Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Bunch of Ragamuffins

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
June 20, 2010

Year C, Proper 7: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Psalm 42
(Galatians 3:23-29)
Luke 8:26-39

A Bunch of Ragamuffins

When I was growing up my father hated his job. Part of the reason he went to work every day was to afford to send my sister and me to our local Catholic parochial school, Our Lady of Mercy. And like Catholic schoolchildren then and now, we wore uniforms. For the girls it was a plaid jumper and for the boys it was white dress shirt, green clip-on tie and gray pants. And like Catholic schoolchildren then and now, we sometimes wore the uniform in ways that were less than neat and dignified.

For most of my time in grammar school the principal was a nun who was very kind but who from time to time would kind of lose it and yell at the whole school over the PA system. I remember one time very vividly. Apparently she had seen – or she had gotten reports about – how some of us were abusing the uniform.

So, this day she got on the PA and really let us have it – yelling about the boys with their un-tucked shirts and the girls with their too-short skirts. I’m sure the teachers were irritated to have classes interrupted, maybe amused by the spectacle, and also maybe concerned that this time sister was going to blow a gasket.
There’s one phrase from sister’s tirade that I’ll never forget. From down in the main office she shouted into the microphone, “You look like a bunch of ragamuffins!”
“You look like a bunch of ragamuffins!”

Ragamuffins? I’m sure some of us snickered at that funny word. I had no idea what a ragamuffin was – and probably my classmates didn’t either. Of course, sister had given us enough context to know that ragamuffins are a mess. In case, like me, you don’t know what a ragamuffin is, here’s the dictionary definition: a dirty, shabbily-clothed child – an urchin.

I don’t think I thought about or heard the word “ragamuffin” for the next thirty-plus years, until a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a book called The Ragamuffin Gospel by a former Roman Catholic priest named Brennan Manning. Seeing the book’s title hurled me back to the principal’s long-ago tirade and piqued my interest.
Manning makes two main points in his book. First, we’re all spiritual ragamuffins – we’re all a mess – one way or another we’re all, as he says, “bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out.”

Here are some of his definitions of ragamuffins:

“The sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other.”

“The wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud” to accept help.

“The poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.”

“The bent and the bruised who feel their lives are a grave disappointment…”

“The smart people who know they are stupid…”

I think these days more than usual we’re really feeling bedraggled, beat up and burnt-out. Most if not all of us carry our own personal regrets and anxieties – our own sense of failure or impending doom.

And as a society, we’re a mess. We’re told the economy is improving, but a jobless recovery seems like no recovery at all. We lash out - desperately looking for who is to blame – Wall Street, the banks, Congress, the president, the former president, the teachers union, the undocumented immigrant…the list goes on.

We’re still feeding our best and bravest to Iraq and Afghanistan – wars that have gone on so long now that we can barely stand to hear about one more roadside bomb, one more top-ranking terrorist killed by an unmanned drone, one more suicide bomber at a crowded marketplace.

And of course, each week the estimate rises ever higher of just how much oil has actually spewed and continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico. We can only take so much of this. Before long we’ll grow numb to the images of oil-soaked pelicans, tar balls staining gorgeous beaches, and heartbroken people mourning a lost way of life.

Yes, more than ever, Brennan Manning is right – individually and as a society - we’re bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out. We’re a bunch of ragamuffins.

But, in his book Manning makes a second point – very basic Christianity, yet all too easy for us to forget. He writes that God “has a single relentless stance toward us.” God “loves us.” God “is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners. False gods – the gods of human manufacturing – despise sinners, but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do. But of course, this is almost too incredible for us to accept.”

We’re all bedraggled, beat-up and burnt-out. We’re all sinners living in a sinful world. Yet, the good news is that God reaches out to us, no matter how much of a mess, how much of a ragamuffin we are.

Today’s lessons offer two powerful illustrations of God reaching out to the bedraggled, the beat-up and the burnt-out.

The man we met in today’s gospel is maybe the most extreme ragamuffin imaginable. He’s probably a gentile, so from the Jewish perspective that’s one big strike against him. He’s possessed by an army of demons – a Roman legion had about 5000 troops. He hasn’t worn clothes for a long time and lives in the tombs. The demons were so powerful that even guards and chains and shackles could not subdue him.

The point of this story is that even this extreme case of a man bedraggled, beaten-up and burned-out was not beyond the loving power of God working through Jesus. And in case you’re wondering about the pigs. Their mass suicide is a vivid symbol of the purification of non-Jewish lands – that through Jesus we discover that the God of Israel is at work everywhere, reaching out to everyone.

I’d like to spend a little more time on the story of the Prophet Elijah’s quiet encounter with God. For today’s story to make sense we have to back up just a little. Elijah lived during a time when the Israelites were hedging their bets – they continued to worship their God but also worshipped other gods, especially Baal, an important Canaanite god associated with thunderstorms. Israel was ruled by Ahab, a great military leader who was married to the infamous Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal.

The author of the Book of Kings tells us that during a terrible drought Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest in which both sides would cut up a bull and call upon their god to consume the bull with fire – probably thanks to lightning.

We’re told the prophets of Baal dance around, cut themselves, do everything they can think of. Elijah taunts them, suggesting that maybe Baal is meditating or asleep. Despite the best attempts of the prophets, Baal was silent. We’re told there was “No voice, no answer, no response.”

Elijah then called upon the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and we’re told “the fire of the Lord fell” – and the drought came to an end. Elijah then told the Israelites to grab the prophets of Baal - and he killed them all.

A powerful and bloody scene. Today we picked up with Jezebel hearing about what had happened to her prophets and sending a threatening message to Elijah. And Elijah – who had seen first hand the power of God – Elijah was frightened and despairing. Who knows, maybe he had some doubts that God had really wanted him to kill those 450 prophets of Baal.

One commentary I read actually referred to Elijah here as a burnt-out prophet. He’s probably bedraggled and apparently is about to be beat-up and worse. Elijah is a spiritual ragamuffin.

So, Elijah went on his own forty day exodus ending up at Mount Horeb, better known as Mount Sinai. Here, where God had appeared to Moses, Elijah says, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” In the midst of his fear and despair, the ragamuffin Elijah turns to God, opens himself to God.

And God doesn’t appear in the violent wind or the earthquake or the fire. Instead, God speaks in the “sheer silence.” The burned-out prophet is reassured of God’s presence and sent back on his mission, to get on with the rest of his life, knowing that God is with him always.

The story of Jesus casting out the legion of demons from that poor man tells us that no one – no matter who they are or no matter what they’ve done is beyond the power and love and healing of God. This is something important for us to remember when we feel broken, un-healable, and unforgivable. It’s also something important to remember when we judge certain other people as broken, un-healable and unforgivable.

But, for many of us, the story of Elijah may be timelier these days. Like Elijah, many of us have seen God’s power and have received God’s blessing. Think of all we’ve been given! Yet, in tough times we can be consumed by regret about the past, fear of the future, and the need for someone to blame.

In the midst of this mess the story of Elijah reminds us that God is reaching out to us, probably not in the winds, earthquakes and fires, but in the sheer silence.

Today many of us are bedraggled, beaten-up and burned-out. We’re spiritual ragamuffins. More than ever, like Elijah, we need to take some time – to take our own private exodus. More than ever we need to turn off the TV and radio, log off from facebook, put the phone on silent, and just be quiet - listening for the voice of God in the sheer silence.

We’re all a bunch of ragamuffins now, needing the grace and healing that only God can give.