"LIKE" - Matthew 6:1-8; Jeremiah 17:5-10
A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, February 17, 2019
Texts: Matthew 6:1-8; Jeremiah 17:5-10
The greatest joy of pastoral ministry is the absolute privilege to know and be with people on the journey of life, to get to know people’s heart and faith, and to share so many intimate aspects of life.
One of the people who made an indelible and deep impression on my life was a devoted and gracious woman in my previous congregation. Her name was Helen. She was so kind and gracious in all aspects of her life; and she died with an amazing fortitude and faithfulness.
Helen was a generation older – and would have been a contemporary of my parents – but she had a most youthful spirit. There was a pervasive warmth and gentleness both in her face and in her actions. She was present in church on Sundays, and on many other days. Her generosity and thoughtfulness had her leading the way in the church’s compassion and care. She was famous for her pound cakes and for showing up at people’s homes just when love and care was most needed. She spread joy and encouragement everywhere she went. On a personal note, she initiated and maintained a supportive and loving relationship with our youngest daughter Ginny, as Ginny navigated the challenges and complexities of middle school life.
Perhaps most telling of Helen – when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma – nothing changed about her. She maintained her kindness and grace, her love and faith through the ups and downs, even to the day she died. Helen wrote out her whole memorial service – picking Scriptures and hymns and striving to make life easier for her husband and family, and her church family. I will never forget Helen’s beauty and kindness, abiding faith and love.
Helen is one of the people I – along with most who knew here - aspire to be. Can we be LIKE that in faith, kindness, courage, and love?
We have a passage today – another from the prophet Jeremiah. You may recall that the prophet Jeremiah appeared on the scene in a very troubling time for God’s beloved people – around 600BC. Instead of living faithfully in the land, caring for one another and worshipping God, the people turned inward, thinking mostly about selfish gain, and certainly not about the worship of God. Instead of the king serving as an agent for God’s leadership, corruptions were everywhere. And the Babylonians were gaining power and influence, threatening every sense of peace, stability, and security in the land. Indeed, scholars are increasingly comparing Jeremiah’s times and troubles to current times and troubles.
Listen now to a brief passage from Chapter 17:
5Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6They 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. 7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8They 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. 9The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? 10I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
As I read and thought and prayed about this passage through this week, my heart focused on the word “LIKE.” Those who trust in mere mortals, and seek human strength are “LIKE a shrub in the desert.”
Another translation says, those who think they can make it on their own are “LIKE a tumbleweed on the prairie. . . . . out of touch with the good earth, . . . rootless and aimless in a land where nothing grows.” Is that LIKE me? Trusting in ourselves, our strength, our know-how. Am I LIKE that?
I must admit, many days recently of reading the news makes me feel rootless and aimless, LIKE . . . a tumbleweed.
But, it also says “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 in 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.”
Is that LIKE me? Could I be LIKE THAT?
That was certainly my experience of Helen: grace and kindness, compassion and care in all seasons, stability and fortitude and faith in life and death.
LIKE tumbleweed on the prairie.
Or LIKE a tree planted by water – it does not fear when heat comes, and its leaves stay green – never anxious, always bearing fruit.
Ann Weems, an accomplished poet and Presbyterian, died a few years ago. This is a part of one of her poems:
O God, you gave us a Garden of Eden,
and we chose to wander in deserts of our own making.
You gave us the Light of the world,
and we chose to do our night-crawling.
Forgive us our squandering, our wandering, our lack of commitment.
(Searching for Rainbows, p. 62)
We certainly can – with things near and far – get into “night-crawling”: concerns about our Commonwealth, . . . our nation, . . .What is effective and moral leadership? We may have issues in our personal lives, . . . . our relationships, . . . a new direction in our professional life, . . . new decisions that perplex us. What is it that God wants us to do?
Jeremiah says, “blessed are those who trust in the Lord, . . . .LIKE a tree planted, that sends out roots by the stream and does not fear, and is not anxious.” Can we be LIKE that? Are we LIKE that?
Ours is a life-long calling, a life-long process or growing in the ways of trusting God, of returning from our lostness in a parched desert, to the streams that give life and bear fruit. Ours is a constant journey that seeks to root our lives deeply in God’s love and care so that we can embody God’s kindness, grace, justice, and joy regardless of what comes our way. Are we LIKE that? Can we be LIKE that?
A little boy walked down the beach, and as he did, he spied a matronly woman sitting under a beach umbrella reading a book. The boy walked up to her, and asked, “Excuse me, Ma’am, are you a Christian?” “Yes,” she responded. “Do you go to church?” “Yeah,” she echoed again. “Do you read the Bible everyday?” And again, she said, “Yes.”
With that, the boy asked his final question: “Then will you please hold my two dollars while I go swimming?”
Perhaps we have not comprehended in our daily lives – a trust LIKE that – a confidence and courage that God is worthy of our concerns. So our trust and courage remain sporadic at best. We have to keep at the process, and keep encouraging each other in the process of trusting God, with each new day, and each new circumstance, lest we look LIKE the tumbleweed on the prairie. God can hold our two dollars. God can hold our lives while we deal with uncertainty and difficulty. God can hold us when we worry about the absurdities of the world (and there are many) . . . . and when the darkness seems so pervasive in so many places.
This is what Henri Nouwen writes: “To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for ALL of our lives – the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections – that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. . . . .Let us not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.” (from The Daily Dig, January 16, 2019)
Blessed are those whose trust is the Lord, . . . they are LIKE a tree planted by the stream.
Several years ago, the comedian Jay Leno did one of his “Jaywalking” segments. He would go out and ask people random questions on the street. On one occasion, he asked people to name the Ten Commandments. One of the most frequent answers was this phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.”
That, of course, is NOT one of the Ten Commandments. But this is not just what Jay Leno discovered doing his “Jaywalking” segments; this is also the conviction of 8 out of 10 Christians in the US, according to the Barna Group, which has a credible database from their polling efforts. Apparently, so many people seem to think that “God helps those who help themselves” is one of the major messages of Scripture (see A. Hamilton, Half-Truths, p. 53-54).
That phrase – “God helps those who help themselves” – is not a major message of Scripture. Somehow, along the way, the phrase has taken on a heightened sense of prominence and influence. But it is wrong.
The Benedictines have Latin phrase ora et labora – which means “pray and work.” Our connections to God lead us to do God’s work in the world. We are partners with God in God’s work in the world. We pray – but we also work – they go together. That is a major message of Scripture.
Presbyterians have a similar phrase: we know we are “elected to service as well as salvation.” We know there is no election, and no salvation, that does not lead to service. God calls, claims us, and loves us, and absolutely expects us to use our lives in love and service.
But too often the phrase – “God helps those who help themselves” - is used to justify our lack of service: namely, we do not have to help others because “God helps those who help themselves.” But that is a distortion of the gospel and not Biblical. What we know from Scripture is that some people truly cannot help themselves. God cares deeply about these people and blesses us so that we can be a blessing to them. We simply cannot say, “God helps those who help themselves, therefore we do not have to help them.” That is twisting the promises in such a way that we may be more cursed than blessed. No. We trust God – not ourselves . . . . and trusting God leads us to loving and serving others.
Yesterday, we celebrated the life, and the untimely death, of Nancy Updegrave, a faithful Deacon, a committed member of this church. What we all learned from Nancy is how God calls us to care for one another, especially the needy, especially those who cannot help themselves. We saw in Nancy how small acts of kindness and grace can actually change lives, change the world. That is her great legacy in this place and in our hearts. It is NOT “God helps those who help themselves.” It is, “God asks us to help others – in loving service.” Nancy inspires us to keep doing that.
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, LIKE a tree planted – bearing fruit, not fear. Blessed are those whose trust is the Lord – whose lives reflect the kindness, compassion of God, whose courage flows in good days and bad days, who participate in the healing of the world, not the heartbreak of the world.
What are we LIKE?
This passage from Jeremiah ends with a comment about the heart. “Who can really understand the heart?” Who can really see inside someone’s heart. Jeremiah reminds that God can – only God.
What are our hearts LIKE?
The first lesson points to our hearts too. When we practice our piety, or give alms, or pray, Jesus says “be careful; hypocrisy is all around.” What Jesus means: it is about our hearts. And God knows.
What are we LIKE? A tree planted by the streams, bearing fruit, not fear, not anxious. What could we be LIKE? Does our trust in God manifest itself on daily living?
LIKE a tumbleweed? Or LIKE a tree bearing fruit in all seasons?
Which will it be, for you, for me?
Prayer of Commitment: O Lord, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to trust you, to stand, to serve you – that is to abide forever. Show us that way following Jesus. AMEN
Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on February 17, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.