August 10 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
Theme: For all sorts of reasons it has to be something about "Peace and Quiet" or the converse "War and Noise". There is something very attractive to me about the phrase "The Sound of Silence". If the worry with that is that it leans too much on our first lesson rather than the gospel reading, we could go to the other extreme with "Get Up and Walk".
Introduction. No grounds for complaint this week, with two of the most evocative, powerful and dramatic stories in the whole of Scripture. We begin with Elijah, prophet, mass murderer, rebel, political refugee, and quite possibly manic-depressive, on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, God, and himself and suffering an acute attack of self-pity. Called out of a cave he hears the sound of sheer silence and is restored. That complete restoration is what the New Testament writers call "salvation", and St Paul assures us that what Elijah received that day is offered to all humanity, Jew and Gentile; we have only to ask and we shall receive. We finish this week with one of a biblical classic that has entered the language, and is used by many who have no idea of its origins: "he thinks he can walk on water". That, of course, is only the surface issue (sorry, I should have resisted that); at a much deeper level, it is a perfect illustration of what St Paul is writing about. Peter calls upon the Lord who reaches out his hand and saves him.
Background. It's not often that I am struck in a positive way by anything said by the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu, but he surprised me this week. He assured the world that Israel would cease its military operations in Gaza when it had achieved its aim of "restoring quiet to Gaza". Yes, all sorts of emotional reactions could be made to that particular person making any such claim in the particular circumstances, but once I had got over all that I kept coming back to that word "quiet". Whether or not Mr Netanyahu meant it or realised what he was saying, he was linking "quiet" with the absence of war, conflict, argument, destruction – in short, "quiet" describes the absence of everything that is harmful to human life. It brought back to mind one of my mother's sayings when I and one or more of my sisters were having a full and frank exchange of opinions – "Hey, let's have some peace and quiet, please!" Peace and quiet – war and noise; there is something there to ponder, I think.
On a similar theme, Tuesday's edition of the Otago Daily Times had a front page item under the heading "Ceremony for fallen promotes peace", and began with a very striking paragraph: They were there to honour the fallen, but there were no brass bands, no 100-gun salutes, no nationalism and no xenophobia at the Cenotaph in Dunedin's Queen's Gardens last night. Presumably, the reporter was not intending to be offensive, though some might find the use of that word "but" heading in that direction. He was describing a "peace rally" which left First Church on a candlelit walk to Queens Gardens "to honour the dead of World War 1 by making efforts to ensure there are no more wars. It was led by Professor Kevin Clements, head of the University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. The report included two brief quotes from the Professor's speech to the gathering: we must find "totally different ways" to stop war occurring; and "We haven't learned our lesson – slaughter generates slaughter".
But it seems that what really struck the reporter was not so much what was said, but those periods of time when nothing was said. The fourth paragraph of the report read thus: [At Queen's Gardens] Prof Clements called for a full 10 minutes' silence, before speeches, followed by another three minutes of silent contemplation. Here, surely, is a much more challenging contrast with our usual practices. Before international rugby games, for example, we have occasionally been asked to stand in silence for a minute as a mark of respect to those who have died in recent tragedies, or on the anniversary of some terrible event. More in point, we usually do the same at Anzac Day Services. For all our promises to "remember them", one minute of silence seems enough. Professor Clements' call at the peace rally suggests that it is not. If we truly want peace and quiet to be restored to the world perhaps we need to embrace, and be embraced by, longer periods of silence. [This Sunday, when we pray for peace, could we do it without using words?]
When we recall the story of Elijah hiding in his cave, and then emerging to hear "a sound of sheer silence" [kudos to the NRSV for this wonderful expression!] we probably contrast that with the immediately preceding natural phenomena of wind, earthquake and fire. But for the full impact I think we need to go back to the story of the "battle of the bonfires" in chapter 18. The bellowing bulls as they are slaughtered; the partisan crowds roaring on "their side"; the increasingly desperate prayers of the prophets of Baal; the shrill mockery of Elijah; followed by the cries of the four hundred "losers" as they are slaughtered. Noise, more noise, and still more noise. And through it all, Elijah, the adrenaline-junkie, revelling in it, convinced that he is doing the Lord God's will. How could he – how could anyone – hope to hear "a sound of sheer silence" in those sorts of circumstances? Peace and quiet, war and noise.
There is a similar contrast at work in this week's gospel passage. In place of the triumph of the battle of the bonfires we have the miracle of the feeding of the multitude. We can imagine the noise of that crowd, particularly when it dawns on them what has happened among them. We can imagine the high of the disciples as they once again bask in the reflected glory of "their champion." Perhaps that was why Jesus ordered them out on the lake when the experienced fishermen among them knew it was risky to go. And here they soon are in the midst of a very different set of noises, the noise of the wind and the waters, the noise of their own arguments over what should be done, and the noise of their increasingly desperate prayers. The noise of their shrill cries when they think they are seeing a ghost; and of the shouted conversation between Jesus and Peter, reaching a crescendo when Peter cries out to be saved. Then, when Jesus (and Peter) is in the boat, the wind "ceased". And with it, we can assume, the noise.
Kings. This whole chapter 19 is a spiritual masterpiece, even though it begins on a somewhat bizarre note. Why would Queen Jezebel go to the trouble of sending a messenger to Elijah with a note advising him of her intention to end his life within 24 hours, when she could have simply sent an assassin to do the job without giving prior written notice? Anyway, the point is that Elijah now fears for his life – so what does he do? Calls on the name of the Lord? No, he scarpers, and only stops running when he's exhausted. But his exhaustion and depression gives rise to an interesting prayer. He asks to die, recognising that "I am no better than my ancestors". Whatever he has in mind when he utters those words they constitute a humble admission before the Lord of his own human failings. From that flows his restoration, physical and spiritual, and in that order! Then follows his own journey of forty days and forty nights until he comes to a cave where he spends the night. The dark night of the soul? Then the word of the Lord comes to him with an interesting question: "what are you doing here, Elijah?" It is the classic "3.am question". What's it all about? What am I on earth for? Is there a purpose to my life? His immediate reply shows that he is wallowing in self-pity – we can almost hear the violins playing in the background. The Lord God is not impressed: he orders Elijah to get up and leave his hiding-place – to stand before the Lord God who is about to pass by. But first Elijah has to do some unlearning: he has to learn to stop looking for God in terms of absolute and irresistible force, like wind, earthquake and fire, - subtext, in the humiliation and slaughter of our enemies. Instead, he has to learn to listen for and to God. God is found in silence not in noise.
Taking It Personally.
· Do you relish quiet? Do you seek the sound of sheer silence? If this is not your usual practice, try for a week to follow Professor Clements' example: open your prayer time with "a full 10 minutes' silence", and, after your spoken prayers, close with "three minutes of silent contemplation".
· Are you better than your ancestors? What might that question mean for you? What can you learn from them? What do you know of them? As we begin to commemorate World War 1 what are your thoughts about that? Is it more important to remember those who died in war than those who died as a result of influenza epidemic, for example Why?
· Is your local church good at using silence in its services? Have a look through one of our liturgies; notice how many times the rubrics suggest a time of silence. How often does your community of faith follow those suggestions? How would you feel if the Minister announced that you were going to observe a ten-minute silence in remembrance of all those who have died on our roads in the last 100 years?
· Imagine that Elijah has asked you for a character reference for him. What would you write?
Romans. St Paul is now well into his reflection on the difficult issue of the special election of Israel in the light of the universal offer of salvation in Christ. Basically he seems to see the latter as a "divine blossoming" from the one rootstock, rather than the cutting down of the original tree and its replacement with another. Israel is still beloved of God, but so is everyone else. This has been revealed through Israel, and in that sense Israel will always retain its primary place in salvation history, but not through any merit of its own (observance of the Law), but through the grace of God alone. Thus we do not have to strive to bring God near to us, or win his attention in some way, but to recognise that he is already with us. That recognition is the opening of our hearts and minds in faith, and when we accept its truth in our innermost being (in our hearts) and express it in our lives (our lips) we are saved, whether Jew or Gentile.
Taking It Personally.
· Focus on verse 13. Have you ever called on the name of the Lord?
· Now move to verse 14. To whom have you passed on this message? Have you got beautiful feet?
Matthew. The mass feeding is over, the ablutions have been completed, and Jesus, the presiding priest, moves to the Dismissal. First, he sends out his liturgical assistants, then the congregation. The liturgical assistants, it seems, are reluctant to go. They feel safe in the assembly, with their Priest still with them; but out there, crossing over to the other side, lie danger and uncertainty. Out there in the storms of life their own resources are soon exhausted. Do they call upon the name of the Lord, or do they start fighting among themselves? The Lord appears to them walking on the water and they are terrified: apparently a ghost is more frightening to them than anything the wind and sea can conjure up between them. Jesus' words are short, clear, and intended to be reassuring: "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." As always it is Peter who speaks before he thinks: uncertain as to whether or not to accept that it is Jesus, he comes up with a test that will surely end badly if it is not! That it is Jesus means that for Peter it ends in mixed results: a good soaking, utter humiliation, a strong reprimand, but at least he lives to tell the tale.
Taking It Personally.
· Do you behave differently "in the boat" (your local church) from out of it?
· Recall a time of serious danger to yourself. At what stage (if any) did you call upon the Lord? What was the outcome?
· Do you admire Peter's nerve? Do you think the Lord was too tough in questioning his faith?
· Finish in quiet meditation of verse 32.