Preaching after Pentecost 2022

June 14th, 2022
Sunday: Juneteenth! The date isn't our text, but the moment should find its way into a sermon - with sensitivity to where people out there are on such issues. The dramatic moment of the Emancipation Proclamation finally being enacted, 2 months after Appomattox, after long delays, hearing read aloud that slavery was finally over - sort of. Jim Crow was looming even then. Elijah's exhaustion, and then his summons to continue the work he'd thought was done but wasn't after all? The Psalmist's yearnings? Paul on the law and freedom? Jesus coming into the abode of the dead and liberating a man chained too long? Juneteenth resonates in all our texts. Annette Gordon-Reed won awards for her short On Juneteenth - and I learned so much from Clint Smith's riveting chapter on Galveston in his award-winning How the Word is Passed. As soon as a few slaves took off after the reading, the mayor of Galveston rounded them up and returned them to their masters.
1 Kings 19:1-15 is amazing. Elijah, in the aftermath of his astonishing crushing of the prophets of Baal, comes to a hard, dark moment at another mountain far to the south. Jonathan Sacks, as so often is the case, has helped me rethink what really is an awful text. Are we to cheer when well-meaning religious men are slaughtered – by God no less? Sacks passes along what Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher had said. Reading all of Scripture, and then attentive to details in 1 Kings 18, he points out that God did not actually command Elijah to challenge the Canaanite prophets, and God certainly did not direct Elijah to slaughter them. Prophets are not to intimidate or terrorize others; compulsion and force are not God’s ways. Elijah’s “zeal” for God was not holy. God was fuming with Elijah afterwards, which is why he wound up alone on Mount Horeb. Elijah had to learn the hard way the extreme dangers of religious zealotry. His show of strength impressed, but with catastrophic results.

Is Sacks's reflection a stretch? The God who allegedly tossed down thunderbolts in chapter 18 is the one who shows up very differently in chapter 19! As an antidote to all religious leaders (even me?) who can be ruthless: a pointed sermon or a snarky blog post, dispatching others who think wrong? Elijah (is he whining or boasting?) declares “I have been zealous for the Lord.” But God does not ask us for titanic displays of zeal. Aren't clergy tempted to be impressive, relevant, popular? Elijah’s big moment had zero lasting impact.

Misguided or not, the very effort to carry out God’s will can be exhausting. After a hard, hot day of trudging through the wilderness, he slumps down under “a solitary broom tree.” Even the pitiful little tree is lonely! Then Elijah cried out “It is enough!” (1 Kgs 19:4). The Hebrew isn’t three words and four syllables, as in “It is enough!” With crisp brevity, really nothing more than a grunt, Elijah emitted a yelp, a groan, one word, one syllable only: rav! Croaking in exhaustion, burned out: rav!

His next word was just as abrupt, emphatic, just a single syllable even in English: “Now!” I’ve had enough; I want it to end – “Now!” So harrowing, this urge toward death – now. Why was he so weary and disillusioned? Was it the vicious hounding from Jezebel, Ahab and their henchmen? Was it his own hard-headedness? Was God to blame? It was God who got Elijah into this mess in the first place. Leadership grows weary. Where is the blame to be laid? Is it the job? Is it the circumstances? Is it God?

God hardly soothes Elijah. He’s not offered a sabbatical of R&R. Instead, he somehow has to withstand a wind storm so strong it broke rocks into pieces, and then an earthquake, and then fire – which Elijah had welcomed in his contest with the 450 prophets! But now? 1 Kgs 19:12 reports that the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake or fire. Doesn’t this interpret 1 Kings 18 as Maimonides and Sacks did?

After setting God far apart from the storm and fire, the writer tersely adds, “and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Older translations rendered this “a still small voice,” which to me can run us into sweet sentimentality. The Hebrew (qol demama dakka) is better: there was silence, total, crushing, deafening silence. What kind of response to Elijah’s cry was the hollow nothingness of total silence? Aren't there whispers in our heads that are not of God? Condemnation of others, or of self? Coveting is a big "small voice" in the head... The "silence" translation may not only be closer to the Hebrew, but what is required for us to nestle up close to God.

There is so much ambiguity in this (and every) silence. Is God refusing to speak? Is it a test? How often do leaders look for some sign, some obvious word, but are greeted with nothing but no word at all? Is it an invitation into something deeper in the heart of God? Mother Teresa said “God is the friend of silence,” and most great mystics have probed and learned to delight in the quiet that is at the core of God’s being. When we listen for God and hear only silence, especially if we are alone, does it feel like loneliness – or solitude? Isn’t solitude a razor’s edge from loneliness and yet different by light years? Solitude is being quiet, and alone, but with God. If Sabbath is a time to be quiet with God, then perhaps silence is the most tender, restful way God is with us.

This "still small voice" or "total, deafening silence" was enfleshed for me when my older daughter Sarah showed me her first ever tattoo. After announcing she'd gotten one, and that I was maybe the only dad who might understand and appreciate it, she pulled back her hair and showed me those Hebrew words, qol demama dakka, just behind her ear. It took me a minute... What a powerful image: the ear, right where we hear, it's God's small voice, or really better, that agonizing, wonderful silence. {Sarah joined me for an online Bible conversation about Elijah a few weeks back!}

God's silence is... okay, even good, perhaps stupendous, tender and beautiful. Silence for us is perhaps our most important labor for God and others. Proverbs repeatedly suggests that the fool chatters on, while the wise listen. Robert Caro, the great biographer of Lyndon Johnson, interviews people - and reports that his greatest tool in interviewing is silence. People will talk if you give them the space. So his notebooks from interviews constantly have jotted in the margin, in huge letters, SU, SU, SU. Shut up. Don't talk. Listen. Wait. Silence.

I am even wondering now about Neil Postman's classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he diagnoses and laments how politics and religion have become entertainment. I was asked to speak at opening assembly of our Vacation Bible School just this week. My talk was preceded by a snappy, loud, fast-moving video about Manna! - making it sound fun and dance-able. The problem with making our faith entertaining, to hold kids' (or our) attention? It's never rav, it's never enough - and we miss the SU, the quiet. Thomas Merton said "Let us have quiet homes." Is my VBS urging this? or countering this?
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Psalm 42/43. This pair was originally a single Psalm, one of the most eloquent and moving in all of Scripture. My Old Testament professor, Fr. Roland Murphy, suggested to me one day that this Psalm may well have been composed at a fabulous waterfall just outside Caesarea Philippi. This video was part of a Bible study series we filmed in Israel a while back, a beautiful rendering of the Psalm at that Banyas waterfall! Water is scarce, a national treasure in Israel to this day. Did the Psalmist watch as a deer, sniffing the air, found its way to this spot to drink? – a vision of our thirst for God? 

Much grief is articulated in powerful images. Tears as my food. Waves of sorrow like the billowing of the water in this place. My soul is indeed cast down. The solution? There, “from the sources of Jordan and Mt. Hermon” (where the snow melts to form this headwater of the Jordan!), the Psalmist longs to return to the temple “with the throng.” It is his memory of being in God’s holy sanctuary, and his determination to return there, that is his hope, his strength, the only reason to go on. Lovely stuff.

Galatians 3:23-29. What to do with Paul. The law was a disciplinarian – but no more? The paidagogos (do you hear “pedagogue” in there?) in Paul’s world would have been a personal slave attendant, with a duty to teach the young manners, to use a switch if necessary, to take him to school, to test his memory. James D.G. Dunn renders this “babysitter”! 

The law isn’t trashed for Paul. I assume his intent is for us to move from an external understanding of God’s will – it’s laws, rules, you study, you try to do it – to an internalization: it’s not something outside you you embrace, but something in you; it isyou. He deploys the clothing image, which rightly reminds us of early baptismal practices. After a season of learning and preparation, you shed your dirty work clothes, descend into the baptismal pool, emerge washed, and are then enfolded in a new, white robe. I think of the little shower tags we got from Resurrection UMC, which hundreds of our people hung in their bathrooms: “As I enter the water to bathe, I remember my Baptism. Wash my by your grace, fill me with your spirit, renew my soul. I pray that I might live as your child this day, and honor you in all that I do.”

We later devised our own closet tags, to pray while dressing: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. I love giving people simple, practical ways to pray, to envision their life with God during their daily routine!

Lastly, Paul’s stirring declaration that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; you are one in Christ Jesus,” gets misconstrued, and then we fail at the main thing. There were, of course, still Jews and Greeks, women and men. It’s the division, it’s the rankings that are shattered. Differences are not abolished; God loves diversity! It’s the end of bias, hierarchy, chauvinism – an end to segregation. On this score, we are manifest failures. But it’s still God’s way, and the more we approximate this, the closer we are to God (and the less we approximate this, the further we are from God as well).

Luke 8:26-39 has a comical edge to an otherwise darkly tragic yet redemptive story. Jesus has clearly strayed from Jewish territory (a rarity for him), as this town has a pig farm. Where exactly was it? The textual variants on the name: Gadara, Gergesa, Gerasa… Amy-Jill Levine (The Gospel of Luke) humorously suggests that as gerash means to “expel,” the place could be dubbed “Expelledville” or “Exorcismburg.” The preacher has space to explore the torment of the man. Is it severe mental illness – which they didn’t understand then, and which churches often can’t embrace and cope with today? John Calvin wondered why the spirits kept this man among the tombs, and concluded it was “to rend him with unending terror at the gloomy spectacle of death” (reminding me of Ernest Becker’s classic The Denial of Death, in which he explores how fear of death drives all human behavior, anxiety, dysfunction, etc.).

The tormenting spirit/spirits’ name? Legion. Provocative: could mean it’s a few thousand, and that the spirits are like an armed force. Also, theological eyes see here and everywhere that cosmic warfare is unfolding – so it’s never just this or that conflict, but the powers battling it out through us and history. You also have to acknowledge that the real Roman legions were a huge psychological and physical affliction for the people. What’s wrong with you? The oppressive society, regime, whatever.

The demons plead not to be cast into the abyss – in the sea nearby, where the disciples just in the previous scene pleaded not to be tossed during the storm! Ironically, this legion doesn’t want to go there, but then madly and ironically that’s where they stampede once inhabiting the pigs.

Their unity, in a day when church people talk a lot about unity, is striking. Logicians refer to the “Gadarene Fallacy,” which is the mistake of supposing that because a group is together and in good formation moving steadily in the same direction, they must be on a good path. And of course, the economic consequences to a healing: how often in Scripture is someone healed and rage rises because of lost profits? Acts 19 and the silversmiths, their business model of selling figurines of Artemis, stymied by a healing, and turmoil ensues. David Lyle Jeffrey’s comment is funny, and on point: “That the price of pork bellies was bound to jump higher wouldn’t much cheer those with no hogs left to sell.”

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