The Second Sunday after Pentecost | By Casey Perkins
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a | Psalm 42 & 43 | Galatians 3:23-29 | Luke 8:26-39
Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?”
He said, “the problem of gun violence in America” …
“What is your name?”
He said, “the military industrial complex” …
“What is your name?”
He said, “homelessness, capitalism, global pandemic, radical Western individualism, misogyny, queer-phobia, climate change, systemic racism” …
He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.
In the Gospel appointed for today, Jesus has crossed over to a region opposite Galilee, an indication by the author that this story takes place in a different context from the rest.
‘Jesus, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’
Rather, Jesus and the disciples have come into unfamiliar and unclean Gentile territory … it’s the Wild, Wild West … anything can happen here.
Take a moment - maybe close your eyes - and allow an image of this wild person who Jesus encounters to come to mind. If you’re like me, then perhaps your mind began with an existing image of a person you have seen or encountered before. For me, it was a man in Savannah, Georgia - wearing tattered clothes, with visible sores on his skin and matted hair going in all directions - who followed me through a city square and for nearly two blocks alternately yelling obscenities and asking for money. I’m not proud that this is my initial idea of the Gerasane demoniac, but I think our Gospel writer’s literary intent was achieved. This person - who isn’t even a person - but rather a myriad of terrifying things - represents our deepest fears … those things that overwhelm us and move us away from hope, joy, and love towards isolation, anxiety, depression, suspicion, and hate.
In just a few verses, Jesus has destroyed the demons and we find the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” - because that’s what Love does: it restores Shalom - it heals, brings back into right relationship, feeds the hungry, lifts the lowly, creates beauty from brokenness.
But ‘plot twist’ … the ending of this narrative always surprises me:
… 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.
Wait … what? Fear has just been banished, right?! Now the people are afraid because the demons are gone?!
But of course … haven’t you ever been so afraid of change that you decided it was easier to just stick with the pain, or disappointment, or less than you know you deserve, or less than you know God is calling you to do…? I know I have.
The phrase is, after all, “Better the devil you know”
Better the Legions we know than the freedom we can only imagine?
Today is Juneteenth a federal holiday marking the announcement of emancipation in Texas more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation first declared an end to slavery and the freedom of Black people in the United States. Juneteenth has gained attention in recent years - not because a majority of white Americans have realized that this day more truly represents American Independence than July 4th because it marks the day when all Americans were free for the first time. But rather, Juneteenth has gained attention because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the reality that Americans who make up the diverse tapestry of this country: Black, Indigenous, Queer, Women, Poor, Neurodivergent, Differently Abled Americans are still having to fight for their right to exist and thrive with basic human dignity.
Better the Legions we know? … absolutely not. Better the Commonwealth of God that we have only glimpsed and that we are called to bring about here and now.
But the task is Herculean … impossible it would seem.
After all, we have more than three centuries of the ‘American Experiment’ that proves just that … and of course humans have been making messes of things as far back as the beginning of recorded history. In our reading from 1 Kings, we find Elijah feeling overwhelmed, scared, and ready to give up.
I have always liked our friend, the Prophet Elijah, because he seems real to me. He’s not afraid to show the full range of human emotions and - through it all - God sticks with him, and continues to call him back to the work.
In the verses leading up to today’s passage, Elijah has challenged the Ba-al prophets to a “Whose God is the Real Deal” competition that honestly reads like a challenge from a reality TV show - you can almost hear the ‘womp womp’ sounds effect when the Ba-al prophets fail the task of calling down fire on their altar and are taunted by Elijah … and then comes the suspenseful music as Elijah douses his altar in water three times before calling down fire from heaven that consumes the offering and the water … the crowd goes wild!!!
Elijah has shown God’s power to those who would not believe … he must be feeling pretty good about himself, but then he learns that he has shamed Queen Jezebel and she has vowed to kill him. Elijah obeyed God’s call and made the Truth known, and his efforts have backfired - now he’s on the run, fleeing for his life from a place and people he was trying to help.
This is where our story picks up in today’s reading. And I think the story has two important things to say to us who - like Elijah - are trying to answer God’s call and resist the Legions that oppose the power of Love in the world.
Never underestimate the sacred importance of self-care.
It’s right there in black and white … just when Elijah is so done he asks to die, God tells him: take a nap, then wake up, hydrate, have some bread … and you’ll feel better. And he does. Elijah’s whole demeanor and outlook on the situation changes after resting and caring for his basic needs. Burnout is all too real, and we cannot “do the work God has given us to do - to love and serve others with gladness and singleness of heart” without prioritizing our own wellbeing - physical, mental, and spiritual.
Refreshed and strengthened, Elijah journeys to the holy mountain where I can only imagine he hopes to reconnect with God - to make it all make sense again.
And there, on the mountain, I think we find the second important teaching of this story:
Our God is full of surprises.
Prior to fleeing, Elijah had carried out a whole spectacle showing just how powerful and awe-inspiring God is, yet perhaps Elijah had forgotten that what makes his God different is that God is personal and loving … the same God that brought down fire from heaven saw a weary prophet and said: “have some cake … rest a while.”
Our story ends with this poignant scene: Elijah seeks to encounter God anew but looks in all the usual places - big displays of earth, wind, and fire … yet those things no longer stirred Elijah to awe; but after all the noise and bravado died down all that was left was a ‘thin murmur’ the Hebrew says … perhaps the gentle beating of Elijah’s own heart … and in that moment of silence, he remembered that God is as close as our very breath.
What happens next? Why of course: God calls him back to the work of telling the Truth, of striving for Justice and Peace.
Friends, the powers all around that seek to oppose Love’s work in the world are Legion.
We can so easily feel overwhelmed and afraid of the changes that must take place if we are to follow Jesus and work towards God’s dream for all of creation. We are each called to be prophets in our own ways; and like Elijah’s, our experience will certainly not be easy … still God is with us - closer than our very breath - in surprising ways that restore us to hope and strengthen us for the journey.
So the next time you feel you can’t go on, and there will be a next time … when it feels like Legion is winning … stand in the healing power of Jesus, remember our friend Elijah, and pray along with the psalmist:
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.