The children of God, and in today’s Hebrew scripture, the people of Israel, have a tradition, a history, of recording as much of their interactions with and about God as they can. Even if those interactions are less than flattering. This is unique in the sacred books of the world’s religions: many other religions try and present their histories and stories in the best possible light. The people of Israel have consistently shown that they are willing to record aspects of themselves that show their flaws, their faults, and their shortcomings.
Many of us here today have friends who are known for speaking their minds, known for their impulsive sharing of information, even when it can be awkward or painful. Don’t we all have at least one friend who says something and then exclaims: “Oh! Did I say that out loud?”
Many of us here today have also had experiences with saying things ourselves that we might regret later. Things we’ve said in front of our children, or loved ones, things we’ve said out loud in the presence of co-workers, or friends.
Often these unfortunate exclamations come from deep inside us, before we’ve even had a chance to think about the consequences of our words.
Psalm 137 is an example of the God’s children having an “Oh!, Did I say that out loud” moment.
After the prophet Jeremiah had warned of the consequences of the children of God acting unfaithfully, God had Babylon capture the people of Israel, and enslave them. Psalm 137 then, is simply the people of Israel expressing their anger at the Babylonian people for doing what God had them do.
Instead of blaming Babylon for their plight, there are two better choices the people could use to vent their anger: God, and themselves. And I think they know this, but it is so much easier to just blame the captors than to take on God, or face their inner feelings about their lack of faith.
But here the Psalm is, out in the open, out in public, for all to see. For all to study. Warts and all. And though we can all understand the opening verses describing the sadness and mourning that comes with being held captive, and while we might understand the anger that leads to the final two lines of the Psalm, did they really say that out loud? Yes. Yes they did:
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
It would have been so easy to just leave this Psalm out of the Psalter, the collection of Psalms that made it into the bible, it would have been easier to end the Psalm without the lines that betrayed such hatred and bitterness. But those lines were left in, to serve as a reminder that even the most faithful of God’s children have difficulty with our anger, with our expression of anger, and with our faith.
Which brings me to our Gospel lesson. Jesus was speaking with his disciples, teaching them about their role as his followers. It’s unfortunate that the editors of the lectionary didn’t include the verses just before our reading, because it helps set the passage in its proper context. Here’s how the passage begins:
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
So in the face of a teaching that is especially difficult, one that required tremendous faith, the disciples turned to Jesus and demanded that he increase their faith. Did they really say that out loud? Yes they did.
Jesus, ever the patient teacher, basically told the disciples ‘either you have it, or you don’t. Even a minute amount of faith can do tremendous things.’
I find it interesting that the disciples somehow believed that Jesus could increase their faith. I find it interesting in the same way that I found it interesting that the people in Psalm 137 this morning somehow believed it was the Babylonians fault that the people of Israel were being held captive.
At least the children of God are consistent: it’s always somebody else’s fault if we’re in trouble, and it’s always somebody else’s fault if we lack the faith to achieve our goals, right?
Either we have it or we don’t. Either we know what to do, or we don’t. Jesus believed that his disciples knew right from wrong, knew what the right thing to do was. Jesus believes that we know what to do as well. We have the opportunity to do the right thing many times a day, and for the most part, we do.
For whatever reason, we often have a really difficult time owning up to things even when we are presented with bold evidence that we screwed up! For whatever reason, we find it so much easier to blame others for our mistakes than to honestly assess them, put them in perspective, and learn from them.
And the people who can do that have our highest esteem, don’t they? We respect and appreciate the mature people who seem to be able to gracefully acknowledge their mistake, ask for forgiveness, and move on.
Whether they know it or not, they have faith. And whether we know it or not, whether we act on it or not, we, too, have faith.
In the face of painful and devastating captivity, the people of Israel blamed their captors. In the face of a nearly impossible task of forgiving another, the disciples blamed Jesus for their lack of faith.
And like the disciples and the people of Psalm 137, we will often claim to have no control over our circumstances, claim that the power to make a change is outside of ourselves. Did we really say that out loud? Yes we did.
If someone hurts us 7 times a day, and then asks for forgiveness, Jesus wants us to forgive them. But that sure is a difficult thing to do! Do we have the faith to do that? Jesus would say that if we have any faith at all, then we have enough faith to do that.
We just have to do it. Just do it.
We already know the right thing to do. We already know what things Jesus expects of us each day, don’t we? It’s not a surprise, is it? It’s not a mystery, is it?
Love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Love our enemies. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit those recovering from illness, visit those who are imprisoned. Forgive those who have hurt us. Practice amazing hospitality.
In the face of this seemingly impossible list of things to do, we might want exclaim, we can’t do it, it’s too hard!
But we know what we need to do, we know what the right thing to do is. And, we have the faith we need to do it. So either we do it, or we don’t.
Given the way our world looks these days, are we doing it?
Given the increasing need of the world for food, shelter, clothing, protection, and health care, probably not enough. Given the increasing need of the world for mental health care, help with addiction, reconciliation with disagreements, justice and forgiveness, protection from violence, maybe not enough.
We each have faith. We each have faith of at least the size of a mustard seed. It’s time to start putting that faith into practice, beyond just assuring that we have a place to worship, that we have a leader to guide us…it’s time to step up and just do it. What is ‘it’? ‘It’ is living our faith, applying our faith to all our interactions during our days, reflecting on our faith in our quiet moments, asking for forgiveness where we have caused hurt, granting forgiveness when we are asked. If we can do those things, the world will be less needy. If we can do those things, we will all be closer to the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus spoke about.
Is it the Babylonian’s fault that our world is so needy? Is it up to Jesus to increase our faith so we can do what is expected of us? Of course not! It is up to you and me, to look each other in the eye and say to each other: we’ve got this. Amen.
For nearly 30 chapters, the prophet Jeremiah had written dire warnings to the people of Israel: keep behaving as you are, he said, and there will be serious consequences. Of course, nobody wanted to listen to him, and so, here, in the 32nd chapter, Jeremiah’s message comes to the people of Israel, and us, as the Babylonians are laying their ramps upon the walls of the city. The consequences of the people’s unfaithful behavior will be a 70 year occupation by one of the most brutal occupying forces in history.
Israel had hoped that Egypt, a sworn and mortal enemy of the Babylonians, would intervene, but alas, Egypt elected to stay out of the conflict.
So on the eve of destruction, so to speak, Jeremiah writes this story. A story about God telling him to buy a worthless piece of property from his cousin. Israel is about to be occupied by a ruthless military force for 3 generations, and God is telling Jeremiah to go out and buy some worthless land.
This story is both history and metaphor: we know that freedom and life were restored to the people of Israel, that they emerged from the occupation to conduct their lives, their business, their worship as faithful children of God. Jeremiah’s deeds, one sealed in a jar, and the other his story preserved in scripture, tell us that even as God’s punishment was at hand, God was making plans to restore Israel’s freedom, making plans to restore Israel’s relationship with God.
This scripture stands as a reminder that even as God changed the way God responds to unfaithful behavior, there are spiritual consequences to the way we live our lives.
We have Jeremiah’s prophetic voice, and some historical evidence that God indeed lifted the Babylonian occupation, and that commerce, community life, and faith life continued when the behavior of the children of God changed for the good.
There is still the possibility that we, that any of God’s children might fall into temptation and be trapped by the senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. Other scripture reminds us that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in the world’s eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. I can’t help but think of the large number of lottery winners, who, after years of playing and wishing and pursuing a big win, get one. And then promptly lose it all in squandered spending or ill-advised purchases. Too many lottery winners find themselves worse off than they were before they won.
Money in and of itself is not evil. Having money, even having a lot of it, isn’t inherently evil. It’s the love of money, the pursuit of riches to the exclusion of the faith life that is evil. And there are spiritual consequences for those who choose that path.
Once of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was the stress to and the collapse of the supply chains that helped manufacturers make their products. Is there anyone listening today that hasn’t been affected by that?
Now, I will disclose to all of you that I am in no way an economist, nor do I hold an advanced degree in business. Neither do I have hard statistics to back up what I am about to claim. But when I read that a large portion of our country struggles to make ends meet in the face of huge price increases, and at the same time read that many corporations are raking in record profits, I have to wonder if something is wrong.
I’m looking at industries that raised prices initially because of shutdowns. But when workers returned to their jobs, prices continued to rise. Inflation, as I understand it in my limited way, can be caused by too much demand, and too little supply. But when supply issues eased, prices continued to rise. I suspect that the pursuit of profit, which admittedly is the whole purpose of our capitalist system, has caused much of the economic pain we are experiencing now.
And the fear of losses, the fear of smaller profits is driving the wild fluctuations in our financial markets.
The richest corporations and individuals have multiplied their wealth during this historic pandemic, while the world has struggled to make ends meet. But in our economic system, that’s their job.
Oversimplification? Probably. But I believe there is a kernel of truth in our relationship to wealth as individuals and our spiritual health.
If Jeremiah was predicting a time of hope and prosperity on the eve of destruction, Luke was predicting the consequences of a life dedicated to the pursuit of riches. Riches will come and go, but God’s faithful love is here to stay. A life based on humility, honesty and faith is taking hold of a life that really is life.
Now, our gospel lesson gives us some advice on how we are to live our faithful lives. Luke records a story Jesus told about a rich man who lived his life ignoring the most vulnerable around him. We can surmise that the rich man had to go past, maybe even step over Lazarus, the sick beggar in order to come and go from his home.
Jesus tells a compelling story about the beggar going to heaven and the rich man going to Hades. The vivid imagery of the rich man writhing in the heat, thirsting for just a drop of water from the former beggar is striking: consequences and eternal rewards stem from the way we live our lives. But it gets better! The rich man wants to warn his brothers that they are in danger of a similar fate, and Jesus is pretty clear that the only warning we are going to get comes from the prophets like Jeremiah. If those warnings don’t convince us to pattern our lives in a faithful way, nothing will.
How do we share the gifts that God has given us? Who are the people outside our gate today? How do we treat them? Do we even see them?
Have we ever been Lazarus in this story? Have we ever been the rich man?
If we were to be recalled by our maker today, which place are we most likely to go?
If you’ve pledged to our church’s budget in the past, if you plan on pledging again, if you’ve volunteered to help the church raise money for our ministries, if you’ve prayed for the church to find its ministry within the community, if you’ve put loose change in the Pastor’s Discretionary jar, then you have already decided to live the life that really is life.
But can we, sitting here worshiping, giving to the causes that touch our hearts, really change a world that aches for the riches? A world that that craves excess? A world that judges a person’s worth based on a number in their bank account?
Everything I read in the Jeremiah passage and the gospel reading today tells me that yes, we can in fact make a significant change in the world’s wider approach to riches when we choose to live our lives faithfully.
God keeps God’s promises to those who live faithfully, those who attend to the people outside our gate. We won’t get warnings from beyond the grave from those who have gone before us, we already have the prophets and the faithful writers of the bible to tell us what we already know: living our lives faithfully, with God’s intent in our hearts wins over the blind pursuit of riches any day, and may have eternal consequences we cannot predict or imagine.
We need not worry about those who would mean us harm, or who live their lives outside of God’s covenant, it’s not for us to judge. Our only task is to pattern our lives and our living after those who guide us through scripture and faith.
Giving support to organizations that help our neighbors in need can change the world. Helping to feed the hungry, helping our neighbors rise above poverty, helping build tiny homes for good, sharing blessings in the form of food in a backpack.
Giving to support to our local faith community so that it can continue to serve the local and global community can change the world.
Seeing the people who are outside our gate is the first step. Helping the people outside our gate, understanding the people outside our gate, not judging the people outside our gate, loving the people outside our gate has major implications for the future of our church.
I don’t believe the richest corporations and the richest individuals in the world see the people outside their gate. Or if they do, they see them as potential targets to increase their profits or a nuisance when they block the gates.
What difference does living the life that is really life by sharing with our needy neighbors make? All the difference in the world. Amen.