Sermon Seeds: In God’s Presence
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 7
1 Kings 19:1-4,(5-7),8-15a with Psalm 42 and 43 or
Isaiah 65:1-9 with Psalm 22:19-28 and
Worship resources for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time can be found at Worship Ways
Additional reflection on 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a by Karen Georgia Thompson
In God’s Presence
by Kathryn M. Matthews
For many of us, a vocation or calling is just for “some folks,” like pastors and missionaries, and maybe doctors, nurses, and teachers. We think the voice of God, whether it’s loud and clear or a still, small one, is reserved for people who are anointed (literally and/or figuratively) to do something “special” that serves God and humankind in a distinctive way.
And yet even ordained pastors may steer clear of the call to be a prophet; who would want such a job? There’s just too much risk and too little reward in speaking truth to power or in traveling the long hard road between one mountaintop experience and another. Elijah can certainly testify to that.
A hunted man, on the run
His troubles started on one mountain, Mount Carmel, when he virtually eliminated the power of the Baal priesthood, making them look ridiculous before the power of Yahweh, the One True God. Ahab’s foreign-born, pagan wife, Jezebel, chased Elijah out of town with her threats. Elijah became a hunted man, and since he was only human, he did a very human thing: he ran.
When it seemed like Elijah had run out of steam, when he was run dry and run down, he prayed to God from out of his depths: “God, please, just let me die. I’m through. I can’t measure up to the prophets that came before me.” As he fell asleep, he must have hoped that he wouldn’t wake up and have to face any more challenges. Instead, he awakened to an angel sent by God, who tenderly provided for him the things he needed to make his way for the always-significant forty days and forty nights (that means a really long way), deeper into the lonely wilderness but never alone, up onto another mountaintop, and open to what would happen next.
From one mountaintop to another
Like the “forty days and forty nights,” this mountaintop setting had significance, too: Horeb is another name for Sinai, where God gave Moses the Law, and just as significantly, appeared to Moses. Lawrence Farris says that “[n]othing unimportant happens on mountains in Scripture….What begins as flight from a tyrant soon becomes a journey to God led by God.” In other words, Elijah isn’t just running from Jezebel; he’s running from his vocation, from where God wants him to be, and from what God wants him to do. Farris continues: “The tension in the narrative is between whether Elijah will be defined by his fear of Jezebel or by his faithfulness to God.” God cares for Elijah in his flight, through the ministrations of the angel, but challenges him as well, asking the prophet why he is fleeing: in Farris’ words, “How can you fulfill my purposes if you are not where I need you to be?” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament).
That seems to be a question for all of us, even today. How many of us have found ourselves in similar situations? Perhaps not on the mountain where Moses trod, but certainly on the run from what God is calling us to do and to be. When God asks Elijah – twice – why he’s there. and not where he should be, Elijah answers both times with the same words, a response that might be heard as a self-righteous whine: “I have been working SO HARD and trying to do the right thing, and those people have totally abandoned you, and I’m the only one left who’s faithful, and I’m all alone, so just kill me now.”
We can only do what we decide to do, whatever we feel
There’s a lot of “I” action going on there, isn’t there, and a bit of catastrophizing, too. When are we more likely to find ourselves alone and self-justifying than when we’ve run away from the tasks before us? Lawrence Farris suggests that the theophany in this story, which seems to grab everyone’s attention, including and especially preachers, is not the main point. It’s not about God being an easily summoned presence to be with us up in the caves of avoidance. “Remarkably,” he writes, “it is neither the experience of God’s dramatic nor quiet presence, for which many so long in the midst of such feelings, but in attending to the work at hand and needing to be done through which life is renewed.” Farris notes that we can only choose what we will do, not what we feel, and “Elijah is called back to action, to the fight into which God has enlisted him, not because he feels like it but because it is what needs doing that he can do” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament).
What does God’s presence mean here?
So much for scholars’ arguments over the translation of “sheer silence” or “still small voice”! The message is the same: “Listen, Elijah, you need to get back to work; I have things I want to accomplish, and you’re the instrument for getting them done!” Walter Brueggemann does find significance in the manifestation of God’s presence, however brief, in this passage because such an experience can change lives dramatically (Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes).
Ironically, though, the things God tells Elijah to do don’t get done exactly that way; however, Terence E. Fretheim suggests that Elijah was not disobeying God but simply adapting to “new circumstances,” for “prophets are given freedom in the shaping of the divine word” (First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion). One could say that in another way: God was still speaking throughout the ministry of Elijah, just as God is still speaking today.
We are never really alone in this
Elijah looked around in his desolation and presumed to think that he was the last faithful man left standing, and yet the text goes on to speak of 7,000 more faithful ones, and before long, Elisha becomes his companion and understudy. How often do we think we’re alone when there’s a whole community out there, waiting for us, if we go on to the rest of the story? Farris points to Jesus, no solitary prophet himself, who from the beginning gathered his disciples around him, and traveled around in their company (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament).
If anyone could have tried to “go it alone,” you might expect Jesus to do so. But he surrounded himself with a community, the same community to which we are called as his followers today. Each of us, as a disciple, a follower of Jesus, has a vocation, a calling, and there are things that we need to do in this world, and gifts that we have been given in order to do them, no matter what great challenges we face. If Elijah got discouraged at one point and even gave up, it’s not surprising that we might do the same thing. It’s a blessing, then, that other voices intervene, however powerful, however small, and call us back to who we are, whose we are, and what we are to be about.
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 20th century
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”
“Each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up.”
“We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.”
Thomas Merton, 20th century
“Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
“Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to [God], being attentive to [God], requires a lot of courage and know-how.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.”
Vincent van Gogh, 19th century
“In spite of everything I shall rise again: I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat, Pray, Love,” 21st century
“There’s a reason they call God a presence – because God is right here, right now.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“We need to find God, and [God] cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence….We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
St. John of the Cross (16th c. Spanish monk)
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way.”
John Keats, 19th century
“I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.”
Haruki Murakami, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” 20th century
“Sometimes, when one is moving silently through such an utterly desolate landscape, an overwhelming hallucination can make one feel that oneself, as an individual human being, is slowly being unraveled. The surrounding space is so vast that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep a balanced grip on one’s own being. The mind swells out to fill the entire landscape, becoming so diffuse in the process that one loses the ability to keep it fastened to the physical self. The sun would rise from the eastern horizon, and cut its way across the empty sky, and sink below the western horizon. This was the only perceptible change in our surroundings. And in the movement of the sun, I felt something I hardly know how to name: some huge, cosmic love.”
The Bible is full of stories of wilderness experiences and journeys. The Hebrew narratives document the stories of the wanderings of the people as they journey from Egypt during the exodus and later as they wander for those forty years in the wilderness. There is the journey of Moses, the journey of Abraham, the journey of Joseph and others. Elijah’s experience of wilderness and journey is shorter by far, but no less intense in the events that lead to his wilderness experience and encounter with God. His journey from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb (Sinai), the place where Moses received the Commandments, is rife with encounters with God along the way.
This week’s text in 1 Kings continues the interaction between Ahab, Jezebel, Elijah, and the prophets of Baal. In his role as prophet, Elijah repeatedly confronted King Ahab and his wife Jezebel with Truth they were not ready or willing to hear. Their power-obsessed rule over the nation of Israel resulted in dire consequences for the nation that moved away from worshipping God and preferred to worship the idols of Baal. At the end of chapter 18, following the slaying of the prophets of Baal, Elijah is told that there are other prophets besides him. Certainly, the presence of Ahab and Jezebel corroded the spiritual existence of the nation of Israel, and this event opens the door for a different spiritual life in the nation of Israel.
Elijah’s victory was short-lived. This enemy in the form of Baal’s prophets was defeated. In the wake of his victory and the spiritual restoration of the nation, Elijah flees for his life. Terence Fretheim notes the “sharp reversal” as “Elijah moves from the triumph at Mount Carmel to Jezebel’s most wanted list” (First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion). Elijah is not celebrating; he is running for his life. He is afraid and he is alone. “I have been 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” (1 Kings 19:10). According to Karl Allen Kuhn, “Elijah has shrunk from the larger-than-life figure that called down the consuming fire of Yahweh, defeated Baal’s minions, and invited Israel back into relationship with their God to a dejected and weary prophet now running for his life” (New Proclamation Year C 2010).
Fretheim makes the comparison between Elijah’s travel to Mount Horeb and some of Israel’s negative and positive experiences in the wilderness. Elijah’s journey mirrors that of the people of the exodus. “Negatively he complains,” Fretheim writes, “because he apparently failed to turn the apostasy around” (First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion). He further complains that he is no better than his ancestors (v.4) which may be his own comparison of himself to Moses, Joshua, and Samuel. In his despair Elijah asks of God to take his life, which is what Jezebel seeks to do. Here too he mirrors other prophets, Moses and Jonah, who also asked that God take their lives from them in light of perceived failure around their prophetic call.
Elijah’s initial travel away from his servant at Beer-sheba is one day, after which he falls asleep under a tree. Beer-sheba is the farthest point south that he can get and still be in Judah. He puts distance between himself and Jezebel. God does not grant Elijah’s request to have his life ended, instead, an angel is sent to attend to Elijah’s physical needs. There he is nurtured and nourished, and he receives counsel from a divine messenger. At the first visitation, there is provision of cake and water, along with the encouragement to eat. At the second visit, no additional food is provided, but Elijah is again encouraged to eat to provide himself with the necessary sustenance to make the long journey that is to come. This second journey lasts forty days and forty nights, a period of time that has its own Sinai connections.
Why is Elijah afraid? Why is he afraid of Jezebel when he most recently has triumphed over her prophets? Why does Elijah repeatedly say that he is alone? In vv. 10 and 14 he says he alone is left. He is not as much of a failure or alone as he thinks he is. There are people who confessed their faith in the God of Israel (18:39). The palace steward told him there were one hundred prophets of God hidden from Jezebel (18:3-16). Elijah also experienced the presence of God with him. He defeated the prophets of Baal. He stood toe-to-toe with Ahab and Jezebel, incurring Jezebel’s wrath. Even as Jezebel sent her own messenger to let him know she was going to kill him, God also sent a messenger to provide food, water and preparation for the journey further into the wilderness to encounter God.
Rebecca Kruger Gaudino offers a possible point of reflection on this text. “Perhaps this story gets at our temptation to think that we are alone, especially when we feel discouraged, or that we alone count in the crucial work. Perhaps it gets at God’s patience with our discouragement, seen in the ministration of angels (19:5-7)” (New Proclamation Year C 2007). How can we rethink places in the lives of our congregation where we feel discouraged, we are ready to give up, or we are ready to walk away? Where are the angels at work in our lives, providing us with the nourishment and encouragement to make it that much further on the journey?
Elijah’s forty days and forty nights bring him to Mount Horeb. Fretheim connects the move from Mount Carmel (battling Baal’s prophets) with the journey to Mount Sinai and draws parallels between Elijah and Moses, including their time in the wilderness, their laments, God’s presence with them, and their commissioning as prophets (First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion). There are expectations as to what will happen on the mountain, given its history. At the end of the forty day and nights, Elijah finds himself at a cave where God speaks with him, asking twice, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (vv. 9, 13). Lawrence Farris observes that it is here, “on ‘the mount of God’…where Elijah’s standing in the Mosaic covenant will be renewed.” This location is important, Farris writes, because “[n]othing unimportant happens on mountains in scriptures (e.g. Ararat, Moriah, Sinai, Carmel, Sermon on the Mount, and Mount of Transfiguration)” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament).
At the end of his battle with the prophets, Elijah is lonely regardless of the good news. He is weary. Perhaps Jezebel’s threats are the one more thing he does not need in the midst of the nation’s apostasy, a corrupt king and queen and no visible signs of other prophets to do “the work” that needs to be done. Who can blame him? Initially he is running for his life. He also desires answers to questions that are unstated. He states that he is alone, yet he does not ask where are the rest who will go on with him or where is God in the midst of all the drama. He throws his hands in the air, is ready to let go of his life and walk away from all that he knows of that life.
In response to God’s question of what Elijah is doing there at the cave, Elijah restates his complaints in v.14. He has been zealous, the people rebelled against God (he did not), and he alone is left. Moreover, they are looking for him to take his life, a strange concern since he is asking God to take his life. God responds: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by” (v.11). What do we expect in this moment? We too wonder how Elijah will know that God passed by. Is this what Elijah needs in his moment of despair and feeling his life threatened? He has been provided for and nurtured by the angels. He does not say he needs a visit with God, a moment of divine revelation, a mountaintop experience of the ages, yet that is God’s response. Stand here and wait – wasn’t that the experience of Moses when he too wondered what to do with the people (Exodus 33)? James Newsome writes that these texts are connected not just by their theophanies but also by God’s purpose: to prepare the prophet “to do God’s will” (Texts for Preaching Year C).
God makes a new covenant with Moses with the main sign being that God would show Moses God’s glory. The same is granted to Elijah, in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the recurring parallels in the text; but the presence of God is revealed to Elijah in a different way. God’s presence is not in the power of wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks. Nor is it in the earthquake or the fire. Instead, God’s presence is in the sheer silence that follows the wind, earthquake and fire. Gene Tucker affirms the traditional interpretation of this passage, that God’s presence can be identifiable not only in the moments of elemental power, but in the silence as well (Preaching through the Christian Year C).
Silence is a harder place for us to find God sometimes. In the midst of the busyness of life and the myriad responsibilities that come with living, where do we find silence? The day starts early and never seems to end. The ringing of the morning alarm is a sign that the day is off to a running start. The silence is perhaps a place to pause and wait. Intention to be present and faithful is necessary even as we notice God in the midst of the daily miracles and crises that come our way. God is revealed to Elijah in a moment of spiritual and physical crisis. Sometimes we too find ourselves experiencing God in the midst of crisis. Unfortunately, crisis causes us to pay attention and make room for divine revelation. What if we expected God to be revealed to us at all times and in many different ways? What if we created the space for moments of silence, time for us to encounter God every day? What if the presence of God was not a mysterious encounter, but was a reflection of our intention to seek after God as the psalmist says? “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).
The winds come and in them there are a respect and an appreciation for the strength and force of nature and these elements no one can control. Given the destruction that we have seen in recent months and years that came as a result of wind, earthquakes and fire, how can we find the presence of God even in these elements, as Kuhn suggests? Amidst the destruction we reject the notion that God caused these elements to visit on the people. However, is there room for seeing God present and at work in the aftermath?
“Indeed, God is generous to Elijah throughout his flight,” Kruger Gaudino writes. “But in the end, God lets Elijah know that this wilderness experience is a temporary retreat (New Proclamation Year C 2007). Elijah renews covenant with God at Mount Horeb. He is given new tasks and is sent on his way to do battle with Ahab and Jezebel again. Calling Elijah “a new Moses,” James Newsome writes, “The result of the theophany at Horeb is to reenergize a downcast Elijah and to place him again in the role of the leader of those who are attempting – against all odds – to be faithful to Yahweh” (Texts for Preaching Year C). How can we make our way to the mountaintop to be reenergized and reinvigorated when our souls are cast down? Or when we feel we are all alone in the midst of the daily struggles and in the fight for justice?
“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name” (Is. 65:1). God seeks after us and is present with us. How can we make the time to acknowledge moments in God’s presence?
The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson is the Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” [Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”] He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “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.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “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….”
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng, and led them
in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise God,
my help and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep at the thunder
of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands God’s steadfast love,
and at night God’s song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
“Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise the one,
who is my help and my God.
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust
For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because of the oppression of the enemy?
O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise the one,
who is my help and my God.
I was ready to be sought out
by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;
a people who provoke me to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks;
who sit inside tombs,
and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
who say, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me,
for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
a fire that burns all day long.
See, it is written before me:
I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their laps their iniquities
and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the Lord;
because they offered incense on the mountains
and reviled me on the hills,
I will measure into their laps
full payment for their actions.
Thus says the Lord:
As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say,
“Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,”
so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah inheritors of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it, and my servants shall settle there.
O God, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!
From the horns of the wild oxen
you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear God, praise God!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify God;
stand in awe of God,
all you offspring of Israel!
For God did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
God did not hide God’s face from me,
but heard when I cried to God.
From you comes my praise
in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay
before those who fear God.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek God shall praise God.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to God;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before God.
For dominion belongs to God,
and God rules over the nations.
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 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 and 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.
Then they 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? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 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.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”