– This morning we have just heard a famous story from the OT, featuring the prophet Elijah, fleeing from his enemies in the wilderness. We see Elijah afraid and weary, seeking for shelter and help, and finding comfort in unexpected ways: an angel coming to bring him something to eat and to drink so he might be on his way, and then God in person finding Elijah in a cave…a God not met in the wind, earthquake or fire but in a “sound of sheer silence” (Something we want to remember, after all the storms we’ve had recently!) and then God talks with Elijah and sends him back on his mission. And so we have here a story of human discouragement and divine encouragement – a beautiful and touching story we all know well and enjoy. Yet, if we pay attention to the first lines of our text, we may also see a bigger story, a more disturbing story maybe but also a richer story about what’s going on with Elijah. And I would like to unpack that a little bit with you today.
– Elijah, we read at the beginning of our passage, is fleeing from the Queen Jezebel after having killed her prophets, who worshiped the God Baal. In the previous chapter, we learn that the men were about 400, caught by the people of Israel after they offered their sacrifices, it is said that Elijah himself came down in the valley to cut their throats, as a retribution for all the prophets of God who have been killed before. A real bloodbath.
Knowing that, I wonder what’s really happening to Elijah in our story, and if there is not more going on than mere fatigue and discouragement, as we generally assume. I wonder if Elijah is not just seized by the horror of the war, the violence he has witnessed and the violence he has participated in. The text tells us actually that he sat down under a solitary tree and asked that he might die. He says to God: “O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my ancestors”. Those words jumped at me because I read recently a book written by David Peters, a priest who is an army chaplain and served in Iraq, and he talks about the trauma of violence and war, and part of the trauma, he says, is to discover that you are not better than other people, not better than those of your friends who have died before you, but, even worse, you may also realize that you are not even better than the people you have just killed. Peters says that we go to war because we see our enemies as a threat, we think of them as violent and dangerous, but on the battlefield we may suddenly discover ourselves as violent and dangerous too. At any rate, some end up feeling so guilty and scared that they feel they don’t deserve to live anymore.
– It seems indeed that Elijah is going through much more than a simple meltdown due to discouragement, he actually presents symptoms of trauma: He seems lost and has depression (he does not want to feed himself and wishes only to sleep and die), he feels utterly lonely and seems to have lost his faith in God, or at least his faith in the God of life. Elijah expects to find God in storm, fire and earthquake – in all things violent – but he’ll have to learn anew how to relate to God coming to visit him in silence and gentleness. Peters’ main claim is that violence, inflicted or endured, as we discover either that we are not safe for others or experience that we have no safety in the world, can destroy our sense of self, our ability to relate to others and also our ability to relate to God. And so to me, the story of Elijah is not a story about how God can cheer us up when we have a bad day, more deeply, it is a story of recovery, healing and a story of resurrection, of finding new life when you “have been to hell and back” as Peter puts it, when you have experienced the depths of terror and despair. As we acknowledge that, we can notice the deep connection of this story to the Gospel we’ve heard today.
– This Gospel is probably not a favorite passage: A man wearing no clothes, wandering in a cemetery, shouting and hurting himself, breaking his chains and shackles. It sounds like a horror movie. What’s going on with this man? Certainly some kind of mental illness, but more precisely, it could also be trauma due to war violence. He calls himself “Legion” which clearly points to the Roman military power, and the geographical area of Gerasenes is known to have been a battlefield. We can’t know for sure of course, but what is obvious is that the man has lost his sense of self, his connection to his community and his faith in God: He is afraid when he sees Jesus and feels inhabited by many demons. He hides in a cemetery probably because he can’t get rid of images of violence and death – or maybe he does not want to live anymore.
– And so the Scriptures confront us to difficult problems, yet those problems are very real for us. Yesterday was Refugees Day, a day dedicated to think about the ways we can welcome those who are going through the traumas of wars, genocides and exile, and so for us as Christians it’s important to learn what the Bible has to say for those who have experienced violence in a way or another, whether physical our psychological. How can God bring healing to those suffering from trauma and how can we be witnesses of the power of God’s grace by being a safe community for those people?
1 – What we learn from the Scriptures is that the first step is to help people reconnect to self and identity. We see that Jesus understands that it does not work to just restrain the man or to shout at him to get him back to his senses. Jesus engages the conversation. I heard recently a cancer patient saying: We are not problems to be solved, we are people to be loved. That’s true with all those who are suffering. We first need to hear them, to listen to their stories even if the stories are painful to hear. We see that the man is sitting at Jesus’s feet and this assumption is that he is listening to Jesus, but I like to think that Jesus is listening to him too. Jesus asks the man his name. We see that the man can only define himself by his afflictions, he has to go back deeper to remember who he used to be. He is not “Legion”, he is more than the trauma. Jesus reminds us that in God’s sight, we are always more than what we did, more than what was done to us and more than what others made us do. This is what Paul tells us in Galatians. Our identity is to be found in Christ, not in our social status, our gender or our race or what we have experienced. Paul says we have to be “clothed in Christ” and indeed it is said in the Gospel that the man is now “fully clothed” once he is healed by Jesus!
2 – Then the Scriptures tell us that people need to be reconnected to their communities. Jesus is not afraid of the man when all the village rejects him. The demons are made fun of in our Gospel, they end up in pigs and then over the cliff, because the demons aren’t the problem, the problem is that there are people left alone with their suffering. We say that “Jesus spent his life engaging people we spend out lives avoiding”, isn’t it the truth! As a community of faith, we need to make room for all kind of people. That’s why so many Christians go to visit prisoners, engage with homeless or welcome refugees. The people of the village are upset when Jesus heals the man because they have to admit he is one of them and not a demon. In our world, we don’t believe in demons anymore, but we believe there are people who are “monsters” or who deserve the bad things that happen to them and it can be very convenient to believe so! But if we are repentant enough to acknowledge that we are all both hurt and capable of hurting others, then it’s easier to see everyone else as brothers and sisters.
According to Peters, recovery from trauma must happen through reconciliation and it’s only by not losing sight of our common humanity that we can be reconciled. It does not mean we don’t have to seek for justice. But we need to seek for justice from a place of forgiveness. If we do it out of hate, then it’s just revenge and the cycle of violence never ends and there is no healing.
3 – And so finally, when experiencing trauma, we may also need to find reconciliation with God. Either we need to be forgiven for what we did, or we need to forgive God for what happened to us. This is the time when we can experience God not in profound theological conversation, but like Elijah, in simple things: the comfort of a meal offered by the angels God sends us, the bread and the wine at the altar, listening to the Scriptures at the feet of Jesus, praying, like in our psalm, about the heaviness of our own soul. Little by little, we may be able to hear again God’s voice in the “sound of sheer silence”. It can be a long a process and we need time to heal as God puts us back together. Yet in this, as we experience the depths of human suffering, we may become deeper and more soulful people, not just contented with banalities about God and about life, not seeing God as the one who can pat us on the back on a bad day, but knowing a God who visits our deepest wounds and know our darkest thoughts. “One deep calls to another” says the psalm. The depths of our pain can become the depths filled with God.
As a conclusion, I would say that I love it to see that in our stories, the two men aren’t just back to normal. They are sent as prophets. Elijah to anoint the new king and the man in the Gospel to tell the wonders of God to his community. Those who have been “to hell and back” are not people to be pitied, or even just supported, they can also be powerful witnesses, testifying that new life is possible – and that is the center of our faith, faith in Resurrection, faith is the power of God whatever we’re going through. Amen.