On trees, and level places, and finding balance in a broken world
A sermon on Luke 6:17-26 & Jeremiah 17:5-10
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash]
I had a moment of irony this week as I was preparing for our mid-week study. The topic for the week was focused on symbols in Christian worship. The resource I was using to develop the study made a point about how human beings are just wired for symbols… that the use of symbols in our communication and our cultures is universal…that there is just something about symbols that draws us in and captivates us. And I’m reading this chapter, and resonating with its claims, and thinking about how to translate it into group activities and discussion questions. And then I had a thought:
“I wonder if anyone is going to actually log-on tonight? I mean, are people going to be interested in studying something as esoteric as church symbols?!” (Irony!)
Thankfully, a number of you were more convinced than I thought you would be that symbols are worth studying, so we had a good-sized group, and a wonderful conversation that reinforced for me how much symbols DO have the power to communicate powerful truth to us in simple but profound ways. Symbols have the capacity to reveal unexpected links, and even to hold different layers of experience and truth together in one image or metaphor. They help us to see complicated, or even uncomfortable, things with more clarity and more receptivity. And because of that I want to focus my sermon today on two symbols contained within our two texts that, I believe, communicate the multi-layered meaning and truth of these scriptures in our lives.
The first symbol comes in an easy-to-miss line about the location for Jesus’s sermon in the gospel reading: Luke tells us that Jesus came down to the people and stood “on a level place.”
This detail is the reason that scholars refer to this teaching as Jesus’ “sermon on the plain,” (in contrast with Matthew’s account of the “sermon on the mount).” Luke’s Jesus is – literally – down-to-earth. This is no mountain-top experience. In his blessings and woes, Jesus is addressing the nitty-gritty of real life for 1st century peasants and subsistence laborers… people who knew first-hand what it felt like to be poor, and hungry, and weeping, and excluded.
On this “level place,” Jesus looks each person in the eye, and he sees a crowd of people in need. They have travelled long distances (some many days’ journey) to see him. They have come with a hunger for his words, but even more so for his acts of power. They need healing for their diseases. They hope to be cured of unclean spirits. They are so desperate for the power coming out of Jesus that the press in hoping just to touch him. And he meets them “on a level place” where he is easily within their reach.
Which is great news for Jesus’s original listeners… but maybe not that great for us, given his message.
I think there’s a reason that the Sermon on the Mount is the more popular sermon for 21st Century American Christians. We like all the blessings in that other sermon, and the more spiritual-sounding language that can help us find ourselves in the list of those who are blessed. But what do we do with a list that pairs every “blessing” with a “woe,” especially when it’s much easier to find ourselves on that second list?
In comparison to most people who have ever lived, an average working-class American is rich.In preparation for the Super Bowl tonight, I imagine most of our kitchens are full of more than enough food to fill out stomachs. And it’s certainly my hope that all of you have had the chance to laugh at least a few times in the last week.
Rich, full, laughing… “woe to you.”
Now, I doubt any of us would want to trade our situations for ones of poverty, hunger, weeping… but that leaves us a bit wrong-footed and unsure of where to stand on this “level place” where Jesus is preaching so directly about blessings and woes. Are we supposed to shift our feet? Is Jesus giving us instruction for where we have to stand if we want God’s blessings?
I don’t think so. I don’t think Jesus’s goal is to provide ethical instruction about how to live in order to gather blessing and avoid woes. If he is, then the instructions are circular. Because the hungry who will be full, would become the full who will be hungry and vice versa. And Jesus’s sermon is NOT located on a Ferris Wheel, but on a level place.
Jesus is looking around him at the evidence of brokenness and need in a world that is deeply out of balance and he is telling us that God’s way of being active in the world is about leveling things out. For those who don’t have enough, it’s a word of comfort – Your deprivation is NOT God’s will. God wants to even things out. For those who have more than we need, it’s a word of reorienting perspective – protecting our excess is NOT God’s priority. But that doesn’t have to be bad news, as long as we aren’t holding on too tight…Once we know that God’s ideal geography is a “level place” we can join in the work of balancing… of making sure that everyone has what they need, rather than just making sure that we can keep what’s ours.
Or, at least, we can join in that work if we trust God to truly be working for a balanced world, where letting our guard down doesn’t mean that we will end up on the bottom of the Ferris wheel.
But that kind of trust is hard. That’s where our second symbol comes in.
In our first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah is speaking to a context of imbalance. Judah’s neighbor to the North was Babylon, a mighty and acquisitive empire that dominated the region. In an effort to balance the threatening power differential, Judah’s leaders sought to form an alliance with Egypt, another strong empire. From a human political perspective, it made sense. Of course, they would put their trust in “mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength.” But, as it happens, it was a failing strategy that brought down the full force of Babylon and resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Judeans for several generations.
Today’s reading comes before that catastrophe, when the prophet was urging the people to follow a different path, to put their trust in God to meet their needs, rather that turning away from God in favor of human allies. To make his point he offers the symbol of the tree planted by water.
In an arid climate like Palestine, the symbol of a tree growing beside a stream is a symbol of security and strength. Its roots are sure to find water. Its leaves stay green. It bears fruit even in a dry year.
In other words, even when the circumstances look dire, it has what it needs. And it has what it needs because it is planted in the right place. It doesn’t need to reach, and scramble, and worry about where provision will come from. In a strange mixing of metaphors, Jeremiah tells us that the tree is not “anxious” in the year of drought. Even when the hard times come, the tree continues to thrive.
It’s an image that communicates stability, and provision, and the goodness of life. It’s an image we need, when Jesus’s message about God’s rebalancing work in the world starts to make the ground under our feet feel unstable.
Because that’s really the challenge we face in the blessings and woes, isn’t it? They make us anxious.
We worry that we’ll end up on the wrong side of the bulldozer while the land is being leveled, and so we turn defensive. We focus on our vulnerability and needs, and grasp for protection, just like the people in the crowd were grasping for Jesus.
Except that our grasping turns us away from God… toward our own strength, or toward defensiveness, or toward efforts to protect the imbalances in the current system that keep us safe, even at the expense of other people. But the re-balancing work that Jesus proclaims will not uproot the tree planted by God’s stream. In the level place, everyone gets what they need. That’s the whole point. We don’t have to worry.
And, by the way, if what we need is healing from an anxiety triggered by neuro-chemical imbalances, or a history of trauma, God’s rebalancing work looks like ensuring access to medication and therapy that can help us to heal.These scriptures are not about anxiety-shaming. They are about assuring us that God’s way is the way that will meet our needs AND the needs of our neighbors.
The world we live in does not look like “a level place,” and it mostly doesn’t look like “a tree planted by streams of water” either. It looks deeply imbalanced. It looks incredibly anxious (as well as angry, and divided, and disconnected). It looks like the wilderness.
But in such a land, “blessed are those who trust in the Lord,” for when we trust that God will meet our needs, we are freed from fear to join in the work of rebalancing that can actually heal our broken world.
Thanks be to God.