Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon: What are you doing here?

What are you doing here?

Summer weather, summer freedom. Instead of being and doing here this morning, you could be doing anywhere under the sun instead of sitting in church. And your mind probably is, is anywhere. I know, mine is. I’m on Shell Island, where you were last Sunday morning.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” 

Elijah bragging piously about his piety, to which Yahweh, Adonai the Lord, says, 

‘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 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 the sound of no sound at all. 

What do you hear from God in response to your prayers? From the God of Elijah, what do you hear? Anything? What do you expect to hear? What do you hope to hear? What are you listening for?

In an email to all of us in the diocese this week, Bishop Russell Kendrick told about his experience with young people at summer camp, a “Leaders in Training” session for the youth at Camp Beckwith. 

The bishop said, “We … talked about how an apostle must listen for the voice of God amidst all the other voices we hear.  So, I asked them to name the voices they hear.  (He said) they told me about parents, teachers, friends, coaches, culture, and their own inner voice. They live in a very loud world and some of what they hear is downright discouraging.

(The bishop said) “I also asked them to share their answers to this question: ‘In this noisy world, what is it that they most want to hear?’ These are a few of their answers:

  • I love you.
  • God's voice.  I don't want to wonder whether it is my imagination.
  • We trust you.
  • It’s all going to be OK one day.
  • I am proud of you.
  • I am enough.
  • You are worth it.
  • You are amazing and beautiful.

I was intrigued with one response, the boy or girl, the young man or woman who, in response to the bishop’s question “what is it that you most want to hear?” said “God’s voice. I don’t want to wonder whether it’s my imagination.”

It makes me ask: did Elijah wonder whether it was his imagination? If Elijah was sane, he must have wondered. Risking your judgment on my sanity, I’ve confessed to once, only once, and it was thirty-two years ago, late dark of night, February 13th, 1984, hearing the voice of God; God wiping my mind of all distractions and in response to my prayer, saying clearly, “I AM speaking to you, Tom Weller.” And here I am, nearly half my life later, knowing what I heard, but over the years wondering whether it was my imagination. Especially seeing that it was only that one time, while God’s response to all the other prayers of my life, before and since that moment, has been the sound of no sound, the sound of sheer silence. Am I insane? Or am I not listening?

A one-time serious amateur astronomer, I’ve gazed far too distant out into the universe of sun, moon, galaxies, planets and stars to be anybody’s fool. Elijah’s chariot of fire and horses of fire notwithstanding, God does not dwell beyond the clouds, nor high in the sky outside the blue bowl of the firmament, as the ancients believed. There is no blue bowl, it’s just the vast expanse of interstellar space, filled with objects greater than my imagination. And anyway, God is Spirit.

When you pray, what do you hear, what do you expect to hear, what are you listening for when you speak to God in prayer? What do you hope to hear — in response — ???

With me that one single time, it was a still, small voice. “I AM speaking to you, Tom Weller.” Still to this day, telling about it makes me foolish, embarrassed, a bit off, mentally unbalanced. But no, I confess, I heard it. A still, small voice, not the sound of sheer silence. Always since then, the sound of silence, but just that one time, a still, small voice.

There is a question in the community of Bible reading Christians. (Check it out online if you will, I have) probably not so much among Jews, those who speak and read the Hebrew: at First Kings 19, what did Elijah hear after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, in which he knew the presence of Yahweh the Lord? The “still, small voice” of the King James Bible is literal, and in English becomes poetic imagery, but that’s not what the Hebrew idiom says. Elijah heard nothing, zero in mathematical terms, less than zero, math concepts that did not even exist in Elijah’s time, not simply the sound of sheer silence, but the sound of no sound at all. If you are turning down the music volume on your iPod, you have to turn it down to minus ten to hear the voice of God, and there’s no such setting, less than no sound, a negative volume. What utter nonsense — except mathematically —

That’s the answer I hear to my prayers, how about you? I get no answer from the sky, I hear nothing, less than nothing. The overly pious (which I am not) may rationalize God’s silence by shaking their head “wisely” and saying, “sometimes God’s answer is No,” but that’s a crock: cheesy theology, and cheap faith that squirms to let God off the hook like last week’s pagan Baal who did not or could not light the fire to burn the sacrifice of the false prophets, the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18, we read the story right here just a couple weeks ago). Elijah laughed when the 450 prophets of Baal prayed and shouted and danced and chanted and cut themselves such that they bled profusely. Because we Episcopalians are nothing if not “people of good taste,” you heard a sanitized version of the story, but what the Hebrew bible says is that when hours and hours had gone by and Baal did not show up, Elijah laughed, mocking them with scorn and derision, “Maybe it’s Baal’s day off. Maybe he’s in the outhouse, Maybe your god is sitting on the john!” yuk yuk yuk - - -

But here we are too with a God whom scripture says can and did answer prayer (if what we read is true, Yahweh certainly responded to Elijah’s prayer) but what about me: Is my experience that He does not and will not, so maybe cannot; (he would if he could, but he won’t, so he can’t).

That’s foolish! With faith in the God of Jesus Christ, I’m standing on the promise, standing on the promises of Christ my King, standing on the promises of God my savior - - “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.” There’s no promise of a voice, the clarion voice of God, no such promise. The promise is of God’s presence. Within and beyond the din of noisy life, I have to listen and peer into the silence, the sound of no sound at all, the volume at minus ten, where there’s no sound but the static of the universe. 

As the bishop said, listening for the voice of God amidst all the other voices we hear — parents, teachers, friends, coaches, culture, and their own inner voice. What about you, what voices do you hear? What voices have I heard? 

The voice of God in the people around me asking, “Tom, did you ever think of going to seminary and becoming a priest?” Yes, I thought of that long ago; and long ago decided not to, don’t keep bugging me about it. (I’ve told you that story, and not again this morning). I’m here today because of God’s obnoxious voice in the people around me, hounding me.

Who or what is God? My theology professor at seminary answered the question this way - - 

God is whoever or whatever said “Let there be,” and it was so — the sound of the Big Bang (which was the sound of sheer silence, the sound of no sound at all because there were no ear drums to hear it, nobody listening.

God is whoever or whatever created us male and female in the divine image.

God is whoever or whatever led the people of Israel out of Egypt. 

God is whoever or whatever Jesus called “Abba,” “Father.” “Daddy.” 

God is whoever or whatever raised Jesus from the dead.

And my answer today:

God is whoever or whatever is in the midst of us when two or three gather in God’s name — as we are this morning, this moment — God present in the Word. Spoken by each of us, to each other.

Lord, in your mercy: hear our prayer.

Sermon in Holy Nativity Episcopal Church, Panama City, Florida on Sunday, June 19, 2016. Proper 7C. 1 Kings 19:1-15a. The Rev. Tom Weller

When I was at seminary thirty-five years ago, our homiletics professor advised us never print and publish our sermons; but that if we had no choice, make sure it says what we meant to say or should have said, over against what we actually did say. I’m afraid this one hasn’t been edited. Raw.


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