6th Sunday after Epiphany C
By Laurel Dykstra
Psalm 1 and the verses from Jeremiah 17 are two of many passages where something valued or successful is compared to a tree by water.
For the preacher engaging with ecological themes, reading these two passages together suggests several overlapping subjects for exploration to “test the mind and search the heart.”
Cursed and blessed, shrub and tree, desert and stream, trust in mortals and trust in YHWH, fruit and chaff, protection and perishing, wicked and righteous, sin and law, parched and watered, anxiety and relief. The two passages rely on contrasts and dualities, describing the blessedness of those who trust in YHWH and the happiness of those who delight in the law of YHWH as flourishing fruit and green leaves. But we know that the fruiting and flourishing of desert shrubs looks different from that of water-dependent species; we can ask all kinds of relevant questions for our faith communities about what flourishing and success look like, how we ascribe value to difference, how to distinguish goodness from prosperity.
Wilderness and Agriculture
In the Jeremiah passage a desert shrub in an uninhabited wasteland is contrasted with a tree planted by a stream. In nearly all the “tree by water” passages, the tree is described as planted, implying a planter, an orchardist or arboriculturalist planting, tending, pruning and in some cases even watering. In Jeremiah, the planted tree is contrasted with an arid-land shrub, in Psalm 1 the theme of cultivation is emphasized by the contrast to chaff an agricultural waste. In both passages, what is good is fruit, i.e. what is good for humans.
This emphasis on agriculture and food for human consumption differs from other flourishing tree passages where goodness, blessing or favor are imagined as a thriving ecosystem supporting birds, wild animals, and humans.
Jeremiah’s judgment of desert, parched places, wilderness and uninhabited salt land are very different from the recurring biblical theme of wilderness as a place of divine encounter, a refuge, place of testing and purification.
These passages and how the differ from similar metaphors provide the ecological preacher the opportunity to engage with food ethics, the harms and benefits of different kinds of agriculture, the inherent value of wilderness, anthropocentricism, urban-rural conflicts.
Individual and Collective
In most of the other biblical “tree by the water” passages, it is Israel or another nation that is compared to a flourishing tree. In these two lectionary passages the tree refers to individuals “who trust in YHWH” or “who delight in the law of YHWH.” The symbol of arid and well-watered trees can have a lot of resonance as we think about our individual spiritual lives and our experiences of deep connection with the divine in creation. We can talk about the church’s emphasis on producing “fruit” whatever that might look like and the pressure we put on each other to avoid or deny the arid. How have we failed to be a place to express ecological despair?
We can also talk about the modern Christian focus on individual spiritual life and the biblical notions of corporate responsibility, morality, identity and goodness. Specifically we can talk about how these apply in a time of climate crisis when a great deal of public messaging is about individual change and responsibility rather than the role of corporations and nations.
In a time of climate change, rising ocean levels and increasing freshwater crises, passages that talk about water and access to water—sending out roots to the stream—provide all kinds of opportunity for relevant engagement: Who has access to clean drinking water in your watershed, what forces and structures control that access? Deforestation and desertification, the sale of bottled water at the expense of local communities, industrial agriculture and water diversion, water shut-offs, hydro-electric dams marketed as green energy alternatives.
Water walkers and Indigenous water defenders claim Water is Life and Christian environmentalists agree. The biblical narrative runs, splashes, drips and roars with water symbols. In our sacrament of baptism water, life but also death come powerfully together and we have not yet engaged enough-prayed, and washed and wept- with how this brings us to struggles for water justice.
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.
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.
Laurel Dykstra is the gathering priest of Salal + Cedar watershed discipleship community on Coast Salish Territory in the lower Fraser Watershed. Laurel curates Wild Lectionary a weekly blog on ecological themes in the Revised Common Lectionary.
For another article by Laurel Dykstra on the “tree by water” passages look here.