A sermon preached at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, KY.
Proper 14 (19) (August 9, 2020)
Alternate First reading and Psalm
• 1 Kings 19:9-18
• Psalm 85:8-13
• Romans 10:5-15
• Matthew 14:22-33
19:11 [God] said [to Elijah], “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;12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire … a sound of sheer silence.
I am thankful to be with you all again, if not in person then at least worshiping together through the technology available. I really miss being with you and seeing you all, face-to-face. I also have to admit, I do miss the donuts…
In many ways, and paradoxically, given our technology, this time of worshipping in our own homes, as families, with only occasional moments to gather as a larger community, is reminiscent of the earliest days of “The Way.” (That is what the Christian movement is called in the Book of Acts, “The Way.”) The Way of following Jesus, at many points in history and around the world, has meant meeting in private, if not in secret, and that worship was not in any way less meaningful or acceptable to God. Neither is ours. We are not being persecuted nor are our rights to free worship being impinged upon, but it is hard. It hurts, in that paper cut kind of way, to not be able to do things they way we have always done them. It irritates even as we know that it is largely in insubstantial wound.
Not all wounds are so slight though. Added to this COVID time is a growing awareness and reflection upon the injustices and disparities in the world around us. Father Hendree has been preaching powerfully on this, as must we all. (You do realize, we are all preachers, right? That is Paul’s message in Romans today, that we are all called to declare the Gospel message, a message of freedom and equality as children of God in Christ Jesus. But that is another sermon.)
Our society must not only look after our physical health, wearing masks to protect one another, especially the most vulnerable among us, but we must also look after our social and spiritual health. We must address the racism and racist practices that we are all a part of, either as victim or perpetrator, aware or unaware, complicit or implicit. Today we cannot claim ignorance. We know and we must change our thoughts and actions.
But it is so wearying. All of it! It grinds our soul and psyche down. We are doing the right things, wearing masks, staying physically distant, even as we open up our hearts and ears to hear about the hardships in the lives of our Black brothers and sisters. But doing the right thing doesn’t mean it is the easy thing. And, by the way, doing the right thing doesn’t mean that everything is clear and obvious or that our actions won’t have unintended consequences. It will cost us something, sometimes no more than our pride, but often that is the most precious thing we hold on to. This is all so… exhausting.
Yes, so much has changed over the past year; the world was such a different place and yet, just over a year ago, we had this same Old Testament reading and I was preaching on it then as I am this morning. Don’t worry, this is not the same sermon! I promise you that. But as different as this year is, it is a sign of both the immutability of Scripture and its flexibility that we return to this passage with new eyes, a different heart and mind, and still it speaks to us.
It is relevant today, because as much as we are drained and weary from our efforts to do the right things, Elijah was in a similar but yet more deadly situation. Elijah was a prophet of God, his job was to make sure that everyone knew what God wanted his people to do, especially those in leadership. When so many of our community marched through our city to call for justice and equality, and many of you were in their number, you were following the example of the prophets. But following that Way is not without consequence.
In the case of Elijah, it was not a democratically elected official he held accountable; it was the wicked King Ahab and his queen Jezebel. Yes, that Jezebel of metaphorical infamy. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel had been leading Israel away from worshiping the Lord to worship the god Baal and the goddess Asherah and Elijah challenged them and the prophets of Baal and they were humiliated.
The result? Jezebel ordered all those who followed the Lord God to be killed. Elijah alone was left and God sent him one more time to challenge the prophets of Baal to the Sacrificial Smackdown of All Time. An incredible story cut short: the Lord won, the prophets of Baal were killed by the sword, and Jezebel declared she would have her revenge on Elijah. So he ran away, into the wilderness. You can understand why he said, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”
He was tired, sick and tired of trying to do what was right and having the only thanks he got to be driven out into the wilderness, chased by an army. So, he goes to a quiet place to hide and die. But God is not done with him yet. Just before our reading today, an angel meets Elijah and gave him food and rest, because otherwise the journey would be too much for Elijah. The journey? He was done, caput. He had sat down under “a solitary broom tree that he might die.” But God fed him and sent him up the mountain, further into the wilderness, farther up into solitude.
There, in a cool cave in the mountain he rested, thinking that here at least he would die at peace, with his body never to be found. He could lie down and rest. Forever. He was tired. He was done.
But there, “the word of the LORD came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” This is before all the earthquakes and fire, this is while Elijah is resting, the night he finally arrived, exhausted and in the dark of the night, God asks, “What are you doing here?”
What am I doing?! God knows. God sent him! God knows what has driven Elijah to run away, out into the wilderness, up the mountain, to just give up and say, “take away my life!” God knows. But does Elijah really know why he is there? Elijah reflects and says, “I am here because I was zealous for you, for doing what is right, and look where it got me? To this dark night in the wilderness.” And again God said to him, get up, go stand on the mountain and I will meet you there.
19:11 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;12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire … a sound of sheer silence.
Silence…. I am not very good at it, being silent, even being quiet is hard for me. But there, in the imposed silence after all the violence, all the traveling, all the pain and struggle, in the silence, there we meet God. In the silence God speaks.
And what did God say to Elijah in the silence? The exact same thing he asked him before! “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Can you imagine Elijah’s frustration? His anger, exasperation? Can you imagine how exhausted and just DONE with it all Elijah was at that moment? I bet you can. Because I bet we are all feeling it right now. For months now, in the darkness of our isolation we have been asking, “Why am I here?”
This year has been a time for all of us, individually and societally to take stock, to reflect inwardly and ask ourselves why we are here, how did we get here, what is our purpose and reason for being. In the silence of isolation and self-reflection, if we listen, we hear God.
And God asks us again, “What you are you doing here?” What are you doing with your life? Why are you alive? What are you running from? What are you running towards? Can we, with Elijah, answer that we have been zealous for God?
“Why are you here?”
“I am here because I have done justice, I have loved mercy, and I have walked humbly in your sight. And I am tired.”
“Why are you here?”
“I am here because I have loved you with my whole heart, I have loved my neighbor as myself, and it is dragging me down and wearing me out.”
And God replies to our faithfulness and our weariness, “Go, return on your way and continue to do my work in the world.” Not only does God tell Elijah to return, back into the world that wants him dead, God tells him to anoint Elisha to be his successor.
Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)
Elijah wanted to be done, he certainly didn’t want to go back, to enter again into the world of royal politics and intrigue. Yet God was not done with him. Elijah had retreated into the safety and rest of the wilderness, as he needed to do. There, he met God and now, God was giving him a further purpose, to anoint his successor. More than that, God reassured Elijah that he was wrong. Elijah thought that he alone remained faithful to the Lord; he was not alone.
We must go to the silent places, just as Elijah did, just as Jesus did. All of us, especially in such times as these, need to remove ourselves from the noise and stress of this world, to go out to the wilderness, whether that be internal and external, and be quiet, reflecting, waiting and listening for God.
We may go out in anxiety, stress, or fear, but once there we will be met by God. Grace is waiting for us in the stillness of the wilderness. In his grace, Jesus will give us new life, new strength, he will feed us with a spiritual food that will nourish and give us strength for the journey ahead. And God will send us back out into the world to do the work of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are all prophets, called to proclaim God’s love for the world and the need for justice and mercy. We also, like Elijah, are called to anoint our successors, to ensure that the message and work of God will continue.
Elijah was not being let off the hook and neither are we. Seek out the quiet places, find the rest and peace that we all so desperately need, and listen for God. The voice of God will convict us and direct us to walk in the Way, to love as Christ loved the world, and then God will say, “Keep on keepin’ on. We have more work to do, together, you and I.”