Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Romans 1:7-12; Matthew 11:28-30
Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions or comments on how my health is doing. I normally wouldn’t say anything from the pulpit about that, but it fits with today’s readings. For those of you who don’t know, I was off work for five months last year with an anxiety disorder. For those who are concerned, while I have a few down times, mostly I’m doing very well – and thank-you for asking. But the reason I brought it up today is because I KNOW there are a lot of people in our pews who have experienced something similar in their lifetimes, and I’m betting if you haven’t personally, you know someone who has. There’s way too much silence in Christian communities, and in the general public, about mental illness – and one rarely hears it addressed from a faith perspective. So that’s what I’m going to try to do today.
The prophet Jeremiah is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet”, and for good reason. The reading we heard today is a good example, and there’s a whole book attributed to Jeremiah called, “Lamentations” – words of grief and distress at the fate he sees facing Judah. Just to remind you of some of the history here, after the reign of King David, who briefly united the northern and southern Hebrew tribes into one nation, that unity fell apart, and there were two kingdoms, Israel in the north with its capital Samaria, and Judah in the south, ruled from Jerusalem. A hundred and fifty years before Jeremiah’s time, in 722 BCE, Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, and all of its political and religious elite were exiled, leaving but a remnant of the people. Now, Judah faces the same threat from Babylon, and as Jeremiah foresees, they’re heading down the same path of destruction. Jeremiah does not cease to warn the people of what’s coming, but by this point in time, he appears to believe it is inevitable – and all he can do in the face of the coming destruction, is weep. In 586 BCE, after a two year siege, the city of Jerusalem will be destroyed, and Jeremiah himself will be carried off against his will with other Judean refugees to Egypt.
Some scholars speculate that Jeremiah was a victim of depression. If so, it was a depression caused by circumstances. Who wouldn’t be depressed in the face of such devastation? What must have made it worse, is that Jeremiah appears to have carried God’s grief as well as his own. As prophet to the people, it was his task to tell them how the God who loved them was deeply grieved by the path they were rushing down, and at the inevitable results. And for Jeremiah, who believed that all of this was happening because God couldn’t let the people continue in their idol-worship, their greed and their self-centredness – what a terrible burden to carry! To feel, as if it were his own, God’s anger and concern and grief; and to know that the people he loved were digging their own graves! Jeremiah must have been torn – believing that the coming destruction was God’s just punishment for wrong-doing, and yet experiencing God’s grief over that same destruction! I know that some of you can identify with that feeling! I know of many people who have loved ones who have made choices that are destructive to themselves and their loved ones; some of you have found yourselves in the position of having to leave them to the results of their own wrong-doing – and if you’re not made anxious or depressed by that, you are stronger than I!
What’s amazing, is that through all this, Jeremiah doesn’t lose faith. He definitely has his moments of crying out to God. As in our reading: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her? Is there no balm in Gilead?” Jeremiah wants to know why God hasn’t come to the rescue – and he wants to know it more than once. This, from a prophet who is closer to the will and mind of God than anyone else around him. He questions, he rages, he weeps. But – he doesn’t lose faith. He believes God will do something new with the people. There’s a wonderful passage in the book of Jeremiah that my spiritual director had me pray with for several months. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord,” (Jeremiah 29ff). This is the promise of God to the people held in exile in Babylon, a promise shared by Jeremiah from his own place of exile in Egypt.
Despite Jeremiah’s pain and turmoil, he still lived by faith. But what about those who simply can’t see the presence of God in their lives; those who want to have faith but simply can’t find a way in the midst of their anxiety or depression or other emotional illness to trust in those promises? What then? Ought the church to judge them for not being faithful enough? Well, unfortunately, that is what some churches do. Some even go so far as to say that they wouldn’t be experiencing depression or anxiety or even physical illnesses if they had enough faith. I heard this indirectly from a number of people when I was ill, and I’m guessing some of you have heard the same.
No – that’s not how we ought to deal with the injured of mind, heart and spirit among us – and we know that, don’t we? We know what not to do. We know that depression, anxiety and other such illness are caused by a variety of factors, including brain chemistry, life circumstances, habits of thought and behaviour, and who knows what else?! But what then, is the role of Christian community when those among us fall ill in these particular ways? Well, the clue is on the front of your bulletin. We are to be a healing community – a place of support and prayer and compassion for those who need it. Our Saviour Jesus recognized that many are carrying heavy burdens – and he said that if they come to him, they will find rest. What Jesus was for people of his time and place, so we are called to be for our own time and place. The word Saviour comes from the same word as Healer – and even if you’re not sure of anything else about Jesus, one of the things we know for certain about him is that he was a healer, of diseased or twisted bodies, and of hurting minds and hearts. We may not have the kind of power to work miracles that Jesus did, but we can provide the kind of supportive, healing presence that he was, to those among us and around us today.
The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the community in Rome, that he keeps them always in his prayers, despite the fact he’s never even met them. He writes also that he is “longing to see them so that [he] may share with [them] some spiritual gift to strengthen [them]— 12or rather so that they can be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both [theirs] and [his]. One of the things we can do for one another is to pray for each other’s healing and wholeness. This is no small thing. I can tell you what it means to know your community is not judging you for perceived weakness or faithlessness, but instead, praying for healing and strength. The other thing we can do is hold onto the faith for those who, for a time, may not be able to hold it themselves. My spiritual director did that for me, when I was ill. She directed me to Scripture passages that reminded me of the hope and the joy and the strength I could find in trusting Jesus. She prayed with and for me.
I’ve seen this with many friends who’ve gone through similar times, whether for weeks or months or years. They have all had the gift of people in their lives who could simply say, “I know that you can’t believe with your whole heart right now. I know that your trust in God has been shaken. I know that you’re lost and you’re wondering why God doesn’t rescue you from this place. I understand, and I don’t judge you. So I’m going to hold your faith for you, until you’re able to find it again, yourself.”
There’s a lovely saying that I’ve seen attributed to everyone from French writer Albert Camus to American economist Donna Roberts to English writer CS Lewis to a German philosopher. It says, ““A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.” This is what we can do as Christian community for one another: hold the song of faith in our hearts, and sing it for friends who cannot now hear it. We can pray for them, support them, encourage them, and share with them the faith that we have with and for them. So, in time, we may help them find the way to healing and wholeness, by the grace of God. Amen.