NRSV 1 KINGS 19:1-18
19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 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.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4 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.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
NRSV LUKE 8:26-39
26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” – 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and 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. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
I’ve been at this long enough to know that when you come up here and start preaching to folks, there are many questions: What’s he going to talk about? How is the sermon title going to tie in with the sermon, if at all? Did I turn off the stove?
But we do not often find each of the Bible texts getting right into our collective faces like they do this week, asking their own questions:
The Psalms: “What are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?”
I Kings: “What are you doing here?”
In Luke: “What is your name?”
A couple of weeks ago I sat down with a trusted colleague, Pastor Ronnie Kiehm of the Farmville Baptist Church. And while we were working through these texts, we exchanged a look of recognition, one that comes from serving churches we love and anguish over in a time of alienation, disorientation and transition. It was a look of: Hey, this is OUR story. This is US.
Consider the contexts – and you know with me, it is all about context. You have to know the background for the Biblical text, or you will put into it anything you want; you will only listen to what you want to listen to, and not what God has to tell you. Even then you might not get it right, but knowing the context is important. Especially this week.
Psalms – two of them together, because originally they were one whole song. You know that because there is not a break for an introduction between the two. The 43rd sounds the same refrain as Psalm 42. But what is especially important is where this song came from.
It came from a time of exile. The populace had been decimated – men killed in battle, women and children starved to death from the siege of Jerusalem before the Babylonians overthrew the city and took them off to exile. All along the way, the Babylonians taunted them with chippy comments – ‘Where is your God? Our god, Marduk, has to be stronger than your God, or you wouldn’t be in chains.’ It is a song of a beaten people, a people who have only the past. A time of remembering when they went with a multitude keeping festival, marching to Jerusalem to celebrate their religion and their national story, and for them it was the same thing. All they have is the past. The present is too painful, and the future is something they cannot – and probably do not want – to imagine.
In the first book of Kings – of a time long before that – the people cannot make up their minds which god they want to serve; the God who delivered them out of bondage in Egypt, or Baal, the god of the surrounding culture; the god you can bend, fold and manipulate. Even when Elijah not only defeats but kills the prophets of Baal in a contest on Mt. Carmel, Queen Jezebel is after his head. He takes off far as he can get, away from her clutches, thinking he is the only one left, the only one who has been faithful. He, too, is a man full of the past. His present looks questionable, and the future gloomy as he engages in a big pity party, one that is wrapped up around himself and his own limitations.
The Gospel of Luke has the story of the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac, the wild and crazy guy who ran around a graveyard naked, defying and defeating any attempt to keep him under control and out of sight. When Jesus comes ashore this guy’s problem is revealed in a name – Legion, meaning he has many demons. Jesus takes control of the situation, casts the demons out into a herd of pigs – unclean animals to any good Hebrew – and the herd promptly runs down a steep bank and into the lake, and drowns. When the herders of the swine go to the village in distress and the people come out see what’s going on, they find the man clothed and in his right mind. And it scares them to death. They, too, are a people of the past. They remembered how this guy was. They had gotten used to him. They knew how to deal with him in his crazed state. Like an alcoholic, whose family doesn’t know how to approach them when they finally take on sobriety, these townspeople do not know what to do with this guy. Or the One who healed him. As a result, they ask Jesus to leave, get out, move on from their country. They are a people of the past. Fear has blocked their view of the present, and the future has way too many question marks to even consider.
For stories that were written so many years apart, these passages have a remarkable sense of connectedness. They are connected in their sense of disorientation, they are connected in the sense of being stuck in the past, and they are connected in that they all involve Gentiles in some way. You know – those nonbelievers, those outsiders, those people who are not part of the faith. In the Psalms, it’s the Babylonians. In Kings it’s Jezebel and her sinister entourage from Phoenicia, but it is also those people to whom Elijah will be sent; to the wilderness of Damascus, modern day Syria, to proclaim a new king there. In Luke Jesus goes to the Gerasenes, the land across the Sea of Galilee, the place that is not part of the land of Israel, where none of his kind of people live. Nonbelievers, outsiders, people of the other nations of the world are not only part of this story; they are intricate participants in it. They are the means by which adversity is confronted, the word of God will be lived, and the good news of Jesus will be proclaimed.
But these stories also have something else, that in-your-face factor that I mentioned before. These are our stories, folks. These are the stories which connect all of us in the church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.
As Pastor Kiehm and I were looking at these Bible stories, we realized that these were the stories of the church of Jesus Christ, at least where we live, and probably in a lot of other places. I see it here, and Ronnie sees it at his church. The story of a dwindling number of the faithful, of people for whom it is important to make the effort to get up on a Sunday when they could be in bed sleeping, and get dressed in a certain, special way, and come to a building to engage in an activity which is skeptical to some, ignored by others, and just not on the radar screen for many. And it is not just here or at Farmville Baptist. We know that most churches are facing this. Even in those churches which like to show off how many young people they have, some of us know the real story – their pews are not always full, their commitment is sometimes lacking, their preaching of the Gospel is often limited to what people want to hear rather than what they need to hear.
People are not coming to church. We can wonder, as Elijah did, if we are not the only ones who have held onto the faith, have not kissed the gods of culture or wealth. On the other hand, we may also recognize that to some extent the church has brought this onto herself. Clergy sexual misconduct, relegating of ministry to those who get paid for it, charges that the people in the pews – and in the pulpit – do not live out a life that demonstrates the love of Jesus very well have all had a role in people staying away.
In a very real and important sense, the question Yahweh asks of Elijah not once but twice is just as pertinent for us: Your name, followed by “What are you doing here?” Is this a place of worship, a place to connect with something and someone greater than yourself? Is this a place to get your bearings straight and get real with your shadow side, which all of us have? Or is this just another activity that we do because we’ve always done it? Is this a social club, a country club type of gathering? Is this just a habit?
What are we doing here? Maybe we can take our cues from the word of God. Psalms says three times: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Even when things are bad. Even when it seems that hypocrites are all around, or our own hypocrisy is revealed. Even when the pews are empty. Even when our motives are questionable. Even when we know we have not lived up to our calling. Even when we are all alone. Or we feel all alone. We remember our hope is in God. And God is not done with us or the church yet. As far as I can see, God is not done with the church by a long shot. It may not be the same church I grew up in, or any of us grew up in. But God is still moving and working and calling into being. Hope in God.
Elijah gets the presence of God – not in earthquake, wind or fire, but in the sound of a soft whisper, or as our version puts it, the sound of sheer silence. But out of that whisper comes the commission – Go back. Go back out into the world. Don’t leave the world yet, and don’t leave it like you found it. Be an agent of transformation. Elijah’s call is one of danger, and it is one of severely disrupting the status quo. God is shaking things up, and God is doing the shaking through Elijah. Might not God be doing that through us? Why not?
For the Gospel lesson I would like to share some words from the Rev. Judith Jones, an Episcopal priest from Oregon: “From the moment that the demoniac first confronts Jesus, the whole episode invites us to consider what Jesus has to do with the forces that occupy and control us. This way of reading … challenges us to think more broadly about Jesus’ sovereignty over the powers that destroy human life.
“How many people in our world are haunted by a traumatic past and tortured by memories? How many lives unsheltered and inadequately clothed because of social and economic forces that they cannot overcome, no matter how hard they struggle? How many are imprisoned, regarded as barely human, excluded, cast out? How many are enslaved by addictions no longer knowing where the addiction ends, and their own selves begin? Where do the governing authorities separate people from their families, denying them the opportunity to seek better lives? Where do occupying armies still brutalize entire communities and hold them captive to fear?”
In the midst of our fear, Jesus still comes, still heals, and still sends. And in some cases, he is still rejected. But from our pews and with our souls refreshed and restored by God’s grace to take on a journey that is too much for us otherwise, we can go out and be a difference. It may be a difference to just one, but it will be a difference. It will be a difference of justice. It will be a difference of compassion. It will be a difference of inclusion.
What are we doing here? We are here to reconnect with hope, to hear the call to go, and then to proclaim what Jesus has done for us – and for the world. Amen.