Lectionary Reflections for the Fifth Sunday in Pentecost – June 23, 2013
I Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
Questions that Change the World
“What are you doing here?”
God’s question to frightened Elijah addresses us all. Why have we taken this path? What events got us into our current situation or life crisis? Now that we are here, what is our intention? Elijah’s intent was to save his skin. But, in hiding out, he discovered he could not escape the protection and challenges of the Living God. In a similar fashion, the healer Jesus asked the demonic powers, “What is your name?” asking them to identify themselves and perhaps even to understand themselves. In naming who we are and the crises that confront us, we may be taking the first steps to liberation and healing.
Despite his decisive and violent victory over the Baal priests and their gods, Elijah finds that Jezebel has placed a price on his head. He does what any rational person would do: discovering he has no advocates, he runs for his life. Yet, in running, he finds himself in the hands of God, who provides him with sustenance, a theophany, and the challenge to face his deepest fears.
Elijah hears God’s question, “what are you doing here?” twice in the course of this narrative. First, as he quakes in fear. He stammers that he alone is left among the faithful prophets and is now, despite his previous ardor for God, fearful that he will be the next victim of Jezebel’s rage. God does not challenge Elijah’s assessment of his situation. Instead, he invites him to experience a hurricane and an earthquake, neither of which reveal God’s presence. Finally, in the sheer silence – in the powerlessness of sheer silence – he encounters the power behind storm and earthquake. What is the power residing in the sound of sheer silence or, as some translations suggest, the still, small voice? Is there wisdom in a God who is revealed in virtual nothingness? Or, is virtual nothingness the vortex from which all creation bursts forth? Is the God who appears absent so utterly present that God’s reality remains imperceptible until we pause to listen to the sound in silence?
Jezebel rages, but her doom is on the horizon. She appears to be powerful but her power is fleeting. God appears in sheer silence and in the silence is energy and intentionality beyond our imagination. What appears to be winning the day may come and go while the unnoticed divinity endures forever. We would do well to remember Luther’s words from “A Mighty Fortress”: “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”
Psalm 42 and 43 describe our yearning for God. Our opponents, and the opponents within, ask “Where is your God?” God appears absent and our souls are cast down. Yet, our hope remains in God’s reappearance; in the possibility that we may encounter God’s presence once more. Sometimes we live by a hope in the unseen. This is not denial or fanciful thinking but the recognition that God’s power and presence is subtle. God’s gentle providence is at work even when we do not notice it. The Psalmist trusts that God will be revealed clearly in the midst of the maelstrom and that he will live joyfully once more. Our current disquietude will lift and we will praise God and rejoice in God’s presence.
As I read Paul’s invitation to be “clothed in Christ,” I am reminded of the saying found in Benedictine monasteries, “See everyone as Christ.” Ethnic and social differences are real and to be celebrated rather than denied or eliminated. God delights in diversity and challenges any imposed uniformity of personality, vocation, culture, or faith experience. God’s delight in diversity leads to affirmation of differences and the equally important recognition that our differences are secondary to God’s presence in our lives. All the dividing lines dissolve in God’s graceful acts of reconciliation in Christ. We are one and yet many, but our manifoldness contributes to deeper unity in the body of Christ.
The encounter of Jesus with a man possessed by demons is multifaceted in nature. We don’t know the nature of the demonic force that possesses him, nor do we know his diagnosis as we would understand it in terms of the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). Does he have some dissociative disorder or is there a force that takes over his spirit, overwhelming his central personality with many voices, all destructive in nature? His condition challenges us to take seriously realities of mental illness in our congregations and recognize that God’s aim at healing is present in every health condition. No one is fully alien from us, nor is anyone fully cut off from God’s grace despite their current state of mind.
The demonic knows Jesus; and Jesus, in turn, listens to the requests of the demonic. A dialogue ensues between the forces of destruction and God’s power to heal. “What is your name?” Jesus inquires. Naming our “demons” gives us power in relationship to them. We are no longer victims, but despite their destructive power, they are no longer entirely mysterious and inscrutable. We can find a way to respond to their alienating power, and even if we are not initially delivered from their control, help – and hope – is on the way.
The demonic enters into dialogue with Jesus. The demonic forces request to enter a herd of swine rather return to the abyss from which they originated; and Jesus agrees to that request. Is there hope for healing even among the demonic forces? Is there a Godward place even in that which is most disruptive of God’s intent for humankind? Can “Satan” be welcomed back into God’s realm of Shalom? If God is to become “all in all,” then such outcomes are always possible. The demonic powers go into a herd of swine, which charges into the lake, and are drowned. The demonic can’t stay put: when we challenge evil, it must go somewhere and the lake is the safest place for demons and humans alike.
As if by magic – or is it miracle? – the man finds himself healthy again, “clothed and in his right mind.” He is clothed in Christ’s healing love; he is no longer to be judged as a demon possessed man, but as God’s beloved child. He, too, has a request – to become a follower of Jesus. But, Jesus has a better plan – “Go back home, share the good news of your healing. Be a living witness right where you are.”
Two questions emerge in today’s readings: “What are you doing here?” and “What is your name?” In responding to those questions, fright and powerlessness are transformed into resolve and agency. Both Elijah and the man possessed by a demon are given the same instruction following their encounter with God, “Return.” Go back to the place where life fell apart; return to the community you fled out of fear and powerlessness. Show your face again, but as a new creation, clothed in the mantle of divine power and purpose. What questions do we need to hear to experience healing, transformation, and courage? Today’s preacher may listen to her or his own responses as he challenges his or her congregants to ponder, “What are you doing here?” and “What is your name?” The answers we give may transform our lives and institutions.