Date: April 2, 2014
Bible Text: Jeremiah 17:5-10 | Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
Mid-Week Lenten Worship
At the end of winter, my dad would get itchy to start planting. He would clear out the garden: the clearing was hard labor. Then re-stake the boundaries, measure out rows, restore planting hills, put in new bunny-proof fencing, and repair trellises.
As the weather improved, more sun, a bit more warmth, he would make countless trips to the farm-home supply for seeds, starting some seeds in the basement under lamps, if frost remained a threat, and his impatience intolerable.
Each weekend in May and June, he was out with the early sun, out with a rototiller – he had a knack for machines and could make them sing. Each year more tomato plants went in than the prior year.
By Father’s Day he’d have a slight smile, watching fledging sprouts amidst his perfect rows. Looking for the right combination of rain and sun. This was life.
The rule of thumb is that by July, field corn should be knee-high, and he’d beam, as his sweet corn was always taller. Hot sun. Hot sun. Evenings would find him tearing rags to stake tomato plants, whose flowers and little buds promised heavy fruit.
He traveled each week for work, and when he arrived home, to my mom’s dismay, the first thing he did would be to measure the progress over the days he’d been gone. New growth, bunny theft, weeds, bugs. August sun and humidity would begin a crescendo of deepening colors and ripe vegetables. Then he would start bringing in the produce.
For those of you with gardens, you may correct me with missing steps or, when my dad comes to town, decide to compare notes. It was not magic. It was gritty labor, each day, each month. It was patience.
I think my dad knew that the result, the harvest of the season, was beyond his individual labor. God provided the sun and rain as well as his strength, patience, and wisdom to continue day after day. Come to think of it, I believe God also provided the faith required to put seeds in the ground that could later produce the wall of Mason jars of canned tomatoes, peaches, beans, beets, my mother always “put up”.
It may seem far-fetched to those who did not grow up with a garden, but those 100’s of jars, in my memory, are more than just the start of a sauce, pie or soup; they represented the result of the relationship between God’s gift of faith, our prayers, and our labor.
For 15 years, my parents had a small orchard in California, raising Moyer prunes. I learned more about grafting, irrigation systems, the literal story of the “birds and the bees” and how to drive a tractor. I was always humbled in that each day, no matter how much you worked, there was always more to tend. And then, despite best efforts 15 minutes of hail could destroy the year’s profit.
In the ancient Near East, to speak of the fruit of one’s labor was not a metaphor – it was daily living or dying. Stories are replete with trees, vines, branches, harvest as well as drought, famine, pestilence. For those of us without gardens, it is easy to look at these stories as charming and ancient. They are ancient, but these words carry a weight with imagery to convey meaning and lessons our 21st century urban lives often miss.
Jeremiah employs the metaphor of a withered shrub and a watered tree to talk about trust. Scholars consider this a wisdom poem, similar to writings found in Ecclesiastics and Proverbs. For the sages who wrote wisdom literature, wisdom is the ability to perceive the order of God in creation, the intelligence to act according with God’s order, and moral behavior that leads to well-being. Wise behavior produces life in all its fullness.
In Jeremiah, the shrubs are those who trust in their own human strength and ingenuity or in other “mere mortals” to deliver them in adverse situations. By ignoring God, their behavior curses them and they will, by their own choosing, end up unable to “see relief” and create an “uninhabitable salt land.”
On the other hand, the green trees are those who trust in God. This tree is not an ordinary tree, but evocative of the “tree of life,” rooted in a water – a source of life – that will protect it in heat, keep it from anxiety and allow it to bear fruit, unceasingly. Those who trust in God – daily – will flourish as this tree of life.
The heart is one of Jeremiah’s favorite topics. The heart, is what is either turned toward – for those who live like the tree – or turned away from God, creating a life like the barren shrub. He concludes this portion of the poem by saying the heart “is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it?” The heart, in other words, can play tricks. It can be fickle, rationalize, makes excuse, tells lies. To find life, watch the devices and desires of your heart, each day.
In wisdom literature, God is the one who oversees the just order of nature and society. God is able to distribute to all their just desserts because of divine knowledge of the human heart…in which heart is emotions, intellect, character – that which we call soul.
In this season of Lent, we are called to think of the choices we make with our heart. Do we trust in just our own labors? Do we presume to be able to muscle our way through others? Or, do we trust in co-creating with God, offering our lives in fidelity to God?
The daily commitments my dad made to the garden are just metaphors for how we plant and then reap in all our lives. You may not care to get your hands in the soil, but consider:
These parts of our lives require daily care and tending – just like the rhythm of planting tomatoes, corns or beans – if we have any hope of harvesting produce that will sustain us or which can be bequeathed to future generations.
In this journey, think of what you are planting? How you are preparing your life for seeds to take root? How do you nurture these dreams and keep the weeds at bay? Then after the planting and all the care, there is a time to take up the harvest and thank God.