- The Rev. Arianne Rice
So here we are. Ordinary time. Although there is nothing ordinary about that gospel! “My name is Legion.” We don’t get that very often. In these weeks before Advent there is a choice of readings from the Hebrew bible. One track follows its own narrative. This year, we cycle through the story of the prophets, like this morning with Elijah. And in the other track, from the BCP lectionary, the readings connect thematically with the gospel, underscoring a theme or two.
I chose the first for these coming weeks because I want us to dive into these prophets. People just like you and me, called to name where God is in our midst. Each of their journey’s are fascinating - their relationship with God and people and, of course, the internal struggles of following their heart in these relationships.
And while it may not be the thematic option, I certainly hear a theme between the two scripture stories. Both of people trying to escape from where they are. Both have situations and people that are filled with fear and anxiety. And both have the voice of the Holy One encouraging the “hero” of the story to do what they really do not want to do. Turn around and go back. Turn around and listen. Listen to what is in your heart, in the sheer silence where God resides.
This morning we meet a defeated Elijah. He is at a place that most prophets get to, most people get to actually. After the thrill is gone. The thrill of hearing and accepting God’s call. The thrill of knowing, even seeing, God’s presence at work in his life. But life keeps going and God doesn’t always do what we want or expect. Elijah is on the run because he feels abandoned by a god not continuing to use power and fear as inspiration and protection – in the way Elijah wants.
Perhaps when you hear Elijah in this passage you feel pity? Don’t. He is having a temper tantrum, complaining that he is the only one left in all of Israel who has any faith. Really? Really? That’s a bit much. And he’s escaped to Mt. Horeb to declare he is done with God. But God isn’t done with him. And God knows the real reason Elijah chose that particular mountain to run to.
Do you know the saying, “No matter where you go, there you are”? Its often used in 12-step support groups. A reminder of the fallacy of the “geographic cure.” The idea all of us have in a stressful situation, a situation that feels impossible, that if we just went to a new job, a new house, a new place, a new church, a new relationship – all of the problems would be gone. But, that’s not possible. Because no matter where we go, we bring our thoughts, feelings and behaviors right along with us. And generally speaking its only when we turn around and examine those components of our being that we start to understand how we respond to challenges and stresses, is actually how we are able to “control” what feels out of control in our lives.
Of all the people in this morning’s gospel who would be terrified, I think the demon-possessed man is given the most scary task of all. Not when he was possessed, but when he was healed. It is no wonder he wanted to run away with Jesus! Who would want to go back into a community that exiled him to the tombs? A community that kept him chained and shackled because they didn’t want to face or deal with the problem his illness presented.
We all know this man. He is the homeless mentally ill we pass by on the streets, avoiding eye contact and believing “someone should solve this problem!” We might even know this man up close, in our families. And we’ve tried to solve and heal the illness with love, money, resources, healthy boundaries, sound advice – but it is still there and we don’t know what more we can do. It is a sickness that we cannot see with unique circumstances and there are no easy answers.
That’s what Jesus asks the community to wrestle with. They ask Jesus to leave, because they don’t want to hear this man’s story as much as he doesn’t want to go back and tell it. It’s a shameful story that will make everyone uncomfortable. And, I believe, that’s why Jesus asks the man to return to his community because God knows restoration comes through the particular message of particular messengers.
There is another level to this image, that must be acknowledged – particularly after the anniversary of Juneteenth and a particular hearing in Congress this past week. Our community, our nation is terrified of studying and hearing the story of people we chained and shackled for generations. We are scared of the feelings that story brings up and fear narratives of our past being shattered. But we are a people who know God is with us. Shame gets its power from staying in the dark. We are a people who believe in the light of Christ.
(Here is a sermon on the challenge of listening to the stories we don't want to hear.)
Just as Jesus asked that man to go back and tell his story, God asks Elijah to do the same thing. First he tries to get Elijah to understand why he came to this particular mountain. See, Mt. Horeb and Mt. Sinai are the same. Its one of those quirks of many priestly scribes writing the stories. Sometimes its Sarai, sometimes Sarah. Sometimes Abram, sometimes Abraham. Sometimes Mt. Horeb, sometimes Mt. Sinai. The same mountain.
And you all know Mt. Sinai as the place where God revealed himself to Charleton Heston! Aka – Moses. To give him the commandments. And that first time (because the first time didn’t go so well), Moses gathered all the people around the mountain and God came in a descending fire! And spoke in the voice of the thunder! And the mountain violently shook! And the people were terrified.
Elijah came to that mountain because he wanted the terror. The power. So after God asks him, “Why are you here?” Elijah replies with his complaint. And then we read God spoke to Elijah – BUT – God was not in the fire, or the thunder and wind, nor was their any earthquake. Get it Elijah? That’s not where God is! But, Elijah isn’t there yet. When God repeats the question – Elijah’s response is the same. But that’s ok too. Because people and prophets need time to process our encounters with the holy, don’t we? And God is patient. God will never give up on us.
So God tells Elijah, turn around. Go back. Go on the way I sent you and be the prophet and the person I know you to be – deep down. In the place of sheer silence within where we abide in God, and God abides in us.
That’s a good path for ordinary time. Making time for the sheer silence. Asking God where our story might bring healing for ourselves and our communities. Not being afraid to turn around and go back – to share, to listen – to rediscover the joy that lies in knowing, no matter where you go, there you are. Amen.