Sermon: June 19, 2016 (Proper 7, Year C)
1 Kings 19:1–15a; Galatians 3:23–29; Psalm 42: 1–10; Luke 8:26–39
Grace Episcopal Church, Newton, Massachusetts
The Rev. Dr. Regina L. Walton
It’s always startling when the comedian Stephen Colbert drops his act and delivers a jokeless monologue straight into the camera, as he did last Monday night on “The Late Show.” He delivered a very brief homily on love, in the wake of the Orlando massacre. I call it a homily, and he himself may have thought of it as a homily, as well. He is a faithful Roman Catholic, whose reflections on faith have always represented to me what is best in Catholic tradition. Colbert began by saying,
“Naturally, we each ask ourselves what can you possibly say in the face of such horror—but then sadly, you realize that you know what to say, because it’s been said too many times before.”
“It’s as if there is a national script that we have learned. And I think by accepting the script we tacitly accept that the script will end the same way every time, with nothing changing. Except for the loved ones of the families and the victims for whom nothing will ever be the same. It’s easy, it’s almost tempting to be paralyzed by such a monstrously hateful act, to despair.” (Stephen Colbert, Opening Monologue, The Late Show, June 13, 2016)
I, too, feel like I am part of this national script, preaching this sermon. In fact, exactly a year ago this week, I preached to you on the urgent need for the prevention of gun violence, because this past Thursday was the one-year anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine parishioners at Bible study were slain with their pastor, after welcoming a stranger into their group. That shooting, like the massacre at the Pulse club in Orlando, was a hate crime by a homegrown terrorist. Last year, we read aloud the names of those precious children of God who were cut down in their church. And today, we will read aloud the names of the precious children of God who were cut down in another kind of sanctuary, a gay bar and dance club. They were young people, mostly Latino, dancing and having fun.
So I’m not going to stand here and say, How long O Lord, because . . . I probably said that last year. It’s time to change the script.
By coincidence or, as one of my former rectors used to say, by “God-incidence,” our scripture lessons today are about exactly that: changing the script—confronting violence and oppression, and changing the trajectory going forward.
We’ve been hearing stories of the great prophet Elijah over the last few weeks, Elijah the long-suffering and courageous prophet of Yahweh, who speaks truth to power and then has to run for it, now for the second time. Elijah has told King Ahab that he cannot worship his wife Jezebel’s god Baal alongside Yahweh. Elijah flees and is protected, and eventually the prophets of Baal are killed. But then Elijah has to confront the wrath of the powerful Jezebel—and so he flees again. And that is where we find him today.
Elijah is a political dissenter. He is a fighter and a crusader for justice. But here we see him exhausted nearly unto death, ready to give up in the wilderness. He is done. He is despairing. Huddled in a cave on Mt. Horeb, the word of the Lord speaks to him: “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah gives a summary of his career as a prophet, and ends with, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” I alone am left. I am alone. It was all for nothing.
And then Elijah is granted this vision of the Lord passing by, where there is a gale force wind, and then an earthquake, and then fire. And the scripture says that the Lord was not in any of these; they were just the prelude to the presence of the Lord. Elijah knows the presence of the Lord is in that place when he hears this mysterious “sound of sheer silence.” Paradoxical. Ominous. The King James Version translates the Hebrew as “a still small voice.” But the “sound of sheer silence” has something very intense about it, something powerful.
The lectionary reading ends there. Sermons on this passage often end up being about listening to the voice of God within, and the importance of still small voices as opposed to displays of power, etc. And those are fine sentiments. But they ignore the main message of what the still small voice, or the sound of sheer silence, actually communicates to Elijah, which comes in the next several verses. And let me tell you, the still small voice throws it down. The still small voice tells Elijah to essentially go back and foment revolution against Ahab and the other political powers that have become idolatrous and have abandoned the covenant with Yahweh. Elijah is essentially supposed to start a war. He is to anoint two new kings, which of course is not going to sit well with the current kings, and also to anoint his own successor, Elisha, as prophet in his place.
And when these things come to pass, we learn that Elijah was wrong: he was not the only one left, still fighting for Yahweh. There are seven thousand other prophets left in Israel who still worship the Lord. Elijah was not alone. And through a long and circuitous path that is not without great cost, Israel returns to the Lord, returns to the Covenant with Yahweh. Israel forsakes its idolatrous relationship with guns—I mean Baal.
In the gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus, too, changes the script. He crosses the Sea of Galilee into the country of the Gerasenes—Gentile country. And as he is getting off the boat, he is confronted by a man possessed: out of his mind, violent, naked, living in the tombs, terrorizing his community. The citizens keep trying to chain him up like a junkyard dog, only to have him break free. What was it like to live in this small city, with this violently ill man on the loose? Did the citizens there become used to him? Had they worked out strategies for managing him, or containing him somewhat? Or did they just flee to their homes when he got particularly bad?
Jesus asks the demonized man his name. The answer surely made everyone’s blood run cold, for the man says, “Legion.” Legion means many, but it also means a unit of Roman soldiers. This man is possessed, is occupied, in the way that the land has been possessed and occupied by the Roman Empire. There are so many demons that when Jesus sends them out, they enter a whole herd of pigs, which throw themselves into the lake. And now, this is the first time in the story when fear is mentioned, after the man is healed! The citizens see the man “clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.” They ask Jesus if he would please go now. Jesus’ power, his radical compassion on this man, his radical healing, is what makes them afraid. They had become used to living with a deranged man! They had become acclimated to living in fear for their safety! They had become acclimated to the continual threat of violence. It’s JESUS who is considered the dangerous and irresponsible party.
In the United States, we have a lot in common with the people of the country of the Gerasenes. We have become acclimated to gun violence, semiautomatic weapons but also handguns. We are so afraid of another possible future, that it is currently illegal for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence. We have become acclimated to young children shooting each other or their parents. We have become acclimated to incidents of domestic violence ending in the shooting deaths of the woman or abused partner. We have become acclimated to those with mental illness dying by suicide because of ready access to guns. And we have become acclimated to the most horrific mass shootings in elementary schools, in churches, and any place where people gather. Jesus, it would be better if you left our city.
Now, the formerly possessed man is so grateful to Jesus that he wants to become a disciple. But Jesus sends him back to his family. “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
This line about returning home reminds me of a story about the Highlander Folk School. Some of you may know about Highlander, in Tennessee, which was founded by a man named Miles Horton as a training school for the civil rights movement for decades. This story comes from Horton’s autobiography, called The Long Haul, which I first read in seminary and which continues to inspire me. Horton was white, and Highlander brought together both black and white civil rights leaders from all over, at a time when these integrated gatherings in the South were very rare.
Miles Horton tells the story in his book of the end of one particularly inspiring workshop in the 1950s. The participants were seated in a circle, and were asked to go around and say what was one thing they were going to do when they returned home to further the cause of civil rights. Everyone went around and shared this or that action they planned to take. Then one woman, when her turn came, spoke up and said that she didn’t know what she could do back home in what she called “the cradle of the confederacy.” This was a woman who had been active in the NAACP for many years. But like Elijah, she was discouraged. She felt powerless in the face of Legion, of systemic racism and prejudice, in the face of a government that valued her life less than others. She was preparing to return to the wilderness, Montgomery, Alabama. Her name was Rosa Parks.
That day, she was discouraged. That day, Rosa Parks was ready to throw in the towel, and not for lack of trying. But somehow, the still small voice came to her—maybe it came through others. And it said, Do not give in to despair.
This week, in talking with many of you and with other friends, I heard so much despair and resignation. I heard over and over again that nothing is going to change. That we are stuck in this script, forced to play our parts over and over again in this tragic tale of an idolatrous nation that wants to worship both God and guns. Like Elijah, many of us know that’s not possible. And like Jesus, we can expect to face a lot of fear and irrationality as we fight to remove easy access to firearms from our legal code.
We can be discouraged, angry, annoyed, fearful—the full range of emotions is open to us—except despair. Because despair has the power to write the ending if we let it.
Rosa Parks wasn’t just some tired lady on the bus the way it is often told. She was a longtime activist. Her act of civil disobedience in the Montgomery bus boycott was carefully planned. She was part of many networks of civil rights campaigners. Love needs to organize. Love needs to reclaim the gospel of peace.
At the end of his short homily on “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert said, “Love does not despair. . . Love gives us the courage to act. Love gives us hope that change is possible. Love allows us to change the script. . . . Let’s remember that love is a verb, and to love means to do something.”
Our God is a God who loves to change the script. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt—God changed the script. Jesus was crucified and lay dead in a tomb—God changed the script. Black people couldn’t sit in the front of the bus, couldn’t claim their right to vote. God changed the script. Gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people couldn’t legally marry. God changed the script. Here’s the Apostle Paul changing the script in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We all know the work isn’t done. Indeed, it’s barely begun. And catastrophic violence and hate and terrorism throw this fact in our faces. But we believe that perfect love casts out fear. And we have access to perfect love, in the person of Jesus Christ. Love needs to organize. Now let’s get organized, and change this script.
In God’s name, Amen.