Monday, September 23, 2013

Trapped in Gilead

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington NC on September 22, 2013.  The texts were Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and 1 Timothy 2:1-7


As one who idolized heavy metal rockers in my teenage years, when I was sixteen years old I had my left ear pierced.  For some reason, just the left ear.  But it was glorious.  For a few months in the Summer, I rocked my earring like I was a bad boy with a heart of gold.  Though I was normally a smelly sixteen year old with an attitude, I was vigilant in keeping my earring clean.  Growing up in a medical household will give you a healthy fear of infection.  But when it finally healed enough to change it out for another earring, something unfortunate happened.  The piercing artist accidentally damaged my earlobe in the process of changing out the jewelry.  An infection set in, all throughout the cartilage of my ear.  Once the infection was taken care of, I realized I was going to be left with a good bit of scar tissue. 

That was 12 years ago.  But just last week, I noticed a bit of scabbing on my left ear, where the old piercing was.  I couldn’t quite believe what I was feeling, so I asked my mother, a nurse, what it could be.  She told me that sometimes scar tissue takes a while, even years, to finally work its way to the surface.  The wound, now 12 years old, was apparently not done healing.  And what was a pristine surface was once again marked by the wounds and the damage done within my ear lobe.

            It seems to me this happens in our world, time and time again.  Old wounds once thought healed emerge to remind humanity that things are not what they seem…that things are not as right as they ought to be.  An insidious strain in humanity that manifests itself as violence, oppression, and evil, even as we desire to be a more progressive, constructive, and wholesome people.  Such a reality has manifested itself again in our American context with two recent shooting massacres…one violent outburst perpetrated by a mentally unstable man with access to weapons that no one truly needs to possess, the other a turf war between gangs in Chicago.  Developing nations are gridlocked by the brutal civil war in Syria, our own country standing on the precipice of military action.  We all know of other situations, other terror-inducing, fear-filled situations that cause anxiety, grief, and trauma.  And as a people, we lament the trauma and cry out and wonder when deliverance will come.

            Jeremiah was a man who wondered when deliverance would come to his people.  Jeremiah’s oracle this morning is a lament for the violence and the greed of the people of Judah…he’s lamenting the calamity that has fallen upon them.  Ultimately, he’s lamenting the disrupted relationship Judah now has with their God.  Here we have a prophet weeping, grieving for his people.  In such vivid language, Jeremiah declares that a spirit of grief has come upon him…has overtaken him.  Within him, his heart is sick.  He has become so despondent at the rebellious nature of Judah and her catastrophic state that he wonders aloud whether the Lord is any longer in their midst: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” In fact, this section of chapter 8 is the culmination of an entire oracle dedicated to describing Judah’s downward spiral into devastation and decay:
Why has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding…All of them turn to their own course like a horse plunging headlong into battle…How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us’, when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie…For the Lord our God has doomed us to perish, and has given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against the Lord. We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.

Jeremiah’s lamentations and observations continue in this same despondent and harsh manner, concluding in a series of iconic yet troubling questions: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
            Jeremiah’s observations and oracles are so harsh because he is one who has heard the LORD’s voice…he’s charged with bearing the word of the LORD to the people, and yet the calamitous and chaotic state of his people is enough to disrupt his faith…to unsettle him so deeply that he questions whether or not the LORD is present with the people any longer.  He sees the terror of the land, feels the pain of a rebellious and broken people so deeply that his heart is sick within him, he has wept to the point of exhaustion where there are no tears left to weep.  He is a prophet unable to prophecy when, or if, the LORD will deliver his ‘poor people.’  He’s a man left empty handed and broken hearted by the wretched state of the world.  And he doesn't know if the LORD has health left for the people.

            ‘Does the Lord have health left for the people?’ I hear these same questions being asked by Christians in our world today.  And not just by Christians, but by other people of faiths as well.  When will the violence end?  When will the torment of the innocent cease?  When will the LORD make war to cease in all the world?  Jeremiah wrestled with these questions, as do we who live in an uncertain and broken world.  But there is a difference between Jeremiah and those of us living today: we have borne witness to the redemption of humankind in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Apostle Paul knew precisely the pain and anguish that came with living in a violent and chaotic age.  Writing in a time of brutality where the Roman Empire ruled with an iron fist, Paul knew firsthand the fury wrought by the human hand.  And yet, something compelled him to be at peace…something drove him not to anxiety or fear, but to a zen-like trust in the midst of oppression and violence: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
            The Apostle bears witness to a lively hope in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.  And what constantly gives me hope in the face of darkness is that God desires the salvation of all humanity.  Full stop.  No exceptions.  Paul’s conviction is that there is not one who has been forgotten by God, not one who has been ignored by God, not one who falls outside the spectrum of God’s saving grace.  Paul models for us what it means to live peacefully and faithfully in the midst of chaos and confusion.  For our hope is built upon more than the eye can see, more than the mind can comprehend.  Our hope is built on the ever-flowing and always transforming love of Jesus Christ.
            Trusting in the saving work of Jesus doesn’t suddenly answer all the questions we may have.  Trusting in the saving work of Jesus doesn’t suddenly smooth out every chaotic situation, or give us a nice, neat answer wrapped in a bow of false security.  We still may have questions, or be confused, angry, or perhaps even fearful.  But what Paul models for us is that, in the midst of chaos and terror, we can turn to God in prayer and be reminded of God’s graciousness in the salvation of the whole world through the self-giving of Jesus Christ.  We have a foundation upon which to stand in a confusing and broken world.

            When the scar tissue of our world pushes its way to the surface, and the current events of the day induce terror or confusion, remember this truth:  “God desires everyone to be saved…and there is one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”  Oh, how I wish Jeremiah were here today, that he might hear the words of this classic hymn: “Some times I feel discouraged, And think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit Revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead To heal the sin-sick soul.”

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