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.
Can there be any doubt that health care is still one of the hot topics in our country these days? No matter where you stand on the issue of health care, and the spectrum is wide, we all have to admit that there is considerable energy focused on the state of our health.
When our culture is obsessed with physical health, primarily to avoid aging, when our government is obsessed with arguing about whether health care is a right or a privilege, when practitioners argue about the best way to provide care, when those who have health care argue that they don’t want to lose it, when those who don’t have care argue that they should have it, when insurance companies insist that they should be able to determine how a person gets treated by their physician, we can say with absolute certainty that the issue of health care is a big issue.
Recent studies are suggesting that our young people are eating better, getting more exercise, and showing better scores on many measures of physical health. And some of our aging population is living longer, whether because of modern medicine, or their own efforts. There is some evidence that Baby Boomers are not living as long as other generations, and of course, being one of the richest nations in the world hasn’t helped our infant mortality rate, or even our general life expectancy rate, both of which are lower than many other countries who have far less resources than we do.
We are surrounded by information in the media about our physical health, so much so that we can hardly escape it.
In a similar way, horrific mass shootings have propelled us into a conversation about mental health. Even as the American Psychiatric Association adjusts and modifies what it considers to be mental illness, our culture is just now beginning to see the connection between inadequate mental health services and violent tragedies.
Related to the health care system, the mental health care system includes psychiatrists who by and large prescribe medications for their patients, and psychologists and social workers who primarily serve their patients with various types of therapy. And for all the people who receive help through a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker, there are many more who aren’t receiving any help at all.
In fact, there are many in the law enforcement field who believe that a majority of inmates in our prisons and jails are individuals who suffer from undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses.
In addition to the issues of physical health that dominate the airwaves, issues of mental health take a close second. And for all our energy around our issues of physical health and mental health, we, as a culture, as a society, on many levels, don’t seem all that healthy.
Modern Western medicine seems to be a little late to party when it comes to including the spiritual realm in its approach to wellness.
But if you do a quick Google search, you’ll find thousands of books dedicated to all things spiritual. Spiritual wellness has begun to creep into all kinds of discussions. Practitioners from a whole host of traditions are offering ideas about spiritual wellness. Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, each with their own approach to spiritual health.
What much of the world already knows is that the spiritual health of a person is as important, if not more important, than the physical or mental health of a person. At the very least, it’s an equal consideration in helping someone heal.
But health care systems in our modern, western world aren’t set up to address those aspects of our health. Medical schools rarely devote time to addressing the spiritual aspect of a person’s health. Hospitals consistently understaff their chaplaincy departments, even though there is much evidence that a strong spiritual care department leads to better and healthier outcomes for patients receiving care. When was the last time your primary care physician asked you about your prayer life? When was the last time you saw your health care plan cover pastoral care?
Probably never! Because the overwhelming understanding about that is that it’s not their business. Doctors and insurance companies leave that aspect of your care to you. Some will admit the value of a spiritual component to anyone’s healing, but rarely does ones spiritual health ever get discussed when healing is the topic.
Our physical illnesses get addressed by the doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses. Our most serious mental illnesses get addressed by the psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. Our spiritual crises by and large get ignored. At best, we’re told that’s between us and our pastor if we have any concerns.
But can there be any doubt that the spiritual aspect of a person’s health is just as important? Don’t we already know that prayer works?
Our Hebrew Scripture this morning through the prophet Jeremiah describes a God who is deeply saddened by the state of the people. The consequences of their use of images and foreign idols led to God’s distance, and even as the people cry out and mourn, God, too, cries out and mourns for God’s people.
Jeremiah isn’t describing a callous and punitive God. The God of this passage is wracked with sadness over the health of the people. The spiritual health of the people.
The balm in Gilead, the physician God speaks of is the spiritual healer that is missing from amongst the people. Time and time again, the people of Israel begged God for a King, a political leader who could protect the people, who could negotiate with other countries for the people, who could declare war on other people. And though God disagreed, God granted them their request.
But time and again, that model of leadership led to unfaithful behavior, which led to God distancing God’s self from God’s people, which led to crying and sadness and mourning. On the part of God’s people, and on God’s part too.
After having this happen over and over again, God finally decided to do something about it. We now have a balm in Gilead, and a physician of sorts: the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. Remember these lyrics from the classic hymn?
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work's in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again
Don't ever feel discouraged
For Jesus is your friend
And if you lack of knowledge
He'll ne'er refuse to lend
If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say, "He died for all".
Christians have a spiritual side of their health care that is rarely acknowledged, much less discussed. But here it is, in plain sight: sometimes we’re sin-sick. Sometimes we’re discouraged, not because our bodies are sick, or because our mind or emotions are disturbed, but because our souls aren’t well.
Some of us have access to a pastor, or spiritual guide, but according to recent polls, most of Americans, and especially most of the northeastern Americans, don’t go to church, don’t have a pastor, don’t even know they have a spiritual side to their health!
Right.So here I am, preaching to the choir. Literally and figuratively! Perhaps you already know how important the state of your spirit is to your physical and mental health. But how do we, those who are aware of the nearly invisible aspect of our health, let others know that they can be helped!
The hymn tells us that there is a balm, there is a physician. The balm is the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. And our gospel lesson, as confusing as it may sound, is a prescription from our spiritual physician: if you are faithful in the little things, the things nobody ever sees, you will be trusted with the big things.
We all know whether we live our lives faithful in the little things or not. We often make a conscious decision about whether we will be honest in our behavior or not. It makes a difference in the health of our souls. While many of our brothers and sisters live out their lives unaware of the spiritual aspect of their health, we can be informed about how the little sins, the little untruths, can lead to spiritual malaise and illness.
At worst, being aware of the spiritual aspect of our health can help us make better decisions in our lives. At best, it becomes a tool for healing when our bodies and our emotions are suffering.
Eastern medicine has its approaches to a person’s spiritual health, some are focused almost exclusively on the spirit as a mechanism for healing.
Western medicine, not so much.
The good news is that there is much we can do to improve our spiritual health: prayer for ourselves and others, a spiritual practice of being faithful in the little things, recognition of the role the Holy Spirit and the role our Lord and Savior, Jesus play in our lives, and the resources we have through our church.
If we can begin to pay attention to the health of our souls, I believe we’ll find that our physical, mental and emotional health will improve as well.
Yet another gift from the God who cries when we cry, who mourns when we mourn, and who aches when our hearts ache.