Streambeds and Olive Trees

Psalm 52 | Colossians 1:15-28

Jeremy Richards 

Once there was a little streambed, high up in the mountains. Despite being a streambed, despite being made for water to flow through it, the little streambed couldn’t remember that ever happening. For as long as it could remember it had been dry. It was made for a purpose, but that purpose wasn’t being fulfilled. The dirt along the streambed was cracked and hard. And as it sat there, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, debris started falling and rolling and growing on top of it. It was becoming unrecognizable as a streambed. It was clogged and congested with all manner of twigs and brush and dead leaves and thorns. Even worse, trees had fallen across it and hurt it. They had broken parts of the streambed’s banks. The streambed thought it could never hold water now. These trees that now had become rotting, dead logs, would never let water flow through it, and besides there was too much debris in the way.

But suddenly, one day, it started to rain. And it rained and it rained and it rained.

Water fell all over the mountainside, and slowly began to collect at the head of the little streambed. This water was not new water. This water had existed since the very beginning of time. It had been all over the world, it had filled other streambeds, had floated, suspended in the air in humid places, had fallen to the earth again and again as rain and snow and hail and sleet. It had nourished fruit trees in the rainforests and cacti in the deserts. It had filled creatures of all kinds, making their skin soft, their eyes and mouths moist, their ligaments supple and stretchy. These tiny water droplets collecting into small trickles, finding their way to the streambed, were part of all water, which filled the whole world. You might say this water held all things together. It was in everything and everything depended upon it.

Slowly, but not too slowly, the streambed came alive. The rain kept pouring and the water kept collecting. It started moving faster through the streambed. It caught up all that debris that had been collecting over time and pushed it out, flinging it out onto the banks and out of the streambed. When it hit those big, rotten logs, the ones that fell across the streambed, hurting  it, marring it, making it seem as if water could never again flow through it, the new stream made a way where there appeared to be no way. Some of the logs were small enough, and weak enough for the water to burst through, obliterating them, depositing their fractured remains, like other debris, along the bank. Other logs were too big. They had truly changed the course of the streambed, but that couldn’t stop this new river, this new life flowing through streambed. It found new ways to continue moving down the mountain. Those dead, decaying logs may have changed the streambed’s course, but they couldn’t stop the water from flowing, couldn’t stop the streambed moving. They were dead, but they couldn’t stop life.

As the streambed increased in volume and speed, it sometimes burst out of its old path. Where there were sudden, crooked turns leading down dark and twisting ravines, the new water burst through and created a new, direct route. Where it was in danger of splitting into two or three separate streams, the new water refused to let the little streambed become fractured and separate from itself. Instead, it stayed one single stream. The new water avoided wide, shallow spots where the flow might become stagnant, where slimy green algae might take over, and mosquitos might make nests. Instead, the new water pushed the streambed over terrifying but exhilarating waterfalls.

This little streambed had become fully alive – the water was rushing through it, dancing over rocks and around bends. At times it was roaring rapids. Other times it became calm and peaceful, but it always kept moving.

And then something incredible happened. As this new streambed – which was still the old streambed, but was now almost unrecognizable because this living water had transformed it so miraculously – flowed down the mountain, it met up with other streambeds who’s stories were very similar, and as they flowed together, they became a bigger stream. And that stream then became a river, and that river eventually wound its way to the Ocean, which is the source of all the water, which feeds all the streambeds, and fills the air, and gives life to all the plants and animals.

And that river – the one created by all the small, little, obscure, but very much alive streambeds flowing into it – literally moved mountains as it made its way to the ocean. It cut through rocks, it uprooted trees, it carved out valleys – all the while providing water for every bit of creation it came in contact with.

This big river would not exist without all the small streams that fed it, and so these little, individual streams were vital. And yet it would be a mistake to think that each of these streams existed only for themselves. They weren’t ponds or lakes or marshes that simply hoarded water. No, they were streams, and as streams, they flowed into something greater, coming together with one another to be more than they ever could be on their own. And, ultimately, they were all reaching for, striving toward, the Great Ocean that lies ahead – for that is their home.

But, to state the obvious, the streambeds were not themselves the water. They were made to carry the water, to be filled with the water, to be transformed by the water. Without water, they would only be dry places where water should be, but is not. And as we saw at the beginning of this story, when they weren’t filled with water, they became cluttered with debris, and overgrown with encroaching brambles. They ceased to be a source of life. They were made for water to flow through them. They needed water in order to be themselves.

Our reading from Colossians this morning says that Christ is like water – the eternal water, “the water of life” as Jesus calls himself in John 4. Just as water is in everything, making life possible, so Christ is in all things and holds all things together.

And Christ, the water of life, fills each of us, like little streambeds, bringing us together as communities as we wind out way toward God, the ocean who is our home. Jesus fills us with the life of God.

But he hasn’t just filled us, as individuals, with the life of God – we might call that the eternal life – he has made the eternal life available to all of creation. Our reading today says he has reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven by making peace through the blood of his cross. How shocking is that?! All things? All humans would be incredible enough, but Paul doesn’t just say all humans, but all things? Not even just all earthly things, but even all heavenly and earthly things.

Like so many streams coming together, flowing into one another, watering the plants that line their banks, and providing drink for the animals that lap from their shores, Jesus – the living water – has connected us, reconciled us, to one another, to creation, and ultimately to God – the ocean into which we are all flowing.

The last couple of Sundays we’ve been focusing more on individual faith and individual salvation, which is what Paul mainly was talking about in our reading last week from Colossians, which came right before our reading this morning, but this morning Paul makes a big move to show that our individual salvation is wrapped up in the salvation of all creation.

This comes through the One who is both particular and universal, both Jesus – a historical Jewish man who lived, died, and (we believe) was resurrected in the 1st century – and Christ – the second person of the eternal Trinity, who was with God and was God. This One, Jesus Christ, is redeeming all of the universe – all things.

Paul makes it clear that our salvation can’t be separated from the salvation of all other people, all plants and animals, indeed, the cosmos.

But it starts small, in us, like little streams high up in the mountains. It starts in your heart and my heart. The psalmist understood this. In our reading today from Psalm 52 he says, “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.” The psalmist, as an individual, is rooted in the goodness of God. But what starts as a small seed of grace grows into something much bigger. Last week Paul said that the Gospel was growing and bearing fruit throughout the whole world as it grew and bore fruit in each person and each church.

If Christ is the savior of the whole world, then the Gospel must be for the whole world, and if the Gospel is for the whole world, we must be a community of people who care for the whole world – who’s witness goes beyond care for individual souls and comes to include care for bodies, for people groups, for systems and institutions.

As individuals we must join with others who God is also working through, like so many streams converging, to slam against the rocks of injustice, to dislodge dead debris that threatens to stop up the river of life from flowing through us and reaching others. 

The psalmist’s proclamation of his trust in God is preceded by 7 verses critiquing a corrupt “mighty one.” One who plots destruction – perhaps like those who destroys families by tearing them apart, who put children in cages? One who loves evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. Can you imagine that, a “mighty one” who lies constantly, whose tongue is like a sharp razor blade, working treachery? Perhaps slandering women of color who are citizens of the United States, implying that they don’t belong here?

This “mighty one” who the psalmist denounces loves words that devour. While the Word of God is a seed that grows into a great tree that produces much fruit, and is watered by living water, those who work in opposition to God’s way do not build up but tear down. They don’t empower, they devour.

There is a lot of devouring going on in our world right now. There are mighty ones who love evil more than good and lying more than telling the truth. But the psalmist is sure that these people won’t prevail. While those rooted in the steadfast love of God will stand firm, the “mighty ones” will be uprooted and broken down.

We are to be people like the psalmist, who denounce evil in all its forms, who fight against injustice, who see our lives as connected to the lives of all others, who Christ has reconciled, like so many streams filled up with the steadfast love of God and flowing always toward God, who is the source of life.

When we feel hopeless in the face of mighty ones who speak deceit, who work treachery, who love evil more than good, we must first meet the cosmic Christ is the quite of our own hearts. Like the psalmist, when we are on the verge of despair, when it seems that evil is triumphing, we must plant ourselves in the steadfast love of God, so that we can withstand the winds of hopelessness that threaten to uproot us.

But we must do more than simply hold on. We must grow into trees rooted in grace but branching out into all the world, bearing fruit that feeds the hungry, clothes the poor, gives a voice to the voiceless.

Fruit that turns enemies into friends, turns the mighty ones into the humble, repentant ones.

Fruit that reconciles us to God and to one another.

That’s the ministry given to us by the one who is both individual and cosmic, particular and universal, Jesus and Christ, who at once holds all things together, and at the same time resides within each of us, filling us with life, like rain to a dried up streambed, filling us until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.