This Saturday will be three years since the tragedy of Charlottesville, when a Unite the Right rally, frustrated by the Virginian city’s attempt to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, became violent. A white nationalist drove his car into a gathering of protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others. The scene significantly heightened racial and political tensions across the nation — tensions that have hardly died down now three years later. Our scripture passages for this Sunday, August 9, 2020, are the same as they were for the day after Charlottesville, which reminded me of the sermon I preached that Sunday. I offer it here once again, wondering if it might not be even more pertinent today than it was back then.
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1 Kings 19:9-16
At 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?” He 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.”
He 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord 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?” He 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.” 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. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.”
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
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 toward 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 worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
“Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness” — Rusty Edwards (YouTube video for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/UdWrO1ek2AA)
Praise the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light; Praise the One who frees the prisoners turning blindness into light; Praise the One who preached the gospel healing every dread disease, Calming storms and feeding thousands with the very bread of peace. Praise the One who blessed the children with a strong yet gentle word; Praise the One who drove out demons with a piercing two-edged sword; Praise the One who brings cool water to the desert’s burning sand, From this well comes living water quenching thirst in every land. Praise the one true love incarnate: Christ, who suffered in our place; Jesus died and rose for many that we may know God by grace; Let us sing for joy and gladness seeing what our God has done; Praise the one redeeming glory; Praise the One who makes us one.
The scripture passages for today are all about seeing the face of God. In technical terms, we call them “theophanies”: they show us who God is and, especially here, what he does in the world. But, today’s passages are also all about fear, and not just what we’ve come to call the “righteous fear of God.” The fear here is what we normally mean when we talk about being afraid. It is fear of the past, fear of the future, fear of the present; it is fear about death and dying; it is fear about hunger and hopelessness and meaninglessness. It is especially fear of the uncertain and the unknown and, in light of what happened in Charlottesville, it is the fear of the other and the fear of difference. But, more than that, it is the fear that breeds hate and the fear that equates power with coercion and violence.
And so, it may sound strange to say that the face of God is so heavily associated with the shadow of fear, but I’m not sure we should be all that surprised anymore…God makes his home in the dark, not as its partner but as its over-turner – its underminer. And, nowhere do we see this better than in today’s stories about Elijah up on the mountaintop and Jesus down there, walking on the water…
Consider, indeed, the disciples: still reeling from the previous day’s feast, they find themselves far out to sea, lost in the wind and the waves, death lashing the sides of their boat, the darkness of night little more than a cold sheet against the encroaching storm. They are, to be sure, terribly afraid. Elijah, too, is afraid. He’s afraid of Jezebel, that she’ll make good on her threats to hunt him down and kill him just like he killed the prophets of Baal. Elijah decides to run from Jezebel, only to end up in the wilderness during the dark of night, ironically begging for the mercy provided by the very same death from which he was running. It would seem a dark despair had overtaken him, darker and deeper even than the cave in which he hid.
And then, into both of these stories, God shows up…but once again, he doesn’t turn on the lights. In fact, when the disciples see Jesus walking towards them on the water, they become even more afraid. “It’s a ghost!” they cry out. What else could it have been? Of course, what is most strange about this is that Jesus appears simply unfazed by the wind and the waves and the storm. Mark tells us that he didn’t even plan to stop; he was just going to walk on by, casually making his way to the other side, leaving the disciples behind to struggle interminably against the wind and the rain. But he does stop, and because he does, we get one of the most powerfully vivid looks at the character and ways of God.
The story is a familiar one. Peter, needing some confirmation that Jesus isn’t really a ghost, puts him to the test. “If it really is you, Jesus, command me to step out of this boat and onto the water.” We like to think that the miracle here is all about two guys walking on water, but it’s not. In the ancient Mediterranean mind – and still in many of ours, no doubt – the deep, dark sea was the place of the unknown. It was chaos personified. When God at the beginning of Genesis parts the waters, he’s not just placing rocks in a puddle; he’s subduing chaos. He’s ordering disorder. To step out of the boat and into the raging sea was to risk being consumed by all of this; it was a risk only God conceivably could take, and Peter asks Jesus to prove he’s God by calling him out into the chaos, deeper and further into the dark. And right there is another strange thing about this story: Peter doesn’t do what any sensible person would do. He doesn’t ask Jesus to calm the storm. Instead, he asks Jesus to invite him out into the darkness, into the raging sea. For all of Peter’s “little faith,” I can’t imagine a more counter-intuitive first step. That’s not the way I would go, but it’s the way of the disciple, into the teeth of the storm.
But if Peter’s vision of Jesus as someone who invites you to join him out in the darkness and the chaos has got you rethinking this whole discipleship thing, then the story of Elijah may be even more striking. After witnessing an altar virtually swimming in water burn up in an awesome display of divine power, Elijah finds himself running for his life from a vindictive queen. In today’s part of that story, we discover him all alone in the desert, in a cave on a mountaintop even, suffering under a dark cloud of despondency and isolation so thick that he can only pray for the death he just ran from. And here, of all places, he finds God. But not how we would expect. God’s not in the gale-force wind, nor in the earth-shattering quake, nor even – as Elijah just saw days before – in the all-consuming fire. No, God here is in the sound of sheer silence. When evening falls so hard, when we’re weary and feeling small, when times get rough and friends just can’t be found, when darkness comes and pain is all around…God is there. When the spiritual high of seeing God move mightily in the world succumbs to the deep and dark that is too often normality…God is there. When the waters begin to boil under our boat and fear begins to set in, God is there.
It is remarkably difficult to find a commentator who reads God’s sheer silence as anything other than the sweet and intimate “still small voice” of a Thomas Kinkade painting. I have said it before, we can’t stand for long the God who walks in the dark, the God of the oppressed, the God of the starving and the sick – the God of the unwanted. We want our God to be the God of eternal light, someone up there in a faraway place to which we can escape in our dreams. We want him to be our own personal genie, of sorts, our God of Immediacy: Flip the switch! Turn on the lights! Save me, now! End my suffering! Make me rich! We’re too much like Elijah; we want God to come in guns blazing, a great God of fire and fury wreaking havoc upon all our enemies and always in our name. But, God, our God, comes in the sheer silence. He’s in the wilderness, in the desert, upon the troubled waters – in all those places where God would seem most absent and where we feel most alone, it is there that we find God. Because that’s where he needs to be.
At first, Elijah doesn’t quite get it. He experiences the God of Sheer Silence only to miss its significance. He’s still waiting on God to swoop in and make everything right. But instead of offering Elijah anything of the sort, God gives him a command: “Go! Go back to the wilderness! Go back to the conflict! Go back to the risk!” It’s a demanding reminder of Elijah’s commission as a prophet and, as such, a harsh reality check on his expectations. We find out in verse 19 that Elijah finally does get it, at least he gets it enough to obey, and like Peter, he finally steps back out into the dark and into the chaos that is the life of the disciple.
It’s easy to miss here what makes such obedience possible, even if it’s only a little faith. When the frightened disciples, holding tightly to their boat, white-knuckled, wonder if Jesus is a ghost, he responds with two immensely significant words: ego eimi. “I AM” – the name of God. There, calmly walking upon the waters of chaos in the midst of darkness, is the Lord of Chaos, the Creator of the world. In the context of the Bible’s typical visions of God, it’s an announcement even more frightening than the raging sea. One does not see God’s face and live. Even Moses could only catch a glimpse of God’s back. But in Matthew’s context, it’s a call to look straight into the very eyes of the Son of God – powerful, wild, and untamed eyes, but also full of mercy and compassion. Likewise, when Elijah at last steps off the mountain, it’s in response to a call to trust in the one who is Lord even in the Silence, whose work goes on even when we feel most abandoned and alone.
There is a long tradition of seeing the disciples’ boat as the Church itself — the community of us Christians — tossed about on the waves in the dark. It is a reminder that our discipleship isn’t easy and that we should expect troubled waters and long stretches of sheer silence. That’s the consequence of being a church of broken people in a broken world. But, the lesson to be learned from these two passages is that the character of the church and of our discipleship is derived straight from the character of God and how he acts in the world. As Tom Long, one of my favorite preachers, once remarked: “The church is what it is because Jesus is who he is.”
The challenge here, then, is not to lose sight of Jesus, because when we do – when we look away from the face of God, when we fear the wind and the waves and the chaos more than we trust the Lord over the Waters and the God who is there even in the Silence – we cannot survive, and we certainly cannot survive as the church.
In the light of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, it would seem that there has rarely been a time when this is more needed. A friend of mine was watching the news about that young white nationalist from Ohio, the one who raced his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. This friend looked up at me with only sad confusion. All he could get out were three words: “I don’t understand.” Such violent hatred, born out of a fear of difference and change and the loss of “power,” only makes sense in a world of silence, in a world where we cannot see each other, where we are unable to communicate, to understand, to love. Few have captured this reality better than Paul Simon:
And in the naked light I saw Ten thousand people, maybe more People talking without speaking People hearing without listening People writing songs that voices never share No one dare Disturb the sound of silence.
God is active in this silence because he is fundamentally concerned with us as a people, not simply as individuals. Our lives, in all their brilliant and beautiful difference, are meant to be shared. We are fundamentally social beings. We are meant to give ourselves over to the other, to be for others rather than for ourselves. This is what we call “solidarity,” and its enemy is “power.”
As it is too often practiced today, power is simply the ability to coerce and control. It is legalized bullying. Jesus undermines such power; he turns it on its head. The cross of crucifixion was considered a convincing public display of imperial power. Jesus transformed it into the epicenter of a new kind of power born in gentleness and vulnerability, a power aimed not at coercion and control but at compassion and communion. Such power drives out fear because it sees the other not as someone against me but as someone fundamentally for us. This is why all kinds of violence run counter to the gospel:
When you’re down and out When you’re on the street When evening falls so hard I will comfort you, I’ll take your part. When darkness comes And pain is all around Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down.
When Art Garfunkel sings this in his un-replicable high falsetto, I can’t imagine a better picture of what Jesus understands to be true power. It is the broken body of Christ that leads us through the dark and stormy waters, just as it is the broken body of Christ that heals them. The Lord of the Waters – like the God of the Silence – is, first and foremost, the God of Peace, the God of Compassion, the God of Shalom.
Holy God, help us to be your disciples who through your grace and your sacrificial kind of power proclaim your truth with boldness, perform your justice with compassion, and love all of our neighbors and strangers with faithfulness. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.