(a sermon for February 17, 2019, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Jeremiah 17:5-10 and Luke 6:17-26)
The story goes that there were twelve members of the clergy together on a plane, all flying to a church conference in a distant city; and while in the air as sometimes happens the airplane encountered a large storm causing a great deal of turbulence during the flight. That kind of thing is always a bit disconcerting, but the clergy were actually pretty good-natured about it; joking with their fellow passengers and the flight attendants that there was no reason to worry because, hey, there were twelve ministers on board this plane and, they hastened to add, represented a whole range of religious backgrounds; so just about every base was covered! Well, everyone had a good laugh, eventually the turbulence subsided, and afterward one of the preachers jokingly asked the flight attendant if the pilot had been aware he’d had some “heavenly help” on board during that storm. “Well,” said the flight attendant, “he said he was happy to have twelve ministers aboard, but given the choice, he would rather have four good engines!”
It’s true, you know; that for all the choices we have at our disposal at any given time, the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where we choose to place our trust inevitably makes all difference!
It’s actually kind of interesting to note just how many decisions in our lives end up as “a matter of trust.” The teenager you’ll let come into your home and babysit your children when they’re young; the confidence you have in a doctor’s care, or in a lawyer’s advice; the accountant you hire to handle your investments or do your taxes: I mean, you do your research, you get referrals, you even go online to sites like “Yelp” and “Angie’s List” to check out customer feedback (!): but in the end, it comes down to whether or not you’re going to trust that service, or company, or person with that which is of great importance in your life!
Moreover, what and in whom we trust says a great deal about us, doesn’t it: where our priorities lie and what we believe to be true about our lives and living; in many ways it’s how we discern the pathways we choose to follow in this life. There are just so many choices before us – sometimes we’re aware of those choices, other times they’re made without our even realizing it – but for each one of us, sooner or later, those choices come to bear on our lives in ways positive or negative. Like I said before, ultimately the only choice that really matters is the one that will save us; so where – and in whom (!) – we place our trust makes all the difference!
And as the prophet Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.”
Those words from Jeremiah, from which our Old Testament reading this morning is drawn, date back to around 600 BC, a crucial moment in Israel’s history: around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people to Babylon. So these are words that speak directly to the lives of God’s people in that time; and make no mistake, they’re words of confrontation. Jeremiah’s message to Israel from the Lord was clear even as it was disturbing: that they needed to fortify themselves by trusting wholly in God, rather than in man-made arrangements and self-styled security, lest in abandoning their faith they be left in ruin, both personally and as a nation.
Here was a nation you see, that had placed their trust in just about everything but God – in the midst of all this upheaval the kings of Judah had increasingly begun to place their allegiances in politics, prosperity and power plays rather than in following the pathway that God would have them lead – but now here was Jeremiah reminding them that “to trust in mere mortals and [to] make mere flesh their strength,” turning their hearts away from God in the process, was to be cursed, to end up no differently than “a shrub in the desert,” wasting away from the scorching sun and the lack of water. Better to put your trust in something that will thrive in any situation, good or bad; best to put your trust in the Lord, who is like that tree that sends out its roots by the stream: as The Message translates it, “Never a worry through the hottest of summers, never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts, bearing fresh fruit every season.”
A withering shrub left to die a slow and inevitable death out in the desert, on the one hand, or a leafy-green tree bearing fruit in abundance through harvest after harvest: that’s your choice, says Jeremiah. So the question becomes then, in whom will you trust?
It’s actually a pretty good question for you and me as well.
After all, isn’t it true that we also have a tendency to place our trust in our own strength, or our own possessions, or our own ego driven style of success and fulfillment for the sake of a good life? Is it not true that all too often our dependence in this world leans more toward the politicians and power brokers than on our faith in the Lord? Even and especially when times are hard and hope is hard to imagine, there is this all-too human temptation to believe that our way out comes with wealth or power or social acceptance or even the people and parties we vote for! It all sounds good, and there are plenty of media outlets, social and otherwise, that will gladly reinforce the notion; but trouble with such an attitude of life is that wealth is at best, temporary; power and politics are always fleeting; and social acceptance, well, let’s just put it this way: if you’re the flavor of the month in February, that’s wonderful, but just remember come March there’s going to be another flavor everyone flocks to, and when that time comes you’re just as apt to be put to the back of the freezer!
Jeremiah’s words serve to remind us that these kinds of utterly human pursuits are ultimately shallow in nature, and can never give us the nourishment that we need; and this is to say nothing of the way that such things leave us vulnerable to the damaging winds of life and living. Truly, anyone who’s been there knows that all the money and the power and prestige in the world can ever change the hurt that comes with grief or hatred or struggle. The truth of it is that we need more. There is within each one of us a deep need that can only be filled by something that is at once beyond and deeply within ourselves, and that is and can only be God! It is only when we wholly trust in God, only with our hearts firmly rooted in the holy that we grow and flourish like leafy, life-giving branches. When we live with our trust placed in God and God alone, it’s then that we find our true blessing.
No doubt you noticed that our gospel reading this morning is Luke’s version of Jesus’ Beatitudes (which, by the way, is not considered here a “Sermon on the Mount,” but a sermon “on a level place,” with Jesus standing there amongst “a great multitude of people” surrounding him). And it’s there that Jesus gives to the people not only a series of blessings, but also a series of “woes.” (One commentator I read this week referred to these as the “woe-beattitudes!”) And those woes are in direct relationship to the blessings. In other words, “Blessed are you who are poor (notice that’s it not “poor in Spirit” here, like in Matthew, but “poor”) for yours is the Kingdom of God.” And a few verses later, it’s “but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Blessed are you who are hungry and who weep… but woe to you who are full, because you’re going to be hungry; and woe to you who laugh now, because before long, make no mistake, you’re going to be mourning and weeping. And here’s something interesting: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” And what does it say later on? “Woe to you when all speak well of you.” So much for being Mr. or Ms. Popularity with hundreds of Facebook friends!
No doubt about it, this is one of those passages that fulfill that well-known prophecy that the gospel have a way not only of comforting the afflicted, but also, as they say, “afflicting the comfortable!” Once again, in Jesus’ words we hear the same kind of radical reversals that Mary was singing about in the Magnificat; of how the lowly will be lifted up and powerful brought down from their thrones (Luke 1:52). What’s being proclaimed is the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world; but in the process Jesus is also spelling out some of the very real things of this world that distract us from that kingdom and keep us from God; how placing our trust in the things of the world rather than in God in effect brings woe upon ourselves!
The question that each one of us needs to ask ourselves is this: when it comes down to the nitty-gritty in this life, in what and most importantly, in whom do we really trust? What is it that we’ll bet our lives on? Friends, bottom line is that if our trust is in ourselves, or in our money, or our possessions, or our wits and good looks, we’re on shaky ground. Woe be unto us if we do that, because such things do crumble and blow away like so much scrub brush and tumbleweed. But for those who place their trust in God, there’s blessing; for even when everything else in the world around us seems to fall away – when the money’s gone, when our ideas fail us, when our friends abandon or betray us, when it seems like we haven’t got anything left inside of us to carry on – we still have the presence, power, the peace and the nurturing care of an infinitely loving God.
Among my many small fascinations in this life is a tree that grows on a rock.
Seriously! We’ve actually got one of these out in front of our family’s camp up in “the county;” an old yellow birch which has been clinging defiantly to a huge rock on the shore of the lake for longer than my lifetime, its long and gnarled roots wrapped all around it; and yet all the while growing and stretching its shady branches ever further over the water. Many was the time over the years growing up that I’ve marveled at that tree hanging at the angle it does, wondering how it can possibly defy gravity like that! And even now it remains; still growing and dare I say, still thriving despite all the windswept mid-summer storms and intense winter “nor’easters” that have come at it over the years. Indeed, there have been other trees around our camp – bigger, straighter and seemingly stronger – that have fallen to the ground in that time; trees that were ultimately unable to stand firm against all that our New England weather can typically dish out. However, come what may, this one precariously perched old tree just never seems to yield!
Of course, looks are often deceiving and upon closer examination you discover that the roots of this tree have over time reached around the rocks, pushed between and through cracks and crevices, and stretched into whatever soil it can find and eventually right into the spring fed mud of the lake itself! That’s how, despite all outward appearances and seemingly impossible odds, this old birch tree has managed to stay strong, tall and leafy green summer after summer; long past the time when so many other trees have gone to mulch.
When our trust is in God and what God provides us we are indeed like that tree: ever clinging to the rocky ledges of life, yet ever and always surviving as our roots are drinking in the thirst-quenching glory of God’s living water. As the song goes, when our trust and our care is in the Lord, we shall not be moved… but rest assured, we’ll also grow… we’ll grow tall and strong and lasting.
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.”
Blessed are those whose trust is the Lord!
Thanks be to God who makes us strong.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry