“What Are You Doing Here?

September 13, 2015

 

I Kings 19:4-15a

Luke 9:51-56

 

I like those banners around the University and the Downtown that read something like: “Start, Learn, Grow, Study, Go, Here.” They give students especially—and maybe all of us—a sense of what we can be doing, even what we should be doing in this place.

What are you doing here? It’s a question that demands an explanation.

If you are a student and got up early this morning to come to worship, your roommate might have sleepily asked: “What are you doing, going there?

Or if you have religiously minded friends of a more conservative bent who don’t understand that faithful Christianity welcomes and includes all people, that a Congregational church has room for the doubting faithful and faithful skeptics, they, too, might ask: “What are you doing there?”

What are you doing here?

What are you up to?

Now, I love how the prophet Elijah answered this question when it was posed to him. But in order to really understand his answer, we first need to travel with him for a while.

Do you remember what Elijah did and then what happened to him?

He defeated a group of false prophets and for his effort found his own life threatened. What’s the expression? No good deed goes unpunished.

So Elijah flees into the wilderness.

We encounter him, sitting underneath a broom tree.

Look at Elijah: God’s prophet—worn out. We’ve been tired like that—each one of us. We would like to sit back and rest, maybe stop for a while.

And how does God respond? Not by taking Elijah out of danger. Not by suddenly making everything alright. Not even by letting Elijah get a good night’s sleep.

In other words, God responds—well, a lot like God, who never seems to let anyone off easily. So Anne Lamott can say: “When God is doing something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is doing something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”

A messenger from God—an angel, that’s what the word means, a messenger—rouses Elijah from his sleep. “Get up and eat.”

Food and drink are given when hunger and thirst are the greatest. The strength God offers comes when least expected. And it comes as a gift.

We should know enough about gifts. Look around.

This day is a gift.

This place—every square foot of it—is a gift. None of us started it. It was given to us for our care, our stewardship, if you will allow me to use a wonderful word that has fallen into such bad use in the church. It was given to us for our stewardship and we in turn will hand it over to succeeding generations. This place on this corner is a gift.

And so, too, are the other ways in which we are built up:

The visits when you are hospitalized.

The hug from a friend when the grief is heavy.

Prayers offered in public during worship and in privacy.

All are gifts, freely given.

One of the marks of a living congregation like this one is that it is a community of people that knows how to give and how to receive. In faith we are able to see that all that we have has been given to us—gift upon gift from a gracious God. And we want to give in return.

So we do.

We take care of this building, we renovate our kitchen so that we can extend a greater welcome and more hospitality to others.

We take that wonderful gift that we have received—the ability to read—and start developing a program for adult literacy—not only sharing the gift of reading, but also sharing a tool for economic well-being.

We use our own power and position to join the struggle for workers justice in Iowa City.

Yes, there are times when we get tired. There are times when we want to stop; times when we want to pull away from the world and think only about ourselves.

Then we hear the challenge and the gift: “Get up and eat.” We find strength in surprising places.

We want to quit.

God says, “Have a sandwich.”

Listen again. For a second time God’s messenger comes to Elijah. This time the message is clearer: “Get up and eat—otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Elijah isn’t fed so that he can be full and comfortable. He is given sustenance so that he can move forward.

We are not nourished to grow fat. We are not given strength to become muscle bound. God’s gifts have a purpose. As we find those gifts in our lives and in this congregation we are called to use them to announce good news to the world.

The dorm room poster tells us: “When you come to the end of your rope—tie a knot and hang on.” The story of Elijah reminds us that when we’ve reached the end of our rope—even when our strength for holding on is gone—in love for us, the Sovereign God does not let go.

Sustained by God, Elijah arrives at Mt. Horeb. There in a cave the “word of the LORD” comes to him. This “word” is not a definitive command nor is it an answer. Instead God asks Elijah that deceptively simple question.

“What are you doing here?”

Usually people don’t face important questions without resistance. I know I tend to avoid them, preferring the comfort of old answers. There is a struggle going on between Elijah and God. Maybe it’s like the struggle going on between each one of us and God.

Elijah has a ready answer for that question: he is zealous, he is the only faithful person left, and he is hiding out of fear for his life.

What occurs next hints at a God who wants more than we are often willing to give.

God neither affirms nor negates Elijah’s answer. It’s as though God responds: “O.K. Now wait here.”

Watch as God seeks to get the prophet’s attention: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting the mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire.”

Of course not. The Hebrew people would find it unthinkable that the One who created all things would be found within that creation. The divine presence is always separate from its outward manifestations.

After all the bells and whistles comes the “sound of sheer silence,” or in an older, more familiar translation to many, a “still, small voice.” God is not in the silence either. But silence is often a more effective way of getting our attention. In drawing us out of our own caves, perhaps the silence of God works better than noise.

“Now that I have your attention,” God asks again, “What are you doing here?”

And really, this is a question that is asked not only of individuals but also of this congregation.

Surrounded by a major university, undergoing its own growing pains with record enrollment, living with a sense of uncertainty and trepidation among many as a new president is on his way, what are we doing here on this corner?

There will always be those who ask such questions of Christians and their congregations—for we are a strange and questionable lot. While the rest of the city sleeps off the excess of Saturday or rises to run or to run out for the Times, we get up and seek out a parking space in order to come together for this weekly assembly. Along with the biologists and astronomers nearby, we would probe the vast reaches of space and explore the deep mystery of living things in order to understand this creation and its evolution and to help shape its future. But each Sunday we also read from an ancient and often obscure book that begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and concludes with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth coming into being.

We find ourselves living in this often puzzling time between that first creation and the new creation. We are people who sense that something significant has happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—something so significant, in fact, that it seems as though in Christ that new creation has begun, that life overcomes death, that love is stronger than hate, that peace will win out over war, although the signs of that reality are few and far between. And we also sense that our purpose here on this corner is to in some way announce and even show to the world that indeed in Christ there is a new creation and we are part of it.

This is no easy task. You know that.

And while we need recognize the seriousness of our calling, we also need to take it lightly. Elijah was “very zealous” for God. We need not be.

Look once more as Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem—toward the place that will be the end and a new beginning, toward the place of both crucifixion and resurrection. The road to Jerusalem goes through Samaria.

Now, you remember Samaria. The people of Samaria and the Jewish people had long-standing and deeply held religious differences. Both peoples considered themselves followers of Moses. But Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim while the Jewish people—including Jesus and his followers—worshipped in Jerusalem. Indeed, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover.

Samaria is the place we would avoid.

Samaritans are those whom we despise.

As he does so often, Jesus intends to take his ministry to those on the outside, to the despised. He sends people ahead to prepare for his arrival in a Samaritan village.

When the Samaritans refuse to welcome these pilgrims to Jerusalem, James and John have a wonderful idea: “Lord,” they say, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” These followers of Jesus doubt neither their power nor the righteousness of their cause.

We see enough of this on the Christian right today that a lot of us are uncomfortable even calling ourselves “Christian” anymore.

Almost weekly one can find a new example of the righteous fury of such people against those whom they despise.

There are always Samaritans.

Of course, in a United Church of Christ congregation in Iowa City, it’s easy to point out the flaws of our sisters and brothers on the right—running the risk of turning them into a new group of detested outsiders. And it raises the question: on whom would we call down fire from heaven?

‘Lighten up,” was Jesus’ response to his followers as he went on to another village. A scribal addition in some ancient manuscripts of this story has Jesus saying: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for I have come not to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”

Everyone who bears the name “Christian” should hear those words and take them to heart. “You do not know what spirit you are of, for I have come not to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”

Don’t take everything so seriously. Don’t take yourself—or even your faith—so seriously that you are ready to destroy those with whom you disagree. 

Following Jesus is no easy task. But we make it all the more difficult if we are carrying the excess baggage of inflated self-importance or a clumsy and unattractive satchel of self-righteousness. G.K. Chesterton, said that angels are able to fly because they take themselves so lightly. He may be right.

Jesus encourages his followers, encourages us, to lighten up.

We do not need to be, as Elijah thought he was, “very zealous” for God. Human zealotry misses divine grace and quickly turns to idolatry. The followers of Jesus who assumed that they could call down fire from heaven to consume those who, for their own religious reasons, rejected Jesus, were rebuked by the one they sought to defend.

What are you doing here?

What are you doing here? It is a question that suggests something is out of place, not quite right.  It is a question for our time, for our community. It is a question that demands an explanation.

When you look at your own life, unique in all of history; when you gather up your own distinctive strengths and abilities you begin to discover the answer.