The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 17, 2019
Without fail, I kill plants. Whether it’s a potted plant or leftover church Easter lilies or even a cactus, I am the Grim Reaper of vegetation. I think I get inside my head - too little water, too much water, too little sun, too much sun. And slowly, slowly, I see those little potted plants turn brown, shrivel up, and die an ugly, preventable death. I’m grateful that my calling was to the ministry and not to horticulture.
The prophet Jeremiah, in all the boldness of the fire in his bones proclaims: “Thus says the Lord: 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.” Turns out, my house is that parched, uninhabited land.
Anyway, this is one the major themes of the Old Testament. The prophets, time and again, call us to consider our trusts and our allegiances. The psalms ridicule people who trust in the strength of horses and chariots. Isaiah warns the people of trusting too much in foreign powers. Moses is furious with the people for making the golden calf the object of their worship. And so Jeremiah continues in that bold tradition, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength.”
Now I want to be very precise here. I do not think that God is the one doing the cursing. Too quick a reading might make us to believe that. But let’s read a bit closer. Notice that the language here is passive. “Cursed are those.” It’s not, “I, the Lord curse them.” This is important. The judgment, the cursing, is something that we bring upon ourselves when we trust in mere mortals instead of the Lord. When we trust in ourselves instead of the Lord.
I think that’s the key to this. The real danger in the spiritual life is trusting too much in yourself instead of the Lord God. Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, who trust in themselves, because a life spent on just yourself is really no life at all. A shrub in the desert does all it can do to get the water it needs to survive. It’s created complex systems for itself to get water and to hoard it. And at the end of the day, what does that shrub look like? A hard, thorny, prickly thing that withers when it does not get what it wants. That’s exactly what a life lived for yourself looks like, too. Hard, thorny, and prickly.
This is the judgment, the cursing we bring upon ourselves. If we trust in our own power then we will wilt and shrivel like all my poor little potted plants. If your finicky soul does not have just the right proportion of sun and water to thrive, then it’s a problem with your soul, not with the sun and the water. Please, I beg you, do not spend your whole life trying to get just the right sort of things to please yourself. For you will never get it right and in the end, it will kill you; if not physically then emotionally and spiritually. “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.”
But, “blessed are trust who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its root 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.” In Jeremiah’s mind, what makes a tree different from a shrub is that a shrub takes for itself and gives nothing back; a tree takes for itself so that it can give away its fruit. Like a shrub, the tree also needs water but not for itself only; the tree needs water to make the fruit. This is the image of how to live a fulfilling life in Christ. Yes, you can take for yourself but you do so only so that you can give it away. Granted, the fruit tree requires a lot more water than the shrub, but it’s only because the fruit tree has a gift to give.
This is the kind of life that Jesus lived. Jesus took time for himself - he retreated, he prayed, he ate and drank. But he did it so that he had the strength and the power to continue his ministry. And at the end so that he could give himself completely and fully on the cross. This is the high bar set for each of us. We have to think outside of ourselves, we have to think of the other. If we are so worried about where we are going to get water for the dinky little shrub that is our soul, then we will never grow into a full blown tree.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that God has given to you immeasurably. In Christ, you have received grace and mercy and love beyond your understanding. So when the heat comes or the drought comes - when you get that diagnosis or that dreaded phone call - you will not shrivel up and die. No, you will continue to bear fruit because of the grace you have been given by Jesus Christ.
Even in the darkest hour, in the middle of the drought, you can and you will still give. See, there is something sinister that goes on in our brains. We look at people like Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, people with extraordinary amounts of money. We think that if we ever get there, then we can give it away. But the call on every Christian is to give from whatever they have. And what we all have is eternal life given to us through Jesus Christ. We bear fruit for the world - not just money and time - but our very lives so that others can receive the same eternal life that we have been so freely given.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the church. The paradox of the church is that the more we give away, the more we receive. If we treat our church communities as little potted plants, as shrubs in the desert, desperate to get just the right mixture of water and sun, desperate just to fill out that budget, then we are that shrub. Churches that trust in themselves, whose only purpose is to feed themselves, will wilt up and die. Dare I say, good riddance.
I do not mean to cast aspersions on other church bodies, because Lord knows we in the Episcopal Church have our issues. But when we see churches cover up their mistakes, hide their problems, and deny their misdeeds, then every church suffers the consequences. We make ourselves more and more irrelevant as we desperately try to hold on to what little power we ever had. “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.” The research shows it, the most important things that non-Christians or lapsed Christians want from the Church is humility and to be listened to without judgment. No one who is looking for a relationship with Jesus will start a relationship with Jesus by meeting a cactus. No, they will only start that relationship when they come across someone bearing fruit. Woe to us who haven’t yet figured out how to do this.
I tell you, the only way out of the mess that every church has put itself in, is to give everything away. Like the fruit tree, we must not be overly concerned with what we are getting, but what we are giving. Then we will prove that our trust is in the Lord and that our trust is the Lord. I already see you doing this. I see you giving up your Saturdays to help homeless people get jobs. I see you mentoring students, week by week, so that they have a chance to thrive and flourish. I see a parish family that, when your nutty priest said he was going to do Drive-Thru Ashes, bought in.
I know that my sermons have been on a theme of late: giving over getting. Perhaps that’s because when I see that new, beautiful church out there, all I see is a gift. A gift from God. I know the temptation will be there; to hold on to that gift too tightly. But I don’t think we’ll know the true nature of that gift until we give it away, open our doors, and bear fruit of hope, peace, and grace with anyone who walks in those doors.
The options before us are clear; we can choose cursing or blessing. Fear or hope. Stinginess or generosity. Cactus or tree. And of course, the greatest choice that we all have to make - for ourselves or for Jesus.