First Presbyterian Church of Hallock, Minn.
September 19, 2010
Balm in Gilead
At his wit’s end Jeremiah shouts, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Now he wasn’t referring to Mount Gilead, Ohio or Gilead, North Carolina; neither to the Pulitzer Prize winning book Gilead by Marilynn Robinson. Jeremiah would have never dreamed of the countless companies which sell “Gilead Balm” on the internet these days. And Jeremiah, too, would never have predicted an African-American spiritual with references to Jesus Christ, Paul’s praying, and Peter’s preaching. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Jeremiah wonders. His question was a rhetorical one, but the sentiments behind are all too well-known to us today.
Jeremiah the prophet is one of the prophets about whom we know a fair amount — he gives lots of clues about himself — but his writing style is actually pretty difficult to follow. He jumps around from oracles of judgement to individual (or corporate) laments; from words of salvation and to epic descriptions of the troubles of the times. This is probably because the book of Jeremiah, as we know it, was pulled together many years after the prophet himself had died. So Jeremiah contains many words of the prophet named Jeremiah, and also words of those writing later in his name. We’re left with a book of challenging words set out in challenging ways.
But this part of Jeremiah seems clear enough: Jeremiah is certain that the people of God are living in sin; they have failed; they are fighting and lying and straying from God. Jeremiah shouts that the people have forsaken God and worship idols instead. Their whole country has fallen down the path of loose morals and dangerous living. And Jeremiah is shook-up, is beside himself with grief and lament for his people.
To get the feeling of Jeremiah chapter 18, I’m reminded of some cultures’ approach to crying a funerals. In some countries and cultures, families actually pay to have mourners attend the funeral, sit in the front row, and well….cry. These folk are paid to cry and wail as loud as they can, to support the family in their grief. I sort of think of Jeremiah having this gig on the side, along with some job that kept him pretty angry — maybe like Ozzie Guillen this week after the Twins swept the White Sox. Jeremiah is a prophet with a penchant for tears and anger, so much so, that the distinction becomes unclear between Jeremiah’s words of anguish and anger and God’s words of the same.
Listen to the heartache — of God, of Jeremiah — in this Eugene Peterson translation of this morning’s passage:
I drown in grief.
Oh, listen! Please listen! It’s the cry of my dear people
reverberating through the country.
Is God no longer in Zion?
Has the King gone away?
Can you tell me why they flaunt their plaything-gods,
their silly, imported no-gods before me?
The crops are in, the summer is over,
but for us nothing’s changed.
We’re still waiting to be rescued.
For my dear broken people, I’m heartbroken.
I weep, seized by grief.
Are there no healing ointments in Gilead?
Isn’t there a doctor in the house?
So why can’t something be done
to heal and save my dear, dear people?
Have you ever felt that way? Angry at God, or angry at yourself, or just overcome by grief and fed-up with the world? Probably all of us has at one time or another. Some more than others. Some even now.
In Peterson’s translation Jeremiah asks, “Isn’t there a doctor in the house?” But Jeremiah isn’t really looking for a qualified medical doctor either, because the condition of his people is not a medical condition. It’s a spiritual problem, a condition of mind and the soul and the culture.
Jeremiah’s times were bleak, ours aren’t anything to boast of either. The NY Times reported this week that the poverty rate in the U.S. has risen to the highest it’s been in fifteen years. One in seven Americans live in poverty. And the historical disparities continue between races, as the poverty rate for blacks and hispanics went up to 25%. Leaders at homeless shelters and food pantries report never having been so busy before.
Another story I saw this week spoke to another sort of hunger. Students last week at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania endured a week of social media blackout. The university provost shut down all internet access to Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging programs. For a week, students had to talk to one another in the flesh, and reflect on their use of social media and the internet.
Now I won’t quite call university Provost Eric Darr a prophet, but he is getting at that spiritual hunger Jeremiah yells about. Jeremiah said, “why can’t something be done to heal and save my people” and students at Harrisburg University will get to reflect on their use of technology and how it can be used to heal, and how it is used to hurt.
Now, back to Gilead. So if the Gilead Jeremiah is speaking of doesn’t refer to the one in Ohio of North Carolina, where is it? And what is it?
As Terence Fretheim of Luther Seminary explains, Gilead is a region in Transjordan (in the Middle East) known for its healing resources. The word “balm” comes from a word that means “balsam tree” and the tree has a resin that heals wounds. Think of it as an ancient Neosporin of Vicks Vapo-Rub. Gilead was known for its balm, sort of like Kittson County is known for its sugar beets, or our Presbyterian Women are known for their Pie Social.
So when Jeremiah ask, “Is there no balm in Gilead” he knows, practically speaking, that there is a balm in Gilead. He knows that there are physicians out there. But he’s feel so powerless, so helpless against the prevailing winds of the times that he almost gives up.
But, God doesn’t. The Lord is in Gilead and the Lord prevails. The Lord does not abandon God’s people. The Lord stays faithful even when we don’t — especially when we don’t.
The hymn we know, “There is a Balm in Gilead” continues Jeremiah’s tradition. It’s an African-American spiritual, sung by slaves who sometimes felt abandoned by God, who certainly were abandoned by a country which supposedly espoused “freedom.” Slaves were captured in Africa, often torn from their families and faced a hellish voyage across the Atlantic chained in slave galleys in disease-infested ships. Those who did survive the journey, were sold from one middle man to another until they ended up on plantations where they worked long hours or were beaten and whipped.
But slaves were allowed to sing while working in the fields, and spirituals developed. They weren’t written down in a hymnal; they were memorized and tattooed on their hearts. Out of this text from Jeremiah 18, the spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead” developed as a song to carry their sorrows and keep them going.
Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” And the spiritual sings, “There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.”
Those slaves knew the gospel truth: God does not abandon us. We can lament with Jeremiah, we can look out the window and see the world and all its problems, we can feel discouraged and almost lose hope. But the Lord has gone before us does not let us go.
As the old hymn goes:
Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.