Sermon: "Troubled Souls"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
I Kings 19.1-15a; Psalm 42 – 43; Galatians 3.23-29; Luke 8.26-39
The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for this have a great deal to say about troubled souls. The reading from I Kings recounts Elijah’s despondency following victory over the prophets of Baal, the Canaanite god of storms, and hearing Queen Jezebel’s plans for his execution. After fleeing to Mt. Horeb (Mount Sinai), and spending the night in a cave, God commanded Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain for the Lord was about to pass by. A great wind capable of splitting rocks occurred, which was followed by an earthquake, which was in turn followed by a fire. God was in none of these.
Then Elijah experienced the sound of sheer silence. Only then did Elijah wrap his face in his mantle and stand in the entrance of the cave. Then, for the second time, Elijah heard a voice which said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah poured out his heart: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah’s soul was troubled; his heart was breaking. It is not unusual for a person to experience such a letdown after a great victory, after an emotional high.
God then told Elijah to return to the wilderness of Damascus, to the Syrian desert. Although not mentioned in today’s reading (but in next week’s reading), God further instructed him to anoint Hazael as king over Aram, and Jehu, the son of Nimshi, as king over Israel. Ahab and Jezebel were no longer to serve as king and queen of Israel. He was also to anoint Elisha as prophet to take his place. God further assured Elijah that he was not alone – over 7000 remained who had not bowed down to worship Baal.
Have you ever had the experience of being highly committed to the cause of justice and righteousness but felt as though you stood alone? It is a soul troubling experience.
In Luke we encounter Jesus’ interaction with the demoniac, a social outcast among the gentiles who lived naked among the tombs. Upon seeing Jesus, he called out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you do not torment me.” Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to depart. Jesus asked his name and he replied, “Legion.” Bear in mind that a Roman legion numbered 6,000. I suspect today we would say he suffered from multiple personalities. At any rate, his soul was troubled. As the demons left him, they entered a herd of swine which then rushed into the sea. Healing occurred through this encounter such that he sat “at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind” (Luke 8. 35; NRSV). When the locals saw what had happened, they were fearful, and asked Jesus to depart. The demoniac wished to accompany Jesus, but Jesus told him to return to his home and to tell others how much Jesus had done for him. Jesus healed his troubled soul, but by doing so troubled the souls of many others.
Psalms 42 – 43 reflect the troubled soul of the psalmist: “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God” (42.1; NRSV). The psalmist confesses that his soul thirsts for the living God, that he has shed tears day and night. On three separate occasions, the psalmist asks, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?” (42.6, 14; 43.5; NRSV). In each case, we hear the refrain: “Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God” (42.7, 15; 43.7; NRSV).
Whether like Elijah experiencing despondency, or like the demoniac, aren’t we are living naked among the tombs of materialism, militarism, prejudice, racism, sexism and war. Voices are clamoring for war with Iran. Wouldn’t it be nice to know with certainty who is responsible for the attacks on tankers in the Straight of Hormuz?
Admittedly, we have witnessed some progress, some movement toward righteousness, on many fronts. But much remains to be done. The disparity in income between males and females has declined somewhat. Yet I recently encountered a rather disturbing statistic. Women clergy still earn 76 cents for every dollar male clergy earn. That statistic reveals that little if any progress has occurred in the equity of pay scales within the church at large. Yet, one might ask, shouldn’t the church serve as a witness to the broader society? Shouldn’t the church be among the first to achieve equity in pay?
Our souls are troubled. They should be troubled. Like Elijah, God invites us to listen to the sheer silence. Like the demoniac, Jesus invites us to sit at his feet and listen to his teaching that we might be clothed and in our right mind. Having experienced this, Jesus commands us to declare how much God has done for us. What has God done for you? Have you shared what God has done for you with others about you?
In Galatians 3, St. Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Vs. 27-29; NRSV). When Paul speaks of having clothed ourselves with Christ, he is drawing on imagery found elsewhere in the scriptures. In Job 29.14 we find, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban” (NRSV). And in Isaiah 61.10 we find, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (NRSV).
If we have clothed ourselves with Christ, if we wear the robe of righteousness and the garments of salvation, I fear an outsider would contend many of us are wearing some pretty shabby clothing. Do our rags reflect the status of our troubled souls?
When our souls are troubled, let us say with the psalmist, “Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God” (Psalm 42.5) or as translated in the NRSV: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him my help and my God.”