September 18, 2022

  “Balm in Gilead”

(Jeremiah 8:18-9:1)

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.

Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:

“Is the Lord not in Zion?  Is her King not in her?”

(Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?)

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

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!

It was a morning about 25 years ago when I walked out onto my front porch getting ready to walk the dog.  There was a plastic bag hanging on the outside doorknob.  Curious, I picked it up and looked inside.  A mesh bag full of onions met my eyes and my nose.  Attached was a note from my friend that said, “In case you need to cry….” 

Well, of course I did need to cry.  My sister was dying of cancer, my mom wouldn’t be with us much longer and my marriage had fallen apart.  A few days earlier I had confided to my friend that I had simply been unable to cry in the midst of all this….   

Every time I read this morning’s text, Jeremiah’s lament about grieving, I go back to that day.  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night….” 

Most of us at some time or another have known what it means to say with Jeremiah, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.  I need to weep day and night.” 

To think that we can live life without ever suffering this sort of pain is to deny the reality of human life.  Over the years people have come to me, saying things like, “Where is God when I am having all this trouble?  Life shouldn’t be this painful.  I’ve been praying and begging and still no let up on the misery.” 

When we love people and creatures, we are going to suffer when they are in pain or dying.  Because there are realities such as disease or accidents, we will suffer—for ourselves or on our loved ones’ behalf.  

And there are times when we or our loved ones will make bad decisions.  Through our words or actions, we may cause others pain, but, then, there are the times when we will have to watch while people who are precious to us suffer the consequences of their own behavior.  Unfortunately, that is profoundly painful.  

But then there are times when bad stuff just happens through no one’s fault.  Insurance companies might call such things “acts of God,” but you and I both know that’s not so.     

In times like these we may have wondered, what happened to my joy?  Along with Jeremiah (though we will probably use different words), we will ask, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  Is there no relief from this pain?  Where is God?  Why hasn’t God come to my aid?

            We are told that the thing with Jeremiah’s people was that they, themselves, had caused much of this pain that they were suffering.  They had forgotten God; they had been provoking God to anger with their foreign idols; they had been ignoring God.  Jeremiah and the people were left trying to come to terms with the consequences of their and their country-people’s actions.  Now their nation was being overrun by the Babylonians and, later, many of the people would be captured and sent into exile.

            This kind of pain they were experiencing was unbearable.  It’s no wonder that they were asking, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”  And it’s a fair question.  None of us expects to be miserable and hurting in this life. 

You may be suffering with disease or constant pain, or you may be the parents or spouse or child of one who is suffering.  You may be grieving the death of a loved one.  You may be worried about a child or another loved one who is engaged in risky behavior.  You may have a loved one who is in the middle of a marriage going bad.  Or you may be concerned about the future of our world.  We wonder if this old earth will be here for our grandchildren….  

You may have worries about the young people: how they’re spending their time, how violent our world has become, how much adult-rated content they are being exposed to, how many overdoses that are happening, the residual damage that the pandemic has caused over the last two and a half years.  You may wonder how our nation will emerge from all that’s gone on these past few years.  Can this democracy survive?  What kind of world are we going to be passing down to the next generations?

            Given all this and more, I, like Jeremiah, and maybe even God, cry out “Oh that my head were a spring of water, so that I might weep day and night [for myself and my loved ones, for my nation and for the world].”  I wish I could open that bag of onions, get out a knife and start chopping and weeping.  I’d do it all day every day if it would wash away all the pain, if it would only heal the world.

            …But, the thing is, there is a balm in Gilead, there is healing for us.  The words of the hymn that we sang earlier, “There is a balm in Gilead,” may at least give voice to our own suffering and, perhaps even help us through the hard times:

1. Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but, then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. 

2. If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.  Refrain: There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. 

We all know at least one someone who has endured terrible hardship and has kept the faith through it all.  I know folks who have even given witness to God’s presence and have shown others wondrous love in the midst of terrible suffering and pain.  Those who remember Gerte Theil know that she was one of those whose faith was steadfast in the face of the pain and loss that she endured.  She went through the breakup of her marriage and, then, the murder of her daughter in New Mexico.  She and daughter Tinka raised the 2 granddaughters and, then, had to get through another daughter’s death from cancer.  But Gerte kept moving forward, continuing to work until her retirement, listening to her music, volunteering at Blossom and Playhouse Square, coming to church each and every Sunday.  In her Stoic, Germanic style, she loved God, and she loved us.           

…So, when you hear about folks like that you may think, “I could never be that strong and brave.”  I have certainly said that myself.  But in the midst of my complaining and being miserable, I was never excluded from being among those who receive the healing balm of the Great Physician.  Weeping all day and all night does not keep us from finding joy in the morning even though the pain and suffering continues in our lives and surely in this world.  

…You already know this, folks.  There’s no way to avoid the pain, but we can hold the pain and joy at the same time, hard as that is to believe.  Jeremiah says his joy is gone.  Someone or something overtook his joy.  You’ve been there.  I’ve been there.  But I think, as I have grown and matured in the faith I have come to know that, in spite of some really hard realities, I can still find moments of joy. 

Part of that joy is knowing that there is a balm in Gilead.  The truth is that we are held in God’s arms.  We are comforted even while we weep.  We are loved in spite of it all.  We are given the gift of tears for healing and…moreover, often those tears remind us to come to God, to give ourselves over to Jesus.  Whatever has transpired between us and God–bad behavior, allowing the things of this world to come before our relationship with God, questioning God when we are in the midst of our misery–none of this is greater than God’s love in Christ—not nearly.  

So…This is the word of hope today, the ultimate word of hope.  The healing balm is that there is nothing bad we can do or be or that can happen to us—there is nothing that is greater than God’s love for us and the joy we can find in life.  There is a balm in Gilead, thanks be to God.