My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in here?” (Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
Inviting people to church can be a strange endeavor.
It’s strange enough if you’re a lay person and you approach someone in your life, whether a friend or stranger, and say something like, “I’d love to bring you to my church on Sunday.” Or “We’ve got this crazy pastor and you’ve just got to see the strange stuff he comes up with every week.”
It’s another thing entirely when you’re the pastor inviting someone to church. It takes on a whole new level of self-righteousness when it comes off as if I’m inviting people to wake up on a Sunday morning, drive over to the church, to listen to me hammer on about grace until it finally sticks.
But we do invite people to church, or at least we feel like we’re supposed to do it whether we actually do it or not.
I know that on several other occasions I’ve shared this rather ominous statistic, but I can’t help myself from bringing it up again: The average person in a United Methodist Church invites someone else to church once every 33 years.
It’s really crazy when we consider how the overwhelming majority of us are here because someone either invited us or brought us to church. Very rare is the person who just decides to go check out what all these Christians are up to in whatever worship is supposed to be.
So we invite people, or we don’t, but we know there’s some reason we should be doing it, even if we can’t fully articulate it.
Sure, the gospel of Matthew ends with this great charge to go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But doing it just because Jesus tells us to never really feels adequate enough.
I have the occasion to invite people to church on a regular basis simply from having to describe what I do all the time. It’s the go-to ice-breaker when you meet someone for the first time, “What do you do?”
If I say something like, “I’m a reverend.” It conjures up all sorts of things that can be good or bad or true or untrue. Therefore, for awhile I tried out different responses to the question.
What do I do? Well, I work for a global enterprise. We’ve got outlets in nearly every country in the world. We’ve got hospitals and hospices and homeless shelters, we do marriage work, feeding programs, educational opportunities. We’re involved with a lot of justice and reconciliation things. Basically we look after people from birth to death, and we deal in the area of behavioral alternation.
And then people will always say, “What’s it called?!”
And I say, “The Church.”
But that usually rubbed people in a way that did not endear them to whatever it was I was trying to do, so now I just tell people I’m a pastor and leave it at that.
And therein lies the regular opportunity for invitation because people will start asking questions about the church I serve and then I’ll encourage them to join us on Sunday.
Just this Friday, I was working at a local Panera with my Bible out on the table in front of me and a random stranger came over and struck up a conversation. And within the first few minutes the question was asked and the invitation was made, and the man’s response to the invitation was rather interesting. He said, “I’ve got a lot of difficult things in my life right now, but once I get them sorted out I’ll come check it out some Sunday.”
I think some of us, myself included, often confuse what the church is all about, or what it is for. We make this weird assumption that we come to a place like this to feel better. Which makes sense when you think about it, because that’s why we really go anywhere. We show up in particular places with the hope and expectation that we’ll feel better on the way out than we did on the way in.
And yet, at the same time, we also weirdly feel like we have to have it all figured out before we get here. Or, at the very least, we have to make it seem like we have all our ducks in a row before we sit in one of these rows.
But if we read from the prophet Jeremiah – Jeremiah doesn’t seem like he wants us to feel better. In fact, I think he wants us to feel worse.
Or, to put it another way, if we can’t really feel what we’re feeling here, where else can we?
Let me be clear for a moment: you all look good. Best looking church this side of the Mississippi. But I know, and you know, that some of us here are going through some really tough stuff. Some of us are dealing with depression such that it feels like a dark cloud is following us wherever we go. Some of us are struggling with anxiety that keeps us awake at night while we fret over a host of subjects. Some of us are afraid, or are going through a period of grief, or loneliness, I could go on and on.
And the message of scripture today is this: God knows all of those things and grieves over them.
God, the God we worship and praise and adore, weeps for our weeping. Jeremiah describes God crying a fountain of tears because of the plight of God’s poor people, us.
And even if you want to pretend like your life is perfect, just look at what’s happening in the world…
Millions are marching right now in an effort to combat the devastating effects of climate change and they are largely being led by an 11 year old girl because for some reason we live in a time when adults are acting like children and the children are being forced to act like adults.
Yet another major politician is struggling under the discovery that he wore black face to a party as a twenty something.
Saudi Arabian oil facilities were allegedly attacked by Iran bringing a host a major world nations into the possibility of a conflict the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades.
And here’s one of the craziest things about all the news. We might try to block it out, it might feel simply too overwhelming, but even if we can’t avert our eyes and ears it doesn’t matter much because so many things keep happening that we just move from one horrible thing to another.
It’s no wonder people show up on Sundays with the hope and expectation that whatever happens here will make them feel better on the way out.
However, for the overwhelming majority of the church’s history, people showed up in places like this with people like us for one reason: to make things right with God.
Christians knew deep in their bones their own sinfulness and they knew they had wronged the Lord.
And we don’t really know that anymore. We avoid the s-word (Sin) like the plague. We fear that we might run off the newcomers if we mention it too much.
We come to the church to feel better, not to feel worse.
In other words, we’re all looking for a balm.
We were singing the words just a few minutes ago, and we read them from Jeremiah, the balm of Gilead. Gilead was known for its commercial and medicinal success with a simple apothocaric venture with balms that could close wounds and keep them closed. And Jeremiah uses this culturally known and available remedy to poke at whether or not the illness of God’s people can be handled by a spiritual balm.
God’s laments that God’s people feel deserted. And yet, it is their own behavior that has them trapped in this paradoxical feeling of isolation. It’s hard for anyone to realize how trapped they are by their choices or their decisions or their prejudices. We no longer know we are a people of sin because we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing and naming the sins of other people.
During the time of Jeremiah the temple was responsible for making sure the people of God upheld the covenant made with God. It was at the temple where the nation Israel was told the unvarnished truth about their behavior and the consequences of their never-ending self-interest.
But for some reason the temple stopped doing its job. The priests neglected to speak truth to power and truth to people.
They had failed and there was no balm.
Imagine if all we ever did was pick and choose the people outside of these walls as the scapegoats for all of our problems.
Imagine if you came to a place like this, a church, week after week and all you were told is that the world is perfect, that your lives are perfect, that all is well.
Imagine hearing that knowing that all is not well, in fact it often feels like all is hell.
Today we are no less lost than the people were during the days of Jeremiah. Our own self-interests blind us to the harm we are doing to others. Greed increases because our insecurities are overflowing. Fear pushes us into such rigid postures of defense that we are no longer listening to the people we really need to be listening to. We rarely recognize how often we place other things from our lives on the altar of our worship as if those things can save us when the only hope we have in the world is a God who weeps for us.
You see that’s the whole thing right there. It would be all too easy to end a sermon like this one with a resounding refrain about how mad God is at us for all the stuff we’ve been doing and all the stuff we’ve avoided doing. I assure you there are plenty of churches out there that can meet that need if that’s what you’re looking for. But the witness of Jeremiah is not that God wants to strike us down out of loathing.
Jeremiah reminds us of a bewildering truth that we’ve all but forgotten these days: God grieves for us and God grieves with us.
The balm of Gilead came from the resin of a tree – cultivated and disseminated for all in need. Our balm comes from a similar place, but from a different tree, the one on which Jesus hung for you and me.
The great witness of the church immemorial is that we know there is a balm in Gilead! The balm isn’t in us. We know we can’t fix ourselves, much to the contrary of the narrative beat into us by the world all the time.
All we’ve got in us is sin, is selfishness, is self-righteousness.
The balm we need comes to us from outside of ourselves. It comes to us through the one who condescended himself to know our miserable estate – he became sin who knew no sin. We might not think about our own sins, we usually don’t, but our lives are ruled by them. Its our sins that keep us awake at night and disconnected from one another and even disconnected from God.
How terribly sad.
But God says come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. The beginning of our transformation comes not in feeling good, but strangely enough in feeling bad. That’s after all why we come to church: to bring our burdens to bring our truths to bring our shortcomings to the one who offers us the things we need the most: grace, forgiveness, mercy.
And then maybe we do leave feeling better than we did on our way in, knowing God did for us what we could not and would not do for ourselves. Amen.