Proper 7C; 1 Kings 19:1-1a, Luke 8:26-39
We are officially out of the liturgical season (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter) and have entered the long, green Season after Pentecost, or Ordinary Time. For those who don't know, Ordinary Time is so-called because of the sequential ordinal numbers. Additionally, we are currently on Track 1 of the RCL, which means we will hear roughly sequential stories from Kings and the Prophets. I mention this because the first lesson is not chosen to pair with the gospel reading. Even so, sometimes there is a common thread to be found in the two lessons.
The story of Elijah versus Ahab and Jezebel is one of the great stories of scripture. Elijah is the lone prophet faithful to the Lord. Ahab and Jezebel have committed murder and apostasy. They have killed prophets of the Lord and built altars and temples to Baal. For his part, Elijah executed 450 prophets of Baal and was generally a thorn in the side of Ahab and Jezebel.
After the incident with the prophets of Baal, Jezebel swears to kill Elijah so he runs and goes into hiding. While hiding in his cave the Lord passes by. It's here that Elijah hears a great wind, experiences an earthquake, and sees a blinding fire. In all of these loud and chaotic events Elijah witnesses, the Lord is not there. Then there came a sound of sheer silence. It was in the silence that the Lord spoke to Elijah.
In that space of sheer silence Elijah and the Lord had a conversation. God asks why Elijah is here holed up in a cave. Elijah says he's the only prophet of God left and everyone is out to kill him. Then the Lord says something interesting. God doesn't say to remain in hiding. He doesn't say to hide elsewhere. He says, “Go, return on your way.”
Return to your mission. Return to anoint people to serve the Lord. Return to doing what God has called you to do.
In today's gospel we hear of Jesus' encounter with the Gerasene demoniac. This story is also found in Matthew and Mark. In all three gospels it follows a series of teachings and parables, and the calming of the sea. After the eventful night on the water, Jesus and the boys reach the other side of the lake opposite Galilee, and they meet a demoniac as they are getting out of the boat. He was naked, lived in the tombs, and when he sees Jesus he yells out at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with us, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
I know in today's world we tend to dismiss demonic possessions and attribute that to any number of mental or physical illnesses. But whether this was really a spiritual possession or a form of mental illness isn't the issue. The issue is this man was tormented to the point where he lived in the tombs, naked, sometimes chained, and under guard.
The demon identifies itself/themselves as “Legion, for we are many.” I can't imagine what this man was experiencing with this. I can't imagine the number of voices he heard in his head telling him to attack people, scream at people, break his chains, and run away. Matthew says he was so fierce no one could pass by that way. Mark says he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones. The discordant, loud, random noise ringing in his head must have been unbearable.
That is, until he meets Jesus. Jesus sends the demons into a herd of swine who then run down the hill into the lake and drown. Jesus has someone find him some clothes. And now, for the first time in a very long time, the noise is gone. Now there is just the sound of sheer silence.
Clothed and in his right mind since who knows when, sitting next to the one who healed him, he says, “Please, I beg of you, let me go with you.” Can you blame him?
Instead of allowing him to come along, Jesus says, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
In the sheer silence that followed the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, God tells Elijah, “Return on your way.” In the sheer silence that followed the cacophony of voices, the fierceness with which he barred people from passing by, the crying out, and the self-mutilation, Jesus tells the former demoniac, “Return to your home.”
We have entered the long Season after Pentecost. In this season we return to the journey of discipleship. We return to the studying of the depths of scripture. We return to proclaiming the mission of Christ. We return to listening to where God might be sending us.
I am hopeful that we have also entered a post-pandemic season. Not a post-COVID season, because we are stuck with that; but a post-pandemic season. A season where we begin returning to certain aspects of life. A season where we acknowledge the virus but move to return to our mission of worship, of welcome, of service, and of encouragement. A season where we return to our spiritual home where we are fed and nourished in body, mind, and soul.
We need to be careful, however, that we don't focus on returning to what was, but that we return to what could be.
The mission of Elijah was to call Israel to repentance and return to the Lord. God didn't call him out of the cave to return back to Ahab and Jezebel's territory, putting him in danger. God called him to return on his way. Jesus told the demoniac to return to his town, his people, his family and friends, and tell them what God had done for him.
We are also called to return. Not a return to old ways that could put us and those whom we serve in danger, but a return to our mission. That return doesn't have to be far off, as Jesus points out; but it can be done in our town among people we know.
As we return to this long, green season, let us also return to what and who we are called to be. Return to our tradition of placing Worship at the center of everything we do. Return to our Welcoming spirit where all are invited to be part of this community. Return to Serving people inside these walls and in the wider community. Return to Encouraging people to participate, learn, and evangelize.
While we are working on returning, we also need to work on listening. Elijah couldn't return on his way until he heard God speaking in the sheer silence. The demoniac couldn't return to his home to proclaim the Good News until he heard Jesus speaking in the calm and silence of a right mind.
As we move into this new season and as we return to being the church more fully, let us not become so noisy that we can't hear what God may be saying to us. No matter what we are doing as individuals, as groups, as commissions, as vestry, or as any other part of this church, let us always remember to take time for silence so that we can hear how God might be calling us to return.