I Kings 19:9-18; Ps 85: 8-13
Rom 10: 5-15; Matt 14:22-33
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. (I Kings 19:11-12)
Sound like 2020 to you? Seriously, when I read those verses this week, they felt eerily contemporary. Like many of you, I have experienced this year unfolding as a series of catastrophes, large and small, each arriving relentlessly one after the other, until part of me seems permanently clenched, waiting to see what bad thing will happen next. This week, the earthquake, wind, and fire also evoke the tragedy unfolding in Lebanon — the terrible explosion which has devastated Beirut and destroyed almost 85% of the grain that nation was storing up to eat. And that explosion, of course, evoked in its turn those terrible explosions 75 years ago this week, the ones which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ushered in a new era of universal anxiety. And so it was with a palpable sense of relief that I encountered some other words in our lessons: “Jesus went up into a mountain to pray, and the when evening was come, he was there alone.” (Matt 14:23)
I want to look at that with you, but before we go there, I want to begin with the beginning: the real beginning. The Gospel of John opens, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) How do you imagine that in your heart? Is it a time of primal silence or of song? Of velvet darkness, or of streaming light, light so thick you can almost touch it? How do you think they were together: in speech or in silence, in gesture or in stillness, or in a of kind communion in which words are not needed (because you just know)? However you understand it, John is speaking of a primal intimacy: he is making the astonishing claim that before the world was, before universes spun into being, there was intimacy. There was friendship. There was trust. That those things existed, within the Trinity, and always will. It’s a radical claim: that friendship precedes the world.
Two of our readings this week give us a glimpse of that friendship, when first Elijah, then Jesus, go off apart to seek the face of God. The theologian James Alison makes much of these moments, asking, “Where do you get your sense of self?” 1 His point is simple: that almost every time Jesus carries out a big miracle — the feeding of thousands, or the healing of many — he retreats back into solitary prayer, seeking to renew his primal intimacy with God. It would have been easy for Jesus to look to the crowds to tell him who he was; certainly, they were eager enough to do that. They called him king, prophet, teacher, demon-possessed. But Jesus looked instead toward God, seeking his true name in his encounter with that face of love — and seeking it more fervently the more the other names pressed upon him. He knew that names are seductive, that the desire to be liked is a strong drug, that the allure of the crowd can distort the spirit. And so he sought God at exactly those points of great affirmation or great rejection, so that he could remember who he really was.
We tend to speak about the love of God, as the Bible does, but Alison makes much of a different word. From his own experience as a gay Catholic priest, Alison learned a bit too much about the ways we can corrupt the word “love” — not the thing itself, but the ways we use it. “Love,” in a human context, is rarely unconditional. Instead, it comes with a tangle of strings, demands, expectations. Too often, when someone tells us “I love you,” what they really mean is, “I want you to change.” We’ve all heard those statements: I love you, but you need to be less assertive. I love you, but that’s not appropriate for a girl, or for a man. I love you, but I am concerned that you…..I love you, but I hope you’re not really going to be Christian. I hope you’re not really going to be gay.
Against that thicket of tangled manipulation and good intentions, Alison suggests a different word: perhaps, he says, we should take as our model, not love, but friendship. We should try on the idea that God likes us, because “the word ‘like’ is rather more difficult to twist into a lie than love. We know when someone likes us.”2 When someone likes us, they enjoy our conversations. They laugh with us. They like spending time with us, even if it’s not spent doing much. They seek us out, not as a reclamation project, but as someone who restores them to who they are. Or who they want to be. Liking offers a radical kind of acceptance, precisely because it is not owed. As Christians, we are commanded to love one another, which means, to seek the welfare of each person around us. But we are not commanded to like; liking is optional, and, as such, is a true gift.
It may seem strange to speak of Jesus as the friend of God, given that Jesus was God, but we all know it is sometimes hard to befriend ourselves. Many of us live with an inner critic, a voice in our head which constantly judges us, interjecting labels like, stupid!, clumsy, failure. Often, we believe it is our own voice, but over time, we learn that we have internalized the voices of those who did not like us — all the people who told us we were not enough, until we came to believe it. We need to befriend ourselves.
For this, there are few better models than Elijah. Before today’s reading, Elijah had worked a major miracle. At a time when idolatry was pervasive in Israel, God called Elijah to draw the people back to faithfulness. And so Elijah sets up a kind of divine showdown with the prophets of Baal, each group making an immense pyre with a sacrificial bull on it, then calling upon their own god to set the thing on fire. But when the Lord sent flames from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering while Baal’s remains inert, and when the Hebrew people respond by slaying the prophets of Baal, the queen, Jezebel, promises to kill Elijah. And so the prophet flees, at the moment of his success; he goes into the wilderness and asks to die. But the Lord sends an angel to feed him, twice, and Elijah goes to Horeb, the mount of God.
That’s where we find him today, in a cave on Horeb. And when the Lord comes to him in the silence, asking, “What are you doing here?”, Elijah speaks, saying: ‘“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.’” (I Kings 19:9-10) Did you hear what just happened? Elijah named his own truth. He told his own experience. And God responds with a storm, and then with silence. I don’t know quite what to make of the storm — whether it was divine anger at the way Elijah had been treated; or a representation of Elijah’s feelings; or a sign that God was there; or whether it was just a thing that happened. But when it was over, Elijah came out and stood in the presence of God, and he named his own truth once again. And the Lord did something astonishing: he commissioned Elijah. God did not empathize or correct or chide or encourage. God just said, keep on keeping on, which is another way to say, I am with you. I believe in you. I trust you to do the right thing, even now, when you have seen that it’s hard. It is less a command, and more a reminder of friendship.
You see, God knows that sometimes keeping on keeping on is the hardest thing to do. Jesus promises, “Anyone who endures to the end will be saved”; he did not say that because it is easy to endure to the end. And we, who are living into the reality that Covid will be a marathon, not a sprint, are testing the limits of our own endurance. When we first shut everything down, we thought it was for a few weeks; then, it became clear that this time of constraint was not going to pass quickly. We still need to wear masks. We still need to distance. Some of us are still living far from our loved ones, separated by travel restrictions and closed borders. And the one thing which is clear is that we do not know how long. Experts have started to speak, not of months, but of years. I don’t know about you, but my heart sank when I heard that. I don’t want to live like this for years.
But today’s readings remind us that we are always called to come to Jesus through the storm. God is not a fair-weather friend, someone who is with us in the easy days, but vanishes when the going gets tough. Rather, the word is near you, …even in your heart. (Rom 11:8) Like Elijah, like Peter, we learn that when we are at the edge of our endurance, God is there, and our work is only to select the direction of our gaze. We can stare at the storm. We can listen to voices which seek to label us. Or we can turn our face toward God, which is the simplest thing of all.
We try to make things so complicated, seeking God in extreme places and extreme ways, making bargains, sacrificing who we are and what we love. We try to distinguish between us and them, between those God loves and those God hates. (Rom 10: 6-7) But God is simple: God is near us, and near to all of us. Not as a judge, but as our friend. Alison writes, “If our conscience accepts the regard of, and wants to be like, someone who likes us, who is daring, creative, innovative, effervescent, unafraid, risk-taking and so on, then we will find ourselves behaving like that, being able to stand up and take the rap, delighting in finding ways of getting people off the hook, never taking no for an answer, refusing to believe that something is impossible for God; and that is who we will become. Someone [who]…can dare to get it wrong, because they don’t have to get it right.”3 I don’t know about you, but with so much changing around us, I don’t feel I know how to get much right just now. But looking to Jesus, I can continue to dare; I can continue to risk, continue to stand up for what I believe is right. And so can you, my friends. God likes you. Trust in that, and walk on.
1. I had the opportunity to study with Alison in summer of 2003. These comments are based upon the teachings he delivered then.
2. James Alison, “Unbinding the Gay Conscience,” printed in On Being Liked and on jamesalison.com.
3. James Alison, “Unbinding the Gay Conscience,” printed in On Being Liked and on jamesalison.com.