September 22, 2013

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
1 Timothy 2:1-7

“There is a Balm in Gilead”

Jeremiah is often labeled “the weeping prophet,” and there is no passage that warrants that label for him better than today’s passage in which he cries and laments over the situation of the people of Judah. The problem is that the people of Judah are refusing to change their ways and turn back to God.

Jeremiah has denounced the confidence they have put in the temple and sacrificial rituals automatically to save them, but they will not listen and continue to provoke YHWH to anger by their idols. God has promised punishment, but even this does not change their perpetual and unrepentant backsliding. No matter how many times the prophet warns them, they won’t seem to listen, and so Jeremiah weeps in frustration and despair.

There are times when we also might feel like weeping when we look around at our world today. The last few months have certainly included many tragic events that may have given us cause to weep for the poor people of our world:

– the collapse of an unsafe garment factory in Bangladesh which killed and injured thousands of workers,

– the derailment of train cars of oil which caused the explosion and fire in Lac Megantic, killing over 40 people,

– the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, killing thousands of people,

– the bus/train accident in Ottawa a few days ago in which 6 people were killed,

– the terrible shootings right here in Saskatoon on Tuesday evening, as well as the continuing gang and drug activity that likely provoked them in the first place,

– and the militant attack yesterday in Nairobi leaving 59 dead, many injured, and numerous people still held hostage this morning.

Some of these devastations may seem unavoidable, but most of them are related to the fact that we have turned away from God and God’s ways of justice, compassion, and love for one another. We choose profits over people. We choose violence over dialogue. We choose convenience over care for one another and the earth.

Jeremiah’s lament over Judah could well be ours over the people of the world today: “Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land… 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? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? 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!”

Jeremiah weeps, not only because the people of Judah have turned away from God and God’s ways, not only because of the devastating consequences of that turning away, but because the religious institution seems incapable of doing anything to help the situation.

The temple in Jerusalem should have served to draw the people back to God and God’s ways. Through religious teaching, practices, and rituals, God’s people should have been learning the difference between right and wrong. They should have been discovering how God wanted them to live. They should have had the opportunity to recognize their sin, repent of it, and turn in a new direction.

Sharon Burch, in a reflection on this text, explains that “one of the functions of the clergy, the “physicians,” was to make sure that the cultic worship practices were observed, sacrifices offered, and tithes paid. Clergy were central to the adjudication process when the law was violated. The people of Israel were charged with examining their own hearts and removing from them any traces of apostasy they found there, but they also were to be taught and guided with regard to their cultic practices.

“Because the clergy had abrogated their responsibility, because they were involved in the administration of “cheap grace,” the people had no one to tell them the truth. There was no physician available to them.

It was as if Gilead, the one region in the land of Israel famous for the balm that closes wounds and keeps them from festering, had none for its own people. The temple, with its responsibility for upholding the covenant, was the one place where the people of God were told the unvarnished truth about their behaviour and the consequences of their self-interest. Because the temple did not do this, it had failed the people – there was no balm in Gilead that could save the sin-sick soul.”

This reflection naturally raises the question of whether we, as the church today, have similarly abrogated our responsibility to call and guide the people of the world back to God and God’s ways of justice, compassion, and love. Have we failed to speak out against injustice? Have we failed to stand up against oppression? Have we neglected to participate in the public forum offering alternative visions, priorities, and plans for the societies in which we live?

We may be aware of the fact that our own lives so rarely live up to God’s expectations that we couldn’t possibly be an effective witness to the world of God’s call to change and to become people of kindness, humility, and care for one another and the earth.

But if, when we read the prophet’s despairing question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” we feel a tinge of guilt for our failure as people of faith to guide our neighbours, our friends, and our families towards God’s way of love, we might also want to remember the African-American Spiritual that is inspired by this text and this question.

Where Jeremiah asked the question in lament and despair over the failure of the religious establishment to guide the people in ways of love, this spiritual song first composed and sung by an oppressed People, declares the good news that “There IS a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There IS a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” And the physician who can provide that healing balm for us and for the people of the world is Jesus – the Great Physician.

As people of faith who are lamenting like Jeremiah because of the suffering of the poor people of the world, as religious people who may be saddened and frustrated by the many ways in which our societies have turned away from God’s ways of justice, compassion, and love for one another and the earth… we are not called to judge, or to scold, or even to give up on our communities and countries, but we are invited to share Jesus with our neighbours.

When we look to Jesus, we discover in him a model for what it looks like to love. When we look to Jesus, we become aware of the ways in which our lives need to change and be transformed. And when we look to Jesus, we find out that change is possible because of God’s grace and God’s love for us. This is good news for us, and it is good news for all the people of the world.

As the African-American Spiritual reminds us, we get to participate in the healing of our neighbours and communities, in as much as we present Jesus to them – in our words, in our actions, and in all that we are. The balm itself comes from Jesus, the Great Physician, but we are like first responders who point others to the healer of our every ill.

Rather than getting caught up in lamenting the troubles of the world and the sorrow of the poor people around us, we are encouraged by the Scriptures today to put our passionate energy into prayer. The Apostle Paul instructed his young helper, Timothy, to pray for everyone.

Don’t just pray for people you know and love. Don’t just pray for people who seem like good people, people who might “deserve” your prayers. But pray for people in leadership positions. Pray for people you don’t know and you don’t understand. Pray for people who seem far away from God. Pray for people that you disagree with, whether in the church, or in the community, or on the other side of the world.

John Chrysostom, the 4th Century Church Father, once said, “No one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays.”

Is it possible for us this morning, not only to pray for the injured and suffering in Nairobi, but to pray for the militants who are still holding hostages?

Out of obedience to God, we must pray for one another because God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved. When we pray for everyone, we participate in God’s providential care for everyone. And as we do that, our hearts too grow larger, and by God’s grace we begin to share in God’s love for all the people of the world.

And as we pray, may we be encouraged and strengthened by the knowledge that there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. In Paul’s words… “There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” Thanks be to God.