Trinity 4 ~ Healing and hope in a mad world - 1 Kings 19 – Luke 8:26-39
No funnies to start with today I’m afraid – it’s not been a very funny week, has it? And a week, as they say, is a long time in politics. There haven’t been many more weeks longer than this. And our our readings today touch on themes that arise out of the tragic killing of Jo Cox, the Yorkshire MP who, in a way has become a martyr to the unrestricted freedoms that we hold so dear.
In the Old Testament reading we heard of Elijah, despondent and resigned to his fate after the persecutions of the good prophets, and so, fearful of his life, he retreats into the wilderness to both avoid and reflect upon what has been going on around him. And his main reflection is that strive as he might, and ever faithful to God, it is not going well, martyrs are dying and it is only a matter of time before it will be his turn. Those who speak up for the truth and try to serve others, are cut down in their prime and this story shows us how it effects Elijah. He is not an immediate victim, but he is still damaged by it and it causes him a crisis of confidence and a despondent, ‘what’s the point?’ Attitude. We might feel a little bit like that – some members of parliament might feel it this week too. ‘In, or out – shake it all about’ people might feel there is no point, and for sure, when the vote has happened, those who ‘lose’ that vote, as it were, will feel very downcast and will assume that all is lost and that the country will go to the dogs and they might as well give up. For this reason what happens after the count on Thursday could be even more bitter than what has led up to it. The losers will take it hard, committed as they are.
And yet, the tragic event in Yorkshire has brought divided politicians and a nation together, laying down the arms of political conflict, the slandering and personal attacks stopped, and a new perspective was at least glimpsed. We have the freedoms to argue – sometimes quite harshly - about things, but we do not live in a nation where politicians should become martyrs, or fear for their lives because of what they believe, say or do. Which is far more than so many who believe little, say much and do nothing. For as the Edmund Burke’s adage goes, when good people do nothing, evil triumphs. There are so many in our society who believe much, speak out and serve unstintingly. It’s what the Honours system tries to recognise with OBEs and so forth. Not than any such people seek recognition, or think they deserve it and are often genuinely surprised. This certainly seemed to be the feeling expressed by so many after the recent Queen’s birthday honours were announced. And Jo Cox, like so many other leaders, was someone who believed, spoke and did things. So that sickening act strikes at the very heart of what we feel about our country – what we stand for, what we represent. I don’t think anyone has yet observed the sheer irony of the juxtaposition of these last two weekends: Celebrating the Queen’s long life of service to this nation, and now lamenting the fact that a relatively youthful and potentially long-serving career has been cut so short, so brutally. It makes no difference what party allegiance one has in this case, the very notion of democracy, warts and all, deplores such a thing and reels in sickened shock.
And while dear old Elijah in the desert over 3000 years ago would find our honours system odd, he would recognise what we are talking about here. He was one of the good guys, respected, revered: a servant and a prophet. But now, in his desert cave, the world has turned in the wrong direction and evil is about to triumph in spite of the efforts of the good. People who care, who believe, who speak and act, have always been vulnerable to murder and violence. Since the beginnings of humanity, many have resorted to physical harm rather than the slightly more civilised forms of emotional and political invective that we still deplore, but grudgingly endure. It underlies much of what goes on in the world and always has done, but we like to believe we have a lid on it in Western Europe. And to be sure we do. In some countries what has happened has been or even still is – commonplace. In Syria, Afghanistan today, if you disagree with someone’s view, you kill them.
Which brings us to our gospel reading. Because one might well wonder, what kind of madness is it that makes doing that – killing one’s detractors - even thinkable, let alone actionable. There is talk often of someone who does such a thing as being mentally ill, deranged, and sure enough the psychologists and psychotherapists are already involved in this week’s events. Whatever ‘being of sound mind’ means, it seems that acts such as Thursday’s, or the killing of Lee Rigby in London just over 3 years ago – the perpetrators are soon shown to be deranged in some way. And this does not surprise us. It doesn’t help the victims though. Is it that you are sick became you butcher someone in the street, or is it that if you butcher someone in the street you must be sick? I’m not sure where any distinction lies there. There has to be something wrong with you if you do that, even if no medic has noticed. And whether we are built to kill those who are different to us or who threaten our worldview or food chain, it is against the will of God to act on it. Such actions are wrong, whoever commits them, under whatever circumstances and for whatever reason.
Jo Cox fell victim to such an act, and Elijah ran away from such actions.
So, do we meet such a person in our gospel reading? That naked man who dwelt among the unclean dead on the idyllic shores of Lake Galilee – was he a dangerous madman? Or a not so dangerous mentally ill man? These are hard questions. But the community chained him up, and he broke his bonds and fled. Was he deranged because of the way he was treated or was he treated like that because he was deranged? We cannot tell, of course. But our readings today, and our daily papers are asking similar questions – what do we do when odd behaviour becomes deadly behaviour? Elijah’s reaction is to retreat to the middle of nowhere and has a deep and powerful religious experience, found in the midst, not of earthquake or fire, but in the still small voice of calm. We remember it well from that lovely and popular hymn, ‘Dear Lord, and Father of Mankind’, the penultimate verse of which has that lovely repeated line ‘O still small voice of calm’.
speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm.
And indeed the hymn even refers to the Syrian Sea – a poignant phrase today, and some of us will recall looking at those Syrian hills on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, singing those very words less than a year ago. And yet, there is something odd about that hymn, its author and the circumstances under which it was written.
The words were written by John Whittier and were adapted by William Horder, who published them in his Congregational Hymnbook of 1884. Born near Haverhill, Massachusetts, Whittier was descended from the Pilgrim Fathers who travelled there from England in 1638. He was Secretary of the American Anti-slavery Society and won a seat in the State legislature in 1835. He was more of a poet and journalist than a hymn writer, and the text with which we are familiar are in fact the final verses of a long, narrative poem called ‘The Brewing of Soma’. In it, Whittier describes the intoxicating effect of Soma, a drink made from mushrooms and milk, used in Vedic, that is, Hindu rituals. This makes the somewhat bizarre origin of this hymn rather disconcerting. It is surprising, even alarming how a poem about drug-taking has become associated with gentle piety and prayerfulness, and with the Holy Land. On the other hand, it is rather pleasing that the hymn has evolved to transcend its origins.
We mustn’t miss the point though – Elijah finds meaning in silent reflection, not filibustering. And Jesus, in dealing with the demonic Gerasenian in Galilee, does something that the locals appreciate, but are scared of. So they ask him to leave. They preferred the devil they knew, as it were. And yet, look at the very last lines of each of the Old Testament and gospel readings: they are basically the same:
In each case, firstly Elijah and then the Gerasene demoniac, they are restored to former sanity and enthusiasm and go forward in hope and trust, proclaiming the goodness and grace of God. But what a troubled journey they have had – a tough one for sure.
In this – and it is a hopeful theme for us this sombre weekend when even Brexit took a back seat - in this we see something that can only be described as restoration – rejuvenation – resurrection – renewal – re-creation even. It is as though, silently, but surely, away from the action, almost unseen, falls the grace of God, effecting change and giving hope.
And so it is today. In St Paul’s Cathedral today they have welcomed the Lampedusa Cross, an example of a series of crosses which were made by an artist from the wreckage of a refugees’ ship that went down off Lampedusa a few years ago. Hundreds were drowned, but many were saved. Each survivor was given a copy of the cross to remind them of a tragic day when those who hoped for a better future lost their lives. The crosses, given by a Christian artist to Christian survivors, transcends the tragedies of the so called migrant crisis, just as indeed the murder of an MP transcends the Brexit business. So much so that apparently there is a huge petition online now to cancel the referendum for now.
But there is also something else that is happening this week – in an hour’s time at Marble Arch. Also in Rome, Paris and Berlin, a different kind of chain will be created – not chains to bind but chains to unite. It is very much in the spirit of St Paul’s words – for there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, we are one in Christ. And what are they going to do? They are going to try to break the Guinness World record for kissing… In a world divided by division and talk of division, of ins and outs, of football violence, political murder and all that heavy stuff, there will be an attempt to break the world record for the longest kissing chain. Like me, you probably didn’t know such a record existed. Well, I hope it is broken – the record, not the chain, that is. Because it is only by breaking records like that that the chains of malice, division, fear and loathing can be broken, and only through the healing grace of God heard in the quietness that follows the shaking of the earth that we have a chance for ourselves and our children’s children.
So, in prayer and care, watch the quiet stuff that is going on too, and remember all those behind the scenes who will grieve forever because of what they have lived through this week. And remember that it is unity in Christ to which we are called, in which we hope and trust, and through which comes the only real hope we have.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm.
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 16/6/16