Ever been to Gilead? It is a lot closer than you might think. Walking distance from here. An easy drive. A quick flight. It is just outside and sometimes we are sitting smack in the middle of it. I have been to Gilead, but not as often as I would have liked or stayed nearly as long as I wanted.
Gilead is no stranger to Scripture. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers sell him to balm and myrrh merchants from Gilead. Deuteronomy adds Gilead to the list of properties for wilderness wanderers on the Promised Land prospectus. Sometimes in Scripture Gilead is the name of a person; it is most often a region, but, for Jeremiah, Gilead is something more. Jeremiah does not need GPS to find Gilead. For this fiery, often frustrated, and frequently afflicted prophet, Gilead is a metaphor for where you and I find wholeness and healing, forgiveness and reconciliation, where you I are unbound from all that keeps us stuck in life.
Gilead is where the sick go when nothing else seems to work, where the broken go hoping to drink from the well of forgiveness, where the excluded go where they do not need to live in run down rooms or sit in the back of the bus. For Jeremiah, Gilead is a metaphor for who we are called to be as God’s beloved community, a community of blessing, giving blessed balm to all who go there, especially to all who have no real hope of ever experiencing it.
For Jeremiah, Gilead is the identity card of the people of God -- a blessed people with a vocation of blessing. That is why Jeremiah is in such a sour mood in our text today. His people have bathed in the balm of God’s mercy and yet they refuse to share that balm with the weak and wounded. Instead, they are making money by peddling placebos to the poor, applying imitation balm that makes no one whole and leaves the weakest weaker.
The religious leaders of Judah can tell you fifty different reasons why Gilead should become a gated community lest it be overrun with undesirables and why the balm of God’s blessing must be hoarded, because who knows when it might run out.
The reason there is no balm in Gilead, says Jeremiah, is because Gilead has become an exclusive club, a resort for the rich who have money left over from their tax breaks and who give long lectures about how the most vulnerable should pull themselves up from their sandal straps. They want to get tough on illegal immigrants who are ruining the Judean economy and taking jobs from real Judeans. The people in charge want to prepare for the enemy abroad and Jeremiah points out that the enemy is within.
It can take your breath away to think that Jeremiah had to warn a people born in the bosom of God’s blessing to: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” Jeremiah knows Judah should be the welcome center to Gilead, a center of hope and blessing, so the prophet will not sit down and shut up until it is.
One of my favorite novels is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The book is actually one letter, a long, sometimes rambling, letter from the Reverend John Ames to his young son. It is a letter from a dying father to his son. Like any long letter, written over an extended period of time, the letter from the Rev. Ames can wander, beginning a story one day and concluding it on another.
Much of Gilead tells of the strained relationship that the Rev. John Ames has not with his own son, but with his namesake’s, his best friend’s wayward son, John Ames “Jack” Boughton. Toward the close of the letter, the troubled Jack Boughton has returned home as an adult to make peace with his own dying father. He has failed miserably and he is waiting for a bus to leave town.
The Reverend Ames sees his namesake sitting on a bench, broken and defeated. In this moment, he is able to see beyond their strained relationship. Listen to how Ms. Robinson describes this encounter at the bus stop, told through the voice of the Reverend John Ames:
“This morning I saw Jack Boughton walking up toward the bus stop, looking too thin for his clothes, carrying a suitcase that seemed to weigh almost nothing . . . I called to him and he stopped and waited for me, and I walked with him up to the bus stop . . .
“My first thought was that nobody ought to be as lonely as he looked to me . . . He stopped and looked at me and said, ‘You know, I’m doing the worst possible thing again. Leaving now’ . . . It was a truly dreadful thing he was doing, leaving his father to die without him. It was the kind of thing only his father would forgive him for.
“`I understand why you have to leave, I really do.’ . . . He cleared his throat,` Then you wouldn’t mind saying goodbye to my father for me?’ `I will do that. Certainly I will’ . . . Then I said, `The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.’ He shrugged. `What would that involve?’ `Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing – ` `No, no’, he said. `That doesn’t matter’. And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course -- `The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace’. Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter.
“Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, `Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father’. Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.
“`Thank you, Reverend,’ he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed that I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well, anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact, I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment” (pp. 241-242).
In our text today, Jeremiah is not only sour and sore, he is profoundly sad. He knows the high cost others pay when God’s people forget their identity; forget that they have been called out by the napes of their necks to be a community of blessing to the world.
If I hear Jeremiah right, whenever you and I, the people of God, are able to rise above our pettiness and grudges and parochial peculiarities, we find ourselves in Gilead, in the land of balm and blessing. You and I go to Gilead not to get away from the world, but to be refreshed and reminded that we are to bring God’s great love and blessing to bear upon the wounds of a hurting world.
Like Jeremiah, I lament when you and I forget that we too have been wounded and yet touched with the balm of God’s grace and forgiveness, that you and I have a high and holy calling to be balm bearers and not to walk by the wounded unaware, or even worse, to inflict new wounds ourselves.
What would it mean if the church, first and foremost, saw itself as a community of balm bearers, if we understood our core identity as a welcome party to invite guests, in whatever condition, to a long stay in Gilead? What would it mean for us to touch the fevered brow of the discouraged and disconsolate, the furrowed brow of the confused and conflicted, the frozen brow of the apathetic, the frightened brow of the sick and dying?
Ever been to Gilead? I know you have, because over my two years as your pastor you have shown me the way to Gilead, and God knows how many others you have shown that blessed way. When I look out from this pulpit, I see a community of balm bearers and for that fact alone, I give thanks.
[the congregation sings: There is a Balm in Gilead]