FIRST 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
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
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)