Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Bloom Where You Are Planted": A Thanksgiving and Reign of Christ Sermon on Jeremiah 29

Scripture can be found here....

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. ~Jeremiah 29:11


There’s no place like home for the holidays.

Home is that place where, when you show up there, they have to take you in.

Feels like home to me, feels like home to me… feels like I’m all the way back where I come from.

But what about when there is no home? Or, there is a home, but you can’t get there. Or, you need to find a new home for financial reasons, or health reasons, or safety reasons.

What about when you are forcibly removed from your home?

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

We are now in a part of the story of God’s people that is so important, so central to their identity, it ranks on a scale with the experience of slavery and Exodus. We are, with this morning’s passage from Jeremiah, at the beginning of that period known as the Babylonian exile.

The history: Assyria is no longer the great superpower of the Ancient Near East; it has been conquered by Babylon. And, just as in a corporate takeover, Babylon has taken to itself all of Assyria’s lands and wealth, including Judah.

Then, somewhere in the vicinity of 597 BCE, during the reign of King Jeconiah, Judah chose to stage a protest against its occupier. It chose not to send its tribute (which is to say, taxes). Babylon responded. You’ve heard the phrase, “using a nuclear bomb to kill a fly”? Babylon did that. The mighty empire invaded Jerusalem, looting the temple and carrying off its many treasures. Babylon also removed the king and his court, replacing him with a puppet-ruler.

King Jeconiah, the royal family, the court officials, the leaders of Judah (including the temple priests), the artisans, and the smiths, were all taken to Babylon. All the leadership, gone.

This is part of a political and military strategy known as “decapitation,” in which all the elites—the learned, the powerful, those who can read, write, strategize, inspire—they are all either killed or removed. This leaves behind only the poorest and the most powerless.

“Home” is no more. “Home” is a distant unreachable land for those who have been carried away. And “home” is forever changed and made unfamiliar for those who are left behind. “Home” is no more for the exiles.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Here’s what God tells the exiles through the voice of this prophet Jeremiah:

Build houses and move in. Plant gardens and eat what you grow. Get married. Settle down. Have a family. When the time comes, encourage your children to do the same.

Live. Don’t just survive. Thrive. Bloom where you are planted.

This is not always what our instincts tell us to do. We can spend a lot of time railing against the present circumstances, and understandably so, whether our sense of exile is about external relocation or internal dislocation. We can feel exiled in the same house we’ve lived in all our lives when we experience a surprising and unwelcome change in our health, or a disruption of an important relationship. When our children leave home—or when, kicked around by a nasty job market, they come back.

Exile is a state of the heart as much as it is a state of the body, and a state of the mind as much as it is the state of the nation. And God’s instructions to the exiles have to do with returning to and embracing those habits of the heart that have always signified God’s care and concern for them. A safe place to live. Good nourishing food to eat and no one going hungry. Smiling faces around a table. Generations gathered together. Making a home where there was no home.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

God throws a little surprise in with the instructions. Did you notice it?

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. ~Jeremiah 29:7

God goes beyond the old habits of the heart to an entirely new one. For anyone who’s ever immersed himself or herself in the history of God’s people, there has not been a whole lot of seeking the welfare of the people who are more often than not described as “the enemy”. The people who have ruined our lives, messed up our government, caused us to lose our homes and leaders and sense of a world we recognize. God has, often, been party to, and cheering on those who, wiped such people out.

Not here. Not now. Seek the welfare of those you are inclined not to trust. Pray to the Lord your God for the very soldiers who came into the temple you were serving and bodily removed you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” [Matthew 5:43-45] Thus says the king we honor today, on the Sunday marking the Reign of Christ.”

How can we read this passage here on Thanksgiving Sunday and not think about our own history as a nation? How can we not wonder about the role of our own ancestors in sending others into exile? How can we read this and not think about the experience of Native Americans, people indigenous to this land, who were forced to walk a trail of tears, and who still live with disproportionate amounts of mental illness, depression, addiction and crime? In the assigned roles of Jeremiah 29, the Native Americans are God’s covenant people. The European settlers are Babylon.

And just as in Jeremiah 29, this is not about blame, or plans for revenge. This is about: what shall we do now? And it occurs to me, why shouldn’t God’s instruction apply to the occupiers as well?

Live in your houses. Plant your gardens and eat what you grow. Cultivate relationships that feel like family. Live fully into the relationships that are God gifts to you. Be grateful for your unique and beautiful reflection of God’s image. Settle down. And seek the welfare of those who are still in exile. For in their welfare, you will find your welfare.

Habits of the heart die hard. God invites us to bloom where we are planted anyway. God invites us to live and thrive. God invites us to trust that there is a future for us, that is even better than we can imagine. God invites us to invest ourselves in the promise that we will learn a new and more expansive definition of “home.”

And God invites us to a life where turn to our neighbors, to see whether they too are blooming. God invites us to see whether others, too, are living and thriving. God invites us to trust that there is a future for all of us, that is even better than we can imagine. God invites us to invest ourselves in the promise that we will learn and live out and share with one another a new and more expansive definition of “home.”

A safe place to live. For all. Good nourishing food to eat and no one going hungry. Smiling faces around a table. Generations gathered together. Home.

Home, that place where, when you show up there, they have to take you in.

There’s no place like home.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.


Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Boots, Blood, and Babies: Sermon on Isaiah 9

Scripture can be found here...

There are some biblical passages it is incredibly hard to hear with fresh ears: this is surely one of them. Sing it with me:

For unto us a child is born!
Unto us… a Son is given!

Georg Friedrich Handel has made it nearly impossible for us to hear these words of Isaiah without also hearing his glorious setting from “Messiah,” surely the greatest oratorio of all time.

And, by extension, has made it nearly impossible for us to hear these words without thinking of Christmas. Not too long after Jesus walked the hills of Galilee, his followers started scouring their scriptures—what we would call the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament—for words to illuminate their experience of his presence among them. They found many, and this was one of them. Again, we could sing it:

Wonderful Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

Since that time, Christians have understood these words to point forward to Jesus—that’s why we normally hear this passage on Christmas Eve. Jews, too, have come to understand these words to point to a some-time-in-the-future Messiah.

Today, however, we are going to try to hear the words of the prophet in their original context. This is going to take some work, because the original context is not an easy one. To help us reframe it, I’d like to share some words from the English poet Wilfred Owen. The poem is called “Dulce et decorum est.”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots 
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.[i]

In that last line, Owen quotes the Roman poet Horace, who said, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”—“It is sweet and good to die for one’s country.” Owen calls that, “the old Lie.”

I know that was jarring to hear, juxtaposed with that gorgeous passage from Isaiah. Owen was born in Shropshire, England to a working class family and modestly educated. He was a soldier in World War I. “Dulce et decorum est” is typical of the shocking, realistic poetry that gained him the reputation as THE English language poet of that war. The poem describes a poison gas attack. Every war seems to add new and horrifying ways in which human beings can harm one another, and the use of various kinds of poison gas was one of distinguishing features of that war. Owen was killed in action a week—almost to the hour—before the signing of the Armistice. He was 25.

In every age, it is as it ever was. In an 1879 speech to the graduating class at Michigan Military Academy, retired General William Tecumseh Sherman said,

I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here.

Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell![ii]

This is it—the context of our passage today from the prophet Isaiah—a long and bloody siege of the southern kingdom of Judah by the mighty Assyrian Empire.  It is late in the 8th century BCE, and the northern kingdom has already been swallowed up, and is no more. Just as Owen wrote his poetry, Assyrian artists also worked to preserve memories of war: cities mowed down, as if they’d had Panzers and poison gas at their command instead of Iron Age chariots.

And if you look again, you’ll see that the memory of war is tucked right into this passage. Hear again how the words conjure up the images: walking in darkness…the dividing of plunder… the rods of oppressors… the boots of tramping warriors… the garments rolled in blood…

War is hell.  The prophet Isaiah agrees. It is a particular hell that we human beings seem hell-bent on inflicting on ourselves, over and over again.

And yet, that is not our take-away from this passage. That is not the final word, when God has something to say about it. Isaiah points people to the sign: a baby.

We are accustomed to associating this passage with one particular baby born about eight centuries later, in Bethlehem. The words of prophets are always spoken in a particular time and place, but they also find new meaning in new times. When Isaiah is writing , Ahaz the King of Judah, has his back to the wall. In order to fight a war against the northern kingdom he had allied himself with Assyria. And now Judah is a wholly owned and occupied vassal-state. The king is a king in name only. The glorious era of the Kings of Judah seems to be at an end.

But then, Ahaz becomes a father. Isaiah announces the good news:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.              ~Isaiah 9:6-9

Yes, there has been war. And it has been brutal and bloody. But God is not finished. God has something else to say. God has something else to do.

And Hezekiah, that baby, grows up to be very unlike his father. He undertakes sweeping reforms of the religious practices of the people of Judah, re-establishing worship of the one true God.

For the moment, he is still a baby. But the promise of this baby is enough to open the hearts of the people to other glorious possibilities…

That where there was darkness, there will be light…

That where there was sorrow, there will be joy…

There where there were shoulders bowed down with burden, there will be lightness and freedom…

That where there were warriors’ boots and blood-stained garments, there will be a roaring fire, providing warmth…

That where there was war, there will be peace.

God comes into our most desolate places, the places where we are the most destroyed and hopeless, and plants tiny seeds of hope. For Isaiah and the people of Judah, it was a powerless little baby. For us… what is it?

What is your tiny little seed of hope?  What is your flickering flame, springing up in the darkness?

For me, the SNAP challenge is one such little seed. A handful of people trying to live empathetically for just one week, by living on the typical food stamp allotment.

Another is this: The president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, will camp with the people of Tacloban, the area most devastated by last week’s typhoon, until help arrives.

And another: Hundreds of people in San Francisco turned out this week to help a little boy with Leukemia, Miles Scott, step out of the reality of living with cancer, and instead live his dream of being a superhero crime fighter, BatKid.

And another seed of hope: you. I look out at this congregation, and there is not one person here whose kindness I haven’t seen, whose empathy hasn’t shone in some way, whose love hasn’t been demonstrated—whether for someone else in this community, or for strangers far away, or for me.

God comes into our most desolate places, and plants seeds of hope. I invite you this week to tune your vision, sharpen your hearing, stir your senses to notice seeds of hope. Faces, places, moments, times when…

Where there was darkness someone shone a light…

Where there was sorrow someone brought joy…

Where shoulders were bowed down, someone lightened a load…

Where there were signs of conflict, someone brought peace.

God is busy, zealous, already doing all these things. All we need to do is notice, and to say, all thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et decorum est,”,
[ii] William Tecumseh Sherman, as quoted by Dr. Charles O. Brown in the Battle Creek Enquirer and News, 18 November, 1933.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Justice for All: Sermon on Amos 1 and 5

Scripture can be found here...

Imagine a person, called by God, coming to upstate New York from Long Island to preach God’s word to us.

Now imagine a person from Alabama coming here to do the same. Or from Brazil. South Africa. The Philippines.

We might be open to that. We might be grateful. Or, our reactions might fall on a spectrum with “puzzled” at one end and “indignant” on the other.

For your consideration: the 8th century BCE prophet Amos, a native of the kingdom of Judah, sent by God to preach to the kingdom of Israel. A quick history review: About two generations after David, the monarchy and kingdom the people had longed for split in two, resulting in a divided kingdom: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Amos has been uprooted by God from his modest living as a shepherd (or a landscaper—on the whole, we can say that Amos worked outdoors) to bring his prophet’s voice to a land not his own.

And now, before we go any further: What is a prophet? Despite popular opinion, prophets are not about mystically foretelling tomorrow’s or next month’s or next year’s headlines. Prophets are not sent to give us the Lotto numbers. Prophets are sent to give us the God’s eye view of what is happening today, right now. And, it stands to reason, that a prophet might offer some insight, based on where we are now, as to where we are headed. That’s where the future comes in. Here’s a saying to remember: prophecy is not “foretelling,” it’s “forth-telling.” Prophets are called by God to forthrightly tell the truth.

And, oh my, Amos sounds cranky. The sins of the kings fall into two broad categories: wrong worship (either the wrong gods or the wrong place) and justice (really, the lack of it.)

We have just a few snippets to work with. Amos’ first words are:

The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem… ~Amos 1:2a

Here we are told why this prophet from the south is empowered to speak the truth to the north: Jerusalem, also known as Zion, is the location of God’s temple. It is God’s home. In Amos’s day, it is regarded by those in the south as the only legitimate place of worship.

As you can imagine, this is extremely awkward for the northern kingdom—that the only legitimate place of worship is in the southern kingdom. Imagine if we had to go to Atlanta for church. Naturally, the kings of Israel respond by building shrines up north, because of their anxiety that pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the south might stir up the feelings of the people against this whole divided monarchy thing, and the kings can’t have that.

Amos is speaking for God, from God’s recognized authentic home on earth. And, Amos says, God’s voice roars from the divine home base in Jerusalem.  Cranky prophet. But really, at this point, cranky God.

God is roaring about worship and justice (or, more to the point, worship and injustice). God’s people are really good at worship. They have festivals and solemn assemblies. They make burnt offerings and grain offerings and offerings of well-being to God (in their not-quite-legitimate northern shrines). They sing! They play the harp! Add an organ and a handbell choir, and we could all agree—they’re good to go!

But God wants none of it. Rather than a rolling melody, God wants justice to roll down. Rather than a flowing chant, God wants righteousness to flow.

So what is justice?

As 21st century Americans, we have our own notions of justice. We begin to learn and discern what justice is at a very young age, before we even know the word. For some of us, it comes in the voice of our mother, or our Sunday school teacher, telling us “Share with one another. It’s the right thing to do.” And into the file it goes, waiting for a word to describe it. Then we are taught to pledge our allegiance, our loyalty, to the flag. And the final lines hold a promise about the nation behind the flag: “liberty and justice for all.” Into the file it goes.

Our ideas evolve into adulthood, and if we have any education in civics or government, our sense of its meaning probably includes something like this: Justice means that people are held responsible for their actions. Those who are guilty are appropriately punished. Those who are innocent are appropriately set free to live their lives in peace. And the determination of guilt and innocence are made in a court of law, free from bias of any kind. And, and this is important, in the system of justice under which we live, people are considered “innocent until proven guilty” beyond a reasonable doubt.

But our notions of justice find themselves shaped by things other than childhood lessons in fairness and civics. A local paper starts publishing stories of arrests. And there are their photographs, these people whom our system tells us should be considered innocent until the court system proves otherwise.

Or we go to the gym, where, while we’re on the elliptical or the treadmill, there is a television on which we can see a stories unfolding about tragic abductions and sensational murder trials.

Eventually we realize that when we talk about “justice,” what we really mean is “crime and punishment.” Justice used to mean “fairness,” and now it means “retribution.”

Here’s what the bible has to say about justice.

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  ~Deuteronomy 10:17-18

Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.  ~Amos 5:11-12

I did a search—it’s easy to do on the internet, just go to Bible Gateway[i] or Oremus Bible Browser[ii]. Out of 124 Hebrew Scriptures passages where the word “justice” is found, fewer than ten were using it in terms of punishment for crimes committed. Passage after passage about fairness, about caring for the most vulnerable in society—widows, orphans, and strangers—which is to say, immigrants, aliens.

God’s idea of justice is much closer to what we learned as little children, our first lessons on sharing with one another, than with anything held out to us as justice by popular culture. The justice God seeks is much closer to what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for in his speech at the March on Washington, when he used Amos’s words and called for “justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The cranky God who roars through Amos’s words is issuing a challenge. Amos has been sent to confront a nation whose values as proclaimed in worship are far, far removed from its values as lived out. Their worship, even in the wrong locations, is beautiful. Their treatment of society’s most vulnerable is ugly.

It is so easy to look away. It got cold this week, and on Friday night I snuggled down in front of a warm fire to watch Great Performances on PBS. Also on Friday I said a little prayer that God would let me see when someone was in need, and, boy, did that prayer get answered quickly. On Saturday morning as I got in my car I heard the voice of a man singing—he sounded kind of like the lead singer in “Cake,” actually. When I finally looked around, there he was—one of those folks who looks like he’s in his 70’s but probably is only 40; hard living ages you. White wispy hair blowing in the wind, a little unsteady on his feet, clutching a pillow to his chest as he walked down the street at 7:30 in the morning. I strongly suspect he spent the night in a place not so warm and cozy.  

It’s easy to be overwhelmed in moments like this. How can we help to heal all the ills of the world? Can we take in every homeless person? Can we feed every hungry one? Can we figure out a solution for those whose problems are rooted in mental illness, or addiction? Pulling our coats around us, and getting in the car, and driving away, seems to be our best option in the face of the impossibility, the enormity of the task. On Saturday morning, that’s what I did.

Here’s what Amos has to say.

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious…  ~Amos 5:14-15

Seek good. (Which, I’m pretty sure, is another way of saying, “Seek God.”) Love good. Love God.

When we have a big, ginormous problem—and let’s face it, that’s what this is, the suffering of so many people, the injustice of so much of that suffering—the only way to tackle it is in tiny little bite-sized increments. The writer Anne Lamott, giving advice to others seeking to be writers, helps them tackle what seems to be the enormous challenge of writing every day by focusing on small, bite-sized pieces of their work. She tells them to keep a one-inch square picture frame on their writing desk. And then she tells them, to simply write enough every day to fill that one-inch frame. That’s it.

We are all people of faith here. Here’s my version of the one-inch picture frame challenge: Pray one tiny prayer each day for some person, some aspect of this big, ginormous problem of justice for all God’s people. Seek the good, seek God—for the suffering. For the oppressed. For the hungry. For the cold.  When we open up the equivalent of a one-inch square in our hearts, I truly believe God fills those little pockets with hope and inspiration and infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Or, collect your three-cents-a-meal. That’s another one-inch approach. Or, take part in the SNAP challenge, and see what it is to have a food budget of $34.50/ week.[iii] Enter into the struggles of others, in a tiny little one-inch kind of way.

Imagine a person coming from, not just another region, not just another state, not just another country, but another time, in every meaningful sense, another world, to preach God’s word to us. Imagine that, at the heart of that word, is a plea: seek God/ seek good. Love good/ love God. Imagine it in the voice of your mother or father, or your Sunday school teacher or favorite coach. Share. It’s the right thing to do. Share with one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[iii] The average Food Stamp benefit for residents of New York; it’s the second highest benefit in the country.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

On Saints and Silence: A Sermon for All Saints Sunday on 1 Kings 19:1-18

Scripture can be found here...

There was a terrific article in last Sunday’s Boston Globe, all about the current offerings to be found in movie theaters, and a theme that seems to tie them all together. Ty Burr of the Globe staff writes,

A man lost at sea.[i] A woman marooned in space.[ii] A ship’s captain torn from his crew,[iii] and a family man torn from his freedom, humanity, even identity.[iv]

Our movies are telling us we’re on our own now. The cavalry isn’t coming and Houston has other problems to deal with. If some cultural seasons celebrate teamwork — good people coming together, easily or not, to work toward a common goal — we seem to be in a moment obsessed with the isolated hero.[v]

You don’t have to be Sandra Bullock cut loose from her tether in the vast expanses of space to feel completely and utterly alone. In the perverse ways of the human psyche, you can feel all alone in the same crowded move theater where you are experiencing her terror and disorientation in 3-D.

As babies, our first developmental milestones have to do with looking at our parents’ faces—connection. Babies who are not held can fail to thrive, because touch is nearly as essential as air and nourishment for our health and well-being. We were created to be connected, to be in families, to be in community.

And yet, we can find ourselves, or feel ourselves, very much alone.

Consider Elijah. Our stories of the kings of Israel and Judah come to a crashing conclusion with the dreadful murderous monarchs Ahab and Jezebel. In today’s passage Jezebel puts a bounty on Elijah’s head after he has executed God’s justice upon the 450 prophets of Baal. It’s a long and bloody story. Elijah, understandably, decides to get out of Dodge. He goes to Judah, which takes him out of the jurisdiction of Ahab and Jezebel, and then, into the wild—towards Mount Horeb, the “mount of God,” also known in scripture as Mount Sinai.

Elijah is going to Mount Sinai, where the people of Israel went when they were wandering in the desert.

Elijah is going to Mount Sinai, where God appeared to Moses and presented him with the tablets containing the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Elijah is going to Mount Sinai. But why?

Elijah’s on his own now. The cavalry seems to have been delayed, perhaps indefinitely, and Houston is having problems of its own. Elijah is our isolated hero.

And so, in this moment, Elijah chooses to return to the place of his ancestors. On this mountain, God gave the covenant that made the people, God’s people. On this mountain, God appeared to Moses and the people in the midst of cloud, and thunder, and lightning, and earthquake, and fire. This is where it all happened. This, in his state of terror and disorientation, is where Elijah wants to be: the place where God came down to meet the people.

It’s different this time, though. This time, God is not in clouds or fire, or earthquake or lightning. God is in… well, listen to all these translations of this tricky little Hebrew phrase.

“a gentle whisper”[vi] … “a sound. Thin. Quiet.”[vii] …“a gentle breeze”[viii] … “a soft murmuring sound”[ix] … “a still small voice”[x] … “a sound of sheer silence”[xi]

Elijah goes searching for a reunion with his ancestors, and reassurance from God, and God’s response is not the great fanfare his ancestors experienced. Elijah finds God in silence.

It’s not that God is not found elsewhere, and it’s no that the earlier experience of Elijah’s ancestors is somehow invalid. God knows many of us have found communion with God in all kinds of places: in worship while singing a hymn that makes us unexpectedly choke up; in a gorgeous vision of autumn leaves swirling in a wind or a beautiful rainbow; looking into the face of someone we love; holding hands in grace around a table.

But sometimes, what we are given is silence.

Some of us are not so very good at silence. I would count myself as falling into this category. While I don’t fill every hour with a TV or radio, I certainly do like something on in my car, whether that is a news station or music or an episode of a podcast I like. It takes discipline for me to carve out time for quiet, discipline I don’t always have access to when I’m feeling stressed—which is usually the time I am most in need of the silence.

We have to make space for silence in this very noisy and distracting world of ours.

In the silence, Elijah is also to hear God’s instruction that he anoint two kings.

In the silence, he also hears this, perhaps startling directive: “You shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place” (1 Kings 19:16b). Elijah is told his days as God’s prophet are coming to a close.

And finally, Elijah is able to hear God provide assurance that, in fact, he is not alone—there is a sizeable faithful remnant, 7000 who have not “bent the knee to Baal,” which is good news. It means that the witness to and worship of God will not disappear with him, but will be carried on by a cloud of witnesses that transcends the relatively small span of his life.

In the still, small voice of God, Elijah is given a powerful and humbling gift: he is given the gift of perspective, like, say, an astronaut who is able, for the first time, to see earth, a small blue marble spinning in the vast expanse of the heavens. Elijah sees his own life, and ministry, and mission—and it is all good, it is very good.

But Elijah is one man, and the Lord of hosts whom Elijah serves is, indeed, the Lord of hosts—untold, countless numbers of faithful people. God’s mission does not begin with Elijah and it does not end with him.

Elijah has just stumbled onto the reality of the communion of saints, which we celebrate today.

In one sense, this is a very sobering reality, the moment when our own mortality is driven home to us. As someone asked me this week, Are you living today in reaction to your job description, or in light of your obituary? It’s a good check-in.

But it is also an incredibly freeing thought. If God has a plan for each of us, work for us to do, then my work isn’t the same as yours, and yours isn’t the same as your co-worker’s, or your spouse’s, or your friend’s. Each of us is free to do the work God has given us—and no more. No less, of course. We have to do our part. But no playing God. No thinking it all depends on us. In the movie “My Fair Lady,” a very angry Eliza Doolittle tries to put Henry Higgins (a guy with a god-complex if there ever was one) in his place by singing, “There’ll be spring every year without you. England still will be here without you! There’ll be fruit on the tree, and a shore by the sea, there’ll be crumpets and tea without you!” The realization that we are members of the communion of saints frees us from the idea that it is all up to us. It reminds us that we are part of a community that extends backwards to the first human beings and forward into a future yet unimagined, except by God. We are not alone. We have companions along the way. God will make sure the earth keeps spinning.

We are not alone, though life can sometimes convince us that we are. I do not want to minimize the reality of loneliness… silence can signify the missing person we so long to see once more. But deeper in the silence is the voice of God, inviting us to do our part in the great and beautiful dance of God’s ministry and creation. And deeper still is a chorus—millions and millions of voices strong, yet made weaker if any of us withholds our voice.

So dance, saints of God! Sing! Join in the joyful mission: listen in the silence for God, and join with your whole heart, and soul, and mind and strength in God’s glorious plan. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Robert Redford in “All Is Lost.”
[ii] Sandra Bullock in “Gravity.”
[iii] Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips.”
[iv] Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”
[v] Ty Burr, “At the Movies, Isolated Heroes Tell Us We’re On Our Own,” Boston Globe. Sunday October 26, 2013,
[vi] New International Version.
[vii] Common English Bible.
[viii] Contemporary English Version.
[ix] Jewish Publication Society.
[x] King James Version.
[xi] New Revised Standard Version.