Creation Time 3, Pentecost 18, Year C
Readings: Jeremiah 8:18—9:1; Psalm 79:1–91; (Timothy 2:1–7); Luke 16:1–13
Dogs don’t seem to be able to conceal their feelings, their moods. Angry, sad, happy, expectant? It shows, on their face, in their stance, their body, and their tails. Cats, in my experience, aren’t quite as obvious as dogs. Maybe they aren’t having as many feelings. Maybe they’re determined not to show them. Maybe I haven’t met enough cats. We had a couple of dogs when I was growing up, and a cat. Since then our family has had a dog, a cat, a guest cat, a guest bird that got away, a hamster, several gold fish in rapid succession, and a guinea pig. Actually the guinea pig turned into seven guinea pigs not long after we got her. None of those other pets showed much emotion. Or thinking, come to think of it. But we loved them anyway.
Pets can come to play a big role in our lives. It’s a bit rare to find a human companion who thinks you are the most generous, smart, exciting and funny person in the world. At least for more than a little while. Pets just go on loving us, needing us, enjoying us all their years. On the other hand, it’s a bit rare to find a human companion who chews up your footwear, terrifies visitors at the door, covers them with unwanted hair, or goes to the bathroom in spots other than the bathroom. Pets, too, have their faults, in other words.
But how healing pets can be for two-legged creatures such as us. This is the time of year when we pay extra attention to our furry, feathered and finned companions at church. Our bible readings focus on healing and pity and mercy today. And money, as well, but we’re going to mostly ignore that topic for now. The bible talks about money a good deal, so we can pick it up another time.
Jeremiah is asking where the vitamin E oil is, the therapist, the relief for a people who are sick at heart. Gilead was famous for its balsam resin, its balm. So when he asks is there no balm in Gilead, everyone knows the answer is yes. But the people are hurting like crazy, and the doctor seems to be out. The psalm writer wonders if God is just mad at the people, and how long will that go on. “Do not hold the sins of past generations against us; let your compassion come swiftly.” (Ps. 79: 8) I wonder who bad things were when that was written. Jesus is telling a story about mercy. OK, mercy and cunning. I’m not sure I understand this story about the shrewd manager, or why he told it. Is it about forgiveness: in order to be forgiven, forgive others? In order to receive mercy, offer mercy? Or is it really about money somehow? It’s a tough one.
We can all be astute accountants of the hurts we receive. We can judge their severity, remember hurts forever, build up explanations of why a person has done us wrong. The hurts we have caused, though, divide us. Some people seem oblivious to the pain we might be causing others. And others have an exaggerated sense of how wounding their words, looks, silences, tone can be, always double-checking the impact they might be having on those around them.
How to get to that serene place where we can speak our truth clearly without any hidden barbs or blaming, where we can hear others’ pain as their pain, without letting it sink so deep into our souls? Where we can be more like the animals, in other words. This is one of the goals of religion, certainly one of the goals of Christianity. I want to transcend myself. I don’t want to be a slave to my passions, a captive of instinctive responses. I want to think before I speak, pray before I speak back. I want to feel others’ pain, but in a way that allows me to care or give them space as the situation requires, not become paralyzed on the one hand or over-doing it on the other, taking on their pain, or trying too hard to help.
What about the places that are full of pain for various reasons? How will a country such as Syria get peace? The Syrian boys coming to school in refugee camps are full of anger and violence. They can’t concentrate. Aid workers say this is different than other groups they have assisted. The violence has been prolonged, vicious, neighbour against neighbour. How many psychologists, how many dog doctors or other pets will be required in places? How much hurt will traumatized people inflict on others if they don’t get help? “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 God not in Zion? Is her Ruler not in her?’” (Jeremiah 18:18-19) Has chaos won they must be asking in Syria, Nairobi, Bagdad and so many other places this morning? Is there no one who can offer safety, sanctuary, some relief from the madness? We are very lucky to live where and when we do. Other places, other times have been, are living hell for the people there.
Our imaginations are our best friends and our worst enemies. We can imagine offering help to people we’ve never met and who aren’t related, and then proceed to set up a hospital, or Meals on Wheels, or an organization like Habitat for Humanity. We can also imagine people not part of our group, tribe, religion as our deadly enemy, and set up camps to kill them all. Or go into a public place, a workplace or shopping mall or place of worship with weapons to kill unarmed civilians. And this makes some sort of sense to the perpetrators. Humans are unlike other animals that way.
Pets are a blessing because they remind of us the basics. Eat, drink, play, sleep. They slow us down. They demand our attention. They depend on us, bring out the caring part of us. In these few weeks of Creation Time, we are reflecting on our place in creation, our relationship with all the creatures, not just the ones we feed and look after. We are trying to get it right—not to be the centre of everything, and not nothing, or worse than nothing, a harmful element in the world. It’s an interesting time to be alive, as we try to figure out how to handle god-like powers over other species, over eco-systems, over the whole biosphere. Do we want power over? Is the planet mainly a source of food and entertainment for humans with status? Are we entitled to do what we want, no matter the consequences for other critters? Or are we a nuisance, a plague on the planet. Neither.
We are being called to account, as if we owed something to one greater than us like that mid-level manager in Jesus’ story. How do we respond? Can we figure out how to cut those with less power some slack so that we can answer for ourselves? What balm will soothe the human tendency to chew things up, to pee and poop everywhere, polluting land, water and air, to kill harmless creatures like an out-of-control. We gather together to remind ourselves of our creation in the image of the holy, our calling, and the source of our peace. And asking for the same blessing on our friends with no words.
Jeremiah asks the question, Is there a balm in Gilead. The spiritual answers the question. There is a balm to cure the sin sick soul. Our call is to consider the question and sing out, live out our own answer.