Sunday, November 25, 2018

What can we say June 23? 2nd after Pentecost

   In the summer, I frequently preach on Old Testament texts. With vacations, etc., you lose the thread of the ongoing Gospel story. Plus people are out and about in the world, on the ground, and the OT has more of that flavor.

     1 Kings 19:1-15 is an astonishing text. Elijah has just come from his crushing victory over the prophets of Baal – but do we read that story truly? And if we read it more wisely, doesn’t that cast today’s text in a different light? On the surface, Elijah defeats Yahweh’s foes, and spectacularly. But a couple of years ago, I attended to what Jonathan Sacks had to say about 1 Kings 18, as he had himself attended to what Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher had said. Taking into account the rest of Scripture, he noticed some interesting details. God did not tell 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.

    At first I thought, Too much of a stretch. But 1 Kings 18 should mortify us, as it depicts God acting like a Greek deity tossing thunderbolts down to earth, and savage in slaughtering clueless people. We all know church leaders can be ruthless. Is God pleased when, in a loud sermon or a snarky blog post, we dispatch those who think wrong? In verse 10 of our text, 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. Henri Nouwen, in his great little book on pastoral leadership, worries that we succumb to the temptations to be impressive, to be relevant, to be popular. Elijah’s big miracle 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?

   Elijah meandered as far as Mount Horeb, and his arrival there whets our appetite for something marvelous to happen. Moses went up into a cloud on that same mountain, and spoke with God face to face. We might hope or expect that God would soothe Elijah, offer some rest and relaxation, some reassurance, maybe a sabbatical from his grueling prophetic schedule. But instead, exposed to the elements, Elijah had 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?

     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.

  For me, 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.

   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.

     Our Gospel text, 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.”

  ** Much of this Elijah section is excerpted from my book about biblical and modern leadership, Weak Enough to Lead.

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