I want to take you all through today’s Gospel as if through an allegory, through a plot which we recapitulate each and every time we gather together as the Body of Christ here at Emmanuel Memorial. This exercise will not be too much of a stretch, I assure you, as a “recapitulation” -- or, to put it literally, a “repetition of the head” -- is a common narrative device throughout Scripture. In fact, it’s more than that, for the New Testament itself is nothing other than a recapitulation of the Old. When Christians read the Old Testament, everything is read as a foreshadowing, a prefigure, of the Incarnation of the Son of God. And aside from that, there’s also the more obvious fact that the founding of the Church is the central crux of today’s passage.
So I want us to meditate on the Church, specifically on its unity and on its journey through this world towards eternal life in the world to come. To begin, the passage today begins by telling us that Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi. Now, this is a very different setting from what immediately precedes today’s Gospel. Before, we were with Jesus at the Sea of Galilee, but Caesarea Philippi was some twenty miles north of there. And not only that, but it was not a Jewish area, but was rather populated mostly by Gentiles. This is significant. In the previous chapter, in Matthew 15, we read of the intense experiences of the feeding of the four thousand and the various disputes Jesus had with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Those experiences are indicative of the inevitable turmoil that comes about when Jesus, himself a Jew, begins revealing himself as the Messiah, the hope of Israel. But this journey to Caesarea Philippi represents a departure from all of that. To go to Caesarea Philippi is to take a break from the cacophony of a people who are anxious to figure out just who this Jesus is, and who are personally invested in the answer. By contrast, Jesus and the disciples have come to a place surrounded by those for whom Jesus’ identity is really neither here nor there. But given the context, this journey away from their own people suggests that perhaps Jesus and the disciples are in need of a moment of clarity.
Maybe this sanctuary is kind of like that for you. Perhaps this place is a place set apart from the unremitting engagements and demands of your normal life where you can hope to experience the clarity of singleness of heart. And maybe this town that for Jesus and the disciples is a place of strangers is kind of like the place where the Church always becomes conscious of herself. The Church always knows herself to be a stranger in a strange land, yearning for the New Jerusalem amidst the exile of this world that is passing away. It is precisely by being a stranger that the Church can perceive what the world cannot; it is the means by which the light overcomes the darkness.
"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” That’s what Isaiah says today. It’s a simple idea, but because Isaiah knows that people groups can’t always easily connect across our differences, he breaks it down a bit more: not just us, he writes, but “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord to love the name of the Lord and hold fast his covenant,” these too are part of the community. Foreigners, not just the native Jews, will be “brought to God’s holy mountain.” Foreigners, not just the native Jews, will have their “sacrifices accepted” by God. Here in one of the later documents in the Old Testament, we see a Jewish concept developing that becomes even more central in our own Christian tradition: the call of God and the community of God is intended to be universal. What binds you as a believer to other believers is not whether they hail from your country or another country, whether you like them, whether their ethnicity is similar to yours, whether they are part of your social class. What binds God’s community together is that God called them into God’s community. We have no right to deny anybody access to God once God has called them. God’s house is for all peoples, not just us; for foreigners, not just natives.
Over my maybe 35 years as a Christian, I’ve heard that point made hundreds of times, and it seems as if it is increasingly necessary to keep making it, to say over and over that if we are living as disciples of Christ, the only position Scripture and tradition allow us to take is that God’s household is open to everyone. Like any community that is made of up human beings, churches sometimes struggle to act that way -- for all kinds of reasons, human sin and self-focus foremost among them. But it’s a basic teaching of Scripture.
However, another reason churches struggle to act that way is that we ourselves, we the "churched," are increasingly disconnected from such basic teachings of Scripture as anchoring realities shaping our own daily lives. For a large number of us, our own sense of being part of God’s household is relatively vague. A recent book I’ve had out from the Champaign library has brought that home to me in a fresh way, and reminded me that it’s no longer the case that we can assume we only need to remind people of Biblical teachings everyone already knows.
Before beginning the sermon I have prepared for today, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, as well as in other states this summer. For me, and probably for you also, these racist acts have evoked emotions of deep disgust, alarm, sadness and more. The sins of racism in both our country and in ourselves are there. Confessing these sins, confronting them and asking for forgiveness is necessary. I ask you to take the prayer book, turn to page 815 and pray with me.
For the Human Family
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning I have a question for you to think about. It is a personal question and you may or may not want to share your answer with others and that is certainly ok; here it is: “Where or when have you been most aware of God’s presence? If you have been involved with Cursillo you might recognize the question better in these words, “What has been your moment closest to Christ?” Or if Emmanuel’s summer read, “Being Christian”, is fresh in your mind, your answer might take the framework of Rowen’s book and fall into the categories of Eucharist, Bible, Baptism, or Prayer. I am sure there are all sorts of ways to answer and that our answers may be different at different times. So, take a moment or two sometime today to think about your response. Where or when have you been most aware of God’s presence?
I heard this question and its answers running through the lessons today. Certainly Peter might have said—when I was walking on water with Jesus. Or perhaps St. Paul might have answered, “When I understood that the word of God is always near, on my lips and in my heart.” And Elijah might have said that God’s voice for him was not in the earthquake or fire, but rather in the sheer and absolute silence.
Each of these individuals in the morning lessons, Peter, Paul and Elijah have many answers to the question as we know their lives through what is written in the Bible; their interactions with God are well recorded. Each of these men is complex in character and interesting to study and get to know. Because of time, I will focus on just one today, Elijah and his experiences that we can know from scripture. I understand that many of you are well read in the Old Testament and know many of the characters and stories well. Forgive me if I bore you. However, like me, I imagine there are others who recognize the names but either don’t remember, or perhaps never knew, the details. I want to look more closely at the main character of this first lesson.
Elijah was a prophet; yes, probably the most popular of prophets. We heard his name mentioned in last Sunday’s gospel of the Transfiguration. For a brief moment the disciples who were witnesses of that experience saw Elijah as one of the two men with Jesus in his glory; he and Moses were there. There could be little doubt in those disciples’ minds that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, at least in that awe-filled moment of glory.
In Jewish thought it was believed that Elijah would come to earth again to herald the coming of the Messiah. This is why some asked John the Baptist if he were Elijah. And this is why at Passover Seder meals an empty place is kept for Elijah in hopes of his return. Elijah had many accomplishments as God’s prophet written in the books of the Kings. Today’s reading is not one of those high points and for us to better understand it I want to back up a bit in Elijah’s story to learn what happened before his coming to this cave to spend the night.
Elijah was a prophet in the time of King Ahab who ruled in the part of Israel called the Ten Tribes. King Ahab was married to Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. Her influence over her husband and over the kingdom was very great. She worshipped Baal, the god of the Phoenicians and because of her, many in that part of Israel adopted Baal as their god also. Elijah met with King Ahab to warn him of the dire consequences if this practice of worshipping idols continued. In particular he predicted a long lasting drought and famine, which did happen, as King Ahab rejected Elijah’s word. It was during this famine that Elijah was fed by the miracle of a widow’s oil and meal not running out for days. And after this that same woman’s son was miraculously healed by God through Elijah’s prayer. These times were certainly an answer that Elijah could have given to the times he felt closest to God. When he was personally fed by God’s miracle or when he participated in God’s dramatic healing of a young boy. Meanwhile during that famine, Queen Jezebel commanded that anyone who dared to speak the name of the God of Israel would be immediately put to death.
A side story occurs at this time with another prophet called Obadiah who was able to hide and sustain many other prophets during this time without this queen’s knowledge. Jezebel thought she had gotten rid of all of the God of Israel’s prophets except for Elijah. This set up a great confrontation. Elijah addressed the Israelis to let them know they could no longer waver between the two factions. They needed to choose between idol worship, of Baal, and worshipping the one, true God. Elijah challenged Baal’s prophets to prove that their god was God. He called them out to Mount Carmel for the contest he proposed. It was said there were about 850 of these false prophets of Baal and they, along with Queen Jezebel and King Ahab and a large mass of the Jewish people, were there to witness what would happen.
Imagine the drama.
Elijah had the people bring two young bulls for the competing sacrifices. First Baal’s prophets built an altar and sacrificed their bull as instructed. Then they prayed that Baal come and accept their sacrifice by sending fire to the altar. They prayed all morning long for several hours, and nothing happened. Then Elijah built another altar using 12 stones to represent the tribes of Israel and put a moat filled with water surrounding it. He then sacrificed the second bull, placed it on the altar, and poured water over the animal as well as the altar and wood. He drenched it all. Then he prayed. “Let it be known this day that you are the God of Israel and that I your servant Elijah have done these things at your word.”
No sooner did he finish his prayer than God sent a fire that completely burned up the bull, the wood, the stones, the moat, everything! The people who watched, fell on their faces and praised the one true God. And Elijah had the false prophets of Baal killed. Very soon after this it rained and the three year drought was over. Certainly Elijah had received affirmation of God’s power and truth in a way that not many other people could attest to. When thinking of the time he was certain of his closeness to God this must have been at the very top of his list.
And yet, the very next part of his story is so different from this dramatic high. In the first verses of the chapter just before today’s passage we find Elijah afraid; he is overcome with fear. Queen Jezebel vowed to kill him before the day was over in retaliation for the lives of her prophets. Elijah is so terrified he runs away and hides. He is despondent, alone, depressed, and suicidal. An angel provides food for Elijah and then for forty days he travels to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, the same place that God spoke to Moses. This is where today’s passage begins. Elijah is still overwhelmed, exhausted mentally and physically, full of fear, having put out of his mind all the miracles that God had worked for him in the past. He still wants to be done with life and all it has brought him. He is unable to recognize God’s presence either then or remember it in the past.
He is at the lowest point he could be, feeling isolated and alone, and wanting the relief of death.
How could this be the same man of just a few chapters ago?
To me this is where this story becomes so interesting. We have heard of a great hero of the faith who led others to experience the truth of the one Lord and God. And yet he is unable to sustain the truth he has seen, for whatever reason. Elijah is a human being, not a god himself, complex in his emotions, contradictory in his actions and feelings. It is here we know him as a real person with many dimensions, both capable of being positive and negative, good and bad. And perhaps it is here that we can identify with Elijah, or at least with his experiences. Life has brought him wonderful times as well as some not so wonderful times.
So what happens next, when Elijah is at his lowest, is that God comes to him again. God speaks to him and answers his concerns. He does not say, you stupid man, haven’t I always supported you? Rather God tells him the way out of the situation he is in at that moment. He instructs Elijah exactly what to do. Perhaps this would be the answer to today’s question for Elijah of where he has felt closest to God. It was when he was in his deepest despair and God came to him. ]he God, who had been with him all along, in all the dramatic highs, was also right there with him in the silence of his anguish.
This isn’t the end of Elijah’s story but like a good story teller I won’t remind you of the rest of it but rather encourage you to reread the last parts in the books of the Kings to encounter this real human being, this multi-faceted man, Elijah, and his interactions with God.
Remember the take away question? When have you been most aware of God’s presence?
Know this from Elijah’s story today as well as in Peter’s and Paul’s that God is with us at all times and in all places. We are to seek God and we will be found.