What are you doing here 6/19/16


1 Kings 19:1-15

June 19, 2016

Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Chilmark Community Church

It has been a horrifying and sad and difficult week.  During worship last Sunday the news of the massacre in Orlando was fresh.  We hardly knew what it meant or how severe it was.  As happens, almost routinely now, the initial reports and speculations were disseminated only to be revised and edited as the week unfolded and more information became available. More terrorism? A radical Islamic attack? An act of the most virulent homophobia? This process keeps us vigilant and engaged – perhaps with a hope that someone somewhere will be able to say the definitive thing that will help us make some sense of it all.  Adding insult to injury, inevitably, within hours, a horrible human tragedy became more grist for politicians to use against each other – – robbing us of the time and space that our souls need in order to absorb the shock, in order to mourn, in order to gather ourselves back together after a terrible shattering.  As I sat and processed  with some of our island clergy earlier this week, we were struck by the profound paradox that our national law now permits same sex marriage  while at the same time a crime against the humanity of the gay community can happen with unthinkable, sudden and extreme violence.  We mourn with the families and friends of those who were murdered and those who will struggle on a long, traumatic path to recovery.

It has been a challenge to see how this morning’s text might speak to us. Elijah, the great prophet of God, the one for whom Jesus was mistaken, the one whose return will signal the coming of the Messiah,  is the main character of the story.  Elijah comes with  baggage. In the chapter just before the one we have heard, Elijah zealously challenged the priests and prophets of Ba’al ,beloved god of the Canaanite people.  He created a contest to see whose God had more power – whose God could make it rain -whose God would end the three year drought in Israel. The contest, described in much detail in Chapter 18 proved Israel’s God more powerful. At end of  the contest, the three year drought ended.  As the rain began to fall  Elijah oversaw the slaughter of 450 Ba’al prophets.

As I searched the internet to see how other preachers might have managed today’s text, almost universally, their sermons leaped to a diagnosis of depression in Elijah and God’s healing words in the cave on the mountain.  The episode of the slaughter of the 450 prophets in Chapter 18 was glossed over -almost as though it hadn’t happened or that someone else was responsible.   But  at the end of the great contest between the gods where the God of Israel emerges as the greater God,  Chapter 18:39 -40 reads this way: When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “the Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”  Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of B’aal;  do not let one of them escape.”  Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.”

It is hard for us to reconcile a story of what is essentially religious violence done in the name of God with the major thrust of the scriptures about a God of peace and compassion and justice. But the compilers of the scriptures left nothing out.  We get the darkness with the light – we are shown what human beings are capable of in the name of their strongly held  beliefs.  The paradoxes are there for us to struggle with time and time again.  Sometimes they can be resolved – -and sometimes not.  These are the stories we wrestle with in the same way that Jacob wrestled all night with an unknown figure.

When we pick up the Elijah story this morning, Elijah is slogging through wind and rain and mud, his robes pulled up around his knees, running for his life to escape the revenge of Queen Jezebel who has sworn to kill him for destroying her priests and prophets.  The chaos Elijah has unleashed in his zeal for God follows him.

With Jezebel’s threats ringing in his ears, Elijah runs for his life from Mt. Carmel, the place of the great contest, to Beersheva in the south – a distance of some 25 miles.  When he gets to Beersheva, he leaves his servant behind and travels alone another day’s journey into the wilderness of Judah.  He is exhausted and afraid – he is ready to give up.  He wants to die.   He says “It is enough;  now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  In exhaustion he flops down under a bush and falls asleep.

What happens next is something we often see in the ancient stories.  When Elijah is at his most vulnerable, sound asleep, an angel visits him – feeds him- and commands him to eat so that he will have strength.  Elijah follows the instructions and gets up and walks another 40 days and 40 nights to reach Mt. Horeb – the mountain of God.

So -here is one thing we might draw from the story – – that when we are at our most vulnerable – when life hands us chaos -when we are most shaken or fearful  or confused or wounded – the presence of God can break through to both nurture and sustain us for the next part of the journey.

At the mountain, Elijah  hears the Divine Question: “What Are You Doing Here?”  Elijah recites a litany of reasons why he finds himself at the mountain of God.  He has been zealous (450 prophets dead, you will recall)!

Why? Because Israel had forsaken the covenant. Because altars built for worshipping God had been destroyed; because many of God’s own prophets had been killed in the process. in his zeal, Elijah took action.  But now Elijah cries out “I‘m the only one left, and they are going to kill me too.” 

As we sit here and worship and pray and seek the truth together in the invasive presence of the enormity of the slaughter at The Pulse in Orlando, we might hear God asking us the same question: “My beloved children in Chilmark -What Are You Doing Here?” 

For just a few moments, may we sit in silence with our own responses to that question: “What are we doing here, in this moment, in the light of pain and suffering and horror that has been unleashed in Orlando?”

Whatever our own inner answer to the Divine question might be, our rebuttal question might be “Is God listening?”

Is God listening?  It is hard to tell .  All Elijah gets back in the way of response is a pretty terse directive – – “go to the mountain – – stand before God – for the Lord is going to pass by.”  So another thing we might draw from the story is that at times, God isn’t into much drama.  We may be in a panic.  We may be looking in every direction for the answers. We may be carrying huge burdens of sorrow, sadness – fear – even guilt as it seems with Elijah.      But the divine word that comes may be simply a directive – dial back the fear and the drama – go to the mountain – make yourself vulnerable -stand before God.

Perhaps we can imagine ourselves there with Elijah – alone – exhausted, soaking wet, covered with mud, fearful for his life – – standing inside a cave on a mountainside .

What comes next are, perhaps some of the most fascinating verses in the bible –  verses  often quoted – often referred to in our hymns – “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting the mountains and breaking the 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; 

The next few words have been translated and interpreted in so many ways as sages and scholars throughout the ages have tried to capture the essence of the meaning of the ancient language: after the fire came a whistling of gentle air; the sound of a low whisper; a hissing of the wind, as if softly breathing; a gentle breeze; a sound of gentle blowing; a sound.  Thin. Quiet; And as we read a little earlier, after the fire, a sound of sheer silence.

A holy pattern of God’s creating force emerges here – – the Divine movement from chaos to order. We see it in the earliest chapters of Genesis as the Holy One brings order out of the primeval turbulence – and does it by speaking all creation into existence. And here again out of the chaos of terrifying violence between Israel’s prophets and the Canaanite prophets, out of the chaotic forces of earthquake, wind and fire, God draws Elijah’s attention elsewhere – – away from the drama, as it were, and toward a deeply vulnerable and somewhat troubling solitude in a cave on a mountain.  And there – in the midst of his anguish and fear, Elijah hears – what?

….a gentle blowing of the wind; a thin, quiet sound, the sound of sheer silence.  The silence of Holy Presence.

Just for today, I want to suggest that this dramatic story of Elijah’s encounter with The Holy offers us a way to come to center again as we face into another assault on our humanity.  In a somewhat ironic sense, we can run as Elijah did, but we cannot hide.  Our instinctive need to pull away from the horror may lead us into a kind of wilderness where answers and comfort are elusive – – and yet – – in the midst of that wildness, there is another way – – God meets us in the wilderness.  Not in the constant noise of CNN or Fox News or MSNBC – – not in the unfolding drama in the newspapers – – not in the energetic and sometimes frightening conversations we have with friends and neighbors – – but rather God meets us in the wild, silent spaces.  Indeed, to be able to hear the voice and direction of God, we need deep silence – a silence so deep that we can hear the sheer sound of it. 

So how do we get there?  How do we get to that place where we can hear the sound of silence?  It may be easier than we think.  Actually the first move into the silence is right at our fingertips.  We can, and should, use our God given ability to grab the remote and turn down the volume on all the non-stop threatening and

frightening sound and imagery to which we are exposed daily in the 24 hour news cycle.

Just as with a sensible weight reduction diet, we can limit our portion size.  If staying abreast of the news is critical, we can take it in smaller doses.  Choose carefully what time of day to listen to the news – and never just before going to bed.   

We can choose carefully who and what we will listen to – – discerning what is actually news and what is sensationalism that is designed to keep us glued to the screen.

More significantly, we might consider developing a spiritual practice that allows us to enter brief periods of silence during each day.  We can train ourselves to listen for the sheer sound of silence in which God speaks.  Even during the height of the season here it is a lot easier to do this than in other parts of the world.  Taking five minutes of pure silence to stand in the light of the rising or setting sun, or to marvel at moonrise and starlight helps our minds and our bodies learn to savor silence. It can also open our inner ears in order to hear the voice of God.

Elijah heard the sheer silence, the thin, quiet – – and in that silence, God did what God most universally does when we listen to God in a crisis.  God gave Elijah new marching orders to go out and anoint a new king who would maintain Israel’s relationship with God.  We may not receive such grandiose orders, but I firmly trust that we will hear what we need to hear in order to find peace and balance in the midst of the earthquake wind and fire.  God asks “What are you doing here?”  Perhaps one answer is that as we sit and worship and pray and come to center with God and one another is that we are already answering the call of the Holy One.  Part of our responsibility as children of God  is that we offer ourselves to become centers of calm in a crazy world – – that we stop – -listen to the Holy silence – and re-orient ourselves to the promise Jesus gave us when he said:  “Peace I give to you—–not as the world gives – – My peace I give to you.” Part of our calling is to be peace in times of chaos and conflict.

We live in an era when it is unlikely that the world will become peaceful and benign in our lifetime.  We live in a time when hope for the reign of God ebbs and flows.  We live in a time when it is all too easy to throw up our hands and say “It is enough, God – we haven’t come very far and we are no better than our ancestors.”  But God stands at the entrance of our self imposed caves and asks “What are you doing here?” – –  and then there is the sheer sound of silence – waiting for us to listen to what God would have us do next.