Encounters: “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool”

Lessons from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 18, 2021 by

It was December 30, 2020 in Australia. Looking out over lush, emerald paddocks with Swan Peak across the valley, I recalled the scene a year earlier: above the parched earth following years of drought, smoke-filled skies obscured the view. How can I ever forget kilometer after kilometer of burned forest and the “driveways to nowhere” (rather, to piles of ashes and rubble where homes once stood)? That’s how 2020 began for Grace and me, as chaplains in East Gippsland, Victoria. What would the new year bring?

My mind turned to Grace’s sister in England, Rebekah, and our Zoom with her a few days prior. Battling COVID herself, she had described the deadly sweep of the disease through the hospice where she had been working as a chaplain. Even as I gazed across the beauty of rural Australia I tried to imagine her running a one-person hotline from her bed, desperate to keep supporting the hospice staff as their loved ones were rushed to the hospital down the road in critical condition.

In the United States, where three of our children live, the nation is in political turmoil. Across numerous states the people are battling a colossal uptick in COVID cases, with hospitalizations and death tolls daily breaking the previous day’s numbers. There was a time way back in March when I thought this was going to be over by Christmas. What was 2021 going to look like?

Where does a physically, mentally, and spiritually drained world turn in times like this? How do we as individuals and nations connect with the center and reach for those hidden resources deep within the individual and national soul?

A song came to mind, one that I have often sung on the bleakest of days. It rings with all the power and truth of its origins in the lives of enslaved African Americans – lives of brutal suffering that few in our Western world, outside the dwindling number of World War II death camp survivors, can contemplate today.

And with the song came the recollection of a sermon given by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 27, 1967, in which he made reference to both his enslaved forebears and the song they birthed, “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

BEmbedPhoto by Nazar Hrabovyi on Unsplash

With 2021 only two days away, I realized that, “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool” is the sermon for our year ahead. Its several themes are powerful ones for the uncertain months we face; its words light a beacon to guide us – individually and collectively – through the storm. They point us forward and help us navigate through dangerous straits, past perilous whirlpools; they give courage and hope to the living, and comfort to the dying.

And so to start this series, I begin with the final paragraphs that I recalled during those last days of the departing year. May they guide us all into the year ahead. 

Don’t be a fool. Recognize your dependence on God. As the days become dark and the nights become dreary, realize that there is a God who rules above.
And so I’m not worried about tomorrow. I get weary every now and then. The future looks difficult and dim, but I’m not worried about it ultimately because I have faith in God. Centuries ago Jeremiah raised a question, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” He raised it because he saw the good people suffering so often and the evil people prospering. Centuries later our slave foreparents came along. And they too saw the injustices of life, and had nothing to look forward to morning after morning but the rawhide whip of the overseer, long rows of cotton in the sizzling heat. But they did an amazing thing. They looked back across the centuries and they took Jeremiah’s question mark and straightened it into an exclamation point. And they could sing, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” And there is another stanza that I like so well: “Sometimes I feel discouraged.”
And I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. God bless you.

About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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