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19th June 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
17 June 2016

Readings

1st Kings 19: 1-4, 8-15a

In this episode Elijah flees from Jezebel and is challenged by God, lifted out of his depression and commissioned for a new task.  Maurice Andrew notes that in this episode the Hebrew Scripture is reinterpreting itself with Yahweh not being in the wind, earthquake and fire in which God was revealed in Exodus.  The text does not say that God was in the ‘sound of sheer silence’ either and some commentators suggest that the silence merely drew Elijah out of the cave where Yahweh addressed him.  However Andrew notes that the text doesn’t say Yahweh wasn’t in the silence either but it does say Elijah heard the silence which is an awesome experience that causes him to go out.  He then goes on to say ‘the passage is not about God’s presence or absence in different phenomena as such, but about encouraging a depressed man to fulfil his commission for other people’[1]

Luke 8: 26-39

This is the story of the Gerasene Demonic and is filled with interesting symbolism.  Writing of the Mark episode Ched Myers notes a number of allusions to Roman oppression like spirits name being Legion.   Craddock notes the importance of the context where, in the previous episode, Jesus has demonstrated his power over the sea, the place of chaos, the abyss that the spirits do not want to be sent back into.  However Jesus sends them into the pigs who then drown themselves.  This was clearly a gentile community because pigs have no economic value to Jews and although Jesus has demonstrated his ability to help people they want him to leave because he is an economic threat.  It remains true today that communities becomes very much involved when the impact of Jesus Christ affects the economy.  And the gospel does stir the economy, because healings, conversions, and the embrace of Christian ethics radically influence getting and spending. [2]

It is also important to note that when the man is healed he wants to join Jesus’ itinerant ministry but Jesus sends him in mission to his own people.  Mission is not always about going somewhere else. There is a valid mission as we go about ordinary day to day life.

Sermon

Among other things these two readings are linked by two men who spoke and acted for what they believed and got into trouble with those in power.  Elijah escapes into the wilderness but Jesus pays for his persistence with his life. 

Both the stories we read this morning contain some amazing imagery that we can translate to our lives as well as accept the challenge to hold firm to what is right. 

Elijah’s confrontation with Jezebel is very definitely a violent struggle and we can easily understand that killing the prophets of Baal would elicit a vengeful response.  Such actions do not represent what we would understand as a loving response to others.  However we need to remember that it is a story from much more violent times when rulers had total power and select committees and elections hadn’t been invented. 

We also need to reflect on the reality that stories contain wisdom that is not directly connected to the main storyline and even violent stories can portray a spiritual truth.

I am a fan of British crime drama and often find it more informative than documentaries that just give facts.  The recent series of Happy Valley told a story of life in West Yorkshire, that was filled with misery and Catherine Cawood is a strong-willed police sergeant who lives with her sister Clare, a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict. 

At one point in the recent series Clare remarks that she thinks her new boyfriend is afraid of Catherine to which the sergeant replies.  ‘That’s silly, nobody needs to be scared of me.’ She then adds ‘unless they are doing something they shouldn’t.’

Later in the series Catherine rescues a very drunk young police woman who in slurred words addresses her sergeant and says ‘I think God is all the goodness in the world and somehow God gave you a bigger share of that goodness’.

Of course when Clare’s boyfriend goes on a drinking binge and gets violent he has the misfortune to discover the ‘doing something they shouldn’t’ side of Claire’s sister.  Furthermore by the end of the series, with the exception of some shadowy organised criminals that could be picked up in a future series, most of the bad guys were accounted for. 

But who would have expected to find good theology in a tough British crime drama.  God is the sum of all goodness and we are called to channel that goodness into our lives and into our world.  In a world of misery, heartache and struggle there are tough people who in the midst of their own struggles and heart aces do their best to keep everyone safe by doing good and God is made known through such people.

That is Elijah’s story and in the hardnosed drama we read from 1st Kings this morning he flees from those who would do him harm.  In exile in the wilderness he endures earthquake, wind and fire and finds God, the sum of all goodness, in the sounds of pure silence.

Hello darkness, my old friend

I've come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sound of silence [3]

So wrote Paul Simon and the song was released in 1964 by Simon & Garfunkel.  It reflected the struggles and turmoil of young people in a dangerous, changing and challenging world.  A world of violence, earthquake, wind and fire where belief systems are taken out and evaluated under the microscope of current events in much the same way they are today.  In fact, if we increase the magnification on the lens of history and the creativity of storytelling we can imagine the same struggles to find hope and meaning in the violent clashes of religion and politics in Elijah’s time

People of all ages look for meaning and hope in their world and the call of Christ is to people, who in the midst of life’s chaos, will be the expression of goodness that will be ‘Like a bridge over troubled water’[4]

Our Gospel reading begins ‘Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. (Luke 8:26) If we read verses 22 to 25 we will find that Jesus has indeed been ‘like a bridge over troubled water’ and the episode concludes with the calming of the storm.  He said to them’ where is your faith?’  They were amazed, and said to one another, ‘who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him? (Luke 8:25)   

And it is the Gerasene Demonic who answers the Question with its own question:

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’ (Luke 8:29).    ‘ 

Having crossed over troubled water Jesus and the disciples have arrived in the gentile territory of the Gerasenes.  Luke makes it clear that this is not Jewish territory because people keep pigs and everyone knows Jews do not eat pork.  More significantly they are now confronted by a troubled spirit, not just one but a whole legion.  As Ched Myers points out in his book Binding the Strongman the people of Jesus’ time had plenty of if issues with Roman Legions and sending their spirit into the pigs driving the pigs into the lake and drowning them could well be a metaphor for the liberation Jesus was bringing.

However, in recognising the Risen Christ as a bridge over the troubled waters in our own time we need to also see the demons as metaphoric. 

This is a Gospel episode and not a Stephen King novel.   So just as Myers points to the metaphoric meaning of the demon’s name, Legion, the demons themselves are metaphors for what bends the minds of people and communities.

This episode not only asks questions about the demons that possess us but asks what part Christ filled people can play in exorcising those demons.  The demon drink is legendary but there are in fact a whole legion of chemicals and unhelpful habits that are the demons of addiction. 

We can ask questions about the demons that lead good detectives to badger and lead a young man suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome to confess to a murder he never committed.  Was that a drive to succeed or just the desire to get one task completed to reduce the stress of a great pile of unsolved crimes. 

The mother who drank, the extended family that gave false testimony to get the cash reward and the system that protected its decisions in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.  A legion of demons spread over a whole host of people who took away a man’s youth and allowed another man to rape and kill again.  

As we have touched on the demons that possess systems we could think of the communist Khmer Rouge who tried to build a new Cambodia by first reducing the population to a manageable level.  Under their rule the combined effects of executions, strenuous working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care caused the deaths of approximately 25 percent of the population of Cambodian. 

But before we gloat about the virtue of our own capitalist, market driven economy we have to ask about that growing gap between rich and poor.  The 15% rise in executive salaries and the April 2016 rise in the adult minimum wage of fifty cents.  There is the housing crisis that isn’t a crisis and the people who live on the streets and in cars.  What are the demons in our society and how are they to be exorcised? 

Elijah killed the prophets of Baal and had to flee from a queen intent of eliminating him.  Elijah sought to do good by eliminating evil and in the Middle East and Africa well equipped armies and the planes of death are trying to do just that.  But Elijah did not find God in the trembling earth, the howling wind or the all-consuming fire.  God not in the screaming jets, the bombs, or the clinging burning napalm.

Elijah heard the sound of pure silence that called him out of the cave to meet with God and find a new life and a new way of living God’s presence in his world.

Happy Valley was a pretty miserable where so many people struggled to exist let alone seek happiness.  Within that chaotic world a police sergeant struggled to keep her sister and her grandson safe.  At the same time, she coaches and mentors those under her and does her best to keep order in a community where the demons of poverty and crime seem to be legion.  In all that chaos and seeming abyss of hopelessness a young constable seeks healing in the solitude of the night and gets a glimpse of the divine in her caring sergeant.

The world of the stories and our world have much in common but it is in our world that:

The words of the prophets

are written on subway walls

and tenement halls

and whispered in the sounds of silence[5]

As we wrestle with those words of the prophets we can indeed hear the sound of pure silence.  In that silence we meet the Risen Christ.

Such a meeting with Christ frees us from whatever our demons may be, and calls us to be Christ to others in the chaos of our world.  



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p250.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 116,117.

 

[3] Paul Simon the sound of silence Simon & Garfunkel 1964

[4] Paul Simon, Like a bridge over troubled water Simon & Garfunkel 1970.,

[5] Paul Simon op.cit. 

 

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