June 23, 2013
1 Kings 19:1-15a
While in college I worked for grounds crew. The campus was located in downtown Chicago and I did a number of different tasks: picking up trash, fixing the sprinkler system, repairing sidewalks. In winter we were in charge of snow removal. During big snow storms, working in the middle of the night there was a surprising phenomenon for Chicago—it was silent.
While working on a small college campus in rural Nigeria we experienced frequent power outages. Many times it was off more than on. When the electricity would stop—the fans and fridge stopped whirring before generators would come on—it was silent.
On August 29, 1952 David Tudor walked onto a stage and sat down at a piano. For 4 ½ minutes he sat there in from on the audience. At first wind could be heard, then a little rain, and then people beginning to move around and talk. He was “playing” John Cage’s conceptual piece 4’33”. It was an exercise in helping people to listen.
Elijah met God in sheer silence.
We have been spending some time over the last few Sundays in the book of 1Kings. Two weeks ago I introduced Elijah the prophet. Being a prophet, Elijah was causing some trouble. More accurately he was pointing out to the people and the king where there already was trouble—and he was doing this on God’s behalf. He was calling people to repentance.
Two weeks ago we saw him struggling along with the people to deal with a famine that he announced as punishment for the people’s disobedience. Last week Jenn spoke on “doing violence from a distance” and we witnessed King Ahab and Queen Jezebel have a man killed in order to get his vineyard.
This week we reenter the ongoing conflict between Elijah and the royal family. In the passage we read we enter into a drama in the second or third act. Something has happened and Elijah must flee for his life.
If we back up a little we would see a confrontation with the prophets Baal. A context was set up to prove which God was more powerful. The playing field for this contest was an altar with an offering but no fire. The God that brought fire to burn the offering would be considered the true God. The prophets of Baal start imploring and then dancing and cutting themselves to no avail. Then Elijah comes, prays, and fire comes from the sky consuming the offering and even the water that Elijah had had poured over the alter to make his point.
The people believe and Elijah has the prophets killed.
As a result of the people’s belief the drought breaks and the rain comes—Elijah tells Ahab to get home before he gets caught in the storm and then outruns Ahab in his chariot as the rain comes
In continuation of the spiral violence—in which violence brings more violence– Jezebel vows to kill Elijah.
He flees a day’s journey into the desert and sits under a solitary broom tree—“He asked that he might die saying, “ It is enough; no, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” Then he lay down under this tree and fell asleep.— After the high of winning the prophetic competition he sinks to the low of depression.
Suddenly he is awoken by an angel, a messenger of God, some type of divine delivery service. There is a hot cake—baked on stone—and a jug of water. He is instructed to get up and eat. After this he promptly goes back to sleep. A classic thanksgiving meal. Eat. Sleep. There seems to be no flinching in the writer or Elijah about how strange this is.
How strange? He wanders out into the desert for a day—a whole day—falls asleep under a tree and is awoken by an angel with bread and water. Not any bread but bread baked on a stone.
A second time he is awoken and told to eat—“for the journey will be long.” He eats and in the strength of the food and nap travels forty days and nights. Upon arrival at Mt Horeb—the Mt of God he finds a cave.
Once there we hear God ask—What are you doing? I can almost hear a parents voice—Elijah what are you doing? Why are you pouting under the bed? Why are you in closet?
Elijah answers—I have been very zealous for you but everyone has been killed or turned away. As I have been reading this over the last week or so I always here Elijah saying this in a pouting voice. This whole passage feels as though Elijah has come down off a high. He was vindicated and victorious. There was a famine for 3 years—caused, in a manner, through his hand. At the culmination of this 3 year ordeal he has a show down with the “other” prophets whom he trounces in round of burning of offering without matches. If this were a Western we would see the hero meeting the villain on main street just outside of the saloon. After showing them up with fire from the sky he awes the wavering people and has the prophets killed. He even outruns a chariot.
But then Jezebel deflates he victory “high.”
God says come out the cave—I will show myself. Wind which breaks rocks, an earth quake, and fire appear but God is not seen in the dramatic events—When Moses went onto the mountain to talk with God his face began to shine so that he needed to veil his face. When the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites God sent an array of plagues to show his presence and then led them through the desert in a cloud. God being big we expect to do big things. We constantly crave the new the bigger, the faster, the louder.
God, however, appears in sheer silence. Sheer silence. Utter silence. The absence of sound.
(1-2 min of silence)
Silence feels like the absence—While typically silence is the absence, in this passage it is the presence of God—the presence of God is a hyper presence. It is the presence of the ultimate
There are two main practices or values of the church that consist of the adding or presence of something—that of food and people.
Communion–Eucharist—food. On Thursday evening we had the Brethren young adult gathering at our house. At these monthly meals we gather to eat together, be together, and discuss an article or book. We ate food and this month we also talked about food. We read a few pages in a book entitled “Faith and Food: A theology of eating,” by Norman Wirzba-
Much of the conversation on Thursday evening revolved around eating well. What does it mean to truly appreciate the connectedness with our food? To truly appreciate the work and care that has gone into the tilling and growing and preparation of the food?
To eat well means to be filled. This is not necessarily the filling of feasting we do at a thanksgiving meal but having enough nutrients, appreciating the skill in preparation, using food sources that attend to the health of the environment and animal, and to experience good company while eating. To eat well means to be filled.
In the Gospels just before Jesus is killed he had a meal with his followers. At a point in the meal he passed around a cup of wine saying “take and drink this is my blood.” He then passed bread and said “take and eat this is my body.” We continue this tradition in what is called communion or the Eucharist. Wirzba writes, first quoting Jesus and then commenting,
“”Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). [Wirzba writes,] Eating is not simply consumption of what comes from the outside. Eucharistic eating alters the relationships that make up our lives, gives them a self-offering character, and in doing so changes the practice of life itself. In communion we eat Jesus. We take in Jesus. Abiding with him and are transformed to look like him. “
This central practice for Christians involves taking in something—adding something
Filling—adding—what of restricting or emptying?
There is also a tradition in contrast to the eating of communion which is fasting. Fasting is the emptying–the focusing oneself away from self-care in order to focus on others and on God. In the act of denial or restriction we may come to appreciate and give thanks for provision. Many of our health problems in the country come from the overstimulation of continuous eating and drinking.
Fasting challenges our dependence showing that we are indeed dependent on the gifts of God.
The Eucharist meal, the bread and wine which we break and drink are true food. Fasting allows space in our lives to more recognize our true dependency and be accordingly grateful.
A second major focus of the church is on community.
Community. In the Brethren we talk a lot about community. Our tagline is “Continuing the work of Jesus: Peacefully, Simply, Together.” We obviously do many things together. We worship together. We serve others together.
One of the more distinctive traits that we talk about in relation to being together is the idea of reading scripture as community. We are suspicious or doubtful of our capability as individuals to read and understand the Bible well by ourselves—we think it better to work out our understanding of the text in community. We read, pray, and discern together. No heroic individualism. We are together.
[This value is also evident in the old style of ministry of plural ministry which we are considering for the church. Multiple ministers working together and with the entire congregation].
There is a flip side to all this important togetherness. Silence. Solitude. In our passage in 1 Kings we hear of Elijah just leaving the big event. The showdown with a team of prophets in front a whole crowd of witnesses. He then flees. He leaves his servant, or assistant, and sets out. We know he was out by himself in the desert for a minimum of 4o days plus the 1 day to the broom tree. In these approximately 41 days he made it to Mt. Horeb. After encountering God he still had to make it home. If there is one thing in running I have learned is that unless you plan a loop– however far away from home you run you still need to get home. [this is actually a good strategy for pushing yourself further]. Run straight away from home for 10 miles and you either need to find a metro stop or run 10 miles back. Elijah traveled 40 days and nights into the desert. In the Gospels Jesus also spends 40 days in the desert. [read]
40 days alone. Though most of my work in some way is with people I am an introvert. The other week I spent the whole week with the Youth Peace Travel Team. Next week I will travel to Annual Conference in which I will present workshops, talk with friends, talk with people I don’t know, talk with people I don’t know but want to talk because of my work with the denomination. These are full times—people filled times. I will be excited and then I will crash. I can usually make it for a day and a half before I tank. I know this. It is very predictable. Because I know this I need to find ways to be alone—to regroup.
I know I need a certain amount of time by myself. For me this is likely just a personality trait. Why, however, might silence, being alone be important for us spiritually? Why did Jesus go into the desert at different points in his ministry? Why did Elijah spend 40 days—perhaps it was just that far to “the Mt of the Lord, Mt. Horeb” –or perhaps he needed this space, this silence, in order to hear better.
One reason, is that we are distracted folks. Constantly listening to this news. Reading that magazine. Fiddling on Facebook. Talking to our aunt that calls. Running to a meal with friends. An appointment with a colleague. A retreat to learn to hear God speak. We fill our days full-up.
We need to find space to listen to quite ourselves from the rush of life.
After silence or absence of food we are more attentive and aware of the speaking and the eating. Food tastes better when we are hungry. We can thank God for it. In silence we can hear God speak. God speaks—but we drown it out through constant noise
After fasting we always need to eat if we are to survive. After the sheer silence that Elijah experiences God speaks to communicate. The absence of food and sound cannot go on for forever but may be critical for our ability to hear God speak to appreciate the gift of food and relationships that sustains us.
We must look for God in the Silence—in the gaps that we have not filled
The practices or non-events that I talked about are absence of the things that fill our space so that the presence of God may enter.
We can look for God in the gaps—we can also actively try to increase these gaps. This was the hope of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). These were individuals who sought to leave behind the chaos of the urban landscape and the extravagance of the church of that day. While I will not recommend that we run to a desert for silence I challenge us to turn something off, put down the magazine, cultivate patience in silence. I also challenge us to intentionally skip a meal or two—but not to create more time to do more work.
This will not happen on our own. We need to learn to say no. Only when we say no to the press of the things that fill our life can we free ourselves to hear more clearly.