This space is devoted to sharing the sermons preached at Park View Mennonite Church, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Please feel free to read, listen to, or watch any of these sermons, and then offer your comments, questions, or reflections, using the "comment" link at the end of each sermon. May these sermons challenge you to think and to act in new ways, and to grow in grace and in faithfulness to God's call.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
Paula Stoltzfus: Sound of sheer silence
Children of God through Faith 1 Kings 19:1-15 Galatians 3:23-29 Luke 8:26-39
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I have never lived through a major natural disaster. I have heard that tornados or hurricanes can sound like a freight train barreling through. Nor have I felt the earth shake under my feet, causing my visible world to crumble.
The closest I’ve experienced is Super storm Sandy, back in 2012 in PA. It caused our great big pin oak tree in our backyard to whip it’s long gangly limbs over top the house. It caused us enough concern that we moved everyone to the front of the house to sleep. When the kids were already asleep we heard something hit the roof hard. From inside we couldn’t see anything and we weren’t about to go outside to check it out. It wasn’t until the morning that we discovered that one of the branches had sideswiped the corner of our chimney off, which had fallen on the roof, rolling off onto the yard. Thankfully no harm was done. I recognize that this is very minor damage done. But I remember the uncertainty I felt that night.
Our experience seems minor compared to a major storm. Those in Puerto Rico are still rebuilding from Hurricane Maria. Those in the Midwest are dealing with devastating flooding. When tornadoes strike, damage can be catastrophic. Recently in Morgantown, PA, the farm where John grew up experienced a tornado which flattened a cinderblock two story farm building. Wind, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and rains, can make a raging storm.
Elijah’s stormy experience was a little different than a raging storm in such a way.
Before Elijah’s experience in the mouth of the cave, Elijah witnessed God’s power through powerful acts of nature. Elijah had witnessed God’s power coming down in the form of fire, striking an alter of water logged wood and freshly slaughtered sacrifice, consuming everything. This was an act that proved to the people present that God was the true God and not the false god of Baal. The fire was one of wonder and a tangible sign that God was real.
Elijah’s work at proving God’s power was a threat to those that ruled, namely Jezebel. A threat was made on Elijah’s life, which was enough to make him flee to the wilderness and eventually to Mt. Sinai.
Mt. Sinai was associated with God’s presence. This was the same mountain where Moses met and talked with God. Elijah was seeking God in the midst of his insecurity.
It is curious as to why Elijah fled to begin with. He witnessed the power of God firsthand! Why wouldn’t he trust God to provide for him?
I don’t think we have to think too hard as to possible reasons for Elijah fleeing. We ourselves have witnessed at one time or another God’s power, provision, and grace. That is what brings us here is it not. We believe that God is real. That God is a God of love that draws us to God’s self. That God gives us the meaning in life that we often search aimlessly for in the world.
But, when faced with our deepest insecurities, fear, and failures, we cower or run into the wilderness to escape our reality. For if we don’t have to face it, then maybe it would go away.
The threat on Elijah’s life seemed to turn him to come face to face with his insecurities that completely overwhelmed him. As a result, Elijah ran, wanting to die, not by Jezebel’s sword, but from starvation.
On this mountain, Elijah did not see or hear God in any of these natural disasters, the wind, earthquake, or fire. God was not speaking to him as he had experienced God before. For Elijah, this absence may have made him more discouraged, feeling very alone.
How much do we do the same thing? When we are faced with our deepest insecurities, scars, and wounds, we run.
Run, to keep ourselves so busy we don’t have to think about what’s right at our back, for we don’t have time.
Run, to make enough money in order to attain all our financial goals, even at the expense of our relationships.
Run, into the arms of technology, in attempts for our minds to escape any open space to think and be.
Now don’t get me wrong, business, money, and technology are not bad in and of themselves. But if our use of these resources are in order to move away from spirit lead work of reconciliation with ourselves and others, then we too risk starving ourselves from God’s love and grace, from meaning and purpose, from our identity as one of God’s beloved.
In Elijah’s case, God didn’t let Elijah starve completely. Instead God sent a messenger to feed him just enough to keep him going. It wasn’t until Elijah experienced the absence of God in the natural disasters from the mountaintop, that Elijah finally heard God. This time in sheer silence.
Sheer silence…absolute, utter, complete silence.
I want you to do an experiment with me. I want you to help me create the sounds of these natural disasters.
Sometimes silence can be disturbing and sometimes it can be peaceful.
Another story of a storm finds Jesus and his disciples in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm comes upon them whipping the waves and boat. The disciples, fearing for their lives, awaken Jesus, who was sleeping through it all. Jesus commanded the wind and the waves to cease, and there was peace. It was at the end of this boat ride that they landed on the shore of the Gerasenes and met the man possessed by demons.
It is going from one storm on the water to another, the storm raging within this man’s soul. Just as Jesus spoke peace to the water, Jesus calmed the internal storm of this man, offering him freedom from the Legion.
I would expect the towns people to be in awe and praise God, for they no longer had to endure a crazy man running around naked. I recognize that the swineherders had a significantly downsized herd of pigs, which I’m sure caused quite a stir.
But it is not abnormal for sometimes as one experiences healing in their journey, it often upsets the norm for someone else.
I find family systems fascinating. We each live within a family system, beautiful and challenging as they all are. We learn certain communication patterns and ways of associating with one another. When those patterns are changed by one person it can change the whole system. It can be disorienting and at times disturbing.
I think the same can be said for this man possessed by the demons. He was accepted as the “mad man” in their community. They had learned to live with his crazy behavior. I would venture to say he was also an easy scapegoat for the wrongs within their community.
Jesus’ healing act very well literally and figuratively threatened their economic and social rules of operating. The swineherders lost their source of income and the community’s social order was turned on it’s head.
Jesus freed the man at the bottom of the social order and gave him his humanity back. Their community’s way of operating and communicating was threatened, and they wanted Jesus to leave.
Debie Thomas, a commentator on this passage wrote, “humans often prefer to stick with the demons we know, rather than embrace the freedom we don’t.”
The Israelites exemplified this when they were freed from the Egyptians. Initially grateful for deliverance from bondage, later they complained from their hunger pains, that they would rather be back enslaved where they at least knew where their next meal was coming from.
Our own social system is not unlike the Gerasene community. We like to say in our democracy that everyone has a chance for a better life, but our history of western European dominance, has repeatedly demonized minorities and remains a troubling reality to this day. Racial reconciliation is as much a need now as it was in the civil rights era, the civil war, and years of settlement.
We need to work at listening to each other, those of us who have experienced racial prejudice and those who have experienced racial privilege. It is in looking towards one another in our humanity that we are freed from the social order that is so strong around us.
This could pertain to any difference we face today; political, theological, faith tradition, generation.
Paul’s own conversion experience was a transformation from being bound to the Jewish law to freedom through faith in Jesus. His being bound by the law caused him to persecute those not following the law. Paul’s freedom came from him literally becoming blinded by God’s grace which radically shaped his ministry thereafter.
In Galations, we find Paul casting a vision to a community who was wrestling with the law and Jesus’ life and teachings. This vision was radical for them. They were so entrenched in the social hierarchy that it would have difficult for them to see a culture where there were no distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave or free, male or female.
Paul was risking upsetting the social order by proclaiming that it is through faith in Christ that they were all one.
This is good news!...Right?...Maybe?
That means the last will be first and the first will be last. That means that there is no one better than another. That means that we are all God’s children. That means we are freed from the law to live by faith from a place of belovedness, not for what we have done, but simply for who we are right now. Embracing our belovedness sends us to be-love to someone else. That, my friends, is extending humanity to another, to see them in their belovedness.
When we are in the space of God’s love, it is surrounded with a peaceful silence.
Elijah, wrapped in his fear, came face to face with God’s love for him, not in the storm, but in the silence. He was given a renewed sense of his identity and purpose and was sent from that place.
Jesus, spoke peace in the storm, bringing humanity, dignity, freedom and peace in the silence.
Paul’s exortation to the Galations freed them from the bounds of the law and into God’s grace through faith. This means that where there were social stigmas before, there were no longer.
God is with us in the same way today. When the storms of life are raging, God stands by us. When the silence is deafening, God is present with us. When the silence speaks the peace we long to hear, we are present with God. Do not be afraid, God calls us each by name, we are God’s beloved.
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