On One Terrifying Question
June 19, 2022
1 Kings 19:1-13
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He 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. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
The title of today’s sermon is On One Terrifying Question.
The question is, “What are you doing here?” I find this question terrifying because it is God who is asking and I would not want to be the one being asked. The question is asked of Elijah. Twice Elijah is asked by God, “What are you doing here?” What if we were asked the same question? What if God asked us, “What are you doing here?” All week long I have been thinking about how I could possibly answer this question.
This past Tuesday, I drove down to Boston with three of my children to take my Father to the airport. I am still not sure what came over me, but I suggested that we take the T from Alewife station into downtown Boston. It was exhilarating. We saw the harbor seals outside the aquarium, shared food from Quincy Market, and then I caught my very first glimpse of the Old State House. It sits at the end of a wide avenue, a brick structure in simple elegance of 1713, surrounded on three sides by glassy skyscrapers. It was enchanting. All the while, walking the streets of Boston, I have the question that God asked in the back of my mind, wondering how I would answer if God asked me, “What are you doing here?”
On our way back to the train station, we passed through a park and I saw a large block of dark gray granite with several lines inscribed. I went to it immediately, my curiosity drawing me in like a magnet. The words are from a Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemoeller, who was sent to a concentration camp after he publicly opposed Adolf Hitler. On the granite stone were the following words from Pastor Martin Niemoeller:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was not one left to speak for me.
In those words from post-war 1946, an answer to that looming question, “Why are you here?” began to take shape. We are here to speak for those under threat. We are here to speak for those oppressed. We are here to speak for those unfairly targeted.
That answer sits squarely today of all days. One hundred and seventy seven years ago, on this day, June 19th, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with a very important piece of paper in the pocket of his uniform. Behind the General were nearly 2000 Union troops sent to enforce the words printed on the paper. General Granger and his troops were sent to the prosperous port at Galveston, Texas because that is where nearly all of the cotton was shipped…cotton planted, tended, harvested, and cleaned by the hands of black slaves. In the General’s pocket was General Order No. 3; the words he read aloud were as follows: “The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor.”
The Proclamation the General refers to is the Emancipation Proclamation, signed into law by President Lincoln two and a half years before. Those words affected the lives of 250,000 people that were currently held in slavery in Texas in 1865. Those words promised “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.” I pray our descendants will someday know “absolute equality;” today it remains elusive.
If God asks, “Why are you here?” I hope we could honestly answer, “We are here to speak for equality.” We speak with food for the hungry. We speak with aid for those in crisis. We speak by flying flags symbolizing welcome and inclusivity. We speak by supporting immigrants and refugees settling in our region. We speak, I pray, by how we live…striving to follow the example that our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, set forth. Therefore, we will continue to speak for equality until all children in our country will have equal access the quality education they deserve. We will continue to speak for equality until women with the same qualifications can earn the same as men, not 20% less, as the current average reflects. We will continue to speak for equality until equality runs through every community regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or economic status.
The words we heard from Paul in his letter to the Galatians shine a light for us. He writes, “…there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Had Paul been writing this letter today, I would imagine he would include there is no longer Protestant or Catholic, no longer Hindu or Muslim, no longer Democrat or Republican, no longer the haves and the have nots, for you are all one…”
When God asks, “Why are you here?” we could answer, “We are here to unify.”
Before I close, I just want to circle back to the story we heard of the prophet Elijah. There is more to the story. Elijah was responsible for the death of hundreds of other prophets devoted to the god Ba’al. Because of his violent actions, the Queen put a price on his head. Elijah was on the run, hungry, thirsty, guilty, and desperate, I imagine. God asks, “Why are you here?”
It is obviously time for Elijah to consider his past and his future. God does not rebuke him and God does not commend him. Instead, after unspeakable violence, two times God asks, “Why are you here?” It’s a powerful and terrifying question coming from the Divine Source of All Things.
In closing, I hope we will consider the same question as we move through the hours and days ahead. Why are we here? As individuals, as a faith community, as a nation founded on democratic ideals, why are we here? There are a few answers that come to mind. We are here to learn, to love, and to better ourselves so that we may, in turn, be a help to others. I pray that the lives we live offer answers to God’s question each and every day, and may the answers be pleasing in God’s sight.
God of All, we hold our cares about so many things and at times our caring can feel like a heavy weight. Help us, we pray, to cultivate the practice of prayer and the practice of asking for help. In a culture that so values independence and self-reliance, we have a difficult time appearing in need or vulnerable or weak. Remind us, God, in our times of fear and doubt, that there are unlimited reservoirs of goodness available to us if we can humble ourselves to ask, and humble ourselves to receive. As individuals, teach us to care for ourselves so that we are making choices from a foundation of fullness, not of need or fear of lack. As communities, teach us to extend ourselves to those who we tend to avoid. As a nation, teach us that our greatness is most accurately measured by our kindness to the least among us, as Jesus Christ so humbly exemplified. If ever we are in need of direction, turn our minds to this prayer, that Jesus gave his disciples so long ago…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with this blessing:
May the fatherly love within us all that seeks to provide and to secure be kindled anew in our world so that all the diverse people may find safety in our company, in our family, in our neighborhoods, in our town and in our country. So be it. Amen.