Balm in Gilead

The book of Jeremiah is not full of stand up comedy – it has to be said – but it has got some of the most memorable language of the Bible. In one of the highlight passages, we hear what is probably the voice of God, bewailing the sorrows of the people, as God looks with grief at what they are doing to one another and how they are hurt and suffering.. It could be God’s voice that says ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’.. Is there nothing to ease the pain of my people? Gilead was a place known for making of healing ointments for the skin – and God knows that the people need healing in every possible way, skin deep and deeper still. Can’t they find something to soothe their wounds, to bring them to their senses, to heal them of all that hurts… Is there no balm? God weeps night and day for the people…

I have to confess that I have begun these days to take rather more notice of all those TV adverts for skin care.  It seems only moments ago that the older women in the Oil of Olay ads were my mother’s age. But now they are my age. The lines are appearing, the crow’s feet, the laughter lines and the frown lines. I know that my life is written all over my face. My skin tells you something of who I am. And no doubt yours has its story to tell as well.

Very occasionally, like many people –  I get eczema. I once went to the doctor, while I was being a college Principal and the skin on my hands just kept cracking, hoping for a prescription for the latest remedy and she just looked at me pityingly and said something about stress. I realised that the remedy was to be found somewhere else than at the chemist. I have a very good friend whose skin provides a kind of instant readout of what you might call his spirit. I only have to shake his hand and feel the patches of roughness to know that things don’t go well. Of course, I know that for many people such conditions have very obvious and physical causes – and that these things show nothing about their spirit at all, but sometimes, the pain within us, the inner turmoil, is written all over our body.

Perhaps some of you saw that long ago TV series The Singing Detective – or maybe the more recent film with Robert Downey Jnr. It’s the sort of thing you either love or hate, but take it from the critics at least – that Dennis Potter was something of a genius. In Potter’s tale, the main character Philip Marlow has a truly awful skin complaint. He can do little more than lie in his hospital bed, hardly bearing to move his body – which is covered in cracked and weeping skin. But he is injured on the inside as well – he is the human being none of us ever want to become. As the story is told we eventually discover that the poison of his memories has shown itself on his body. Marlow says, ‘I would have liked to use my pen to praise a loving God and all his loving creation.’ But he can’t even hold a pen while he is trapped by the memories which have so distorted his body. But in the, miraculously, he comes to terms with the past and he is set free – walking from the hospital a healed man.

Potter has written words which might echo all our lives.

‘The rain falls. The sun shines. The wind blows. And that’s what it’s like. You’re buffeted by this, by that, and it is nothing to do with you. Someone you love dies, or leaves. You get ill or you get better. You grow old and you remember or you forget. And all the time, everywhere, there is this canopy, stretching over you.’

The Singing Detective is many things, but it is amongst them a story of healing, a story of balm. Just as the doctor gently told me to care for skin by taking care of my life, so others too have found that what is written on our bodies may sometimes be a story that needs understanding and healing. And sometimes suffering can be written on a corporate body too, or the body politic – for these too can suffer and shake and carry wounds that need balm. And when we are wounded, where we can find balm? Is there no balm in Gilead? says God. Is there nowhere to find what will soothe and heal us? I believe there is..

It’s a very important part of our faith that in Jesus we celebrate a God who becomes flesh, who takes on skin. Jesus touched sinners, touched skin that others despised. He did his work by sharing food and drink with others. He turned water into wine that would dribble down lips and make skin shiver with pleasure. He touched and healed those with skin diseases. But more than that, he was himself a God in skin, the divine made flesh. He wore the frail garments of humankind. He welcomed the anointing of a woman who poured precious oil onto his feet and after death the women went to rub balm into his body. When he taught his disciples to follow him, he didn’t teach them ideas so much as things to do – to wash the feet of others, to walk to where the people were, to feed and bless and touch. He taught them to offer balm to the real physical bodies – as well as the inner souls – of the people. He taught them to live in the body, to bring balm and courage and blessing to the hurting and the suffering. There was balm in Galilee then.

In the book of Jeremiah God cries out for balm for the people, for something to heal and bless and soothe. Sometimes the prophets can sound like they just want the wicked to be condemned and the weak minded to buck up, but here is a God who wants balm and comfort for a hurting people. There are plenty of prophets today who cry out for the people to be challenged. There are those who speak out against ‘comfort blanket religion’ or who say they have come not to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable. There are plenty who would urge me to make you restless in your seat, to challenge you to do more, give more, be more.. And perhaps I should – I guess we all need that sometimes.

But I want, and I know I need, the comfort of faith – the balm of Gilead or Galmington… a physician to heal my wounds, a comforter to be with me and the love of God to be beside me. And I know you need that too – to help you carry what you bear and to stand up when the canopy of life stretches over you. And I believe that here, in this passage, we hear the genuine voice of God, who longs for the people to be soothed and blessed. There are plenty of people who hear the church condemning, haranguing, challenging… but there are so many who need to hear of the comforts of God and the possibility of balm. God weeps, says Jeremiah, for the people. Like a mother who wants to soothe and rock and bless, God reaches out to touch and heal.

There is clearly a huge market out there for skin products of all kinds, for ointments and embrocations that heal and soothe. But how much more do any of us need and long for the balm that would heal us inside, that would soothe the pain and let us rest awhile.

You might be wondering what any of this might have to do with that strange parable of the dishonest manager. It’s one of the most puzzling bits of the Gospel – so puzzling you can be forgiven for wondering whether there isn’t some kind of bad copying behind it – as though some different stories have got muddled up. But let me try something. The story comes right after the one about the Prodigal Son – and this dishonest stewards might just be another kind of prodigal. He’s accused of stealing from his master and he loses his job. He decides, while he’s working out his notice, to feather his own nest a bit, to win some favour amongst his master’s customers. He makes some friends for himself and his master can see that he might have lost a rather clever steward. And there is balm even for him, hope of blessing and healing and grace.  Because this is what the Kingdom of God is like. There is healing even for crooks and rascals and rogues.. There is always balm.. in Gilead.. or wherever you might be.

When the African American slaves read this passage, they must have known how it is to weep over the sorrows of the people, and it must have comforted them to know that God too weeps and longs for balm for all the people. And they believed that in Jesus Christ was the real balm for all of us, the one who soothes the troubled soul and the weary, wounded body, and the one who could even offer us a vision for a healed society and a peaceful world. And so they wrote the spiritual that we will hear after the sermon.

But if Jesus was balm, he was also first the man of skin, whose flesh was wounded. If you think back to the films you might have seen about Jesus, it’s hard to imagine that they would have chosen an actor with bad skin – no blemishes, spots or sores. But in the Jewish tradition there’s a very different kind of tradition about the Messiah. In the Talmud there is a story of a rabbi who asks Elijah the prophet where he might find the Messiah.

‘Sitting at the gates of the city’

‘How shall I know him?’

‘He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and then binds them up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed; if so, I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment’.

The Messiah shares the wounds of the people, but is ready, even wounded as he is – to bring healing. And of course in Christian tradition Christ bears wounds on his skin, the wounds of suffering and brokenness, the wounds of crucifixion, bearing wounds so that we might be healed. Today, in Kolmar in Alsace you can see the great Isenheim altarpiece, a huge medieval painting of the crucifixion which once hung in a hospice which was for those with a terrible skin disease. The Christ in this painting bears on his body the same lesions as the patients would have done. But he bears them to bring healing.

All of us are wounded – as individuals and as communities. All of us need healing. Sometimes the broken-ness within us may even be written on our skin, in the wrinkles, lines or wounds of illness. And Christ comes to us not as the one who has skin like a baby, but as one who bears wounds too. And in him we may find a source of healing for our souls, as he touches us with grace. Is there balm in Gilead? Yes, and in Taunton too… Amen.