Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 22, 2013
Psalm 79:1-9; Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
“Is There a Doctor in the House?
The Balm of Gilead was a healing compound made from the resinous gum of a bush which grew plentifully in the area of Gilead during biblical times.
The sticky balm was thought to cure a whole host of ailments, from skin diseases to headaches to easing the pain of broken limbs.
We may snicker at the simplistic remedies of ancient times, but I wonder how many of you are familiar with a product called BAG BALM.
Bag Balm is an ointment developed in VT in 1899 by a dairy farmer.
The farmers rubbed it on the udders of their cows to soothe irritation after milking. When the farmers' wives began noticing the softness of their husbands' hands, they started using the product themselves. Today, Bag Balm can be found in drug stores, ski resorts, and of course farm and feed stores, as it’s still regulated by the FDA for use only on animals. It’s used to soothe psoriasis, dry skin, cracked fingers, burns, acne, diaper rash, bed sores, sunburn, tattoos, and even pruned trees. It’s also used to lubricate rifles, shell casings, and squeaky bed springs.
Basically, Bag Balm is the duct tape of medicine.
It comes in a 10-ounce green square tin with a cow's head on the lid.
The packaging, and the balm, have remained unchanged since 1899.
Further proof that there are some sources of healing that withstand the test of time.
After hearing our two scripture readings this morning, we may be asking ourselves if there is a balm in Gilead.
Between the Psalmist’s lament and Jeremiah’s tears, we may be left wondering, “Where is the Good News?”
How did these people find healing in the midst of such despair?
This can happen when we hear passages without knowing their full context.
We find that we’ve stepped into the midst of an ancient people’s pain with a limited understanding of where it’s coming from.
The truth is, there’s a lot of pain present in scripture.
About 1/3 of the Psalms in our Bible are categorized as Psalms of lament.
Laments are just as the word describes – a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.
For some of us, the last thing we want to hear in church on Sunday morning is a lament. We have enough grief and sorrow in our lives, and we come here to find a soothing balm and a clean dressing for our open wounds – an infusion of hope, that will help us to go back into the world with a little extra padding between us and our pain.
Even if we’re not experiencing a personal sorrow at this time, the Psalmist laments can be difficult for us to hear.
When we read Psalms that call on God to pour out anger and destruction upon nations for the wrongs they have commited, we get dismissive.
This is not the God that most of us worship - This God of vengeance and judgment who smites entire peoples for their transgressions.
But let us not confuse the words and actions of God with the words and actions of a people in pain.
The scripture texts we heard this morning are the words of a people trying to understand the role that God plays in the world.
Amidst war and destruction, they can’t help but ask,
“How is it that our enemies have overrun us when God has promised to protect us?”
“How is it that worshiping God seems to do little to alleviate our suffering?”
Jeremiah calls out to God, and asks, “Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here to restore us to health and ease our pain?”
The people of Judah were in desperate need of a balm, a soothing remedy to heal their wounds.
When Jeremiah was a young man a new king came to power.
One of the first things that Josiah did was renovate the Temple in Jerusalem; to return it to the glory it had known before the Assyrian invasion.
During the renovation of the Temple, workers discovered a book hidden in the recesses of the walls. It was the book of Deuteronomy.
Believed to have been written by Moses himself, the book contained a detailed institutional code: Laws governing worship, the appointment and regulation of religious leaders, and blessings and curses for those who keep and break the law.
Using Deuteronomy as his guide, Josiah banned the worship of all other Gods, reinstated the celebration of the Passover, and launched a program of religious reform that made the Temple the center of all Jewish life.
Local shrines were closed and the people were required to bring their offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Only the priests who practiced in Jerusalem now had the power to absolve sins.
There is an interesting sidebar to this story.
There is an earnest debate among modern scholars over how much of the discovered book of Deuteronomy was original and how much of it was amended by Josiah and the Temple Priests. It is curious that the “discovery” of the written code during the Temple renovation conveniently moved all power to the Temple priests and provided a scriptural basis for the reforms that Josiah had already begun putting into place.
God is still speaking indeed.
Regardless of how the reforms came about, the result was that Judaism became centered and strengthened by the elevation of the importance of the Temple and Temple worship.
And then King Josiah was killed in battle.
A new King came to power. One who did not value the reforms that Josiah had put into place. The new king was not as attentive or as passionate about managing the Temple. The priests and the people became content with going through the motions of ritual and sacrifice and saw no need to demand more of themselves in the service of God.
When the threat of outside invasion returned to Judah, the people blamed God for abandoning them, and the hollow rituals of the Temple provided little balm to soothe their pain.
It is in this atmosphere of an ineffective Temple and a weakened spiritual resilience that Jeremiah offered up the lament that we heard in our scripture reading today.
By following the letter of the law without nurturing the spirit of the law, the Temple and the people were ill equipped to handle the challenges and the unrest of their time.
Some would say that we are in a similar situation in our own time.
With the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated growing year by year, we wonder if the message of Christianity has lost its appeal.
The institutional church is no longer seen as the place to find healing in a hurting world.
The people are asking, “Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there a doctor among us who can restore us to health?”
And while we in the church wring our hands trying to figure out how to pay our utility bills, the people continue to seek that healing balm elsewhere.
In work and busyness, in money and material goods, in pharmaceuticals and fad diets, in addictive pleasures and distractions.
The lament that we raise as modern day believers is worthy of its own Psalm.
“What must we do, oh Lord, to bring healing to our hurting world?”
When Jesus was walking the roads of Palestine, people flocked to him because he had the power to heal whatever ailed them…whether it was withered limbs or hemorrhaging bodies. But more importantly, Jesus had the power to heal their withered and hemorrhaging spirits.
He spoke of a loving and forgiving God who welcomed all, and his words were like a soothing balm spread upon dried and cracked skin.
When the apostle Paul took the message of Jesus and set up house churches in towns and cities far and wide, Jews and Gentiles alike poked their heads through the doorways to see what the fuss was all about.
Some walked away thinking he was just another charlatan selling snake oil, but others stayed to listen, and found healing they had not expected to find.
Over the course of 2,000 years the church has repackaged and refurbished Jesus message to speak to the needs of hurting people in all ages and all corners of the world. Jesus is a balm that has withstood the test of time.
How is that the words of this first century Palestinian Jew have resonated with so many – Greek philosophers, medieval peasants, renaissance artists, stoic Puritans, African slaves, civil rights marchers, immigrants, refugees, and people of all times and places who’ve sought the liberating love of God.
And how is it that those same words of liberation have resonated with Kings, wealthy business owners, and white middle and upper class Americans whose lives are far removed from the suffering experienced by so many?
Because regardless of our life circumstances, we’re all human beings.
We all experience pain – the pain of loss, grief, and despair.
And we all experience joy - the joy of creation, compassion, and love.
Being a part of a spiritual community is the primary way human beings throughout the ages have sought to express their joy and heal their pain, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Our challenge as a church in the 21st century is to envision the ways that we might be the healing balm that the people of our time are seeking.
How might we find meaning in the context of our faith communities?
How might we use tradition and ritual AND creativity and innovation to both anchor and liberate the next generation of believers?
How might we take a page out of Paul’s book and encourage people to poke their heads through our doorways to see what the fuss is all about, and hopefully have them stay to find unexpected healing?
Perhaps we could start where Jesus and the original disciples did.
In the gathering of community, nurturing our faith through prayer, reflection, and worship.
And out on the street, serving others and living our faith in the world.
As the body of Christ we’re called to both receive and offer the balm of healing.
The church is meant to be a sanctuary – a place where we come to find respite from our busy lives, to find communion with God and other people, to share our joys and shed our burdens, and to discover the gifts that we have to give to the world.
And the church is meant to be a prophetic presence – challenging the status quo, speaking out against injustice, demanding sacrifices of each of us so that all might share in God’s bounty, and moving against the grain of a culture that elevates consumerism, nationalism, and individualism above God and our call to be the body of Christ in the world.
There is a balm in Gilead.
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul
The Good News is that the laments of Jeremiah and the Psalmist did not fall on deaf ears.
As author Brian McLaren writes:
The good news is that God loves the world and didn’t send Jesus to condemn it but to save it; the good news is that God’s wrath is not merely punitive but restorative; the good news is that the fire of God’s holiness is not bent on eternal torment but always works to purify and refine; the good news is that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.
What pain are you hoping to have soothed by coming here today?
What pain is the person seated beside you carrying with them?
How might we come to understand and be a healing presence for one another?
Might we let God in, to make our wounded world whole.