This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 18, 2016.
When I was in the Navy my ship made a port call in Singapore. In addition to drinking the obligatory Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel, some shipmates and I visited a place called Tiger Balm Gardens.
This was a public garden full of colorful statues and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese folklore, legends, and history. To this young American the Tiger Balm Garden seemed pretty cheesy, and was subject to lot of jokes from me and my shipmates, especially when we were funneled into the gift shop and pressed to buy Tiger Balm. Tiger Balm is a fragrant ointment that promises to soothe sore muscles, stiff necks, and arthritis pain. Like the gardens, Tiger Balm seemed exotic until I unscrewed the cap and took a whiff. I knew that smell! Vicks VapoRub!
Remember that? Who grew up having Vicks VapoRub rubbed on your chest or dabbed under your nose when you were congested with a cold? My mom would smear a big glob of Vicks on my chest then pin a wash cloth under my t-shirt, part of the magic, I assumed. Well, truth be told, I always hated mom’s treatments with Vicks VapoRub, and never used the little jar of Tiger Balm that I bought at the Tiger Balm Garden either. But I can never read this morning’s passage from Jeremiah, with its reference to a balm in Gilead, without thinking about, and smelling, Tiger Balm, and Vicks VapoRub.
What was that Gilead Balm anyway? Well, it turns out there are several other references to balm from Gilead in the Old Testament. In Genesis, Joseph (he of the technicolor dream coat) was sold by his brothers to merchants on their way to Egypt with balm from Gilead. The verse reads, “Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.” Later, after the Israelites were freed from captivity in Egypt and entered the promised land, they occupied Gilead, west of the Jordan. The balm trade then became their own. Gilead balm was a highly sought after turpentine like resin that was secreted by a tree that grew there. With its prized healing properties, the balm is said to have been worth twice its weight in silver.
Ah, turpentine! Now, in addition to Tiger Balm, I have another association with this balm from Gilead, Russia Salve! My grandfather, my mother’s father, died when I was a kid. But I remember looking through a box of his nick-nacks and finding an ancient looking tin that said, Redding’s Russia Salve. With a child’s curiosity I brought it to my mother. Mom explained that in the 1800s Russia Salve had been a universal remedy for everything that ailed you, and that Grampa’s parents rubbed it on him just like she rubbed Vicks VapoRub on me! Grampa was a PhD Geologist from Yale, and, using the scientific method he figured out that the key ingredients in Russia Salve were beeswax and, what else, turpentine! So he made his own and filled old Russia Slave tins with his concoction.
So there you go, Tiger Balm, Russia Salve and Gilead.
In these opening chapters of Jeremiah, the people of Israel are mired in sin, in particular they have sought to enrich themselves while neglecting the most vulnerable in their society. In Chapter 5 of Jeremiah we read:
Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
God judges Israel for their sin and the people suffer as a result. The verses that I read this morning mingle the voices of the people, the prophet and God in a lament over this pervasive and intractable sin and suffering.
The people have assumed that God will save them, but God is offended by these assumptions. God has told the people of Israel all they must do to escape the cycle of sin and suffering, but they have turned their back on God’s teaching.
The Israelites assume that God is absent, “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her king not in her? Is there no balm in Gilead, no physician there?” These are all references to God’s apparent absence.
But there is a certain irony here, right? Because, we have learned that there is balm in Gilead. Of all places, Gilead is known for its healing balm, meaning that God has provided the people all they need. Like what my Grampa learned, that he had everything he needed to make healing salve; the ingredients were right there.
We certainly know what it is to suffer. Whether from the physical pain of arthritis or sciatica, the loss of a loved one, the hurt of betrayal, the grip of addiction, neglect, abuse or trauma, the anxiety of joblessness, or the darkness of depression, to be human is to suffer.
And we also know what it is to sin. As in Jeremiah’s day, we too often don’t promote the case of the fatherless or defend the just cause of the poor; we are prone to neglect the most vulnerable.
And, as in Jeremiah’s day, God has given us all we need in response.
In the words of the African-American spiritual that the Chancel Choir sang so beautifully, there is a Balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul, and that balm is Jesus. But what does that look like in practice. Should we expect Jesus to “take the wheel” of our sin sick lives, as Carrie Underwood sings? Remember, God and Jeremiah are hard on the people of Israel for just assuming God will save them.
Hey, do you know why Tiger Balm smells like Vicks? Both have Camphor and Menthol as their main ingredients. Russia Salve has beeswax and turpentine. So what are the main ingredients for the healing balm of Jesus? I would suggest that the main ingredients in the balm that we need to make our lives whole are faithful relationships and action.
On Thursday I attended a meeting of sixty clergy from the Greater Hartford area. Organized by the Christian Activities Council after two years of meeting with each clergy person one-on-one, the gathering was to build support for a faith-based community organizing initiative. There were Christians of every stripe, Catholic, Episcopal, Congregational, Baptist and Pentecostal. There were Muslims and Jews and Unitarians. Men and women were represented in equal numbers, as were white people and people of color, including a sizable number of African-American ministers.
Now, I’m not sure what you think about when you hear “community organizing.” I know in the 2008 election the term was used as something of a Liberal slur against Barrack Obama. But I assure you that there were as many social and religious Conservatives in the room as there were more liberal clergy. Some may also conjure visions of large, angry mobs protesting in the streets. But there was no anger being expressed here, but a shared commitment to act upon a shared faith in a loving, justice-seeking God.
Faith-based community organizing seeks to channel the power of God by bringing churches, synagogues and mosques together to confront and bring positive change to specific problems that everyone has agreed to, these could include safe streets, a good public education for all, or affordable housing. Actions may begin small, by challenging the opening of a liquor store across the street from a school, or bringing more community policing to an especially dangerous block in the city, but the organization builds on these to take on larger issues. Rev. James Manship of Saint Rose Catholic Church in New Haven spoke movingly about the way faith-based community organizing has transformed his parish over the past five years.
So, remember I suggested that the two main ingredients to make a balm for the sin and suffering that surrounds us are faithful relationship and action. Well, faith-based community organizing might sound like lots of action but not so much relationship. In fact, I have had that experience as a pastor over the years. I will get a call from an activist for a particular issue who says, “Pastor, can you bring twenty-people down to the state capitol on Tuesday to advocate for passage of thus-and-such a bill?” “I’m sorry, do I know you?” All action, no relationship.
But what I heard and witnessed on Thursday was a fundamentally different model. In fact, we took about fifteen or twenty minutes out of our two hours together to sit with someone we didn’t know and have a conversation about when we had witnessed a positive, successful use of power. Really, this was just a conversation starter. I sat with Rev. Dr. Jeff Powell of New Antioch Baptist Church in Hartford, an African-American pastor some 15 years my senior. In that short discussion we found we shared a lot in common, we communicated genuine concern for each other, and agreed to meet again over coffee to continue our conversation.
One of the leaders of this gathering described an activity that will come to conclude each of our meetings, where each participant will draw a name of another participant out of a hat and agree to contact that person between meetings to have a one-on-one conversation. In time, everyone participating in the organizing effort will have a personal relationship with everyone else; we will come to care about each other.
Relationship and action, the ingredients for the balm to soothe our sin-sick souls.
Relationship and Action. So what might it mean for us here at First Church?
I think we have the action part pretty well down. We do a ton of stuff, pastoral care, preparation for worship, programs for our children and youth, community outreach.
And how about relationship? Though I look out on a Sunday morning and I see what appears to be a tightly knit community, there is a happy buzz before worship and at coffee hour, I am learning that lots of us don’t know each other very well. I am also learning that there are more differences among us than it appears. This isn’t a criticism, but is true of any church of a certain size. If we are to be a balm to each other and the community in these troubled times, if we are to effectively respond to sin and suffering, we will need to nurture our relationships.
I’m wondering if we might adapt that exercise I described. What if, upon leaving worship one Sunday a month we drew a name of someone else in worship? We would agree to reach out to that person in the month that followed and have a one-on-one conversation with them. Of course someone would have drawn our name and would be reaching out to us, so by the time we came back together we would know two people better.
Let’s think about it.
There is a Balm in Gilead to sooth the sin sick soul. And God has given us everything we need to make and apply it. Amen.