Balm Threat

 

I’m calling in a balm threat this morning.

I realize that the pun is terrible.  Please, bear with me and I promise to make it make sense before the end.

What is a balm, anyway?  It’s a healing ointment, like a lotion, that soothes damaged skin or eases the pain of sore muscles.  A balm is something that takes away the pain.  We read about balm this morning in our Old Testament lesson from the book of Jeremiah. 

The prophet Jeremiah was a man who was intimately familiar with pain. Tradition calls him “the weeping prophet” because he lived in a time of such intense suffering.  God called him to be a preacher, but nobody ever listened to his sermons.  He saw that the culture around him was corrupt and destroying itself, but there was nothing he could do about it.  All he could do was keep on preaching and hope that somebody, somewhere, someday might listen.

Jeremiah talked a lot about his pain.  He said, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…. 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?”  And there’s that word: balm.  The prophet is asking, “Is there nothing that can ease this pain?” And for Jeremiah, that question went unanswered…

This same question has been on the lips and in the hearts of suffering people in every place and time throughout history: “Isn’t there anything that can easy my pain?” 

Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the patient who has just been told that her insurance company will not cover the cost of the medication she so desperately needs: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the unemployed laborer whose temporary assistance benefits may run out before he is able to find a new job: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the pregnant teenager, faced with an impossible choice, knowing that she will receive lifelong shame and rejection from society no matter what she decides: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

We can hear it from the young man who wants nothing more than to love and be loved, but is told by his church that his way of loving is an abomination in the eyes of God: “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

In the American story, this cry has been heard loudest and longest from our African American brothers and sisters, who have suffered under the yoke of slavery, the humiliation of Jim Crow laws, and now the ridiculous accusations of so-called “reverse racism” that tries to put one person’s bitterness on a level with centuries of systemic oppression, as if they were the same thing.  These folks too have asked the hard question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there nothing that can ease this pain?”

But the enslaved ancestors of these neighbors of ours did something else, something that had never been done before: they answered the question.  In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point.  And they could sing, ‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’”

Here’s what happened:

When the Europeans enslaved African people, they tried to erase all traces of their home culture in order to keep them subservient to their new masters.  The people were given new names, new clothes, a new language, and a new religion.  The slaves were given Bibles and told to read them.  The slave holders thought that a Christian slave was more likely to be obedient and passive.  But they forgot something; they overlooked a critical truth that their Jewish and Protestant ancestors had passed down to them: If you want to keep people down and depressed, the last thing on earth that you should do is give them a Bible.  Why? Because, as Flannery O’Connor said, “Jesus throws everything off-balance.”

In introducing people to the Bible, the promoters of slavery and racism unwittingly sowed the seeds of their own destruction.  As it says in the Psalms, “They fell into the trap they set.” 

Because you can’t tell people they are “made in the image and likeness of God” and then expect them to let go of their inherent human dignity. 

You can’t tell people that all men and women are brothers and sisters, children of one Father in heaven, and then expect them to believe that they are second-class citizens. 

You can’t tell people that they are members of the body of Christ and temples of Holy Spirit and then expect them to believe that they are some other person’s property.

Those enslaved African ancestors read the Bibles they were given and then, as newly baptized Christians, they reached back across two and a half millennia and straightened Jeremiah’s question mark into an exclamation point.  “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”

They discovered, for themselves and for all of us, the secret of that balm: the balm is faith.  It is faith that has the power to heal, save, and make whole.  As Jesus told so many sick, poor, downtrodden, forgotten, and oppressed people in his day, “Your faith has made you well.”

Now, when I say faith, I don’t mean religious observance (e.g. coming to church, reading the Bible, taking communion, etc.).  Religious observance is a good thing (I would even say it’s necessary for growing in faith), but it is not faith itself.  Likewise, when I say faith, I don’t mean a subscription to a set of doctrinal beliefs.  Our systems of theology (e.g. Presbyterian, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.) are interpretations of faith, but they are not faith itself.

So, what do I mean by faith? It begins with a heartfelt hunch that there is something: some Presence/Reality/Being/Love at the heart of everything that binds the rest of it together in big embrace, something that, in the words of the late Rev. Forrest Church, is “greater than all, yet present in each.”  Personally, I like the description given by the Jedi Master, Obi-Wan Kenobi in the movie Star Wars: He called it “the Force” and said, “It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”  Here in this church, we call it “God.”  And we imagine God as a loving Father (or Mother) who is working through us, with us, and in us to build the kingdom of heaven on earth: a place where people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will live together in peace, where they will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,” a place where “the home of God [will be] among mortals”, where every tear will be wiped away, and “Death will be no more”.  Faith begins with this hunch: with the hope that these things might be true; faith comes to life in us when we commit our whole selves, body, mind, and soul, to living as if they were true; and it ends when these things do come true (and I believe they will).

Faith is the truth that turns the world upside down.  Faith has the power to move mountains… or at least make them into mole-hills.  That’s what faith does: It makes a mole-hill out of a mountain.  Faith changes the way we look at our situation in life so that the big problems don’t seem so big after all and the little we have is more than enough for God.

I read an article this week that illustrated this truth perfectly.  It borrows an image from the Bugs Bunny cartoons I used to watch as a little kid.  You remember Marvin the Martian?  Whenever he would first appear in a sketch, the first thing we would see is a huge, menacing shadow looming over Bugs Bunny.  But then he would turn around and see that the big, scary shadow was coming from a little “pipsqueak with a pop-gun.”  That’s what faith does: It changes our perspective on life, so that we can stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

I said I was calling in a balm threat this morning, and I am: Because faith, the balm of Gilead, is a threat to every sin and sickness of body, soul, or society that would try to keep you down.  The balm of Gilead is a threat to the unenlightened self-interest of every government, corporation, and institution in this world.  The balm of Gilead is a threat to racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, denominationalism, homophobia, and every unjust pride and prejudice, every power and principality, every problem that tries to exalt itself above the glory of God and the dignity of God’s children.  Oh yes: I’m calling in a balm threat today.

Now, I realize that I’m new here.  I don’t know who you are, where you’ve been, what kinds of problems you face, or what kind of pain you carry.  But I believe this: That there is no problem so big that God cannot handle it, that there is no situation or life so messed up that God cannot bring good out of it. 

 

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul,
you can tell the love of Jesus and say, ‘He died for all.’

Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend,

and if you lack for knowledge, he’ll never refuse to lend.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. 

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Empowerment

Image
Ms. Rosa Parks with Rev. Dr. King in the background. Image is in the public domain.

 

Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon at fpcboonville.org

When I was in seventh grade, I used to get picked on a lot.  And I mean a lot.  It was a really hard time for me.  In fact, things eventually got so bad that the Vice Principal of my school recommended that I take Karate lessons for self-defense.  So I did just that.  And it went really well.  It was fun, I was active, and I really liked my teacher: Shihan Jessie Bowen.  Shihan Bowen was a 5th degree black belt and the founder of our school.  There was even a picture on the wall of him next to the kung-fu movie star Chuck Norris.

I, on the other hand, was an awkward twelve-year-old who was barely good enough for a beginner-level sparring class.  So, you can imagine how much trepidation I felt that night at the end of class when Shihan Bowen ordered me to stand up and fight him one-on-one in front of the rest of the class.

It was an epic five-point sparring match.  Shihan Bowen and I matched each other blow for blow with everyone watching.  In the end, I managed to land the final blow for my fifth point.  I couldn’t believe it: I had beaten Shihan Bowen, the Grand Master and the founder of the school, by one point.  For the first time in my life, I felt powerful.  That’s an amazing feeling for a lanky seventh grader who was used to getting beat up and pushed around.  I discovered pride and strength within myself.

Now, I can’t say that this one event solved all my problems at school or in my neighborhood, but I do believe that something of that experienced must have stayed with me because it wasn’t until almost fifteen years after the fact that I did the math in my head: Shihan Bowen was a 35-year-old Grand Master; I was a 12-year-old beginner.  It took me that long to realize one obvious fact: he let me win.

By the time I realized it, of course, I was a grown man.  I had long since grown out of my awkward middle school phase, but I’m grateful for what he did that night because he let me taste empowerment for the first time in my life.  For once, I was a victor, not a victim.  Something I did made an impact on the world around me.

This theme of empowerment is an important one, so we’re going to spend some time with it today.  It factors rather highly in our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke.

The story begins with Jesus sending a group of his followers out on a mission to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  It’s not the first time he’s done something like this.  In fact, it’s the second.  Just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus sent another group of disciples out with an identical mission: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  The first time he did it, Jesus sent 12 disciples out.  The second time, he sent 70.

Why do you think that is?  Is it just a random number?  Was that just the number of people who happened to be hanging around that day?  Well, no.  It’s not random.  Numbers had great symbolic significance for people in the ancient world.  Whenever two things or events have the same number in the Bible, you can bet that they’re connected somehow.

Let’s take the number 12, for example.  12 is the number of disciples Jesus had.  12 is also the number of tribes in the original nation of Israel.  Are these ideas connected?  You bet they are.  By sending out 12 disciples, Jesus was saying that his mission was not just for himself alone, but for the whole nation of Israel.  All of God’s chosen people had a part to play in what was happening through Jesus.

What about 70?  This one’s a little bit trickier.  It’s not so obvious to us modern American readers, so I’ll help you out by unpacking it a little.  70 is the number of the nations of the world named in the first part of the book of Genesis.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells the story of the creation of the world and the beginning of all peoples, cultures, and nations.  And the final number of nations listed in Genesis 10 is 70.  So, when Jesus sends out 70 of his followers to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God, he’s taking his mission even one step further as if to say, “Hey y’all, what you see going on here isn’t just about me, it’s about our whole nation; in fact, it’s not even just about our whole nation, it’s about every nation.  The amazing things you see God doing in me and through me is meant to be shared with the whole world… everybody.”  That’s the symbolic significance of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples on a mission.

Now, let’s take a look at what that mission was.  What is it that God is doing in and through Jesus, the nation of Israel, and ultimately the whole world?  Well, we’ve heard about it already: heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God.  This is what Jesus and his followers are all about.  But what does that mean for us?  Should we all become faith healers, exorcists, or televangelists?  Well, probably not.  In fact, I would advise against it.

When modern Christians talk about “proclaiming the kingdom of God,” they usually mean “preaching the gospel,” and it usually sounds something like this:

“You’re a real bad sinner but God loves you anyway.  So, you should accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, become a Christian, and go to church so that your soul can go to heaven when you die.”

That’s what modern, American Christians usually mean when they talk about preaching the gospel or proclaiming the kingdom of God.  But is that what Jesus was talking about in this passage?  Is there any talk in this passage about becoming a Christian or going to heaven when you die?  No, there isn’t.

Let me say something that might surprise you: Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God has nothing to do with religion or the afterlife.  What is it then?  Well, let’s look at it. 

What is a kingdom on the most basic, fundamental level?  It’s the place where a king or queen has authority and is in charge.  A kingdom is a king’s territory. 

Based on that definition then, what is the kingdom of God?  It’s the place where God is in charge.

What does this mean?  Whenever we allow peace, justice, and love to reign in our hearts, that’s the kingdom of God.  Wherever groups of people organize themselves into communities to care for those who suffer, seek justice for the oppressed, and embody Christ-like compassion in their lives, that’s the kingdom of God.

When Jesus told his followers to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God, he was telling them to plant a flag in the ground.  He was declaring war on the way things are.  He was saying, in effect, “Hey y’all, there’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.”  It’s not a battle we can fight with death-dealing weaponry, but with tools that build life.  That’s why healing the sick and casting out demons were so important to Jesus: he was announcing a reversal of the cosmic powers that kept the children of God under the yoke of oppression.  The forces of sin and evil were doomed to failure.  That’s why he said, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”  I’ll say it again: There’s a revolution going on and we are the insurgents.

There are all kinds of examples of the kingdom of God breaking through into this world.  I could talk about the falling of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid in South Africa.  But the example that stands out most in my mind this week is that of a middle-aged seamstress and a young pastor (age 26) who organized an entire group of people to right a wrong in their community through the power of nonviolent direct action.  The seamstress (Rosa Parks) and the pastor (Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized the Montgomery bus Boycott of 1955.  For entire year, the African American population of Montgomery, Alabama walked to work instead of riding the bus.  Their voices were heard and they paved the way for the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

Their movement was one moment among many that marks the breaking through of the kingdom of God into this world.  Toward the end of the protest, someone asked one elderly woman whether she was tired out from a year of walking at her age.  She famously replied, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” 

That, my friends, is the proclamation of the kingdom of God through the empowerment of (all) the people of God.  It is the dethroning of the powers of sin in this world, the casting out of demons, and the healing of our sick society.  It is the eternal revolution of Jesus and we (all of us) are the insurgents.

The end-result of this revolution is not mere political reform but spiritual transformation as the kingdom of God is established “on earth as it is in heaven.”  After describing the revolution to his followers, Jesus told them, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Through this empowerment, we the followers of Jesus wake up to who we really are.  All of us are invited recover our dignity as beloved children of God and temples of the Holy Spirit.  Each of us bears the image and likeness of God.  As Jesus said, our names are written in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth I invite you to discover and recover as you go out into the world this week.  You may not be called upon to march in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or tear down the Berlin Wall, but there is still plenty of sin and injustice left in this old world.  Go out with your mind’s eye and the ears of your heart open to where it is that the Spirit of Jesus is calling you and empowering you to plant a flag as an insurgent in heaven’s revolution.  Heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the kingdom of God, and rejoice that your name is written in heaven.

Be blessed and be a blessing.

“My Feet Is Tired, But My Soul Is Rested”

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Matthew 18:15-20.

Someone once asked the famous author C.S. Lewis why he thought it was necessary for Christians to go to church.  Lewis, with his usual wit and candor, had this to say:

When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

The “solitary conceit” that Lewis mentioned is one of the hallmarks of trendy spirituality in our culture.  Spiritually-minded Americans, from Transcendentalists to Evangelicals, have often emphasized individuality at the expense of community when it comes to their devotional lives.  Lillian Daniels, a United Church of Christ minister from Illinois, minces no words as she calls this kind of spiritual individualism “self-centered” and “boring”.  She goes on:

There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

One’s relationship with God is always personal but never private.  One does not simply wander off into a cave to commune with the Divine in total silence and solitude.  Even ancient hermits in the desert maintained practices of hospitality toward wandering beggars and spiritual seekers.  One cannot be a Christian by oneself.

We find this counter-conviction to American individualism all through today’s gospel reading.  Here we see Jesus teaching the people about spiritual community.  Specifically, he’s talking about those times when community gets messy.  He starts with the words, “If another member of the church sins against you”.  This is Jesus giving advice about conflict resolution.  Rather than getting bogged down in the procedure that Jesus lays out, I’d like for us to focus our attention this morning on the underlying values and beliefs that undergird Jesus’ message to us in this passage.  I say “values” and “beliefs” but really there’s just one of each: a value and a belief.

The value that Jesus was trying to communicate is the value of reconciliation.  Reconciliation was a major theme in the ministry of Jesus and the early church.  Notice how it comes up again and again in this passage.  Jesus says repeatedly that the goal of this conflict-resolution exercise is to persuade people to “listen” to one another.  That word, “listen”, appears four times in three verses.  Meanwhile, there’s no “eye for an eye” or “hellfire and damnation” language at all.  Even in the worst-case scenario, where the “sinner” will not “listen”, Jesus recommends that the church should “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  This might sound like punishment at first (remember that tax collectors were the most hated people in ancient Israel), but remember how Jesus treats tax collectors and other religious outsiders?  He welcomes them and affirms them!  He goes out of his way to make sure that these people know they are loved by God.  It seems like Jesus is saying that the point where negotiations fail is the point where real love begins.  This is so different from our world where justice is associated with punishment and vengeance!  For Jesus, real justice is the restoration of harmonious relationships.

The theme of reconciliation that resonates through this passage is related to the core belief that Jesus is trying to instill in his followers: the belief that God is love.  As the people of the community of faith work together to reconcile their differences, Jesus tells them that they will begin to discover a mysterious divine presence working in and through them.  Decisions made in this spirit of reconciliation will have the weight of spiritual truth.  This is what Jesus means when he says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Likewise, the community of faith that is committed to reconciliation will see God working impossible miracles through them.  Jesus says, “If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  Reconciliation and love are important values to embody because they most accurately reflect who God is.  God is present wherever this process of reconciliation is going on.  Don’t look for God in the sky or in magical rituals, but in the genuine love that is made manifest through us, the people of the church.  This is why Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Love.  It’s all about love.  Love is what Jesus calls us to.  Love is who God is.

This belief runs entirely counter to our culture’s punishment-oriented individualism.  In that sense, it is truly “counter-cultural”.  People who believe in love, as Jesus presented it, are crazy by this world’s standards.  Yet these people see things that others can’t see.  When they speak, they speak with supernatural clarity and conviction.  When they stand together, they sense that there is “something more” standing with them, empowering them, and holding them up.

One of my favorite examples of this power at work comes from the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott that took place in 1955-56.  For over a year, the African American citizens of Montgomery, Alabama  stood together against the demonic spirits of racism and discrimination.  These prophetic activists were made the subjects of constant harassment from local citizens, government, and police.  Walking together along city streets, many of them described a feeling of divine empowerment.  Wherever these few were gathered in the name of Jesus, he was there among them.

One particularly elderly woman was stopped on the street one day during the boycott.  The interviewer asked whether her feet were exhausted from all the walking, perhaps hoping that she might give up soon and take a bus.  Her reply resonated with exactly the kind of spiritual authority and divine presence that Jesus was talking about:

“My feet is tired,” she said, “but my soul is rested.”

As we go out from this place today, may our lives reflect that same kind of divine glory.  May we sense that same spiritual presence among us, especially in this sacrament of Holy Communion.  May our church be known to this community as a place where reconciliation happens.  May we all be able to say as we reach the end of our earthly pilgrimage, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”