Christ Centered Resources

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

Rev. Ed Searcy

1 Timothy 2:1-7, Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 20, 1998
"Is there no balm in Gilead?" Out of the entire book of Jeremiah perhaps this phrase is the most enduring: Yet, like a famous line from Shakespeare that has long since been taken out of context so Jeremiah's grief stricken cry has been transformed. No doubt that is due to the power of the familiar spiritual that proclaims: "There is a balm in Gilead". Jeremiah's question has become a declaration. "Is there no balm in Gilead?" he asks. "There is a balm in Gilead!" we answer. The balm from Gilead was renowned in the ancient near east. It was a famous healing ointment made from the resin of a tree. Perhaps it was produced in Gilead or maybe Gilead was the major distribution centre that sent the balm along distant trade routes. Who knows? What we do know is that Gilead is famous for its healing balm. Does something ail you ... do you have aches and pains ... depressed? There is a balm in Gilead! Surely you recognize this pitch. It's as old as the first snake-oil salesman ... and as new as the latest advertising campaign. Everyone has a remedy, a cure, something that is sure to provide healing. We are submerged in a culture whose anthem is: 'There is a balm in Gilead'. Indeed North America markets itself as Gilead ... The culture which distributes the 'cure' throughout the world. Did you happen to watch the recent three-part documentary that recounts the history of Coca-Cola? Coca-Cola was created by a veteran of the Civil War who was trying, like many others, to quit his addiction to morphine and to find a tonic for his pain. Balm in Gilead ... well, in Atlanta actually. One hundred years later, in the 1960's, Coca-Cola markets itself to a world that seems incurably addicted to violence, rioting and war, through an interracial community standing on a mountaintop and singing: "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony". Coca-Cola is no longer sold simply as a cure for physical pain ... it has become the spiritual cure of a culture as well. 'The real thing'. The official drink of UBC. Balm in Gilead. Except, of course, we know otherwise. We who live in Gilead know that it doesn't work. The tonic is snake-oil. This is the sordid reality at the heart of Margaret Atwood's book 'The Handmaid's Tale'. The story takes place in a nightmarish future. Devastated by nuclear fallout, the American democracy has crumbled and been replaced by a 'Christian' theocratic state named 'Gilead'. Gilead promises healing for a devastated people. Yet, through the eyes of a lowly oppressed handmaiden, we soon discover that there is no balm in this Gilead. Beneath the surface of everyday existence, and behind the locked doors that shut out peering eyes, the pain and the despair is as devastating as any mushroom cloud. It is devastation like this that breaks Jeremiah's heart: "My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick." There is no delight for Jeremiah in witnessing the collapse of a culture. He has seen it coming ... he has warned them ... but they have paid no heed to his warnings. Instead, they keep singing their old hymns of assurance: "Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" Surely God will protect Jerusalem from all its foes. Surely God will be faithful ... sing it again: 'Great is thy faithfulness ... great is thy faithfulness' The faith of Jeremiah's day has become a cheap faith. It is a faith that demands nothing of the people and everything of God. It simply assumes that God is always forgiving, always healing, always present to those who seek God out. But people are beginning to realize that things have changed. They had thought that they knew how and when to find God. They had gone to worship, sung the psalms, listened to the scripture, meditated in prayer, received the blessings ... but nothing. Nothing. 'Patience', they are told, 'have patience'. So they wait ... wait for the promised arrival of God's healing presence. But now the promised time come and goes and still, nothing: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." Jeremiah looks out at an entire culture ... a religious culture, a political culture, an economic culture ... that has promised its people a cure when it has no real cure to offer. The advertisers still try to pitch their wares with impossible promises: 'Volvo ... finally, a car that can save your soul'. But slowly, ever so slowly, it begins to dawn on people that in spite of drinking cola and buying new cars and 'doing our duty to God and the Queen' "we are not saved". Life is still hollow ... empty ... diseased. Surely there must be a prescription that will bring healing. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" These are not questions that Jeremiah asks lightly. These are not questions that we dare rush to answer. To borrow a phrase from UBC President Martha Piper, when faced with perplexing questions we can only: 'Think about it.' Think about a student arriving for the first time at UBC from a small town in the interior of the province. The big city. The acclaimed university. Gilead ... with all its promise of answers. How long does it take for her to discover that there is no balm in this place for the pain that she carries within? Think about a graduate student who has invested years of work and thousands of dollars to become immersed in the complexities of his field of study. A field of study that once seemed so promising, so life giving ... so meaning full, but that now is so painfully arid and infertile. Hear his cry: "Is there no balm in Gilead?" Think about a student of theology who dreams of discovering not only transforming ideas but also healing community at the Gilead School of Theology. Imagine that she, too, asks Jeremiah's question: "Is there no balm even here?" And beyond the world of students ... beyond the comfortable confines of VST and UBC and University Hill ... the cry of the wounded cannot be silenced. It is everywhere. It is the angry cry of the middle class and the silent cry of the upper class and the silenced cry of the underclass: "Is there no balm in Gilead?" As we speak a team of ten visitors from the United Church General Council is arriving at Vancouver Airport. Tonight they travel to Port Alberni to spend twenty-four hours listening to the pain of the wounds left by the Indian Residential School which closed three decades ago ... wounds which have not yet been healed. One suspects that by the time that our guests leave Vancouver on Wednesday they will join in Jeremiah's lament: "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!" Truth is, for all of our culture's protestations and for all of our church's claims to the contrary there is for most people, most of the time, no balm in Gilead. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to change the words of that old spiritual. Maybe we too easily answer in the affirmative: 'Of course there's a balm in Gilead' when, in fact, the answer is not easy to come by. Too often we in the church ... and especially we preachers ... act as if it is self-evident. As if there is a balm in Gilead and we are the pharmacists who will be only too happy to dish it out. Take this week's news from Statistics Canada: "Canadians who attend religious services every week report having happier, less stressful lives and happier relationships with their partners than those who do not attend services at all." It seems a natural sermon illustration ... proof positive that there is, in fact, balm in Gilead after all. The prescribed dose seems self-evident: "Mr & Mrs Smith ... take one church service every week and you should notice an immediate improvement". But the balm which God provides is not as painless to swallow as that. That is the message of an unheralded but powerful movie entitled 'The Spitfire Grill'. It tells the story of Percy - Perchance - Talbot who leaves prison seeking a fresh start in the town of Gilead, Maine. Percy comes to Gilead seeking healing ... healing which is hard to come by once the town's folk discover her checkered past. But Percy sees things which they cannot see. She sees the beauty of the town which they imagine is not worth very much. More than that, she reaches out to individuals whose wounds have not healed. She sees people worth loving where they can only see 'damaged goods'. Percy's own healing comes through her life for others and through her vulnerability to their hurt. There is no minister in Gilead. The church closed its doors when the mine shut down. We soon realize that Percy, the ex-convict, has become Gilead's minister. Through her, people discover hope and a community experiences reconciliation. The one who came seeking balm in Gilead herself becomes the balm that Gilead has longed for. And when, in the movie's closing scenes, Percy loses her life in saving the life of Gilead's most damaged soul, we cannot miss the metaphor. We hear it echoed in today's reading from I Timothy: "Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all". The balm in Gilead is an ointment made from the sacrifice of the One sent by God ... One whose life for others brings hope, healing and reconciliation We have good news of great joy. We have found balm in Gilead. But it is not the kind of medicine we had expected. It comes from a tree that we thought was poisonous ... a tree of vulnerability and sacrifice, a Cross of suffering. Here is the awesome paradox that lies at the heart of the gospel: through our participation in the suffering of Christ we are anointed with the healing balm of Gilead. 'Think about it' Think about finding the healing we long for through embodying the suffering of Christ in our own families and communities. 'Think about it' Think about embarking on a path of sacrifice rather than choosing a path of success. 'Think about it' Think about being a church for others rather than a church for us. 'Think about it' 'There is a balm in Gilead'. It is intriguing that such an announcement emerges not from the plantation owner's hymnals but from the slaves singing in the fields. Perhaps the gospel can really only take root among a people who know that there is no other healing balm that can cure what ails us. Only those who have given up all hope of being saved by what they own and consume or by their grade-point average or by how high they rise through the corporate ranks of academia or of business or of the church ... only those who have learned that such pursuits cannot cure are open to discover the healing balm of participation in the suffering of God. Don't misunderstand. The suffering of God is not abuse which must be endured ... it is not pointless suffering or meaningless suffering ... it is suffering for something of worth to God ... it is suffering for someone who is beloved by God. The suffering of God is not suffering that traps and enslaves but suffering that liberates and saves. It is not suffering that brings discouragement but suffering that encourages. It is not suffering that grows out of despair but suffering rooted in a deep and abiding hope. In Jesus Christ we see the glory of God revealed ... In Him we discover God's willingness to suffer so that our wounds, and the sickness of the whole creation, can be healed. In Jesus Christ we discover that: "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul".