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.
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.