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,)

 

Closing

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 24B: Shhh! Why Don’t You Let God Talk?

Waiting for God to talkOLD TESTAMENT: Job 38: 1-7, (34-41)

Read the passage from Job

Just to set the stage…

As Elihu speaks, the sky darkens. Ominous rumblings of thunder sound. Lighting rips open the sky. The cattle huddle together, heads down, tails facing into the wind. Rabbits scamper hurriedly to the deep woods. Birds flutter anxiously, twittering and chattering excitedly. Stillness hovers over the land. Dark clouds race in from the west and black out the sun.

Then lightning zigzags across the blackness and bathes the landscape in eerie whiteness. The thunder swells in volume, its reverberations shaking the earth. And then the heavens open, and the rain pours down. Tall trees bend, their branches sweeping and swishing the rain as it falls in sheets.

Job crouches on the ground. He grasps at his sackcloth, trying to pull it over his head to shield his body from the driving rain. Lightning blazes again. There is a sharp crack, then another sudden clap of thunder. Under his sackcloth, Job breathes heavily. Fear and despair clutch him. Even the brutal, uncontrollable forces of nature have turned against him now. Job cries weakly.

And then suddenly, the storm is over. The writer of Job describes what follows:

And now the light in the sky is dazzling, too bright for us to look at it; and the sky has been swept clean by the wind. A golden glow is seen in the north, and the glory of God fills us with awe. (Job 37: 21, 22)

                God is about to speak. (Mildren Tengbom, Sometimes I Hurt: Reflections on the Book of Job, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 184-185.)

 

The opening line of Chapter 38, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind,” has been prepared for by Job’s demand to see God. This whirlwind is not to be confused with a tornado or a hurricane or some other natural phenomena. It is instead a sign of God’s own appearing in human affairs—a creative, life-changing force that is undefined, perhaps not understood. You can’t hold this God down, you can’t explain this God. This God is dynamic, in motion, while our definitions are always static, trying to put God in a box, saying God is this or that. But for Job, God is a whirlwind.

            Well, finally God speaks up! (Richard Rohr interprets 38:1 as “Aw, shut up!, Job”) For almost 90% of the book, Job has begged God to intervene, implored God to speak. Now that God has, uncharacteristically chosen to speak, we are reminded of the fact that God has been present through this whole story.

In last week’s reading, Job was anxious to bring his case against God: “I would learn what he would answer me,” Job brashly declared, “and understand what he would say to me.” But God turns the tables on him. “I will question you,” God says, “you shall declare to me.” Job has longed for a sort of “Q and A” with God, but this is going very differently than that for which he hoped. God’s first question is simple. “Were you there?” Were you there when I laid the very foundations of the earth? Well, of course Job’s answer is that he was not. God goes on and ticks off all of the grandeurs of Creation. Can Job do what God does? Can Job care for creatures the way God does? And, of course, Job has to admit that he had nothing to do with any of it. In this questioning, (even beyond what we’ve read), God lists a variety of animals—lion, raven, the wild ass, the wild ox, the ostrich, the hawk and the eagle, to name a few.

The Rabbis long ago noted that, when God boasts of God’s handiwork, of all the animals God offers as evidence of divine creative genius, none of them is of any earthly use to humanity. Humanity is only a small part of the wonder of Creation. The implication is that, regardless of whether or not Job can feel God’s Presence, God is there. And God is God; Job is not. But God still treats Job with respect. There is no demand of apology or repentance. In Job, God doesn’t seem to be bothered with all the earlier rantings and arguments that have gone on. God just wants Job to realize that he is not God. Job doesn’t really receive an answer to his question of why he, or for that matter any human, has to suffer. God instead just reminds Job of the incredible Presence and providence of God. Essentially, God gives no answers. In fact, we are left with more questions! Richard Rohr points out that when the church gave us the impression that there were ready-made answers, it was doing us more harm than good.

 

After God’s great speech, Job is a changed man, but it is not the content of the speech that heals him. Rather, it is the fact that a God whom he had only heard about has now come to him personally. Theological constructs are not the source of Job’s redemption; rather, it is relationship with God that transforms his profound suffering. Job meets God and sees that the circuitous track of his life has led him through paths of joy and suffering. Best of all, Job realizes that in all things his path was held in the hand of a God who was waiting to take him in God’s arms and wipe his tears away.

Last summer I traveled to France, and visited the great cathedral at Chartres. I had heard that there was a labyrinth laid into the cathedral floor. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims would journey to the cathedral and walk the labyrinth in meditative fashion–acting out a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They would enter the labyrinth at the outside of the circle and follow the path as it weaves in and out, around and around to the center of the circle. There are no wrong turns and no dead ends: the path always leads back to the center.

When I arrived at Chartres, I could not walk the path because chairs were set up across the floor, so I spent time praying at the entrance of the labyrinth. Soon I moved into the center of the circle. I was struck by the power of the labyrinth as an image of my life. I had journeyed 40 years to stand in the center. As I looked back over my life, I thought of all the losses, failures, mistakes and brokenness I had experienced. I thought also of the joys, gifts and treasures of my life. Through it all, the path led to the center, to a meeting place with a God who was there all along.

Is this word of hope enough for those who suffer–that in the end, wherever the path leads, it is the presence of God that heals our grief? Probably not. For the rumor of God is rarely enough to satisfy. But the meeting . . . the meeting is sweet balm for the one on an ever-circling journey to the heart of God.

The other night I dreamed that I was in Chartres: As my eyes adjust to the dim light of the cathedral, I see people walking the ancient labyrinth and join them. The circuitous path leads me through the terror and shadow of my worst fears, as well as through my most poignant joys. I reach the center, the pulsing heart of it all. Suddenly, an arm is around my waist, a hand light upon my shoulder. I look into the eyes of God. The dance begins, and we whirl and twirl in a dance of laughter and glee. How was I to know, as I moved around and around this labyrinth path, that I was fumbling toward this sweet ecstasy? We dance, God and I, a whirlwind of light. And all round us dance the daughters of Job, the sweet, beautiful daughters of Job. (Margaret B. Hess, “The Labyrinth of Life, (The Christian Century, June 4, 1997), available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n19_v114/ai_19550312/, accessed 12 October, 2009.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say about God?
  3. What does this say about humanity?
  4. How do you feel about there really being no answer given? Is that always bad?

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 5: 1-10

Read the passage from Hebrews

In this passage, the writer depicts an image of Jesus as a priest who we can grasp on to. Essentially, Jesus is a priest in solidarity with humanity at its most vulnerable. Our great high priest chooses to stand with the people, not above them, and from their midst renew the church and teach it once again to know God. We are reminded of God’s action in Christ and that Jesus has been exalted above all the cosmic powers.

In this culture, high priests were always appointed. Here, Jesus is portrayed as part of the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Scriptures—in Genesis and then again in Psalm 110. He was a priest of the Most High in the time of Abraham who received tithes from him. His name literally means “righteous king”. Some have claimed that these passages refer to a literal human; others claims insist that it refers to a theophany, a righteous ruler superior to the Levitical priests. This is not what we think of as an apostolic priesthood. But it is an eternal designation. So Jesus is part of this same so-called “order”. But the ministries of a priest like this must be with the people, not removed from them.

God does not want compensation; God desires one’s very life. Jesus was fully human and suffered as humans suffered. But Jesus was fully human, the very epitome of humanity. This is the way to perfection. The passage depicts Jesus as learning obedience through suffering. This is not just “doing what God says”, so to speak. It’s deeper than that. Obedience has to do with the transformation of the will such that all of life, every action, every choice, every relationship, every priority, every conversation, every work decision, everything reflects the will and values of God. God does not will us to suffer. God wills us to get through it.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does the image of Jesus in solidarity with humans mean for you?
  3. What does this say about faith?
  4. How does this speak to you about obedience?

GOSPEL: Mark 10: 35-45

Read the Gospel passage

This passage comes as Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem and confront the controversy that awaits him there.  For the Markan Gospel writer, this passage plays a key role in explaining Jesus’ death.  James and John request privileged places of authority in seats at Jesus’ right and left.  In doing this, they appear to have missed everything that Jesus has said and done.  They recognize that glorification awaits Jesus and they conspire to capitalize on that high honor.

Jesus’ response to them foreshadows the violence and death that await him in Jerusalem. Mark’s Gospel emphasizes that such rejection and death are inevitable and required, because of who Jesus is, because of the boundary-breaking character of his ministry, and because those who wield power in the world will do all they can to protect themselves and their agendas from what is essentially his subversive ministry. But James and John have a need for human power (ironically the same kind of power that will ultimately end Jesus’ life.) In contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants, even if that means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield earthly power.

Being a servant or slave is not about being subservient to Jesus, though. It is about joining with him, partnering in the ongoing act of God’s creative activity in the world. Jesus was powerful. His call to leadership was not to be without power but, rather, to redefine what power and leadership is. He came not to be served but to serve.

In the culture in which this was written, slavery was a normal thing. It was part of the social fabric and no one viewed it as necessarily a bad thing like we would today. In fact, it was considered a close relationship, so using this imagery to depict one’s relationship with God was not out of the question. And yet, James and John didn’t get this. They came essentially asking Jesus a favor. “Jesus, what can you do for me?” You will notice that, contrary to what many think Jesus represents for them, Jesus did NOT answer with “Sure, guys, anything you need…” Instead, his response was, “Well, what exactly do you want me to do for you?”

This is not unlike Job’s expectation of God. Perhaps Jesus response was more like, “Really, guys, were you there….?” We probably need to cut James and John some slack, though. After all, how much of what they are doing do we do? Perhaps they really did get it and were afraid. Perhaps, rather than seeking power, they were just seeking security. Give them credit—at least they were honest. They want badly to be like God. God is powerful. God is in control. God is there. Barbara Brown Taylor refers to it as trying to secure cabinet positions before the election is finalized. The problem is that they are assuming that the new world—the coming Kingdom—will be set up with the same rules as the old one. And one more time, Jesus tells them, “Sorry guys…that’s not the way it works.”

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Who do you think that Jesus is addressing here—those in power or those who long for power? Is one worse than the other?
  3. What definitions of “power” exist? How does that differ with Jesus’ depiction of “power”?
  4. What “powers” do we need to let go of in our own lives in order to follow Christ?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there. (Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies)

Our disappointments, our lonelinesses and our defeats do not separate us from Christ; they draw us more deeply into communion with him.  And with the final unanswered cry, “Why, my God, why?” we join in [Christ’s] death cry and await with [Christ] the resurrection.  This is what faith really is:  believing, not with the head or the lips or out of habit, but believing with one’s whole life.  It means seeking community with the human Christ in every situation in life, and in every situation experiencing his own history. (Jurgen Moltmann, 1926-    )

If you read the Bible and it does not challenge you, then you are reading yourself and not the Bible. (Ernesto Tinajero, 21st century)

Closing

Give me a pure heart—that I may see Thee,

A humble heart—that I may hear Thee,

A heart of love—that I may serve Thee,

A heart of faith—that I may abide in Thee.  Amen

Dag Hammarskjold