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United Church of Jaffrey
1 Kings 19:4-13 | An excerpt from the poem “Burnt Norton” by T.S. Eliot
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
– T.S. Eliot
When I was a young man I went walking in the mountains.
It’s not unusual for a young man to go walking in the mountains.
But it is, perhaps, unusual for him to go out alone.
When I was a young man, I walked out into the Cascade mountains of Washington State… by myself.
You may ask why I did this… why anyone would do such a thing! You may point out, quite correctly, that a twisted ankle is bad enough when you are with friends, but it could be fatal if you are alone.
All I can say is, I wanted to do it.
I wanted to see if I could do it.
At the age of 25, I’d been out of college for a couple years. I suppose, in a way, I was testing the limits of my newly minted status as a grown up. Perhaps I was also testing my position in society as well – looking at it from the outside.
At Bates College I’d had some difficulty deciding whether to be a religion major or an English major.
It was not lost on me that many of the authors that I admired: Thoreau, Conrad, Hemingway, Kerouac had written eloquently about their solitary encounters with the wilderness.
The Bible too is strewn with stories that involve individuals striving with the wilderness. And this should not be a surprise since, indeed, all of the world’s most significant religious figures: the Buddha, Mohammed, and Moses, Elijah, and of course our mutual friend Jesus – for each one of them, a solitary reckoning with the wilds of the earth was a necessary part of the religious life.
Whatever it is that was going on here, I wanted in.
Of course, I would not be bothering you with this trip down memory lane, if this morning’s scripture lesson from the first Book of Kings did not give me an excuse to do so.
Yes, it is a wilderness story.
But this is not the story of a young backpacker going out on a merry little jaunt.
Elijah, the Hebrew prophet is running for his life.
The prophet is no friend to the reigning monarch, King Ahab who, under the influence of his infamous wife Jezebel, has encouraged the Israelites to turn from God and worship idols. Ahab and Jezebel issue a threat, making it clear that if they ever get Elijah in the clutches, they will surely kill him.
So Elijah flees:
Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree
A solitary broom tree.
I love that detail.
Can you see the wizened old prophet sitting under the solitary broom tree?
The words themselves sound so desolate, so remote. The solitary broom tree just vibrates with a deep sense of loneliness.
But at this moment, when Elijah is utterly alone, he does not act like he is alone. Instead he begins a remarkably forthright, almost conversational interaction with God:
He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.
Needless to say, God did not honor Elijah’s request, but did the opposite, providing for the prophet’s sustenance through the intervention of a grandmotherly angel who comes bearing snacks and pep talk:
“Get up and eat!” the angel says, or the journey will be too much for you…”
I find these interactions – first Elijah’s request, and the subsequent appearance of the angel to be oddly casual. The setting is dramatic enough, but the banter has the urgency and lack of pretense that exists between a teen and a parent.
“Take my life.”
“No! Get up, eat!”
The whole interaction has a tone of inevitability, as if it just goes without saying that, if you’re under a solitary broom tree, it is a matter of course that you have earned a tête-à-tête with divinity.
And I affirm this.
People do go to the wilderness with the expectation that they will encounter God.
Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear, to this day, people saying that they don’t bother with church because “the great outdoors” is their church.
Many of these are the “I’m not religious but…” people that we met last Sunday.
“I’m not religious,” they declare, “but I can feel the mystery. Especially when I am in nature.”
I know them and recognize them because I was one of them.
At the age 25, when I walked into the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, I was not a particularly religious guy.
To be sure, 25-year-old Mark, was interested in religion.
He was fascinated in all the strange and wonderful ways that people tried to make sense of the ultimate – and he was drawn to that same pursuit – but he wanted to go it alone – he didn’t want to lean on anything or anyone.
Religion was all very well for everyone else, but not for him.
If he was going to find his way to the divine, it would be on his own terms.
So he walked out into the mountains.
When we left Elijah he’d been given food and urged on by angel.
After forty days running for his life in the wilderness, he found himself in a cave on Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God, and it was here that Elijah witnesses God passing by.
This is among the most mysterious and powerful passages in the Bible. It is one of my favorites:
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; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
This was Elijah’s still point.
Forty days out in the wilderness, at the edge of a cave, the old prophet has an encounter with God.
But God is described, not as a something.
God is not in the wind.
God is not in the earthquake
God is not in the fire.
God is not in movement or sound.
God is a kind of absence.
A terrifying silence.
When I walked alone through the mountains, I learned that when you are not talking to a friend, you become a part of the woods.
And when you become a part of the woods, you have a lot more encounters with wildlife.
I met a lot of wild beasts. Lucky for me, they were the kind of beasts who saw me and ran away.
It was glorious! The sun shone. The mountains were stunning. The air was clean.
It got dark.
Every night, when darkness came I asked myself –
“Why am I out here?”
Why did I come way out here in the wilderness, where I am totally unprotected?
I looked out at the stars that arrayed themselves across the dark palate of the sky and soon the question
“Why am I out here?”
“Why am I here?”
It was me and the cosmos.
To encounter cosmological loneliness as a young man is to experience a kind of spiritual shock.
Strip away all the trappings of human society, and you are left with an inevitable question:
Am I alone?
When I stood there, in the mountains, looking up at the sky, feeling terribly, terribly alone, I first began, in my own unconscious way, to worship.
I do not claim to have seen God.
But perhaps I was at a still point.
A not this, not that moment, when all those things – the things of daily life – fell away
Alone in the dark night, I did not need to follow certain special rules to experience the presence of the holy.
I did not need a special handshake.
or PhD in theology.
I did not need to have a certain skin color…to be born to certain class of people, or to be able to recite a certain creed by heart.
Perhaps the “I’m not religious but…” folks can teach us something…
The God of the wilderness, as Elijah experienced, is a God that cannot be contained.
We certainly cannot contain God in this building!
And yet worship is important.
Worship is a kind of clumsy admission of Elijah’s truth – that we are not sufficient by ourselves. That there is a mystery that cannot be contained, and that we must make our human attempts to acknowledge this with humility,
and in community.