Balm in Gilead

Listen to Sermons

August 25, 2019

[We] have come . . . to the city of the living God, . . . to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.1

The sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  The blood of Abel takes us back to the Genesis story about the conflict between two brothers.  It speaks of division and injustice and violence and revenge and death. We are still hearing stories like this; every day we hear stories like this.     

Our Scripture this morning points us toward the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word—a word from our wounded and resurrected Jesus who draws us into kinship through expressions of grace and compassion and faith and hope and healing and Love and Life.  And this kind of kingdom, the letter of Hebrews says, cannot be shaken.

When we walk into a Church—a capital “C” Church which is the living body of Christ, there should be a balm in that Gilead.  We have come to the balm of Gilead, which is healing, Divine Love. And that healing balm of Gilead makes communion with our living, loving God possible.  That should move our hearts to thanks and praise, with reverence and awe for the grace we have received.  To worship is to encounter God, to hear God's voice, to be transformed by it. True worship does not leave us as we are, rather, it makes us into a conduit for the grace we have received, so that we can carry that healing balm into our world, connecting one another to God’s Love.  

St. Luke gives us an example:    

While Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath, a woman appears who has a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was unable to stand up straight. Jesus sees her, calls her over and tells her she is free from her ailment. And when Jesus lays his hands on her, immediately she stands up straight and began praising God.

This woman, this unnamed daughter of Abraham, hadn’t even asked for healing, but she experienced the compassionate touch of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the touch that upheld her, that filled her with grace, that healed her with the power of his Love.  2And she began praising God.  

There is conflict and tension in this story—a certain religious leader thought the healing was at the wrong time, in the wrong place.  Jesus counters with a Golden Rule kind of logic. Perhaps that Golden Rule logic helped the crowd to recognize their own face in the face of the woman, or in the voice of the synagogue leader’s objections.  Because, then, the entire group of witnesses echoed the woman’s praise by rejoicing themselves. We don’t know the rest of the woman’s story, but in that moment, she becomes a conduit for that same grace.  She offers praise for God’s good grace, and now, others rejoice, too. Love is contagious.  

Luke’s story suggests that showing love is a choice, and sometimes that choice interrupts our day, interrupts our priorities.  We can choose love and create opportunities for healing and building up community, or we can choose not to love and tear down community.

The setting for this healing that triggered conflict is in a synagogue, but the same paradox of a healing compassion that causes conflicts happens, it seems, everywhere.  Karen Armstrong, a well-known historian of world religions, says that all faith traditions insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality, that each has formulated its own version of the Golden Rule, and the fact this ideal surfaced in all these faiths independently suggest that it reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.3 Yet, power struggles continue right alongside our capacity for compassion.  Jesus shows us that compassion speaks a better word.

The way of Jesus shows us that every day, every nanosecond, in every place or situation—grace and the healing power of Divine Love is available to us.  It is everywhere and always what God has done, is doing, and will do for us. Jesus reveals that action. Our part is to respond to that grace by being a channel for grace ourselves, even when it creates tension.  It requires a process of lifelong learning to cultivate an informed compassion and make it a concrete reality in our lives. Saint Paul says that without love we are nothing; Jesus shows us a way to make love happen.  A healthy life of compassion, though, takes practice and balance.

In Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she outlines a process to guide and inspire us to live more compassionately.  Each step builds upon the disciplines practiced and the habits acquired in the previous step.  Her first step is to learn about compassion so it can become a healing force in our own lives and in the world.  She offers a set of steppingstones that lead to a 12th step—loving our enemies.  It takes a lifetime of learning to reach that 12th step.

What if our primary, God-given task is to learn to love?  What if instead of passing on “proper beliefs,” our task is to pass on actual Divine Love?4

Amid all the violence around us today—violence that drains our energy and leaves us discouraged and overwhelmed—I think we are hungry for concrete and specific examples of love reaching out to one another.  I know I am. I want and need to see hearts that are open enough to pour forth a love that inspires me into action. There are so many of these stories, but, it seems, we have to be intentional about looking around to notice them.  They can be our teaches of compassion. We can be teachers of compassion for one another. 

A recent news story about Jibril Jennings,5 in its simplicity, caught my attention.  Jibril, driving in heavy traffic near the interstate in Oklahoma City saw 71-year-old Janice Hall shuffling along with her walker, carrying her groceries in 100-degree heat.  Many drivers passed her by, but Jibril stopped and drove her two miles up the rode to her home. A stranger captured this on camera, and by the time I heard about the story, it had been seen online nearly 4 million times and growing.  

People hungry for stories like this?  Yes. The thing that keeps me thinking about this story is that Janice hadn’t even asked for help.  In an interview later, she said she walks this route all the time and Jibril was the only one who paid attention to her.  She was filled with joy because Jibril had noticed her. Jibril said that is just how he lives his life, and he expects no less from his community.  “Don’t let anyone be ignored,” Jibril says. I see the Gospel in that story; I hear the better word flowing through that simple action. 

What if God’s way of speaking in Christ crucified and Christ risen moves our focus from ourselves to a God who is Love?  What if this sprinkled blood that speaks a better word causes us to open our hearts so that God’s grace, God’s generous Love can flow through us to others?  What if this grace flowing through us helps others to see a God of justice who hears the cries of innocent blood shed, a God of hospitality to homeless wanderers in search of hope and safety, a God of compassion toward folks who get caught in the fallout of inferior man-made rules, a God of understanding who suffers when any part of creation suffers.

What if the Word that God speaks from the cross is only heard when a compassionate, willing person reaches out to another person?  Imagine what our world will be like when Love is all there is.

When we leave our worship service, we can go in peace to love and serve our Lord because we are standing on ground sprinkled with blood that speaks a better word, the word of Divine Love that touches hearts with a holy balm of Gilead. 

 Hebrews 12: 22--24
These are words we say at Unction, BCP page 456.
3 Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, 2010.
Drawn from Morton T. Kelsey, The art of christian love, 1974.
ABC News, August 11, 2019.