by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there? / Why, then, has the health of my people / not been attended to, restored? / O that my head were a spring of water; / O that my eyes were a fountain of tears, / so that I might weep day and night / for the slain of my people!” — Jeremiah 8:22-9:1
Many of you know being a pastor is a second career for me. Those who you who know me really, really well know being a pastor is about the seventh career for me.
I was reminded of that career change this week because, among my local church and denominational responsibilities, I am now experiencing my third go-around with our Susquehanna Association Committee on Authorized Ministry. And this week the committee was reviewing the list of requirements to be met for those exploring a call to ministry, ordination or authorized minister status with the denomination— in short, those seeking to be a pastor with the United Church of Christ.
In the United Church of Christ a Committee on Authorized Ministry is the one committee each and every Association both needs to have and is required to have. This Committee in each local Association is the place where the standing of Authorized Ministers is held. It is also the place where the examination for authorized ministry happens. It is also the place where any ministerial misconduct is examined. All these are not easy tasks nor are they taken lightly.
These days we call a person exploring ministry— we call that person a “MID”— a Member in Discernment. Back when I was first exploring a call to ministry we said the person was “In Care”— in care of the local Church and in care of the local Association. I happen to like the term “Member in Discernment” better than “In Care.” The term “In Care” always felt a little paternalistic to me.
I say I like “Member in Discernment” better than “In Care” because this process is not simply a matter of oversight and/or supervision by the local Church and Association. The one seeking authorization needs to be proactive throughout the process.
What I realized as we reviewed the steps toward authorization is some of how this works has not changed since I entered into the process in the Great State of Maine, especially the part about the individual being proactive. Yes, the Local Church needs to form a Discernment Committee to assist the candidate. And yes, the local Association needs to assign a mentor, usually a pastor, to assist the candidate. But the person seeking authorization has a lot to do.
Back when I was first in the process I was from Brunswick, Maine, so I was a member of the Cumberland Association in Southern Maine. But I was attending Bangor Seminary, 100 plus miles north, in what used to be called the Penobscott Piscataquis Association. Say that en times fast, if you like— Penobscott Piscataquis. Being the Eastern-most Association in the United States, hence where the Sun rises first, they now call themselves the Sunrise Association— a wise change of names I think.
In any case, I was assigned a mentor in Cumberland, who I saw when I traveled South and sometimes those trips were intentional, just to see that mentor. Further, I constantly wrote letters to the committee about my progress at Seminary, any supply preaching assignments, any issues I felt arose on my journey.
As I indicated, this needed to be a two way street. I needed to be proactive with them, as much if not more so, then they were with me. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Scroll of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there? / Why, then, has the health of my people / not been attended to, restored? / O that my head were a spring of water; / O that my eyes were a fountain of tears, / so that I might weep day and night / for the slain of my people!” (Slight pause.)
When we do the lectionary Bible Study on Wednesdays at 6 here in this church— and yes, everyone is invited, Wednesdays at 6— when we do Bible Study I think I, invariably, find out things about a passage I did not realize before. And it is my hope all those in attendance find that true. I think this was true last Wednesday.
One of the key aspects of this reading, one of the things to which we need to pay close attention, is ‘who says what?’ What does God say? What does Jeremiah say?
The vast majority of the words we hear in this passage— mostly a lament and we get a lot of that here— is venting by the prophet. To be blunt— Jeremiah is an expert at this. Which is not to say anguish on the part of the prophet is unwarranted. The pain we hear about is real. It leads to the famous, poetic plea to God which asks why there is no balm available, asks God about the lack of a physician in the land.
But, given everything which is said in this passage— and this for me was the key of what we discovered at Bible study and you have to read the passage really, really carefully to realize this— Yahweh, God, makes one statement, offers one sentence and only one sentence. “Why do they provoke me to anger / with their graven images, / with their carved images / with their useless foreign gods?” Everything else is Jeremiah. (Slight pause.)
I need to say two things about what God is portrayed as saying. First, this is clearly a compassionate God. Despite what the Prophet intones about there being no balm nor a physician, God is not absent at all. In fact God is grieving over the plight of the people. God is in pain that Israel has broken the sacred covenant relationship with false gods.
In these words we discover God is not an impassive deity. God is not a distant deity. Yahweh is bound up with the anguish of the prophet. Yahweh is bound up with the anguish of the people for whom the prophet speaks. This God, who is not willing to accept or to tolerate the faithlessness of Israel, nevertheless, cannot abandon the chosen community.
There is a second thing to be said about the words of Yahweh, God. God throws the ball back into the court of the chosen community. While questioning why the people are worshiping graven images, carved images, foreign gods, what is clearly left open by God is that the people might repent, might turn toward God, might work with God. (Slight pause.)
Well on a slightly different tact here, most of you know I am a baseball fan. When I was a youngster in New York City, back in 1962, a new team came into existence— the Mets. I might add they were often seen as the hapless Mets. No team in modern Baseball has lost more games in one season. One Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel, their first manager, famously said this about that atrocious team: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
I hope you won’t find the comparison too blasphemous if I suggest that is exactly what God is saying to the people. “Can’t anyone here do this?” “Can’t anyone here be attentive?” “Can’t anyone here love?” “Can’t anyone here cooperate?” “Can’t anyone here work?” “Can’t anyone heed my will?” “Can’t anyone here keep covenant?” (Slight pause.)
All that brings me back to the Committee on Authorized Ministry and Members in Discernment. Here is a sometimes ignored truth: human civilization was born of cooperation, people working with people.
Even so called hermits in ancient times needed to interact with people once in a while. The “lone ranger” is an interesting concept, but it’s not workable in the real world. Everyone needs to rely on others.
If one is a Member in Discernment that person needs to be proactive. That person cannot presume a paternalistic Committee on Authorized Ministry and a paternalistic local church will get them through the process. The person in discernment need to actively work.
God, you see, needs us to be active also. God needs us to do. God needs us to work. And yes, God loves us. But God is neither paternalistic nor manipulative.
Further, we need to remember how the love of God among us is really displayed. The love of God is displayed through our actions. As I am sure you have heard, God has no voice but ours, no hands but ours.
Yesterday, here, we had a great example of that when a group of people from this church got together to fed lunch to the workers from the Impact Project who put a new roof on someone’s trailer. In short, the lesson here is that talking personal responsibility for communal action is imperative. It’s the way things get done.
So yes, we are the real balm in Gilead. We are the physicians. Please note: I did not say ‘I am the balm.’ I did not say ‘I am the physician.’ We, we together, need to embrace the work of God. We, we together, need to embrace the will of God.
Communal action is the balm. Communal action is the physician. That was true in Gilead. That is true here, now. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I saw this aphorism a couple of days ago: ‘The Gospel is not about how to get into heaven after you die. It is about how you can help heaven be present to everyone with whom you come in contact before you die.’ That sounds like a covenant community to me.”
BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry God’s peace into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of God’s Word in our action. Let us recognize that God’s transforming power is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.