Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lost Cause

Texts: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Luke 6:17-26

Maybe it’s the snow still lingering on the ground, maybe it’s that my ministry assistant has been singing a few bars of other songs from this movie – whatever the reason, I have found myself humming Irving Berlin’s song made famous by Bing Crosby in the movie White Christmas. I respect all of you too much to singing it – I’m no Fred Holbrook. So just imagine a roaring fire, Rosemary Clooney sitting next to you, and Bing singing:

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings

I think about a nursery and I picture curly heads
And one by one I count them as they slumber in their beds
If you're worried and you can't sleep
Just count your blessings instead of sheep
And you'll fall asleep counting your blessings

Such a lovely, sweet song, especially when Bing sings it. His words ring true for many of us – what a wonderful thought; in a sleepless night, when life’s problems are rolling through your mind and will not be silenced, to count your blessings – to think about your children, about how even if you have a little, you still HAVE. This song speaks of a sentiment that I hear all the time – say myself even. I’m blessed – blessed by my friends, my family, my calling, my good fortune to have a job that keeps a roof over my head, food on my plate, and my feet in cute shoes. I can fall asleep counting these blessings, fall asleep assured that I AM blessed, favored, happy.

If I want to fall asleep with those lovely thoughts in my head, I probably should avoid for my bedtime reading selections of Luke, including our passage from today. While we might wish Jesus would say “blessed, favored, happy are those who have curly heads to count in their nursery,” he doesn’t. In fact in a later section of Luke, Jesus speaks of woe to those who are with child or nursing children, because of the pains and distress to come in the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Nor does Jesus affirm the blessings of counting what you do have. He does not say “Blessed are those who enjoy what you have. He says “blessed, favored, are you who are poor.” Blessed are you who are hunger, who weep now, who are hated, excluded, reviled, DEFAMED! Those who have food, have riches, have LAUGHTER, have respect and favor of those around us – you are not blessed; you are burdened with woe.

Christ’s words don’t make much sense – at least not to those of us who speak about our loved ones, our comfortable situation in life, our JOY as blessings, as evidence that we are indeed blessed. When compared to the words of blessing and cursing of Jeremiah, Christ’s words appear more difficult to swallow. For at least this once, Jeremiah can be the prophet who bears the more palatable word.

Jeremiah does speak God’s word of woe, of cursing before he speaks of blessing, but it’s a woe and a cursing many of us can probably nod our heads to. Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength. Sure, that sounds good. We can probably get on board with that.

The cursing, the woe, found in Jeremiah and other places in the Old Testament, unlike other contemporary cultures in the Near East, mostly revolve around God’s law. No idols before me, care for each other, love your God with all your heart, mind, spirit. Those who do not follow this law are cursed, know woe. So cursed indeed would be those who found their strength outside of God. Yes, they would be like a shrub in the desert, yes, they would not see relief when it comes because they weren’t focused on God.

And blessed – well blessed are those who trust in the Lord. Blessed are those whose trust IS the Lord. Yes, they shall be like a tree planted by water; they shall not fear or be anxious.

We can trust in the Lord, have our trust be the Lord, and be blessed, shown sign of divine favor. But why are those who are rich given woe, why are those who LAUGH told “woe?” Can’t we trust in the Lord AND be rich AND be fed AND be happy?

Jeremiah’s speech of God’s words continues. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse. Who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart.”

Last week Fred treated you to a little Greek love; now it’s my turn to share some of the Hebrew joy. When Jeremiah says that the Lord tests the mind and searches the heart, he means that God looks in your inner most parts, the secret parts, the parts no one else knows, sees, could even begin to understand. The word we read as “mind” – KILYA – is literally translated as “kidney.” The Hebrew people considered the kidney to represent this inner most part of a person – why we don’t fully know. But it’s important for us to know it’s not just about our thoughts or our feelings or whatever WE might associate with the heart and mind. The Lord tests, searches, knows everything about us – things even we don’t know.

Part of what the Lord knows – even if we might like to deny it – is that the heart is devious. Another important Hebrew note – the word devious, AQOB, comes from the same root as the verb – AQAB- which means to take the heel, supplant – it is what God spoke of when cursing the serpent. The one who inspired humanity’s deviation from God’s law, the one who whispered that we need more than God gives, that we may not even need God, is the one who will forever be striking our heel, so sayth the Lord. And this, says the Lord in Jeremiah is like our heart.

Our hearts are perverse, ANASH. This word we read as perverse means sick, desperately ill, an incurable wound. Our hearts, God knows, lead us astray when they find their center, their meaning, their value, their favor, their blessing in that which is other than God. When our hearts – our inner most parts – lead us to putting our trust, our hope, our faith in mere mortals, mere flesh, mere things of our knowing and understanding.

This incurable wound is the one that whispers to us when we are in desolation, saying, the despair is overwhelming, you’ll never overcome it, you might as well give in, what have you got left? This desperate illness is the one that cripples us when we have lost that which we have called our blessings – our parents, our children, our lover, our friends, our job, our health, our home, our happiness. This sickness is the one that seeps into our veins, our pores, our inner and outer parts and tells us we can only trust in the tangible things – only be blessed, only believe if we can see that we are favored.

This perverse heart is what leads us to trusting in these signs of being blessed, trust in human comforts, human means; it is what inspires us to try and find contentment, happiness, wholeness outside of God and God’s truth. This perverse heart keeps thumping away to the beat of its lost cause.

It is this heart’s lost cause of finding blessing outside of God that makes the world a seemingly nonsensical place if we were to believe in it. For it is often when that which we have clung to as signs of our worth, our favor, is taken away from us – that job, that spouse, that cause, that praise – that we find our inner most parts, our hearts, kidneys, and minds, clear. No mere human values or mere human strength distracting us. When we are down, we lift our eyes and hearts up. And we find ourselves calling out to the one who has not left us, who we can trust in, should have trusted in.

It’s an odd but true fact – that during times of economic depression, church giving is up. When crisis hits communities, people flock to centers of faith. For many of us – though I know not for all – it is only when we are left with nothing that we realize all we need is in the Lord – is the Lord.

This is the reality to which Christ was speaking. We can distract ourselves with our own achievements, our own might, our own happiness, our own power so that we do not truly believe or trust in God. We do not believe we NEED God – we’re doing just fine on our own. And those who have nothing, who are poor, hunger, sorrowful, hated – they have nothing to distract them, nothing their heart can point to and say “this is all you need.” This is why when people come back from developing nations, have seen poverty and need beyond our comprehension, they speak not of despair and doubt but of joy and faith. For those who have no earthly blessings indeed often know the ultimate blessing. Those who find their meaning, their being, their living, laughing, loving in the Lord – these are the ones who are blessed. Truly blessed.

Blessed are they.

But for those of us who cannot count ourselves among the poor, or hunger or sorrowful or reviled, we are not without hope. Though we may be surrounded by that which distracts us, though our incurable wound, our inner parts which are as crafty as the serpent, may have much to say – we too may be those who are blessed for we trust in the Lord, for our trust is the Lord.

Before Jesus speaks words of blessing and woe, he does what he came to do. He heals. Jesus heals – heals the wound of poverty, sorrow, hunger, and hatred. Jesus heals the heart, those inner most parts, thoughts, which would strike us, hurt us. Though our heart may be devious, may be perverse, the Lord and only the Lord can understand it. And the Lord and only the Lord can heal us. For Jesus, there are no incurable wounds.

Blessed are those who poor, hunger, who weep now, who are hated, excluded, made outcast, on because they KNOW that God is their center, Christ their healer. Blessed are those who have nothing, no one, but God. For the reward is great – this kingdom life which comes from God.

And, blessed are those who are healed; blessed are those who KNOW they need to be healed; blessed are those who are rich, who are fed, who are filled with laughter and are loved – are all these things and more AND yet are not distracted by their own strength – wealth, health, and yes, even happiness. Blessed are those who know all comes from God, who know they need God, know that they will never be healed, be whole without God. Blessed are those who put their trust in the Lord, who know and live as though they are the Lord’s. Blessed are those whose trust is the Lord. Blessed are they. Blessed may we be. Amen.

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