2021 Annual Meeting Sermon

(Sermon for the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ. You can also watch the entire service by going here. The sermon begins at approximately 24:49)

I love the process of pulling together sermons even more than I like preaching. I read the bible and reflect on it almost every day but writing a sermon invites me to study the text, and almost every single time, I find something new.

Every two years is a national gathering of the United Church of Christ called Synod. The theme for the UCC’s Synod this year is Rooted in Love, and, with permission, we used the theme and logo for our lenten devotional this year and our Annual Meeting. Synod uses as its focus scripture the first part of Psalm 1:3 from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which says, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.”

That’s a good theme. This chapter starts by talking about the “happy” person. This verse says to not listen to or follow those who are wicked to be a happy person. Now, “wicked” is a word I only usually use when I’m doing my awful imitation of a Boston accent but, here, it is in Psalm 1 used four times in six verses. It’s a compare and contrast thing. The wicked will be punished and forgotten; they’ll be like dust or, in the interpretation by Nan C. Merrill  read today, a dandelion puff. But the happy person is going to be as productive, content, and in line with sacred purpose as a tree planted by the water. 

That is a beautiful image. I can go there. During Friday evening’s worship, the 1st Congregational Church of Walla Walla used these beautiful images of the flowing water of lakes, rivers, and streams to ground us in the idea of the living water the tree mentioned in the Psalm is tapped into. I felt myself melt into my chair. I could have blissed out to those images for hours. I was planted by those waters for a bit, and it was lovely. The wicked could have been over there turning into dust, dandelion puffs, and getting judged, but this tree was grooving to those living waters. It was lovely.

As I said, I love the process of sermon preparation, and the thing I love about studying scripture is that once in a while, something grabs you that shifts how you previously understood a text. The two interpretations of the text read today both talk about trees planted by the still waters. Cool. However, more modern biblical scholars have given a different version of this text that points towards a whole other set of questions. Instead of talking about the trees “planted” by the water, the Common English Bible and different newer interpretations speak about the trees “replanted” by the waters. Not “planted.” “Replanted.”

To me, that changes this from simply being some story about a blissed-out tree by the river. This is a tree that’s been through something. When looking over at the wicked, this is about a person who isn’t seeing strangers but people they shared some ground with at some point. This is a happy person, now, because they made some decisions about separating themselves from oppressive ideologies, theologies, philosophies, behaviors, and ways of relating in which they were planted and let go to being replanted in a life-giving kind of faith. This is a person who sought out a faith-life that was life-giving to them and others. These are words of hope to any of us that find ourselves rooted in that which is wicked and dusty and wrong. We’ve been using the chat feature quite a bit this weekend, and I am not asking you to use it for this next question. What is the first thing you think about for yourself when you think about what dusty ground is for you? Is there anything you might even call wicked?

Psalm 1 describes a person – using the words “blessed” or “happy” depending on your version of the Bible – who is benefiting from being planted in richer and better soil with a direct line to the Living Waters. This text illustrates the benefits of action and the risk of inaction. But, it also points to another experience without mentioning it, specifically.

To be replanted, we have to be uprooted. Those of you who have done any work with transplanting trees know that this is not a simple or easy process. Neither roots nor the soil they’re in give up being intertwined easily. The older the tree, the more intertwined those roots are. There are always some of the roots, particularly the smaller ones, that end up cut. Ideally, the tree is moved during one of its more dormant seasons, like fall or winter. The soil where you are replanting the tree has to be prepared. The tree has to be cared for and watered more steadily after replanting. There is always a risk that, even with everything done right, the tree will go into shock and not be able to connect with the new ground it’s planted in. Being replanted is neither risk nor pain-free.

To let go to even a loving God that is offering a place better than where we are is an act that takes some courage. Rev. Moi, our preacher at yesterday morning’s service, talked about how, sometimes, we are “addicted to our despair.” We may find ourselves planted in oppressive ideologies, theologies, philosophies, behaviors, and ways of relating that cause us and others to suffer, but if that’s the only home we’ve ever known… Well, it’s still home. To let go of what you know for something better that is promised can still be and feel complicated and dangerous. At least, that’s what those wicked whispers in our ears say.

Those planted in the limitations of the dust find it hard to believe in the abundance of the river. I get that. I live that sometimes. Letting go to being uprooted takes courage and trust in the plan of the replanter. It can sometimes be hard to let yourself go to one you know tells you the truth when ten people are whispering the same old wicked lies you grew up hearing.

The Holy Spirit rewrote our agenda yesterday and invited us to be uprooted from dusty, racist ground. Our budget conversation transformed into a budget discernment in which we were asked to take a look at where our budget was currently rooted and start to move it to the river. I can’t honestly say our conference is replanted yet or even uprooted yet, but we’ve got several more shovels in the ground than we did before.

To welcome uprootedness can feel challenging in the same way our pandemic year was challenging. Day-to-day patterns changed. Relationships changed. The way we worshipped changed. The way we made decisions changed. Dawn Koloi, in one of our Annual Meeting conversations on Friday, said, even “Our ‘How are you’s? are different now.’” As we adjust to COVID-19 in our midst, we will not be the same moving forward. That experience is very similar to the process of uprooting inferred by Psalm 1 with one significant difference.

Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Take another deep breath and that one out slowly, too.

The One to whom we let go to the process of replanting is good at what they do. Yes, letting go to being uprooted takes some courage and takes faith. It is a decision that leads to discernment. The good news is that God already has the place next to the river waiting for us. As opposed to the uncertainty we might face, despite those wicked promises whispered in our ear, despite having to leave the dusty ground we may call home, there is another place by the river waiting for us. Together, we can make a forest there. A place where, finally, we can find ourselves rooted in love. Amen.

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