Two stories are before us this morning. The first: Jerusalem, the “city of peace” is about to be sacked. Its brightest minds and most gifted citizens were about to be carried away to Babylon to serve the interests of King Nebuchadnezzar. Those who were left were artisans, people dealing with chronic disease, service workers, widows, the very young, and orphans. Basically, people who the Babylonians thought could not organize themselves into a resistance movement. This way, the once prosperous, militarily, and culturally formidable Jerusalem could be managed and kept under the rule of a foreign government. And for this Jeremiah cries. He’s known as the “weeping prophet” because he has received countless messages from God that the city’s end was near. Yet, the people do not take him seriously. They continued as if Jeremiah had never spoken.
Ever heard of the word accommodationist used to describe a city? It’s a city whose managers and citizens have surrendered their autonomy to another city or entity so that they are not truly in charge of the policies and practices that made them a community. They have abdicated their right to rule themselves. And for this reason, truly, is why Jeremiah cried. In giving up their identity as people who had come through the waters of the Red Sea and survived a 40-year trek through the wilderness of Sinai, they had cheated and stole from widows. Forced into poverty those with limited resources. Passed laws that made it impossible for those who were accused of crimes to defend themselves. Sound like a city or nation you know?
Jeremiah cries and cries, giving warning after warning to those in the city to stop, and turn back to the ways of God’s peace that made it famous, and prosperous for all its inhabitants. When they didn’t, he throws his hands up in anguish and declares that they are sick, deeply sick. What else could account for this illness, this disorder that has corrupted them so? Then he asks a familiar question that the black church in America centuries ago turned into a spiritual, Balm in Gilead. Jeremiah asks:
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
Jeremiah calls out for a healer, any healer… and to God: “Is there anybody out there who would heal them, make them whole?”
The second story: Jesus tells his disciples the parable of how a business manager had been brought up on charges of mismanaging his employer’s finances. When the owner of the company demands that the manager give an account of his practices, the manager delays meeting with the employer long enough to go to several of the debtors and re-writes their bills. He reduces the actual amount owed, effectively forfeiting any commission that would normally accrue to him. Wow! I can sense the dread of all of you who are employers.
This manager was “stuck between a rock and a hard place”, as they say. On the one hand, he could have turned the person who was in arrears over to the courts, who then would have been turned over to the prison system. But on the other hand, he could have come clean with his employer and said that in his estimation the debts were unpayable by the people who incurred them, so the employer would be better off getting whatever he could. We an only imagine that the result would be the same; that he would be out of a job, and his situation would have become just as precarious as those to whom he was sent to collect debts. Ane, he could have been put in prison himself.
There is a third way we could look at this passage: the manager was a lying cheat, and deserved whatever the employer could have thrown at him. But, I’m inclined to think that the third option is not supported in the text. Nothing is said about him embezzling funds. This is a fantastically cryptic parable, full of questions and interesting conclusions, and I encourage you to look at it again at some point. Wherever you come out in your conclusion you’ll no doubt recognize that his situation was very much like the stories we could tell of our life. “How do you choose wisely when the choices before you are equally less than desirable or unclear?” “How do you make a good decision, particularly when your heart is being pulled in two directions?” A friend of mine used to say, “How do you hit a straight lick with a crocked stick?” How
can we be healed and whole when the source of our pain is often within us just as much as it is found outside of us? From where is the source of our healing and wholeness to come?
So, what’s the gospel this morning? What can we learn from these two old stories; so old, yet so contemporary? I think three things. First: while we cannot live in this world without money – because this passage is about money and any other culturally valuable asset we have - we can be honest and on our guard as to how it can claim our allegiance in spite of our responsibilities to people, even our promise to do justice. History bears it out that wealth mixed with unchecked power has been the downfall of many a nation, a family, an individual. And for some people it has produced in them a sickness that proves resistant to pleas for mercy and self-reflection – leaving them blind and broken.
I’m thinking that what Jesus might be saying to us regarding this manager who seemed to be playing fast and loose with his employer’s money is that we, too, should act shrewdly; act wisely, particularly in circumstances where the way forward is not clear. We are to do our best
at navigating the ambiguities that come with doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with God - in this world that is so filled with need and brokeness. The Gospel writer Matthew records Jesus saying, “…so be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” Working for healing and wholeness – ours and someone else’s can be tricky. And sometimes we’ll get it wrong. But, often we’ll get it right!
I believe a second take away from these passages is that faith takes time to grow. If your journey with the Spirit has been like mine – from belief to unbelief to skepticism to trust – then you understand that the Christian life is often one of wrestling with the Spirit with a divided heart; divided loyalties. In this world we contend with concepts and ideas and realities and people that confound our heart and our head. How do we make sense of it all? How do we know when to speak and when not to speak? When to wait and when to push forward? The manager in Jesus’ parable took the initiative and acted on the side of compassion; although he caught heat about it with his employer. Remember, he was commended for acting shrewdly. Sometimes there is no right answer to a situation. There’s just an opportunity to do what seems just and right. Some things in life we just have to live into until we know more. Faith takes time to grow on us.
And a third truth I think we can take from both of these passages when we look at the undeniable thread of truth that runs through all of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is that the God we know through Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is a covenant-keeping God. Hear these promises of God to us: “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; God will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31.6) “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued by faithfulness to you.” (Jer. 31.3) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Words, yes, but words that we have seen lived out in our lifetime: (1) when justice is won, (2) when minds and hearts are opened to think and behave in ways that welcome and not harm, (3) when inspiration regarding how to resolve a dilemma seemingly comes out of no where and is effective, (4) when we gather in spaces at tables with friends – new and old and the fellowship is something like a healing balm to the soul.
Village Church, the answer to Jeremiah’s question is “Yes” there is a balm in Gilead. Gilead – now the region we know as the present-day Kingdom of Jordan - was a region known for its medicinal plants and herbs. But, it’s no longer the location of healing for the kind of dis-ease, dis-placement many of us feel. As much as there are cures and correctives that we can receive from healthcare professionals that can bring about one particular kind of healing, we can be a critical source of a different kind healing for each other. In spite of all our differences, our tendencies to discount our abilities, to accept the helping hand of the other, we can be a conduit of transformation for people around us; even our own. Gilead is us. We can be balms of calm, of compassion, of companionship. We can with much mercy and grace lovingly speak a strong word that can set someone off on a needed course correction, maybe because someone has helped us in a similar way. We can be healed, if only as beautiful wounded healers. We can be whole, as whole as the chances and changes of life will bring us.
“Is there a balm in Gilead?” Is there a balm in Toledo? Yes, and we offer ourselves as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth to be a healing community for those who call out for healing and wholeness. Together let us follow in the ways of Jesus the Christ! Amen.