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“Rooted in the Lord”
Jeremiah 17: 5-10
February 13, 2022
Today is Big Game Day: the Bengals face the Rams in Super Bowl 56! Sportscasters predict this year’s competition will be fierce, but the competition is not only on the field. Getting tickets for the game will be a competition in itself! Tickets for this year’s Super Bowl will be the most expensive in history, with the cheapest seats selling for around $4,500, and the average price around $8,500! Of course, that doesn’t even come close to what you would pay if you wanted a ticket at VIP suite level; that costs a cool one hundred thousand dollars.
It’s not just about the game of course, but the bragging rights that go along with scoring a place at the game, especially if it’s a prime seat.
We human beings are competitive creatures. Some people even try to bring God into the game. A research organization surveyed Americans about God and sports. Not only did it show that about a quarter of sports fans pray for their team to win, one in four Americans believe that “God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event.” Interestingly, of all sports enthusiasts, football fans are the most likely to believe God influences the outcome of a game.2
Of course, when we think about it rationally, we know that God does not take sides. God does not take sides in sports, or in church. But sometimes churches display a competitive spirit. Ego struggles, power plays, and one-upmanship can rear their ugly heads. How do we prevent the church from becoming a playing field?
This is the last sermon in our series on Vital Congregations. We have been using the 7 Marks of Vital Congregations created by our denomination, to see the characteristics common to churches that are shining the light of Christ.
The 7 Marks of Vital Congregations are
Today, we are looking at the last point: Ecclesial Health. The PCUSA says that Ecclesial Health is in contrast to unhealthy dysfunction and toxic environments. Churches that are healthy have “clarity in mission,” clear “core values,” and “passion and joy in being the church.” The Office of Congregational Vitality says that in healthy churches, decisions are transparent. Communication is clear. People are open to change and practice “continual assessment of ‘why’ and ‘how’ we are church together,” and healthy churches nurture and support the health of the pastor and staff, recognizing that “all are called to lead.”3
The key to all of that is that healthy churches trust in God and follow Christ as head of the church. Our lectionary passage today is a perfect scripture to help us understand this truth.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke the word of the Lord before and during the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. He brought a word of warning, calling on the people to turn away from their sin and turn toward the Lord. His message was for the corporate body, the people of God in that time and place. Through Jeremiah, we who are God’s people today can also hear God’s message about how we are to live as the body of Christ.
In this passage, Jeremiah presented two images: a shriveled desert shrub and a green tree planted by streams of water. Scholars note that Jeremiah was drawing from the images in Psalm 1, which is the lectionary Psalm for today. Those who trust in mortal people, Jeremiah said, are dry, stunted; they shall live in parched places and shall not see relief. Those who trust in God, on the other hand, grow and flourish. Even in drought, they are green and bear fruit.
When we think of this in terms of Ecclesial Health, the point is clear: The church that trusts in mortals, that is founded on anything other than Christ, is on shaky ground. It will not flourish, but will be like a shrub in the desert, dry and barren. Healthy churches place their trust in God, rather than any human leader. Healthy churches draw such strength from God that even in troubled times, they will continue to bear fruit.
This is a crucial message for the church today. In the past two years, we have dealt not only with the world-shaking upheaval of the pandemic, but also with issues of race and justice, vast political divides in this country, and unrest among other nations. This is a turbulent time, and the church is not an isolated tower on a hill. We are affected by these things. We know what Jeremiah meant when he referred to those times “when the heat comes.”
Psychologists have noted that the last two years have been extremely trying for organizational systems. Those systems include families. Businesses. Non-profit organizations. And, of course, churches. When external forces, like a pandemic, exert pressure, we all experience different emotions, like fear, anxiety, anger, frustration. Organizations, and the individuals within them, need to be intentional about dealing with those emotions. If we deal with them in a healthy way, the organization can continue to be healthy and to thrive. But if we deal with them in an unhealthy way, the result can be a toxicity that is damaging.
When we cannot control something big---like a pandemic, or the situation with Russia---our emotions can come out in unhealthy ways. We want COVID to go away! And we feel angry and frustrated when we can’t make that happen! So we may try to get our way in other things. Spouses fight over whose turn it is to take out the trash. Co-workers bicker over whose project is better. Even church members argue over things like who put the communion supplies in the wrong cabinet, or whose ministry ideas should prevail, or how the budget should be allocated. Our anger or frustration may not really be about the trash or the work project or the communion supplies. But in anxious times, it is easy to transfer our emotions, so that we end of creating a competition of Super Bowl proportions.4
Jeremiah said in verse 9, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse---who can understand it?” We love our spouse, our children, our church, our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we think about it dispassionately, we would say we do not want to be angry or at odds with those who mean so much to us. But are there times our hearts fool us, times we give in to temptation and go astray from God’s call, getting caught up in power struggles, gossip, anxiety, resentment?
The church that is healthy trusts in the Lord. “When the heat comes” – the conflict, challenges, disagreements —“it shall not fear, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious.”
Healthy organizations have to be intentional about staying healthy. Our church is a healthy organization. But just like with our human bodies, the Body of Christ needs care and attention. As individuals, we do things to stay healthy: exercise, eat a nutritious diet, have regular preventive care appointments with our doctors. The Body of Christ also needs to practice that kind of intentional care. The Presbyterian Office of Congregational Vitality found that it is important to keep focused on the mission God has given the church. To continually strive to improve communication between and from key groups, like ministry teams, church officers, and staff. And, quote, to practice “continual assessment of ‘why’ and ‘how’ we are church together.”5 We should do a spiritual check up, from time to time, to make sure that we are functioning in a healthy and life-giving way.
We are the Body of Christ, called together as God’s people to be part of God’s mission of transforming creation and humanity. Our trust is not in any human leader, but in the Lord, the one who gives us life. We must be rooted in the Lord, with God as our anchor, the ground of our being, the source of life and wellness. In his commentary on Jeremiah, J.A. Thompson noted that verse 8 of this passage holds a key point: “They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.” He said that the Hebrew for “sending out its roots” is active. The tree is not passively waiting, but is “active and dynamic. This tree actively thrusts out its roots toward the stream and is not dismayed when heat and drought comes,” he said. “Its leaves remain green and it continues to bear fruit.”6
Thompson emphasizes that “thrusts out” as a constant reliance upon God, a continual reaching toward God. Turning away from the things that drain life, that sap our strength and our energy----the petty quarrels and power plays, the competitive spirit that can leave the church like a barren shrub in the desert.
Some of you know that this church was built on the site of a literal stream. In the early days of this country, homesteaders looked for land with flowing water. Water was a necessity in those days, for people, for animals, for crops. The family who owned this land in the 1800s chose this place on the highest hill to build their home, and the springs were a source of life. Our sanctuary still is shaded by towering trees with deep roots that have thrived here for more than a century.
The trees outside are a wonderful symbol of our need as the people of God to be rooted in the Lord, so that we can thrive and be green and alive, even when the heat comes. If there comes a twinge of temptation to devolve into anxiety or anger, to engage in gossip or power struggles, let us remember that the church is not a Super Bowl. Rather than wanting “our side” to win, we should remember that we in the church are all on the same team! Our task is to seek together to discern God’s will and then to follow it. That means that we need to be humble. We need to have the ability to learn. We need to admit that someone else may have a better idea, and even, sometimes, to acknowledge that we were wrong. Like a tree planted by a stream, we are rooted in the Lord.
The Reverend Fred Rogers, also known as Mr. Rogers from the Neighborhood, told a true story of something that happened in the Seattle Special Olympics. It was time for the hundred-yard dash, and all nine contestants were assembled at the starting line. When the starting gun fired, they all took off. “But one little boy didn't get very far,” Rogers said. “He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him--every one of them ran back to him.” They helped the little boy up, “and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down,” he said, “we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”7
My friends, God has created us to be the body of Christ, united, working together, helping one another, loving one another. So may we live together in a way that is healthy and life-giving, sending out our roots to the living water. Let us trust in the Lord, so that the work of the church may continue to bear fruit for God’s kingdom. In the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Amen.
1.Jordan Mendoza, “Super Bowl 2022 parking spots near SoFi Stadium cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars,” USA Today, February 11, 2022. Stephen Taranto, “2022 Super Bowl: Rams vs. Bengals tickets are set to be the most expensive in Super Bowl history,” CBS News, February 9, 2022.
7.Fred Rogers, quoted on goodreads.com.
Rev. Dawn M. Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church