Listen to the sermon from Sunday, June 19, 2016 titled “What Are You Doing Here?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Y’all know I don’t reuse my old sermons. They may all sound the same, but I assure you each one’s new. Except for this one, which I have preached to you about every five years. Last Sunday was my 29th anniversary at UBC, and since our lectionary scripture today is the text I preached on June 14, 1987, I thought it might be a good time for us to revisit the loaded question God shouts from this text: “What are you doing here?”
I ask myself that question all the time. I’m at that age where I walk into a room on an errand and forget why I came by the time I get there, so I know, it’s a good question to ask yourself any time, any place. What are you supposed to be doing, and why here, in whatever context you find yourself?
It’s a good question to ask about your life. Whatever your personal dreams, why has God put you on this planet at this moment? It’s a vital question for a church, too, because whatever we may get individually from our life together, don’t we assume God wants us to give also, has some reason, some mission in mind in gathering all of us that is bigger than any one of us?
You might not remember 29 years ago but three weeks ago we heard the story from 1 Kings 18 of Elijah’s contest with the Baal prophets on Mt. Carmel. You remember how he challenges the people to quit worshipping the idols of their culture and proposes a “Last God Standing” contest on Mt. Carmel.
They prepare two altars. The Baal prophets pray and dance and beg to Baal all day while Elijah makes fun of them? But there is no answer, only silence. Then Elijah has his altar drenched with water and prays to his God. And BOOM! God’s fire falls from heaven and consumes the altar right down to the dirt. The win makes Elijah lose his head. He leads the people to chop off the heads of the Baal prophets. But Baal-loving Queen Jezebel is not deterred and swears to make Elijah as dead as her Baal boys by breakfast.
Elijah is so scared he skedaddles from Mt. Carmel, way up north, across the border to the Southern Kingdom, Judah, all the way down to Beersheba, as far south in that country as he can get, and then another day out into the desert, just to be safe.
Sits down under a broom tree to sigh “Let me die.” Being a prophet can feel so lonely. God sends an angel with a casserole – twice – to nourish him for the forty day, forty night hike to another mountain in the middle of nowhere. “Mt. Horeb” they called it up north, but the southerners still used its old name: “Mt. Sinai.”
You remember Sinai, where God led the people on Exodus centuries before, where God appeared in the earthquake, wind and fire, where God forged a mob of freed slaves into a holy people by making covenant with them and giving them a mission to mediate God’s presence to all humankind. That’s where God decreed the foundational commandments. First part of those: “I am the Lord, your God.” “No other gods before me.” “No idols.” “No using my name for your selfish purposes.” Well, by Elijah’s day all that old time religion has been eclipsed by the idols of the now. And here, at Sinai, back at the place where it all began, God asks Elijah: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
So many ways to read that question. What are YOU doing here? – focusing on identity, discerning his prophetic call. “What are you DOING here?” – focusing on action, what might be accomplished. What are you doing HERE?” – focusing on location, paying attention to context. Truly, it’s the combination of the three makes the question so loaded: YOU, DOING, HERE.
Elijah tattles on his people, whines: “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.” Wah! Wah! Wah!
Elijah has to vacate his pity party cave, and stand up before God. Now, this prophet likes immediate, spectacular answers to his prayers, and wants to see God in the show. So a rock-breaking wind blows, but the text is very clear: God is not in the wind! Then there’s an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake! Next comes the fire, like the fire Elijah called down from heaven on Mt. Carmel, but God is not in the fire! Where is God, if not in the show we expect, doing what we demand in the way for which we pray?
After all this spectacular, noisy show, comes the sound of sheer silence. And isn’t that what we get from God most of the time? Even when we’re feeling alone, desperate, unsafe, hiding in our pity party cave thinking we’re God’s last and only hope?
Finally, God speaks, and this question is so nice, God asks it twice: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s like a neon sign pointing to Mt. Sinai, with it’s foundational significance for the people of God. Elijah tattles and whines again. “I alone am left.” Boo-hoo.
This is where Elijah learns God does not follow our commands, is not controlled by our timetables. Instead, God tells Elijah to quit feeling sorry for himself and get back to work. New leaders are coming, including Elijah’s replacement, but God still has work for him to do. Seven thousand souls are waiting to help him who have never kissed Baal. He is not alone. Elijah needs to stop isolating and join the community.
Most of all Elijah learns God is not in the show but in the slow. How did MLK put it? “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” God will be revealed in the arc of history, in the lives of faithful, not alone on the mountaintop, but down in the valley in the slow, steady faithfulness of those who do not lose heart and will not give up until God’s righteousness and justice reign.
“What are you doing here?” is God’s way to point to the past. Get back to the basics. Remember who I am. Remember the covenant, the mission, the core identity.
At the same time, “What are you doing here?” is God’s way of pointing to the future. It points Elijah forward to where God wants him to be now. It points him ahead to what God wants him to do next. It says God has new ways of speaking different from before, new ways of acting different from of old, new ways of working we do not control. But God wants us to do our part. Said Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:21)
Now in years past this is where I have asked you God’s loaded question: “What are you doing here?” As the nominating committee is at work, what are you doing here? Are you here only to receive, or also to do?
And so much has changed since I first asked you in 1987 – in Austin, in the world, in what people want and need and don’t want and don’t need from church. We need to talk, to pray, to listen to one another and come together to discern in the name of Christ, what are we doing here? What are we doing, if we are doing anything as God’s people, and why here in this particular here where God has placed us? Accordingly, I have asked the deacons to call a consultant to lead us in a time of discernment this fall.
But a year pegged by Charleston and Orlando press this question more than ever before. Stan Wilson, our camp preacher this week, noted the gospel story today about Jesus healing the man filled with demons follows Luke’s story of Jesus stilling of the storm. We have a breakthrough event like the Supreme Court Decision this summer and think all is well, but suddenly we have to deal with those driven by their demons whose inner storm has not been stilled, and that terrifies us. God help us if, like the demoniac’s community, we fear the cure more than we fear the craziness.
This is not the time for God’s people to hide out in caves of self-pity or enclaves of self-righteousness. This is not the time for God’s people to look back to “the good old days,” which actually weren’t all that good for everybody anyway. This is not the time for God’s people to join the insanity of seeking safety in the idolatry of guns or leaders who make promises a superhero couldn’t keep. This is not a time for the church to be silent in response to hate crimes or hate speech.
This is the time for God’s people to get back to work, to be the church comforting one another, embodying Christ’s love, speaking truth to power, and keeping to the slow work of faithful community building.
In a patriarchal, racist, violent time of deep religious division, the apostle Paul made a radical claim: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Reminds me of the UBC purpose statement we adopted just two years ago:
Remember? Let’s say it together:
“The mission of University Baptist Church
is to be so rooted in faith
that God’s transforming love is revealed in
our progressive actions,
radical inclusiveness, and
Is that what we’re doing here?
We adopted a new motto at the same time. It’s on our website. Let’s say that together, too:
“Rooted in Faith, Progressive in Action.”
Is that who we are? Are we living up to the call of God we discerned together? Where is the faith? Where is the action?
Tell me: What are you doing here?
May we pray?
Lord, you know. We want to play it safe. We want to have it easy. We are afraid and we want you to make the hate go away. So we pray, and wait. And we hear in return – sheer silence. Then, your call: get back to work! Be the church. “You are the healers I have sent to the world with all the other faithful souls who have not forgotten who and whose they are.” So comfort us. Renew us. Encourage us. And send us to be your church, your light in the darkness around us. For Christ’s sake, Amen.