Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from June 23, 2013
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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for Pentecost 6C
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
June 23, 2013
1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42; Gal. 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
When we meet up with Elijah today he’s at the end of his rope. Here is this prophet who has been so successful, so effective, so faithful. The outer story, the political story, is one of the downfall of Ahab’s house (which would include his charming wife, Jezebel). This is important to the history of Israel’s relationship to YHWH, because Ahab had cemented an alliance with the Phoenicians by marrying Jezebel, and was promoting the worship of the Phoenician god, Baal. Elijah has gotten has begun the work of bringing about this downfall, but it would take others to complete it. Previously we heard of how he faces off against 450 prophets of Baal and sets up an overwhelmingly impressive demonstration of YHWH’s superiority over Baal. Elijah has been so successful that Jezebel has sworn to get revenge on him, and he is fleeing for his life. He sits down under a solitary broom tree, and asks that he might die. He falls asleep, doubtless hoping he will never wake up. But he his awakened by none other than an angel, an angel who has baked him a cake, and provided him with a jug of water. So he eats and drinks. And on the strength of that meal he goes 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb. And he spends the night in a cave.
First of all, note the similarity to that great prophet of the Hebrews, Moses. Elijah is on Mt. Horeb, otherwise known as Mt. Sinai, where God enters into covenantal relationship with Israel through the Ten Commandments through Moses. Like Elijah, Moses too has gotten so discouraged he asks God if he might die. Elijah journey of “40 days and 40 nights,” echoes Moses’ time on the mountain. Elijah is in a cave when God “passes by.” Moses is in a crevice between two boulders when God — same verb — “passes by.” This is deliberate.
So while Elijah is in his cave the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying “what are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah responds, spilling all his agony and hopelessness. And the word of the Lord 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.” The narrator, presumably speaking for Elijah, is looking for God in the wind, in the earthquake, and in the fire. God has often appeared to people in the Old Testament in the titanic forces of nature. But not this time. The wind, the earthquake, the fire, are all the places where Elijah might expect to see God, or whom he understands as God. But this time, by Elijah’s perception, these are empty of God’s presence.
So God is not in the wind, the earthquake, the fire. And then there is “a sound of sheer silence.” You may know this story more familiarly as “the still, small voice.” But “silence” is the truer translation. The sound of nothing. Emptiness.
“Elijah heard it.” “Elijah heard it”! Heard what? Heard God in the sheer silence. What’s going on? No wonder people were more comfortable with a still small voice. Then we can easily say, “the trouble is, we make too much noise. But if we are quiet enough, God will speak to us.” But as convenient as that might be, I want to suggest there is more going on here.
The silence here, the silence of God, sounds like nothing, but it is not nothing. Elijah hears the something in the nothing. He hears something more. This is God beyond spectacular phenomena, beyond words, beyond ideas, beyond dogmas, beyond pictures, beyond forms, beyond thoughts about God and who God is, the place where all images and ideas and thoughts and ideas fall away. And there is. God. God meets Elijah where he is, in his despair, on top of this lonely mountain, and what Elijah hears calls him out of his cave.
Elijah knows the presence of God in absence. Hears the presence of God in silence. He heard it, and he knew it. It was pure gift from God. He experiences, directly, the great luminous, unfathomable, holy oneness. And with that he was able to to go on and do what God needed him to do, which was to pass the mantle to his successor, Elisha.
Now let’s fast-forward 2.5 millennia or so, to a very different person a very different, but equally dangerous time. Etty Hillesum was a 27-year old Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1941 when she began her remarkable diaries. Over the next 2 1/2 years, she describes with unflinching honesty her inner transformation from an insecure, chaotic young woman to someone whose spirit and deep sense of the presence of God would be a saving voice of hope to others in the concentration camps.
Etty Hillesum’s diaries and letters were first published in the 1980’s under the title An Interrupted Life. And of course, outwardly it was. She died in Auschwitz at the young age of 29. But Patrick Woodhouse titles his recent book about her Etty Hillesum: A Life Transformed.(1) He is describing her inner life, her spiritual transformation. That is what was so remarkable, so God-given. The gift that she was wise enough to hear. She had no religious background. She was not a particularly exemplary student. But as the Nazi threat intensified around her, drawing closer, and closer, she dedicated herself to her intellectual and spiritual development. Through he work with her therapist and teacher she was helped beyond her egocentric bent and was opened to the Bible, the works of Augustine, Rilke and Dostoevsky. She describes her first real movement toward prayer.
This afternoon I suddenly found myself kneeling on the brown coconut matting in the bathroom, my head hidden in my dressing gown, which was slung over the broken cane chair. Kneeling doesn’t really come easily to me, I feel a sort of embarrassment. Why? probably because of the critical, rational, atheistic bit that is part of me as well. And yet every so often I have a great urge to kneel down with my face in my hands and in this way to find some peace and to listen to that hidden source within me.”(2)
Having done this once, the barrier is crossed, and kneeling became part of the pattern of her life, an expression of her deeply searching spirit. God becomes the ground of her growing confidence. And her body becomes a sanctuary, a place of refuge that will be a movable thing wherever she is sent. (3). This would profoundly affect her entire being. She did not go into hiding. She would bring comfort, warmth and vitality to those around her.
Etty’s last words, written on a card to her friend Christine, thrown out a crack in the boarded-up train that would take her from Westerbork to Auschwitz, were these: “Christine, opening the Bible at random, I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower.’ I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning. On special orders from the Hague. We left the camp singing….” (4)
Carol Lee Flinders, commenting on the spiritual transformation of another mystic, writes this: “embedded in every human psyche there is a map to higher consciousness that in its essentials does not vary.”(5) It gets differently expressed through the culture and language and context of the person’s life. But the map to higher consciousness in the human psyche, whether you are a senator or a teacher or a carpenter, whether you are a star soccer player or confined to a wheel chair, the inner journey of the soul in its essentials does not vary. If we are open to it, we can bear witness and learn from Elijah, Etty, and many other humbler examples that are all around us, who have heard God in the silent spaces, often when they were at the end of their rope. They are the astronauts that have traveled to the moon, and tell us what it’s like. In the midst of the worst that humanity can dish out, they awaken to an untouchable freedom in God in their own consciousness. They hear it. They know it to be real. They know it to be true.
The challenges in our own life are not Jezebel’s armies or the Nazi concentration camps, but they can be huge nevertheless. The map of our inner lives in its essentials is the same. As we move through life as a person of faith we may find our sense of the presence of God disappearing on us. I think if you are on an intentional spiritual path, this is inevitable, even necessary. There are places we feel a connection to the holy, perhaps it was on Sunday morning, in the pages of the red prayer book, walking in the woods, that may suddenly feel as though “God is not in them.” It may be a personal tragedy or difficulty, or a crisis of faith. Sometimes when this happens, resisting the invitation to grow in faith, we might turn a blind eye and a deaf ear. We feel guilty or ashamed. So we pretend. We pray louder. We get angry with anyone who asks questions. It’s just too terrifying, this perceived disappearance of God. But if we’re awake, we can see in these times, these holes, God beckoning us out of the cave, down on our knees, deeper into relationship, into the a wider and more spacious consciousness in which we see that we are intimately connected to all life for all eternity. If we look around us we see more humble examples of this all the time. We can catch a glimpse of the formless, the luminous, the unfathomable, that is God-with-us.
We know this by its inner spaciousness. We know this by its joy. And we give profound thanks for those who have gone before us, and those who are with us, who are our companions in faith, who point the way. Amen.
(1) (London; New York: Continuum, 2009).
(2) Etty Hillesum, quoted in Woodhouse, 40-41.
(3) Woodhouse, 44.
(4) Etty Hillesum, quoted in Woodhouse, 131.
(5) Carol Lee Flinders, Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics (NY: HarperOne, 1993), 106.