Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shrub-mentality versus Tree-by-the-Water-thinking 

Notes from a sermon preached at Renton Congregation on February 11, 2007.

Luke 6:20-26

It has been said that the Sermon on the Plain, with Matthew's parallel Sermon on the Mount, serve as the constitution of the Kingdom of God. In each of these Gospels, this is the first and biggest sermon Jesus gives – laying down the outline and theme of the in-breaking reign of God. Is there something behind Jesus starting with blessings and curses? (How would you like my sermon if I started with: the people on the left side of the aisle are beautiful, kind and intelligent; the people on the right are going to hell in a handbasket? Or better yet – you people in the front pews, smartly dressed, tithing envelopes at the ready, paying doting attention to the sermon – you people are cursed; and you there, in the back, who’s just here for the potluck, you’re first in line for the kingdom of God! No wonder people thought Jesus was crazy – he had it all backwards, had it upside down.

Perhaps it was a rhetorical device to get people interested, or perhaps Jesus was trying to say something about the Reign of God in the world: that it would defy expectation, and be decidedly on the side of the poor and powerless, a reversal of fortunes, and that we need to think about where we are in relation to God’s mission.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, because just two chapters earlier Jesus himself reads his career mission statement from the Isaiah scroll in Nazareth (4:17-19). And even before that, at the beginning of Luke, Mary sings out that God is bringing down the powerful and proud, and lifting up the lowly; feeding the starving, and sending the rich away hungry (1:51-53). (All throughout Luke there is this discussion of wealth and power, and God’s very clear opinion that wealth and power serve the wealthy and powerful – not God or God’s people or God’s mission. Luke’s Gospel is the most economically concerned of all the Gospels, so it shouldn’t surprise us to see economics and a reversal of fortunes headlining at the beginning of his sermon.) There is this biting edge to Luke we don’t want to miss – it’s one of the things that make Luke unique.

But it is still jarring when we read it here (which is miraculous in itself, given the years of layering and repetition that would have smothered any other radical pronouncements). Blessed are those who are really without resources or security – and cursed are those who enjoy security and a little luxury! The poor are accepted, the rich denied!

But, what is it that is theirs, the poor? What is it that is theirs, the hungry? the weeping? And why would that be so violently denied the rich, the well-fed, the happy?

Yes, yes, "the Kingdom of God." But what does that mean?

Well, I think the other lectionary scripture for today – the one in Jeremiah – is helpful in getting us closer to Jesus’ meaning.

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Here are contrasted two ways of being - two worldviews, two life-patterns, two paradigms, two approaches to life and the world. One is grounded in the trust of motrals and flesh, the other in the trust of God. The word “trust” here is a loose translation – for which also “committed to” or “dedicated to” would be just as faithful. One attitude is rooted in a mindset and economy of scarcity, where there are never enough resources and one must get all one can when one can; and the other rooted in an economy of abundance, where one need not worry about resources or hoarding, and where sharing is the order of the day.

The scarcity model, or "shrub mentality", is grounded in the trust of "mortals" and "flesh." Don't mistake me here - our lives are embodied ones, and fleshy-experience is part of who we are (and therefore also a partial revelation of the divine, in whose image we are). When Jeremiah talks about trust in mortals and flesh, he isn't saying embodied experience is bad - he's saying trust in mortal things is misguided, trust in things that perish, that are transitory: things like wealth, popularity, strength, military might, prestige or position.

When (a) people are dedicated to these things supremely, they will see the world as one of scarce resources, and that their wealth or position or might or popularity are always under threat of being lost or supplanted or defeated. Shrub thinkers will see the world as a salted desert or wilderness where you have to fight to survive - and they won't even see when relief comes, because the rains threaten desert shrubs just as much as the sun does (washes away plants and dirt, exposes roots, causes plants to blossom and then leaves them parched in the heat). Even bounty and relief is a threat to them. And we can see this in those who put their trust in riches or strength - our nation has been extraordinarily fortunate in the past 200 years, but now we see our bounty as precisely what makes us a target, we see our bounty as something we have to defend - and go to great lengths to defend it. We're thinking in a shrub mentality! Take, take, take - consume, consume, consume - hoard, hoard, hoard - defend, defend, defend! We are the richest people on the planet, and yet we feel one of the least secure in what we have. We see ourselves as living in a salted desert, and can't even see what relief is.

It isn’t just us as a nation, either – I can see this in my own life, and I struggle with thinking I have enough, or that I don’t need to worry about security, or that I could deal with the loss of my job or home or car. (Christie and recent car-accident example.) Like a shrub in the desert, every little drop of water I get makes me want more and grow more thorns to protect what little I have.

In contrast to Luke, in the other lectionary scripture for this Sunday (6:17-26), Jeremiah describes the "cursed" first and the "blessed" second - the two texts ask us: you want the good news first or the bad news? But they’re both there – we can’t get around it. (It tells you a little about Jeremiah’s personality that he throws out the curses first – he’s a real glass-is-half-empty kind of guy.)

Opposed to the "scarcity model" of shrub-thinking, there is the "abundance model" described as tree-by-the-water thinking. Jeremiah says those who trust in the Lord are blessed. In contrast with those above who trust in temporary, transitory, perishable things, Jeremiah lifts up confidence in imperishable things: eternal, undying values such as love, fellowship, the long view, the eventual victory of justice (hope), peace, joy. People who don't put their trust in things like money or power over others to give them security or happiness are like trees planted by the water - no matter what droughts may come they feel watered, no matter what heat waves come their leaves stay green. And note what Jeremiah says: they're not anxious. (You want to know if our country is a tree by the water, ask if we're anxious.) My wife and I try to live by the motto: if everyone keeps sharing, there will always be enough. It's not a kind of mathematical equation you can work out or clear-cut trade-off you can point to. It's a way of looking at the world. (And some times it's easier than others.) But its our little vote for abundance thinking. And I tell ya, around tax time or when the mortgage is due, it gets a bit harder.

For Jeremiah, people who trust in the Lord - in the eternal - are like trees by the water: ever nourished and watered, and ever-bearing fruit. (Contrast that with desert shrubs who quickly blossom and seed in the short rainfalls - like some of us who, when fortune smiles on us we quickly burst out with a little gift or kindness and then just as quickly close up again, waiting for the next rain.) (Which is our tithing model? Which is our stewardship model?)

There are two ways of looking at the world - one in which the world is a place of danger and villainy that is always threatening us and against which we must defend ourselves and our fortunes; the other in which the world is a place of abundance and grace that has the tremendous and perennial potential to feed us all despite the droughts and heat-waves that come.

Right now I know what you're thinking - you're thinking there's a little truth in each of them, that we need to be "realistic" and see some scarcity out there as well as some abundance. I know you're thinking that, because I'm thinking that too. I can feel the World telling me to not believe this gospel story too much, not to take this abundance view too seriously. I can feel the World's voice(s) inside me, saying that this tree-by-the-water thing is great and all, but that reality is more complicated than that, that the "real world" is a place of scarcity, no matter what we say here at church.

In the end, we have to decide which voice we're going to listen to. We're human - we live in a world of mortals and flesh, as well as a world of God - so we're mixed and confused and we'll probably go back and forth. But let's be careful in our desire to listen to one voice over the other that we not identify them as the same thing. One is the voice of the World, the other is the voice of God. We can choose which to listen to, but let's not do God (or the World) the disservice of confusing their sentiments. As Jeremiah puts it: there is the desert shrub and then there's the tree by the water. Who can understand the heart? One thing we can rest assured of: God is still searching us.

Both Jeremiah and Jesus lay out the choice for us. And we try to avoid it. We don’t want to really decide. We try to maintain a dual-citizenship – one foot as a loyal, patriotic American, the other as a disciple of Jesus. We like being dual-citizens, because then we get to choose when we’re one or the other – we get to go shopping or support wars or ignore the homeless when we want to, and on occasion we get to give money to charity or serve at a soup kitchen and see it as living out our faith (and storing up treasures in heaven). But in the back of our minds we know, we know we’re not being entirely honest with ourselves, we know we can’t be long-term dual citizens. We have to choose.

Of course, if we choose to be Christian we can’t just leave “America”, right – where’d we go? But if we choose to be a disciple of Jesus, we have to live our lives as resident aliens. We’re here, but we’re not of here. We’re living in this culture and economy, but it is a foreign culture and economy for us. Inside ourselves and in our relationships with other people, we do not share the assumptions of this World. We live as seeds of a different world, a new world, planted in the stony soil of the old.

Neither the United States nor Jesus allow for extended dual-citizenship.

We rich, we prove the curse: we are having our consolation now - shallow that it is, we still can't bring ourselves to give it up. But the story isn’t over yet. We’re still here – today – which tells us that we know we’re missing something. We know there’s something we need that the World doesn’t offer us. There’s something about being a disciple, about the reign of God breaking into us, that we can’t find in the World. Call it new life, call it salvation, call it redemption – there’s something true about those blessings and curses, about wealth and poverty. And someday, I pray, we may be at the point where we can really embrace it. Until then, I suppose, we can take comfort in the fact that we are all struggling together. I’m glad to have you with me on the journey.


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?