Our gospel lesson this morning tells of a time when a group of Sadducees approached Jesus with a question.
The Sadducees were a sect of Jewish believers that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, or in the existence of individual spirits, and placed a large emphasis on their obligation to an oral tradition founded on the strict adherence to the written law found in the Torah: the first five books of the bible.
Because they are a subset of Jewish believers, they are often lumped together with the Pharisees, another Jewish sect, but their beliefs skew away from what we know as traditional Jewish thought.
However different their beliefs, at the very least, we know from this morning’s reading that they considered Jesus a teacher, and they found him both approachable and open to challenging questions. It should come as no surprise then, that they would ask him about one of their central tenets: the existence of the eternal life.
The questions is based on a basic social and religious custom from Moses that states that when a man’s brother dies, if that man is single, his obligation is to marry his brother’s widow, so that she and possibly his children, may be cared for.
They take this basic custom, and for the purposes of making their point, stretch it absurdly, asking Jesus that if seven brothers married the same woman, and they all died, to whom was she married in the resurrection?
So while the Sadducees were respectful in approaching Jesus as a teacher, asking their question in a respectful manner, (as opposed to some of the Pharisees, who were sometimes rude and derisive when asking their questions) the underlying intent is to trip Jesus up with what might be seen as a confusing and confounding example.
Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
He begins by explaining that marriage is an earthly and human institution, or covenant, and that the life ever-after, or the resurrection, transcends human institutions and covenants.
He adds that the faithful children of God experience a resurrection that transcends death. Jesus not only holds steadfast to the concept of resurrection, he likens their spirits to angels. A sharp poke at the Sadducees underlying beliefs.
But he doesn’t stop there. He takes their most revered religious figure, Moses, and places him at the center of his response: because Moses referred to the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, Jesus implies that Moses himself understood God to be the God of the living; the living in this case being Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the resurrection.
For many, this whole exchange is both philosophically and theologically interesting, but for the children of God in today’s age, how might this scripture have meaning and relevance?
I personally find it a powerful concept that the life ever-after, the resurrection, transcends human conventions and institutions: it transcends any and all earthly covenants, and transcends death itself.
The resurrection transcends anything we can say or do, anything we can touch, or taste, or feel. It’s almost too big to understand: that our spirits, created by God to be unique and beautiful, transcend the physical and earthly rules, outlast the human bodies we’ve been given, and triumph over death.
Jesus has said it before: in the resurrection there is no marriage, no gender, no ethnicity.
What does this mean?
Well for me, it means I can take some spiritual risks knowing that God has my spiritual back! I can take a risk in forgiving someone who has hurt me, I can have compassion for someone who’s behavior is despicable, and is deserving of punishment. I can let go of any grudges against others, because their resurrection transcends my grudges, and renders them irrelevant and unnecessary.
For now, as God’s faithful children, our lives are focused on living in this age, in living faithfully and gratefully with the treasures and joys, the challenges and sorrows that come with life
In fact, maybe this idea of the resurrection transcending our earthly existence could help us appreciate some of the treasures we have in our midst, but often overlook!
Let me tell you a story by Robert van de Weyer, about a farmer, and two lazy children.
There was a farmer who was known to grow the finest gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants in the whole village. He had three fields of fruit bushes, and every day he walked around the bushes with a hoe, taking out any weeds that were growing, so that the bushes had all the goodness of the soil to themselves. By the middle of each summer, they were heavy with large, juicy fruit.
Sadly, he was not as good at raising children as he was at raising fruit. His two children were known as the laziest young people in the village. They spent all day eating and drinking and chatting with friends; they never lifted a finger to help their father. As the years past, the farmer became increasingly anxious about his children’s laziness. ‘When I’m dead and gone’ he would say to his neighbors, ‘all my fruit bushes will become overgrown with weeds, and my children will starve’.
Living a short distance from the village in a small hut was a hermit, renowned for his wily wisdom. The farmer decided to visit this hermit to ask for advice. After hearing the farmer’s story, the hermit sat for a few moments in silence, stroking his long beard. At last, the hermit rose up, patted the farmer on the shoulder, and assured him that he would teach the two lazy children to work. Then the hermit left his hut and went to see the two young adults.
‘I have something important to tell you,’ he said to them. ‘I happen to know that in those fields of fruit bushes there is a great treasure. It will be enough to feed and clothe you for the rest of your lives.’
It was now September. From then until Christmas, the two siblings went out into the fields each day, searching for treasure. They dug around every fruit bush, turning over the earth, in the hope of finding a chest full of gold. But by Christmas Eve they had found nothing. So they went to the hermit’s hut and accused him of deceiving them.
‘I haven’t deceived you’, the hermit replied with grin. ‘You must keep searching. I promise that by next September you have found the treasure.’
The siblings refused to believe him.
‘Very well, then,’ the hermit continued, ‘I will make a bargain with you. If by September you have not found enough treasure to buy food and clothing for you for the rest of your lives, I will share whatever I receive with you. But if you do find the treasure, you must share it with the poor in this village’.
The two agreed. So they continued to dig the fields, turning over the earth between the fruit bushes. The farmer watched with great satisfaction, pleased that while his young adult children searched for treasure, no weeds would grow. Thus, by the middle of summer, the bushes were again heavy with large and juicy fruit. The hermit came to the fields to see the two siblings.
‘Ah,’ he exclaimed, looking at the fruit bushes, ‘I see you have found your treasure.’
At first, they could not imagine what he meant. Then it finally dawned on them. Over the next few weeks, the hermit helped them to pick the treasure. Half they sold in the market, and the other half they gave to the poor.
And from then on, the two children of the farmer continued to work hard in the fields. Each year, they again sold half the crop and gave away the rest. And, as the hermit had predicted, the money they received was quite sufficient to feed and clothe them for the rest of their lives.
In this age, in this time and in this place, we are surrounded by treasure. We just don’t see it. Sometimes, in our frantic digging for treasure, we catch a glimpse of the treasure God has placed in our midst.
As bountiful and as beautiful as that treasure may be, it is the treasure of the resurrection, the life hear-after, that transcends even the largest bounty here on earth.
For our faithfulness, that resurrection is promised. For our love of God, that resurrection is promised. For our journey of forgiving, and loving our neighbor, that resurrection is promised. For our compassion for those in pain or sorrow, who make bad decisions, or have been victims of trauma, that resurrection is promised.
Living faithfully means spending our days digging for treasure, and sharing our bounty when we harvest it.
But let us not forget that when the time of resurrection comes, it will transcend everything that we could possibly know on earth, it will even transcend our own death.
The unique and individual spirit given to each of us by our God at our creation, will outlast and outlive our earthly existence, will transcend everything we could possibly know here on earth. A holy treasure.
In the week to come, let us find some ways to appreciate the treasures in our midst, and it that appreciation, let us consider how even more powerful the treasure of the promised resurrection can be.
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.