Fraying the Bonds
Friendship is more important than justice and the rule of law. That is what the Greek philosopher Aristotle said. When the bonds of friendship are strong, there is consent from the governed and trust in the rule of law. When these bonds of friendship break down, however, then there is mistrust in the system that governs them.
We are living in a time where these bonds of friendship are breaking down. Instead of friendship, there is mistrust, suspicion and animosity. Instead of coming together with understanding and openness, people make enemies of those who are different.
We see frustrations, anger, and tensions boiling over. We see this in the trucker convoys. We see it in the United States. We see it in places like Ukraine and Russia. We see it in leaders who gain power by targeting groups as scapegoats for their problems. We see it in news media that amplify divisions. We see it in social media that are echo chambers that drive further wedges among groups.
We live in a time of rapid changes and uncertainty. This COVID-19 pandemic has just exacerbated all of that. There is a lot of anxiety and vulnerability. People are stressed out, overwhelmed and powerless to manage their circumstances. These things have been fraying the bonds that tie us together.
The important question for our time is how we respond to all of these changes and uncertainties in life? Will they drive us further apart? Or will they bring us together in common purpose and unity?
What we’ve seen so far is not encouraging. All this uncertainty has bred fear. When fear strikes, the results are unpredictable. It can manifest in many unforeseen ways. What it does do is divide people. Fear destroys rather than builds up. Fear wreaks havoc rather than bringing peace. Fear creates more mistrust than goodwill.
Fear is a truly scary thing. Fear can destroy this world. I think that President Franklin Roosevelt spoke a great truth when he said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The fate of this world depends on whether we can manage and control our fear.
Fear resides in the heart. From our heart flows our actions. From our heart springs forth the kind of life we live. That is what the prophet Jeremiah is saying in today’s passage. He asks a piercing question: whom or what do our hearts trust? When fear strikes, do you trust in God? Or do you turn away from God toward whatever might provide security? Depending on the answer, two contrasting types of life flow from that.
The Shrub and the Tree
He contrasts a shrub in the desert with a tree planted by water. “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. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” (Jeremiah 17:5-6) Those whose hearts turn away from God are compared to a shrub in the desert. In other words, those who in their fear turn toward whatever might easily relieve that fear are compared to this shrub. The main feature of their life is that there is so little life-giving water. So they adapt and conserve water. Their whole energies are geared towards conserving what little water they have. Because there is so little water, they remain very low to the ground. They cannot grow large. They are isolated, because there is not enough water for many other shrubs. It is a barren, lonely existence. They have adapted and have survived. They are hardened survivors. But their life is small. They cannot see beyond the low ground, they have very little source of life, and they do not give life to others.
This is the kind of life that results when one is gripped by fear. One seeks security in whatever, or whomever, might provide relief from that fear. One clings tightly to whatever security it can find. But this is a barren and lonely existence that lacks vitality. That is the life of the shrub.
He contrasts the shrub with the tree planted by water. “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 17:8) This life is blessed. It is planted with deep roots, so they are strong. Its roots are connected with the stream and have access to a never-ending source of life-giving water. When difficulties come, this tree will not fear. Its leaves will not wither, but stay green. When there is drought it does not become anxious. Rather, it continues to bear fruit. Is your life like a shrub in the desert or a tree planted by water?
Jeremiah was proclaiming this to a people who were very afraid. In fear they turned to idols rather than trust in God. In fear they turned to stronger nations that might protect them instead of trusting in God. In fear they turned on each other and looked after only themselves. In fear this self-interest broke down the bonds of community. They had become like shrubs in the desert.
Which life are you living?
Our outer actions and the lives we live spring forth from our hearts. A heart that trusts God leads to a life like a tree planted by water. A heart that is driven by fear leads to a life like the shrub in the desert. Which life are you living? Which of the two are you?
If you’re not sure, that’s understandable, because Jeremiah identifies the dilemma we face. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Who can understand it? We don’t know our own hearts, and what’s going on inside of it. If we don’t know our hearts, we won’t know the kind of life we’re living. We’ll just go through life without thinking much about it. A shrub lies low to the ground and cannot see beyond itself. In the same way, you might not even realize that you’ve been living the existence of a shrub in the desert.
I believe that God’s calling for people especially in a time like this in is to be like trees planted by water. For leaves to remain green – in other words, to maintain life and vitality even when things become difficult. To continue bearing fruit rather than being paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Rev. Kim has spoken about gifts of the Spirit. St. Paul also talked about the fruit of the Spirit. He said this. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). We need to be trees that bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Those who trust in the Lord are like a tree planted by water. Its roots are nourished by a never-ending stream of God’s love. That stream nourishes the soil of our heart and allows a tall, strong tree to grow. The soil is our heart, the tree is our life. From a heart nourished by God’s love, a rich and vibrant life flows. My friends, we must spend time each day being planted and nourished by God’s love. We must experience God’s love, forgiveness and grace every day. Rooted and nourished deeply in God’s love, our lives will grow tall. God’s love will produce leaves that do not wither when things get difficult. God’s love will bear fruit continuously even when uncertainties hit us. Trusting God is to plant ourselves deeply in God’s love every day. So make it a point to carve out time every day to meditate on God’s goodness in your life. It is so important that it will change the trajectory of your life.
Being rooted in God’s love opens our eyes. We begin to see the things that make us fearful. We begin to see and experience how God takes care of us. We begin to see and experience God’s grace in a world that seems to lack it. We begin to see that somehow, all of life is held together by God’s compassionate love. We begin to see the wonderful mystery of God at work in our lives and around us. We begin to see in ways we cannot express with words. What we cannot express but no doubt see and sense is awe. This sense of being protected, cared for and loved. We no longer stand in fear, but we stand in awe.
Fear to awe. That is the spiritual journey of how we respond to uncertainty in this world. Fear to awe: that is the transformation of our posture toward the world. Awe at how God has kept me through all these dangers, toils and snares. Awe at how God is loving me and taking care of me right now. Awe at how God will lead me and open up new paths tomorrow. Awe is the response of those who trust in the Lord. Awe is our response of humility and gratitude. Awe is our posture and attitude toward life. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Being rooted in God’s love casts out fear and creates room for awe.
The quality of your life, this one life that you have, depends on your response to fear. Fear to awe. That is what happens when we trust in the Lord and plant ourselves deeply in God’s love.
Those Who Wait For the Lord
The past 2 years have been challenging, and I’ve seen many of you face your own unique struggles. My heart has bled and shed tears at some of your struggles. But as a pastor, I’ve also been filled with awe, as I’ve seen the power of faith working in many of you. I’ve seen your faith in God holding you, carrying you, changing you, and opening you up to new and bigger things. Witnessing God’s movement in you has left me filled with awe and thanksgiving. This awe fuels my desire to love you and serve you more deeply, more passionately, and be a better pastor for this congregation.
Life is not easy these days. It can leave us tired and depleted. It can leave us weary and exhausted. But the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah to a weary and exhausted people are words for us today: Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding no one can fathom. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31) Trust in the Lord. The Lord will renew your strength. You will not fear when heat comes, and you will not be anxious in the year of drought. Your leaves will remain green and you will bear fruit.
Thanks be to our God.