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Friday, August 8, 2014

The dance of presence and absence (A19O)

Cover of Safety Harbor, original artwork
by Gary Palmatier, Ideas to Images
When we pick up his story this weekend, Elijah is in some pretty deep dung as he cowers in the cave on Horeb.  Under a threat of death from King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, he escaped into the desert where he was miraculously fed by angels, and then hides out in the cave "on the mountain of God." The surrounding story is fascinating (see 1 Kings 18-20; today's first reading is from chapter 19.) To Elijah, the word of God comes as a question: Why are you here, Elijah? All he can do is respond that he has done God's work with all his heart and soul, and look where he has landed, a fugitive under a death sentence, hiding in a desert cave. Like every prophet before and since, he wonders, if God is his ally and strength and, well, God, why he is always on the run and fearful for his life.? With Tevye he wonders, "I know we are your chosen people, but once in while, couldn't you choose somebody else?"

I don't like us to forget this political aspect of these biblical narratives. Because the lectionary (necessarily?) truncates them in excerpting them, their larger narrative context is lost. But we should remember that we're not supposed to be hearing all this for the first time! These narratives are our story. Those who have compiled the scriptures into the sacred liturgy through the centuries knew the stories, and as they were put together in their current form certainly hoped, if not expected, that we would grasp the broader context as we heard them, aided by the trained preaching of deacons and priests. My point here is that Elijah is not on retreat in the sense of a silent eight-day vacation of spiritual introspection. He is on retreat in the sense of hiding out from an army after having attacked the guild prophets of the king and queen of Israel. It makes a difference, because after doing everything God told him to do, he's up to his loincloth in scorpions and rattlesnakes. And another little surprise that is excised from the story as we're read it today: after all we hear, up to the presence of God revealed in the absence of powerful signs, the voice comes to him in the cave again: Why are you here, Elijah? Hiding out, apparently, is not part of his vocation. Neither should we be able to hide from the political context of scripture in a cavern of pious introspection.

In that first reading, "the Lord was not in the storm." In the gospel, it's apparently a good thing he was. This parable about the storm on the lake, the fear of the experienced fishermen, and their rescue by the Lord who walks on the water may be a good example of what Crossan calls the dynamic by which the stories of Jesus became stories about Jesus. (See his book, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus.) In the decades following the death of Jesus and the emergence of the apostolic church, there were many different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus and who he was, many different "christianities" that were part of the landscape. Some we have some insight about, like the Jewish christianity that seems to have been directly descended from Jesus through James, Peter, and the Jerusalem church, and the "adoptive" christianity of the Gentiles that was preached by St. Paul, and which brought him into serious ideological conflict with Peter and James. Others we have some historical evidence of, or even scriptural reference, like the preaching of Apollos and other evangelists whose preaching Paul, at least, might tear the church apart, as thought the evangelists and apostles, and not Jesus himself, were the salvific center of the story. The destruction of Jerusalem and suspicion of Christianity as a rival religion within the Roman empire created a climate of persecution and challenge to faith that would have pervaded the church right up through the surviving apostles and disciples who had known Jesus in Galilee. How was the Christian "boat" going to stay afloat? Is Jesus in it with us, or not?

This may be the genesis of a narrative like the one in today's gospel, or it might have happened just like it says. I don't know. I think the story is true, I just don't know if it actually happened. For me, it's important to know who's in the boat with me, who is in charge of the storm, and who, when I'm  sinking, can pull me out of the impending briny (or freshwater) grave.

So this is all why Psalm 85 seems so wonderfully appropriate today, especially with its refrain interpreted the way I explained in my post earlier this week about my setting, "Your Mercy Like Rain." If we allow ourselves to sing, "Lord, let us see your kindness; grant us your salvation," we stand in line with the psalmist and Peter and all our ancestors in faith, especially the martyrs, who were, like Elijah, up to their loincloths in scorpions, and heard the voice of God in the silence whisper, What you still doing here? and then moved on fearlessly to fulfill their vocation. We know, in other words, what God did for David, and Elijah, and Peter, and Dr. King. Let us see your terrible wonder in our own lives, here, today. That is why we are singing "Be Not Afraid" and "Stand by Me" at mass this weekend. Even when the voice of God is a tiny whisper, we do well, we are impelled, to cover our faces lest we see what lies ahead. Life, unrestricted, boundless, and poured out all at once, must be an fearsome thing to behold.

My song "Mystery" attempts to deal with some of this, the questions about God present and absent, to be recognized, it seems, both in "lovers' whisper" and "eye of the storm." Thinking that we can know or define God is tricky business, by definition, I think, doomed to failure. Some of these opposites or paradoxes or dialectics are probably good for us just to hold in tension while we act on behalf of others as we are led by the gospel. We too are called out of the cave by the voice that says, Why are you here? The voice says to get back out on the road, and don't be afraid. Nothing, including life itself, is what it seems.

Here's what we're singing this Sunday at St. Anne

Entrance Song: Be Not Afraid (Dufford)
Kyrie and Gloria: Mass of St. Aidan (Cooney)
Psalm 85: "Your Mercy Like Rain" (Cooney)
Celtic Alleluia
Preparation rite: Stand by Me (Kendzia)
Mass of Creation (Haugen)
Lamb of God: May We Be One (Daigle)
Communion: How Can I Keep from Singing (trad., Footnote: I dislike the slavish literalism of the lyric change from Gather Comprehensive to Gather Comp 3. Really? "Love is Lord" isn't true enough?)
Sending forth: If/Si (Cooney) or Though the Mountains May Fall (Schutte)

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