Would you rather be a shrub in the desert, or a tree by the water?
Jeremiah says, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and
make mere flesh their strength,
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.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 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.
Psalm 1 echoes Jeremiah’s words, “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, …Their delight is in the law of the Lord.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.
So, the right answer according to the bible is: Be a tree.
The image is really quite beautiful. Look at what the scripture is saying to us here… When we put our trust in God, it is as if we are planted by a stream of refreshment and nourishment that is always flowing, and the deeper our roots go, tapping into that stream, the less we have to worry about the droughts and heat that our environments may send our way. When we trust in God, we can remain unanxious even in anxious times. We don’t wither when faced with adversity. Our leaves stay green. We continue to bear fruit. We are not undone by the change of seasons in our lives. We can withstand the inevitable extremes of life’s storms.
This is unlike the shrub in the desert, who may spring into greenness for a short time, but because it is trusting for its life from other people, in wealth or power, in its own devious or self-serving schemes, and not trusting in God, the depth is not there. It’s planted in a desert and its roots can’t find water. Soon it will find itself a tumbleweed, Dried up, and unanchored, batted around by the wind and storms of life.
Trust is a hard thing. It’s hard enough to trust in yourself, let alone trust in someone or something else.
Trust in a God who I cannot see? That can be a challenge for many people. Even for those of us who have been followers of Jesus for a long time.
But, as many of you know firsthand, when you are planted by God’s living waters you may not understand how God’s spring waters the roots of your life, but somehow, even when the stream seems to be dry, you are able drink in life from a deep source within. You can trust that God will be there for you.
I believe that it is this element of Trust that is behind Jesus’ words in Luke’s version of the beatitudes we just heard.
Luke’s version of the beatitudes are even more challenging than Matthew’s version.
In Matthew’s Gospel, in chapters 5 and 6, we have Jesus up on a mountain, giving what we have come to call the Sermon on the Mount, and he begins with the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Luke, on the other hand, doesn’t spiritualize Jesus’ words.
“Blessed are you who are poor.” Period. “For yours is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are you who are hungry.” Period. “For you will be filled.”
In Luke, Jesus gives these words not on a mountain, but on a level place. It’s often called “the Sermon on the Plain.” Luke, even more than the other three Gospels, emphasizes a Level Playing Field. Women and men are both valued. The poor and the outcast have dignity.
In Luke, Jesus goes on to add “woes” to his teaching.
“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.”
These words are hard to take at face value.
I think I’ve shared with you before that Scene I love from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.”
The movie is about a young man, Brian, who lived at the same time as Jesus, and who eventually and unwittingly develops a group of people following him around who think he’s the messiah.
There’s a scene near the beginning of the movie where Brian and his mother are in the very back of the crowd when Jesus is teaching the beatitudes. Jesus has just said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but because they are so far back, they can’t hear very well.
Brian’s mother turns around and says something like, “Did he say blessed are the cheesemakers? Why do cheesemakers get to be more blessed?” At which point, two scribes turn around and say, “He didn’t mean only the cheesemakers. It’s symbolic, you see. He means that God blesses all those purveyors of dairy products.”
Just like the scribes in the movie, when I come to a hard teaching of Jesus, I am often tempted to say, “Well, he doesn’t really mean THAT”.
On one level, I can understand Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is always siding with the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the marginalized. The poor that others might only cast crumbs to, Jesus invites to banquets. The sick others won’t touch, Jesus lays hands on and heals.
Those whom society would cast aside, God sides with.
Jesus’ ministry was primarily to those on the margins, and he calls us to make it our ministry too.
I can also understand how some of the corollary “woes” make sense.
I know from personal experience and from the experience of others that riches are an empty consolation. They do not bring ultimate happiness. Money can afford one many opportunities. Money can buy fun times and fun toys. But in and of themselves, these things can’t bring lasting happiness or fulfillment.
Even the security money brings cannot always be guaranteed. Being full today is no guarantee that I’ll be full tomorrow. One stock market downturn, one lost job, one catastrophic event can turn wealth into worries overnight.
Jesus’ words of blessing and woe mirror the truths about the Great Reversal of God’s Kingdom that often seem contrary to what the world holds in value.
Mary sang about this reversal in her song, the Magnificat, earlier in the Gospel of Luke, before Jesus was born:
“God has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” (Luke 1:52-53)
In the Gospels, Jesus says, “whatever you do for the least of my family, you do for me.” Whenever you give food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, whenever you welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, whenever you visit the sick and those in prison, you serve Christ, himself. It’s a truth and an obligation that we each must live into.
As some of you know, one mission St. Michael’s has been involved in supporting the Clinique St. Esprit in Haiti, which has a women’s Clinique, and also provides physical therapy and adaptive equipment to so many who have been maimed by birth or by accident. The work there is crucial in a country which is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, and many people live on less than $2 a day. Our parishioners, Dr. Giles Robertson and his wife Rubyjane, a nurse, have a special relationship with clinic’s overseer, Dr. Romel, a young Haitian doctor, who they helped put through medical school. Our mission teams have, over the past years, offered medical support as well as helped to build and provide adaptive medical equipment, or do needed repairs to the facilities.
We had a team of six people scheduled to go early in March, but Ann Cronan told us on Friday that the trip has be to cancelled because of the violent political unrest in that country due to government corruption. Money which had been allocated to alleviate poverty and build up the country cannot be accounted for, and the government wanted to drastically raise prices on fuel to fill its coffers. Those in power have failed the people, but the president will not step down. It’s a dangerous place right now and people are being killed.
Last I heard, Dr. Romel and his family are trying to evacuate to escape the violence, as are the American clinic workers we’ve been working with. We need to keep them, and all the people of Haiti in our prayers, and continue to find ways to support those who are the most vulnerable.
Those who have been to Haiti, or worked with others who are poor and in need, know first hand that those on the fringes are more likely to know that every breath, every meal, every sign of compassion, every moment of joy in this life is a gift from God.
And that is why Jesus says “Woe” to the rich, the full, those who laugh and those who receive the praises of men.
Jesus’ “Woe” is not a “Woe” of condemnation. Jesus does not say “Damned are the Rich.”
The “Woe” means, “Alas for you” “How hard it will be for you.”
Jesus says “Woe” because he knows the human heart and our tendency to make ourselves into gods. To put our trust in our own devices. Jesus knows we tend to give ourselves the credit when things go well for us.
Jesus knows we forget our need for God and to trust on the strength of our own hands and stand solely on our own two feet.
Humans can be easily corrupted by wealth, status or power.
Jesus says “Woe” to the rich and those who find consolation in human praise and happiness because such things mask the Spiritual Truth that you and I need God in our lives.
Woe to us when we are rich and full, and we don’t recognize that the riches we have are gifts from God. Woe to us when we don’t share our riches with others.
As challenging as the situation is, somehow, I imagine Dr. Romel, and so many others like him, will continue to dedicate their lives to help the most vulnerable. I trust we will find a way to get our mission team back there. Our trust is in God. We need to be like trees planted by a stream, with Roots deep knowing that it is only our faith in God that sustains us. Relying on God’s power, opening doors and providing a way, we can bear fruit even when the season is harsh.
Perhaps today each of us can reflect on where we may be called to trust in God, to anchor ourselves by the stream, be nourished by the spirit, so that we can bear fruit that can be a blessing to others. Amen.