Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fourth after Pentecost, 2010

[RCL 7C: I Kings 19, Luke 8: 26-39]

In this long season after Pentecost now we begin our reading in First Kings in the middle of the story. The great prophet Elijah has had a dramatic confrontation with the priests of Ba’al—in the story in First Kings 18, where the priests of Ba’al, who are the official Temple priests of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, build one altar, and Elijah builds the LORD another altar. Both Elijah and the priests of Ba’al offer prayers. Nothing happens on Ba’al’s altar, but at the altar Elijah dedicates to the LORD there is a mighty fire that comes down from heaven to consume the offering. Then there is disarray, and a battle, and Elijah and his men carry the day, and all the King’s priests are killed.

Elijah then runs off into the wilderness, hotly pursued by Ahab and his army. One of the great stories of this part of the Old Testament, and one we could pause over for a good deal of reflection and conversation.

But the lectionary nudges us along to this scene, Elijah having run south from Israel to Judah, alone, fearful, cut off from any support or resource. And finally under the shade of this solitary broom tree he collapses in exhaustion and despair.

At the end of his rope, we might say. His back against the wall. Even in the hardest of circumstances he has been faithful to his calling as a prophet of the LORD. But now that road seems to have come to an end. Perhaps he had thought that the confrontation with the priests of Ba’al would usher in a mighty supernatural revolution, overturning the power of the king. But that didn’t happen, and now he is alone, and without prospects for a better day. Without hope.

And then, this moment, as he reclines in the shade of the tree. At the extreme edge of his desperation, there appears to him, suddenly, the Angel of the LORD. And the miraculous gift of that loaf of bread, the jar of water. To restore his strength, to nourish his body, and most importantly of all to nourish his soul with a visible sign that God continues to be with him, that God continues to have a plan and a purpose for his life.

And then of course that wonderful concluding image, set at Sinai, where Moses had spoken with God in ancient days and received the gift of the Torah—as now Elijah opens his ears to hear the LORD’s fresh word, which comes to him not in the drama of the great wind, not in the rumble of the earthquake, but in the still, small voice, a whispering.

And there is for Elijah a deep healing. Courage and fortitude. Strength, resolve. The restoration and renewal of his life and purpose. And God gives him his next set of marching orders—and off he goes.

As we hear this story, perhaps it makes sense as well to hear as the second reading the story in St. Luke of Jesus in the Land of the Gerasenes. He encounters this man. About whom we know almost nothing. But we see him too as eerily familiar, as someone at the end of his rope. Naked, homeless, tormented by his inner demons.

We can only guess at what those demons might be, though perhaps in our own lives we may all have met and had to wrestle with demons of our own. They have thoroughly overwhelmed him, cost him everything, every relationship, everything of value, every sign and symbol of his place in the family of humanity. Some of us anyway might know something about those kinds of demons. At the end of his rope. A man without hope. So beyond any expectation that the sudden appearance of Jesus and his disciples calls forth in him only fear of further pain.

Why are you bothering me here? Another pious preacher out to wag a finger in my direction and use me as a sermon illustration of what happens when you get on the wrong side of God? I’ve seen your type before, Jesus. Just go away and leave me alone with my tormentors . . . .

And then, so quickly we don’t even see how he does it, Jesus says a word, perhaps, and we have the odd story of the demons rushing off into the nearby herd of pigs. But that’s not really the central image we would hold onto from this story. Rather this, in the thirty-fifth verse of the eighth chapter, and just think how powerful this is: “when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind.” If we’ve known demons of one sort or another, destroying the lives of those we love; or if we’ve been their ourselves. I wonder if one of those coming to Jesus at this moment might have been this man’s mother or father, a wife, a sister, an old friend. “When they came to Jesus they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind.”

The dawn of a new morning, after a dark and stormy night that had seemed destined to last forever.

These are two lessons this morning for people who know what it might mean to feel, at some point or other of our lives, that we’re at the end of our rope. That the road has run into a dead end, a brick wall. That we’ve wrestled our demons for as long as we could, day after day, year after year, until finally we’ve given up and let them move in and take over the operation of the establishment of our lives.

And maybe for all of us, whether we’re at a place like that now, or have been, or wonder if some day we might be. End of the rope; back against the wall.

Maybe for all of us: the loaf of bread and jar of water. Refreshment. Or the image of that young man. Dressed, composed. In his right mind. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Images that we might take with us this morning as we approach this Holy Table. Which is a meal of deep healing. The strongest medicine there is. Bread of Heaven, Cup of Salvation.

What I like to say for babies and young people and the newly baptized of any age, at the celebration of baptism, when the anointing with oil reminds us of the old story of Samuel finding and anointing the young David. “God has great things in mind for you.”

And that is true, true for all of us. As we may live in a throw-away society, but for God, not one of us is expendible. He knows us and he loves us, and from the moment we first draw breath until we fall asleep in him at the end of our days, we are precious to him. And as we call upon him, he answers, with the promise of healing and new life.

That is fundamentally what the Cross is about, and where we stand this June morning. God gives himself, for our healing. For our new life. To show that there is no wilderness far enough away from him, no demon powerful enough to keep him away. All forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Remembering what Jesus said to his disciples: “I will not leave you comfortless.” "Come unto me, all ye who travail, and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

And we would open our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts, to receive this gift.

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