Weekly Seeds: No Balm in Gilead

Sunday, September 18, 2022
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Year C

Focus Theme:
No Balm in Gilead

Focus Prayer:
God our Healer, strengthen us to face our struggles, heal us within, and make us instruments of your healing in the world.

Focus Reading:
Jeremiah 8:18–9:1
18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
19 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?”)
20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
21 For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
9 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!

All readings for this Sunday:
Jeremiah 8:18–9:1 and Psalm 79:1–9
Amos 8:4–7 and Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1–7
Luke 16:1–13

Focus Questions:
1. How do you respond to injury?
2. What keeps us from healing?
3. What means have you taken to heal?
4. How have you responded to the collective injury of living through a global pandemic?
5. What do we need to do collectively to heal?

By Cheryl Lindsay

I don’t spend much time on playgrounds anymore, but I do wonder if seesaws maintain a presence there. I remember the first–and last–time I got on a seesaw. I was cajoled to try it, because it did not look like something I wanted to do. I still remember how destabilized I felt after someone got on the other side as I sat on it. A third child laid across the bar in the middle and moved back and forth as different pairs of children (theoretically) enjoyed the ride. During my turn, as the third child moved away from me and toward my partner, I realized that my grip would not hold me as I rose in the air. The next thing I knew, I was falling on the ground. I wasn’t broken, but I felt the pain of impact and I’m sure I had a bruise at least and probably scraped my skin. I’ve never even thought of getting on the seesaw again. I don’t believe that my partner or the third child fell after I did. I don’t remember them being demonstrably hurt in any way.

But, looking back, I wonder how they felt. I was preoccupied with my pain in the moment and even my memory, but did my instability transfer to them? Did they also avoid that part of the playground afterward? Were they traumatized by my fall?

Trauma, after all, rarely only affects one person, even when that one is most impacted in the moment. Often, trauma reverberates communally, and the prophecy of Jeremiah permeates with the impact of traumatic events upon a people:

Trauma refers to the impact of violence upon individuals. But when traumatic violence reigns down upon a whole society, trauma becomes a public disaster. When suffering and loss heaped upon one person is no more than a miniscule moment in the massive destruction of a society and its habitat, violence magnifies its effects in uncountable ways. It creates a kind of mental vacuum. It so overwhelms the capacities of victims to take it in, that the violence cannot be absorbed as it is happening. Traumatic violence comes as a shocking blow, a terrifying disruption of normal mental processes, distorting reality, even as it becomes the only reality….Even before Babylon appeared on the international horizon, Judah had been attacked, defeated, and dominated by another imperial power. Judah’s own life was severely crippled. But the subsequent rise of Babylon at the end of the seventh century B.C.E. would bring disaster upon Judah.
Kathleen M. O’Connor

Our focus text presents Jeremiah’s response to the condition of his “poor people.” His words reflect profound lament for their condition. He begins with an expression of his grief, which he quickly attributes to his empathy for the people he has claimed and for which he has compassion (suffers with). He repeats the cries he has heard from them, although that iteration is interrupted with a parenthetical question presumably from the Holy One suggesting that the people’s behavior has contributed to their condition. Then, he returns to his personal lament on their behalf. Their cries become his cries, and his only hope/prayer at the end is for the capacity to grieve more deeply.

Jeremiah has been portrayed as the “crying prophet,” in part, due to this passage. On the surface, it appears he wants to wallow in his grief. Who prays for more tears?

I often think of the role of the prophet to speak for God in a given situation, but this passage reminds me that prophecy has a dialogical component. The prophet serves as intermediary, speaking alternatively from the perspective of the Holy One who calls them as well as for the people of which they are apart. Yet, Jeremiah serves as prophet not priest, who assume a different mediating role.

Laments frequently alternate with the analysis of a sinful people and the consequent announcements of judgment. In 8:18 – 9:3 the diagnosis of the nation’s situation contrasts sharply with that given by the prophets and priests. Priests in Israel, whose role was to check whether people had been genuinely healed, are accused of superficial healing, which makes the wounds worse (vv. 11, 22). Judgment reveals the truth, but it is not announced with dry eyes.
Hetty Lalleman

Prophets are not distant and removed from their communities; the very nature of their assignment is to be with and among the people, to understand their condition, and to interpret it in light of divine purpose and perspective. They lament rejection of God and deliver hard truths to those in power. At the same time, prophets appeal for mercy, redemption, and restoration for the people who have received judgment. The prophets advocate for the people to their Creator. They occupy space that overlaps God’s side and the people’s side, just like that third child moving back and forth on the seesaw.

It can’t be easy to teeter in that space…to keep the balance and to act as a level. This text has three points of view–Jeremiah’s, his poor people, and God’s. They are all grieving.

The problem called theodicy, that is, the question of God’s power and love amid great suffering, is a perennial enigma of theology. This lesson from Jer 8:18-9:3, however, inverts the problem of theodicy. Instead of attempting to justify the ways of God to humans, Jeremiah poses the question in reverse order: how can you justify the ways of humans to God? The response the prophet offers is that human evil causes God great pain. There are few passages in the Bible that express grief as pointedly and passionately as Jer 8 and 9. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick,” says the prophet (or God, or both). There is actually a question about who is speaking in this passage. The phrase, “says the Lord,” at the end of this unit of Scripture is “textually insecure” (Walter Brueggemann, Λ Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, 1998,91). It does not appear in all ancient manuscripts. Yet as Brueggemann points out, whether we’re talking about the pathos of God or of the prophet, the grief here is surely inclusive of both. Indeed, the grief of God and the prophet appear to be beyond healing, for as the question is posed, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (v. 22).
Gench, Roger J.

The people feel abandoned by God, the Holy One feels angered, and Jeremiah feels it all. It’s too much to keep in so he prays for a way to let it all out. Tears provide release, cleansing, and relief. If there is no balm in Gilead to apply to these wounds, then let him be internally transformed into an agent of his own healing. Those tears he covets become the missing balm.

The last few years have wrought collective, global and national trauma–the pandemic, rise in authoritarianism and white nationalism, wars ended and wars begun, mass shootings and gun violence, dismantling of human and civic rights, and political violence. It takes a toll. Focusing on the impact of the pandemic, millions of people have died around the world and more than a million in the United States alone. Who has not been touched by the loss of someone? Others who survived contracting the virus continue to suffer from “long-COVID.” Economic disparities worsened. Weaknesses and limitations of our health care and educational institutions surfaced and were compounded.

Almost from the beginning, there were cries of longing or insistence to return back to “normal.” People publicly insisted that, “They were done with COVID,” even as others countered that, “COVID was not done with us.” As a society, our affinity for “rugged individualism” does not facilitate a collective, healing response to trauma. We’re told to get over what truly must be gone through. Processing grief is not a choice; it’s a journey that takes as long as it takes to get there. We travel at our pace; we don’t get to flip a switch to turn it off.

The church has been grieving far longer than we have been in a pandemic. Membership and affiliation have been in decline for decades even if accelerated during this period. Nearly every congregation I encounter describes themselves as aging, which is another way of lamenting generational disconnection in terms of faith expression and belonging as well as a way to not quite confront the inevitable repercussions of a church that long refused to make space for the very people whose presence it now seeks.

Some wounds are self-inflicted, as the Holy One’s parenthetical interjection reminds us. The people questioned where God was in the midst of their turmoil. The Holy One reminds them that they weren’t looking for God. Rather, their attention was placed on idols, gods of their own making. The church has made idols of our buildings, our music, our rituals and forms, our power structures, our unexamined traditions, and even our language. We have been impacted by the trauma of the world, but our response has often been to cling to the safety (read: isolation) of our sanctuaries for ourselves rather than to pursue the call to be agents of divine healing in the world, even if all we have to offer is our public, unabashed tears.

I pray for a church that is willing to cry publicly for the world’s grief. That church follows in the compassion of Jeremiah and claims connection and belonging with all our poor (hurt, oppressed, marginalized, silenced, discouraged, hopeless) people. That church acknowledges the cries of others in distress and makes them her own. That church processes collective trauma and prays for the capacity to grieve fully and heal within in order to be released as agents of healing in the world.

That church has no fear of the lamenting question, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” That church responds, “We have the balm. We bring the balm. We are the balm.”

No balm in Gilead? No problem. It’s in us.

Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.

When our family moved from the hills, from the country, into town, it was a shift brought about by our mother’s desire to have us be more civilized, to rid us of the taint of being from the backwoods, from being country people. Coming from a backwoods family who worked the land, growing their organic food, canning, raising chickens, making soap and wine, Mama wanted to get as far away from country ways as possible. That this move from country to city shattered my inner peace was all the evidence she needed to prove her argument that living in the hills was making her children strange.

For me, this move was traumatic. Trapped in my grief about leaving the natural landscape of my formative years, I became quite dysfunctional in the town, my sadness steady and constant. In the world of the town I was faced with the politics of race, class, and gender. From roaming hills and feeling free I learned in the world of the city that to be safe as a girl, and especially as a black girl, it was best to be still, enclosed, confined. I learned that to be safe within the space of blackness one had to keep within set boundaries, to not cross the tracks separating black from white. I learned that wearing homemade clothes and hand-me-downs were marks of shame. Gone was my confidence that I belonged in the world. Gone was the spirit of wildness rising in my soul each day like wind, like breath, like being. Explaining the significance of wildness in his collection of essays, Hunting For Hope, Scott Russell Sanders contends: “Like the trickster figure who show up in tales the world over, wildness has many guises, but chief among them are creator and destroyer … Every form that gathers into existence eventually dissolves, every cell, every star … Each heart that beats will one day cease. Knowing this, we have the choice of judging wildness, the very condition of our being, primarily by what it snatches away, of by what it gives.” It was the generosity of wildness, receiving me, allowing me to be whole that led me to lament its loss in my young life.

In a world where I did not belong, I struggled to find strategies for survival. In the world of dominator culture, both within our household and beyond, I found a place of refuge in books, ways of perceiving the world which expanded my consciousness and left me wanting more from life than I believed was possible in the changing landscape of Kentucky as black people left hills, backwoods, and countryside for the promise of a better life in towns or left all together to migrate to northern cities.
— bell hooks, Belonging

For further reflection:
“The words of kindness are more healing to a drooping heart than balm or honey.” — Sarah Fielding
“The night is the balm for the wounded souls of the world.” ― Avijeet Das
“Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” — Jane Austen

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (lindsayc@ucc.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.