Sermon –There is a Balm in Farmville
Farmville Presbyterian Church
Jeremiah 8:18-22; Luke 4:14-30
August 23, 2020
— Promotion of Social Righteousness
This is going to sound strange but I am going to tell you about WW2 today. This is strange because I was born almost 30 years after the war and a good number of you remember the war. But I am not going to tell you about WW2 from the American perspective but from our ally, Russia. I guess this was the last time we were on the same side – sort of.
Russia suffered in WW2 in ways that Americans have a hard time imagining. During the war, 8 million Soviet soldiers died and 13 million civilians. To put that in scale, we lost about 406,000 Americans. All of the Americans who have ever died in any war is still only about 1.4 million. 1.6 Russians died in a single city in WW2 during the 872 day siege of Leningrad – modern day St. Petersburg. What was remarkable about Leningrad in the time of WW2 is that it was the home of the largest seed bank in the world (Lenin All Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Institute of Plant Industry more than 250,000 samples). Many thousands of seed varieties had a home here, and it was a commitment of this great research facility to cultivate drought and pest tolerant plants. More than 6,000 varieties of potatoes alone were in the seed bank. When Germany began bombing Leningrad, the researchers were digging up the potatoes to preserve them as bombs literally fell around them. They managed to save thousands of potatoes and store them before the scientists took refuge from the attack.
Within a few days, the Germans had surrounded the city and cut off all supplies. The Nazi plan was to starve the city and destroy it. There was no reason to them that the city should still exist, but there was interest in the seed bank. Hitler had a particular interest in expanding productive farmlands and seed varieties. As you can imagine, it is always good to have a bunch of seeds in reserve, in case you ever need them. He was so interested that Hitler sent a special SS commando unit to capture the seed bank. For some reason, they never accomplished their mission.
If the bombs did not get you in Leningrad, starvation did. Most of the people who died in Leningrad died from starvation. The first winter left people with less than 5 oz. of bread a day per person, and often half of that bread was composed of saw dust. People quickly became skeletons. During the winter months of 1941 and 1942, 100,000 people died each month from starvation. One woman was so far from healthy that she was stacked with corpses, the workers believing her to be already dead. Her husband had to convince the workers that the woman was still alive. Their son had already died from diphtheria, but the couple survived and had another son a few years after the war. His name is Vladimir Putin.
During the siege, people stripped the walls of their wallpaper and scrapped of the wallpaper paste since it was made with potato starches. They boiled the paste to make soup, but at the seed bank, where they had 1000s of varieties of rice and potatoes and many other edible seeds, they lived by a different priority. They did not eat the seeds: “what you eat now, you cannot plant later” was the principle – words they lived and died by. You see they had to commit to their job more than any job they had ever known. While, the Nazi commandos never found the seeds, the scientists had to make sure none of the civilians ever found them, either – nor the mice and rats that were especially bad considering the cats had been eaten. Also, the potatoes in particular were difficult as the seed potatoes had to remain warm or they would freeze and be useless to plant, again. You can guess in a situation where it was hard to find fuel, they had to sacrifice. So this group of scientists committed to the survival of these plants and gave themselves entirely to the work of preserving this seed bank. This was their life’s work. In fact, more than a dozen of the scientists died of hunger while they literally guarded the food for the future – dying while surrounded by food. These seeds are still with us today. The descendent seeds from those seeds helped save people in Ethiopia following a severe drought several decades after the war.
Now why I am telling you all of this besides the fact that it is a fascinating story? We have no idea if any of those Soviets were Christian – I would expect they were not. But they did understand that sometimes we are called to do things beyond ourselves for the good of others. Sometimes we are called to give ourselves for the common good and overcome brokenness with hope and help. Sometimes we are asked to put ourselves and our own needs aside, even when it does not appear to make any sense, for the sake of our fellow human beings, anyone and everyone – Russian, Indian, Brazilian, Chinese, Israeli, Turk, and even German.
The picture in Jeremiah has the Lord completely dismayed at how corrupt the people are with no conscience, no compassion, no humility, no wisdom, and no justice. He says the dead are better off than the living in their evil ways. There is no peace and no healing in the land. That is the anguish of God in the passage that I read. When the health of God’s people is at its greatest threat, where is the doctor? Where is the healing? Is there no one able to be healing in their midst? Is there no one willing to be a healing presence? Is there no balm in Gilead?
The balm is symbol of medicine. Even though it did not actually come from Gilead, it is believed to have come through Gilead on trade routes, so it got associated with Gilead and thus the “balm in Gilead” became a famous medicinal treatment. It represents natural, effective healing. In a world where healing was much more difficult and much less reliable, this was a treasured gift – necessary and precious and rare in Jeremiah’s world.
Jesus also spoke to the people of God about healing in the passage I read from Luke. Immediately following his time in the wilderness being tested by Satan, Jesus comes home where he begins teaching, and healing, and restoring pressed and oppressed people. He becomes an instant celebrity, as you might imagine. He is what the people are so desperately seeking – his language is Messiah language, and even without the internet, word travels quickly. So when he arrives to his hometown synagogue, there is a lot of interest. Jesus finds himself admitting that he has come to liberate the people who are being crushed. He has come to be the Messiah, the one who restores, heals, and redeems. His people listening there are intrigued and excited. The Messiah, it turns out is one of their hometown people. This is what they have really been waiting for. Now, they will be able to rise above other peoples and regain the throne of David. They will throw off other peoples and dominate in God’s name. This is going through their minds.
They were amazed at Jesus, and in their hearts, they wanted him to do the amazing signs of the Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God for them, too. After all, he grew up there; he is one of them. The greatest events in their nation’s history were unfolding before them, and they wanted a front row seat to God’s salvation in Jesus. Come on Jesus, they thought, show us your glory.
The scientists in Leningrad could not bring them to feed themselves or even their neighbor. That’s not why they were there. It was not to have a full belly that day. It was not to feed a few people in that area. What they were doing was to feed peoples to come for generations, to provide food for perhaps even the world.
Jesus did not come to wow anyone or to please the home crowd. He had no interest in impressing anyone but in healing the world. That’s why he says that strange thing about God helping other people, gentile people, when Jewish people were hurting, too. God’s help, God’s comfort, God’s strength, God’s peace, God’s love, God’s heling, is for all people, especially those who are most at risk. Even if that is a hard thing to hear.
It is hard to hear that other lives matter at least as much as our own. It is hard to live in ways that guard justice and righteousness for people who are not like us at all. It is hard to fight for people who will never fight for us. But part of God’s call is to be healing in the land, to give all that we have to open the doors for others to know more what it means to be loved, to stand with our neighbor in the door.
There is more hurt out there and even in here than you can shake a seed at, so it is incredibly important to understand how our actions promote others or hinder others. It is incredibly important to find Jesus in the face of the other and to offer our good today so that the world will be better tomorrow. If we really give good, better will come. God is working good right now in our midst. Sometimes we can even help heal this hurting land. To God be the glory. Amen.