February 9, 2020

Luke 6:17-26, Psalm 1, and Jeremiah 17:5-10

It was 1924 and Myrtle had just begun teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. Then the message came. Her father had died suddenly at age 48. A heart attack had taken him. That beginning teacher salary would now need to be used to support not only herself, but also her widowed mother.

It was 1930 and Myrtle was now married. Since married women were not allowed to teach school, she now had a new job, together with her husband, Art, running a golf course. He took care of the grounds; she handled the clubhouse. They made their home in the living quarters attached to the clubhouse. What a shock it was to see the whole thing go up in flames! All their wedding pictures and her wedding dress, their clothes, and all of their belongings were burned beyond recognition.  

It was 1938 and the news came that Myrtle’s brother, Ed, died in a boating accident. Ed’s wife was not able to handle the shocking news. They said she had a nervous breakdown. Myrtle’s 10-year-old niece, Carol, needed a home, so Myrtle and Art took her in and raised her as their own.

It was 1968 and Myrtle and Art were on their way to Carol’s wedding in California. They took the train to the West Coast. Along the way, Art got sick. By the time they reached California he was taken to the hospital and put in the ICU with a life-threatening respiratory infection. He never made it to the wedding and nearly didn’t make it out of the hospital alive. But thanks to many prayers, excellent medical care, and a love that was stronger than death, life together would continue.

It was 1980. Myrtle and Art had gone to church in the morning, out to lunch with friends, and then for a drive in the country. That night Art went to bed a bit early, not feeling so well. When Myrtle went to join him a little later, she found that he wasn’t breathing. He had died in his sleep. After 52 years together, Myrtle found herself a widow.

Myrtle Robeck was my grandmother. Each of these significant life events could have been cause for woe. They could have made her angry at God or wonder if there was a God at all. But in each of these events and many others, Grandma Myrtle brought her cares to God and trusted God to see her through.

Our scriptures for today paint pictures of two starkly different approaches to life – the life of trusting God in faith and the life of trusting in your own power. The psalmist uses the image of a tree planted by water to describe what a faithful life looks like. Its roots go down deep to the source of strength that never dries up. That well-watered tree is like a person who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night. This person has their roots sunk deeply into scripture and is grounded in a relationship with God that carries them through the dry seasons. Despite the tragedies of life, they continue to stay firmly rooted and even flourish amidst adversity because their trust is in the Lord.

In contrast, the psalmist compares the wicked with chaff. They are not rooted in the Lord, so when adversity strikes there is nothing to sustain them and they blow away in the wind.

My Grandma Myrtle is an example of one who lived her life like that well-watered tree. She knew scripture from having spent time in it daily. She tapped into the source of all strength as she prayed to her Lord each morning and each night, and countless times in between. Each major decision, and many small decisions, she brought to the Lord, seeking wisdom and guidance. Once she had brought her concerns to her Father, she trusted that it would work out okay. She lived her life with a resilience that allowed her to recover from adversity, trusting God was with her each step of the way.

We all know people who are not so well rooted, who are tossed two and fro when the storms of life blow. If you’re relying only on you own power, life’s adversities can be too much for you. You need something stronger than your finite human strength. You need something wiser than your limited human understanding. You need a wider perspective than your narrow view of the world.

When a person tries to get through life on their own power, they may find that they are adrift amidst life’s storms. But with God’s help, there comes a quiet confidence that whatever happens it will be okay. It is that peace that passes all understanding. It is that trust – God’s got this. We are not alone. Our heavenly Father, who loves us, is working for our good.

In our gospel for today Jesus teaches the people using some familiar sounding phrases:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

(Luke 6:20b-21)

It sounds a lot like the Beatitudes in Sermon on the Mount, except this doesn’t happen on the mountain. Our scripture tells us that Jesus came down from the mountain and stood on a level place with a great crowd as he did this teaching. And rather than a big long list of blessings, he stops with just four, and then goes on to woes.

“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.”

(Luke 6:24-26)

Woah! That doesn’t sound so good! What does this mean for us who have enough money and plenty to eat now? What about those who are happy now? Are we in for a woeful time in eternity?

This goes back to the same idea as Psalm 1. It all depends on where you put your trust. When you have enough money, it is easy to think that you made it all by yourself, by the sweat of your brow and your own hard work. It is easy to think God had nothing to do with it. It is easy to think you are self-sufficient and trust yourself. What that happens, you don’t learn to trust God.

When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from you may be driven to your knees to ask God for help. But when the refrigerator is full, why bother to trust to God to provide? When life is going smoothly – you have lots of friends, a nice family and a good job – it is easy to be lulled into thinking this all came to you because you made such smart choices. When life is going smoothly, it’s too easy to forget about God and get distracted by things thatseem important but have no eternal significance.

When we are under the illusion that we are self-sufficient, we are less likely to nurture our relationship with God. We are too distracted by all the things of life. We are deluded by the notion of our own success. Jesus says woe to such people for they have received their consolation. Where are they to turn when their good fortune runs out? Where are they to turn when it dawns on them that their life is lacking meaning and purpose? Our own good fortune can blind us to God’s presence in our lives.

As I look for role models in faith, people who come to mind are those whose lives are more difficult than my own – like my grandmother, like the people I’ve gotten to know in Tanzania. I think it is no accident that Jesus warns that the rich have received their reward. We live in the wealthiest nation in history. In our society, it is easy to forget about God.

As I’ve traveled to Tanzania I’ve been struck by the deep faith of the Tanzanian people. They have few resources to protect them from the difficulties of life – inadequate health care and very little money. Many of the things we take for granted, like clean water, electricity and good roads, are hard to find. People die from illnesses that are readily cured in our clinics and hospitals. Despite all this, or maybe because of this, there is a deep sense offaith in Tanzania that is not as widespread in our culture.

The Tanzanian Christians I have met recognize that God is the source of all blessings. They turn to God for guidance each step along the way and they have found that God is faithful. Through their reliance on God they have come to trust that God is there for them. Faith is central to their lives. As a result, their churches are growing by leaps and bounds.

Tanzanians also prioritize people over things. They build strong family relationships and deep friendships. People help one another with all that they need in life. Tanzanians take Jesus’ great commandment to heart – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31).

As we imagine the people Jesus was speaking to, their lives probably looked a lot more like the lives of Tanzanians than 21st Century Americans. In our culture people are more private and isolated. In our culture people look to money as the source of security. We haven’t learned to deeply trust in God to provide because we haven’t needed to. Or so we think.

It is easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our lives. It is easy to think we can rely on our own abilities to get us through. Until we can’t. We can’t control natural disasters. We can’t control life and death. We can’t control all manner of misfortune that may come our way. But God can.

As we think about what this means for our lives and faith, it takes a conscious decision to put our trust in God. It takes an openness to being vulnerable enough to realize we are not in control, but God is.

As we think about what it means to take these scriptures to heart, I’d like to leave you with a meditation on Psalm 1. It is kind of a free verse reflection on this theme.

The Two Ways

I walked on as the path went down

winding through willow trees

roots deep in search of water

Hidden at the bottom of the gully

under a small strip of green

I found a flowing stream

and as I followed it

there were fruit trees

sheltered from the wind

drawing on the water

apples hanging bright and full

crisp and tangy sweet

I live that my life may be

surrounded by love

inspired by truth

sustained by Spirit

bearing fruit season by season

What does it take?

What choices must I make?

What advice must I ignore?

What paths must I avoid?

The Lord watches over the way of the righteous

but the way of the wicked will perish.

The way of the water

is the way of delight

Delight in the way of the Lord.

I choose to sink roots into living water

to rest my mind, my heart and soul

in stillness, in waiting, in resting

(easy to say on holiday, harder to do in a busy week!)

day and night, night and day

I belong in the living Lord

Happy are those who choose their path –

   I will follow Jesus.

Be careful where you put your step –

   God will be your guide.

I will be a tree growing by a stream –

   God’s Spirit like fresh water.

I will grow good fruit and grow strong

   and God will watch over me.

May you be truly blessed as you put your trust in the Lord. May you experience the blessings and joy and peace that come from digging your roots deeply into that life-giving soil. May you be like that well-watered tree planted by the stream, forever sustained and nourished by living in God’s care. Amen!

[i] Meditations on the Psalms by Sylvia Purdie, Psalm 1: The Two Ways, 2015. http://www.conversations.net.nz/psalm-1-the-two-ways.html