Sunday, June 19, 2016

Preacher's Study - Year C, Proper 8 (13) 2016

The Preacher’s Study

6th Sunday after Pentecost, 2016

John W.B. Hill  

2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20;
Galatians 5.1, 13-25;
Luke 9.51-62

Our North American culture is succumbing to a cult of ‘freedom.’  When freedom means nothing more than escape from constraints and regulations, we quickly become captive to delusions and enslaved to our own self-indulgence (what our second reading calls living according to ‘the flesh’); and the self-indulgence of our consumer society is generating a global race toward a climate crisis.

The alternative to all such enslavement, we are told, is living by the Spirit, yielding to the Spirit’s guidance.  This alone is freedom.

Elijah was a man of the Spirit, and the story of his career (in the semicontinuous first readings of the past few weeks) shows how the Spirit was leading him to question his own assumptions about the ways of the true God.  Originally convinced that the faithlessness of God’s people could be healed by a show of power and vengeance (the great sacrifice on Mount Carmel), Elijah came to see that as a delusion.  He retreated to Mount Horeb in defeat, hoping to recover the vision given to the prophet Moses in that holy place; instead, he discovered that God was not in the wind or fire.  In the ‘sheer silence’ that followed, the Spirit told him to anoint Elisha as his successor, to ‘pass the mantle.’  Time for a prophet with a clearer vision of God’s ways!

This must have been a hard pill to swallow.  Today’s episode (Elijah’s ‘swan song’) depicts a devoted disciple following a cranky and dejected master.  Elijah now retreats to the far side of the Jordan; he will expire where Moses expired, somewhat short of his goal.

So what is the meaning of the whirlwind, the chariot of fire, and horses of fire?  Chariots are war machines, and fire recalls the sacrificial fire on Mount Carmel.  Was Elijah finally consumed by his own craving for vengeance?

More to the point, will his successor see more clearly the ways of Israel’s Saviour?  We will have to wait for next Sunday’s reading to give us a clue.

Today’s gospel begins the teaching section in this version of the gospel, and Luke marks that beginning by announcing, “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  Why this expression of new resolve?  Luke acknowledges this turning point, as all the synoptic gospels do, one way or another — a change of direction foreshadowed by events such as the beheading of the Baptist and the transfiguration.  For Jesus recognizes that his offer of the new peace of God’s kingdom is being rejected by God’s people because it clashes with the sacred institutions of Jerusalem.  He faces a resistance to God’s will just as massive as the resistance Elijah faced. 

Indeed, the figure of Elijah and his stubborn fight against idolatry lies just below the surface of this gospel episode, for the Samaritans were the descendants of the northern kingdom whose monarchs were so determined to kill Elijah.  Yet Jesus’ response to their hostility is in complete contrast to Elijah’s: whereas Elijah called down fire on his foes (2 Kings 1), Jesus’ rejects such resort to violence.  But the crisis is just as real: God’s people are once again rejecting God’s way, and the consequences will be horrific, as Jesus himself foresaw.

That is why we hear such stern conditions for discipleship.  If, in this time of crisis, Jesus knows he must “set his face” toward Jerusalem, his followers must do so too.  No one who “looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Fair weather disciples are not disciples of such a master in such a crisis.

What will it mean, then, to be disciples in this moment of crisis, when a self-indulgent society is careening toward ecological destruction?

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada

Salvador Dalí, Elijah and the Chariot (f.75-4, Plate J)

James Tissot, Elijah Ascends in a Chariot of Fire, 
available at

Friday, June 17, 2016

Preacher's Study - Year C, Proper 7 (12) 2013

The Preacher’s Study

5th Sunday after Pentecost, 2016

John W.B. Hill  

1 Kings 19.1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Psalm 42 & 43;
Galatians 3.23-29;
Luke 8.26-39

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is one of the richest and most revealing exorcism stories of the gospel; it also makes high demands upon our symbolic imagination.  But first we must attend to the details.

This story is not just about one sick individual; it’s about “a man of the city” and the sick relationship between him and his fellow-citizens, which Jesus seeks to heal.  Nor is the relationship the consequence of one climactic breakup; “many times [the demon] had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound ... but he would break the bonds and be driven into the wilds.”  We get a picture of a cyclical pattern within an ambivalent relationship: he causes alarms among the citizens, but they cannot bring themselves to be rid of him.  As the conclusion of the story makes clear, they consider his healing a threat; they need him to be sick — which may be why they keep trying to chain him (sort of), knowing that he will escape (sort of).  It’s a relation of co-dependency.

In a dysfunctional society, people develop adaptive behaviour for survival.  If they are not accepted for who they are, they may assume a false-self role.  In the case of someone with deviant behaviour, that role may be ‘the scapegoat,’ acting out the dysfunction of the society, and then being accused of causing society’s problems (what we call ‘demonizing’).  The scapegoat may ultimately come to accept the accusations (i.e., may become ‘demon-possessed’).  If so, he absolves everyone else of society’s problem. 

Jesus challenges every such manifestation of the ‘Kingdom of the Accuser,’ for he is the very presence of the ‘Kingdom of God.’  Those enmeshed in Satan’s Kingdom cannot see what is going on, but the ‘demon’ (the personification of the dysfunctionality) knows instinctively that its power is threatened by Jesus’ arrival.  It even whines about being persecuted: “I beg you, do not torment me.”

The extreme form of scapegoating culminates in killing the accused — by a lynch mob or, in ancient culture, by stoning or pushing off the edge of a cliff.  (Just challenging the social system can trigger this kind of scapegoating: see, for example, Luke 4: 16 - 30.)

The text of this story shows signs of a complex development.  The pigs charging over the edge into the sea may be a later folk embellishment; nevertheless, this clearly serves the purpose of the tale, for the ‘demons’ are the accusations he has endured (and internalised).  Their name is ‘legion,’ for he is truly ‘enemy occupied territory.’  If he fails to cooperate with their need for someone to blame, he too may be pushed off a cliff. 

Thus the emotional climax of the story is seeing his demons go over the cliff themselves.  More importantly, the evangelical climax is seeing the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  He is a model of true conversion; he has been “clothed with Christ” (as today’s second reading puts it) and then sent on a mission of reconciliation.

The prophet Elijah is another model of conversion.  Today’s first (semicontinuous) reading continues the story we heard some weeks ago, the sacrificial contest on Mount Carmel.  We expect to hear that Elijah is basking in that victory; instead he insists it was a failure: “the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.”  The clue is the symmetry: Elijah had slaughtered prophets too — the prophets of Baal.  Violence cannot achieve God’s purposes.  Even a triumphant sacrifice is still violence, justifying a violent social order — unless, like the cross of Christ, it awakens us to the futility of violence.  “The Lord was not in the wind [or] the earthquake [or] the fire.”  But entering the “sheer silence,” one may hear his voice and rediscover one’s calling.

John W. B. Hill is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, council member of APLM, and chair of Liturgy Canada

6th century mosaic from Church of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna