6.23.19 – Sermon at St. PJ’s New Haven

Sunday Sermon Series

Before faith came…what a wildly complicated way for us to open today’s Epistle from Galatians. Before faith came. Three words that sound innocent, may even be easy to overlook to get to the more positive language of unification, neither Greek nor jew, slave not free, man not woman, extending the promise of the covenant to all people – don’t get me wrong, is a wonderfully radical message, then and now.. Yet three words that come together to assume a framework, or line of thinking within its original Jewish context, that has since often been manipulated, leveraged, wielded throughout our rich, delicate, painful, joyous Christian tradition even to this day. Even more recently. Words that have divided and persecuted the lines that proceed it in this very passage. Words that have encouraged our much younger Christian lineage to forget the old, embrace the new. To bite from the hand that feeds, to marginalize and oppress the Jewish God and people that bring us our beloved Jesus of the Gospels in the first place.

Theologian, and current YDS Professor Willie Jennings often uses the metaphor of Jesus having a conversation with his Jewish community with his back turned to us gentiles. We gentiles are just fortunate enough to overhear the conversation, and eventually profess a belief in the risen Lord. This metaphor constantly reminds me to proclaim my truth, and my lived experience with humility. It helps me to remain teachable, even when I would rather pitch my tent with humility’s much more familiar counterpart stubbornness, and arrogance.

See, eventually I hit a point in my own story, where I had to admit the things that frustrate me the most about Paul, are the things that frustrate me and dare I say others about myself. He’s loud. He’s over eager. He can’t stand authority. He often comes off judgmental. He seems to make it up as he goes. He contradicts himself. He contradicts scripture. I don’t know about you, but when I try to be all things to all people, I find my foundation begins to feel a bit…subjective and self centered. It’s easy for me to forget how I got here, and forget where I’m going.

Paul’s framing of the new covenant in relation to the faithless, imprisoning, disciplinarian that he is naming within other sects of his Judaic tradition has me wondering what exactly he would conclude is going on in our reading of 1 Kings today. Who is it that Elijah is pleading with, and surrendering to in conversation? “Take away my life” Elijah says, “for I am no better than my ancestors.” A screaming rebuke of our current cultures perplexing idea of “post modernity.” A screaming rebuke of the Christian development of successionism – the idea that Christianity came here to replace and absorb Judaism. A screaming rebuke of cultural amnesia. A screaming rebuke of this supposed ”time before faith.” Is Elijah’s surrender to God not a profession of faith? What of his 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb? Is it not twice Elijah says “I have been very zealous for the Lord; the God of hosts.” In that moment of Elijah’s stubborn demand and proclamation of faith, he overlooks the miraculous revelation before him. Just as our Christian tradition often overlooks or diminishes the tree that brings us life.

1 Kings reminds us of what we must never forget: Paul, or even Jesus, were not by any stretch of the imagination, the original zealots. Elijah endures the mountain splitting wind, the earthquake, and the fire all with no sign of his God. After all these things, all this chaos, Elijah is struck with sheer silence….what a beautiful phrase. Sheer silence. Elijah hears, and feels that silence like music to his ears. And from this abrupt, and unexpected space, the gentle voice of God. This story reveals a timeless strength of faith that can overtake our lives in the midst of chaos, and confusion. A gentle and calming presence we are then called to extend to all people.

This is just one way for us to unpack that opening phrase “before faith came.” Another way has much more to do with each one of us here in this sanctuary space. Who and where were you before faith came? Maybe some of you can recall a very clear moment when you pleaded with God like Elijah “take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Or Legion in today’s Gospel “what have you to do with me Jesus, son of the most High God.” Maybe you wandered in one day slightly suspicious, but ever the more curious about who and what this God thing was, and then something in the way Will played the saxophone, and Andrew played the piano, or something about the way the crowd clapped along, or Something in the way you heard the Gospel, or experienced the eucharist, or experience everyone shaking hands with everyone at the peace, or something in the way Marilyn wrote the prayers of the people struck your heart and mind with that calming sense of sheer silence. And then over time maybe the strange rituals or practices we participate in here together each week started to feel a lot less strange than the rituals or practices we perform out there each week. It started to feel more intentional. It started to show you how to live.

Maybe you’re still not sure, and find yourself in the midst of deep questioning…a season or way of life we all probably know more than we care to admit to our neighbor. Maybe you aren’t comfortable with a definitive believe but you find the people here treat you with dignity and respect that you know you deserve. Maybe you feel like you’ve had this faith thing covered your whole life, in which case I find myself slightly suspicious of you. Whatever your story has been through the confusing journey of life, and faith, we come together each week to hold and support for one another in what Rev. Dalton preached last week as a God of our own experience. We come here each week to learn a little more about where we came from, and where we’re going. To exercise that tool of spiritual humility, with hopes that this tool may be used to benefit others.

My own story in faith feels a lot like that of Legion. If I knew how to gradually ease into anything I’m not so sure how I would have come to know God. For a long time, my God was a God of last resort. An exit strategy when I had made my life completely unmanageable, and had run down every dead end. God was a rescue plan who’s will for me was quickly ignored and forgotten once I had leveled out. Stabilized. I grew up going to church, and for a long time, took it all for granted. Took most things for granted. Like Elijah in his plea to God, many times I stubbornly proclaimed my faith, while overlooking the miracle. I looked for help I wasn’t ready to receive. I often still feel like I’m not ready for Gods way, over my way.

Our culture doesn’t speak as much in terms of being possessed by demons as Legion was, but we do speak in terms of addiction, disorders, and disease. It isn’t hard to see the parallels. The self destructive behavior, pain caused to family and friends, social isolation. My own addiction and recovery journey deals with alcohol. Cunning. Baffling. Powerful. No matter how bad my drinking became, or how little I thought I deserved a holy presence, God was there when I came pleading. Somehow, I stumbled into a God who refused to leave me, even when I felt lost to myself.

What I find most interesting about today’s Gospel reading, is that the demons within Legion recognize Jesus for who he is immediately. They know with all certainty that he is the son of God while the community then cast Jesus away in fear. It’s a reminder for me that the darkest shade of my own condition is the very tool that allows me to seize the light. To claim the miracle. To overcome doubt. The 5th promise of AA states “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” Within my darkest night, I was finally able to admit I was powerless. I was able to surrender. And when I finally did, I realized God was there waiting all along, waiting to make me useful again.

When Jesus tells Legion to go back to his community and proclaim the good things the Lord has done for him, I feel a similar call being asked of me. To proclaim the good things God has done and continues to do for me, that I could not do for myself. So I bring my own experience of God to you all this morning because like Legion, I feel called to carry the message. And from my work as a chaplain in the ER and addictions unit of Norwalk Hospital this summer, and through the spiritual program of AA, I catch a good look at how serious and widespread this illness, addiction in general, and other mental/behavioral disorders are, and the importance of naming that. (Show of hands). The story of Legion is a story that touches all or most of our lives in one way or another. It’s important that we know we are not alone. My sobriety has given me a church I don’t take for granted anymore. It’s given me a community I want to be honest with, and a community I want to learn from. In short, my higher power, the God of my experience, has given me my life back, one day at a time for 9 months now. May we all foster a community here together where we feel safe to bring the darkest parts of ourselves to light, and turn them over to the God of our experience. The greatest gift I can give myself today, is to never forget who and where I was before faith came to me. But while faith comes in different forms and stories to each one of us, it is nothing new. It’s been here all along. May faith find you on this day and always|. Amen

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