021719 Epiphany 6c
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26
There have been many moments in history when fear has been used to manipulate people to do crazy and dangerous things. This is one of those moments. Today’s Scriptures address both leaders and people in such moments. We would do well to listen carefully.
Today’s passages are full of blessings and curses. Jeremiah starts with the curses. Jesus and the Psalmist start with the blessings. But they all speak of both. It’s often tempting to delight in imagining the curses applied to those we don’t like. 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. We may want to apply that to elected officials who abuse their power by bypassing checks and balances to accomplish their political goals. But as tempting as that is, we need to look first at ourselves and at why people act like that.
Jeremiah’s image of the verdant tree and the dry shrub shows that people respond to the way they are treated by either trusting life or fearing it. We see this in the way children are raised. One mother, who is also a pastor, reflected on this in light of Jeremiah’s text. “When children grow up in a home where the parents alternately meet his or her basic needs and then neglect them, they are always walking on eggshells, antennae up in the air, trying to sniff out which parent will show up that evening — the caring one or the neglectful one, the one who disparages and demeans them or the one who overindulges them by drowning them in kindness as compensation for past abuse. Children in such families are often willing to take on any role — the perfectionist, the pleaser, the clown, the mascot, the scapegoat — to deflect the family tensions and keep the uneasy peace from shattering…They know better than to break the family’s rules — don’t feel, don’t trust, don’t tell. Eventually, they become like those cursed people described by the prophet Jeremiah, people who can’t even “see when relief comes.” Disappointed, jacked around time after time when they dare to hope that things will actually change, they often react to relief or help or a new start in one of two ways: “I don’t deserve it,” or “It can’t be real.”
(“Shrubs and Scrubs,” Phyllis Kersten Christian Century 2001)
As we read Jeremiah’s harsh words, it helps to remember that all of us –leaders and followers – grew up in homes where we learned some trust and some fear. Jeremiah addresses leaders and people in Judah around the time of its demise. Judah stood between two superpowers – Egypt and Babylon. For decades Judah’s kings vacillated between alliances with Babylon and with Egypt – whichever nation offered them more security.
Jeremiah’s words to Judah’s leaders are harsh – “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals” – because the consequences of their fear-driven policies were destroying the people. He urged them to mistrust authorities who refused to defend the Cause of God (to side with the weak), instead taking up the cause of the powerful. Those words fall as judgment on leaders whose actions determine whether people live in trust or fear, whether nations are shrubs in the desert or trees planted by water. They are words of warning to people not to blindly trust their leaders, because the consequences of living in fear are serious.
Over the years I’ve learned about the difference between intent and impact. When I walk into a room as a white man born in the U.S. with a certain social background, my presence already has an impact that has nothing to do with my intentions. I carry a whole history of interactions simply by walking into a room. Fruitful love requires me to face those impacts. I cannot hide behind good intentions. This morning’s Gospel text makes this even clearer. Part of the power of Luke’s beatitudes is that it speaks at the level of impact. Matthew’s version is about attitudes: poor in spirit, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Luke’s is about social position: poor, hungry, weeping, excluded. Luke has Jesus standing on a level place with people who had come to hear him and be healed of diseases. Matthew has him on a mountain like Moses.
Luke’s beatitudes are fewer and shorter than Matthew’s. They’re also more irritating – unless you happen to be poor, hungry and weepy. Even then, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that you’re blessed under those conditions simply because things can only get better, not worse. For centuries the church in Latin America told the poor how blessed they were because they would be rich in the next world, while priests and bishops sidled up to rulers and traded riches for blessings. The church will never be poor as long as it sells its blessings to the highest bidder. Jesus’ message is that the blessings already belong to the lowest bidder.
But is even that really good news? Wouldn’t the poor prefer riches to the so-called blessing of their poverty? Only the poor know the answer to those questions. One writer (Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke, p. 107) told about a friend who was dying a painful death from cancer. One day, long after her hair had fallen out, long after there was any hope of a remission she looked up and said, “You know, dying is probably the best thing that ever happened to me.” The writer said: “I have no idea what she meant.” Then he connected it to Luke’s beatitudes: “If you pronounce blessing on poverty and hunger with a Big Mac on your breath, it’s an unbelievable insult. If you speak it from a place of poverty and hunger everybody better remember that they have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Many people approach happiness as a fantasy for which they long but don’t believe they can really have. In the beatitudes, Jesus offers an accessible, if not very attractive path to happiness that can include everyone, no matter what reality they start with. Those who live with the fantasy that wealth, fullness and laughter are the manifestations of happiness and therefore try to make them permanent, will be surprised. Followers of Jesus should at least try to help people face reality, even as they offer support, food and healing for their struggles.
Unfortunately, the church hasn’t done a good job with this. When it preaches prosperity theology it confirms the fantasy. When it tries to make reality appear less painful by appealing to Matthew’s beatitudes to spiritualize poverty, it removes the urgency of getting it right. Sadly, the church has done such a thorough job of spiritualizing that people in power use that argument to keep the church in its place when we try to say something about justice in the real world. Ironically the impact of our actions has been to increase fear rather than trust. It is now very clear that fear is weakening the social fabric of our country more than terrorists or the economy.
That’s why people who believe Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ wisdom must speak both blessings and curses. Jeremiah’s sound like what religious folks might expect: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals… blessed are those who trust in the Lord.” Jesus’ are not at all what we expect: “Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping and excluded … woe to you who are rich, full, laughing and respected.” Those words may be too familiar to have their full impact on us. But it’s as if Jesus were saying, “Blessed are you who suffer from cancer for you shall be made whole” or “Blessed are you whose prayers are not answered for you shall see God face to face.” Or “Woe to you who drive new cars, for you shall walk on foot,” or “Woe to you with college degrees, for you have received your reward.” Very few of us would like that, even if we just wish for answered prayers, new cars and college degrees.
We’re uncomfortable with curses. God should be more positive than that. But sometimes for love to be fruitful, we have to say what we don’t believe. The Barmen Confession was the courageous declaration by the German Confessing Church that they were unwilling to accommodate to German culture under the Nazi regime as the State Church had done. They recognized that there comes a time when the church can’t simply accept what the government is doing without standing against it. The declaration includes a series of evangelical truths, each one consisting of an affirmation and a rejection. Here’s one:
The Christian Church has to testify in a sinful world that it is solely Christ’s property and that it lives and wants to live solely from Christ’s comfort and direction in expectation of Christ’s appearance. We reject the false doctrine that the Church is permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
Jesus believed so deeply in the importance of trust that he was willing to call blessed what most people called a curse, and to call cursed what most people called blessed. He knew what a difference it makes when people trust someone who faithfully tends their needs! Their growth is not stunted. They survive in seasons of high heat and drought because their roots sink deep and drink from the underground spring that refreshes and renews them. That is the impact of fruitful love. Fruitful love is a gift from God. We can’t drum it up for ourselves. What we can do is remain planted near the heart of God. Then, no matter what happens, we may be shaken, but we will not be moved.