The Adventurous Lectionary – The Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 19, 2022
I Kings 19:1-15a
The great religious traditions begin with mystical experiences, and are sustained through an ongoing commitment to spiritual practices. Persons encounter God and then are given a mission. Encounters with God challenge us to action. Mysticism inspire mission, and the confrontation with injustice. The Old Testament/Hebraic and Gospel readings introduce us to the paranormal. Fleeing the wrath of Queen Jezebel, Elijah encounters an angelic being from whom he receives guidance and experiences God’s presence in sheer silence. Jesus encounters a man possessed by a legion of demons and proceeds not only to communicate with the demons but eventually exorcise them. The readings from the Psalms and Galatians speak of the yearning of the soul for transformative and protective experiences of God, and in Galatians, an encounter with the Holy One that overcomes the schisms of sex and gender, economic and political disparity, and ethnicity. Authentic mysticism widens rather than constricts our circle of ethical consideration.
Threatened by Jezebel, after his victory over her prophets, Elijah experiences a failure of nerve. Despite his experience of divine power, he is now on the run. Running, however, cannot distance him from God’s care and his vocational identity. The prophet encounters a culinary angel, who cooks the prophet bread for the journey to Mount Horeb. God is concerned about our bodies as well as our spirits. Our spiritual well-being involves the whole person, including our mind and body. Without physical sustenance, we can’t confront the evils of injustice and idolatry.
This angelic support reminds us of the importance of physical sustenance as a prelude to spiritual practice. Howard Thurman notes that one of the tragedies of poverty and oppression is the stifling of the imagination. Food touches spirit as well as body and is eucharistic in nature.
On the mountain, Elijah is treated to a display of divine power, only to discover God’s presence is most notable in sheer silence. God’s wisdom is not found in the opulence of Jezebel or the religious passion of a Trump rally or the praise bands of megachurches, but in quiet reflection, the still center of the cyclone. Beyond the maelstrom, we experience the still, still voice of God. God does not overwhelm us with divine majesty but lures us forward with wise insight and provocative questioning.
Bloviating politicians and televangelists promising prosperity and safety often miss the sighs too deep for words – deep calling unto deep – that reflects God’s vision for persons and institutions. When we pause and open to the Holy through spiritual practices, we may have quantum leaps in self-transcendence and healing power. God is always addressing us, in moments of stillness, divine visitations, and synchronous encounters with humans and angels, but are we listening.
“What are you doing here?” God questions the frightened prophet. That’s God’s equivalent of Mary Oliver’s “What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The same question could be asked of us. What motivates us to be in this place, whether it is church, the pastor’s study, a particular job, or a retirement avocation? What will we do with our lives, fleeting as they are? What are we afraid of? What keeps us from claiming our divine destiny? When Life questions us, we may discover new dimensions of ourselves and the divine-human presence in our lives.
This same question – what are you doing here? – can come in the interactions of the demonic and the divine. Possessed by a demonic power greater than himself, this man has lost his self and his dignity. Something has taken control and he cannot shake it on his own. We might wish to demythologize the “legion” of demons, connecting them with the impact of Roman oppression and social instability, but it is clear that Jesus and his first followers believed in spirit possession and, in this case, multiple possession, amounting to perhaps between 1,000 and 8,000 demons. Jesus’ encounter with the demons is mysterious at best: the demons know exactly who Jesus is, engage Jesus in conversation, make a request of the healer, which is granted. Jesus asks the demons to identify themselves. Jesus listens to the demonic and then responds to its request. (For more on the healing of demons, see Bruce Epperly, “God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus” and “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel.”)
Is God’s moral and spiritual arc personal as well as global? Is there some movement toward wholeness hidden within the demonic? Can God address the “higher self” of the “lower spirits?” Can God address the divine present in the demonic, the order present in chaos, the healing present in sickness? Do we need to listen to our own demons – shadow side, feelings of shame and guilt, or the spirits that hover around us – to experience the health and healing God intends for us? Can the demons and fallen angels find salvation and wholeness? At the very least, their power must be isolated – sent elsewhere – to insure liberation for the tormented. In any case, Jesus is more powerful than any demonic force. As Luther asserts in “A Mighty Fortress,” the same of Jesus can overcome any foe, human or superhuman. In moments of uncanny confusion, we are invited to call on the Savior and let the power of God, still alive in Jesus, still our spirits and show us the way forward.
Dare we preach about demons within the parameters of Sunday morning worship? A fifteen- minute sermon seems too scant to address the psychic world. Perhaps the adventurous preacher would augment the sermon with a time for questions following worship. The opportunity for a forum on angels and demons invites congregants to explore their own experiences of the numinous. Despite our technology and rationality, we are attached to both light and darkness, to angels and demons, to synchronicity and luck. We cannot, without reflection, deny the existence of higher spirits – both good and evil – that make contact with mortals like ourselves. Given the cultural and media interest in the demonic as well as paranormal, including psi experiences, angels, and near death experiences, adult faith formation is missing a great opportunity when such themes are neglected. We cannot deny such experiences, for our faith emerged from theophanies, mystical experiences, and encounters with spiritual beings. A few years ago, I offered a seminar on life after death, angels, and demons: thirty people showed up, half of which came from the community. (The results of this seminar are found in my “Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision,” Energion Publications.)
Could demonic spirits be active in our current political polarization? We the attacks of January 6, involving many Christian nationalists, who prayed and then attacked, a reflection of the demonic? Is our current political xenophobia the result of a spirit of fear that must exorcized by divine healing? While the apostle Paul does not address the spirit world in Galatians, he is well aware of the spirit of division, and asserts that in contrast Christ is the spirit of unity, overcoming every barrier. God aims at unity and wholeness, and when we open to God’s initiatives in our lives we are clothed in Christ and need to see Christ as the primary reality – the spiritual unity – that joins all creation.
Such spiritual unity seems countercultural and distant in a time in which politicians are more interested in bathroom protocols, sexual orientation, and building walls and caging children than welcoming refugees, feeding the hungry, or responding to global change. Sadly, Christians are often the most passionate perpetrators of divisiveness and incivility, not to mention violence and persecution of otherness. Still, as the Psalmist suggests, there is a deep yearning for God, even in those whose vision of God mimics the worst of political discourse. There is a hidden wholeness, as Thomas Merton says, that God wishes to call forth. This hidden wholeness enables those once possessed by demons to be clothed and in their right mind. This wholeness comes often in sheer silence that heals our fears and enables us to see holiness in others. God asks us, “What are you doing here?” when we have strayed off the path. It listens to our deepest heart’s desire, often hidden by fear and hatred, and elicits the healing powers of God in each person and community.
Bruce Epperly is a professor, pastor, and author of over sixty books, including THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGIES AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; TALKING POLITICS WITH JESUS: A PROCESS PERSPECTIVE ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.