Sermons

Jeremiah 17:5-10 – Psalm 1 – 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 – Luke 6:17-26

Last week Jeff invited us to risk putting our nets out in deep water, even when it seems like those nets will break. He reminded us that despite the fear and the risk, this is what Jesus calls us to. He reminded us that the nets haven’t broken, and that where and whenever we have gone out into the deep water, whether in this church community or in our personal lives, we have been okay.

The idea of risking the deep water, of venturing a catch so impossible that it seems as if our nets will break, is at the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus. And the readings for today spoke to me of another aspect of the risks of discipleship and Christian community. That is the question of what is rooting us, what is holding us together – to use fishing and boating imagery, what is it that keeps us anchored and steady when the water is deep and the nets threaten to break?

The prophet Jeremiah gives us insight into this question. The people of the northern kingdom, called Israel, have already been swept away into exile by the Assyrians. The people of Judah, the southern kingdom, where Jeremiah is, know they are next. The nets are not just about to break – they are breaking top to bottom.

In the midst of the breaking nets, God speaks to and through Jeremiah: “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.” The people of Judah have reverted to their old ways. They have stopped anchoring themselves in God, and have bound themselves to anchors that will not hold. They sought to make alliances with any foreign power that might possibly protect them. And those who challenged them on this – people like Jeremiah – were bullied and ignored. The deep water had overwhelmed Israel and Judah.

So Jeremiah is pleading with his people – and us – to look in the mirror and be honest: “In what or whom are we anchored? What makes us who we are? Where is our trust, really?”

The word translated as “trust” here is not an abstract intellectual word – it’s not about what a person thinks, but about a person’s whole orientation toward life, a way of being. It also carries the meaning of “to lean on,” or to be connected to something the way fruit is connected to a vine, or a tree’s roots search out and drink from streams of water. So the question being posed here is, Where do you get your life from? What, ultimately, do you lean on; what is the foundation of your life?

For Jeremiah, to lean on human beings, to sink your roots into human communities, especially powerful ones, is to create an idol of something that is not God, something that will ultimately lead to betrayal and oppression. In Jeremiah’s time, the people of Israel and Judah sought refuge not in God, but in their own carefully constructed strategies, and in the military might of powerful neighbors like Egypt. They thought they could figure everything out by themselves and create the perfect, safe community on their own. They lost their anchor, and their nets eventually broke.

Lest we think this is just an “Old Testament” framework, look at how Jesus sets up the same opposition in Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain.” On the one side are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated – they are blessed. On the other side are those who are rich, who are satiated, who are laughing, and those whose reputations are intact – they face woe and condemnation. Nothing in between.

I’m not going to try to soft pedal either Jeremiah or Jesus. Instead, I’m going to ask us to face squarely the question of where our roots are. In whom do we really trust? I ask this in part because of how amazing and warm and energetic this parish community is. The more secure and attractive and together we are, as individuals or as communities, the easier it becomes to rely on ourselves rather than God. We think, we’ve got this! Our vestry will strategize, our clergy will preach and teach up a storm, our greeters and ushers will welcome, our outreach folks will reach out, and we’re all set.

In communities that are full of smart, competent, motivated people – like St. Paul’s – our very competence becomes an idol. It becomes a god, in a sense, because it serves us so well. And it does – serve us well. Because it serves us well, it becomes easy to forget our need of God. We come to believe we are drinking from our own stream. There can even be a kind of arrogance if we’re not careful – we’re such a great place, we’re better than everyone else.

When I’m pondering questions about Christian community, one of my go-to guys is the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He saw how the German Christian Church fell in with the Nazis in the 1930s, in part because it fell in love with comfort and competence. He saw how Christians lost their anchor, their root in God, and made an idol of their own success. Like Jeremiah, and Jesus, Bonhoeffer set out the choice in stark terms, in a way that takes many people aback. He wrote, “I have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more everything else between us will recede, and the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is alive between us.”[1]

We have community with others and will continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. This is hard to swallow. This way of putting it seems to bypass, or even denigrate, the beauty and worth of the human beings who are the members of the Body of Christ. It could, indeed, go in that direction. I think that Bonhoeffer is reminding us of something extremely important, however – he is reminding us of where our living water really comes from, the stream from which our roots need to drink.

“Only through Jesus Christ.” Not because human beings and human competence aren’t important and necessary, but because as the Church, we find our true identity and strength in what Jesus is and does in us. Because as human beings we will all fail one another time and time again, and because in Jesus Christ we are forgiven and made whole.

When I offer the Body of Christ in the bread of communion, I do it in a very particular and intentional way. I don’t just place the bread in your hand; I hold it up so that it is between us. We gaze at each other not directly, but through the Body of Christ. I see you, and you see me, united with and by Christ. This is how we see each other for who we really are. All our failures, our betrayals, they are still there. And so is Jesus, being what we cannot be, holding us all together, and keeping us focused on his transforming love.

“The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.” In the bread of the Holy Eucharist, yes. And in the receiving of that bread, in us as well. Christ in us, between us, around us, now and forever.

Let Jeremiah, for today, have the last word: “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots 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.”

This is good news indeed. 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005, p.34.

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