Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fourth after Pentecost, 2007

June 24, 2007 4 Pentecost (RCL 7/C) 1 Kings 19: 1-15; Psalm 42

Again our new Revised Common Lectionary has for us a long story about the great prophet Elijah. A couple of weeks ago we saw him up in the Lebanese village of Nain, where he lived with the widow and her son, and where, when the son died, his prayers effected a miraculous healing and restoration of life. Then last week there was the story of the great King Ahab, and his wife Jezebel, and the devious and murderous plot they hatched to acquire a vineyard that the owner had refused to sell to them. The vineyard’s owner had been a foreigner, a Canaanite, and the king and his queen were at the very height of their prosperity and popularity. But even so, it was the prophet Elijah who stood up to them, who denounced their ungodly actions in the public square, who condemned them and even cursed them, promising that the evil they had committed would soon return to them. What goes around comes around.

And then this morning, Ahab and Jezebel are out to get Elijah, to silence him. The royal couple know that Elijah’s opposition could eventually shatter their hold on the kingdom, and so they put out what is essentially a contract on his life, and Elijah flees to the desert. And there, as we read this morning, the prophet enters what we can only describe as a “dark night of the soul.” Alone in the world, unsupported, hounded by his enemies, Elijah begins to have his doubts. Doubts about whether he has things right. Whether he really is God’s man in this troubled situation. And we watch him as he thinks, worries, prays to God for support, for a sign, for some clarity about his vocation, his direction.

We can do very hard things, when we know we are right. But if we’re not sure, that’s a different story.

And so Elijah goes out into the desert, to wait, to listen, to figure things out. And we have this morning this passage that is one of the favorites of Spiritual Directors, of contemplatives, of pastors--certainly with potential to be deeply meaningful for all of us as we in perhaps less dramatic ways, but in no less important ways, wrestle with the same kinds of questions. In our work, in our communities, in our marriages and our families, in the big decisions and the small ones of day to day life. “Am I on the right track, God? My feelings are mixed. Sometimes there is clarity, but other times, maybe most of the time, I’m just guessing. Improvising. And who knows whether what I’m doing makes any difference anyway? The whole enterprise of life so often seems three steps forward, two back—and then, more often than I’d care to admit, two steps forward, three back. My friends sometimes encourage me, but other times they seem not totally clear either about what I’m up to, who I am. Just give me a sign."

So there’s Elijah out there in the desert. Waiting for God to speak. And there is this great tempest and storm and wind, and surely in that there will be something from God, some sign. And then the earth began to shake, and Elijah opened his eyes and his ears for the great trumpet blasts of God’s mighty voice. But no. And then there is fire—remembering Moses at that amazing burning bush in the wilderness: but no again. Nothing. We wait for a sign, something big, something dramatic. Something incontrovertible. But sometimes we look in all the most likely places, and there is . . . nothing.

Elijah returns to his cave, wraps his head in his scarf. Abandoned. Alone. Helpless and hopeless. And then, we are told, in that dark and quiet place, when nothing was expected, when there was no storm or earthquake or fire, but only a long, long silence, came the still, small voice. In the sound of silence, the emptiness, the sound of nothing, God speaks to Elijah, and we see the prophet revived, restored, re-energized.

There is only one prophet left, only one man in Israel on God’s side. But with God and that one man marching in the same direction, who could stop them? What army? What king? “Get moving, Elijah.” That’s what God says at the end of the story this morning. No time for slouchers. We’ve got places to go, people to meet, miracles to accomplish, and there’s no time like the present. You’re the man, Elijah, you're my man, and this is the hour.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that at the Passover meal to this day the Jewish family comes to the table with an extra chair and place setting, and with the front door open just a crack, in case Elijah might come. This hero, from long ago and far away. Miracle worker in dusty villages long covered by sand. Conscience and critic of a king whose end was certain, whose queen would fall in disgrace, whose mighty towers were soon to collapse, whose prosperous kingdom would before too long be pillaged and destroyed by invading armies. But Elijah, they remember: we remember. And wait for, year after year, Passover after Passover.

We don’t usually in the church call these ancient Old Testament heroes saints, but to think this morning of Elijah as the “patron saint” for the one who doesn’t just go along to get along, but who stands up for what is right, and good, and godly, even when there’s no real chance of success in that effort. Despite persecution, ridicule, marginalization. If it costs you a friend or a paycheck. And the patron saint for the one who keeps listening for God, who doesn’t give up, who doesn’t shut his ears. Who doesn’t come to his conclusions and then fix them in concrete. Who keeps listening, even in the dark, even in the silence. And who answers when he is called. Who doesn’t hide, or shrink back, or run the other way. Courageous. Who waits for God’s voice, who listens and then hears and then puts it into action, even at great cost. 2,500 hundred years, give or take a few, and the story leaps off the page with incredible freshness and vitality. A portrait of faith and a profile of courage.

We’re proud always of being St. Andrew’s Church, and there is of course a rich history and meaning with that, which is of great importance to us. But this morning, as we would consider our lives, who we are, how we live. Again: our work, our homes and families, our life in the community, our life in the church. Where we might be called. What we might listen for, his voice in the silence—we might be “St. Elijah’s Church” too. The patron saint of a people who in the hour of necessity, are present and accounted for, and ready for action.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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