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.

Textual Harassment

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Genesis 9:18-28.

One of the scariest things about the Bible is how people can take one small part literally and out-of-context in order to make it say some pretty strange things.  We’re used to this in some ways.  Who hasn’t seen “John 3:16” posted on billboards or bumper stickers around town?  Thank goodness nobody (so far) has put Leviticus 26:29 on their bumper sticker: “You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters.”  Personally, that verse alone is enough to make me think twice before eating at any place that calls itself a “family restaurant”!

What would it be like if we took things that literally in our love poetry?

“Oh darling, your face reminds me of the morning sun!”

“Are you calling me a giant ball of gas?!”

It wouldn’t work!

And it doesn’t work with the Bible either.  The Bible is not a magic book filled with easy answers that can never be wrong.  Yet some Christians still seem to treat it as such.

I have a good friend who has struggled with clinical depression for over a decade.  Folks at church would tell her things like, “You should just remember what it says in Nehemiah 8:10: ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”  These folks sincerely meant well, but their words did more harm than good.

My friend responded, “Ordering me around with Bible verses about joy will only make me feel more distant from God than I already do!”

Again, the Bible is not a magic book that’s full of easy and infallible answers.  It’s complicated and often confusing.  The divine Word comes to us in the midst of these human words.  You have to listen for it.  And sometimes, it can be very hard to hear.

Nowhere in the Bible is this truer than in the passage we read this morning from Genesis.  This is the real end of the Noah’s Ark story.  It’s the part they probably didn’t teach you about in Sunday school.  It’s pretty dark and disturbing, isn’t it?  There’s no divine intervention or moral to the story.  All we have is the image of Noah getting blackout drunk, Ham committing an unspeakable act of abuse against his father, and Noah then cursing his grandson Canaan for all time.  This story doesn’t lend itself to simplistic interpretation.

Many biblical scholars see this as a story that was made up in order to explain the origins of a certain international conflict.  In the ancient Middle East, there was an intense rivalry between Israelites and Canaanites.  They were competitors for the same piece of land (not unlike the modern-day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians).  Undoubtedly, young Hebrews would eventually come to the point of asking, “Why do we hate them so much, anyway?”  So the tribal elders produced this story as an answer to that question.  You may have noticed that Noah’s cursed grandson is named “Canaan”, just like the nation that was then in conflict with the Israelites.

Canaan was the son of Ham, who had other sons.  If you look at the list of their descendants in Genesis 10, you’ll see some other familiar names: Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and the Philistines.  All of these (along with the Canaanites) were the ancient enemies of Israel.  And (according to the story) they all had Noah’s son Ham as their common ancestor.  The Israelites, on the other hand, claimed Noah’s other son, Shem, as their ancestor.  By the way, that’s where we get the words “Semitic” and “Anti-Semitic” in reference to Jewish people.  “Semitic” is derived from the name “Shem”.

So, for the purposes of this story, all of Israel’s national enemies are lumped into one convenient ethnic basket.  They can all be traced back to one person: Ham son of Noah.  You can see why the Israelite storytellers then had a vested interest in making this individual out to be as nasty and evil as possible.  So they have him commit this horrible act of violence against a member of his own family (who also happens to be a member of Israel’s family, according to the mythological genealogy in Genesis).

The text tells us that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father”.  This is more than just accidentally walking in on someone in the shower.  It’s a Hebrew euphemism that typically refers to some kind of shameful abuse.  Thankfully, the text spares us the gory details.

Ham, the ancestor of Israel’s enemies, is a perverted deviant while Shem, the ancestor of Israel, is the hero who tries to help his father.  As a result, Noah proclaims, “Cursed be Canaan [son of Ham]” and “Blessed by Yahweh my God be Shem”.  So, an ancient Hebrew reading this story would come away with the notion that “we are the good guys” and “they (our enemies) are the bad guys”.  The purpose of this story is to justify the hatred of one’s enemies.  It paints the ancestor of one’s rival as a monster who was less than human.  This hardly seems consistent with the ethic of love that Jesus taught!

What’s even more disturbing is the way this text was interpreted by Christians for several centuries.  You’re looking at the primary biblical text that was used to justify the institution of slavery until the 19th century.  Early commentators portrayed Ham as the ancestor of African people.  His African descendants, they said, bore the weight of Noah’s curse and were thus doomed to be the “lowest of slaves”.  Christians bought this line of twisted theology for hundreds of years.  Our African brothers and sisters suffered and died under the yoke of slavery because of it.  It wasn’t until the 19th century that Christians in the abolitionist movement came up with a new way to read and interpret the Bible.  Thankfully, many Christians in that day followed this new guiding light from the Holy Spirit.  In fact, some of them lived right here in our own community.  We know from historical records that the Underground Railroad ran right through our little village of Boonville as escaped slaves made their way toward freedom.

You may notice that, while I’ve said a lot about how this passage should not be interpreted, I haven’t said much about how this passage should be interpreted.  I’ll be honest: I’m not going to.  This is a difficult passage that defies easy answers.  If I were to make an attempt at interpreting this passage, it might go something like this:

This is a warning passage.  The hateful rhetoric in the book of Genesis eventually gave rise to brutal genocide of Canaanites in the book of Joshua.  In the same way, the Anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s eventually gave rise to the Holocaust in the 1940s.  I might ask a question: What words are we using today that might become the basis for atrocities in the future?  But, like I said, I’m not going to give this particular Genesis passage a full treatment in this sermon.  Instead, I’m using it as a springboard to launch us into a discussion about how we understand and use the Bible itself.

If we treat the Bible like a magic book with easy and infallible answers, then we are bound to end up in some strange ideological territory.  This text alone has been used to justify everything from slavery to genocide.  The good news is that this is not the only way to read the Bible.  If we come to the text with open minds and hearts, we can trust that the Holy Spirit can and does still speak to us through these ancient words.  Even though the Bible was used to uphold the institution of slavery, let’s not forget that the abolitionists also drew their inspiration from the same Bible.  They just read it differently!

How can we be sure that we won’t end up reading the Bible in a way that oppresses and dehumanizes our fellow human beings?  What kinds of tools are out there to help us listen for the divine Word as it comes to us in midst of these human words?  There are several.

To name a few, I’m going to pull from a paper published by the Presbyterian Church back in in 1982.  It sets forth some general guidelines for understanding the authority and interpretation of the Bible.  These guidelines are printed on an insert in your bulletin.  I invite you to take it home with you and look it over in greater detail.  In the meantime, let’s read these guidelines out loud together as our Affirmation of Faith this morning:

BIBLICAL AUTHORITY AND INTERPRETATION

The United Presbyterian Church in the USA, 1982

Recognize that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, is the center of Scripture.  The redemptive activity of God is central to the entire Scripture.  The Old Testament themes of the covenant and the messiah testify to this activity.  In the center of the New Testament is Jesus Christ: the Word made flesh, the fulfillment of Israel’s messianic hope, and the promise of the Kingdom.  It is to Christ that the church witnesses.  When interpreting Scripture, keeping Christ in the center aids in evaluating the significance of the problems and controversies that always persist in the vigorous, historical life of the church.

Let the focus be on the plain text of Scripture, to the grammatical and historical context, rather than to allegory or subjective fantasy.

Depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying God’s message.

Be guided by the doctrinal consensus of the church, which is the rule of faith.

Let all interpretations be in accord with the rule of love, the two-fold commandment to love God and to love our neighbor.

Remember that the interpretation of the Bible requires earnest study in order to establish the best text and to interpret the influence and cultural context in which the divine message has come.

Seek to interpret a particular passage of the Bible in light of all the Bible.

We Are All Ordained

William Wilberforce, as portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace (2006)

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Acts 2:1-21.

William Wilberforce had a problem.  He was trying to figure out what to do with his life.  Most youth and adults know what that’s like.  However, what makes this case different is that Wilberforce was already a successful member of the British Parliament.  In American terms, he would be called a Congressman.  To be where he was (especially in 18th century England), one would assume that he had already climbed the ladder of success!

The thing that had Wilberforce all worked up about his future is that he had recently experienced a profound and life-altering spiritual awakening.  His personal relationship with God had suddenly taken over his life to such a degree that Wilberforce was thinking of quitting politics for good and entering ordained ministry in the Anglican Church.  He was at a loss over what to do.

While he was in this state of mind, Wilberforce was introduced to a group of Christian activists who were campaigning heavily for the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.  The beginning of Wilberforce’s involvement with this group (later known as ‘the Clapham sect’) is depicted beautifully in the 2006 film Amazing Grace.  Seated around his dining room table, they showed him examples of the irons used to restrain captured slaves during their journey across the Atlantic.  Conditions were so brutal that no one was guaranteed to survive.  They introduced him to Olaudah Equiano, a liberated slave who became an active abolitionist.  Equiano showed him the scars on his body.  While Wilberforce’s mouth was still hanging open in shock, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More delivered what I believe to be the best line in the film:

Thomas Clarkson: Mr. Wilberforce, we understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.

Hannah More: We humbly suggest that you can do both.

And I think they were right.

The members of this group understood one very important truth that most Christians tend to forget.  It’s a truth that we celebrate every year on the feast of Pentecost.  And here it is: The Holy Spirit ordains all people to preach good news to the world.

Not just some, but all.  Have you ever noticed something strange about the early church in the book of Acts?  Most other radical movements in history emerge with a chain of successors once the initial founder is out of the picture.  There was even biblical precedent for this.  After the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, people everywhere recognized his apprentice Elisha as his chosen successor.  They said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”

But that didn’t happen in the early days of Christianity.  Jesus Christ had no heir or replacement.  The title ‘Messiah’ did not pass to a predetermined chosen one after his departure into heaven.  Instead, the Holy Spirit, the very power and presence of God, came to dwell within the entire community of faith.

We read, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

This kind of thing was totally unprecedented, although the ancient prophets had prayed for something like it to happen.  One time, when people complained to Moses about unauthorized prophets in the Israelite camp, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  Later on, God spoke through the prophet Joel saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

And that’s exactly what happened.  The entire community of believers on Pentecost was filled with the Holy Spirit and each one started “speaking about God’s deeds of power” to people from “every nation under heaven”.  There was no seminary course or board-approved examination.  They simply opened their mouths and started to speak “as the Spirit gave them ability.”

There was no single successor to Jesus’ ministry.  There was no special order of priests or prophets.  The only qualification for speaking forth good news in the power of the Holy Spirit is that you had to believe.  “Out of the believer’s heart,” Jesus said, the Holy Spirit would flow, like “rivers of living water”.  He never said, “Out of the apostle’s heart” or “Out of the pastor’s heart”.  No, Jesus said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”

Anyone with an open heart and an open mind about Jesus is a vessel for the Holy Spirit.  This is an important piece of good news for us to hear, on this day of all days.  Later today, a new pastor will be ordained in this church.  But, if we take the message of Pentecost seriously, then we must admit that there is a very real sense in which all of us are already ordained as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, each of us has a responsibility to answer God’s call on our lives and preach good news to the world around us as the Holy Spirit gives us ability and opportunity.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we all need to become experts at delivering sermons.  That’s only one way to preach the good news.  A single act of kindness can be a sermon unto itself.  You can even preach by listening while people tell you about their problems.  You might not have fancy theological answers to questions about Christianity, but the simple fact that you’re letting someone ask a tough question is sometimes enough to speak to that person’s heart.

William Wilberforce found his way to do the work of God and the work of politics at the same time.  He devoted the rest of his life to fighting slavery.  He sent petitions, lobbied Members of Parliament, spoke out in the House of Commons, and wrote legislation.  Finally, in 1807, he succeeded in ending the British slave trade once and for all.  He never became a member of the clergy, but this was his life’s work as an ordained minister of the good news.

In the same way, each one of you is an ordained minister of the good news.  You will leave this church today and go back to your neighborhood, your family, your school, your shop, or your office.  As you go, let this reality sink into your heart.  Let this mentality take over your brain:  You are a missionary.  The place where you stand is your mission field.  Be open to whatever ministry opportunities the Holy Spirit may bring into your life today.  Be faithful in your calling as an ordained minister of the good news of Jesus Christ.