A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 17, 2019
University Baptist Church
Billie Holiday had made a name for herself as a jazz singer. Her unique way of singing and her plaintive voice interpreted a song in a way that was unique and memorable. At the pinnacle of her career, she sang “Strange Fruit”. It was a truth-telling song. She said it reminded her of how her daddy died because he didn’t get good medical treatment at a whites-only hospital. But it was too poignant for the radio to play. It was seen as too angry. She started losing gigs and her life ended in poverty. She exposed a truth white people weren’t ready to hear. What truths don’t even good liberals want to hear these days?
Jeremiah was a prophet who was an establishment priest in the sixth Century BCE. He was on the king’s cabinet but was fired because he said things the king didn’t like. The king called him a fake prophet. But this only emboldened old Jeremiah.
It was a time when all hell was breaking loose in Judah. The corruption of the kingdom was imploding upon itself and the nation was about to be overtaken by foreign powers. Jeremiah saw the once powerful nation crumble, the temple be destroyed and the people sent into exile. As a prophet, he knew that his role was to speak the truth to power. He was to hold up a mirror to the people. But the people laughed at him, derided him and all but ignored him. He didn’t even have a small following of disciples. He was the lone prophet telling the truth that no one wanted to hear.
Who are today’s prophets? What do they say? I think of Spike Lee. I think of a thousand rap artists. I think of Nakeema Levy-Pounds. I think of the Parkland survivors. I think of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib breaking the Muslim women barrier to the House of Representatives. I think of the other 100 new women in congress wearing suffragette white suits at the recent State of the Union. Or closer to home, there’s Achmed Azula of Border CrosSings fame or Amanda Weber who founded voices of hope at the Shakopee Women’s Prison.
Jeremiah preached when Judah was on the brink of collapse. His word from God was that because of their trust in false idols and colluding with evil, they were bound to be sent into exile. We have false idols these days: celebrity icons, drones, fossil fuels, hedge funds, tax cuts, the military industrial complex, a border wall. We might not appreciate a Jeremiah these days. At his call, God told Jeremiah: “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:9b-10)
Today’s scripture starts out with a curse. “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and who make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from God.” He’s talking not only about the King, but he’s also talking about the people who blindly trust in the king, who don’t see the writing on the wall. He’s the ultimate woke prophet who tells the people to wake up as well. Jeremiah is speaking truth to power. But he’s also affirming that real power comes from another place.
Cursed are you when you settle for easy answers.
Cursed are you when you grant godly authority to those who are not God.
Cursed are you when you ignore the real needs of the people.
Cursed are you when you curse your neighbor because of the color of their skin, their accent, their odd habits.
He then makes a horticultural analogy. “They shall be like a shrub in the desert.” The people of Judah knew the desert. Tumbleweeds and shrubs were all around. They grew for a short time but had shallow roots. Soon, the wind dislodged them and sent them fleeing. That’s what happens when we put our trust in earthly things, in temporary fixes, in empty rhetoric that shuns or demonizes God’s people.
Luckily Jeremiah doesn’t only curse in this scripture.
“Blessed are those who trust in YHWH, 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.”
A tree planted by the water is strong. It absorbs the hidden moisture deep and dark underground. Most trees outlive us. They take time to get strong. Their roots thrust out to find that which helps them. Trees drink in the groundwater, even the toxins. Thor Kommedahl once pointed out a tree to me that was diseased. He could see it in the leaves, possibly from what it drank through its roots.
We too absorb things deep in our souls. Storing up past hurts as armor against further hurts. We use that past experience to build our strong trunk. And if you put a chink in the armor, it bleeds, like a tapped maple tree.
A tree that is watered with blood, sweat and tears will bear that same strange fruit.
But the sustaining trees are rooted in faith, justice, in mercy, in peace. Jeremiah is saying that strong trees withstand the slings and arrows of mistrust and abuse. Don’t be like a shrub, says Jeremiah, be a big strong tree. Get your nutrition from the streams of living water.
Of course, Jeremiah wasn’t talking about horticulture. He was talking about us. We are the trees. The water is God, the source of life, the bloodstream of the world. Connect to that and you will live.
The old spiritual said, we shall not be moved just like a tree that’s planted by the water we shall not be moved.
So, how are you doing with your connection with God? How are you connecting to the source of life? Are you like a tree planted by the water, or are you like a shrub in the desert?
While you are thinking about that, think about this. My systematic theology professor, the late James Cone wrote a book several years ago called The Cross and the Lynching Tree. He points out that Jesus’ crucifixion was a lynching. A public display, sanctioned by religion and domination intended to keep people in their place.
There were at least 5,000 lynchings in the US between 1880 and 1940. Many of these were attended by mobs and could not have occurred without the sanction of politicians and even good church-going folks. Racism, says Jim Wallis, is our original American sin. It was a photograph of such a display that caused Abel Meeropol to pen the words of this poem later put to music by Billie Holiday:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Cone said that African-Americans survived the terrors of the lynching era by turning to the blues which he called “an existential affirmation of joy in the midst of extreme suffering, especially the ever-present threat of death by lynching.” It was their faith that gave them hope to look beyond their current suffering. Cone writes, “On Sunday morning at church, black Christians spoke back in song, sermon, and prayer against the faceless, merciless, apocalyptic vengefulness of the massed white mob, to show that trouble and sorrow would not determine our final meaning. African Americans embraced the story of Jesus, the crucified Christ whose death they claimed paradoxically gave them life.”
That’s what we sing about when we sing, “were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
When Billie Holliday sang Strange Fruit, she used it to end her show in night clubs. She had strict rules. There were no lights except a spotlight on her face. The wait staff had to stand in silence. There would be no encore.
To what might we need to expose in a spotlight today? To what do we owe similar reverence? Who is the one who deserves such a spotlight? Certainly not me.
A tree that’s planted by the water grows. It grows slowly, but it grows. Maybe Billie Holliday was a tree planted near the water of tears. And that tree has grown and has made us take notice, like a cross.
She tells us to look.
Don’t divert our eyes.
Look at what cruelty has done.
Look at what inhumanity has done to humanity.
And if you have faith, real faith, commit yourself to making sure it doesn’t happen again.
Because you have witnessed strange fruit, plant trees of justice.
Water them with tears and hope.
Put them in a grove of others so you can lean on each other, share the nutrients, ward off the predators.
Clear their pathway to the sun with truth-telling.
And join God in the project of redeeming the people.
For that’s why we’re here.
The message of the Christian journey is to pay attention to the strange fruit hanging from the tree, be it a southern poplar or the cross of Calvary. And remember that it is not the final answer.
When people come together in love and hope and mercy and compassion, they plant a new grove of trees. And that forest’s fruit is justice and peace. May we pay attention and plant with purpose. May we reap a harvest of good fruit.