“What are you doing here?” © Jane McBride. Preached at First Congregational Church of Minnesota on June 20, 2010
The Poet with the Birds, by Marc Chagall
I Kings 19: 1-15a
What are you doing here, Elijah? This is the phrase in the text I felt drawn to chew on this week. What are you doing here, Elijah? What are you doing here, First Church of MN? What are we doing here?
As a church, we are exploring this very question. We have gathered a small group, and linked them with the Church Council, the guiding body of our congregation. Their job is to learn, ponder, pray, and develop a process of reflection and action that will engage us all. As to what we are doing here – no answers yet– we can’t even decide what to call the group. Are we the vision team? Or is it purpose, rather than vision we seek? Perhaps we’re practicing the spiritual work of discernment – but, wait, do we even believe in discernment—the idea that God will show up and lead us in certain directions? Maybe we are winnowers – sorting the chaff from the grain, distinguishing priorities out of all that tangle of good work we could do. Are we planners, setting out long-range goals and strategies for reaching those goals?
The word of the Lord asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah responds: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts;for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
Amid threatening empires, Ahab, the King of Israel, had chosen the politically savvy path. He formed an alliance with a foreign power by marrying the princess, Jezebel, and embracing her god, Baal.
Just prior to our story, Elijah has challenged the prophets of Baal. Could their God bring down fire from heaven to consume an offering? When the people of Israel assembled to observe the contest between the God of Israel and Baal, Elijah demanded that they choose whom they would serve. But, the text notes: “the people did not answer him a word.” In the battle with Baal, Israel’s God, Yahweh prevailed. Elijah ordered the immediate slaughter of all 450 prophets of Baal. This action infuriated Queen Jezebel.
Ahh, Jezebel…In the Biblical text, and through centuries of tradition, she has come to portray the very idea of the evil woman. A feminist reading of this text would ask: what if Jezebel was simply a strong woman, who stood by her own beliefs? What if she was murdered, and her memory forever vilified, because she refused to submit to a fanatical male religious leaders? What if in Israel’s history, the worship of Yahweh and the worship of fertility and nature gods and goddesses coexisted far more integrally than the text leads us to believe?
The more I ponder Elijah’s encounters with Ahab and Jezebel, the more I see parallels between their context and ours. The people of Israel lived in a diverse world. Amid a pluralistic mixture of cultures, religions, and political points of view,there are always Elijahs and Jezebels, who live with burning certainty. Others are Ahabs, who use the struggle over deeper questions for the sake of political gain. Some of us resemble the people of Israel. We recognize that all perspectives are culturally conditioned. In the face of clashing truths, we are often unwilling or unable to “answer a word”, to make a choice, to find our own authentic voices.
What are we doing here?
At the church council meeting this week, we read a piece about the spiritual practice of discernment. The authors compare discernment to driving in fog. The rays of discernment aren’t like the daytime sun that illuminates the road for miles ahead. Instead, the headlights of discernment cut a swath just bright enough to keep us in our lane, but not so powerful that we grow blinded.
I have been ruminating over one of the readings shared at Abby’s ordination last Sunday afternoon. This excerpt comes from Telling the Truth by Frederick Buecher:
As much as anything else, it is [churchgoers’] experience of the absence of God that has brought them there in search of [God’s] presence.…The absence of God is not just an idea to conjure with, an emptiness for the preacher to try to furnish, like a house, with chair and sofa, heat and light, to make it livable. The absence of God is just that which is not livable. It is the tears Jesus wept over Lazarus and the sweat he sweated in the garden and the cry he choked out…Just as sacramental theology speaks of a doctrine of Real Presence, maybe it should also speak of a doctrine of the Real Absence because absence can be sacramental, too, a door left open, a chamber of the heart kept ready and waiting. (40-43)
Elijah complains to God, “I alone am left”. His desperate flight into the wilderness, and his request to die, reflect a deep spiritual weariness. This kind of fatigue comes when we make ourselves, our efforts, preferences, and needs, the center of our lives and the sole motivation for our choices. As one commentator remarks: “Elijah’s primary temptation is to think that he has to go it alone, that it is all up to him. This illusion presents itself to us when our concepts of reality do not include the dynamic presence [or, I might add, absence] of God…” (Trevor Eppehimer; Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 150)
Elijah counted God out of his time. He failed to make space for God in his ministry. He anchored his hope in something other than God.
God’s “answer” to Elijah’s despair is a both/ and. God is both present and absent, both comforting and challenging. Under the broom tree, Elijah met a God who shows up in concrete ways to sustain him, physically and spiritually. God sent an angel to feed Elijah and ease his thirst, not just once, but twice.
After forty days, Elijah approached Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai. On Sinai, God spoke directly to Moses. The people saw God’s glory in a fiery, thundering cloud. They felt God’s presence in the shaking earth. On Sinai, they received the commandments: clear instructions for living life.
And yet, for Elijah, at Sinai, those traditional ways of sensing God’s presence failed. The God who appeared to Elijah’s ancestors in fire, wind, and earthquake now came through none these elements. All that remained was the sound of sheer silence. We often assume that Elijah met God in that silence, but the text doesn’t confirm that; it simply leaves the question open. Was God in the silence? Or was that silence the sound of God’s absence?
What are we doing here?
Practicing discernment does not mean being sure God will speak, or presuming that we will understand what God is saying. Discernment simply means that we don’t count God out of our conversations, choices and plans. It means that we leave space for God, empty space. Absence can be sacramental, too, a door left open, a chamber of the heart kept ready and waiting.
A final note on Elijah. After the Elijah’s long journey, after the fire, wind, earthquake and silence, God delivers directions so clear as to seem a bit absurd: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazel as king over Aram.”
This exchange reminds us that though discernment continues at its own pace, we need not sit idle, waiting to act until we have a ten year plan. We will be called to action. We will do the work of the Christian community: worshipping, teaching, serving. Perhaps we won’t be anointing any kings, but surely we will speak and act for justice amid the politics of our day.
This summer, we are exploring Sabbath. The Jewish tradition describes Sabbath as the sanctuary God created for us, not in space, but in time. My prayer is that our journey of discernment might be a gift of sacred time, a sanctuary of rest and renewal.
Like Thoreau, may we find that we “grew in this season like corn in the night…” and that this time of searching is not “time subtracted from our life, but so much over and above the usual allowance.” (Walden, “Sounds”)