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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Taking leave of ourselves

Texts: 1 Kings 19.1-15a; Ps 42; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39

When the prophet Elijah fled into the desert wilderness of Mt. Horeb, he had good reason to do so.  The powerful pagan queen, Jezebel, was very angry with him for having defeated the priests of Baal, a local fertility god, in a game of ‘my god is bigger than your god.’  She promised to kill Elijah, as she had killed the other prophets of Yahweh a couple of chapters earlier.  So Elijah strapped on his pack and headed for the hills to hide.  Now, the next bit of the story is really interesting. While Elijah is out there, we are told, he suddenly falls into a profound despondency, a despondency so deep that he begs for God to take his life.  The source of this downer appears to be Elijah’s belief that he is ‘no better’ than his ancestors, for a true believer in God would never have run away at the first sign of danger.  Especially if he or she had witnessed the power of God to save only a few days earlier!  At this, his lowest point, Elijah had apparently lost faith in his capacity to have faith.  Not an easy thing to have to deal with!

Now, if we turn over to the story from Luke for a while, we find another man who appears to be hiding out.  This time it’s not a prophet, but a demoniac, that is, a man possessed by a demon.  Clearly, like Elijah, this fellow had a death-wish, because he lives in a grave-yard.  To the first-century mind, someone who lived in a graveyard would have been already ‘dead’ because he or she clearly preferred the world of the dead, a shadowy region beyond the borders of safe society and commerce.  Note also that the name of this guy’s demon was ‘Legion.’  Interesting name that.  At the time when Luke wrote his gospel, the most obvious meaning of the word was military.  A Legion, for first century Mediterraneans, was a very large company of Roman soldiers or ‘legionnaires’, a tangible symbol of Rome’s absolute power over every aspect of one’s life.  So, when Luke tells us that his man is possessed by ‘Legion’ he means us to recognise that the man has been driven ‘mad’ by the omni-present pressure of Roman power in his life.  Luke wants us to see that this man has been so colonised by Rome that there is little to nothing of his original self left.  He is now only what Rome has made of him.  He has been repressed and belittled to the point where the only escape he may contemplate is that of death.  And so he inhabits the tombs, contemplating death and yet held back from killing himself by a demon who accuses him, over and over again, of being so useless and insignificant he does not have the guts even to kill himself! 

Two stories, two men.  Both are hiding out in a wilderness where people rarely go.  Both are seeking a haven of refuge from the political power of their times.  Both struggle deeply with the decisions they have made in life, with the selves that brought them to this point of despondency or illness.  Was there another way?  Could I have handled things with more courage, more resolve?  Where has my faith in God gone to?  Is there no escape except into the darkness of death? 

These are not hypothetical questions about two chaps who may or may not have experienced all this several thousand years ago, on the other side of the world.  These are questions that have regularly been asked by many people who live in Australia today.  One of them is a fellow I know whom I shall call ‘Patrick’.  Patrick comes from Ethiopia in Northern Africa.  To my mind, he is a modern-day Elijah figure because, in the early 90s he was a trade-union leader who stood up to the increasingly racist policies of his government in the name of a justice he had learned from Christ.  As a consequence of his actions, Patrick received a series of death-threats and his house was burnt down.  At the urging of his friends, and because he had a new bride whom he loved, he finally decided to flee the country.  For the next five years Patrick was a fugitive who, many times over, fell into a deep despondency about being so powerless in the face of evil men.  He also accused himself, very often, of having failed—not only with his work for justice, but also in his trust of God.  Would someone who trusted in God have run away like that?

Another friend who asks these questions regularly is a fellow I shall call ‘Mark’.  Mark has a disease known as schizophrenia.  Schizophrenia is a mental illness that afflicts a very large number of Australians, most of them young men.  Mark’s particular history is that he comes from a good, middle-class family.  He has a mother and a father who are good people and who cared for him well.  He went to private school where he received the best of educations.  Yet, in his early twenties, he began to hear voices in his head, voices which accused him of being a nothing, a nobody, a waste of space in the world, someone unworthy to be alive.  Mark tried to kill himself, and he has tried to kill himself many times since.  In his late twenties, he came across some Christians who took him to church and tried to care for him.  He discovered a faith in God which sustains him, and yet . . .  when he is having a relapse, a downer, the voices now accuse him of failing to have faith in God.  ‘If you had faith, you would be healed of your affliction’ they say. 

To my mind, Mark is a modern day demoniac.  He is in the grip of a power which has so invaded his heart and mind that it has become very, very difficult to separate the essential Mark out from the voices he hears in his head.  Without in any way contesting the physiological and genetic basis of schizophrenia, I often wonder why it is that the numbers of people afflicted by the disease are increasing so rapidly.  Could it be that many of us are vulnerable to becoming ill, but more and more are becoming so in fact because the voices of belittlement out there in the world are becoming far more pervasive?  The new colonial powers, I sometimes think, are the moguls of consumer capitalism.  Every day they bombard us with the message that our lives are not good enough.  We would be more beautiful if we used this product or that, that we would be more successful if we wore this suit and did this kind of job, that we would be more worthy of friendship and love if we would only become more like everyone else.  I sometimes think that Mark, and others like him, are simply more vulnerable to these powers than the rest of us - that, for them, the voices of the advertiser are experienced internally and personally in a way that most of us do not hear them.  In that sense, Mark is perhaps like the demoniac of the Gerasenes, for whom a strong and tenacious resistance to Roman power was simply not possible.  In the end he was overwhelmed, and found himself dallying with the dead.

Now what is the gospel word to people for whom life has become so difficult, so stark, so bereft of comfort?  What is the gospel word for people who accuse themselves even for their lack of faith, and use that fact as another reason to condemn themselves?  Well, let us return to our stories.

Note, first of all, that there is no condemning God in either of our stories.  In the Elijah story, God does not confirm Elijah in that picture of himself as faithless.  Neither, in the story of the demoniac, does Jesus condemn the man for being mad.  There is not even a hint, in either story, of God shaking his or her head at a lack in the people—whether it be a lack of courage or faith or whatever.  What we see, rather, is a God who quietly and persistently gets on with restoring or creating a self that is able to resist the power of the enemy.  In the case of Elijah, God gives the exhausted prophet food and rest.  Then he takes him on retreat into the desert, when Elijah learns that the work of God is not only about fireworks and miraculous power, it is also about discerning that place of silent stillness in which there is peace.  Even if the world is out of control, there is a stillness at the heart of things in which one may find oneself again.  For the stillness is God.  In the case of the demoniac, we find that Jesus does not address the man himself, first of all, but the power that enslaves him.  In essence, Jesus tells the power that it has no authority to brutalise the man, and that it had best be gone.  Only after he has addressed the power itself, does Jesus turn to the man with his word of liberation.  “The demon is gone.  Return now to your home, to those who love you, and tell them what God has done for you.”  It seems to me there is a pattern here for any who would work with people who have a so-called ‘mental illness’.  First confront the power that is responsible—not the ill person themselves, but the crazy power of consumer capitalism.  Question its authority to belittle us all.  Then, having done that work of advocacy, address the suffering person themselves.  Tell them that they, themselves, can now re-claim their place in home and society because they are worthy.  They are worthy because God has said they are worthy.

There is a great deal else that could be said about these stories.  But I shall conclude only with this.  That the work of the gospel is a work of conversion.  It calls us to leave behind the selves we have become, the false selves which we have become at the bidding of the powers of our time, and to embrace a new self, a self made in the image of Christ.  For in Christ we are made new selves, we are made children of God, sharing in God’s own dignity.  The power of the gospel is simply this: to remind us that we are loved, that we are accepted, that we are worthy because God has declared us worthy.  The power of the gospel confronts the authority of any power in the world, whether political or economic, any power which would declare us unfit or unworthy, any power that would belittle us or make us small.  All who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ, says the apostle.  In him you have left the belittled identities given by the powers behind.  Now you can live in the freedom of God. 

This sermon was first preached at St Luke's church in Mount Waverley in 2004.

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