09/22/2019: A Balm in Gilead

09//22/2019: A Balm in Gilead

Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9:1
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
September 22, 2019

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 9: 1)

Jeremiah, the sensitive, emotional, tender, weeping prophet, expresses in ancient poetic lines precisely what many of us have felt when we slow down to think of the suffering and death caused by gun violence and storm and illness and accident, to say nothing of cancer and heart disease and a host of other ailments. There is a great reservoir of tears in all of us, even in the crustiest among us, and some events send a shaft down to that reservoir. When you lay aside all political and religious differences, all cultural and racial traditions, all economic and social divergences, perhaps tears are the one thing that unite all of humanity.


It takes a strong person to weep as Jeremiah wept. This mighty prophet wept mighty tears. He was not weak in his weeping! The depth of his love was the reason for his deep sorrow: 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! This is no expression of mere sentimentalism; this is no weak and trembling bystander; it is the bursting out of the strong soul of a leader, a soul strong in its affection, strong in its devotion, strong in its pain, and strong in its compassion. We may not weep as frequently as the old prophet Jeremiah, but I hope we weep as well.

Much of the time, of course, we get on with life. Our tears are not visible. We continue on in our work and our play, our living and laughing. We have our people of action, those who act with bravery and boldness, like first responders. We have our people of business who work hard to be responsible in building a healthy economy, where wages are fair and communities are strong and the environment is protected. We have valiant people of education who challenge children and adults to stretch their perspectives and their understandings. We have caring people who work in the “helping professions,” who nurture our physical and mental and spiritual health.

Thank God most of us get on with life and do these things. But somewhere behind our eyelids there is that reservoir of tears. I hope and pray that reservoir will never dry up, for those tears are for a world of suffering and violence and injustice, and if they ever dry up, then our compassion and our prayers and our action to relieve suffering is gone. May that reservoir never experience a drought!


In the midst of those tears comes a startling question from Jeremiah’s pen. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? It is a question we all eventually ask as we face life. Is there no ointment, no lotion, no salve, no liniment, to bring healing to our land, to our institutions, to our families, to our souls? Wounds can be so deep that we wonder if there could possibly be any divine ointment to close the wound, to fight the infection, to heal our sorrow.

We do not lack those who are more than ready to pontificate. Some are quick to claim ready answers for the deepest grief. Political and religious fundamentalists abound. They offer quick and easy fixes to wounds. They are ready to fix the blame on easy targets of hate. They see a terrorist in every middle eastern student, every immigrant, every tourist, every Muslim who enters the local mosque. How easy is the temptation to shut down basic liberties and insulate ourselves from others in fear. There are those who advocate a violent response to every tragedy, but surely we have seen by now that violence breeds violence and quickly spirals out of control. Violence is not a balm in Gilead; it is a germ of more hatred.

In a world reeking with violence, we all feel inadequate. There are times when sermons need to be shortened and prayers need to be lengthened. This violent era may be one of those times! For a short time while I was a seminary student I served as Chaplain in a hospital for the elderly with mental or emotional impairments. Every Sunday I led a worship service that included a short sermon. It was common for people in that little congregation to shout out interruptions. One Sunday a patient interrupted my sermon by shouting out, “Shut up, preacher, and just pray.” Those words resonate with truth to this day, for sometimes the church is burdened with too much preaching and not enough praying.

It is worth noting in passing that prayer is instinctive. In a time of grief we do not reason out prayer. We spend no time debating the efficacy of prayer, theorizing on the existence of God, or wrestling with intellectual doubts. Prayer is a cry of the heart. Even those who would intellectually deny the existence of God, find themselves saying “Oh my God!” Prayer is instinctive. But that is just a passing comment.


I invite you to look again at the biblical text. Have you noticed that the biblical question, Is there no balm in Gilead? is asked with a negative? That little word “no”—Is there NO balm in Gilead?–is very significant. In his own crisis, the prophet Jeremiah did not presume to have all the answers. He was not arrogant in his faith. He raised this question with its plaintive negative as an offering to God! Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no healing for this tragedy? Is there no ointment for this gaping wound? The negative does not mean that there was not a balm, that there was no healing ointment in Gilead, but just that he could not at present see it or find it. He didn’t know how the healing would take place. But the very fact of his prayer implies faith that there is indeed a balm in Gilead.

And the very fact that people still cry out rivers of tears and still call out in prayer, implies a faith that somehow, somewhere, in God’s mercy, there is a balm in our Gilead. We may find ourselves expressing it in the negative, as Jeremiah did so many years ago. But the fact of our tearful prayers is faith in itself.

That divine ointment of healing can sometimes be found in great suffering. The world must never cease to reflect on and honor that great spiritual music that grew out of the suffering of slavery, a suffering that generations endured with no end in sight. And yet, they did not use this text as a negative question; they sang it as a positive declaration! There is a balm in Gilead, that heals a wounded soul…. Somehow, in the midst of their suffering, someone read this text to them. They knew, of course, all about weeping. They were experts at weeping! They knew the suffering of the lash and the humiliation of the auction block. Somehow out of their tragic experience, the negative question of Jeremiah (Is there no balm in Gilead?) became a positive declaration (There is a balm in Gilead.).


We as a nation and we as individuals, stand on uncertain land between that plaintive, negative question, and that resolute, positive declaration that comes out of faith in the midst of suffering. The great privilege of the religious institutions of our land, is to lead us all, little by little, to that positive declaration: there IS a balm in Gilead!