Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, August 15, 2021
Hymn – “There is a balm in Gilead”
This hymn comes from Jeremiah’ despair – 8:22 – “Is there no balm in Gilead, is there no physician there..” This hymn is the communities response to the prophet’s lament.
In the Bible half hour talks in NEYM’s sessions in 2019, Colin Saxton mentioned that his favorite character in the Bible is the crowd. It is the crowd who question, or doubt, or seek or follow. Colin said he could find himself in the crowd. A faith journey is a journey of questions, doubts, seeking and following.
The message I have today began when I participated in a brief bible study group last summer with a group of clergy affiliated folks in Portland supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. We specifically were pondering the shift from being allies to being in solidarity with the BLM protesters. Our Bible study explored the story of the loaves and fishes. Today I want to think about how this story starts. I want to pay a little attention to the wisdom of the crowd in the beginning of this well know story.
Mathew 14: 13 13 “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns”
John 6 1 -2 “Sometime after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, and a great crowd of people followed him.
The story begins when Jesus learns that his cousin John had been brutally and unexpectedly executed. – When Jesus heard that John had been brutally executed, he withdrew.
I imagine that Jesus himself was angry, scared, grieving, despairing, and so he withdrew from people. Jesus knew John, loved John, traveled with and preached with John. John’s execution was personal; and it may have challenged his confidence that the beloved community of God that Jesus was proclaiming was already here. So Jesus withdrew. I certainly do this when I feel broken, I withdraw to be by myself. It’s a very human response.
And the crowd also knew and loved and traveled with John were also probably angry, scared, grieving and despairing. The crowd followed Jesus and would not let him be alone.
The version we read in the bible study group next said that Jesus came to the crowd and “all felt compassion and all were healed.” I couldn’t find that version as I prepared this message; most translations say that Jesus came to the crowd that Jesus felt compassion and the all in the crowd were healed. I prefer the version we read last summer.
All felt compassion, all were healed, not simply the crowd, but also Jesus. And then they stayed together for the rest of the day and did not want to return to their homes and the story goes on from there. But I want to stay focused on that miracle of healing at the beginning of the story – All felt compassion, which literally means ”to suffer together” and all were healed. I’m sure after the healing there was still grief, despair, and brokenness, and there was compassion. The movement from suffering alone to suffering together was the movement of healing. Healing was moving to a space where both profound grief and profound love could be known as parts of a whole rather than as contradictory impulses.
I hear in this story that the crowd was wiser then the teacher. The crowd knew that, as early quakers knew, that the ocean of darkness and death are real and are a part of our experience;
and that we bring the light which overcomes the darkness to each other. We help each other to the light.
This message germinated for me in that small group gathering in Portland after the execution of George Floyd, and when we read the story we were feeling grief, and anger and some despair. This past year has been hard for most of us in many ways; the pandemic, we’ve been isolated, the politics have been hard, the systemic racism in our country has been exposed again. And we’ve remembered that our “city on the hill” is built on a foundation which includes genocide and slavery. At times I’ve continue to feel despair, grief and fear. And we continue to gather together. This morning I remind us of the wisdom of the crowd, who calls us to be together with compassion – suffering together- with compassion and to be healed. This is the movement to wholeness. This is what we learned when we affirm that “there is a balm in Gilead.”