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.