Sermon for June 23, 2013

1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Suddenly sometimes, even the most cheerful and upbeat of us can find ourselves facing discouragement and even despair. Things can turn on a dime. Life can be going well, even, and we can feel that there is nothing really to be anxious or fearful about. And then suddenly we tap into the discouraged sense we all hold within us. Even in the best of circumstances, a sense of discouraging despair can rise up. And then there are those times when the events in life overwhelm us with discouragement, those times when the demons keep piling on, and there appears to be no escape.
Despair is the story of Elijah this morning. These past few Sundays, we have been reading from the collection of stories about this primitive prophet. All of these stories involve the ancient conflict between the god of the desert, YHWH, and the god of agricultural fertility, BAAL.  Elijah is the prophet for the desert YHWH.  At this point of the story, Elijah has led a group that has killed the prophets of BAAL, in retaliation for their violence against the forces of YHWH. The cycle of violence in the ancient Middle East is present here.  And one round of retaliation brings another round of retaliation by the queen and those who support BAAL.
The forces of YWHW are now crushed and forced into exile. Elijah flees to Mt Horeb and the wilderness to hide out and take stock of things. Of course the story is told from the point of view of the god of Elijah. But one senses that somehow Elijah had become over zealous in this increasingly violent conflict with the prophets of BAAL.  Did he escalate the ongoing violence between the two parties to the point that he and his supporters will be crushed? Now he must flee for his life.
In his flight, despair wells up in his heart. He starts to feel suicidal.  He wants God to end it. And under the rare shade of a desert tree and in the cave on a hillside, he wants to let go of his life.
Is there any way for Elijah to be healed from this cycle of violence in which he has become an all too willing accomplice, using his faith to justify his bloody deed? Is there any way for him to be freed from the violence that plagues him and the despair such violence always breeds in the hearts of both perpetrators and victims as the violence escalates in spirals of revenge? Or is he to despair to the point of death?
Regardless of the cause of the despair we feel, whether we are an ancient prophet or contemporary Christian, whether life is going fairly well or life is a mess, we would do well to look at the trail of clues the story provides regarding the mending of the despairing soul in primitive thought. For in these ancient details of the story we see how to make it back to hope, one step at a time. And no matter how deep our despair, how profound the violence which marks our life, no matter how contemporary we think we are, we are all still primitive in many ways and need this catechesis of inner healing for the violent spirit emptied of all it thought was important.  We need to learn the steps to walk back into the light of hope.
First notice how the exile is also a time away in which there is space for reflection in the desert and in the cave. If we are going to get back to hope we always need such times away to figure things out, to reflect, and to quietly listen to the voices in us that have been drowned by all the noise.
Notice how much attention is paid to Elijah’s eating and resting. Nutrition and good sleep are important not only in our physical recoveries, but also in the recovery of hope. At funerals we need to lunch together, and we need to rest after the exhaustion of facing death.
Notice that solitude is important. We need time alone to face our demons and ourselves if we are going to rebuild hope. And then the dreaming starts again. We start to imagine a different future. And we hear voices: some from our past, some from our future, some from God, calling us on, getting us in gear, getting us going again. Until we have that inner the inner spiritual conversation with the sacred and we begin to make new sense of things.  There are storms to face, as Elijah faces his storm, but in the end, the voice of God is found in the silence, the stillness that follows. In the verses that follow these verses, Elijah begins to hear in the visions and voices his direction for a future. The details of the story tell us how God guides us in the healing of the broken heart, in the miracle of emergent hope, as we struggle, all of us at times, with the demons of despair.
The hope of healing when gripped by the demons of despair: this is the theme of the third passage this morning, the story in Luke.  For here Jesus encounters a man possessed by many demons. He is overwhelmed and needs to be restrained.  Healing one gripped by the demons of despair is the theme of this story.
For us, these stories of the demon possessed, speak to mental illness. Donald Capps, a psychiatrist who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary sees Jesus in these encounters as a village psychiatrist, bringing healing as people face the demons that overwhelm them. (Donald Capps,  Jesus the Village Psychiatrist, Westminster, John Knox Press, 2008) For although the restraints today employed may involve the use of drugs rather than chains, we all sense in these demon stories, the raging forces that compel the mentally ill to do strange things, as if possessed.
So the story brings to mind the healing of the mentally ill that needs to take place in our own village. Many suffer mental illness. For many, hope is hard. How easy it is for us to reject those who are strange with the thoughts and labels we use. How important it is to care for and work with those in need of the compassion of Jesus as they face their demons, knowing that there is a healing connection between the spiritual and the physical, and that loving relationships bring healing in these situations.
In this story the sense of being possessed by forces or things is very real. And that is how life feels sometimes. We are overwhelmed by that which surrounds us, unable to be ourselves as we try again and again to cope. We feel possessed.
And the possession is complicated. It’s never just one demon. We often do not face just one problem, but several together. The demons are legion. There is a complexification in the problematic. Oh, if we could only focus on one thing. But no, the demons are legion. Everything is compounded.
But the healing begins with a spiritual dialog between Jesus and the demons. This reminds us of the importance of the healing dialog, of the psychiatric conversation, the long term therapy, the spiritual direction that is needed to navigate the difficult waters as we find our way back into hope.
And as healing is accomplished, we should also note the outcome of the healing. Of course there is a deep sense of relief. But sometimes our healing is not met with great amazement and joy. The people around us may not understand.  In Luke, the healing miracles are usually met with faith and amazing joy. But in this instance, there is not amazing faith, rather fear, suspicion between the people and Jesus as a result of this healing. The healing, the hope, the renewal is great. But life has changed, things are tense here, and Jesus decides to make a rather hasty retreat. Sometimes there are unintended consequences or opposite outcomes when things get better.  And often the first steps in any recovery seem to only make things worse.
But a long time ago, a primitive prophet faced his own violent heart, his own despair, his own suicidal tendencies and found his way back to hope. But a long time ago a healing Jesus moved someone who was overwhelmed with the demons of mental illness, and hope was restored.
And even now, people are moving away from the restraints of despair, meditating, praying, and listening their way into a new vision of the possible for these complex demon infested times. For as Paul says in Galatians, God, through Jesus, cares for us still.

 

Sermon for June 16, 2013

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

Let’s set aside the second lesson this morning. We considered our readings from Galatians for several Sundays now. This is Paul’s angry letter, one of his earliest, in defense of God’s graceful love as the foundation of happiness and long term joy, rather than religious convention, custom or tradition. We can do all the bake sales in the world, serve on every committee possible, please our parents and grandparents in every way, be perfect church members, but if we do not have the love of God in our heart for ourselves and others we will never be happy.

But let’s set that aside for a few minutes. The real action in today’s lessons is in the first and third lessons. They seem somewhat alike and yet they also seem different. They are alike in several ways. First in both cases there is a prophet: Nathan in the first lesson, Jesus in the second. In both cases the prophets tell a parable, a story with a moral, directly to an authority: a king in the first lesson, the religious authorities and Pharisees in the second.  If we had time we could look at how the two stories are tightly structured in similar ways. But we don’t have that much time. In each story the parable is directly told to the person or people in power and condemns their actions. In each story, the parable ends with a strong “you” statement. In the first lesson, Nathan makes his point with a single deeply cutting phrase: “you are the man.” In the gospel lesson, Jesus makes his point with a series of indictments: “you did not greet me, you did not practice hospitality, and you did not appreciate the presence of God’s forgiveness.” In each story, the plight of those on the edges is lifted high. In the first lesson we encounter the victimization of the poor shepherd and the loss of the pet lamb.  In the gospel lesson it is the woman who is shunned for her adultery, the outcast.  Finally, in both stories, adultery is a theme. And it is seen as a sinful, hurtful thing, with sad consequences.

So the two lessons bounce back and forth on each other. No wonder the lectionary pairs the two. Yet they feel different from each other.  For one thing, in the first lesson adultery is roundly condemned by the prophet. In the gospel lesson the prophet lifts up the forgiveness of adultery. For another thing, the first lesson is all about the conduct of public officials, the abuse of power, and the corruption that often (if not usually) comes with centralized authority, and speaking the truth to power. The second lesson does not have that same public feel. Here there is a word of rebuke to the ruling class and the Pharisees, but the story draws our attention to the heart of a woman, her tears, her actions, her deep repentance and forgiveness.  And the story of this one woman is followed by the stories of many women at the end of the passage. One story drives us to consider the public and political side of the faith. The other drives us deeply into the heart of the repentant sinner. One is highly political. The other is deeply intimate.

So the stories feel similar and yet are different.  As they play with each other in our minds and hearts, several things bubble to the surface. One regards the importance of faith’s independent judgment of politics and politicians.  King David has lusted for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. He arranges to have her husband, Captain Uriah killed in a battle to cover an accidental pregnancy from their affair. He then takes Bathsheba for his own wife.  It is this sordid corruption involving sex, cover-up, and murder that Nathan condemns.  David repents, but there are still consequences to his actions.  There are always consequences.

But one of the important lines of the story for us is a little one: And Nathan went to his own house. It’s a small detail, but important. The prophet Nathan does not live in the royal court. In our day we like to say that we should speak the truth to power, but that requires some independence of the prophet from the powerful.  In our time, many desire to use government and its power to enforce various values. There is nothing wrong with expressing our religious values politically. There is something wrong in working to establish and enforce those values using systems of power. Why? Because we must always have our own home to go to.  We owe it to ourselves and to this nation to speak the truth to power, and to raise up in public discourse and awareness the plight of the poor, the forsaken, the rejected, and wounded. All of speaking of truth and lifting up is hard work. It requires nourished spiritual courage and independence. It requires that we be separate from the state and that we respect that separation rather than ignore it or form alliances with power when it seems to be in our interests to do so.

Why do we, like Nathan, need our own home to go to? Because no matter who the leaders are, no matter their political persuasion, they are human not gods, and they will do things that are wrong. Those wrongs will hurt innocent people, especially on the margins of things. We must be free to call powerful leaders and groups into question and to lift up the pains of those who are vulnerable, just as Nathan and Jesus did. These days we as religious people are called to disestablish ourselves, to refrain from the natural human tendency to covet theocratic control or structural power to accomplish some end.

Why do we need our own home to go to? Because our own home is not based on political power. Our home is based on being connected to the God of compassion, truth, fairness, honesty, and affection. In our home true repentance is greeted with deep forgiveness. That is our center, our energy, our strength. We nurture our connection to God rather than connect ourselves to the complex of incorporated influences that lure us to live for something less than the pure presence of the sacred. Unless we are grounded in the divinely sacred; in the end, we will become little more than just another special interest group, a pawn in the power plays of others.

So the stories feel similar and yet really different.  As they play against and with each other in our minds and hearts, such things bubble to the surface. A second thing bubbling regards the greeting of true repentance with deep forgiveness. This actually takes place in the first story. King David is deeply sorry. And his repentance is greeted with forgiveness. The ancient Hittite law upon which the ancient Hebrew law is based calls for his death. He should die. But he does not. Still there are difficult consequences, and this violence will live with him the rest of his life.  Even when fully, deeply, and richly forgiven, we all will be haunted by the outcomes of our own sins and failures, wishing we had handled at least some things differently.

But it is in the woman’s encounter with Jesus that we sense the depth of anguish that guilt can generate. This woman caught in adultery feels deep pain and sorrow. It is so deep, it is so leveling, all she can do is cry. She collapses at the feet of Jesus in tears.  She senses in Jesus the compassion of God. In the presence of full compassion she feels the very deepest and intimate sense of relief.  She is a wonderfully thankful, forgiven sinner. And in our house where we commune with the God of compassion, true repentance meets deep forgiveness. This is the most important thing of all.

Now we must be careful. Over the years, the church as an institution has misused the repentance, guilt, and forgiveness of people; taking advantage of the deep, intimate feelings of remorse and sorrow to build up its own power and to control people’s lives. As an institutional church we may have even wanted people to feel guilty so that they would come to the church for forgiveness, so that we might become more powerful.  But that is an abuse of the power of a compassionate Jesus and God who forgives fully, freely, deeply, and richly.  For this room is not really palace of power. It is our spiritual home, in the tradition of Nathan, where we commune with the compassionate God and greet true repentance with deep forgiveness.

And as it turns out, that is precisely the point Paul makes in the second passage today. Nothing less than the full forgiveness of all who weep will do. Upon that graceful love all else depends. We can do all the bake sales in the world, serve on every committee possible, please our parents and grandparents in every way, be perfect church members, but if we do not have the loving forgiveness of God in our heart for ourselves and others we will never be happy. Let us always with conviction stand alone for that. Amen.

Sermon for June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:8-24, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

     These lessons speak to the mysterious ways of God. It sometimes appears that God is working on one thing, but is actually doing on something else.

     Last week, the first lesson was the story of Elijah and the prophets of BAAL in contest on Mt. Carmel to see whose God was real. It was a contest of fire and the God of Elijah, YHWH, prevailed.

This week the first lesson is from a time before that ultimate contest. The two religions, the religion of YWHW and the religion of BAAL are in direct and vicious conflict. King Ahab, the king of the Israelites, has married a Phoenician, Canaanite woman. She is a worshipper of BAAL. Often the faith of the bride in a mixed marriage becomes the faith of the couple. The followers of YHWH find themselves more and more marginalized.  Eventually YHWH’s followers are persecuted and their numbers dwindle. Elijah flees for his life. He goes into hiding. This is a story from that period of his exile.

Ironically Elijah has fled to the homeland of the queen, to the home territory of those who worship BAAL. No one would think to look for him here. That’s the case sometimes. The safest place may be the place where we are least expected by an enemy.

But no matter which God one worships, whether one is for BAAL or YHWH, all the people of this area are in the grips of a great famine.  There has been little rain for years, and the drought has caused the loss of several crops. There is little food to be had anywhere.  And so Elijah hears the inner voice that calls him to prevail upon the hospitality of a widow with one son so that the prophet does not starve to death.

The widow’s plight is dire. She is in the process of preparing their final meal before she and her son die of hunger. There is nothing to share, she says. And she is right.

But Elijah and the widow work out an agreement based on the continued graciousness of God. She shares their last meal. And in that sharing, the miracle is that there is always just a bit more oil and flour available.  And they have enough, just enough to make it through the drought and famine. Strangely, the safest place sometimes is the heart of the opposition. Strangely, we discover that in sharing there is always enough.

But we also sense another strange wrinkle. Was it God’s plan to use the widow to feed Elijah in time of famine? Is God trying to save the prophet? Or did God ultimately have in mind the saving of the widow and her son, and used Elijah as the instrument to accomplish that?  The story teller emphasizes that God is saving the prophet. But it appears that God is focused on the preservation of the widow.

When her son dies, livelihood and ability to sustain herself is lost. And when her son dies, Elijah is moved by the compassion of God to revive the young man.

But we also sense another strange wrinkle. Was it God’s plan to save Elijah and the widow through their sharing and the healing of the son? Or was it God’s plan to somehow bring the worshippers of BAAL and the worshippers of YHWH closer together in this time of mutual struggle for survival. The account as we have it is marked with strong rivalry.  The two religions are in deep conflict. But underneath that conflict is the basic human need to survive. Elijah ends up on the heart of BAAL country, not to emphasize conflict, but to share and to heal. Here is a story of people of different views coming together to make a go of it. Is it God’s plan to forge a way of faith based on humanity’s capacity to work together? Are we talking about a faith that will work in Phoenicia, and Israel, and in all places where sharing will bring about prosperity, healing, and health? We all know from our own experience in recovery from drought and flood, storm and all manner of strife, that we are better off when we share, when we experience the miracle of healing and recovery, when we sense the resurrection.

II.

     These lessons speak to the mysterious ways of God. It sometimes appears that God is working on one thing, but is actually doing something else.  The resuscitation of the widow’s son by Elijah is mirrored by the raising of the widow’s son by Jesus in the village of Nain as Jesus tours Galilee.

The funeral procession is leaving the city. There is a long processional filled with many people. This is not a time of famine, but this is a time of deep sorrow. The only son is the widow’s only source of support in this situation. She has lost her beloved son and all her sense of security. She is processing with him into the blackness of grief and utter poverty.

But while all seems lost, and while it seems God has abandoned this woman and this village, Jesus changes the course of events.  God is engaging in a mysteriously strange thing here. Although we may be focused on the miracle of the resurrection and the crowd’s reaction at the end of the story, the real drama of the story is embedded in steamrolling details regarding Jesus in this story.  Note what Jesus does and the order in which he does these things. Jesus has compassion. Compassion starts things rolling in a different direction.  He touches the coffin and stops the pallbearers, causing death to be stop in its tracks. Compassion leads to a touch, a touch that stops the descent into the abyss. But the movement continues with Jesus. He speaks with the dead, and in his words is the call to arise, to new life. The speech, the call, leads to breath; the breath leads to movement; and the movement returns the young man to his mother.

Although we may be looking at resuscitation of the man as a miracle proving Jesus, the real miracle of the story is the always possible miracle of compassion leading to touch leading to the pause in the dreadful march of things, leading to conversation, leading to hearing a call, leading to a fresh spirit, leading movement away from death, leading to a restoration of relationship.  This process miracle takes place constantly still outside countless village gates including our own, whenever compassion begins its journey to give rise to new possibilities, restored relationships and resuscitated hopes and dreams.  This story about a long ago miracle is really about the miracle possible in your heart. These lessons speak to the mysterious ways of God, and it sometimes appears that God is working on one thing, but is actually doing something else.

III.

     Now what do we do with Paul in Galatians today?  This is our second reading from Galatians in our series of lessons from Galatians, Paul’s most angry letter. He is angry because the gospel of graceful, compassionate love is in danger of being lost to habits, customs, and traditions.

He is under attack, and he is defending himself and his ideas. He defends his idea by saying it comes from God rather than humans. And to prove his point he details his religious experience of God and how little contact he had with others and then the first contacts he made after his religious conversion to Christianity. All of that is well and good. But God works mysteriously and strangely.

Ironically, what he has done in these verses is provide an ancient paper trail for his contacts, travels, and experiences.  Galatians is one of Paul’s oldest letters, one of the very oldest pieces of the New Testament.  Most of our information about Paul is from the book of Acts, written much later.

When you look at this old description of Paul’s solitude and contacts, you see God working in mysterious ways. Paul did not ground his faith in Judea. No, he was an outlander from the very beginning. He spent three years meditating in Arabia and Damascus. He is the most “eastern” of the apostles.  And then he traveled in the area of Syria, starting his mission to the Gentiles.  Sometimes God uses the outsider, the outlander to make sense of things and to get things going.  And while it appears that God is doing one thing, through the words and deeds of those on the edges, God is lifting up something else. It’s good for us to listen to those on the edges, to meditate in our own Arabia, and to let God speak about new things and new possibilities. For there are still famines to face, hospitalities to practice, lives, hopes and dreams to resuscitate, and new people to introduce to Jesus. These lessons speak to the mysterious ways of God in all of this. It sometimes appears that God is working on one thing, but is actually working on something else.