TO HEAL THE SIN-SICK SOUL
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 22, 2013; 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; 1 John 1:4-2:2
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
“Is there a doctor in the house?”
If you’ve ever heard that line, you know the experience that goes with it. There’s a little rush of adrenaline. You look around, to see if someone in your vicinity has unexpectedly slumped to the floor. Maybe, if you work in the medical field you feel that little voice inside say: “You! Put up your hand. Offer to help. Your medical knowledge could make a difference.”
Every human culture places a high value on medical knowledge. From the shamans or witch doctors of the most primitive tribes, to the brain surgeons of our own teaching hospitals, doctors occupy a distinguished position in society.
I learned that, myself, at a very early age. My grandfather was a doctor, pretty well-regarded in these parts. He was an OB-Gyn, at one time the only one of that specialty in all of our two counties. He delivered babies. He was very good at it.
My first job, at the age of 14 or 15 — I’m not sure which — was a two-week stint selling Christmas trees. I was allowed to legally work there, at that tender age, because the business was classified as “agriculture.” It was one of the worst jobs I ever had. It was a little farm market near our home, closed for most of the fall, that reopened briefly for the Christmas-tree trade. It was run by a couple of Italian brothers, who still had their accents from the old country.
The owners were OK, but one of them had a son, maybe in his early 20s, who could only be described as a bully. He took every opportunity to make life hard for me, and for the other teenagers who worked there. Worst of all, when his father and uncle weren’t around, he wouldn’t let us into the little shack where there was an electric space heater. It was mighty cold that winter. None of us could say anything, though, because he was the boss’ son.
One day, for whatever reason, my grandparents were driving by, and stopped to say hello to me at my first job. I was surprised to see one of the owners come up to my grandfather and shake his hand like he knew him — which, it turned out, he did. After my grandparents had left, he came right up to me and said, “You never told me you’re Dr. Mackenzie’s grandson. Here, come into the office where it’s warm.”
So, I did. There was Junior, warming himself at the electric heater. “See that boy over there?” the old man said, pointing to my tormentor. “If it weren’t for your grandfather, he wouldn’t be here! My wife was very sick when she was expecting him. Your grandfather saved her life, and his too!”
After that endorsement, I didn’t have any trouble getting in there to warm my hands at the space heater, even when the owners weren’t around.
The prophet Jeremiah has a high regard for doctors, as well. He says, in today’s scripture, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
He’s not really looking for a doctor — at least, not the medical sort. Jeremiah’s heart is breaking because of his people’s sin. All hell is starting to break loose around him. After a brief and encouraging reform by the good king, Josiah, the people of Judah are backsliding. They’re worshiping foreign gods and falling into all manner of immorality. A Babylonian invasion is looming on the horizon, and the corrupt king, Jehoiakim, does nothing but enjoy the pleasures of his palace.
When Jeremiah asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?,” he’s referring to a famous resin, harvested from the trunks of balsam pine trees, that grew in the Gilead region. A fragrant ointment, refined from that pine sap, was good for all kinds of ailments. You could say it was the Vicks Vapo-Rub of the day — you know, that oily goo your mother used to spread on your chest when you had a cold? Remember the pungent smell of that stuff — the menthol aroma that worked its way up into your nostrils and made you feel you could breathe again? The Balm of Gilead was probably something like that.
So, Jeremiah regards the corruption of his people — their hopelessness, their lack of a future — and he cries out: “Is there no balm, no medicine that can help? Is there no doctor in the house, no one who can bring true healing to this wayward and ailing people?”
The ailment, of course, is sin. Jeremiah’s addressing it using a medical model. It’s really quite striking. For once, the prophet is not blasting the people for their immoral acts. Rather, he’s talking of sin as a condition, one that can only be healed by an outside power.
That little word “sin” has largely fallen out of favor in our society. Plenty of our neighbors, when they hear it, have one of two reactions. They either dismiss such talk it as pious claptrap from some old-fashioned, out-of-touch busybody; or, they see it as something perversely attractive (you know, like the chocolate cake that’s advertised as “sinfully good”). The singer Billy Joel caught that attitude in this famous line from one of his songs:
“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints,
The sinners have much more fun: for only the good die young.”
Jeremiah — who’s pastor, here, as well as prophet — gazes out on a society that has degenerated into massive, systemic sin. Maybe once he was angry about it, but now he’s world-weary and filled with despair. His pastor’s heart reaches out to those poor people, with compassion: for they are sick, so very sick — and no doctor, it seems, is on the case. No medicine is available to help.
The great missionary doctor, Albert Schweitzer — who dedicated his life to running a back-country hospital in the steamy jungles of West Africa — took a medical image from his own African practice and applied it to the European culture of his birth:
“You know of the disease in Central Africa called sleeping sickness. There also exists a sleeping sickness of the soul. Its most dangerous aspect is that one is unaware of its coming. That is why you have to be careful. As soon as you notice the slightest sign of indifference, the moment you become aware of the loss of a certain seriousness, of longing, of enthusiasm and zest, take it as a warning. You should realize your soul suffers if you live superficially.”
“You should realize your soul suffers…” Sin is not without its consequences. The Las Vegas tourist board aside, sin is not some spicy delight that “happens in Vegas, but stays in Vegas.” It never stays in Vegas. Sin infects the souls of those poor sinners who believe they can step onto a plane and take a vacation from morality for a few days. They bring the contagion back home with them.
Actually, it didn’t originate in Vegas: because the seeds of immoral behavior were already planted in the sinner’s heart, well before the vacation junket. Jeremiah’s whole point is that sin is not just a collection of disconnected, immoral behaviors. He never pretends the solution to sin is just exercising a little willpower and not doing bad things anymore. Jeremiah’s a realist. He knows the problem runs much deeper than that. Sin is a malady that needs to be healed.
I read recently of a telling phrase coined by Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, Willard speaks out against a distorted form of the Christian message he calls the “gospel of sin management.”
The gospel of sin management, he says, is proclaimed by church leaders both on the right and the left. Whether it’s the collective, social sins of permitting poverty and homelessness, or the individual sins of adultery and stinginess, proponents of this stripped-down, incomplete version of the gospel teach that being a Christian is all about managing sinful behaviors. Just stop sinning, this school of thought teaches — or, at least, cut down on it — and God will smile on you, giving you the gift of eternal life.
The twentieth century, a dozen years now past, was a time when many people around the world turned from the church as an institution and sought sin-management help from other places. Communism was an example of that: just overthrow the government and replace it with a benevolent central management, that makes sure all the world’s goods are distributed equally. Then there was Nazism, that evil ideology that had at its core a scientific theory known as eugenics. According to eugenics, the way to solve the world’s problems is through selective breeding of human beings. Destroy the so-called inferior stock by means of mass murder, and match up male and female examples of the true Aryan ideal, so they may bring forth a Master Race. Then there was Social Darwinism (which actually has nothing to do with Darwin himself). Taking a leaf from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Social Darwinists believe the way to a better world is to allow the various tribes of modern society to fight it out. It’s the survival of the fittest applied to human communities.
All these ideologies have the same fundamental idea at their roots: eliminating sin of one sort or another. Communism, Nazism and all the rest peddled their bill of goods to a world grown profoundly tired of traditional religion. “We can do what religion can’t,” they claim. “Stop thinking that God’s forgiveness is going to save you. We can only save ourselves, but only if we organize to do it all together.
We all know where those false gospels ended up. In trying to manage sin, they subjected the human race to unspeakable horrors. Essentially, their proponents imagined they could remake the human race, building from the ashes of the past a golden city, where there would be no more sin — or, at least, a whole lot less of it.
The gospel of sin management, as it manifests itself within Christianity, is a hard ideal to live up to. Cutting out all sinful behaviors is well-nigh impossible. Yet, proponents of this way of thinking are quick to remind us that, while God may scrawl a bright red “F” on the top of our examination paper, the Lord is quick to counteract that negative judgment, saving us by handing out an “A” for effort.
Over and against all these unrealistically optimistic ideologies is a much older creed: that of religion. Religion — be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or many more — is not so optimistic about the human condition. Most of the great religions have within them some concept of sin as part of the human condition. They see it as a fatal malady that gets hold of the human heart and never lets go — at least, not of its own accord. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no doctor in the house — the house of Judah — to apply that treatment, so sin may be banished and spiritual health and wholeness restored?
Jeremiah knows no such miracle cure — although he seems confident one must exist, somewhere.
There is, in fact, such a cure. We know it in the Christian tradition as the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The African slaves of the American south knew it, probably better than we. Held captive and oppressed all their days, laboring under the lash of the overseer, they were yet allowed to sing some spiritual songs as they worked. One of them is the beloved hymn based on this very passage from Jeremiah, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” We’ll sing it in just a little while.
“There Is a Balm in Gilead” is an answer to Jeremiah’s plaintive cry. We have some of that balm right here in this sanctuary, as a matter of fact. We even got some of it out and used it, a few moments ago, as little Kellan was baptized. The balm of Gilead, in our Christian understanding, is none other than the water in the baptismal font.
It’s the only reliable cure that exists for this deadly malady known as sin.
There are some who look upon this teaching of the church with disfavor, claiming we’re preoccupied with sin to the point of obsession. That prayer of confession in the bulletin each Sunday, they complain, is ample evidence of that: thoroughly unnecessary, maybe even harmful, because all it does is make people feel bad about themselves. Better to be optimistic about the human condition. Better to push sin to the background, and talk instead about actualizing our full human potential, or something insipid like that.
Yet, who’s really more optimistic: the sin-deniers, or the sin-acknowledgers? For the sin-deniers have yet to come up with a concept that works better. At least we, in the church, have something to offer that promises a complete and total cure.
It’s the waters of baptism. The true Balm of Gilead. The only thing in this weary world that can cure the sin-sick soul.
So, let’s sing it, my friends. Let’s sing it like we believe it!
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (HarperCollins, 2009), p. 54.