Sunday, June 19, 2016

Death threats and Demons

5 Pentecost, June 19, 2016 1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7), 8-15a
St. Peter’s Cambridge Psalms 42 and 43, Galatians 3: 23-29
The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling Luke 8: 26-39

Send out your light and your truth that they may lead us and bring us to your holy hill and dwelling. Amen.

It’s great to be here at St. Peter’s this morning and I’m grateful to your rector Christian for his invitation. My husband Paul and I moved to East Cambridge last year for many reasons, one being that I felt called to serve God as a missionary, evangelist, and free agent in Christ. I love parish ministry, and served happily for 16 years in Connecticut, but I felt called to serve God in new and various ways, and in a different location. Unintentionally, I entered a time of wilderness for three years, until I found myself here in the promised land of Cambridge. Currently, I’m happily involved in many ministries in our diocese, including being a supply priest for my more settled colleagues.
Our world can be a threatening and scary place. Take for instance, today’s lesson from 1st Kings. Through the words of a messenger, Jezebel threatens Elijah, saying “I will kill you just as you have killed my prophets. And I will kill you tomorrow.” I ask you, how many death threats have we heard these days? In our schools, in our churches, in our theaters, and now last week in a nightclub in Florida. How many of these death threats come without warning, striking terror into our hearts?
Jezebel worshipped the pagan god called Ba’al and Elijah had recently proven to her that his God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was more powerful. He accused his own people of being unfaithful, claiming that they had forsaken God’s covenant, thrown down God’s altars, and even killed some of their own prophets. Elijah confessed that he had been “very zealous for the Lord.”  And so he killed the Ba’al prophets in order to show not only Jezebel but also his own people that his God was the only God worth worshipping. It was a power struggle that ended in violence and multiple deaths.
These are wilderness times. When someone kills our people, don’t we also want revenge? Just as Jezebel threatened Elijah, don’t we want to do the same? The fight between Jezebel and Elijah is a fight that never ends. It continues today between Jews and Palestinians, between political parties and religious leaders, and between anyone who interprets life or God differently from us. The fight is as old as Cain and Abel and as new as Donald and Hilary. We are like Elijah, who says to God, “I am no better than my ancestors.”
Temptations abound in the wilderness. In the face of direct and immediate threats, don’t we also want to pick up our bags and flee, as Elijah did? We flee for self-protection. We flee because we are afraid. We flee because we feel vulnerable, alone, and misunderstood. We find a cave in which to hide until the immediate danger has passed, emotions have cooled, and the threats hopefully have been forgotten. We want to preserve life.
There’s a lot of wilderness in today’s lessons from scripture. They remind me of the temptations that the Israelites faced as they wandered towards Palestine. In response to the threats in their lives, and a promised land not yet realized, they worshipped a golden calf and wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt. They remind me of Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the wilderness, when he was tempted by demons to show his power, to trust in his own strength, and even to tempt God. They remind me that Elijah, Jesus, and all of our ancestors spent a lot of time in the wilderness.
Temptations multiply when we’re afraid, when we feel that our lives or our livelihoods are being threatened, and when we’ve lost people and things that we cherish. Our demons are both internal and external; Elijah fled because, in addition to the external threats from Jezebel, he questioned his own ability to lead. In the face of chaos and conflict, we get confused; we lack clarity about who we are, how to proceed, and how we should respond. We often struggle with loneliness, shame, and grief. And yet, as Elijah and the man with demons discovered, the wilderness is also a time for drawing closer to God.
Our souls are disquieted and heavy when we’re in the wilderness. Like Elijah, we want to die, or kill someone else. In our solitary cry to God, we ask, “Why have you forgotten me, while my bones are being broken and my enemies mock me?” Like the demons who fall at Jesus’ feet, we beg God not to torment us any more. We pray that God will defend us and deliver us from “those” deceitful and wicked people. Or deliver us from ourselves.
Our egos are good things. They protect us from very real threats; but EGO can also be an acronym for “easing God out.” That is, all too often, we ease God out of the center of our lives, and put ourselves there instead. We want control, to prove that we are right, and they are wrong. We move our seats to the front of the airplanes, from being a passenger or a flight attendant to becoming the pilot, and then we fly our planes away as fast as we can, or drop our bombs, killing innocents and enemies alike. In these desperate times, when we wonder where God is, we forget that it was we who had moved away.
As we know from scripture, as we know from history, and as we know from today’s current realities, being driven by passion, dogma, or fear can cause great harm. Our Church, our nation, and our world are in these wilderness times; but being in the wilderness is part of our landscape, and while temptations abound, it can also be a place for restoration and renewal. There, God will heal us. There, God will provide for us, saying, “here is some bread. Over there is a sip of water.”
Human and divine forces are extremely powerful; however, unlike others, God’s forces are only for the good. Natural forces, like tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes can cause great damage, and yet they can also be forces for good as well. They can carry us to places we’ve never imagined: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In wilderness times, we can remember that God is everywhere, even in  the silence, and that all of us are beloved children of God, uniquely and marvelously made. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “we are all part of Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to God’s promise.”
We can choose how we respond to threats. We can flee in fear, or we can stand firm in our faith. We can strike terror into the hearts of others or we can become messengers of God’s love. We can react with revenge, or we can find courage to change the things that we can. Finding a cave for prayer, and asking for God’s guidance, is a good first step in the right direction.  
But we can’t stay in our caves forever; and so eventually God will ask us again, “What are you doing here?” Then God will send us back out, to face those death threats, to face our demons, and to respond to our challenges with renewed spirits, and disciplined responses. “Go, and get others to help you,” God tells Elijah. “Return to your home,” Jesus said to the man with the demons, “and declare how much God has done for you.” We must return to the places from which we have come, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes mentally, but always spiritually.
I’ve discovered that God “never fails to help and govern those whom God has set upon the sure foundation of God’s loving-kindness.” Emerging from our caves of isolation, in solidarity with others, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can recreate God’s beloved community together.

Yes, demons and death threats are Legion. They can strike terror into our hearts or they can become pathways to God’s heart. “The cave that you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek,” says Joseph Campbell. We are here in that cave today, knowing that death is no longer a threat. Even our demons fear the power of Jesus. Our treasure lies in the empty tomb; and our victory is assured. So put your trust in God, “who is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.” Amen.