My father grew many crops on the farm: soybeans and wheat, peanuts and corn. Some years he would plant sunflowers for a dove shoot in the fall. If the price was right, these crops were sold. Most of the time what was planted and harvested would become food for the hogs, the primary income for the farm. This was especially true of the corn.
Hogs love corn. We loved fat, “number one” hogs that would bring a good price at the market. So we loved feeding corn to the hogs.
But corn has always struck me as a strange, vulnerable crop. From their shallow roots, the plants grow tall in the heat of the summer. You need a good bit of rain at the right times and the right type of rain to have a good harvest. Farmers pray for those slow summer storms that drop about an inch or two of rain but the kind of rain that is slow and gives the corn plant’s shallow roots a chance to drink up the rain.
Sometimes a good soaking would come out of a thunderstorm, but if that rain came too fast, the water may just run off instead of soaking into the soil. Or worse yet, sometimes those thunderstorms brought strong winds that would tip the corn over. The roots of corn do not go very deep. After a particularly strong storm, my father and I would drive to the fields and find the corn toward the edges of those fields tipped over, those little scraggly roots pulled right out of the ground.
You would think that a plant that should eventually hold those great big yellow and silver ears of corn would be stronger than that. You would think that the stalk would need to be firmly planted in the ground, but it is not. Everything you see is above the ground with corn.
One of the lectionary texts for this week references “shrubs in the desert” and “trees planted by water”. Even in the midst of the cold and the rain of this week, I thought again about farming in the summer, about planting, about harvesting. There were years when the weather was dry and the corn twisted and whithered; there was nothing to harvest. Sometimes those were difficult years.
At the small Methodist church that I served years ago, a man named Jim Bevill used to tell me that farmers must be “the biggest gamblers in the world” because they would never really know what kind of year they were going to have.
This was truer when small “family” farmers sowed their own crops and harvested them too, back before what we now know of as corporate farming, farming on a huge scale, on “crop insurance”, and farming with huge irrigation systems that roll over the crops. Even when the weather is dry, the crop will always receive the water it needs. A farmer need not fear a dry year.
We have learned as a people to rely on ourselves, to rely on our ingenuity, the inventiveness of humans to control our environment, to govern our own lives to the point where we may believe that we deserve for everything to work out.
Just under the surface is that desire we all have to see that tall, green stalk and that big ear of corn; then we stick our thumbs behind the straps of our overalls, pulling them out to make room for our large chest. We believe that we did that, that it is ours.
This is a story as old as that of Adam and Eve; they were told that eating of the “tree of knowledge” would make them like God. Our ego wishes to be strong and powerful, to be fully in control. But we are not God. We will not be.
In this text from Jeremiah, the prophet is urging the Hebrew people to be rooted in God. Jeremiah is looking ahead to a time in the life of the people when they would be in exile. According to the historical-critical research, it is likely that these words could have been written and would have been read during that time of the Babylonian exile, a time of great suffering for the people, a time in the desert, the wilderness, that uninhabitable land of salt that Jeremiah describes.
Can you imagine how in need of water you would be if you were surrounded by salt, where everything was dry and dusty? The prophet urges trust in the Lord during the times in our lives when water is hard to find.
We all face difficulties in our lives: losses, tragedies, fears, sorrows. There are times when good people of faith will say, “Just trust God and it will work out.” But it does not always work out the way that we want it to. And we are left with the fear and sorrow, having to start over after the loss or tragedy.
The gospel reading from Luke is one of the versions of the beatitudes. But we should remember that the gospel of Luke is often on the side of those who are poor and suffering. So while these words sound familiar, there is a pointedness to the speech. Jesus is talking directly to the people: “Blessed are you that are poor … Blessed are you who are hungry … Blessed are you who weep now … Blessed are you when they hate you ….”
But then the “Woe to yous” begin. “Woe to you who are rich … who are full … who are laughing … Woe to you when all speak well of you ….”
To place our roots in our own effort, in the inflation of our own egos, in the praise of those around us, these are shallow roots that can be blown about by a strong storm. These are fragile plants that need frequent watering so that they do not twist and whither.
In this first reading, as Jeremiah writes to a people in the midst of the desert, the prophet encourages them to be more like the tree with deep roots that can find water from the stream. We are not to be like a stalk of corn. Corn has such shallow roots; it dries up easily; it is knocked over with little trouble. Great big trees are different.
Several years ago I was listening to public radio to a series about large trees, old trees. One of the old trees that they went to was a live oak called the “Village Sentinel”. This tree sits in the middle of a retirement community called Baptist Village in Waycross, Georgia. The story caught my ear because I have had several aunts and uncles finish their days there in the shade of that tree.
In the story, some of the people they interviewed remembered climbing that old tree as far back as the 1920s. As children, they would climb up then back down and then have ice cream and cake. The woman who recounted these memories said that it was like the tree just stretched out its limbs to take care of whoever was under it.
The residents there believe that the tree speaks to them about the beauty of age, the strength that comes from deep roots, from a sturdy trunk, the way that that this tree has held up through so many years, back when it sat in the midst of a forest, back when the land that it sat on was used for a prison, and now as a retirement community. And although what we notice visually are the large limbs and the large swath of shade that this tree has given through so many years to so many people, what we don’t see must be the depth of those roots.
It is my hope that we will allow our roots to grow deeper, that we will let go of our illusions of control, our desire for the praise of others, our desires to meet our own needs first. And as we do, we can grow sturdy and old. We can provide shade and support for others, but only after we have done our own work of silence, of listening, of letting go, of knowing that we are not God.
The time of trial comes.
But if our roots reach into the deep well of God’s love and grace and mercy, we will not go dry. We will not lose heart. We will not react with anxiety and fear; we will be people of peace in the midst of trouble, in the midst of change.
We will not clench our fists and close our arms for fear that the world will see our heart and that we will be vulnerable; we will open our arms and our hearts to this world, knowing that this is not easy, knowing that it may mean personal pain, but also knowing that for those of us who call ourselves Christian, we follow a Christ who opened himself even to the point of death.