Read 1 Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13, Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14:22-33
We are all born with the animal instinct of fight or flight. When threatened, we instinctively move into one posture or the other. I wonder how often that choice is based on past experience. If we have fought, and that worked out well, are we more likely to stand and fight again? If we ran away in fear, and found it helpful, are we more likely to flee in the future? Or is your response circumstantial, based more on the nature of the threat at the time?
I, like probably most of you, have seen the images coming out of Charlottesville, VA this weekend – horrible images of white supremacists, nationalists, Neo-Nazis marching with torches at night, and marching with flags, and clubs, and guns, faces uncovered, right out there in broad daylight. And clashes, fights with counter-protestors, and clergy locked arm in arm standing in resistance to this hatred. And then the Alt-right group member driving his car through the crowd, killing one and injuring many others.
It’s easy in light of such things to choose to stay silent, to choose flight over fight. I had a sermon all done and ready to go on Thursday, as I always do. Fight or flight was already the starting point, only I didn’t expect to have to make the choice this morning. But I did. I got up and out earlier than normal and I locked myself away in my office, and I re-worked this sermon. I had to…
The prophet Elijah in chapters 16 through 18 – a few chapters before our first reading today – had to make the fight or flight choice in the face of threats from the King, Ahab, and his evil queen, Jezebel, because Elijah called them on their choice to turn from God to worshipping Baal. Making matters worse, when Elijah finally comes face to face with the prophets of Baal, and challenges the King’s false prophets, Baal is proven to be powerless and non-existent, while Elijah’s God sends fire down consuming both altars. This defeat, of course, only angers Jezebel all the more and Elijah’s life is on the line, causing him to run and hide in the caves of nearby Horeb, which is where we find him in our first reading today. And God comes to him there, in the midst of his fear, in the midst of his trouble.
Now, Elijah has seen firsthand the wonders of God, but under threat, he runs off and hides himself away in fear. And what happens next I find very comforting and encouraging, because I know I’m more like Elijah here than I’d like to be – maybe you are, too, I don’t know – but I find it comforting and encouraging that God doesn’t reject, or abandon, or even reprimand or scold Elijah here, but rather, God shows up and asks a really interesting question: What are you doing here, Elijah?
And I find it interesting that the question can be read in at least two ways depending on the emphasis you place on certain words. Is God asking: What you doing here, or: What are you doing here?
With the emphasis on here the question is about fight or flight, right? What are you doing hiding in the caves? Didn’t I just keep you safe and fed during a long drought? Didn’t I just defeat the prophets of Baal? Haven’t I proven my power and ability to keep you safe, and secure, and provided for? So, what are you doing here? Why did you choose flight over fight?
But with the emphasis on doing – what you are doing here? It becomes more of a missional or evangelical question. I’ve given you a mission to accomplish, so what are you doing here to make it happen? What do you think you’re going to be able to accomplish for the sake of God’s call if you’re hiding away in fear? So God listens to Elijah whine a little bit about how hard things are, and how he’s not sure what to do, and how he feels all alone in the struggle, but then God gives him his marching orders. Your mission, at this point, Elijah, is to go empower others, because the truth is, you’re not as alone as you think you are. I’ve got 7000 other faithful followers who haven’t bowed their knees to Baal. So get over your fear. Stop doing whatever it is you’re doing in response to your fear, and get busy doing what I’ve told you to do!
Does this mean that the threat Elijah’s facing is any less real? No! Does this mean that Ahab and Jezebel are any less evil or bloodthirsty? No! The threat and danger are real, but the promise, and power, and provision of God are all the more real! And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!…
Fear is real, and we face it in a lot of different ways. And we have choices to make about how we face what makes us afraid – especially when the fear has to do with standing against injustice and evil.
Peter and the disciples face a very real fear out on the water, in the middle of a storm, in the middle of the night. And just like Elijah, though they’ve seen Jesus heal the sick, calm storms with a word, feed a multitude with 5 loaves and 2 fish, though they’ve seen the power of God demonstrated in amazing ways, still, when the storm comes up, and they see Jesus walking toward them on the water, they freak out! It’s a ghost! And, though peter is at least bold enough to push it a bit, challenging Jesus to do another amazing thing – If it’s really you, command me to walk on the water just like you are! – once he steps out of the boat and his attention turns again to the storm, rather than focusing on the power of God’s Word he begins to sink.
But, you see, Jesus doesn’t let him sink! Jesus doesn’t let him go under! Jesus reaches out, saves him, calms the wind, and wonders aloud just what it’s going to take to get them to turn from their doubt to trust in God…
There was a time, not too long ago, when to march in outward support of Nazism, and to call for racial segregation and the empowerment of one race over another, out in the open, in broad daylight, with your face uncovered, was nearly unheard of. But the climate is shifting today – or maybe it’s already shifted. And the images of those who have chosen to make waves for the cause of evil have come into stark relief. The question that confronts us today, as God’s people, as a people who promise in Baptism: to strive for justice and peace in all the earth, is: What will our response be? Will we stand up and speak out? Will we proclaim the love of God for all people? Will we step out onto these stormy waters trusting that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?
Look, fight or flight are fine categories for psychological consideration, but I think two better categories for our consideration, from a theological perspective might be: fear or faith. You might make the choice to let fear be your motivator. You might want to join Elijah hiding away in a cave somewhere. You might want to stick your head in the proverbial sand, but know this: just like God found Elijah in the caves of Horeb, God will find you wherever you are, too. Just like Jesus heard Peter’s cry for saving help and saved him, God will never fail to reach out to you, not in the sense that your personal Jezebels will suddenly all disappear, but in the sense that you are not alone in the struggle – you have God and the community of God’s people with you. The Word, God that is, is near you, so do not be afraid to act in faith rather than fear…
White privilege is real, and it is evil. It is a Baal of our day.
Racism is real, and it is evil. It is a Baal of our day.
These things are true, but there’s another truth that we must speak in light of, and in the face of, these great evils.
God is real, and God is good, and God’s goodness will conquer evil every time! In the simple and profound words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours through God who loves us!
This is the truth on which we stand. This is the reason we can trust enough to step up, and to speak out, and to make waves in the face of hatred and evil, because we serve a God
• who calms the storm,
• and who conquers sin and death,
• and who saves us when we call out for help in God’s name
• and who welcomes us to the Table to be fed and nourished and strengthened to face the task of living as God’s baptized people in the world – people of faith, not fear.
Listen, people of God, we’ve got this, because God’s got us! Amen!