This Place Could Be Beautiful

1 Kings 19:1-15a

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”-for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Mem Park

“Where is God?”

That is a question I have been hearing a lot this week.  In the newspapers, on Facebook, in private conversations and pastoral visits:  “Where is God?  You must know, pastor.  Isn’t this your specialty?”

It is a very real question.  In a world where 50 lives can be snuffed out in one evening of violence, where toddlers are dragged into lakes and idealistic politicians are gunned down by angry citizens—where is God?

I look to Scripture and am reminded this week that the people of God have been asking this question in the midst of their suffering for as long as there has been breath.  Sitting on the ash pile, scraping his wounds, Job cries out into the abyss and wonders—where is the Lord?  Elijah, running for his life, hiding under a broom tree in the desert and waiting for Jezebel’s army to find him, despairs—where are you God?  Can you not come and end my misery?

And then there are those who have perhaps given up on God entirely.  The possessed man in Luke’s Gospel this morning does not cry out for a Savior, at least as far as we know.  Scripture is silent on the issue. Living in the land of the Gentiles, far from the land of the God of Israel, he is utterly and completely forsaken.  By his city. By his family. He lives in the land of death amongst the tombs.  Beyond hope, beyond redemption. He doesn’t pray for a Savior, either because he doesn’t believe he is worth saving, or doesn’t know the possibility exists.  He doesn’t even know his own name.  He has been completely and utterly possessed by the dark and sinister Legion which has left him unclean in the eyes of his family and his community.  There is no one more forsaken than he.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ journey to meet this man?  Just moments before, Jesus had been preaching and teaching amongst his own people, when he suddenly decided it was time to get on the boat and sail across the lake from Galilee into foreign territory.  And so they go, away from home and through the stormy seas, not to a city filled with people but to a cemetery.  A land of the dead.   Where he is encountered by a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  In his blog on preaching and the lectionary, David Lose points out that this is an interesting designation, reminding us that there are a variety of spirits, some life giving, some not.   And from the story, we are meant to know that this man is a danger, not only to himself but to others, rendered religiously unclean both by his possession and his location amongst the dead.

According to Lose:

It would seem to be the very last place we would expect to find Jesus.

Which, when you think about it, is where God usually shows up.  At our moments of profound doubt, grief, loss and defeat.  And—and this is the one that often surprises us—among those who may to this point have little interest in, let alone relationship with, God.

Remember, this man has no reason to think that Jesus would come for him.  And yet, here he is.  And given Jesus’ abrupt return to Galilee after his healing has been accomplished, it seems quite possible, probable even, that Jesus made that long trek across the stormy waters for the sake of this one man.

All of which suggests that there is absolutely nowhere God is not willing to go to reach and free and sustain and heal those who are broken and despairing.

We find reinforcement for this interpretation when we look to the story of Elijah—this prophet who has stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, who now hides under a broom tree in the desert waiting for God or Jezebel to end his life, finds instead that God will sustain him.  That even the desert is not beyond God’s power to heal and restore. There is literally no place that God cannot find us, and bring us home.

It is as though the Word of God needs to remind us, on this week in which the suffering of the world is so near to us, in which our frailty, our weakness, our brokenness is so on display, that there is no place on earth that is God-forsaken.  Whether we dwell in the desert of despair or amongst the tombs of the dead, God is with us.  And as Lose is quick to point out,

We are reminded that there is no person who is God-forsaken.  Unclean. Outcast, Abandoned, Unpopular, incarcerated, unbeliever.  No one is left out.

Consider that the man in the tombs is no Jew, and there is no indication that he becomes a Christian.  And when he begs Jesus to let him come with him, our Savior sends him back home with one instruction: “Go and tell what God has done for you.”

And that is, I think, the essence of the Gospel.  This is what we are meant to teach to our children.  That there are no conditions to be met to receive God’s love.  That there are no categories more deserving of God’s grace, no groups of people who are more favored.  You don’t have to have believed your whole life, or have come to faith recently, or perhaps have any faith at all.  Jesus will seek us all out just the same.  And the most faithful response we can make to this reality is to Go and Tell what God has done for us.  To share the Good News of the Gospel with the world, whether they are in the tombs, in the desert, or living a life of relative comfort.

Good Bones (Maggie Smith)

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

In a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

A thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least

Fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative

Estimate, though I keep this from my children.

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.

For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,

Sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world

Is at least half terrible, and for every kind

Stranger, there is one who would break you,

Though I keep this from my children. I am trying

To sell them the world. Any decent realtor,

Walking you through a real shithole, chirps on

About good bones: This place could be beautiful,

Right? You could make this place beautiful.

May we make this place beautiful by our love, by our witness to Christ, by our unfailing hope in the Father, who will go to the furthest reaches to remind us that we are not alone. That we are loved. And that we are  called to do likewise.  Amen.

Remembering Orlando

Vigil Pamphlet

The following remarks were delivered at the Ivyland Borough Vigil held on Tuesday, June 14th for the Victims of the Orlando Massacre:

On Sunday morning, we woke up to yet another reminder that we still live in a culture of violence.

Perhaps, like me, you woke up early expecting another day of worship when you first heard the news of the carnage in Orlando. As a person of faith I asked myself—what does it mean to worship God on a day like this? As mothers and fathers, sisters and friends and loved ones mourn the dead and the wounded? As EMTs and hospital staff and police and fire men and women gather the bodies and tend to the wounded?

Perhaps you woke up expecting to spend the day outside, or at the beach, or at brunch with friends, and your carefree day was interrupted by the news that yet again, another troubled soul had inflicted rage and violence and terror on a vulnerable community in the very place where they felt safe and known and welcomed.

Perhaps you went to sleep feeling safe, feeling welcome, and woke up to the awful reminder that for some, being brown or being queer can put you on the barrel end of an angry man’s trigger. That they can come and find you in the places you feel safest. While you are dancing and singing and rejoicing, hate can burst through the walls. And so we do not feel safe. And all the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and pastors and well-meaning people cannot still our frantic hearts, cannot put to rest our sense that there is too much that is wrong in a world where an angry person can buy a guy and mow down young men and women in a dance club.

If you are Christian like me, perhaps it is tempting to look to Scripture at times like this for answers. To ask, “What would Jesus Do?” And when I look at the witness of Scripture, when I turn to my God seeking answers, what I see is righteous anger. What I see is a God who will not be silent in the face of violence, in the face of hatred, particularly when it is directed at those whom our society has too often ignored and silenced.

The God I know in Christ wasn’t satisfied with a system that oppresses the poor and the vulnerable. To those who would crush the vulnerable, he had this to say:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be filled

Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude and revile you, and reject you on account of the Son of Man.

Such is the Kingdom of God. It is not like this world, but rather it is a place where the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated—are embraced. Are welcomed. Are loved. Because they are God’s children. WE are God’s children. But here’s the kicker—the Kingdom of God isn’t up in the clouds. It is within us. It is AT HAND. Which means that we have a responsibility to one another. A responsibility to love and care for and protect and uphold one another. Because we are all God’s creation.

So as we gather tonight, let us not stop with prayers, but let us commit to stand with the poor, with the hungry, with the weeping, with the hated. Let us embrace our gay and Latino neighbors who are reeling from this trauma. Let us embrace our Muslim American neighbors who are afraid that this one act of violence will brand them too. Let us speak the names of the dead because they are our brothers and sisters. They are our mothers and fathers. They are our neighbors and our fellow citizens. There is no us and them. There is only We. And we are bound together, as neighbors, as citizens, as Americans. E Plurbis Unum—out of many, one.

So let us pray. But let us also remember that it’s not enough. It’s not enough. Prayer did not stop Orlando. It did not stop Sandy Hook. It did not stop Aurora. It did not stop San Bernardino. Clearly, more is called for from us.

And so we must weep, but we must also act. We who remain cannot let our outrage end with a vigil flame—we must turn and go back into our community and work for peace. Whether we do it because Christ calls us, or our faith compels us, or because we are simply good, decent, moral American people, we cannot let this tragedy be one more statistic. It is up to US to speak truth to power, and to say—enough. Enough violence. Enough bloodshed. Let us try another way. Let us create a world in which all are safe, in which we find sanctuary in our common brotherhood. Let us aspire to better.