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.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful reflection on the complexities and challenges of silence.