Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon: From Despair to "Go"

1 Kings 19:1-16
From Despair to “Go”
James Sledge                                                                                       June 19, 2016

Many of you recently took a lengthy, online survey known as the Congregational Assessment Tool or CAT. Thanks to the large numbers who participated, we got a lot of great information about our congregation. The Session, the governing council of our church, received a lengthy report with all sort of statistics and charts and graphs. It’s a little overwhelming, which is why we weren’t simply given the report. It was interpreted to us for nearly three hours by people who have been trained in understanding and utilizing these reports. Even then it was a bit overwhelming, and we’re still grappling with just how to follow-up and utilize all this information in moving forward.
During that initial presentation, one of interpreters told us that he had spoken with a consultant at the company that owns and administers the CAT, who said that based on our survey data, we appeared to be a congregation  that was “sitting on ‘Go.’ ”  We have great resources and energy, a vital congregation ready to do great things but, in some ways, we are sitting at the starting gate, sitting on “Go.”
I should add that those interpreters also said that our report was one of the better ones they had seen among the many Presbyterian congregations in this area who have taken the CAT. The comment about sitting on “Go” wasn’t a “Here’s what’s wrong with you” statement. Rather it was a call for a strong, solid congregation to explore where we should go and what we should do to fulfill the potential that’s just waiting to be tapped.
But where to go? What to do? What is it God expects of us right now? These are difficult questions at any time, but we live in a time of great uncertainty and great challenges for the Church. We live in a time when the world seems to brim with hate and fear and violence. How are we to comfort and support LGBTQ sisters and brothers after an attack on what many of them consider a sanctuary, a safe place? How are we to love those who have so often been the victims of the world’s and the church’s hate?
How are we to love Muslim brothers and sisters in this time when Donald Trump and others use them a political punching bags? How are we to show Christ-like love to those who are hated and condemned because terrorists claim to be followers their faith?
What are we to do, where are we to go in response to never ending gun violence in this country? What is God calling us to be and do in the face of cold cynicism that says, “Nothing is ever going to change.”?
I confess that right now, I do not know what to do. I feel numb, dejected, at times hopeless. I may even feel a new sense of kinship with the prophet Elijah, who is so dejected and hopeless that he is ready to give up.

Elijah is fresh off of his greatest triumph, having won the dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. YHWH was clearly shown true God, not at all like the impotent idol Baal. But in the aftermath, Queen Jezebel had vowed to kill Elijah, and he is running for his life.
As I think of Elijah’s struggles, I can’t help but see parallels with the LGBTQ community. There’ve been a lot of successes of late. Barriers to ordination thrown out in our denomination, the rapid change in the level of acceptance in the US population, the approval of same sex marriage. But these successes do not erase long running experiences of bigotry and hatred, of exclusion and discrimination in the culture, and especially in the church. And on the heels of recent successes has come a slew of “religious freedom” bills and bathroom bills. Now comes the slaughter in Orlando.
In the past, I think I’ve been dismissive of Elijah’s depression. He has had such great successes. He has had incredible experiences of God’s presence and power. Why would he feel hopeless? And as a straight, white, privileged male, I wonder if I’ve been similarly dismissive of how those in the Queer community still feel vulnerable, threatened, or fearful despite recent gains.
Despite all of Elijah’s successes and triumphs, he has been constantly under threat, watching over his shoulder for those in power who seek his life. Now, as Queen Jezebel swears an oath to kill him, it is more than he can take.
Elijah, in his exhausted and distraught emotional state, despairing and beyond hope, prays to die. But God is not done with Elijah. Interestingly, God does not try to talk Elijah out of his despair or explain to him the things that need to get done and can’t wait. Instead angels provide food, and Elijah is shepherded on a long journey to Mt. Horeb, also known as Sinai, the place where Moses first received the Commandments. Only after much time does God finally ask Elijah what he is doing there. He replies, “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left.” That’s not quite true, but in his depression, Elijah sees a bad situation as even worse.
God then makes a startling statement. The Lord is going to “pass by,” and Elijah is invited to witness it. This is something only Moses had ever done, right on this very mountain, centuries before. But in his depressed state, Elijah does not move, and he only hears the show that follows. Wind, earthquake, fire; incredible displays typically associated with God, though we are told after each display that the YHWH was not in it. Finally comes the sound of sheer silence. At least that’s how our translation renders it. Some of you will be familiar with an older translation of a “still, small voice.”
There’s disagreement over the translation, but however it’s rendered, Elijah is unmoved. He finally goes outside, either because the noise has stopped, or because he hears something he cannot make out, but nothing seems changed. God asks again what Elijah is doing there and he recites exactly what he said before. “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left.”
Nothing seems able to break through the prophet’s despair, his hopelessness. But God’s care, God’s presence with Elijah over the many days he has spent in the same wilderness where Israel first came to know God, have done their work. Elijah may not realize it, but he is being renewed and restored. And now, God senses that it is time to rouse Elijah. “Go… anoint Hazael as king over Aram…” God gives Elijah work to do. It is dangerous work, but now Elijah is ready to hear. He gets up and gets going again.
When I first started work on this sermon, it was all about hearing God’s call so that we stop sitting on “Go,” get up and get going, moving in the direction of the work God gives us to do. And the Session has taken the first steps to listen, to discern God’s call, to discover the vision that will guide our work in the world. But there are times when we simply need to experience God’s presence and care, to know we are held in the unfathomable depths of divine love.
In my own rush to get things done, I sometimes forget this. I’m thankful to Helen Wilkins for reminding me that at this moment, many people cannot hear and do not need to hear a call to “Go.” They need time to reflect, to grieve. For those in the LGBTQ community, the shooting in Orlando is a stark reminder that no matter the recent success and changed opinions, there are many who hate them and some who will harm them. And much of that hate has come from Christians and churches. We all need to stop and be still and remember that for a moment, to grieve that, to grieve Orlando, to grieve so much more.
On Monday, a colleague posted to Facebook a quote from Rob Bell’s new book. I don’t know the context of the quote, but it read, "What new and good thing is going to come out of even this?" That’s a question that is hard, maybe even inappropriate, to ask right now. But our faith does insist that this is the promise of God. It is the promise of resurrection, the assurance that God brings newness and life out of even the very worst evil.
But for the moment, grief is enough. Easter will come, but now is darkness. Yet even in the deepest darkness, the Crucified One is with us. And so we trust that the light of Easter morning will break. We trust that the time will soon come when we are ready to hear. And God will call. And we will go.

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