How are your roots?

February 15, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Jeremiah 17:5-13 and Luke 6:17-31

Homer and Langley Collier were the sons of a respected New York City doctor who had both graduated from Columbia University. Yet strangely they chose a life style that was totally inconsistent with their education and background. These two brothers purchased a large home on that city's East Side and proceeded to board up every single window, put padlocks on all the doors, and live a life of total seclusion. One day the Police Dept. received a phone call from a neighbor who believed that there was someone dead inside the house because of the strange odor emanating from it.

When the police attempted to break down the front door, they couldn't, so they climbed in through a second story window. Sure enough, there they found the corpse of Homer Collier. They also discovered that Homer and Langley Collier were collectors of sorts. This house was filled with things like broken machinery, used auto parts, broken appliances, old musical instruments, and pile after pile of old newspapers. For three weeks, the police continued to remove garbage from the house until they made a grizzly discovery. Close to the front door, they found the body of Langley Collier crushed to death by a booby trap he had rigged up to prevent any intruders from stealing his precious collection.

"At their end they will prove to be fools," Jeremiah said of those in his generation whose values were all messed up. The best and the brightest, who should have known better, had boarded up their windows against the world as God intended it to be. Instead of their ancestor Solomon’s wisdom, they inherited his greed and hunger for power. Instead of humbly seeking God’s heart like their forefather King David, they took on his lust for whatever belonged to someone else. The House of Israel was full of junk mascarading as treasure, and when the end came it was their own trap that ensnared them. In the long run, they proved to be fools.

Through his blessings and curses, the prophet Jeremiah was calling God’s people back to their roots. Their lives had grown quite shallow. All they could see was only what they were about. The bigger picture was eluding them. Oh, they thought they were thinking in broader terms, but they weren’t going deep in that which set them apart from ever other people - their covenant relationship with God. They trusted in everything but the One who had been proven faithful to them over and over. They were becoming like a desert shrub.

Last summer we drove through some pretty dry regions on our family’s big trip. Low humidity is one of the attractions of the southwest. It can get very hot in July, but it’s not all that uncomfortable. One of my favorite T-shirts that I spied along the way was of two skeletons relaxing on lawn chairs. One says to the other, "Yes, but it’s dry heat." We just made sure we drank plenty of water, for the atmosphere can almost suck the moisture out of you. In a dry environment roots are important for plants, especially roots that can grow deep and wide enough to hit water. Without water, you whither and die, whether you’re a plant or an animal.

To be like "a tree growing beside a stream, with roots that reach down to the water," isn’t that a blessing? Isn’t that a snapshot of ourselves we’d like to see? Not literally, of course, but figuratively. How are your roots doing? Now, I’m not talking about our ancestors, though we do gain from their examples, especially as we seek the best in them and learn from their mistakes. How are your roots doing? Are they growing deep and wide? Are they reaching down to the water?

Last December I put out a challenge that many of you picked up - to read through the Bible in ‘98? How are you doing? I’m speaking to everyone, not just those who put their names down on paper. It’s not easy to grow roots is it? While some of you I’ve spoken with are doing fine, others are stumbling. Hopefully, this is not a New Year’s resolution that has already bitten the dust. Let me encourage those who have fallen by the wayside to get back up. If things don’t seem to work one way, try another. Don’t feel like you have to play catch-up. My intention in challenging you to read through the Bible was not to set you up for failure by forcing a goal on you. If you don’t make it through the Bible you won’t be a fool, far from it. It’s the developing of a regular habit that’s important, seeking after the water, ever-so-surely growing your roots. The details are not as important. One person told me he didn’t commit to the challenge because his reading is not daily, though it is regular. Instead of little sips more frequently, he takes big gulps - usually on Sundays. That’s okay, he is still drinking from the stream, which is the important point, isn’t it? That’s what the challenge was. Let me ask again, how are your roots?

There are a lot of things that get in the way of growing deep, aren’t there? I know that’s the case with me. For instance - a computer is a marvelous thing. Computers are revolutionizing our world, forcing us to think in altogether different ways than we ever have. That magical information highway called the Internet connects us in ways we couldn’t have even imagined just a few years back. While I believe we need to take advantage of this new technology, I also recognize the risks. Simply put, to borrow from the story with which I began, computers can become like the junk those two brothers crowded their New York City home with. Computers can keep us from what’s really real if we allow them to.

Let’s begin with me. When I go to my office, what do suppose is the first thing I do? Do I reach for my Bible? Do I pray? No, I turn the blasted machine on. Need to check the electronic mailbox, you know. Computers can be a stumbling block. Even as it allows me to do much more than I could before, there is the risk that the machine will allow me to escape what’s most important. Now before those of you who are negative about computers begin to feel smug, consider what keeps you from drinking from the stream. It may be something else altogether that keeps your roots from growing deep and wide.

I bring computers up, fully aware that we have made a big step into this technology as a congregation. Take a look into our church office sometime. A pretty powerful new computer sits there. Our secretary, Janet, would want me to emphasize that it’s not "her" computer, but yours. She is making good use of it. I’m glad, though, that it’s in her office, not mine. I have enough distractions as it is. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Some allow the Internet to substitute for some pretty basic things - like relationships.

That’s really what Jeremiah was speaking about. They didn’t have computers back then, but they had other distractions, things which junked up their life with God and got in the way of living out their faith. "Cursed are those who ‘trust’ (read in ‘rely upon,’ ‘relate to in exclusion of others,’ ‘ultimately depend upon’) ‘human wisdom,’ or ‘armaments’ (or might we add ‘technology’), whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 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." That well describes the lives of many people I know. The reformer John Calvin long ago suggested that this particular shrub is not simply dead but gives the "appearance of life," even though the root system is gone.

Again, let me ask, how are your roots? Are they growing deep and wide? Are the roots of us as a church (not just as individuals) growing toward the stream? Outward appearances can be deceptive. As Jesus said, "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets." (Luke 6:24-26)

He also said, on the flip side of the coin: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets." (Luke 6:20-23)

All these blessings and curses are for a purpose - that our roots might grow deeper and wider. As evidence, what did Jesus say next, according to Luke? "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Turn the other cheek ... forgive. These are right side up qualities in an upside down world. Can we do any of this, however, if our root system is shallow? Not on your life.

On this past New Year’s Day the Waterford Church of the Brethren, in the central valley of California, was broken into. About dusk a parishioner alerted Pastor Les Cooper that something was up, so he went to check it out. Upon opening the door to his office, he found first a room in disarray, then the body of a stranger on the floor, dead. Investigators later determined that in an effort to steal the computer in the wee hours of the new year, the intruder used a knife to cut heavy plastic straps. In the dark the man stabbed himself in the leg, severed a femoral artery, and bled to death.

Upon learning that the relatives of the 27-year-old man lacked money for burial, the Waterford Brethren raised a love offering of $465. Pastor Cooper and a Salvation Army captain officiated at the funeral service. Six Waterford deacons each placed a carnation on the grave. A woman who remembered the man from childhood wrote to thank the Brethren for the dignity they had accorded a person they had never known. His mother apologized to the church for the damage her son had caused. The church responded by reaching out to them. As Pastor Cooper later shared with his congregation, he wished he could have had the opportunity to talk with this man, to share about heaven and hell, God’s salvation, and how critical forgiveness is in this world..." (Agenda, March ‘98)

When I shared this story with Karen yesterday, she said, "I think that’s something our church would’ve done." What do you think? I would hope so. I would hope that I would respond anywhere close to how Pastor Cooper did. I/we can’t do that, though, with shallow roots, can we? Let me ask one last time. How are your roots?

1998Peter L. Haynes

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page