Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 9 Sunday 13 August 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: 1 Kings 19.9-18; Ps. 85.8-13; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks.
Elijah’s response is a bit of a moan:: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars and slain they prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”
What has brought Elijah, not just to this place but to this state of despair?
In the story the First Book of Kings tells, Elijah has just won a spectacular victory. On Mount Carmel he had successfully challenged the prophets of Baal, the servants of the pagan Queen Jezebel, to a contest. Both had to call on God to send fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice. The pagan prophets’ prayers went unanswered but Elijah’s were heard and fire came down from heaven.
In the aftermath, the prophets of Baal were executed. Elijah is not a patron saint of inter-faith dialogue; not someone we should take as our model in relationships with people of other faiths. In fact, the scriptures do not record any instruction from God to carry out this massacre.
“A week,” they say, “is a long time in politics.” The pendulum can swing very quickly. Jezebel’s prophets may be dead but she isn’t. She returns, breathing threats of vengeance against Elijah. Triumph turns to peril; victory to flight. He flees to the wilderness to escape Jezebel’s hit-men.
There, he sits down under a broom tree. Fearful and depressed, he asks God that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.” He lies down to sleep, only to be woken by an angel, who tells him to “Arise and eat,” and there is bread and water. He eats and drinks and lies down again, but once more the angel appears, prods him awake and says, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.” Elijah may wish that it was all over, but God is not done with him yet. After eating and drinking, he sets off on a forty day trek to Horeb, the mountain of God, the alternative name for Sinai, where Moses had received the Law.
And that is where we find him, sheltering in a cave. There God addresses that question to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” After hearing his lament, God sends him out of the cave and stand on the mountain, the mountain of revelation. There he experiences spectacular natural phenomena, like those which accompanied Moses receiving God’s word for the people. But God, we are told, was not present in them. Instead, wind and earthquake and fire are succeeded by “a still small voice,” or “a sound of sheer silence.”
From that silence comes a voice which repeats the question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah repeats his lament, but God will have none of it. He sends Elijah to anoint kings and his own successor as prophet, Elisha, who will defeat Jezebel and her husband Ahab. God tells him that he is not as alone as he thinks: there is a faithful remnant who have not bowed to Baal.
You and I have not trekked forty days and forty nights to get to church this morning, but we have come to the house of God, to the place where we may hear his word and where we might be fed with bread for our journey; for the task we must undertake for God.
And so, the question which God addresses to Elijah he addresses to us as well: “What are you doing here?” He addresses it to me: “What are you doing here, Moses?” I might respond, perhaps with a touch of irritation: “Lord, you know perfectly well what I am doing here: the same as I have been doing for the last forty years and more – tending to your flock, labouring in your vineyard, sent to preach.”
But what God is asking me, asking all of us, is: “Are you just here to seek refuge, a hiding place from the burden and stress and weariness of it all? Are you here because, like the boat in the gospel, the ship of the Church is battered, literally “tortured” by the waves, far from the safety of the shore, with the wind against it? Do we feel, with the disciples and the early Christians facing hostility and persecution, for whom Matthew wrote, that the Jesus who had promised to be with them always, is conspicuous more by his absence? Are you here looking for comfort at a time when the Church seems to be a shipwreck: its reputation stained by moral scandals; its hope eroded by statistics of decline?
Or have we come to hear what God is asking us to do now? “I know,” he says, “what you have done in the past, but I’m not finished with you yet. For if you listen, to that still small voice, that sound of sheer silence, which can only be heard when wait in silence, then you will hear that you are not alone; not only are you part of a community of faith, but I am with you. You will hear, too, what I want you to do for me now and tomorrow and the rest of your days, until it is your time to die.
It is reported that Pope Francis has put a notice on his door which can be translated as, “No whining; no complaining” I get the point. It is all too tempting for us to sit down, either on our own or together, under our broom tree and have a good moan.
That does not mean that we cannot cry out to God in our prayers with Peter, “Lord, save me.” As Paul says in the Epistle: “Everyone who calls in the name of the Lord will be saved.” There is tradition of prayer in scriptures, and especially in the psalms, of prayers of lament. In them we can tell God just how things are with us. We do not need to pretend that all in our garden is rosy, that all in the parish or at home or work, is wonderful. We can tell God about our fears and failures.
When I was preparing this sermon, I was reminded of the truth of what St. Paul says in the epistle, borrowing from the Book of Deuteronomy: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”
So, in the Psalter at Evening Prayer yesterday, we read in Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble;
Therefore we will not fear though the earth be moved, and though the mountains tremble in the heart of the sea;
Though the waters rage and swell, and though the mountains quake in the towering seas.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place of the dwelling of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; therefore shall she not be removed; God shall help her at the break of day.
The nations are in uproar and the kingdoms are shaken, but God utters his voice and the earth shall melt away.
Be still and know that I am God…
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
But in scripture’s prayers of lament complaint does not usually have the last word: the last word is of faith and trust in God.
The Christian tradition of prayer which looks back to Elijah as its forebear is the Carmelite one; whose great figures are Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux. Last week the Church remembered one of Carmel’s more recent saints: Edith Stein, the daughter of a devout Jewish family, a brilliant philosopher who became a Christian after reading St. Teresa’s autobiography and who became a Carmelite. She was murdered in Auschwitz.
The life of a Carmelite nun would seem to be about as far removed from yours and mine as it is possible to get, but there are things we can learn from that life.
In her rule, Teresa set out to guard space for her sisters to pray. So they lived within an enclosure; not as a prison but as a place safeguarded for prayer. They lived by a timetable of prayer, silence, and work – so that time was used not wasted. We need to mark out and defend times and places of prayer, times when we pray together and times when we pray on our own; times when we can be still and know God; when we can hear the voice which speaks to us from the silence; when we can know his word “in our hearts and on our lips.”
But Teresa’s sisters were also to have two periods each day for recreation, for friendship and even for fun; for mutual encouragement. She said once, “Lord save me from miserable nuns.” She would even get her castanets out and dance to cheer them up. We need such times and such recreational friendship in our Christian lives: to share joys and sorrows with true friends. We are to encourage and affirm, not to enroll others in a conspiracy of complaint. We are to encourage the best in each other, not the worst.
At the heart of the Carmelite tradition of prayer is looking to Jesus, the contemplation of the humanity of Jesus.
Peter begins to sink when he looks away from Jesus and sees the waves.
In my preparation for this sermon, I came across something in a commentary which I had not heard before. Peter’s “if it is you, Lord,” echoes Satan’s “If you are the Son of God…” in the temptations in the wilderness; to do something spectacular: turn stones into bread, or throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple.
Peter hears Jesus say: Take heart. It is I, have no fear.” But he still seeks some spectacular reassurance. He knows that Jesus had been left behind on the land. We know that Jesus is left back there in history. In a world where his promise to be with us seems hard to believe, we might like some spectacular experience to reassure us that it is really so. So we can sympathise with Peter because we are like him.
Matthew wants to warn us against this kind of putting God to the test. The message is not “if he had had enough faith, Peter could have walked in the water;” “if we had enough faith,” we could overcome our problems in spectacular ways. That is to identify faith with spectacular exceptions to the warp and woof of our ordinary days, days subject to the laws of physics and biology. This is wrong because when our fantasies of overcoming this web are shattered by the realities of accident, disease, age and circumstance and we begin to sink, we then feel guilty because of our “lack of faith.”
The message of this text is really: “If Peter had had enough faith, he would indeed have believed the word of Jesus that came to him in the boat as mediating the presence and reality of God”? Faith is not being able to walk on water – only God can do that – but daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves; that the word is near to us, that he gives us food for the journey, that he is with us to the end of the ages.