"To Hear God"
Scripture – 1 Kings 19:1-15a
Sermon Preached by Thomas R. Stout
Sunday, June 19, 2016
Well, you and I have been through another of those weeks haven't we? I wonder where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the mass shooting in Orlando. I was on my way to church here last Sunday. The first report I heard was that about 20 people had died. By the time I was heading home, it was 50. And during the afternoon – after spending a wonderful 24 hours at our house with our 2½ year old granddaughter, I watched a special ABC News report on what more had been discovered about the shooter and the shooting.
To say it was awful is an understatement. I felt helpless. What had happened to my prayers for an end to such episodes; a petition I have been praying since that round of deaths at Virginia Tech six years ago? And, in so many other equally devastating shootings since then. Does God not listen, does the Lord not answer? I was stunned and felt so helpless. Thank goodness for the Interfaith Iftar Dinner here that evening. I figured I could at least attend and show my solidarity with some of our Moslem neighbors. Some of you did the same thing. It was small, but it was something that felt concrete and maybe even helpful to a group of neighbors who have been pilloried by so many now and since 9/11. Something, something small.
As I approached my preaching task for this morning, that theme emerged again for me. In our lesson from I Kings, here is God's prophet, Elijah, on the run. He has just been very successful in his on-going work to point the people of Israel to the true power and presence of their God. In the story prior to the one we read this morning, Elijah had just ended a three-year drought in the land of Israel; and he then went on to win an impossible contest with 400 priests of the Canaanite deity, Baal. Surely the power of Yahweh, and of Yahweh's prophet, was clear for all to recognize.
Ah, but as our lesson told us, the queen was furious and threatening to end the prophet's life. And Elijah ... well, he runs away. Where is his confidence in God? What about the power of his prayers? Where is God anyway when it all just goes...to nothing? I know and I'll bet some of you do too, just what Elijah is going through here.
My work, my preaching, my prayers sometimes seem for naught. Empty: that's how I felt with the news from Orlando, and that has continued with the news that has continued throughout this past week. Where is the Divine in all of this? Why does such awfulness continue not only here, but in so many other parts of our world as well? I have no good answers to such questions; but, when I listen to a story such as this one about Elijah and his dilemma, I come away with some directions that help me just a bit; maybe you will find some help too.
There are four parts to this story. First, Elijah, the prophet of God, stops doing what he is doing – at least for a time. He leaves the land and the people of his birth and work, and he heads off to the "wilderness". Sometimes to get our bearings again, we just have to stop what we are used to doing. We must leave the familiar and just let the unknown envelope us.
And when Elijah gets to the wilderness, he falls asleep and has three dreams. Some folk call such dreams epiphanies, visions. A messenger of God comes to Elijah, feeds him, and then sends him even further into the wilderness. To this point, I think we begin to realize that Elijah's work has been self-directed, even this flight. He decided what to do and goes and does just what he thinks will work. But with the vision, he lets the messenger direct his next action, and that I believe is something new for this preacher. We are called to stop talking and to start listening to and for a voice other than our own.
Now comes part three. The messenger sends Elijah to Mount Horeb, and that is just another of the names for Mount Sinai. And you and I remember the importance of Sinai: it was the place where the people of God received their identity on the Exodus from Egypt. It is where Yahweh gave them his covenant – the Ten Commandments. Elijah goes back to his origins, and those of the people he served.
Thinking further about this, I wonder if Elijah thought about his own name. Elijah means: "El, or "Yahweh", is God". Only God is God, my friends: not Elijah, not himself, not you or me. This Ground of All Being is in charge, and somehow I, like Elijah, need to be reminded of this truth – more often than I like.
One last step, now: Elijah learns to hear God in a new way. There, on the Holy Mountain, sheltered in a cave, like Moses before him, Elijah gets to see the LORD pass by. There is first a great wind, then a great earthquake, then a great fire, and then... "the sound of sheer silence". Or, as the King James translation puts it so poetically, "a still, small voice." "What are you doing here, Elijah?" God asks. And in the silence of that moment, Elijah hears what comes next. "Return to the wilderness of Damascus."
I wonder what the Divine says to you in your times of loss and wonder and desperation. What did the holy one say to me? Strangely enough, I heard (well, I felt more than "heard"): "Go to dinner with your neighbors to mark the end of another day of the Ramadan fast." Did it help? I do not know for sure, but it sure felt right. Sometimes we must listen for God with more than our ears. Sometimes we just have to "feel" our way to faithfulness. St. Benedict called this "listening with the ears of the heart". I sometimes actually do that. What was the great advertising tag line? "Try it; you'll like it."
Let me close with a story I heard at the Iftar dinner last Sunday evening. It was told by Dr. Muqtedar Khan, one of those who spoke:
Once there was a Sufi (a Moslem holy person) who decided he needed to be in closer communion with God. He left his village and went up on a mountain side where he stayed a long time. One day, the Sufi decided to return to his village to see how his family and friends were doing. When he arrived in the village, he found nothing but strife among everyone. Then he went to his family, and there too everyone was at odds with everyone else. Finally, his brother came up to him and said: "Where have you been, and why have you been away so long? We are all very upset with you!" The Sufi was amazed at the anger. So he went back up the mountain to his cave. And, there he said to the Holy One: "Why have you let things get so bad down there? Don't you care what is happening to your people? Why don't you do something about it?" To which God replied: "I did!" "So what did you do?" the Sufi asked. And God said to him: "I sent you."
There it is my friends. Sometimes God sends you and me, even if it is only to do something little.
Prayers of the People ~ Dr. Susan Moseley
O Holy One ---
You who are discovered in the silence of the cave,
Hear our prayers...those deep, unformed urgings that lead us to into your presence.
How long, O Lord, shall we come before you with needs raised high or bowed in reverence, and what may we ask...what might we expect? We are laden heavy with questions. So help us we pray to approach this time with the movement of our breathing...that our spirits and your Spirit would rise and fall and move as one.
Holy Presence, we pray that you would ease the torn hearts of those whose loved ones were robbed of life at the Orlando shootings – too soon and all too tragically they were taken from us. Our minds can hardly imagine the darkness of such events. And yet, while we grieve, we know that in dozens of other places too, lives are shattered through war and mayhem...through disaster and disease...through poverty and prejudice. Send them and us a fresh invitation to hope for your peace that passes all understanding.
Infinite Spirit, surprise us with new, possibilities. Make our hearts burn with kindness and caring. Open our eyes to the beauty that is all around us...and open our souls to recognize the beauty that is within each of us. Create in us a willingness to be transformed into the people we are meant to become.
O God, ground of our being, when we like Elijah, run out of reasons for living, here you are.
When we run out of answers for our questions, here you are.
When our relationships fail, here you are.
When we are so happy we can't imagine anything better, here you are.
When we are up against life's edges of birth and death, here you are.
When we are brave here you are.
Here we are, and here you are, together as one in the stillness of this moment ...
For this we give thanks!
And we give thanks for Jesus who revealed to us the good news of our connectedness with God and with all people. In his spirit let us pray together his prayer...
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
With appreciation to particular authors and friends, whose words and phrases found their way into this prayer.
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