In Silence, In Shouts. June 23

In Silence, In Shouts

1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Palenville and Catskill United Methodist Churches, June 23, 2019

Elijah has had a tough time. Being number one on Jezebel’s most wanted list is not his idea of the good life. He’s afraid and discouraged and so he runs away; he takes off to be alone, far from anyone and everyone. He’s so exhausted he falls asleep and is waited on by angels. For some people, the angels might be enough. But not for Elijah, not this time. He sleeps, receives more culinary gifts from angels, then takes off on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain, where Moses received the law from God all those many years ago. Elijah wants connection. He has been doing and speaking and acting for God for a long time now, but he isn’t feeling upheld by God. He feels alone, deserted by friends, supporters, and by the Holy One. So he heads into the past, into the history of his people, to the place where God was once, at least – on the mountain where Moses entered the cloud and came face to face with Yahweh. There Elijah waits. And the word of God comes to him. What are you doing here, Elijah? Elijah is rather wrapped up in Elijah – he 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.”

God says, “Step outside, Elijah; I’ll be by.” Then comes a great wind, then an earthquake, then a fire. And God is in none of them. And then, Elijah experiences the presence of God in the sheer silence. The King James Version translated the Hebrew as “a still, small voice.” More recent translations render it as utter and complete silence, nothing at all. That’s what Elijah reacts to, where the voice of God speaks to him. Only then does he even leave the cave to join the conversation with the Holy One.

Christian history is filled with saints who have known the presence of God in silence. And finding silence can be a challenge. It’s why we include the opportunity for silent prayer in the midst of our worship service each week. It can be helpful to step away from busyness and rest in silence to connect with the Holy. It worked for Elijah and it still frequently works for many people.

But embedded in the story itself is the witness that silence is not the only way to find God, nor is it the only circumstance under which God connects with us. Before the sheer silence, there was a great wind – and Elijah might well have expected God there. God spoke to Job from out of the whirlwind. Then there was an earthquake, also a real possibility. The Psalmists often refer to the constant presence of God ‘even though the earth tremble and the mountains fall, even then the Lord of hosts is with us and the God of Jacob is our refuge.’ Then there was a fire. Now we’re talking, thought Elijah. God spoke to Moses in a burning bush. I know God speaks through fire! For Moses, for Job, for the Psalmists, God’s presence was not in sheer silence, but in fire and wind and earthquake. Two weeks ago, on Pentecost, we celebrated the presence of the Spirit of God in the rush of a mighty wind and the appearance of fire on the heads of the disciples. Our acolytes light these candles each and every week to name our certainty that the presence of God’s Spirit, represented by fire, is in our midst as we worship. Like Elijah, we expect the presence of God in fire and in wind, in breath and in power.

Throughout scripture and over the generations, different people experience God’s presence differently. That’s still true today. Music, scripture, fellowship, silence, time in the woods, time in a garden, structured prayer, extemporaneous prayer – all of these, and so many more, are ways that human beings connect with the presence and grace of God.

Paul insists that the differences among us do not separate us. His proclamation of unity in the third chapter of Galatians is still challenging to the church; it was astonishing to the early church. Differences among people have their usefulness if you’re trying to maintain an identity. Jews and Greeks put effort into keeping apart. Slaves and women were second-class citizens and free men benefited greatly by keeping their distance from them in public discourse and identity. But in the church, in the community of the people set free by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, these differences were meaningless. Worse, they were detrimental to the good of the whole. Paul’s particular emphasis in this letter to the Galatians is the damage to the good news created by allowing distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, Greeks. The insistence on maintaining the lines that the culture imposed undermined the truth and power of the gospel. Law defined Jewish connection with God; Paul declares that Jesus takes us beyond the law into a relationship founded on grace. Grace – the free gift of God’s love – is available to all, and makes any distinction we might think valid invalid.

Paul’s truth is still our truth today. We are all baptized into Christ and are therefore one in Christ. Any distinctions we might invent are invalid in the face of God’s grace in Christ.

That means all distinctions. Jew and Greek and slave and free don’t pose much of a challenge today; male and female we’ve made some definite progress on, though we’re still working on a church that respects women and men equally. Black and white, immigrant or native-born, gay and straight: those are distinctions for which we’re still working on leveling the playing field. Even if we could truly say our theology declares that these distinctions don’t matter, we are the church in the midst of a culture which still embraces these differences as meaningful, as important. Churches within our New York Annual Conference have opened their doors to shelter immigrants who have been threatened by ICE with deportation. The churches say, nope, these are our brothers and sisters; they are one with us in baptism; they belong here with us. That’s the logical conclusion of these words of Paul – the differences that others insist on seeing, we refuse to acknowledge. They don’t matter.

Whatever the culture may say, whatever justifications are stated for governmental decisions, the church of Jesus Christ is absolute: there are no distinctions that matter in the baptized community of the faithful. We are one in Christ Jesus.

The challenge before us is not only to have the courage to tell the culture that they are wrong about the differences they insist are important, it is to acknowledge that we in the church have allowed distinctions to separate us already. Racism is not just a problem outside of church walls. It exists within the church. Just as we are ready to name our way of worship as better when it is only different, so we live together in ways that see whiteness as normal and other experiences as different. It’s difficult to open my eyes to my own privilege, living in world that names my life as the standard that others’ lives are measured against. That’s privilege, and we live in it here in the church in North America. It doesn’t mean our life is easy; it simply means that our skin color hasn’t contributed to its difficulty.

Paul’s words challenge us to make the conviction that we are baptized into one body in Christ a reality. And making that conviction a reality is not done simply with words but with connections, relationships with Christians whose life has not been like ours. This involves listening to stories that are hard to hear and taking ownership of assumptions we didn’t even know we held. The truth of Paul’s words hasn’t altered. Baptism makes us one in Christ. Living that truth is harder than we thought it would be, but that doesn’t make it less true, nor does it exempt us from the challenge to live it out with integrity.

Elijah heard the presence of God in the sheer silence, but he would never have said that Moses had not heard God in the fire of the burning bush. His experience of God’s presence was different from Moses’, but no less powerful. Open your eyes and your heart to the Holy One wherever and however God is made manifest to you. Cherish that presence and grace. And then open your ears to hear the lives and experience, the love and the challenges of others, companions on the journey. Trust their words and stories as real and true, even if they’re hard to hear. This is what Christ asks us to do for one another, to love, to care, to listen, to protect. We belong to one another. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, gay and straight, Mexican and Syrian, immigrant, Californian, New Yorker, Roman Catholic, brother, sister, friend. We are all baptized into one in Christ Jesus. Amen and Amen.

 

1 Kings 19:1-15

19Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “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.” 11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 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 the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When 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?” 14He answered, “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.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus;

 

Psalm 42

1As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

2My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When shall I come and behold the face of God?

3My tears have been my food day and night,

while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

4These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng,

and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and

songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.

5Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6and my God.

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you

from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.

 

7Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts;

all your waves and your billows have gone over me.

8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,

and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.

9I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me?

Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?”

10As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me,

while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

11Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

 

Psalm 43
1Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;

from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!

2For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?

Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?

3O send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;

let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling.

4Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy;

and I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.

5Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

 

Galatians 3:23-29

23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Luke 8:26-39

26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.