Homily from service on February 13, 2022 – Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Tree roots don’t actually go way down into the ground and mirror the branches the way you sometimes see drawings of them…at least not the roots of most trees. Tree roots do go down into the earth several feet but then spread out in as many directions as possible…sometimes for amazing distances…Pando is believed to be the world’s largest tree. Standing next to it, you wouldn’t know it, because above ground, Pando appears to be—not a single tree, but an entire forest of quaking aspen in south central Utah. But, every one of the estimated 47,000 tree trunks in that forest colony are genetically identical and connected via a massive root structure which is believed to be one of the largest single living organisms on earth. Pando occupies over one hundred acres of forest. It is believed to be as much as 14,000 years old. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord… They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out roots by the stream.
Our souls are like that…Our souls are the root system of our being…spreading out below us…and helping us to weather whatever happens up here in our lives. Trouble is…a lot of what life throws at us causes us to forget that those roots are there. Or convinces us that the only thing we really have to rely on is our self and our fragile, finite desire to control things. What does Jeremiah say about that? “Cursed be those who trust in mere mortals, and make flesh their strength.” Our souls are the root system of our being, and much of what a life of faith is about…what spiritual practices do…is help us learn (and relearn) how to reconnect with and come to really trust those roots.
Jeremiah says that these trees planted by streams “shall not fear when heat comes […] in the year of drought [they will] not be anxious.” But in our lives we are awash in anxiety, and so often caught up in fear. In a several conversations I’ve had recently, I’ve been toggling back and forth between the storm of fear, and the roots of faith. In all these conversations someone was facing something that legitimately made them afraid…And you can imagine any number of things that that might be…receiving a difficult diagnosis…a loved one entering hospice…hearing a rumor that the company you work for is downsizing…In one specific case it was several Rabbi friends of mine talking about the fear and trauma that our Jewish siblings live with, especially after the most recent attack in Texas…and the continued prevalence of anti-Semitism in towns all around us. As Christians we are privileged to not live with the same level of fear, but we all know what fear is like. We all know how it feels…how potent…how instinctual it is. How fear demands our attention. How easy it is to get fixated on the fear…to feel how tense, and constrained, and limiting it makes us feel…like there’s no place to go…no where to run.
One Rabbi also reflected on verse 5 of Psalm 118…a verse they had been using to loose some of the constraints of their fear…and reconnect to their roots. The transition in our BCP doesn’t capture the essence of this verse because there’s a wonderful Hebrew word play that doesn’t translate well…wordplay that contrasts a narrow place with a wide-open place. Verse 5 reads: ”From the straits [as in dire straits…a narrow, confined place] I called to God. “From the strait I called to God. God answered me in a wide-open place [from a place of expansiveness].” [Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms]. From a place of limitations to a place of expansiveness.
So now, whenever I’m in a situation where I’m anxious, or with someone who is anxious or afraid, I’m wondering…what’s beneath that fear? Where is that expansive place…and do my roots reach into that place and can I draw sustenance from there? Fear might be where we get stuck, but it is never the end point…there’s always something underneath it…something stable and sustaining…the roots of faith are there. We do feel trapped in fear sometimes…but beneath that limiting space……our souls stretch out beyond comprehension into to that expansive space where God answers, feeds and, sustains us. We just have to remember (again and again) to connect with that…and to trust it.
I’m guessing that today’s gospel might have sparked some fear in many of us…Especially, those of us who are privileged, who have a lot of resources, are well fed, are generally happy, well-spoken of…”Woe to you…” We might feel some fear when we hear that. And that might send us into fight, flight, or freeze. We might fight—argue against it (well, he doesn’t really mean this…I can’t believe that)…We might flee: (Oh look the psalm is nice…it says that happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked…that’s me…well, phew!), or we might freeze…(I have no idea what to do with these verses… if I ignore it maybe it will just go away…)
But there is another option…the option of sitting with that fear…being present to the discomfort that these verses cause in us…and being open to what they might teach us. Calling out to God from that constrained space…and listening for God’s answer from an expansive place…letting what lies beneath rise up…and fill me with the life and sustenance and support I need, so that I can share my gifts and resources with others.
What would God say to you…if you called out—from the straits you are in—how would God respond from that expansive place?
Can we learn to feel down into those soul roots…which to be honest…have always sustained me…has always sustained all of us…Can we learn to trust the expansiveness, and abundance of that spiritual root system…which is to say can we learn to really trust God…So that we can live…so that generations after us can live…so that we can all thrive like trees planted by streams of water?