Is there No Balm In Gilead -- a sermon from September 2001 reposted (Jeremiah 8)

The lectionary offers Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 for this week. I'm not preaching today, but I thought I might reshare the sermon I preached from this passage on the second Sunday after the events of September 11, 2001. It has been eighteen years. I've shared the sermon before but thought it fitting to again share it. I will admit that this sermon didn't sit well with some in my congregation.  I was calling for the healing of our souls to begin while many were still seething with anger.  Looking back, I understand this better, but I also believe that we have allowed the wound to fester for so long that it has undermined the American soul. We are seeing the effects today in the growing polarization of the land. We came together for a moment in time to grieve, and we expressed hope of a new day, but that quickly gave way to bickering and alienation. So, perhaps now is the time to once again ask:  "Is there no balm in Gilead?"


Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

In last Sunday's News Press, David Foy's column begins:  "Healing is not the goal."  He is right, we must not trivialize or lessen the loss we feel from the events of September 11, and justice must be done, but is their no balm in Gilead?   Lance Morrow, in his Time Magazine commentary, writes:  "for once, let's have no fatuous rhetoric about `healing'."  Healing, he says is "inappropriate now, and dangerous."  Let us put off our tears and sorrow for now and instead "nourish rage."   Morrow is right, we must be relentless in pursuing those who caused this terror and would continue to unleash terror on us and others, but is their no balm in Gilead, no healing salve that will soothe our pain and lead us not only to justice but also to reconciliation?

In contrast to these voices, voices that not only incite America to action but also incite men and women to commit deeds of evil, deeds such as beating up a young Saudi student in our own community, we want to hear the voices raised last Sunday evening.  Yes, last Sunday evening hundreds of us gathered at the Methodist church, a crowd that filled the sanctuary well past capacity, to hear voices that called for justice and for healing and reconciliation.    

I was incredibly moved by that service, by the outpouring of prayer and support exhibited by this very diverse congregation.  While Foy and Morrow call for angry retribution, we heard the Imam of the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara declare that these terrorist acts do not reflect Islam, that they violate its teachings.  We heard the Rabbi call for a measured and thought out response, and reminded us to take care in our response.  We heard Susan Copeland remind us that Jesus said if we have the faith the size of a mustard seed we can say to the mountain be moved and it will move.  Therefore, we need not be afraid, because God is with us.  As Christians, Susan said, we "hold the seeds of faith, hope, and love in the deep shadowland of sorrow and trauma, of terror and unspeakable pain."  This faith, this hope, this love, enables us to engage in acts of compassion and grace in our world.  


In Jeremiah 8 we hear several voices, Jeremiah's for sure, but at points we also hear the voice of Yahweh, the Lord our God, expressing grief, sorrow, sickness of heart at the state of God's people.  God weeps and the people of God cry out, "Is the Lord not in Zion?"  Jeremiah speaks for himself and for God to people suffering from drought and from the pressure of invading armies.   Yahweh confesses that the people of Judah have provoked him because of their images and their idolatry, their sense of arrogant self-sufficiency.  But now the time of harvest is past, summer has ended, and the crops are absent.  Jeremiah weeps at this sign of judgment.

As we stand here less than two weeks after the tragedies of September 11, we would rather not hear words of judgment on ourselves, and yet I think we need to hear it.  Oh, the people in those buildings, they are innocent and we mourn their loss and grieve with their families and friends; but we as a nation and as a world community must recognize our complicity in the events of that day.  These were not simply random acts of violence, they are rooted in human alienation.  I'm not saying that God used those planes as some kind of divine vengeance on America, and I'm not saying that God has lifted his hand of protection on our nation, but in our unwillingness to listen to each other, to find peace with one another, to take care of those in need, we have sown the seeds of our own judgment.  

September 11 was and is a wake-up call, a reminder to us that we must take care of the business of humanity.  We must start with our families because even here it is difficult for us to listen and hear the cries of those in need.  We miss the cries of our brothers and sisters, our mothers and our fathers, our sons and our daughters, our husbands and our wives for help and for understanding.  We turn away; we refuse to talk to each other; we judge each other.  We are broken and we experience judgment.  But, what is true of our families is also of our communities, our nation, and our world as a whole.  

We wonder how the terrorists could have done such a thing as this?  The sheer magnitude of these acts, the number killed, the means of the destruction, they are inconceivable to us.  And yet, except for the number of people killed and the level of destruction in New York, are these acts all that different from the shootings at Columbine, the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, a man's shooting rampage in a Texas church, or a fatal attack on a Sikh man in Arizona because he looked different?  The difference is not one of intent but magnitude.  We too could do this act of violence.  Jesus says that unremitting anger is the same as murder, even if we do not act on our anger.   

Jeremiah's words remind us that we too experience alienation from God, and because of this alienation, there does not seem much hope for tomorrow.  Jeremiah's people were suffering and he wept for them.  Jeremiah looks at us and sees our confusion, our alienation, and on God's behalf, he weeps for us.  


Jeremiah cries out in response to the condition of his people:  "Is their no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?"  As Jeremiah concludes his lament, we stand no closer to a resolution.  
"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 wishes that his own tears might end the drought, and yet he senses no such possibility exists.  The word of judgment is too strong and unremitting.  Judah has undone itself.  There is no medicine strong enough to heal their disease, not even the vaunted balm of Gilead.

And yet, in spite of the pessimistic tone of the passage, we must ask:  do you mean there is no physician?  Is there no one, who can heal our affliction?  And, I hear the words:  here I am, the great physician, and I come to you bearing medicine for the soul.  That is the word I hear from Jesus?  On the way into Jerusalem, Jesus wept for the city:  
"If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes"  (Lk. 19:42).
Jesus came to Jerusalem bearing the message of reconciliation, but Jew and Gentile joined to crucify him.  And yet, the Resurrection remains the sign that this act of inhumanity does not stand, and in this, I take hope and guidance.

Again, I return to last Sunday evening and the power of that event.  I find words of hope in the statement made by the Imam, Abdurrahman:
Despite the reason of us having to come together today I still find it so wonderful.  As it was mentioned prior to me that to see us all from different faiths, different backgrounds, different idealogies coming together.  The only bad thing about today is that we have come together due to the calamities that have befallen our nation.  We should have done this so long ago.
Is their no balm in Gilead?   I believe it is here in our midst.  It is the healing presence of our God who draws us together so that we might listen to one another.  Tuesday afternoon I will be having coffee with the Imam so that we can become friends.  Yes, the healing balm of Gilead is working in our midst.  

At a time of national tragedy, as we began to look at possible responses to the terrorist acts, we heard the good news that the Palestinians and Israelis would begin to talk, that a truce would take place.  Oh, it won't be easy.  Many will disrupt it.  It didn't take long for a Palestinian militant to ambush an Israeli family, and surely there will be calls for retaliation on the Israeli side, but if the balm of Gilead is to do its work, both sides must say no to the law of retaliation and move forward.  

Remember the battle over Kosovo?  That was a war that had been going on for centuries.  The only way to find healing is to stop the spiral of violence.  Then the healing powers of God can begin to do its work.  

With that old spiritual, "There is a balm in Gilead," we sing out:
"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul."
As followers of Jesus, we may not fully understand or live out this call to be people of healing, but we can be the bearers of the balm of Gilead that makes us whole, that makes us new.  We can, I believe, learn to listen to each other, because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, making all things new.  We may not agree on everything; in fact, we may strongly disagree on important matters, but we must listen because God is at work in us.  In response to the David Foys and the Lance Morrows, we must say:  healing must begin or we will fall into the self-destructive crevasse of evil that consumed the purveyors of this evil act on innocent people in New York and Washington.

And we must let the healing powers of God's Spirit work in our own communities, restoring us to God's presence, to overcome the alienation that we feel from God and from each other.  Yes, let the balm of Gilead be poured out on us!

Preached by Dr. Robert Cornwall at First Christian Church, Santa Barbara, on September 23, 2001.


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