The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: June 19, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Last week at this time we were just finding out about the horrors of what had happened in Orlando. Now we’ve had a week to take it in, digest it a bit, try to understand what it means and what our response can be. We’re praying for the LGBTQ community; we’re praying for the Latino families that are torn apart; we’re praying for an end to gun violence. Maybe you are also reaching out to particular friends and neighbors to tell them you love them, maybe you are calling and emailing senators to urge them to vote for gun control in this country. But I think we are all tired of this, and angry, and afraid, and discouraged by it all. It can start to feel like the whole world really is that bad, and getting worse. It can make it hard to see that anything could ever change.
I wonder if that is what is happening in both of our scripture stories for today, because in each story there is a puzzling detail that’s sticking in my mind.
Both stories are dramatic and powerful, and yet in each there is a noticeable reaction – or lack of reaction – that I can’t help tripping over. Elijah, who is fleeing for his life and hiding out in a cave, has an encounter with God. God says, what are you doing here, Elijah? And Elijah pours out his tale of fear, how everyone hates him, all his colleagues have been killed, and he’s scared to death. God’s response is to reveal his glory, in big dramatic ways and then truly present in the sound of sheer silence. And then in that moment, God asks Elijah again, what are you doing here? And Elijah repeats his lament, word for word, everyone hates me and I’m scared to death. Whatever God wanted to show him, it doesn’t really seem he got it. All he can see is what is bad. All he can feel is his fear.
And in the gospel, Jesus comes to the land of the Gerasenes and is confronted by a man possessed, raving at him. Jesus exorcises the demons out of him and sends them into a herd of swine, who stampede down the hill and drown in the sea. But after the demoniac is healed and quiet is restored, all the people of the surrounding countryside come to see what has happened. They see the man healed, they hear the whole story, and their reaction is that they beg Jesus to leave. Whatever message Jesus might have shared with them is lost, and they just want him to go. All they can see is what has gone wrong. All they can feel is their fear.
Kind of anticlimactic, these responses, aren’t they? I’d like to think that if God revealed God’s self to me in these tremendous awe-inspiring ways, I’d respond with a little more excitement in my voice. But trauma can do that to people. It can get us stuck in our fear and frustration. Maybe somehow they just can’t trust what’s happening before their very eyes.
And yet God does all this out of incredible love and power. God feeds Elijah, and saves Elijah, God heals the man and brings good news to the land. God is involved, in these stories. Just as God is involved with us in our world, healing and saving and making things new. We can have a hard time seeing it at times like this. But there is more in the world than violence and death. There is healing and love and new life, and people reaching out to one another and crossing those barriers of hatred and fear. Sometimes we can’t trust the good of what’s happening before our very eyes. But without trusting, we can’t respond. We can’t be part of the good that God is doing all around us.
This kind of trust and response needs practice. The spiritual life is all about practice, doing things enough that they begin to make a difference in us. We go through motions like coming to church and praying, especially at times of loss and tragedy, because they remind us to live into hope. Sunday worship is one way to practice – a great way, indeed, as we’re all together as we do it, reinforcing each other. What we do here gives us the practice and the grounding for what we can do elsewhere in our lives.
I’m thinking of two different things we do in our worship to practice responding in trust – and they may not be the things you’d expect. One of the ways is saying the creed – the statement of faith that begins ‘We believe’ or ‘I believe.’ We do it right after the scripture readings and the sermon, our response to what we have heard. But maybe that’s not how you’ve experienced it.
Unfortunately for us, we usually understand that word ‘believe’ to be something we do with our head, an intellectual agreement with a set of facts. So when we recite the creed we can get tripped up on it, not sure whether we understand what we’re saying or can completely agree with it. Some of you avoid saying the creed altogether; some of you skip parts. But the Latin word that is translated with that ‘believe’ has more to do with our hearts than our heads – credo, derived from cor do. It means ‘I give my heart to’ – what we believe is what we lean on, what we put our trust in, even what we love. Imagine what it would feel like to say the creed ‘We love God the Father…we trust Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…we lean on God the Holy Spirit.’ It would move it from the head down to the heart, even to the body. You might have noticed that over the past several weeks we’ve been singing a paraphrase of the creed instead of saying the usual form – a clever ruse to shake you all up a little bit, to let the words sink into a different place in you as you sing together with everyone here. Practice singing it today with that in mind, and see what happens.
The other way we practice responding in worship is in our offertory. The choir sings or we sing and while the music is going, our wonderful band of ushers are passing along with offering plates, places to put in money that you are offering for the work of the church. Those plates are brought up to the altar along with the bread and wine, symbolic gifts back to God of what God has already given us: our daily bread and sustenance, our gifts and abilities to work. We bless them and break them and give them out again – the bread and the wine in communion, the money in the different ministries of the church.
Maybe you know this is what that action means – or maybe when faced with the plate coming your way you sigh and think, the church is always asking for money, I already gave my pledge, I don’t have anything in my pocket, pass it along. But putting something in the plate is an action that has a deeper meaning – it’s an opportunity to give thanks for everything God gives us, the money as a tangible sign of our gratitude. [The stewardship committee has thoughtfully come up with one way to help you participate, with these cards that say, I pledged, so that when it’s a Sunday that you don’t have your offering envelope on hand, you can put in the card instead. Another way is to] just put in some cash, let go of a little bit of that green and let God bless it and use it instead, even if you already paid your pledge. Either way, it’s an opportunity to practice offering something of yourself.
In other words, our worship offers ways to practice trusting, responding to what God does and is, with something of ourselves. They’re symbolic actions only – and you may have participated in worship for years without seeing them as particularly meaningful. But like any symbolic action they affect our thoughts and feelings. They’re ways of practicing with our voices and our bodies what we want to live out in all of our lives: putting our trust in God, unreservedly and wholeheartedly, offering ourselves in gratitude to God and leaning into God with love and desire. God shows us great love; there is so much we can show in return.
In times like this, as we respond to tragedy in our nation, as we keep plowing our way through a difficult presidential election, as we go through the daily life of living in a city with all kinds of people and all kinds of things on our schedules, it is tempting simply to tune it all out. To only see the worst, or just not to respond at all. And to tune out God and God’s desires for us right along with it. But the tragedy and the pain and the anger are not all there is. All around us the Spirit is doing new and amazing things, moving in earthquakes and in moments of pure stillness to bring forth new life. All around us healing is happening, lives are being restored and God’s power being revealed. May we open our eyes to see it; may we lean in to respond to it; may we offer ourselves in gratitude for it. And may God’s reign come.