This is an interesting week. Isaiah doesn’t want to get killed, Jesus saves a drowning man, and Jews and Greeks are all the same. My biggest take-away from this week is that I’m glad that I’m comfortable with silence. It’s a pretty self-centered practice, in a way, to hide away from the world for some time to empty my mind and hear God. But yet it impacts my relationships to the community, so there has to be some place for talking about me in the midst of talking about us. It seems that “personal relationship with Jesus” and “communal faith” are really 2 ends of a spectrum, and neither is centered. But I digress….
This week, the Lectionary gives us an Old Testament reading of 1 Kings 19:9-18. The prophet Elijah fears for his life from the Israelites and has retreated to a cave to hide in exile. God seeks him out, and asks what he’s doing there, in that dark cave. This story seems straighforward – a prophet (called by God) retreats from the perceived danger of his call, but God relentlessly follows and beckons. Not yet knowing Elijah’s story well, I’m aware that my reading is myopic. But, in this passage I find some elements that really call out to me.
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 theLord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but theLord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ – 1 Kings 19:11-13
God was in the silence – not in the raging pyrotechnic displays of nature’s force. And one spectacle wasn’t enough – we have wind, earthquake, and fire. Any one of these phenomena would dominate our nightly news for a good while (or until their histrionics and overexposure inure us). I can’t really conceive the significance of this demonstration, either, so I hang onto the thought that it must have blown Elijah’s mind. But in any case, God was in the silence. Only in silence did Elijah hear God’s voice speaking.
It occurs to me that this must be an amazing testamony for our Jewish friends to hear. I recently went to my first Jewish service, a bat mitzvah, and was struck by how their worship seemed rooted in the notion of identity. What is a Jew? Why is a Jew? If they celebrate and remember their magnificent exodus from Egypt, how do they process God instead speaking in silence?
And it reminds me of our own theology of the cross, where God is made manifest in weakness, not strength. Our God is controvesial – He doesn’t play by our rules or conceptions. Our non-intuitive God.
Now, I’d be remiss to not give some thought to what God then tells Elijah to do.
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. – 1 Kings 19:15
Wilderness and king-anointing. I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good, and I remembered him explaining the Old Testament concept of “wilderness.” Brueggemann talks about wilderness as a place of risky faith, and a place of no viable life support. And yet, in the wilderness, the Israelites were confronted with God’s abundant generosity. As if God’s abundant generosity could only be perceived and understood in the face of dangerous wilderness. Because until the Israelites entered the wilderness, they were just more bricks in the wall of Pharoah’s empire (thanks, Pink Floyd!), thinking that if they could just play those games well, they would be cared for. And if you lower your standards, it must have seemed like a great arrangement.
And Elijah is going to anoint a king for the people he fears will kill him? Doesn’t that defy all reason? And by the way, it’s impossible not to notice that God seems to relegate His chosen people to destroy each other by sword, save for those who have never bowed to Baal. How too do we suffer when we wander away from our faith? Because how can we be saved and nurtured by God when we convince ourselves we don’t want to be? All self-destructiveness.
From all of this, the idea of God’s controversy, God’s voice in the silence, not the noise we expect from Him, inspired me to write a prayer for the local community:
God of Silence, You come to us in the least expected and most controversial ways, not by a show of incredible force or power, but in the still silence of our quietest moments. Help us to make time for quiet, to hear you speak to us, to care for us, and to direct us back to our communities, with a renewed passion to bless others as You have blessed us.
The Lectionary then gives us a Gospel reading of Matthew 14:22-33. A minimal reading has Jesus sending the disciples alone, by boat upon the waters, the waves batter and toss, Jesus walks on the water to the boat, and the disciples become fearful. Then comes what seems to me to be the core of this story:
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ – Matthew 14:28-33
I was already familiar with this reading as a testament to faith as a gift from God, not something we manufacture. I still read it the same way, and take the same message from it. I think there’s much in this story that distracts from what I feel is the core message. Storms on the water. Jesus walking on water. Water, water, water. Not baptismal water, but dark water that churns and threatens. The deep, where Leviathan lurks. In this setting, Peter tries to walk on water and fails. Miserably. Once Jesus reaches out and catches his hand, can Peter walk on water with Jesus.
This is not an invitation! I want to be very clear about this detail, even though I’m not usually comfortable being so emphatic. Sure, Peter cries out to Jesus as he finds himself sinking. Who wouldn’t? Well, us, but we can thank Mr. Ego for that. Here, Jesus catches Peter’s hand and raises him up. Jesus took the initiative, Jesus reached out, and it was not for Peter to respond. It just happened, and I think even if Peter were to have tried to wrestle out of Jesus’ grasp, Jesus is much stronger and wouldn’t have let go.
I’m reminded of Red Cross swimming safety courses. When you try to rescue a drowning person, you have to take hold of them in a way that prevents them from getting away, and that also prevents them from trying to drag you down with them. Because they will try to do so. The impulse of self-preservation ends up being self-destructiveness. Or like how we take anti-histamines because the body’s self-preservation mechanism can be so debilitating.
And so, God comes to us with His gift of faith, that he plants in us despite our own desires. We emphasize this understanding when we baptize infants. I think this understanding is difficult to really internalize, when we’ve been taught from the beginning that we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps in the American system. I’ve swindled myself whenever I’ve mistakenly wondered how my spiritual practices can bring me closer to God, or whether this or that makes God smile. My faith was planted in me, and will always be there, regardless whether I seem more attuned to it, or whether I seem to walk away from it. It’s the undeniable core of my being.
I was inspired to pray to God to help the Church with teaching this liberating understanding of faith, where we don’t have to strive, or compete, or succeed. Where we can rest with assurance that God loves us and forgives us even when we can’t forgive ourselves:
Lord of Promises, in baptism You mark us as Your children, and fill us with Your gift of faith that lives with us all of our days. Bless Your Church, and help it to help us understand that You will never let us go, that you will love us, and forgive us, and bring us to new life each day, so that we might be free to live in peace in a noisy world.
The Lectionary gives us a New Testament reading of Romans 10:5-15. At this point I’m feeling a little worn out from all this reading and writing, but let’s just push through anyway. The truth is that reading and writing on Scripture means so much to me, and I have faith that something exciting will pop out of this third reading too.
Paul quotes Moses and contrasts it with faith-based salvation:
Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) ‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). – Romans 10:5-7
Right away I find myself thinking about politics, and the inevitable, egotistical fight between Republicans and Democrats refusing to compromise. In a way, the entire debate is bizarre, because why would any elected official really want to drive our society into failure? If you assume all politicians to be utterly self-serving, wouldn’t they want some kind of success (even if our neediest people suffer) at a national level, in order for them to have their own success? And so, accusing the enemy of driving us to Hell in a handbasket is just too simplistic for really investigating any public development.
And within the congregation, we seem to always hear people wondering who’s going to Heaven, and who’s not. If this wasn’t such a primal question, reflective of our judgmental and legalistic nature, we wouldn’t have a Universalist Unitarian church. Just what’s going to happen to those pesky Jews and Arabs?
Here, Paul is telling us that as people filled with faith, stop it! First, what is “righteousness?” Righteousness is the experience of living in right relationship with God, that is, having a sense of connectedness to God that pervades our thoughts and our actions. God seems to have a pretty wide latitude, giving us such a freeing faith. With God regularly defying our expectations and understanding, how can we possibly perceive the righteousness of another person? How can we truly know their thoughts or heart? If God defies our understanding, how can we hope to understand how God is or is not acting through another person? Let alone judge their fate. For only God knows my own rightenousness. When I walk away from my faith, it’s still there, and hence I can’t even know my own righteousness. But, hear the teaching that my faith is still there regardless of my own perception, and that my righteousness grows out of that reality that is beyond my control.
And so, I was inspired to write a prayer to God for our leaders, in this season of demonizing and demigoguery, to grant them wisdom to hear and consider the seeds of truth in the ideas they despise, even if they don’t let on, that might help them to make wise and just decisions to benefit all of us:
Spirit of Wisdom, our present age is so obsessed with proving ourselves right and proving others wrong. Grant wisdom and a spirit of justice to our government’s leaders, to discern truths in the midst of their disagreements to help them make decisions that bring justice and fairness for all people in all their need.
So, my hope for you is that you might ask yourself what it means to be claimed despite what you want. If God has marked you, does being right really matter? I recently read a sermon from Nadia Bolz-Weber where she asks, “would you rather be right, or happy?” I’m still asking myself. And while you’re at it, carve out a little silence for yourself. You might hear God, and it won’t be what you expected.