The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, 2016 – 1 Kings 19:1-15; Luke 8:26-39
This is a sermon about why I am a Christian and not a politician. Not that being a Christian and being a politician are opposed; would that there were more Christian politicians! But their orientations are, nonetheless, quite different. Anyway, here is the setting for the question:
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then [Elijah]was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Let us begin with this, with Elijah and his sense of being overwhelmed. Surely we can sympathize. One could begin with international events this past week, like the horrendous shootings in Orlando or of the British MP Jo Cox. If you look at some of the comments on online news stories – everybody seems to know exactly what the problem was – immigration; hatred; gun control or lack of it; Islam; right-wing political parties; messed up fathers… put your finger on the right cause, and you’ve got a solution or at least an enemy to overcome in order to make everything right.
Of course – it isn’t one thing; anybody who thinks that fixing one thing will make the world right is living in a cocoon. It isn’t one thing, it’s all of it, and more. That’s what overwhelms me. When I worked in inner-city Cleveland, in a little broken down church, appropriately called “Calvary”, it was among drifting children, drug-addled parents, trashed homes, stray bullets, abusive sexual partnerships, and tired or distracted officials. I didn’t know where to begin; and if you listened to politicians or grandstanders, or just plain befuddled individuals, you’d think it was all obvious – “just do this” – more money for schools, better policing, racism training, whatever, just do that — and children would grow into hopeful stable adults. Wouldn’t they? I’m almost 60, and Miles Park, Cleveland, is still there. “I am no better than my ancestors,” Eiljah says. My ancestors – Adam, and his progeny.
To be sure, all this is a kind of parable of our own personal lives. My parents, my children, my upbringing, my work, my boss, my genes, my spouse, the choice I made 25 years ago or failed to make….
How do you “get into” that which ails a person, including yourself? Is there a single thread to get hold of that will unravel the whole mess?
“It is enough”, Elijah sighs bitterly; “now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” My ancestors – Eve, the mother of all.
Elijah is many of us. So note how, in today’s Gospel (Lk. 8:26-39) Jesus stands before this sad figure, wandering naked in the tombs of the Gerasenes – an area in the high country of the nation of Jordan close to Israel. “For a long time”, we are told, this man, of broken mind, crazed and tortured in some private hell within his soul, went back and forth among the rocky cliffs in which people dug out tombs to bury their dead, living on handouts, sleeping in crevices. Cutting himself, yelling obscenities, weeping aloud. We see people like him on the streets of Toronto, let’s be clear. And I remember once, when visiting Haiti, seeing a young man chained to a tree in a village, yelling and struggling just as Luke describes the man in Gerasene. It was a sign of concern and care that his neighbors tied him up. But it was also a mark of their complete bafflement, confusion and – imagine his parents or siblings — of their sorrow too.
For a long time, we told, this is what life was like for this man. It is important to read Jesus’ healing in its concrete personifications. Yes, Jesus heals the man. But there is something odd about it all. Jesus wants a name – the name of this possessing and crushing demon. That’s how you throw a demon out: you identify him, you catch him by his personal marker, and so gain power over him. “What is your name?”, Jesus asks. The demon might have said “Ambusias”, “Baphamet”, “Pithius” – any of the hundreds of named spirits we know of. You will get my point, if I add “bad schooling”, “uncaring father”, “semi-automatic rifle”, drugs”. Get the name; get power. But they reply to Jesus just as we know they should: “Legion”, they say. “For many demons had entered him.” Many – a legion being 1 to 5 thousand soldiers in a pack. Too many to name; to many to grasp hold of.
It is true: anybody “just like my ancestors” would, at that point, have given up. “Take away my life”. It is impossible. How know the names of all these ills, all these powers of evil, of degradation, of sadness? How identify their thousands? Here, we might say, is manifested the absolute power of the Son of God!
Not one, not two, but in their thousands and legions of wretched destruction, Jesus of Nazareth sends them out.
Here, the power of God breaks through the overwhelming complexity of our impossible lives. And it does.
But if this is a solution – and it is – let us at least be honest about it: it is a fearful one. After all, why would the villagers, having seen the man, now sitting “in his right mind”, want Jesus to leave them, and quickly? It is hard to find images of this scene in the history of art – it was not represented much in paintings. But when it is, the painters render the the clouds as jagged, the rocks as sharp, the possessed man, having been liberated, seems to have transferred his agonies to the terrain around him, and the swine – a herd of them, violent, screaming, pounding their hooves – have you ever seen pigs in a frenzy? — sometimes they are shown in the paintings as being ridden, like horses, by small wild spirits, and they thrash and writhe their way over the cliffs into turbulent waters. In some of these icons, the landscape itself has been caught up in a kind of cataclysm, where evil and its exile into the “abyss” turns the world inside out. For the word “abyss”, used by the legion demons to describe where they themselves fear to go, is, as both Paul (Rom. 10:17) and the writer of the Book of Revelation (cc. 9, 11, 17, 20) indicate, a “bottomless” horror, filled with death and wickedness. It is a very stark scene that these religious painters depict. That is what healing from evil looks like.
Is it any wonder that the man, now healed, seeing clearly for the first time in years, begs to leave this place with Jesus, just as his neighbors beg Jesus to leave them. To “get out”. Get out from all this.
The triumph over evil is itself a frightening thing. It doesn’t happen the clean way we want it. It is a kind of overhwleming mystery in its own right.
Not only that, but Jesus refuses to let the healed man go with him, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Go back into the midst of this upturned, overturned, turned inside-up and out land of yours, amid your own trembling neighbors, to the very place you have suffered for who knows how long – go there, and then announce “what God has done for you”.
The Lord heals. The Lord has power over evil, down to its depths, and he triumphs. But this scene, in its terrifying force as well as its demand to dwell with that force, is what it looks like. It is what is means to engage that world with the healing power of God.
Hence, back to Elijah. “It is enough”, he says; I’ve had it. He has lived through a terrifying cleansing of the land, only to be pursued to exhaustion. “What are you doing here?”, God asks. “Go back”, and carry on. Because what you have seen, and your carrying is what it means for me to triumph.
Elijah, we remember, takes form again, at the time of Jesus, in the person of John the Baptist. “If you are willing to accept it”, Jesus says of John, “he is Elijah who is to come” (Mat. 11:14). John the witness; Elijah the witness; we too, witnesses to “what God has done for us”.
We announce to the world, to our neighbors and friends, to our kings and enemies, to our families and children, even to our churches – we announce what the Lord has done or us in overpowering evil, not by being able to explain it all away, but by having faced it with Jesus, and then by re-entering the field of God’s own triumphant struggle. That is how the world, looking at us and where we stand, will know who is the Lord. Not with an answer; but with our lives.
This is a hard saying, because it goes against all our politics of simple packages. To be sure, every thread of evil is to be named, traced through, engaged – gun control, families, mental health, hatred, political tyranny. Trace it; work against it. We all are called to do this, wherever we are – in our societies, families, self-ordering. But the threads are legion; and only the Lord of all the legions of the universe can summon them and disperse them.
We do our limited work, humbly, with no great claims. And we do it persistently, despite the crushing limitations of our efforts. We do it, not to win – we never shall on our terms — but because we belong to the one who alone holds victory in his hands and whose power is exercised in weakness and grace, not in the forms of our own expected triumphs.
It is a hard saying, but I believe it is true.
I want you to know that I am still here. I am 59 years old. I have seen much evil in the world, around me, in the lives of neighbors and neighborhoods; I have seen evil in the land – in America, in Burundi and Haiti, in Canada, skulking to and fro in the earth and walking up and down in it (Job 1:7); I have seen evil in my own family, wrenching away those I have loved; driving them about the tombs of their own fears; I have seen evil in my own heart and spirit, pulling me into abysses of sorrow and even despair at times. These are all true stories I could tell, and do, in each of their threads. So could you. But the Lord has worked his triumph even in all of this, and through all the explosive character of his way of doing this. That is why I am still here. A difficult victory it is, that God works; a “strange work, a strange act”, as Isaiah says (28:21). I cannot give you a policy paper on any of this. That work of triumph tears down, even as it builds up and makes new (Jer. 31:28). We have a hard time seeing or accepting this. “Folly to the Greeks; and stumbling block to the Jews” (1 Cor. 1:23), as Paul describes the Cross. But triumph it is. And the way you know this is not simply that all seems to have been made well here or there; that the one cause of suffering has been discovered and resolved, like inventing penicillin; that the thread has been found and followed to its source; that we have discovered and addressed the one reason for what has gone wrong. No, the reasons are Legion, and that great vision of all things and their causes is somehow hidden in the awesome majesty and mystery of the Lord’s own life. Rather, you know the triumph because I am still here; I am sent back, standing, to declare the work of God for me and yes, for the many. And do you not stand also?
I think these stories – like mine and yours – stories about Elijah or the Gerasene demoniac, they are stories that rightly rattle underneath all the news and the commentaries and the political contests – which have their place; they rattle beneath them, like the underground subway trains, rushing deep below and hidden, under our daily chores, going to their destination. Because that is the story of God at work in Jesus, the Christ: whose victory over Death and the Devil, took place on a different level than our politics: The level of the Son of Man. Remember how Peter first put it, when he preached to the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea long ago (Acts 38:41). Peter describes: “How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. “And”, Peter goes on, “we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly […even] to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.” Even to us, who join in this eucharist. Even to us; because God’s triumph over evil is shown and grasped in the most special way imaginable: in following his Son, wherever he goes. That is the answer. Not away from the world, but into its midst, Jerusalem, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33). Are you overwhelmed? Come, let us stand together in Christ Jesus and follow him.