Finding Balm in Gilead
Belmont UMC—September 22, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
As most of you know I have returned from a one month study and renewal leave. One of our bishops suggested the standard of clergy taking a renewal leave once every four years so after 40 years it seemed like time to do that. I want to thank you for that time. I want to thank the Staff Parish Relations Committee at Belmont for its continued accountability for staff self-care. I want to thank our staff who may have had extra work to do during my absence. Many of you prayed for me during that time away and I was blessed to know. And then others of you probably did not notice that I had been away. I love you anyway.
Many of you asked me how my time away was and how I spent it. I read a lot and began a personal writing project. I organized the garage, painted the bathrooms and did some yard work. I went for long meditative walks and rekindled some atrophied spiritual practices. I sat on a beach and stared at the ocean for many hours one week and I visited the mountains for a few days. Both of these places remind me of the vastness of God’s mercy and grace. Once in awhile I got a glimpse of what real Sabbath means. And I’m glad to be back with you.
I chose today’s text and sermon title before I left for this month-long leave. Somehow the words of this lament spoke to me then. Maybe there would be time to find renewed sources of hope and healing during my time away.
Maybe I would find balm in Gilead. Balm was an aromatic ointment that was thought to have medicinal qualities; it is mentioned in several places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here it is a metaphor for healing. Gilead was a real place north of the Dead Sea and a little east of the Jordan River. David took refuge there when he was being hunted down by his enemy, his own son, Absalom. Gilead is a place of refuge, a retreat from the threats and hardships of life. The lament is, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
I had forgotten what a downer this passage from Jeremiah is. Jeremiah is not known for his sense of humor; he is often called the weeping prophet, and his prophesies gave birth to a word, ‘jeremiad,” which means a long complaint or lamentation. Jeremiah, like the other prophets spoke the truth to power but they also spoke truth to weakness and suffering. Speaking the truth is never the pathway to popularity. Jeremiah and the other prophets suffered the consequences of their words. They were mocked, held in contempt and isolated.
These words from Jeremiah were spoken at a time when the people of Israel had lost their way and had lost sight of who God had called them to be. When Jeremiah was young, Josiah was king of the land of Israel. Israel’s perpetual enemy, Assyria, waned in power and left Israel alone. Josiah had rebuilt the temple and launched religious reform. He removed the shrines of Assyrian deities from the countryside and moved the center of worship and religious back to the temple. But Josiah was killed in battle and Jehoiakim became king. Jehoiakim was apathetic toward religious reform. The words of this lament were written at a time of spiritual and moral crisis. It was a time of great woundedness of spirit.
We are reminded that, “Every generation can hear the lament of Jeremiah with new ears, because demoralization and suffering span the centuries and the cultures.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, p. 74, Stephen Breck Reid) And after weeks of tragic news, genocide in Syria, more senseless gun violence in our nation’s capital, and floods in Mexico and Colorado, and more unnecessary gridlock in Washington, we may have arrived here this morning and wondered, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
The rhetorical questions and laments of this passage seem to imply a negative answer. Is there no balm in Gilead? No balm? So we must remember that these words are given to us as though they are coming directly from God. Jeremiah is not weeping. God is weeping. God is weeping for the hurt of God’s people. It is God who is heart sick. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (v. 21)
There is great hope in this God who cares so deeply for God’s people, for us. If we can find a way to this God of mercy and grace, then we can find healing. We can find balm in Gilead.
I enjoyed reading the novel, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr, and there is a wonderful British film of this novel. So if you’re not a reader, you might like the movie version. The main character, Tom Birkin, is a veteran of the Great War and he has returned with Post Traumatic Stress (what was then called “shell shocked”). His marriage has failed and he’s a broken man. He comes to a remote Yorkshire village to restore a medieval wall painting in tiny parish church. His arrival is dismal. It is raining. No one comes to meet him at the train. The parish rector is hostile toward him because he fears that the restored painting will be a distraction for his already inattentive congregation.
During the weeks that Tom works on the painting there are two local children who keep him company, but his most constant companions are the nightmares and the dead artist who painted the judgment scene he is restoring.
Gradually, the painting comes to life and Tom’s bitterness and fears begin to diminish. As he spends his days with the image of Jesus at the heart of the painting, Tom begins to see others in the village with new compassion. His heart is filled with love for the people in the village: the children who visit him as he works, a young girl in the village who is dying of tuberculosis, the bereaved family of a soldier killed in France, a young man tormented by his secret homosexuality, and Alice, the rector’s lonely wife.
As he uncovers the image of Christ, revealing a forgotten beauty in the small church, Tom finds restoration and healing of his soul. In face of God’s great compassion his heart is transformed to the point that he is able to deal compassionately even with those who are the most unsympathetic. ( see also: Weavings, XVIII: 3, pp. 11-12)
I did not choose this text because I felt wounded before I went on leave, at least not that I was aware of. One of the books I read in preparation for leave-taking suggested that one often discovers painful realities about oneself and hidden wounds during time of solitude and retreat. Frankly, I found that disconcerting. But I did sense a deep longing for places of solitude, quiet places where I could make space for God. And don’t we all long for those places. And don’t we all hope to find the healing balm of God’s grace in those places?
These words of Henri Nouwen continue to teach me and guide me, “In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received.” (Out of Solitude p. 22)
When I was a boy we went to a small rural church that began every worship service, singing these simple words, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Over the years I have heard in my mind the sweet, tinny voices of older women in that church singing those words and found comfort in knowing that healing and wholeness do not rest with me, but with our God and our God’s wide mercy and rich grace.
We find balm in Gilead when we allow space for this God who loves us so very much and who longs for us and who even weeps for us and with us when we have lost direction, when we have become distracted from whom God called us to be, or we are simply overwhelmed by much of the harsh realities we face each day.
And so we are not without hope in this world. And there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.