Proper 7C: Speaking Stillness

Spending time with godFIRST LESSON:  1 Kings 19: 1-15a

Read the Old Testament passage

This story continues beyond where our lectionary passage takes us.  In the 19th chapter of 1 Kings sets the stage for the downfall of Ahab’s ruling house and for the transfer of prophetic power from Elijah to Elisha.  Under David and Solomon, all of the tribes of Israel were organized into one united kingdom.  After Solomon’s death, though, the people of the ten northern tribes rebelled against the Davidic line and set up their own kingdom, which they called Israel.  Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the Davidic dynasty, who continued to rule over the Southern Kingdom, now called Judah.  The capital of Judah was Jerusalem.

So, the northern kingdom at this point was under the rule of King Ahab and his Baal-worshipping queen, Jezebel.  The story begins with Jezebel swearing revenge upon Elijah, who flees for his life, going first to the southern kingdom of Judah and then to the wilderness.  He finally ends up on Mt. Horeb.

Apparently, God was not pleased that Elijah had gone to Mt. Horeb.  There’s almost an implication that God is asking him why he is not back in Israel where he should be, doing the work that God has called him to do.  It seems that Elijah sees himself as “God’s last hope” for eliminating idolatry.  Seemingly, perhaps Elijah had gotten a little full of himself and we can’t help but see him as a little dejected and weary!  But keep in mind that in Scriptural history, nothing unimportant happens on the mountain.

Elijah restates his complaints to God.  He is told to stand on the mountain and wait for the Lord to pass by.  He was probably expecting something a little grander than what he got—after all, Moses had that dramatic interaction and got those tablets and all!  There is a strong wind—and no God.  There is an earthquake and fire—and still no God.  And then there in the silence, God is found.  Perhaps God is not really identified with these destructive forces after all.  Ironically, silence would be harder in which for us to find God.  Perhaps God was in all these things but perhaps the point is that God is also in the aftermath, helping us pick up the pieces and put it all back together.  That’s the “still small voice” in all of our lives.  When Elijah had completely run out of steam and had reached the bottom of the abyss, God was there.  Even when Elijah was feeling sorry for himself, experiencing the marks of his own failure, God was there.  The answer was something like, “Listen, Elijah, you need to get back to work.  There is more work to be done.”  And maybe in the silence, Elijah was able to quiet himself enough to hear God.

In his poetic eulogy, The World of Silence, the French philosopher Max Picard says that silence is the central place of faith, where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it.  Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation. We unsay ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to say us once again…When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.  When we have eaten our own words until we are sick of them, when nothing we can tell ourselves makes a dent in our hunger, when we are prepared to surrender the very Word that brought us into being in hopes of hearing it spoken again—then, at last, we are ready to worship God…[Perhaps] God is silent because we are not speaking God’s language.  But it takes God’s silence to teach us that. (Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent, p. 33, 39, 67)


1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      What is your response to the idea of God in the silence, or the notion of the “still small voice” in our lives?

3)      Why is it easier to sense God’s presence in more “grandiose” circumstances sometimes?

4)      What is your response to the notion of God speaking in our silences?  Why is that so hard for us?



NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 3: 23-29

Read the Epistle passage

Just to review, Paul is distressed that Galatian believers are being told that they must adopt circumcision as a sign of their observance of the law (in case we had not gotten that the last three weeks!).  He reminds them again that faith, which Paul contends came with the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has now been revealed.  With this, believers are no longer strictly subject to the disciplines of the law just for the sake of the law.  Through faith, all are now heirs to the Kingdom of God.

Now I don’t think Paul was completely dismissing the law.  (In fact, there are several places in Paul’s letters where he insists on following the law completely, such as rules surrounding women’s attire (1 Corinthians 11)).  For him, faith was bringing the law into fruition, into its fullness.  The word that is translated as “disciplinarian” is the Greek paidagogos.  In wealthy Greek and Roman families, a paidagogos was a slave who was entrusted with the care and discipline of a child until the child reached adulthood.  From this standpoint, the law is transitory, existing alone for a time until faith is revealed in its fullness.

And for Paul, through faith, there are no longer divisions between persons based on anything.  No longer is the law allowed to separate someone from the community because they are the wrong ethnicity, the wrong social status, the wrong gender, etc….etc…etc…you get the picture.  This is not a dismissal of the law, but rather a reminder that it is not there to destroy our unity or our freedom in Christ. (hence, the “nothing can separate us from Christ…”)  For Paul, the law, the discipline, even our religion leads us to Christ.  Perhaps for us it is back to the question of what it means to be “religious” and what it means to be “spiritual”.  (Sorry, that question keeps coming up for me!)

Joan Chittister tells a Sufi story “of disciples who, when the death of there master was clearly imminent, became totally bereft.  ‘If you leave us, Master,’ they pleaded, ‘how will we know what to do?’ And the master replied, ‘I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon.  Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.’ The meaning is clear:  It is God that religion must be about, not itself.  When religion makes itself God, it ceases to be religion.  But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility.” (Joan Chittister, in Called to Question:  A Spiritual Memoir, p. 14.)

So, all these rules and dogmas and liturgy and theology that make up our religion are not our faith journey, but they lead us through it.  They are, from that standpoint, a means of grace.  I guess if I were to put it simply in the context of my own Christian faith tradition, I would say that “religion without spirituality” is practicing the religion about Jesus.  It sounds good, but it doesn’t have any depth, no engagement.  And “spirituality without religion” has a good possibility of becoming the religion about myself.  I think they need to come together—both spiritual religion and religious spirituality.  Then one will have the opportunity to practice the religion of Jesus.  I think that is the way we get out of ourselves and become one with God in a real and authentic way.  (But that’s just my take.)  I think that we all have the responsibility to look at both our religion and our spirituality with a critical eye.  We need to see what works and what doesn’t.  What is it that brings us closer to God?  What is it that provides a vehicle for us to be an instrument to bring others closer to God and to experience God in their lives?  It is always a struggle; that, too, is a means of grace.


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What message do you think this would hold for our contemporary society?  In other words, what does “unity” really mean?

3)      What does this say to our contemporary churches and the more than 6,000 groups that are competing with each other on the planet “in the name of Christ”?

4)      What, for you, is the relationship between being “religious” and being “spiritual”?



GOSPEL: Luke 8: 26-39

Read the Gospel passage

The title for this passage could probably be “Jesus Defeats the Powers of the Abyss”, (or, alternatively, “When Pigs Fly”—just kidding! ) the powers of the unknown, the powers that we don’t understand, the powers that are beyond our control.  It follows the account of Jesus calming the storm and is followed by the story of Jesus raising a girl to life.  These are signs of revolution and change.  We probably don’t do well with the idea of exorcisms—it’s a little beyond our realm of understanding and doesn’t really fit with the subjects with which we’re comfortable.

But, whatever you make of demon-possession or the transfer to the swine, the central theme has more to do with the fact that Jesus came to bring liberation from whatever it is that imprisons people—externally or internally.  Jesus brings about a confrontation of those powers.  Jesus also brings a liberation for as well as a liberation from.  The man was made whole and realized who he was called to be in the world.

The word “legion” probably has a double-meaning.  It can mean many or multitudes.  But it also refers to the Roman soldiers that were occupying Israel.  These, too, were seen as a form of “demon possession”.  The presence of the herd of swine implies that the land was being used by non-Israelites (because remember, pigs were considered “unclean” by Jewish law so they wouldn’t have owned any.).  So, then, why are the people not welcoming the liberation by Jesus?  Could it be that they were afraid to “rock the boat” or thought that they might have a more stable life under the regime of the Roman patrol?  This was, after all, the side of the lake that included the Decapolis—the ten Greek cities that would become a part of the later missions of earlier Christians.  But Jesus at this point was just an interfering outsider.

The language that Jesus uses to “still” the demons is the same language that he used to calm the storm.  Both stories are “unbelievable” in our modern understanding.  And yet, why can’t we look at it as a choice to believe in the possibility of change—a choice of Jesus’ way over the ways that serve us in the world.

But the pigs.  What about the pigs?  OK…forget Wilbur, forget the three little pigs.  In this context, pigs did not matter.  They were not even part of the religious understanding.  They were unclean, untouchable.  So, for the pigs to run headlong into the abyss with the demons in tow is saying to us that the demons do not matter.  It is reminding us that Jesus can conquer all those things that do not matter.  The demons are not just driven away; they are destroyed.  They are put into something that did not matter. (Poor pigs, though!)

Most commentators would claim that this story probably “circulated” quite a bit before it was written down by the gospel writer known as Mark and then re-articulated by both the writers known as Matthew and Luke.  In fact, there are some key conflicting statements in the versions, including the location.  (In Matthew, it occurs in Gadara, rather than Gerasenes, near the high cliffs of the Golan Heights, for instance.)  The point is, it doesn’t have to be literal to carry Truth.  Perhaps the veiled message is just that—a veiled message that makes a statement about the world in which Jesus lived and a call to change and liberation.  And perhaps the witness that we are called to share is pretty unbelievable anyway.

To battle a demon is to embrace it, to face it with clarity of vision and humility of the heart. To run from a demon is as effective as running from a rabid dog, for surely this only beckons the chase. Whatever we resist — persists. These demons, these parts of us that haunt us, torture us and reduce us, are the agents of change…. Without our demons we would grow spiritually flabby. ( Stephanie Ericsson in Companion Through the Darkness)


1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What keeps us in this world from confronting our “demons”?

3)      What are the modern-day “demons” that are destroyed or resurrected by our faith?

4)      How could this story speak to our modern society?

5)      What does it mean to “embrace” our demons?  Why would we want to or need to?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness.  God is the friend of silence.  See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…We need silence to be able to touch souls. (Mother Teresa)


Religion is about transcendence and spirituality is about finding meaning in the mundane.  (Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief, 8.)



Too many of us panic in the dark.  We don’t understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through to real light. (Sue Monk Kidd,)



O Holy Spirit, Root of life, Creator, cleanser of all things,

Anoint our wounds, awaken us with lustrous movement of your wings.

Eternal Vigor, saving One, you free us by your living Word,

Becoming flesh to wear our pain, and all creation is restored.

O Holy Wisdom, soaring power, encompass us with wings unfurled,

And carry us, encircling all, above, below, and through the world.  Amen.


(Jean Janzen, based on the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, 12th cent., in The Faith We Sing, #2121)

Proper 19A: Beginning Again


Parting of the Red Sea, Chagall
Parting of the Red Sea, Chagall

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 14: 19-31

(OK, first of all, clear all images of Charlton Heston out of your mind.) Keep in mind that main themes of the Book of Exodus—liberation, law, covenant, and presence. Chapter 14 comes near to the end of the narrative of liberation. Once again we have an angel in the story, which has not happened since the burning bush. The cloud is both before and behind Israel as a sort of “protective screen.” The cloud takes the place of the fire of the bush, providing light as well as covering. Then, just as the Lord had commanded, Moses drives back the waters and creates a dry path for the escaping Israelites. Just as the waters were parted in the midst of Creation, they are parted here in this newness of recreation. In this moment, the Israelites are being liberated. And on top of that, the Egyptians are also forced to know that which even the Israelites had in some way doubted before. As Egypt comes to this confession, God is indeed acknowledged as the sovereign one. Then, also as God commanded, Moses unleashes the waters and chaos returns. They Egyptians are helpless against it.

According to this narrative, Yahweh has broken the power of Egypt and the power of slavery. The story is told in order to summon Israel to faith, even in the face of one’s enemies.   And faith points to liberation and transformation. Jewish interpreters understand that Moses had asked for a three-day pilgrimage for the people and Pharaoh obliged. It wasn’t until they didn’t return at the end of the three days that the Egyptians began pursuing them. Perhaps even these people , enslaved for centuries, had a hard time imagining total freedom. Perhaps they needed to imagine it in what could be characterized as a tiny sound byte.

The truth is that this is a hard Scripture to stomach on many. We struggle with the image of one’s own liberation and freedom coming at the expense of others. Maybe that’s part of the point. Darkness is everywhere in this world. And so is beauty. There is an almost poetic juxtaposition of the two at every turn of our lives. And because of that, sometimes our salvation comes in the midst of another’s exile; and often our own exile comes in the midst of another’s salvation. I mean, how many times have you heard someone proclaim praise that our area was “spared” a hurricane? And yet, the hurricane grounded itself somewhere. The fire burned down some path. The waters closed over someone. There was someone that was not spared. God is not only present with those on the side of salvation. God is also present in the darkness. Don’t you think God was there in that water with the Egyptians just as God was there in those crumbling towers? We do not have to be “good” or “right” or even “spiritual”. God is always there. But true freedom, true liberation only comes with that realization.

So, as we remember a devastation much closer to home this coming week, it is good for all of us to remember what happened after the well-known parting of the sea: the waters returned to normal, crashing into each other as the Israelites realized that the chaos of life is always there. But just as the waters come together, we find ourselves standing on the other shore—transformed, liberated, free to move to a new place, to open up a world to the miracle of infinite possibility.


A few days ago I came across a note from a friend, an Episcopalian priest who had been run out of his parish by its leaders, the punishment voted upon him as a result of having faithfully done his job. “Your sermons are too political. We don’t want to hear what’s wrong with the world. And we don’t want to hear what’s wrong with us. Just tell us God loves us and leave it at that,” they told him. When he couldn’t leave it at that – anymore than Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus could have before him, they insisted he resign. And his bishop supported their decision.


Being faithful to the gospel, having faith in himself meant heading for the Red Sea, not knowing what would happen next. Standing firm for the man he was and for the God who had called him – between the devil and the deep blue sea.


There comes a time for all of us when we must find out whether we have what it takes. That moment when we break free of the oppressive circumstances that have held us captive for so long and stand before an uncertain future. When matching the enemy blow for blow is not an option. When no one can see a way for us to the other side. When we must simply reach down within ourselves and find that source of fearlessness, dignity and integrity. The place that literally in-spires us to be more than we know.


It is then that a path opens before us in recognition of that which we were prepared to believe, a way out of what seemed an impossible dilemma into that new day that God alone can provide.  (Excerpt from “Keeping the Faith in Babylon”, by Barry J. Robinson, available at, accessed 8 September, 2011.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How difficult is it for us to imagine “total transformation”? What, for us, does that entail?
  3. From what “exile” is it hard for us to leave? 


NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 14: 1-12

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage continues with the theme of God’s call to worship, holiness, and unity. The opening implies that Paul has become aware of disputes and dissensions within the community. He begins with the issue that probably lay at the heart of it all—the argument over whether or not the rules of Torah, the dietary laws, should be set aside. For Paul, these laws were probably no longer necessary. But he still warned against judging those who adhered to the laws. Rather, the Lord embraces all.

The next section has to do with the observance of special days, time-honored holy days. There seems to be an underlying warning against observing special days for the wrong reasons, something Paul would have attributed to paganism. He resolves that if anything is done to glorify God, it is rightly done. That is what living as a Christian means—to do everything that you do to honor and glorify God. The world will not know us by our perfect harmony; the world will know us by our love.

Paul is writing to people who despised each other, who judged each other based on their religious beliefs. They argued about holy days; they argued about proper food; they argued about whose belief was the “right” one. Can you imagine? But also keep in mind that, compared to us today, they were in the minority. Christians could lose jobs, become estranged from their families, and be vilified by the community. So fear was rampant. You know, fear does things to people. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when you don’t trust each other. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when rules and right beliefs become more important than our neighbors. It’s hard to be the unified Body of Christ when we can’t talk to each other or be with each other. In a sermon entitled “From Commandments to Commitments”, Rev. Ignacio Castuera tells this story:


A Rabbi and a Roman Catholic Priest were sitting next to each other at an Inter-faith event. When dinner was served someone thoughtlessly had placed a slab of ham in the Rabbi’s plate. The Rabbi did not protest but simply proceeded to eat other things his faith and physician permitted. The Roman Catholic padre leaned over in the direction of the Rabbi and said. “Rabbi Cohen, you and I know that the dietary laws from the Old Testament were developed at a time when pork meat was indeed dangerous due to lack of refrigeration and low heat in cooking. Of course trychinosis was rampant and your ancestors in the faith were right in prohibiting eating pork in order to save the lives of many Israelites. Those days are gone, pork is safe and there is no reason to cling to outmoded ancient practices. When will you eat your first mouthful of ham, Rabbi Cohen?” The Rabbi paused briefly and then responded, “at your wedding, Father Maguire, at your wedding” (From “From Commandments to Commitments”, by Rev. Ignacio Castuera, available at, accessed 7 September, 2011.)


Essentially, Paul is saying, “Fine, do what you want to do; Live out your faith in whatever way is best for you; Live by whatever rules you want to live by. Just remember that those are not your faith; they are window dressing, ways that we order our own understanding of who God is. They are fine for you and we applaud your commitment. But faith is about relationships. Faith is about being the Body of Christ.” No where in this passage does Paul proclaim a “right” or orthodox theology by which we should live. He just tells us to get out of ourselves and back to God. He just tells us to get back to being the Body of Christ.


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean for you to “be the Body of Christ”?
  3. To what issues in today’s religious world could this speak?
  4. How do you hear this in light of our 09/11 remembrance of this week? 


GOSPEL: Matthew 18: 21-35

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This passage continues the broad section of the writer Matthew’s version of the Gospel that has to do with life together as a new community. First the writer reflected on the consideration of those who are “young in the faith”, then church discipline, and, now, the idea of forgiveness and grace. At the beginning, Peter’s proposal to forgive seven times sounds pretty generous, especially since there is not even a mention of repentance by the other party. But Jesus goes far beyond that. The Greek number hepta can be understood as “seventy times seven” or four hundred ninety times. The difference between the two proposals is not merely mathematical; it goes beyond that. It is a matter of grace, of mercy, of forgiveness. Whoever counts has not really forgiven at all. The forgiveness called for here goes beyond all calculation. Jesus then continues with a parable.

Here, the “servant” is not a household slave, but a subordinate official, perhaps a sort of supervisor or foreman. The debt, here, was incurred through mismanagement of the king’s resources, not by personal expenditures. The figure used is not a realistic one. A talent is the largest monetary unit, approximately equal to the wages of a laborer for fifteen years. The term for “ten thousand” is the largest possible number. We could translate it as “myriad”, something that can’t even be counted or calculated. The combination of the two (ten thousand talents) is the largest figure that can be given. The amount is beyond all calculation. The debt, then, is essentially unpayable. The servant’s situation is hopeless. He asks for mercy and beyond all expectation, the king shows him compassion.

The debt of the fellow servant, though, is microscopic. If you want to take it literally, a hundred denarii is about 1/600,000th of the first servant’s debt. The point, though, is that there is an infinite contrast. It’s still about 100 days labor and the servant cannot pay it. But the servant who had received such infinite compassion chose not to show even a tiny fraction of the same.

So the king takes back the forgiveness and condemns him to torment. The point is that in order to receive full forgiveness, one must be willing to forgive; otherwise it is invalidated. You could say that if one does not forgive, they have never really received forgiveness in the first place.

So what is the deal with all this math? It is because math depicts wholeness. In a book that he wrote about mathematical archetypes found throughout nature, art, and science, Michael Schneider contends that mathematics can be divided into three levels or approaches.

The first he calls “secular” mathematics. It is the math that is taught in school, that even within our limited scope, can be proved as true. It includes 2+2, calculating the amount of your change from a purchase, or telling time. This is the math approach that Peter was proposing: just count them—seven times.

The second approach is what Schneider calls “symbolic” mathematics. It is the understanding that numbers and shapes relate to each other in harmonious patterns. It is those patterns that make up all that is life.

The final level, as Schneider lays it out, he calls “sacred mathematics”. It is those things that move us beyond our own consciousness, beyond what is expected, beyond what we have been able to prove, or plan, or lay out as an accepted expectation. This is what Jesus was using. You see, seven is one of the most venerated numbers. In sacred understandings, seven is used to comprise completeness, a whole, a reconciliation. Think of the seventh day of Sabbath or the seventh year of Jubilee. And then on top of that, the multiplier of ten represents a new beginning, a new being beyond all limits. Seventy-seven times? It is a way of completing and beginning again. But you have to let it go to do that.

…What is forgiveness without reunion, or at least the possibility of reunion? And yet there are consequences to our actions. I was fascinated to speak with a Hindu colleague of mine about the concept of karma in her faith. “Every human choice has moral fallout,” she explained. “If you harm me, then there will be consequences for you as well as for me. You may have a change of heart later and ask me to forgive you, but even if I forgive you from the bottom of my heart, I cannot change your karma. You made a choice, which has had its effect. Eventually, you, too, will experience its full effect.” 

This is a scary idea for some Christians who like to think of forgiveness as a giant eraser on the blackboard of life. But there is biblical precedent for the lasting effect of sins that have been forgiven. God forgave David for his murderous affair with Bathsheba, but their firstborn child still died. Jesus came to forgive the sins of the whole world, but according to this parable in Matthew 25, he will come again to separate the sheep from the goats.

 Forgiveness is a starting place, not a stopping place. It is God’s gift to those who wish to begin again, but where we go with it is up to us. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, p. 89-90)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What impact on your understanding of forgiveness does this make?
  3. How do you reflect on this passage in light of our 09/11 remembrance? 


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)


In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. (Blaise Pascal)


There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning. (Louis L’Amour)




We prattle about your sovereignty; all about all things working together for good, all about your watchful care and your severe mercies.


And then we are drawn up short; by terror that strikes us, in our privilege, as insane; by violence that shatters our illusions of well-being; by death that reminds us of our at-risk mortality; by smoke and fire that have the recurring smell of ovens.


We are bewildered, undone, frightened, and then intrude the cadences of these old poets: the cadences of fidelity and righteousness; the sounds of justice and judgment; the images of Sodom and Gomorrah; the imperatives of widows and orphans.


Even on such a day we are not minded to yield on your sovereignty. We are, we confess, sobered, put off, placed in dread, that you are lord as well as friend, that you are hidden as well as visible, that you are silence as well as reassuring.


You are our God. That is enough for us…but just barely.


We pray in the name of the wounded flesh of Jesus. Amen.


(“Even On Such A Day”, by Walter Brueggemann, written September 11, 2001, in Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p. 37)