Then they sat down to eat, and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.Genesis 37:25 (NRSVUE)
Growing up, my mom always had a green can of something called “Bag Balm.” Have you ever heard of that? Inside the can was a balm or an ointment that was made of who knows what. I guess when my mom was growing up, her grandfather always had a bucket of it in the barn. You see, he raised dairy cows, and he would put this bag balm on the cow’s udders to keep them from chafing. But my mom and her siblings knew that if you had dry skin or a little cut, that this magical Bag Balm would protect and heal it. Though we did not live on a farm, my mom always had a can of it in the medicine cabinet, and we would often use it if we had a cut, a scrap, chapped lips, or a dry patch of skin.
I recently looked online to find out what Bag Balm actually is and found that the story behind it was a lot more interesting than its list of ingredients. It goes like this…
In rural Vermont in 1899, word spread about a miraculous salve for chafed and cracked cow udders, concocted by a pharmacist in Wells River. The next year, a Lyndonville, VT a farmer named John Norris saddled his best horse and rode 30 miles to find out what the fuss was about. The minute he tried it on the first cow, John Norris knew this balm was something special. He scraped up every penny he could find to buy the miraculous formula – and all the rights to market it. Bag Balm officially launched once John hired a designer to create the distinctive green tin with a cow’s head (and Vermont’s indigenous red clover) on the lid. A legend was born, and it was too big to stay in the barn. Old locals still talk about how Bag Balm saved everybody’s hide in the winter of 1933, when the temperature fell to 50 below zero. In 1937, Admiral Richard Byrd took Bag Balm to the North Pole. During World War II, soldiers used it on their rifles to keep them in working condition. And after the Twin Towers in New York fell on 9-11, Vermont’s Original quietly provided Bag Balm to be massaged into the scratched paws of search dogs, who relentlessly roamed over mountains of rubble looking for survivors. Since 1899, Bag Balm has been a tried and true staple of every home, ready to moisturize every callus, cut, new tattoo, chafed foot or heel, cracked lip, or patch of dry winter skin of every member of the household – right down to the sore paw pads of the family dog.
So, folks, this magical bag balm has been around for a hundred and twenty-three years! The truth is as human beings we are always searching for magical balms, mystical elixirs, miraculous snake oils, and quick tips and tricks to heal us from our pain, help us lose weight, help us become an overnight success, and to fix our struggles and solve our problems.
In our scripture reading today, we heard about a caravan of camels that were carrying gum, balm, and resin from Gilead down to Egypt to help heal the people there. Several times throughout the Bible, we hear about this Balm of Gilead. We are never actually told what this magical balm contains, but we imagine that, like bag balm, it must have miraculous healing capabilities.
In September, during one of our Wednesday night’s Breaking Bread and Sharing Sacred Stories gatherings, I shared a quote that states “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Did you hear that? “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Friends, what that means (and don’t be surprised) is that the church is not meant to be a place of flawlessness. We don’t come to worship because we are the epitome of perfection. This is where we come because we are all broken and in need of healing and wholeness. We all long for the Balm of Gilead to heal our broken parts and to soothe our tired and achy souls. Though the Bible over and over again mentions this Balm of Gilead, our faith tells us that the ultimate physician that binds our wounds and restores us is not found in some kind of quick-fix balm but in following Jesus.
Folks, many times when we think of healing, we think of physically healing a wound or a broken bone. But true healing, which brings us a life of wholeness, happens when our body, our soul, and our spirit unite. True healing is peace. It’s the knowledge of God’s presence and a hope that knows no end. Interestingly enough, today’s scripture verses come in the middle of a story where healing is exactly what is needed, not physical healing, but the healing of broken relationships.
Have you ever heard the story of Joseph and the Coat of many Colors? Well, Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel, and he had twelve brothers. Now he was his mother’s firstborn and his father’s eleventh! So, as you may imagine, there was a bit of family conflict. Scripture says that of all of Jacob’s sons, Joseph was his favorite, and that is why he gave Joseph a long coat of many colors. In addition to the coat, Joseph had two dreams that caused his brothers to resent him. So, just as the brothers were plotting a way to kill Joseph, today’s scripture reading occurred. “Then they sat down to eat and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.” Well, the brothers stopped the caravan and sold their brother Joseph as a slave to them for twenty pieces of silver. Then they told their father that he had been killed by a wild beast.
Now I am not claiming to be a licensed family therapist, but it definitely sounds like there was some healing that needed to happen in the family. But don’t worry, Joseph eventually gets reunited with his family and actually saves them from a great famine during which they all almost died.
Folks, the truth is, it is usually during times of conflict and chaos in the Bible that we hear the Balm of Gilead mentioned, it’s kind of like a flashing red light that says, “Healing is needed here!” So, I wonder, what healing might you need in your life today? Where might you need the balm of Gilead to arrive? Do you need healing from physical pain? Or emotional pain? Healing from grief, disappointment, or a broken relationship? Healing from spiritual brokenness or a feeling of being lost? Or a fear of not being enough?
Friends, on television we are bombarded with commercials and advertisements that promise to “lower your A1C” and to “heal your psoriatic arthritis.” They promise that you’ll lose weight overnight, get a good night’s sleep, and feel in control of your life. All of these are things that many of us long for. But folks, there are no magic elixirs or powerful potions that heal us the way our faith can. Okay, so it may not happen overnight, and you might have to work at it, but living a life of faith and following in the footsteps of Jesus gives us direction, comfort, and hope, even in difficult times.
Now let me be clear, our faith is NOT a substitute for medication. Science and pharmacology have made incredible strides in combating disease and finding ways to help the human body. But it is our faith that can not only heal us but make us feel whole because it brings our body, our soul, and our spirit together, and it fills us with hope.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, take some time to think about the healing that you need. Don’t wait for some “magic snake oil” to fix it. Go to the doctor if you need to. Talk to your family and friends to mend broken relationships. Practice self-care, giving yourself exercise, healthy food, and the rest that you need, and take time to focus on your faith.
Spend time in prayer or listening to music that feeds your soul. Read stories in scripture to hear about others who have struggled as you do. Gather with others to find support and inspiration and then look to the future with hope, knowing that you are not alone, knowing that healing is possible for you, and knowing that you, whether broken or whole or somewhere in between, are loved just the way you are.
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!