To Stay in One’s Life
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”
1 Kings 19:13-16
Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? . . . The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
It is good to be in worship with you, friends of St. George’s. It has been too long since I was last with you, and much has happened in your lives in the past two years, about which I know only a portion.
Before I begin, I invite you to take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to acknowledge all you are holding in your heart right now. Together may we open ourselves to the Spirit of God in our midst.
Knowing how much they mean to you, I’d like to name some of what is our collective awareness. June, of course, is Pride Month, which has its origins, as many of you know, in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. In response to the New York City police raiding a gay bar, its patrons and others on the city took to the streets and protested for days. That marked the beginning of what was the then called the “Gay Liberation Movement.” The first Gay Pride parade was on the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and in the 50 years since, it has has evolved into a month of events across the country and the world, attracting millions. Pride is a celebration of identity, community, and the struggle for a rightful place in society.
Today is June 19th, or Juneteenth as the holiday is known, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas in 1865, when on this day news of the freeing of enslaved people finally reached Texas–two years after President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. From Texas, the observance of June 19th has spread across the United States and beyond. It acknowledges the journey and achievement of African Americans from the horrific period of sanctioned enslavement to the pinnacle of human endeavors. It, too, is a story of pride, resilience, and determination.
Today is also Father’s Day, which has its origins in a number of local efforts to commemorate fathers, including one in the town of Fairmont, West Virginia in the 1870s. There a woman named Grace Golden Clayton suggested to the Methodist minister in town that they hold services to honor the fathers who had been killed in a deadly mine explosion that took the lives of 361 men. After Mother’s Day was officially recognized as a holiday in 1914, momentum slowly grew for fathers to have a day of their own, which finally happened in 1972. For some reason, there was a lot of resistance to the idea of a Father’s Day celebration, so it, too, has a history of struggle!
And there’s more. Last Saturday, prior to the Pride parade, there was the second “March for Our Lives Rally” in Washington, organized by students from across the country who have survived mass shootings in their schools, as we are reeling yet again from such episodes in a school, grocery store, on city streets, and now, this week, in an Episcopal Church outside Birmingham, Alabama.
And just yesterday, thousands of people gathered in Washington under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign to highlight the issues that disproportionately affect those living in poverty. It was among the most racially and generationally diverse gatherings I’ve been a part of, and while a wide range of issues motivated people to turn out–rising health care costs, environmental degradation, lack of affordable housing and childcare, racial inequity–there was a universal call for reform and change in the political status quo.
So here we are, amid celebrations of identity and relationships, family and community; and ongoing struggle, protest, and calls for change. And as I pondered all this, and held you in my hearts in preparation for today, two questions from today’s biblical texts caught my attention.
The first question is from the story of Elijah the prophet who sought to escape from the perils facing him in the relative security of a cave, in which God asked him twice, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The second question is from the gospel text in which a man possessed by many demons asked Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?”
These are important questions for us to wrestle with, too. The first has to do with our life purpose and how we spend our energies: What are we doing here? The second asks what, if anything, does Jesus of Nazareth have to do with us?
In these stories, the answer to the second question varies: God showed up for Elijah in sheer silence. Jesus showed up for the man possessed by demons in the midst of noise and chaos. The message to us is that God, or Jesus, can show up anywhere, that there isn’t any place we can go, as the psalmist once said, where God is not already present.
And in response to the first question–what are you doing here?–both men were told to return to their lives. God sent Elijah back to Damascus where danger lay. Jesus told the man he healed to return home.
Perhaps this is God’s word to you, too, to stay in your life. Own it as the grace and gift that it is, that you are. Dare to believe and to trust that you don’t have to go anywhere for God to show up, for Jesus to be present. God is with you and for you, no matter where you are. As a loving person said to me at a particularly vulnerable time in my young adult life, “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.” She told me to repeat that mantra every morning as I looked in the mirror, and I now say the same to you. “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.”
Your life is your life. Your gifts are your gifts. Your struggles are your struggles. Your graces and sins are yours; as are your history and heritage. Your unique and as yet unrealized potential is yours, along with all that in this moment may be paving the way for you or blocking that way. You may wish for another path, another set of gifts and challenges, even, as I have on more than one occasion, for another life. But this is it. This is your life. And with your unique place on earth at this moment in time comes great blessing and great responsibility–not to be perfect, not to be someone else, but to live well the one life you have been given. “We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties,” says the Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, “only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.”
Last week I had the honor of giving the commencement address for the high school graduating class of National Cathedral School. At the beginning of the school year, the class had chosen for its theme the word limitless, and much of their end of year celebrations included rightful celebrations of each student’s accomplishments and experience of surpassing limitations.
Of course I wanted to celebrate with them and affirm their capacity to meet challenges and overcome limitations–and I did. But I also wanted to say something about a more humbling reality that I knew even in their young and relatively privileged lives they knew about, which is when the limit prevails, be it in the form of a goal we will never reach or when our path has been blocked by something outside of our control. It could be an illness–ours or someone else’s–an accident, or a tragedy of epic proportions such as what we have experienced in the last two years, or a conflict that we cannot resolve or a problem that we cannot fix.
This is when, I told them, God shows up and takes initiative, assuring us we are not alone and that there is more at work in our lives than what we make happen on our own. Sometimes God does this by filling in the gap between what’s needed and what we have to offer, much like Jesus did in the story of the loaves and fish, when he took his disciples’ inadequate offering and made it a meal of extravagant abundance. In this way, Jesus encourages us to offer what we have, even when we know it’s not enough, because by grace, our offering becomes the raw material to produce what is needed.
Other times, however, when we reach our limit or are faced with something we cannot fix or change, God doesn’t show up to make up the difference. Rather–and this is harder–God helps us grow large enough inside to take in the thing we cannot change and make it a part of our lives without being consumed or entirely defined by it. It’s there, and it’s part of us, but it isn’t all of us. That is experiencing limitlessness in a very different way.
I leave you with this word of encouragement. In all that is happening around and within you, trust that God wants you to live your life and embrace it as the gift that it is. Remember that you are a gift, a unique expression of God’s creative genius. Tell yourself that every day until you believe it.
And what does Jesus have to do with you? Absolutely everything. There’s no place in your life where he is not. He’s there with you in the silence and chaos and everything in between.
Lean on him when you need to rest; draw from his strength when you need to show up and trust that he’s already there, and be grateful when you offer what you can. From the gift that is your life, Jesus can make miracles happen.