Last Sunday, trying to open a more approachable way to God,
I quoted Bill Coffin, Riverside Church in New York City’s former pastor.
Coffin’s insight was that in the face of painful and particularly apparently unnecessary suffering,
God is always the first to cry.
How surprising then when checking my preaching schedule on Monday morning,
that I was reminded of the Jeremiah 8 for today,
in which I believe God is essentially given to cry over Judah’s almost willful self-destruction
(that is, in the faith that the words of God’s prophet effectively reflect the heart of God).
Jeremiah has been called “the weeping prophet”
because it was his career to have to witness a people’s march towards extinction.
We have preconceptions about this “Balm in Gilead.”
With them, we may not hear the desperation in the prophet’s questions:
“Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
Actually, I want to suggest we only really hear the prophet’s (and God’s) grief unmediated, directly
in the third of those questions.
The first two are more complicated, because they are questions that the people would ask
if they could recognize their danger,
because they can’t countenance the needed treatment.
They wish for easy cures. A quick, painless fix.
Jeremiah knows the answers already, but in these first two questions,
he’s sort of taking up an intermediate position between God and the people.
Let me explain…
Balm in Gilead, the phrase is so familiar to us modern North American church-goers
because of the Negro Spiritual of the same name.
We hear it, understand it more how the abiding faith of slaves recast it
than how Jeremiah was using it.
despite the discouragement and despair of their suffering,
looked to Jesus
— with a deep, abiding faith, full assurance that he was their Balm
who could make whole the wounded,
and heal souls divided by their physical bondage from themselves and their neighbor,
maybe even somehow in their slavery separated from God.
Balm in Gilead, it’s only mentioned in the Bible 3 times.
And all three are moments when the efficacy of the Balm is belied by the desperation of the situation:
~ In Genesis, where Joseph’s brothers sell him
to a caravan of merchants from Gilead,
who then carry this forsaken father’s favorite son (and Rachel’s firstborn) to slavery in Egypt
with their cargo of balsam.
The other two mentions of a balm in Gilead
are both in Jeremiah,
referring to a medicinal balm made from the resin of balsam trees.
Referring to a balm that doesn’t seem to have the hoped for healing properties.
Both mentions in Jeremiah,
suggest a need for more than such a balm
if the people are to be healed and made well.
… Contrary to our understanding from the Negro Spiritual,
Jeremiah’s not lauding the power and presence of such a divine cure.
Instead, he’s mourning the absence or inefficacy of
at least in any form by which the people recognize their own peril
and open themselves to being changed.
In other words, the negro spiritual assures,
There is a Balm in Gilead to cure and make whole.
To offer hope to the discouraged.
To open a godly service before the most humble of people.
But Jeremiah’s formulation,
a question that presumes a negative answer,
is much less promising:
“Is there no balm in Gilead?”
Where is a Physician to diagnose, prescribe and heal?”
You see, the threat to Judah is all the more,
because the people themselves are completely unaware or ignoring any ways they are ill.
Therefore, they’re blind to the prognosis that leaves them with.
The impending disaster that apparently only Jeremiah and God can foresee
is summed up in the passage’s earlier lines:
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
That’s a sobering analysis. Today. At this time of year. In the various middles of our lives.
The time and career to which God assigned the prophet Jeremiah,
it’s a bleak situation.
As I wrote in this week’s e-pistle:
it was Jeremiah’s lot
“to accompany a nation,
an entire people whose days were numbered.
They were suffering with a terminal illness,
one we might call denial
that — not surprisingly –- denying them
their chance for healing or any less disastrous fate.
You see, the nation of Judah,
like Israel before it,
was intent on ignoring the depth and the threat of its problems.
The illness of individuals’ that was compounded and worsened in the nation’s soul.
Jeremiah eventually — later in his prophecy —
comes to diagnose their sin-sickness
as coronary disease, if you will:
he says ‘Judah needs a heart made of flesh not stone;
the people need hearts with God’s word written upon them;
…hearts with those word inscribed so as to reorient them
to lives and to a national life as God’s people.
Before you skate right past that, church,
before you let it go as some as ancient history lesson,
some problem of an ancient people without much in common with us,
think for a moment:
What would it mean for you? for our time? for our world?
If we were to hearts of flesh rather than stone?
What if you let God’s words be written on your heart?
What if we let those words so inscribed speak to us,
and reorient our hearts and lives and our world?
Do we — any more than the people of 7th century Palestine,
ever consider either the severity of our illness
or the necessity of a radical treatment needed,
a cure that’s not of our own making,
a hope that’s completely beyond us?
My friend and colleague, Todd, got me thinking of this comparison:
how we, like them, suffer from a similar problem —
a willful ignorance,
trying a bandaid for a much more serious injury.
Or more to the point,
simply fail to recognize our life-threatening sickness.
A heart transplant is needed,
when most still are pretending nothing is wrong,
or perhaps the most cautious or hypochondriachal
only suspect a bit of vix vapo rub
soothed on the chest is in order,
will be enough.
Beloved, not only was there no balm;
there was no diagnosis,
while, quite literally a bomb ticked away in their midst,
promising their destruction.
And they seemed to be tragically and,
either, naively or willfully unable
to acknowledge its presence and threat.
This passage today is about God’s sorrow,
over all our heartlessness:
How God seems powerless
when people want to fool themselves
— in the name of their own comfort —
that every thing is ok,
or that their half-measures will be sufficient,
when some more radical transformation can be the only salvation.
That has a modern sound to it, doesn’t it:
for a time when we only have room
for easy and painless solutions,
if we even see, much less acknowledge much more dire problems.
Frank Bruni wrote an interesting article in the NYTimes this past week.
It was entitled “Hard Truths about our Soft Bodies.”
“…While the notion that we weigh too much because we buy, order and eat too much
may be obvious,
it’s increasingly obscured.
Study after study and report upon report
looks at more particular reasons for obesity and excess pounds,
focusing on the edges and the aggravators of the problem,
instead of the flabby core.
…the number and variety of these investigations…
create the impression that alchemy, not appetite,
is our enemy,
and that if we could just fine-tune our daily schedules,
rejigger our protein-to-carbohydrate ratios or
wallow sufficiently in fiber,
all would be well.”
“It’s as if we’re micro-focusing on less daunting and less damning culprits
to distract ourselves from the one that’s most fearsome and difficult to change,
which is the sheer volume of food
that many Americans are accustomed to consuming.”
By now, many of us are suddenly feeling our tummies push at taught waistbands,
but that’s not my point.
Let me re-read the first part of that last sentence:
“It’s as if we’re micro-focusing on less daunting and less damning culprits
to distract ourselves from the one that’s most fearsome and difficult to change…”
How many contemporary problems, complex and difficult,
could be described similarly?
We want to believe that
compact fluorescents and hybrid cars will be enough
to address our addiction to fossil fuels
and endless runs of roads and highways,
overdosing the atmosphere on too much carbon,
and, quite literally, steaming our planet to death.
But when one reads the parts per million of carbon already in the pipeline,
destined for our atmosphere,
and the effect that a few degrees of global warming will have on the whole planet,
aren’t we like Judah– oblivious, in denial, marching ourselves right off the cliff?
Talking to Laura Spencer this week, I was telling her my thinking for this sermon,
she pointed out,
“Not only climate change;
but gun violence too, and
the crisis in the Philadelphia School District,
to name but two.
An awful lot of our problems these days
are bigger than
our willingness to see or solve, I fear.”
Touche’, Laura. Jeremiah understands that too. And God cries.
To her list, I might add American exceptionalism
and its consequent endless military excursions.
Or the population explosion.
Or the need to reverse galloping income and net worth disparities
within our country and within the world.
Or, consider this,
we have spent millions and killed hundreds of thousands to thwart terrorism,
and all the while drunk drivers in the U.S.
cause more than 4 times the 9/11 death toll each year…
Are we unable to see the threat that is our sickness?
Are we unwilling to stomach the cures?
Lanford Wilson wrote a play titled The Balm in Gilead in 1965.
Raised in Missouri, he’d lived in California and Chicago,
before arriving in New York City.
He was struck by the characters he encountered there in one of they city’s tougher corners.
The play he comes up with is truer to Jeremiah’s biblical references
than the well-known and loved church-song lyrics.
In the play,
the low life society of an all-night diner on Manhattan’s Upper Westside —
heroin addicts, male and female prostitutes and thieves —
show themselves stuck in a rut of personal habit and social context
wherein they seem barely able to recognize,
much less to extricate themselves from hurling themselves towards self=destruction.
The play highlights a human weakness,
perhaps epidemic in our time.
If I remember correctly, Tolstoy in Anna Karenina wrote:
“There are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed,
especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.”
We want medicaments and salves to sooth our symptoms,
any aches and pains we might have,
but we’re unwilling to endure the radical treatment that promises a cure.
The prophecies in Jeremiah cover a short span
in the history of the Jewish people.
It only took 20 years!
They chronicle a decided unwillingness to look in the mirror,
much less listen to a less than flattering or less than hopeful diagnosis.
In such a short walk along the path of national hubris and overconfidence
the people make their way directly,
but apparently unknowingly to the ultimate national destruction.
The demolition of Jerusalem was unimaginable to its inhabitants,
to the nation,
when it happened in 587 BC.
But from Jeremiah’s point of view,
it was the inevitable result of two decades of slow failure at all levels of national life –-
foreign policy debacle,
domestic financial corruption,
as well as the groundwork for both of these —
the personal failure of any faithfulness that could lay claim to a change in people’s lives.
The nation was like a body
wherein disease was spreading deep within.
The patient decidedly overlooked all the symptoms.
So that to all external appearances,
the person still looked strong and robust,
self-confident and reliable.
Until there came the day,
when suddenly the person was a patient,
sick to her very core, so
she couldn’t rise from the bed.
Or climb the stairs.
Or breath unlabored.
Jeremiah warns us:
“there are big, ominous problems at work in your world.”
We often reassure ourselves that they are bigger than, or
both in scope and
in regards to when we believe they might come home to roost.
They are the icecaps and iceflows that often seem to move in slow motion.
But none of that means we are powerless
Nor does that mean these problems are no threat.
We live in a time
where delayed reward has been eclipsed and
investments for reaping future harvests hardly make sense.
People expect something for nothing,
or at the least that someone less advantaged will have to make the sacrifices and pay the price.
Get rich quick schemes,
and destructive banking practices
have become our ideals.
Do remember when President Obama began his first term
sounding an alarm that “sacrifice” would be demanded of our generation?
We didn’t hear much more about that, did we?
Am I sounding too cynical to suggest,
his advisors got to him,
“People won’t listen.
They don’t want to hear that.
It’s too unpopular to keep saying.”
We desire a solution that is painless.
We expect some drug to do all the hard work for us.
Isn’t there just a pill I can take
to solve my problems,
to evaporate my struggles and
complete my life?
Investing in public transportation?
Too costly in the short term, and
without enough immediate return to make any election sense.
A national energy policy?
People wouldn’t stand for being asked to change their ways or
to accept anything less than
their expectations for individual rights and personal comfort.
Are we building and investing for the long term?
building an infrastructure for a future?
Or are we more interested in short term gains,
like the casinos popping up all around our country,
or the crap shoot with Wall Street that rules our economy?
Church, memory can be dangerous, and redemptive.
So hear me this morning:
It hasn’t always been this way.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
If by Balm of Gilead,
we mean something to cover over and ease us by,
Jeremiah warns even God’s tears won’t be able to save us.
But if with enslaved people,
we seek the Balm that is Jesus,
~ the one who calls us from all we have known
calls us to follow,
our crosses on our shoulders,
into an unclear or even threatening future,
to sally forth far from home
and yet somehow on the only true way home…
Do we mean the Balm that is Jesus,
the one who heals all brokenness
and who names and condemns our sins,
even as he forgives them>
Jesus, who, as we sang last Sunday,
Is our way. Our truth. Our life.
If we seek the balm that is Jesus.
The one who takes over our hearts,
and fills the spaces between us,
and is present all around us,
that he might be do the work needing to be done,
transforming and reordering us…
If we mean the Balm that is Jesus,
church, this is a silly example,
but you are going to have to get up from where you are sitting,
where you are comfortable,
and move around,
to a new place.
So you may not find yourself sitting next to whom you want,
next to whom you always sit.
But instead, replaced so you can be near the person who needs your presence.
Or next to the someone who has something for you.
If we mean the Balm who is the one who speaks of the Reign of God
over against all the Kingdoms of this world.
If we mean the Balm
that actually turns out to be a Bomb
vis a vis the ways we on our own would lead our lives….
Beloved, at the same time Jeremiah reminds us
that the half measures will not bring the results we need.
Will not cure us or our world.
Jesus shows up, our Great Physician.
To heal us,
not that we can remain as we have been,
but welcoming him,
we will be changed,
and now whole,
but not whole of any of our own doing,
but somehow mysteriously,
with the Balm who is Jesus salving us,
finally feeling loved,
and finding we have what it takes to love in return.
To give with our newly holy hearts.
To walk the second mile in gratitude and grace.
To serve others, offering, losing ourselves.
Jesus heals us for a reason,
for a purpose,
for a job to be done.
There is a cost to discipleship, church.
And there are a deep, perhaps painful changes that comes of faithfulness, Christians.
Like the treatment for cancer can be as hard as the disease itself.
But is there really any other way?
What other healing balm would you trust your need and the future to?
You may not be able to preach like Peter
or pray like Paul.
But you can let Jesus into your life,
let him have your heart, and change you.
And then you can carry him with you into the world.
And introduce others to him.
You can begin to let God work
that desperately needed change in you and in your life,
and in so doing let God get on with that radical transformation the world all around us needs.