In Hard Times
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 19 June 2022 [Proper 7]:
1 Kings 19:1-15a;Galatians 323-29; Luke 8:26-39
A demarcation. A line in the sand. A divide. An ending and a beginning. However you experience such things, you and I have just crossed such a marking. What I am referring to is how the Christian liturgical calendar marks this particular point in time. We have just entered the season of Pentecost, and there might be a bit of confusion, given that there is a Day of Pentecost and there is a season of Pentecost. And as I have said, we have just crossed from the day into the season; and this crossing holds some significant meaning for our faith lives.
To review: the Day of Pentecost is the fiftieth and last day of the Easter season. The Day of Pentecost culminates Eastertide’s experience and full meaning. I say this because I see two messages and meanings to the reality and experience of Easter. The first, of course, has to do with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the bedrock event that demonstrates the “Good News” that with God neither fear nor death have the defining word to our lives. Yes, fear and death are real, but the life God provides is stronger than death; and Jesus rising from the grave reveals and demonstrates this reality. Jesus’ resurrection is as if God has opened a door that, heretofore, we have only used a peep hole to see through. The actual meaning of the word “resurrection” points to this expanded insight. For “resurrection” means “to awaken to”: that is, in Jesus crucified and raised we are invited “to awaken to” what life with God is like: A surprising open door, not just a pinched peep hole.
Clearly, Jesus’ resurrection is the focus of Easter. Yet, the message of resurrection and the impact of its reality are just as clearly not limited to our Lord or to that first Easter morning. Rather, the second message and meaning of Easter has to do with the fact that God wants those of us who claim Jesus to possess the life that we have seen in the Risen One. In, through, and with the gift of God’s Spirit, folks like us are empowered, encouraged, and guided to be more Christlike with each step we take. This is what a “full” Easter is all about. And this brings me back to the “line in the sand”, the demarcation that is today.
The point between the Day of Pentecost and the season by the same name identifies (if you will) a kind of spiritual bar mitzvah for followers of Jesus. It is like a graduation into our spiritual adulthood, where we move from being disciples (that is, students and followers) to being representatives and ambassadors of God’s Christ. And while we are always learning and growing as Jesus’ followers, the six-month-long, green season of Pentecost is the symbolic time for you and me to practice, practice, practice being like Christ and sharing what we practice with the world.
This is the reason you will hear the Season of Pentecost described as the church’s “growing season”, where you and I and others tend what God has planted. But spoiler alert: tending to this season of growth ain’t easy; and in our scripture readings today we have two dramatic stories that speak to what it takes to be examples and gardeners of this God-growth, especially in hard times.
The story of Elijah in the Old Testament lesson and the story of the unnamed demoniac whom Jesus healed depict in dramatic fashion the tests that our faithfulness inevitably encounters. To make the point, I want mainly to focus on Elijah’s experience, referencing the healed demoniac as an added resource.
One of the main prophets of the Old Testament witness, Elijah is to this day regarded as among the pre-eminent religious leaders of ancient Israel. His was a voice and a presence that shaped the history of his day and dominated Hebrew thinking for centuries. For example, Jews celebrating Passover always set a place at the table for Elijah and pour a cup of wine for him, believing that should he come to the feast, the Messiah will follow.
This tradition sets a context for how Christians regard John the Baptist, the one who announces Jesus as God’s Christ. But Elijah’s impact on living the biblical faith and representing the God-life is not a superhero’s tale. Rather, as God’s ambassador, Elijah ran afoul of the monarchy of his time. King Ahab reigned, but his wife Queen Jezebel ran the show; and her desire was to replace the old, covenanted life of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with herself. Speaking “truth to power” (as we say), Elijah humiliated the King and Queen in a public display of God’s power over the Queen’s pretend deities. As the world is painfully experiencing once again, tyrants will do anything to keep their centralized power, and Jezebel was certainly no exception. Having won the theological contest about whose G/god was real, Elijah did so at a great cost. Humiliated and vengeful, Jezebel wanted him killed. So, Elijah fled for his life, which is the place at which our first lesson picks up the action.
In the wilderness, alone and wondering what he was doing and where his ally God was, Elijah falls into deep despair over his untenable predicament, even to the point of losing his faith and asking God to do away with him, if this is how his service will work out. With words many of have harbored in frustration, Elijah is ready to give up: “Enough of this, God! Take my life – I am ready to join my ancestors in the grave!” [Message. 19:5]. From this dark depression, the story tells us two important things that can and do speak to those times when we, too, sense our faith disappearing under the pressure of hard times.
The first reminder is this: That in the dark times, God does come to us. The Lord does not abandon us, even when we feel forsaken and lost. And I say this not from any sentimentalized place, from any notion of “happy God-talk” within a crisis. No, I say this from the quiet and unassuming description of what happened next. Exhausted physically and emotionally, Elijah falls asleep, perhaps hoping that he never wakes up. But in his sleep, Elijah’s defenses relax to the extent that he dreams (or was it much more than a dream) and is awakened by an angel who tells him to eat some freshly baked cakes and to hydrate with some fresh water. This is what Elijah did – twice in fact.
The point I see is that God’s presence (in the shape of the angel) not only seeks to provide some basic comfort with food and water but also encourages (read, insists) that Elijah take care of himself, that he eat and drink and rest to recover from his exhaustion, so that he will be prepared to take the next step in his experience of the God-life. So it was that this divinely proffered sustenance lasted the proverbial “forty days”, until Elijah was strong enough to deal with God and the hard times directly.
That famous encounter between Elijah’s complaint and God centers on a question that God asks his prophet. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” In an almost indignant response, Elijah tells God what God already knows: that Elijah’s life is in danger because the prophet has been faithful to his mission and ministry. He recounts how he confronted the idolaters in God’s Name only to end up alone, depressed, and wondering what difference his life’s work has made.
Of course, we know what the next scene conveys. God in God’s inscrutable ways provides an answer to Elijah’s sense of abandonment. The storyteller describes the fact that contrary to what Elijah and we expect or want, God is not found in the spectacular, not in the hurricane, not in the earthquake, not in the fire but in what has been described as “the sound of sheer silence”.
In our times of deep anxiety, it is crucial to silence our fears so that this deep silence can be recognized. When Elijah heard it, he knew God was present. Repeating his previous explanation of why he was hiding in debilitating misery and in the wilderness, God’s answer to his predicament comes with simplicity, if not clear and certain direction. “Go,” God says to his beleaguered prophet, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”
This is the second point of living in hard times. I take this directive from God to Elijah to be the equivalent of a reassuring “go back to work; don’t run away. You’re not done yet. I have your back.” And this is the point where I look to the gospel’s story for more detail in terms of what you and I are to do when our faith and our sense of hope begin to wear thin.
How do you think Jesus felt? What went through his mind when he healed the dreadfully possessed man and the town selectmen asked him to leave the area, and the swine herders’ union threated him with a class action lawsuit for lost property? More specifically, what do you make of the fearful reaction the town’s folk made upon seeing the crazy man now “clothed and in his right mind”? St. Luke informs us what Jesus did. Very coolly, Jesus unceremoniously got into his boat and sailed away. God does not force his new life upon anyone. Yet, before Jesus had the boat’s sail hoisted, the healed man ran up to him and begged to be allowed to join Jesus’ band of disciples. And then, echoing the strains of what God said to Elijah (to get back to work in the Damascus wilderness), Jesus tells the formerly demented man to “return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.”
This is the main point I want to make. Being an ambassador for the God-life is hard work, and it is hard because for some perverse reason, we tend to resist God and the God-life which are the very things we need. Like the townsfolk in the gospel, we seem to be afraid to change. We don’t want to let go of what is familiar to us even though what is familiar is killing us. So, it is vital that we remind one another in our capacities as Easter people and God-life ambassadors that just because our work is hard doesn’t necessarily mean that we are doing something wrong. It’s just hard.
And a related point is that our work representing Jesus and the God-life matters so much that after helping us catch our breath, God sends us back into the game to do the kingdom work. And what is the kingdom work? To tell folks we encounter what God has done for us. And truth to tell that is a task we have taken for granted. We have failed to practice, practice, practice the proclamation. I am reminded of the prayerful reminder from Morning Prayer: “Give me the joy of your saving help again; and sustain us with your Holy Spirit.”
In the hard times such as the ones we are in we need to take care of ourselves: food, water, rest so that we may go ack to do the work god needs us to do – never alone but together. Because with God, there are more than the hard times. And we need to speak of what God. has done for us – not only to share with others but also to remind ourselves. `Amen.