19 June 2022
Year C (Proper 7)
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Sunday Cycle of Prayer
Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan
St. Jude’s Church, Orange City
Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today the Lord invites us to follow Him and to preach His Good News to others. There is much joy in the readings today but also a sense of urgency and a bit of harshness, more than a bit.
These readings reflect the reality of seeking to follow the Lord and being faithful to Him.
In the first reading, the same prophet who boldly stands against kings is now driven to his lowest point, the man of God is still a mere man. But it is only when the prophet is in this weak state, he can find himself is a position to hear God in the stillness in spite of the distracting wind, earthquake and rain. And God is there.
This passage to speaks to the tired, the hungry, exhausted, emotionally spent, and the dejected.
The lesson is clear, may we as a community stop waiting for wind, earthquake, and rain. May the hurting ones in our community seek out God in the sheer silence.
The second reading is from the Letter to the Galatians and tells us to rejoice in the Cross, to rejoice in the suffering that we must endure in order to follow the Lord.
We can see how clearly this is a Christian interpretation of the same reality that their Jewish ancestors had suffered in exile.
The challenge is for each one of us I believe is: when we suffer or are reviled or made fun of, or discounted, or marginalized, we can identify with Christ, or do we rebel and reject the sufferings.
The teaching is clear: seek Jesus Himself and accept the sufferings as a way of unity and peace.
In the 2nd reading, Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” All human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ.
The categories that divide us today may be different than in Paul’s day, but divisions persist in congregations and in the broader church, in our local communities, and our nation— divisions that run along lines of ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ideology, political affiliation, and any number of other factors.
So, a group of ministers were arguing about the best translation of the Bible. One championed the majestic language of the King James. Another pointed out the scholarship of the New Revised Standard Version. Still another liked the readability of the Good News Bible.
Finally, one minister said, “I prefer my mother’s translation of the Bible.”
The others expressed surprise that his mother was a scholar of Greek and Hebrew. The minister said, “Oh, she’s not.
But she’s always translated the Bible into the way she lives, and that’s where I first learned the Gospel.”
And that’s exactly how Nonnie’s three sons, I and my two brothers Brian and Glenn, first learned the Gospel as well.
By her example and by her silent, and, well quite often, not so silent witness. I recall clearly as a kid, her taking on some pompous, ill-informed, theologically deficient priests who my mom did not hesitate to call BS on!
I remember my mom once explaining in a talk that the Christian plight is to live like the princess and the pea.
No matter how many cushions we pile up, no matter how well the world treats us, or how we insulate ourselves, we can never really get comfortable here.
That’s God’s plan. That’s God’s will…
For us to be uncomfortable with racism, sexism, slums, homelessness, overcrowded prisons, hungry kids, endless cycles of revenge and war, and lies presented as truth to estrange God’s one human family from one another!
My mom modeled for us as kids, and throughout our lives how not to live in peace with such things, and that the more faithfully we live out our Christian convictions, the more out of place we will be.
Now look here, in Luke’s gospel, we get this story of a Jesus who seems to leave a path of destruction in his wake. A wave of chaos.
Here, instead of feeding thousands of hungry people, their food source, the pigs, are all driven off a cliff.
Instead of inviting a new disciple into the group, he refuses a man’s plea to follow him. At the end of this story, no one really gets what they want.
The story starts out happy enough… The beginning of chapter 8 tells us that Jesus, the twelve disciples, and the women who were following with them, were in Galilee when they decided to go across to the other side of the lake.
This puts Jesus in Gentile country for the first and only time in the Gospel of Luke, and Luke makes it really obvious by telling us about the herds of pigs (which Jewish people did not eat or raise).
So here they are, Jesus & his entourage, ready to take the good news of the Kingdom of God to the outsiders, and Jesus is immediately greeted by a man who was the outcast of the outsiders. Wow. Bummer dude!
Naked, living in the tombs, demon-possessed!
In this man, Jesus encounters the least of the least, the last of the last.
This is the perfect opportunity for Jesus to show just how far his power and grace reaches. All the way out to the Gentile tombs.
We may not know exactly what it was like to be this man. Demon possession and life in a graveyard may be a little too far to ask our imaginations to go.
But I suspect these things are illustrating a bigger problem – the problem, the disease, the dis-ease of human aloneness and the pain of separation.
And this is something most of us can identify with. We all know what it’s like to be on the outside, at least a little.
Frankly, I don’t really have much experience feeling like an outsider. Except perhaps by my willing, voluntary association with outsiders. But even then, not really. Because I could at any time step back in from the margins, from the streets if you will, where I felt called to minister, and return to the isolating and protective walls of a monastery, which I also like, a lot. That’s privilege.
But I will always remember, vividly, a period in my life when I did feel very devalued, judged, ostracized, rejected, stereotyped, and even hated by perfect strangers. Not for anything I did or said or didn’t do or didn’t say.
But because I wore a clerical collar and a black suit. That’s all it took to become the target of accusations, allegations, and assumptions about who I was as a human being and as a religious brother and seminarian at the time.
It was 1992, and just months after my profession of vows, and during a chaplaincy internship at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
The news of the priest pedophilia scandal in the Milwaukee Archdiocese erupted like a volcano!
Though the allegations and many proven accusations were for the most part decades old, it was like it was all happening in the here and now. It was chronicled in appalling detail on front pages of newspapers and on every newscast.
I felt ashamed and devastated. As did scores of other religious and priests, active and retired. Many stopped wearing clerical garb in public, some not at all. Suddenly, many diocesan parish priests began wearing neck ties on Sundays.
My interactions with parents, families and staff at Children’s Hospital began to feel beyond awkward. Some parents did not, understandably, want me near their child, a few demanded that all chaplains cease visitations.
Many of us were the targets of scorn, ridicule, and misguided judgements. Even by some hospital staff who knew us.
I too stopped wearing a collar and even had the photo on my hospital ID badge changed to one where I was in a polo shirt and lab coat.
Thanks to my clinical supervisor, a Rabbi; a psychiatrist, Dr. Bede, a Hindu; and our family priest, who was my mom’s best friend, Monsignor Brennan, I was able to process what was happening in me and around me.
On Sunday November 15, 1992 I wrote a column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in response to the Archbishop’s statements the previous week in which he expressed concern about the negative impact upon priests, many of whom he said, “are feeling guilty by association and fear that everyone is looking askance at them or is suspicious of them.”
Many good and qualified candidates for ministry, and not just in my tradition, could not help but become discouraged, distressed, and confused.
The editor very appropriately titled and summed up my article and my process of healing from and processing the experience, “Despite all, religious life remains an honorable calling.” I came to believe that, and still do.
I never again hesitated to wear a collar or hide my religious identity from anyone, anywhere, in public or private.
You might say, it was the first time I really heeded St. Paul’s instruction to the Galatians from today’s 2nd lesson, to “rejoice in the Cross, to rejoice in the suffering that we must endure in order to follow the Lord.”
I learned a painful lesson in empathy, that in hindsight, served me very well.
Maybe the man in our Gospel story invited the demons in.
Maybe he made some mistakes, perhaps even committed some grievous sins, misdeeds that led to his predicament.
Sometimes, we are cast out for good reason. Or maybe this guy cast himself out.
Luke tells us that the man in the story would break free of his chains and be driven by his demons out into the wilderness.
Sometimes, because of the things we’ve done or experienced or because of our disappointment with ourselves, our own demons & shame drive us away from community, from family, from friends and colleagues, from the church.
It’s likely that this man’s problems didn’t have an easy answer.
Like many of the outcasts of our day, perhaps his troubles were just a fact of his being, random and unstoppable; like the child born with downs syndrome, the grandmother with dementia, the person who feels estranged from their own body and assigned gender, or the family in the neighborhood who feel all alone because of their skin tone, because their skin color may be a shade or more darker than my own.
Regardless of the reason for this man’s aloneness, and regardless of the reason for ours, Jesus comes to restore us – all of us – to God and to each other.
Jesus doesn’t just exorcise our demons. He puts us right back into the community from which we were excluded.
Jesus affirms the goodness of creation in our life together. Even when this togetherness is difficult. Part of this man’s salvation was his re-integration into community.
And you would think this would be cause for celebration!
But for this man, and so often for us, this re-integration is a hard thing. And here in our story, it isn’t really what the man wanted.
That poor guy wanted to get heck out of Dodge! He wanted to go with Jesus. He wanted to leave that place. Can you blame him?
These were the people who had seen him naked, experienced him crazed, living in the tombs.
And we see pretty quickly that they gave him a less than enthusiastic welcome back.
To stay there with them was a lot for Jesus to ask. It would have been much easier for him to just run away, to cut ties, to start new somewhere else.
I tried that geographical change remedy. I left Milwaukee for a spell and went to the Diocese of Albany. It was worse! And I returned to Milwaukee, and the community whose charism of service to the sick & poor I have embraced, lived, and loved for the last 30+ years.
Jesus doesn’t give us an escape from the world around us, he gives us a commission to it!
Luke tells us that there had been some community participation in the demon-possessed man’s life. The community had him guarded and they chained him.
They didn’t want him to wander off into the wilderness and risk being harmed, maybe eaten by some wild beast, but they didn’t want him too close, either.
Keeping him at a safe distance was an ongoing problem for the town.
So, when the townspeople find him rehabilitated, clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, you’d think they’d be ecstatic, overjoyed!
Usually, when Jesus heals someone or feeds people, the crowds that witness the event are happy about it!
But in this episode, the people are anything but. They are afraid, and they ask Jesus to leave.
We’ve seen a kind of holy fear and awe at the works of Jesus before, but I suspect this fear had little to do with the miraculous restoration of life to that poor tortured man.
I wonder how many of them missed the miracle altogether?
It seems that they were afraid of Jesus because of the loss of their pigs. The shepherds, or swineherds, were out of a job, and the village was out of a large source of economic income.
This man’s restoration came at a cost that the community was not willing to pay. They didn’t see Jesus’ act as one of grace and power, but rather as a threat to their way of life. So, they pushed Jesus out.
The question for them & now for us is: What are we willing to sacrifice to let someone else back into the community? When they have wronged us, or when they’ve neglected us, or when they are just a big pain in the butt to deal with?
Bringing people back into the community costs us something and forces us to make adjustments.
Do we have a place for the undocumented mother and her young children from El Salvador, or wherever? Or for refugees of war, this war? It will cost us something to minister to them.
Do we have a place for our neighbors with intellectual disabilities?
A place for elderly friends with dementia? People of other sexual orientations or with faith traditions and beliefs other than our own?
Learning to be church together might not always be easy.
Do you have a place for the child who has disappointed you, the friend from whom you are estranged, the fellow parishioner who keeps sitting in your pew?
It is obvious that so many people need to be restored. But do we really want them to be, given the cost? Given the risk to our own reputations and limited resources?
This cost can easily cause us to push Jesus out, just like the townspeople in our gospel story. It is much easier for the church to be a kind of self-sustaining social club.
We’re okay with bringing people in, as long as they add to our value, but it is dangerous, and we feel threatened by those who may prove to be an economic or emotional or, God forbid, a theological burden.
But Jesus keeps bringing people in & asking us to pay even for the wounds that we didn’t create.
Will we see the grace and power of restoration right in front of our faces, or will it cost too much?
How many of our pigs are we willing to let run off the cliff? How much of our bacon, I ask myself and all of you, are we willing to give up for the good of others?
It’s one of Jesus’ most profoundly powerful acts, one of the most beautiful and drastic stories of healing and grace, but there is no parade through that town, make no mistake about it, there was no fattened calf roasting in celebration, no overtly happy ending to this story.
We are left with a mess! Left with a rejected Jesus, disgruntled villagers and a restored, but very disappointed man.
It kind of seems like a waste of time. Ah, but as it turns out, the outcast, the one whose restoration was so disruptive, he becomes the first Gentile preacher, the one entrusted by Jesus to proclaim what God has done.
Luke leaves it to our imaginations to envision how the story plays out after Jesus leaves. We don’t know. It’s almost as if he’s daring us to find out for ourselves!
And if we are brave enough to take the dare, to let the outcasts in, what we will find is that the one whose wounds we’d rather not deal with, whose pain we’d rather not get too close to, this is the one through whom God speaks. Those are the voices that challenge us to be the Light of Christ as a community of faith.
It's easy to judge. It's more difficult to understand. Understanding requires compassion, empathy, patience, and a willingness to believe that good hearts sometimes choose poor methods. Through judging, we separate. Through understanding, we grow.
The outcasts are consistently God’s very best preachers. Those who on the margins are often heaven’s best missionaries!
The person you’d rather keep at a distance, the person whose friendship you know would come at a cost, the people whose inclusion feels like a cost that may be just a little too high for us to bear –who are they?
It is the poor, and the damaged, the sick & dying, and the old, the immigrant, the imprisoned, and all the rejected who will be our preachers and our teachers if we will just let them. And, if we listen.
Ausculta! Listen! The first word in the Rule of St. Benedict and said often to me by my own Benedictine Bishops, Rembert and Robert! Stephen, Listen!
Some of the kindest souls I’ve known lived in a world that was not so kind to them. Some of the best human beings I know have been through so much at the hands of others, and they still love deeply, they still care.
Sometimes, it’s the people who have been hurt the most who refuse to be hardened or mean spirited, or to stereotype others, because they would never want to make another person feel the same way they have felt. If that isn’t something to be in awe of, I don’t know what is.
My friends, it is in our own brokenness, poverty, sickness, and rejection that we are called to preach even to those who kept us at a distance. And I mean all of us. Not just ordained preachers! And not mere words from a pulpit!
St. Francis of Assisi reminds us: “Do all you can to preach the Gospel, and, if, (IF) necessary, use words.”
We can’t hide from our own past, our own exiles, or from the people who have seen us naked in the tombs (so to speak) any more than the man in our story could.
We are called to the uncomfortable and costly business of knowing and being known by each other.
The church is not the place to look for easy answers or escape from pain. It’s not the place to come for a fairy-god-mother/or god-father, or to discover the secret to success.
If we’ve been around for very long, we’ll find that the church is messy and vulnerable, costly, and at times, very uncomfortable, and very messy.
And like in Luke’s story today, no one ever seems to get exactly what they want. And that’s okay. In fact, this is the good news. Because it is here my sisters & brothers that Jesus meets us. It is in the mess where God is at work.
May we be a church and community that can embrace the mess, that is willing to shoulder the burden for those in need of restoration among and around us. Inside these walls and outside, well beyond these walls.
May we welcome those who’ve been cast out back in, from anywhere they have been rejected; and may we hear through them the challenging voice of God.
May the gospel be for you more than just words. May it be joined by God‘s power in your life. And may that power help you to live each day in such a way that the world sees the good news of Jesus in you, so that we can together, truly be the Light of Christ in a dark world.
And may we all use this day, this moment, this morning, to recommit ourselves to being instruments of God’s peace so that indeed, Peace May Prevail on Earth. May peace prevail in our personal and professional lives, in our families, among our friends, in our governments, and please God, as this pole pleads, May Peace Prevail in Our Schools!
May peace prevail and let it begin with us here and now.
May it be so. May it be true. In God’s many names and languages we pray.