Monday, June 21, 2010

Meeting God at the Outpost

Sheepscott Community Church June 20, 2010

1 Kings 19: 1-15a

Luke 8: 26-39

Meeting God at the Outpost

In this morning’s readings from 1 Kings and the gospel of Luke, we meet two men in extremis. Each of them has isolated himself from others, seeking death or some way out of the fear and horror of the moment.

The first is Elijah, the greatest of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible. How could one who knew God so intimately and was recognized by all in Israel as God’s prophet, how could such a one reach such a point that he wanted to die? He had at first gone a day’s journey into the desert, where he sat down under a broom tree and prayed for death with the words, “I have had enough, Lord.” Understand that he was fleeing in fear from the henchmen of Queen Jezebel who had vowed to destroy him as he had destroyed the prophets of Baal, which god she worshipped. He was tired of the exhausting role of being God’s prophet, as in, thanks, but no thanks. So he says, “Take my life. I have had enough. I am no better than my ancestors.” He lies down under the broom tree and falls asleep, is awakened by an angel who presents him with food and drink so that he will be strengthened for the journey ahead.

Then Elijah rises up from his would-be deathbed under the broom tree and flees 40 days and nights, i.e., a long time, long enough to prepare a way for a radical change, he flees to Mount Horeb, and there he meets God. More about that later.

The other character in this morning’s readings who is also found in an outpost away from men is the Gerasene demoniac of the gospel. Whether he fled to the tombs outside of the city limits or was driven there by townspeople frightened of his ravings and of his great strength, the gospel does not say. What it does say is that he was the first man Jesus met when he, Jesus, stepped ashore after having crossed the Sea of Galilee. Quite a welcoming party: a large, naked man who cries out and falls at Jesus’ feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want of me Jesus, Son of God Most High? I beg you, don’t torture me!”

Jesus’ sheer courage to stand there in the face of this brutal man in this unpredictable situation is notable. The man had been chained many times but in bursts of violent rage would pull his chains off the wall and overcome any guard set to watch him. A very big strong man who is out of his mind, and Jesus stands before him calm and apparently unafraid and commands the evil spirit to come out of the man.

What about this evil spirit? William Barclay in his commentary on this reading notes that we in our time will never begin to understand the story unless we realize that, regardless of what we ourselves think about demons, they were intensely real to the people of Gerasa at the time and to the man whose mind was deranged. The idea of mental illness was not even a working hypothesis at the time. So, how to explain the extreme behavior of those suffering from mental illness except by, well, demon possession.

To try to understand why the phenomenon of demon possession was almost universally accepted in Jesus’ time, consider the pre-Civil War view of a black person, at least in some Americans’ view, as little more than an animal, with limited intelligence and considerable cunning. Characterizing human beings in such a way, as less than fully human, was a way for those who kept slaves to give themselves tacit permission to participate in that morally bankrupt activity of trading on human flesh for financial gain. The Constitution as originally written considered a slave 3/5 of a person for legal purposes. Now we have an African American in the White House as our president. Change can happen.

Jesus lived and worked in a particular cultural historical milieu, and he used the language that people would understand, and liberated people in a way that the one liberated as well as those looking on would understand. Obviously there would be no talk of p.t.s.d. because we weren’t there yet. The demoniac’s response when Jesus asks him his name is “Legion.” Today’s gospel expands on that to explain that many demons had entered him, ergo, Legion was the name. In that vein, Barclay suggests in his commentary that the man might have seen an occupying Roman legion of 6000 men on the march. It may be that the word haunted him because he could have seen atrocities carried out by men of the legion, and the sight and memory of such atrocities could have left a scar on his mind and ultimately driven him mad. Regardless of what caused the man’s original breakdown, the end result was that Jesus clothed him in his right mind.

I found Barclay’s expansion on this story interesting and potentially enlightening. If you read People of the Lie by Scott Peck, however, you might reach a different conclusion. Both views, that the employment of evil and demons by a sick mind is simply a manifestation of the sickness, or, the other view, which is Peck’s as well as that of many people, that there is a personal evil operating in the world in and through people––that there are still disparate views after all these centuries only indicates a combination of ignorance and mystery, which often go hand in hand. Knowledge, enlightenment and grace continue to bring us along, however, in ongoing research into the agonies of the human mind and spirit, as well as of the body.

Back to the matter at hand. Elijah meets the angel of God under the broom tree, and in obedience eats and drinks to be strengthened for the journey ahead. When he comes to the cave on Mount Horeb after his long journey, the word of the Lord comes to him asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah answers that he has been most zealous for the Lord God Almighty, but the Israelites had rejected God’s covenant, broken down God’s altars and put God’s prophets to death with the sword. “I am the only one left,” he says, “and now they’re trying to kill me too.”

And the Lord says to him, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” We’re all familiar with what happens, having just heard it read. A great wind rends the rocks, but the Lord is not in the wind; after the wind there is an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord is not in the fire. “And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah hears it, he pulls his cloak over his face and goes out and stands at the mouth of the cave.” There and then, God tells him what he has to do.

Elijah went off a long, long way through the wilderness of the desert to meet with God on Mount Horeb, where God revealed himself to the prophet. The so-called Gerasene demoniac is also in an isolated place shunned by men when he too meets God in the person of Jesus, and they also dialogue, although the scripture names the demons as those who are doing the talking with Christ. I note again Jesus’ courage in this narrative, standing toe-to-toe with a man whom the townsfolk considered demon possessed. Jesus saw a man in need of help. He didn’t turn away out of fear or loathing. He stood there calmly and did what the situation revealed needed to be done. He was fully present in the moment. For Jesus then and now, nothing is more important than a human being. No building, no business, no event, no history, no social position, no argument––nothing, nothing trumps the importance of one human being for which everything must be sacrificed in Jesus’ life and language. Think of the shepherd who leaves the 99 of the flock to go out after the one who is lost. That’s Jesus. And when we ourselves need the truth of that reality about who he is in our lives, aren’t we glad that Jesus is who he is?

So, we have Elijah fleeing to the desert and then on to Mount Horeb, where he meets God, and we have the man from Gerasa, who has fled or been placed in isolation who also meets God in that wretched state and place. What about us? Don’t all of us have a place that we go, an outpost we hurry to when we need to be alone, which is to say, when we need to meet God? It can be a particular tree in the woods, a beach where we have never seen anyone, a lakeside sheltered by trees, where it is easy to become invisible. I favor cellars, my own damp dark cellar, and the woods behind my writing house, while my sister Barbara favors attics and solitary beaches. We all have a place we go.

Sometimes that’s a retreat into our own minds, which go with us wherever we go. On our beds at night, when we are out of sight of the judging or assuming world, we can safely cry, like Elijah, even ask God to take our lives, if that’s the way we are feeling, and God will hear. As with Elijah, God will respond as God will. Angels in many forms can come to us, to enable us to see that life is worth living, that in fact there is no greater gift that we have and that we yet have work to do. We may find ourselves in moments of great grace where we can sense––if not hear––that still small voice of God, the same that Elijah heard. This is real. I’m not talking about fairies or elves. I am talking about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who lives, and was particularly manifest in Jesus, who by his choices and life became utterly one with God, whom he called Abba, Father.

That same God of Elijah, that same God of Jesus who decided for death that we might have life, that same God is the one whom we are worshiping here today. In our outposts, whatever form they may take, we can cry out to God as Elijah did in despair and fear and just being plain fed up with the prophet’s lot. Or we can cry like the man from Gerasa who somehow recognized in Jesus the power of God that could heal him. God found him, didn’t he? That he should have landed in the boat just where he did. NO ACCIDENT. God knows all of what’s going on with each of us, and we can take hope and consolation from that.

When we ourselves have received help from God, maybe a word of consolation or instruction in our places of isolation, then by the practice of habits we form on the basis of that word of instruction or consolation, we can begin leading a renewed life––there’s always room for more growth and for renewal––and we can help others.

That makes me think of friends who go into area prisons. Surely these are places of isolation. Yes, there are hundreds of inmates living together, but each of them is in a prison of his own, and all of them are set apart from the rest of humankind, a daily reminder that they are other. Sharon and Dick Marchi, who worshipped with us a few weeks ago, go regularly to the prison in Warren to meet with, to pray with inmates. Another friend goes to the Kennebec County jail weekly, where he conducts a service for the so-called baddest of the bad. What he sees, like Jesus, is their humanity. He doesn’t ask, they don’t tell what their crimes are. They are not their crimes first and foremost. No, they are human beings, children of God. Sinners, like ourselves.

Having gone into the bowels of the Maine State Prison in Thomaston to do a story many years ago, I know how I felt when the doors clanked shut behind me in a succession of clankings as I descended to the bottom floor of the prison. It was a scary feeling. But after the interview with the several inmates, I no longer felt isolated or scared because I had encountered them as human beings, beyond the label of criminal. I appreciate my friends who habitually go into the prisons.

There are other ways and places to carry Christ into the marketplace. We do that as a church each second Wednesday of the month, when we have the privilege of serving one constituency of God’s people at the community supper at Second Congregational. There is such mutuality in the exchange. It is not a one-way street. We aren’t doing them any favors. They are reminding us that we are all one family of God, and there is no hierarchy in that family, except as it is ruled by love, which heals and restores and raises up.

Again and again, Jesus tells us not to be afraid. “As for you, every hair of your head has been counted, so do not be afraid of anything.” Go to your own special place, speak to God about what troubles you, get it taken care of, make a habit of thinking and acting out of the new way, then go out and help someone. There will always be someone who needs your help. As Jesus said to the man from Gerasa, who wanted to follow him. No, go home and tell everybody what God has done for you. And he did. And so should we––become apostles in this new century, carrying the living Word within ourselves to be given away, and given away, and given away. Amen.

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