Sermon, June 19, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
So the last two weeks we’ve been talked about the things that help us heal from Trauma, the trauma we’ve all been experiencing at a low level for the last few years, the trauma we’ve had as a community, neighbors, family and friends, and as a congregation. And we discussed that healing from trauma begins with being present to others, for others; being a solid, constant presence in their lives even while they may be in pain. it begins with good listening and a consistency that builds trust. And then, last week, we talked about how one has Presence with oneself. We talked about silencing our distractions to be sure we are listening to our inner voice about what we really feel, what we really need, and where we need to set boundaries around what is really important and pleasing to us - including gathering those who celebrate our lives and dreams.
And so today I wanted to explore what it might mean to show Presence to God. Of the three topics mentioned at the conference, this one was the most undefined and mysterious - the lecturer didn’t offer any instruction, so I’ve been pondering it for a while.
And I think, first off all keeping with the idea of being present, it must mean intentionality. Being Present to God must mean going beyond a simple, ‘please bow your heads’ - it seems like it must go beyond being with me in a spirit of prayer, as I like to say when I lead prayer. It must mean a certain amount of intentionally seeking God.
Maybe it means going to someplace where you feel close to God or the holy forces of life; maybe out in nature, or in a great concert hall surrounded by gorgeous melody. Maybe it’s in your garden or back deck, or in the middle gorgeous beauty. Wherever might be your peaceful place - For me, it’s near water. And then, once you are there, speaking it aloud, both for God to hear and for your own soul to hear;
Here I am Lord, Holy Creator, Source of life in the universe
I present myself to you to listen for your calling upon my life…
I come to you to ask You for the truth. I come to you for guidance.
In our scripture today, Elijah the prophet does what so many prophets do in scripture - he runs from God. Our scripture drops us in to the story right after Elijah’s life has been threatened by Queen Jezebel for striking down hundreds of her priests of Ba’al. Elijah is at his wits end. He feels alone and abandoned and overwhelmed by the sinfulness of the people he’s called to prophecy to - and now the Queen has put out a hit on him. He’s throwing in the towel. So he flees, walks for 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb, the Mount of God. It was probably so much easier to be a seeker when there was a holy Mountain residence for God, don’t you think? I mean, if we always knew where to find Her, this intentionality stuff would be a breeze.
But anyways, the fun part of this scripture is how much detail it gives about Elijah talking to God.
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
And that was God. Not in the storm, but after the storm. Say that the next time someone tries to blame climate change on an epiphany from God - nuh uh! God doesn’t show wrath in a storm, God speaks in whispers after the storms. it says so in the bible.
If God truly speaks only in whispers, then we’ve got it hard, because our lives are so LOUD these days. I believe God speaks into our silent spaces, in prayer and meditation. But I personally have never been able to meditate - I don’t know how people do it. Even when I make silence for myself, I’ve never been very good at shutting down the noise in my head. So that’s why I fall back on prayer. I figure it’s like those conversations we have where one person interrupts saying, ‘If I don’t say this now I’m going to forget it…” I figure all of my random, errant thoughts when I try to make silence to pray are kind of like that. But God knows why those thoughts are important, why they are trying to interrupt.
There is one mantra that I sometimes use to quiet my inner stirrings and feel the presence of the Holy. I don’t know where I learned this, but it’s always helpful. I use the phrase, “Be Still and Know that I Am God,” from Psalm 46. I love it because the name YHWH, which is really just a word made from some vowel sounds, literally translates as “I AM”. Back in Exodus, there’s a passage where the people want to know God’s name, and God responds with “I am who I am” and so God is known for the first 2/3rd of our Judeo-Christian History as at the Holy “I Am”.
The mantra is simply repeating the phrase but dropping last word of the phrase. Here, try it with me; close your eyes and take a deep breath. And now, on the exhale, say slowly…
Be Still and Know that I am God.
And another breath, and repeat without the last word. …. Be Still and Know that I Am.
Be Still and Know that I
Be Still and Know that
Be Still and Know
Be Still and
Try it next time you want to pray, or if you just want a moment to calm yourself to be in silence. Be Still and just be, knowing that God is. And then start your prayer.
So, presence to God requires us to be intentional, so we can hear the whispers of God. I think it also means being accountable.
Elijah has fled the noise, the confusion, the fear, the maze of expectations into the wilderness, and eventually comes face to face with God. The Hebrew word for “presence”, actually means the “face” or “countenance” of God - showing yourself face to face with God. And God says to him, ‘what are you doing here, Elijah?’ Elijah is called upon to explain himself.
What would you want to say if you had a chance to come face to face with God? If you had some face time… if you had to face up to your life choices, it if was time to face the music?
Even in the moments of silence, there’s plenty that can get in the way of hearing God’s call upon our lives. Elijah here is full of self-pity and feelings of inadequacy, that he is not up to the task God has asked him to accomplish - to rid the land of idol worship. Moses was also sometimes frustrated enough to ask God to let him die. I don’t imagine there’s a single person in here who hasn’t wondered why God would want to talk with them. There’s not a single one of us who hasn’t felt inadequate, or too skeptical, or too full of all the things we’re not supposed to be in order to be ‘faithful’. All of these things get in the way of being fully present with God. We can be frustrated, or skeptical, and find it hard to hear God’s voice. We can be guilt-ridden and regretful and be certain there is no message for us. We can be bitter and resentful, or quick-tempered and reject it before we’ve even heard it.
I’ve often thought that we Protestants lost something when we lost the ritual of holy confession. The practice of confession is a vehicle to help unburden ourselves; a moment to embrace our vulnerability, to acknowledge the love and grace we receive from God even when we feel unworthy. Being present to God involves being accountable for the things that get in the way of our relationship. It requires dumping all of that out in front of God, knowing that none of it makes us un-loveable. un-forgiveable, or un-deserving of a call upon our own lives - except in our own hearts. I think confession is a way of internalizing our humility and can be liberating when it is truly personal. It provides an opportunity to wipe our slate clean and be open to the spirit of God from a point of vulnerability, admitting we aren’t perfect, and having the opportunity to be affirmed in that imperfection that we are still beloved children of God. As most of us find out through the course of our lifetimes, there’s nothing quite as life-giving as being forgiven by someone we’ve wronged. Atoning is an important part of any relationship. Personal confession allows us to release our pain and find the strength and hope to be renewed.
Being accountable to God and atoning for those things that weigh on our souls is an important step in Presence to God.
But presence to God is not all silence and meditation and atonement. It’s not just prayer and confession and listening. It requires action. It compels our participation in building and rebuilding the kingdom of God.
How many of you professionals sat in college classes or certification classes learning the many things you would be asked to do in your career before you got the chance to *do*? Maybe you were a teacher and spent years and years learning about pedagogy and learning styles before you went on that long-awaited student teaching semester. Psychologists spend years understanding psychosis before having the opportunity to try to diagnose it themselves. Lawyers have years of learning before that first client. Those of you in engineering and design probably made models, but I imagine the difference between the models and the real thing was exhilarating. It’s in the doing that all the thinking and learning crystalizes and forms your professional self. Theology and prayer and faith are no different.
Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, one of my favorite theologian, believes that action must come first in Christian life, and theology come second. In his book, A Theology of Liberation, he wrote “Theology does not produce pastoral activity; rather it reflects upon it,” He was talking about a Christian ethic of praxis, or of going out into the world to practice what we profess to believe, then reflecting on the experience to inform and reform those beliefs and faith with what we’ve learned about ourselves and others acting with God in the world. I think this is critical for a faith journey; faith is not something that exists only in our heads and our hearts. We here in the UCC, as well as some other historic denominations sometimes playfully nicknamed the ‘frozen chosen,’ put a lot of emphasis on thinking about God, learning about God, working out our understanding of God. And all of that is valuable - but there is no substitute for the tangible ‘doing’ for God, because learning happens there too. Being Present to God means responding in faith to what God has done for you, and then folding those experiences into the knowledge we cultivated about our beliefs of the universe. We are charged to be agents in the world - part of the body of Christ, agents of change to find the lost, show extravagant welcome, offer second chances and offer hope through relationship and opportunity.
I had this experience of watching transformation through doing when I was a Seminary intern at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. The Church hosted a food pantry twice a week, where guests came in and got a number and waited to be called - but it had lost a lot of the spirit of welcome and generosity that was intended. The women who ran it were getting older, were tired and snippy with each other and the guests, and were frustrated and possibly resentful that they still carried all the weight of the operation - but their attitude often chased volunteers away. My mentor Rev. Erik made it clear that he wanted to do something to alter the atmosphere and asked me to spend time there. I had just spent the summer having coffee and conversation with homeless people serving on the Night Ministry Bus, so for lack of any other brilliant ideas I applied this concept to the food pantry. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was certainly petrified of sitting down to talk with strangers about God and whatnot. But I started making a carafe of coffee every Tuesday and Thursday and offering it to our guests. Coffee was a great excuse to sit down and talk with them, and sometimes I heard some of their burdens. Slowly the atmosphere at the food pantry shifted from the tense, transactional and terse atmosphere back to the servant generosity atmosphere that had inspired the food pantry ministry in the first place. And a great many of those relationships with our guests and the women who ran the food pantry became transformational in my faith journey. It was in the doing that I found the purpose and the prayers I needed.
Look at Elijah. He runs from his charge, all the while crying ‘poor me, poor me! I’ve done everything you asked and now my life is over…!’ He saw himself as being alone and persecuted. He believes he’s the only person doing this work. And so he flees. All the while, God is with him, nudging him and feeding him and finally, holding him accountable in the cave.
'Elijah, what are you doing here?’ He is given the chance to whine, he is given the chance to rest, he is given a break. He is given time to recover from his trauma. And then God says, go back to work. Go back to Damascus. Go back to rooting out the evil in the world. Go back to communicating my message for all. Go back to building the Kingdom of YHWH, the great ‘I am’.
But God also offers some tips in that whisper - tips for what to do next, tips for how to find some company so Elijah doesn’t feel so alone. God says, you aren’t alone, but you must take action to find your allies. God sends him to Elisha, and then back into the Lion’s Den - where Elijah finds seven thousand still faithful to the God of Israel. It is in his effort that he finds his strength. It is in the doing that he reaffirms his calling. It is in taking the risk of returning to the city that others come to his aid.
When we present ourselves to God, we need to do so with intention, for God sometimes whispers. When we present ourselves to God, we need not worry that we are not good enough, for we are forgiven and loved. When we present ourselves to God, we need to put our actions behind our prayers to find our transformation. When we present ourselves to God, we need never worry that we are alone. God will always send us another to help, or send us to find another who needs us to help in the kingdom-building of God. Let us each try to present ourselves to God this week, and may God’s whisper guide us to what we need to do. May it be so. Amen.