, giving them respite from the injustices of this world, by sharing our blessing with them.
Hopefully, we do not fear when struggles and hardship come, we do not fear when all of those things of this world are torn from us in an instant, through no fault of our own. Instead, we stand firm, knowing that those around us, still blessed with the trappings of this world, might come and provide shade and comfort to those of us who have lost what we used to have because they too have seen the source of their blessings, and seek to move that blessing outward into the world.
And if we are all trees, firmly rooted near the source of our life, then together we become a mighty forest that provides shelter and refuge to those who need it.
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by the water, sending out its roots by the stream.’[This sermon was delivered at The Episcopal Church of St. Matthew in Tucson, AZ on February 13, 2022.]
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He will attend Sewanee School of Theology for a year of Anglican Studies in the Fall of 2022.