5 Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
6 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.
7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
8 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.
9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? 10 I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It was July of this last year, during those few days of 105+ temperatures we lived through together, and I had my hand on my forehead with regret as I walked between the three backyard raised beds that contained our vegetable garden. Dexter and I had done our best to keep our plants watered, but these poor tomatoes and artichokes and cucumbers were languishing in the heat. They had been depending on a couple amateur gardeners who didn’t quite know what we were doing, because as I learned later, we had been watering them too often, which meant their roots had stayed pretty close to the surface of the soil to soak up our overzealous and over-frequent waterings. This was exposing them to too much heat. Their leaves were drooping. They looked exhausted and thirsty. I wasn’t sure any of them were going to make it to harvest season.
This scene came back to me as I read Jeremiah’s words to the people of Israel in this passage, a people who were about to encounter the intense heat of violence and occupation as Babylonian armies were coming their way. In this context, Jeremiah speaks to God’s people of being blessed and cursed. I used to think blessing was a reward and cursing was a punishment in Bible passages like this one, but Jeremiah makes it clear that the little shrub suffering in the saltlands and the tree drinking from the stream are actually BOTH facing the wilderness, the heat, the year of drought.
So if being blessed or cursed is not about an external reward and punishment system, and if the heat is going to impact every plant regardless of their position, then what is Jeremiah talking about? It becomes clearer when we look at the Hebrew word for “blessed”, barak. This is a verb that means to kneel before God in adoration. As commentator Nichola Torbett puts it, this kneeling before God is another way of saying being in right relationship with God, or even being in alignment with God and the entire world that God has made. (Nichola Torbett, The Word Is Resistance, “02.17.19 – Of Courage and Curses.”)To be cursed then, is not to be punished. It is simply to be out of alignment with the God who made us and with the world God made. In this sense, the snap peas and mustard greens and eggplant in my vegetable garden were not cursed because they were being punished by the sun, but rather because they had aligned themselves exclusively with a pair of gardeners who didn’t have the wisdom to give them what they needed to thrive. They were out of alignment and out of touch with the sources of water and nourishment that would have sustained them when the intense heat came, and this caused them to droop and languish and thirst.
We all know what it is like to be out of alignment with what gives us life. We can feel in our bodies when we aren’t getting enough sleep or eating food that satisfies or having the in-person human connections that make us feel known. But, as Nichola Torbett lifted up in that commentary I mentioned, we are also caught up in all kinds of systems that are set up to pull us out of alignment with the God who made each of us and who called us to steward this planet. And this often happens without our even being awake to it. Like being unable to get through a weekly grocery trip without buying something that oppressed the workers who harvested the food, or put it together in the factory, or even tried to unionize at that very grocery chain. Like paying a mortgage on a house that sits on land that white settlers stole from Indigenous people. To live this way is to live cursed, not in the sense of being punished, but in the sense that we are participating in systems that take us out of alignment with the God who created each human, animal, and plant life as precious and worthy of care. We don’t need to look further than our climate crisis, a global pandemic, and so much more to realize what Nichola Torbett has said is true: “We are out of alignment and it is killing us.” (Torbett, Of Courage and Curses)
But the good news of this text is that there is another way of being when the intense heat undoubtedly comes our way. Jeremiah describes what it feels like to be in alignment with God and the planet, to be “blessed.” It is when we trust the Source of our life like “a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” The invitation I hear in this text is the invitation to forgo the cheap groundwater that is our passive acceptance of systems that oppress others so that we can burrow deeper, reaching for the water source of life God created us for, a life where we invest in human wholeness instead of wealth, where we care for people instead of profit, where we steward the earth as a relative, free from domination. It is in our self-interest to drink deeply from these streams of alignment with the divine, because then, we “shall not fear when heat comes… [our] leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought [we will] not [be] anxious, and [we will] not cease to bear fruit.”.
After my bummer of a walk around my garden beds that hot summer day, I remember plopping myself down on my backyard chair in defeat. That’s when something on my lawn caught my attention. We are the only ones on our street who don’t water our lawn in the summer, so as I surveyed the crusty brown shrivels that our grass had become, I noticed, as if it were the first time, the lush green leaves, the resolute stalks, and the bright yellow flowers of all the dandelions – you know, those flowers I have always call “weeds”. While my garden vegetables and lawn grass were slumped over and dried out, these happy flowers were thriving. Dex had mowed over them at least 5 times that year already, but here they were, in 105 degree heat, alive and well, almost smiling at me with their sunshine faces. I learned later that dandelions are so resilient because the first thing a dandelion seed does upon landing is establish a deep taproot, which can grow as deep as 15 feet underground! (Anita Sanchez, “Ten Things You Might Not Know About Dandelions”, Main Organic Farmers and Gardeners.) This means that the dandelion has access to water and sources of calcium needed for growth that those with only surface roots won’t ever be able to access. Dandelions are blessed, not because they are being rewarded, but because they are growing in alignment with the true source of life, with a taproot reaching the water and minerals that will quench their deepest thirst, even as the heat blazes above them.
I heard someone say that a weed – as we have named the dandelion – is simply any plant that grows where someone doesn’t want it to grow. And I think Jeremiah’s call to God’s people today is to be dandelions, thriving where systems of oppression do not want us to grow, resisting the status quo with a taproot deep in the heart of the God who is love, boldly busting up the concrete of patriarchy, white supremacy, and all forms of power-hoarding, free from anxiety and thriving in the interdependent community God made us for. Nichola Torbett calls this dandelion living “breaking rank” with the ways of oppression, embracing our calling to drink so deeply of God’s radical love that we cannot help but bloom brightly in the wilderness. (Torbett, Of Courage and Curses) This is your call, Church: To break rank like the dandelion, to take action in resistance to systems that oppress in your neighborhoods, your community, and in your own heart. The stream of God’s radical grace awaits us, even in these days of overwhelming heat, if our taproots will only reach for this abundant life. Amen.