Monday, August 27, 2012
God is Our Only Refuge! * ELCA Mission Interpreter Event * August 24, 2012
“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” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
Jeremiah—now there’s a mission interpreter for you. “Jewish Jeremiah of Josiah's Jerusalem; Reluctant, persecuted, preaching prophet of doom, called from the womb, who longed for the tomb (20:14). Speaker of words of fire, clay in the Potter's hands, Jeremiah was a bold Baal and Babylon-busting broker of rebuilding and restoration. He was a proclaimer of a future with hope, a new heart, an everlasting covenant, all on account of a God who remembers our sin no more” (My editing of words by Michael Rinehart, 22 August 2012). Declaratively and decisively, Jeremiah proclaimed, "Thus sayeth the Lord!" He didn’t mince words or massage his message. Fans would say Jeremiah was passionate; detractors would call him intense, even negative.
But most people simply called Jeremiah crazy. After all, ff you want to preach like Jeremiah, be ready to get naked before the people. Yes, most people called Jeremiah crazy. And perhaps we would, too. Hear again Jeremiah’s words: “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” (17:7-8).
Jeremiah interpreted God’s mission to people who felt threatened by their enemies, who experienced economic hard times, whose way of life was threatened, and who therefore felt vulnerable. Politically, things were unstable and volatile. Sound at all familiar? Add to all this that we live in a year with too little rain and too much violence, when economists pull out statistics to show that the middle class is shrinking and Diana Butler Bass draws on data to demonstrate that, across the breadth of Christian denominations, religious affiliation is plummeting. And Jeremiah’s pretty words about being a tree planted by a river sound wistful, naive, crazy. After all, beautifully wrapped in lyric and image, Jeremiah serves up the pill we find hardest to swallow: God is our only refuge. God is our only refuge.
Now I could recite a litany of all the places people want to and try to take refuge. But let’s cut to the chase. Let’s bring it uncomfortably too close to home. Our refuge is not to be found in our hands doing God’s work. Our refuge is not to be found in our hands doing God’s work. For our hands grow weak, and our hands tremble. Our hands get full and our hands falter. Our hands fold. Our hands get angry. Our hands push away. No, our refuge is not to be found in our hands, or in anything we do with our hands, even when we use our hands to do God’s work. Jeremiah is right. God is our only refuge.
You see, as much as I like Jeremiah’s image of those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD, being like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream—God’s Trunk, Our Branches—Jesus has a tree image that I like even better. Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:18, 19). Before we are the tree, or even the branches, we are the birds making nests in the tree’s branches.
I am struck by the fact that, three times in the book of Acts, the apostles refer to the cross as a tree. Peter preached, “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree (5:30). They put him to death by hanging him on a tree (10:39).” And John adds, “When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead” (13:29-30). Before we become a tree, Jesus gives us refuge under the tree of his cross.
And from our refuge beneath the tree of the cross, where, like birds, we have made our nests, Christ frees us to worship God without fear. Christ empowers us to participate in God’s mission of reconciling the world to God’s Own Self. Christ strengthens us to resist the powers at work in the world that are opposed to God. Christ emboldens us to bear witness that God is our only refuge. And Christ nurtures us to grow in grace.
And so, even—or especially—when we feel threatened, when we experience economic hard times, when our way of life is threatened, and we feel vulnerable. When everything is unstable and volatile, when there is too little rain and too much violence, when the middle class is shrinking and religious affiliation is plummeting, when we have sinned and when we must die, from our refuge beneath Christ’s cross we are free, even bold, to pray—using words from one of the Eucharistic prayers in Evangelical Lutheran Worship: “Nurture in us the fruits of your Spirit, that we may be a living tree, sharing your bounty with all the world.”
You see, when Jeremiah declared, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD,” Jeremiah had more in mind than beautiful words. Jeremiah had more in mind than an attitude or a disposition or a theological construct. Jeremiah had in mind trust that leads to action, a certainty or security about Christ being our refuge that shapes the way we live: “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”
We can name so many things that challenge us to place our trust in some refuge other than God: injustice, inequality, discrimination, addiction, violence, poverty. The list goes on. And behind them all lurks the biggest challenge of all. The Bible calls this challenge mammon. We know it simply as money. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, this snake deceives us, saying, “If you have enough money, you can be like God.” You won’t need God. You can determine right and wrong, good and evil.
And if we don’t have enough money—And who does?—mammon replaces our trust in God with impatience and ingratitude. Mammon tempts us with all that we want and need to be safe, and happy and whole. Even worse, mammon scares us with what will happen when we don’t have the money we need. And despite all the ways God has provided for us, all the ways God has protected us, all the ways God has blessed us, we find ourselves seeking refuge somewhere else.
And God lifts Jesus up on the tree to counter money’s poisonous venom with the healing, life-giving salve of God’s grace. When money says, “You will be like God,” Christ proclaims, “No, you are God’s cherished, beloved children.” A woman once told me about lifting the silver communion chalice to drink and seeing her image reflected in the bottom. “The blood of Christ shed for you.” If you want to see what you are worth to God, look at the cross. See beyond the images and inscriptions that money places upon us. See beyond the ways that money defines us—we are what we have; we are what we wear; we are what we do. See yourself instead as God sees you—created in God’s image, joined to Christ’s cross and resurrection, forgiven for Christ’s sake, free to live as an image of Christ and not a servant of money.
Yes, I know. You have bills to pay. So do I. So mammon will still tempt us to claim it as our refuge. But in Christ we can resist. In Christ we can resist. Not only can we look to the cross, not only can we take refuge under the tree, we can bring some of our money and leave it there, as a way of saying that we give God our love. We give God our trust. We give God our heart. We claim God alone as our refuge. And today, that’s what I am asking you to do—to give some money away for God’s own mission as a way of claiming God as your only refuge.
Giving away money to do God’s work is a way that we trust and proclaim that we take refuge in God and not in our money. Giving away money is a faith practice by which we Christians publicly declare our loyalty to the living God, rather than buying and selling or dollars and cents. Giving money away is a concrete means of living into the new life accomplished in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection by participating in God’s work of freeing, reconciling, and recreating. Giving away money is a way we render money a little less powerful by freeing ourselves—and all people—from its control, because giving money away transforms money into a sign of God’s grace.
So how much money can you give away for God’s work as a sign that God is your only refuge? Take the money you must have off the table—things like taxes, mortgage, rent, groceries, medical bills, and providing for your kids. The question remains: What will you do with the rest? Can you give some—can you give a little more—away for the work of God’s kingdom as an indication, a proclamation, and a celebration that God is your only refuge? Could you give a little more money to your church? I hope you can. I think you should. But, as you do, ask your church what I am asking you: Can we give a bit of our money away, for the work of God’s kingdom, so that our neighbors and the world know that God is our only refuge?