Balm in Gilead
| Psalms 79:1-9
Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1
|Sun, September 23, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The temptations are great. The tumultuous events of this month cry out for answers. Experts fill television and radio talk shows, newspaper and news magazine pages with commentary. The email inbox fills with articles, letters, papers and sermons from every corner. So many words ... so many attempts to make sense ... to answer why ... to point the way ahead. And the temptations for the preacher are great. It is so tempting to use this pulpit as a platform to add my voice ... to provide my answers ... to join the chorus ... to take sides ... all on God’s behalf, of course. So I need your help. I need your help to avoid temptation. I need your help to remain faithful to my calling ... to proclaim the living Word of God no matter how strange it may sound to our contemporary ears.
In a few days we will receive our newly published Christian Seasons Calendar. We are calling this year’s edition “Salt of the Earth” as a reminder of the distinctive life that Jesus calls his disciples to live in the world. And it causes me to wonder just what kind of salty living we are going to be called upon to lead in the days ahead. We have the sense, don’t we, that September 11th is a great fulcrum in time for this generation ... that life after that brutal Tuesday will never be the same? We Christians in North America are faced with the looming question of citizenship ... we sense that we may soon be forced to decide where our primary citizenship rests ... in the nation state or in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ pronouncement that “you are the salt of the earth” sounds so pleasing ... so much like a marketable title of a calendar ... until it dawns on us that standing out from the crowd may yet prove to be a high risk endeavour.
But we don’t know that ... yet. We have not discerned what God is calling us to be or to do. We only know that we are called to gather, to worship, to confess the truth about our lives, to listen to the Word, to pray for the world and to offer our life together as a living sacrifice for God’s purposes in that world. We do not gather here to confirm our prejudices ... or to force God to conform to our way of thinking. We gather here to be changed - to be converted - by the living Word of God which speaks to both our intellect and heart ... which turns our world and lives upside-down ... which sounds like so much foolishness to the philosophers and such a scandal to the religious folk. And, see, this act of listening to scripture in order to be changed is already a sign of a salty people who live a different life. So we do today what we do each Sunday. We open our Bibles to the appointed texts, texts chosen years ago for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost in year C of the Ecumenical Lectionary. And we listen. We listen with one ear on the news ... and the other ear on the Bible. And we wait for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit ... for the shocking high voltage surge which comes when the ancient words come alive with the living voice of God.
Listen: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick ... For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt ... I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me ... 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.” (Jer. 8:18, 21-22). Jeremiah sees Israel in trouble. He sees its dreams of security destroyed. He sees terror and panic and death ... and he is overcome by great grief. But the text says more than that. It says that this is not only the prophet’s deep despair at Israel’s loss. It names this grief as the word of “the LORD” (Jer 9:2). Yahweh, the God met by Moses in the burning bush, the one whose name means “I am what I am up to”, weeps. The text seems uncannily fitting as a reading for today in churches across the continent and around the world. If there is one response which links us with others in our reaction to the destruction of September 11th it is this: that grief is upon us, that our hearts are sick, that dismay has taken hold of us. Grief for the innocent victims of terror. Heartsick over the sin which catches the world up in rage and revenge, twisting God’s good intentions for the earth into evil designs. Dismay at the troubles that surely lie ahead. At vigil after vigil in city after city across the United States of America and throughout the earth ordinary people pour out their grief ... their eyes a fountain of tears. Many ask: “Where is God in all of this?” Jeremiah’s answer is sure. Yahweh weeps with sobs and loud wailing ... because the LORD knows even more than do we what kind of trouble is upon us.
Of course, to be fair, Jeremiah writes of disasters that befall tiny Israel some two and a half millennia ago. He writes of God’s grief at what has happened to the distinctive people who have been called to keep covenant with Yahweh. It is not self evident who Jeremiah speaks to today. Are his words addressed to Jews who are inheritors of the covenant? Is he addressing Christians who have become co-heirs of this ancient promise? Is Jeremiah’s audience America, with its dream of being ‘a city on a hill’ - a promised land of liberty and freedom? Or perhaps, does this ancient prophet now speak to all people in every land ... all children of the God of heaven and earth? The text doesn’t say. It simply testifies that God is stricken with pangs of grief and sadness. Like jurors in a court room, we listen to the testimony of this ancient witness and ponder the truth.
And, as with many a witness, the testimony is not as simple or straightforward as we wish. Jeremiah quotes the confident assurances of the people: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (Jer. 8:19). The rhetoric states the obvious. The people confidently assert:”God bless Jerusalem”. Israel falls back on its mantra: “In God we trust”. No doubt Jeremiah hears the priests and the people singing the Psalm we recited this morning - the 79th Psalm - in the midst of Israel’s destruction: “Pour out your rage on the nations that do not acknowledge you ... for they have desolated Israel’s home.” Israel cries to God for help in the righteous battle against evildoers. Who can blame her? Innocent children have been slaughtered. Blood flows in the streets. So Israel is surely justified in calling upon God to come to her aid in the good fight. But Yahweh does nothing. The world continues to fall apart. Evil seems to only grow in its power to destroy. The people wait upon God, hoping that the LORD will intervene, but their world grows only darker and more troubled ... the terror is on the increase, not the decrease. As autumn arrives and winter approaches, the people of Israel begin to suspect that the days ahead can only get darker and colder: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” (Jer. 8:20)
The trouble is that Jeremiah sees more. Jeremiah is blessed - or, perhaps, cursed - with a heart that is mysteriously and profoundly attuned with the heart of Yahweh. Jeremiah sees that Israel is not pure ... that it is too quick to assume God’s easy approval among the nations. And Jeremiah is courageous enough - or foolish enough - to speak of what he sees. As the priests and politicians call upon all of Jerusalem to unite in the face of their common foe, Jeremiah dissents. When called upon for a Word from the LORD, Jeremiah delivers ... but he delivers a hard word, not an easy one. He dares to confront the Holy City, Jerusalem high on a hill, with its idolatry. He points to the self-righteous ease with which it has looked down upon other nations and peoples. He names its reliance on the ways of the world rather than the covenant path of Yahweh. He declares that Israel’s real enemy in this terrible confrontation is none other than the very God who it now calls upon for help. Are his words now directed to contemporary Jerusalem? Or to the New Jerusalem of New York? Or to Canada, so tempted to look down upon our Southern neighbours with self-righteous disdain? Or to the church which is eager to sing of the grace of God but wants nothing to do with God’s wrath? Or to the world of nations, each so confident in the justice of its cause? There are those - many of those - who would argue that this ancient text is just that, a dusty ancient text ... not a living Word addressed to anyone anymore. But for us it is different. In Jesus Christ have discovered that the God of Jeremiah and of Israel is the God of Jews and of Gentiles, the LORD of history and of nations, the Maker of heaven and earth. So we do not have the luxury of ignoring the God who speaks through Jeremiah’s troubling voice. We have to listen to him. Or silence him. Which is precisely what the people of Jerusalem do. They lock him up so that no one will have to hear his awful sermons. They go, instead, to hear preachers who deliver a more comforting message.
But it is Jeremiah whose voice still speaks today. He was not silenced then ... and cannot be silenced now. Jerusalem’s initial response to Jeremiah is revulsion. Yet, slowly, the people come to realize that Jeremiah tells the truth. You can almost hear whispers of this acknowledgment in the 79th Psalm. Did you notice? In reciting this text of rage against the evildoers we suddenly find ourselves asking forgiveness for “the sins of past generations”. “Deliver us” we pray, save us “and forgive our sin”. To our surprise, being delivered from evildoers is linked somehow with the forgiveness of our own sin. There is in Israel, and in us, a growing awareness that we cannot simply keep evil out there - outside our borders or outside our faith or outside ourselves. We, too, are caught up in the chaotic forces of disintegration and oppression that the New Testament rightly names the “principalities and powers”. Somehow, even in our desire to be the ‘salt of the earth’ we find ourselves caught up in the forces of evil which hurt and destroy. It is this realization, this confession of the truth about ourselves, this turning away from self-righteousness to the righteousness of God that Jeremiah announces. But he sees little hope for a cure. The people rush headlong for disaster. Nothing he says seems to awaken them to the trouble ahead. So he utters the famous cry: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” Gilead is ancient home to medicinal ointments with powerful curative powers. It is where Jeremiah’s contemporaries go when all else fails. But even Gilead has no cure for this disease. This violence, this terror, this chaotic political and economic and spiritual cancer is too far gone. Jeremiah’s haunting question is a grief-stricken wail in the night at the death bed of Jerusalem.
Yet his cry does not go unanswered. In daring to face the trouble and to name the truth of Israel’s predicament, Jeremiah is also the first to see the startling hope that emerges in the midst of utter destruction. Jeremiah’s first great discovery is Yahweh’s furious anger with Israel’s string of broken promises and its reliance on the ways of the world. Jeremiah’s second - and even greater - discovery is Yahweh’s steadfast love and irrrepressible mercy which, finally, promises to heal and redeem and save. When confronted with the heart of darkness Jeremiah refuses all of his contemporaries’ easy answers. With him we gather beneath the Cross, sign of the evil which plagues the earth and each of us ... evidence of our complicity in terror, terror that finally crucifies the heart of God. Standing here with Jeremiah, stunned by the brutality and finality of Good Friday, we can hardly believe that the Creation can know a future free from the evil that seduces humankind. But, of course, we dare to stand here at all because we have heard the news, and some of us have seen with our own eyes, that in the midst of this utter chaos Yahweh is up to something good once more. There in the tomb, just when we are sure that there is no balm in Gilead, Christ is risen. And absence slowly turns to presence. And despair slowly turns to hope. And fear slowly turns to courage. And mourning slowly turns to dancing. And a people slowly turns, becoming life-giving salt in a sin sick world. May it be so. Amen.