Sermon: “Silences of an Elusive God”
Rev. Douglas Olds
Stinson Beach Community Presbyterian Church
Calvary Presbyterian Church of Bolinas
August 9, 2015
Scripture 1: Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.
Scripture 2: 1 Kings 19: 1-18
19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9 At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “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.”
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “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.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. 17 Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
When I was a chaplain at Marin General Hospital, the parents of a 5 year old brought him to the emergency room, where he died in front of my eyes as the ER staff worked furiously to revive him.
The cause of death was respiratory complications of H1N1 flu.
As the doctors were working to revive the boy, I found myself looking to see the face of my own 5 year old, Evan, on that table. I knew it wasn't Evan, but there I was closely focused on the face of that boy wondering how it would feel if it were. I felt sick.
I looked to the parents whom I would have to try to offer words of spiritual care and consolation. The boy's mother was sobbing and flushed.
The father was ashen, his face drained of blood, mostly keeping his arms folded and often turning away from watching the drama of resuscitation.
I felt so wretched for those parents and in doubt about my abilities.
As often happened to me in the ER, adrenaline took hold as I struggled to slow my breathing to calm myself. I don't know if my being a father helped or not, but I did my best. I did my job. I stood vigil with the parents as they tried to understand, to accept. It was that moment when I hated my job.
The death of children made me question why God had created this moment, or created the way God did, and why God left me holding the bag to cover for Him/Her. God was silent to the questions posed by this death:
Is God unable to prevent these deaths?
Does God have that power but just does not choose in this case to apply it?
Why does God hold his followers up to the anger and ridicule of grieving people: you mean you believe your god could have helped our child but didn't?
I had to admit that God is silent on these questions, and God leaves it up to us God’s followers to struggle to make meaning of the senselessness.
The reality is that people as they feel the gamut of emotions and anguish at death of children turn to the church for answers, and yet we can give them little but our prayers. The Talmud of the old Rabbis notes, "The deeper the sorrow the less tongue it has.” And perhaps this is an implication of God’s silence: God is grieving with us.
So is God powerless over these deaths, too?
I believe our first reading this morning, from Ecclesiastes, does not allow us to make definitive pronouncements about what God can and cannot do. Its writer, Qoheleth the Teacher, notes that all is hebel, better translated as enigma or elusiveness than the traditional “vanity.” Quoheleth means for us to see the wisdom available to humans in this fallen design of God’s good world is an enigmatic and elusive wisdom. It is a wisdom cognizant of God’s action and mercies, but a wisdom that does not profit us or allow us to elude grief or gain an advantage over the next battle. Qoheleth’s wisdom is the wisdom that recognizes that often we cannot make meaning of historical and personal events, and that God alone holds meaning. The inscrutability and elusiveness of articulating a meaning to these tragedies is our human maturity and humility. That silence accepts that God is cleaning up after us, and that we just don’t have anything else to offer.
We keep silent in God’s care-- that is our wisdom of recollection.
Our second text this morning from 1 Kings 19 is part of the stories about Elijah the Tishbite, the great prophet of Israel.
He is on the run after winning a great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah had taunted the prophets of Baal to prove that their god was real. They ranted and injured themselves to incite Baal to act, but nothing happened. Then Elijah built an altar and prepared a sacrifice. Then he prayed to the Lord. Immediately the fire fell from heaven and consumed everything. When the Israelites saw it, they fell on their faces and shouted, “The LORD indeed is God” (1 Kgs. 18:39). 
The prophets of Baal were seized, and Elijah’s bold actions are enscriptured as a model of piety and righteous zeal for the Lord. When King Ahab reported this event to his wife Jezebel, she promised to kill Elijah. Elijah escapes into the wilderness and sits down to die. He has developed a depression and foolishly waits to be martyred for the wrong reasons.
It is in the wilderness that so many theophanies—physical manifestations of God—occur. Earlier, Moses had gone into the wilderness and encountered God on Mt. Horeb in the firey bush and the thundering voice of the Law giving God. Yet in this remarkable wilderness flight, Elijah encounters God not in the earthquake, the thunder, and the fire. The earthquake, the thunder, and the fire are noted in the text as part of God’s passing, but God was not in them.
Remarkably, our translation states that God was in the “sheer silence” after the earthquake, thunder, and fire. The Hebrew better translated is that God was in the “soft, whispery voice:” דַקָּֽה דְּמָמָ֥ה ק֖וֹל
the text asserts after the fire and thunder and earthquake passed. And yet the voice was so faint that no meaning or content is recounted. Elijah could only discern that God was a voice bordering on silence when it comes to interpreting the macro-disasters of fire, whirlwind, and earthquake.
This enigmatic and elusive voice bordering on silence does not invite dialogue but instead invites self-reflection by Elijah. This soft silence of God expresses a wide range of attitudes. It is an open silence, a pregnant silence. Its soft whisper seems to me to suggest to Elijah, “look, I your Lord can make the earth shake and the whirlwind of fire rage, and yet you are sitting down here to die in abject fear of mere mortals, the henchmen of Jezebel?” The soft whisper of God after such an awesome display of God’s passing by invites attentiveness by Elijah to his future course of action, but it is an attentiveness that requires Elijah’s maturity to discern that God is giving him freedom to go forth and choose to live life fully in whatever way he sees fit, knowing he has enemies but also knowing he has a relationship with the awesome power AND LOYALTY that flows from God.
Where is fear? the still voice might be asking, though Elijah cannot quite hear.
Where is God to protect? the still voice might be asking, though Elijah is not sure.
This whisper is soft.
This elusiveness of knowledge, this enigma of Elijah’s functioning relationship with the God of power and softness is part of Teacher Qoheleth’s wisdom:
we humans can’t discern our future, even with our relationship with and knowing of the Lord God.
We strain every fiber of our being to make sure we are right with God in order to ensure our profitable safety.
Yet our two readings teach us that there is for us no profit in understanding how fire, earthquake, and storm function in society and in our personal destiny. We only may trust the enigma of an elusive God who has brought us through fire and storm in the past and thus we hope will act steadfastly again—until finally God doesn’t, and our fate is set and our control of destiny and humanity slips from us.
But that’s on God, and that’s God’s prerogatives over God’s creatures.
This elusiveness of our destiny in God’s silence is our fate as creatures of the infinite God, and we need make our peace with it. We make our peace with it by silencing our inner rebellion as God teaches us in the soft whisper after God’s mute demonstration of incomprehensible power.
Elijah’s recognition that God resides in the soft silence and not in the earthquake and the fire is the beginning of wisdom, a wisdom that understands that natural catastrophes may reflect God’s action, but those catastrophes do not reflect any human comprehensibility of God’s will or judgment.
The philosophers of the 18th Century concluded the same. Voltaire concluded that the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 demonstrated that the old view of seeing God’s complete determination of history through natural disasters was perverse. Soon, the philosophes began to conclude that a belief in God’s existence itself was perverse based on the fact that killing fire, earthquake, and storm exist. In this, the atheists mistake the open silences of an elusive God for God’s non-existence.
Elijah does not make that mistake.
Silence in the demonstration of natural power allows for humans to carve out a place for individual dignity and self-determination within the context of a personal relationship with the divine softness. Such is the openness of silence that challenges our faith.
We daily need to reconceive of God’s silence in a way that endorses our acceptance of our humility as limited creatures subject to the will of our Creator Lord.
But I submit that what Elijah does make of God’s silences is that God’s servants are enabled to act with a maturity—an integrity that takes into account our free will alongside a fervent desire to do God’s bidding. In this desire, God’s silences serve to cement the relationship of Elijah with his God.
Elijah scours his consciousness for the voice of God, discards the coarse and the loud naysaying, and seeks to consider God’s will in what he in a sense independently arrives at through conscience. This is Christian self-reflection, the scouring of our conscience for memory of God’s previous acts and encounters with the word that act out in mature self-determination and gratitude. It is this operation of consciousness and memory that embodies the Christian virtue of recollection.
The silences of God encountered in conscientious Christian recollection and maturity can spur us to greater relationship both with our God and with our neighbor. Silence communicates, and we must often interpret the silence of others.
It is God’s intention, I believe, that we are to grow to understand how to humbly interpret any given divine silence or set of silences without flying off the handle and adopting foolish doctrines of atheism. Elijah interprets God’s silent voice to move from what Brueggemann calls “a letdown of depression to a revival of purpose.”
Elijah’s seeks God’s assurance in the fire and the storm, only instead to find God’s resurrecting companionship come what may.
Christian maturity, I suggest from our readings this morning, thus is skeptical of grand claims of knowing God’s historical will in natural phenomena of destruction, but maturity speaks in the individual voice of God in our inner lives, based on our lived experiences and shared knowledge of the Creator who is fully God self in Creation and Creating, not in destroying.
Hearing God’s soft voice in our inner being while not fully understanding cements a personal connection both to God and to ourselves as loved creatures of God. Listening for God’s soft whispers in our conscience is a form of respect to our Creator as Lord and to our humility as God’s puny creatures, though deeply loved. From this knowledge, Elijah can arise from his depression to recommit to living life with energy and authenticity.
May we also arise from our depressions by discarding that loudmouth voice inside us that condemns us to self-loathing based on hurtful things, and instead let us listen respectfully for the softness of our Sovereign lord.
What we sometimes see around us in the more conservative Christian churches is of a harsh and condemning rage that mistakes the path of Elijah in the wilderness. These churches find the lord in the demonstration of lethal and condemning power. These church folk mistake God for the fire and earthquake and storm and so live in fear of that lord. Living in fear, they may mistake the internal condemning voice for the soft whisper of love that allows us to move through life developing neighborliness.
Having a condemning lord in the fire and storm does not lead easily into neighborliness. It is a fearful and suspicious state of psychological agitation, a readiness to pull out a weapon or to lock the doors against the immigrant and stranger.
Having yet a lord of softness, given to silence that allows us to trust ourselves to come up with the authentic course of action for ourselves—that seems to me to be a more mature spirituality that reflects Christ’s own self-determination to plan for peace on earth.
It is in the construction of our consciences out of both the lived experience and the inner silences that create the authenticity of neighborly personhood. Neighborliness recognizes that the dangers of fires, storms, and earthquakes need to be attended and prepared for, not because of psychological fretfulness, but because there is a theological ambivalence, elusiveness, enigma, and awareness of lack of predictability or escapability from tragedy in this life. Neighborliness accepts the open silences of history, society, and nature that shape us into personalities with integrity to make our meaning. As we make our meaning in partnership with the elusive silences of God, we construct neighborhoods of meaning.
Come! we say to others, come visit my neighborhood of meaning and grace!
I hope you’ll find a God of softness and preparedness here.
I met Jan Karski and his wife in the early 1980s. He had been a member of the Polish Resistance during World War 2, and by the time I knew him, he was an old-world, courtly figure who taught history at Georgetown University. He was married to Pola Nireska, a Polish Jew who escaped the Holocaust as a popular modern dancer residing in London. Her whole family disappeared in the Holocaust.
In January 1940 Karski began to organize courier missions with dispatches from the Polish underground to the Polish Government in Exile, then based in Paris. As a courier, Karski made several secret trips between France, Britain and Poland. During one such mission in July 1940 he was arrested by the Gestapo in Slovakia. Severely tortured, he managed to escape. After a short period of rehabilitation, he returned to active service in the Polish Home Army.
In 1942 Karski was selected to contact …Polish politicians and inform them about Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland. In order to gather evidence, Karski was twice smuggled by Jewish underground leaders into the Warsaw Ghetto for the purpose of directly observing what was happening to Polish Jews. Also, disguised as an Estonian camp guard, he visited a sorting and transit point for the Bełżec death camp.
Karski then met with Polish politicians in exile and the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, giving a detailed statement on what he had seen in Warsaw and Bełżec. In 1943 he traveled to the United States, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office, telling him about the situation in Poland and becoming the first eyewitness to tell him about the Jewish Holocaust.
He also described the holocaust to [a mostly silent] Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter, skeptical of Karski's report, said later "I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference."
If FDR had not been silent--if he had acted immediately to stem the atrocity by bombing the gas and incineration complexes in the death camps--perhaps 2 Million Jews could have been saved from destruction. By the tardy time the American and British government did act, Karski’s efforts were estimated to have saved ¼ million Jews, making Karski the most effective savior of European Jewry during the war.
Yet Karski lived with the knowledge that perhaps 10 times more could have been saved, IF ONLY. If only FDR acted immediately.
Karski regretted to me that he had failed in his efforts to convince FDR, while there were deeper levels of military strategy that may have led FDR to demure quick action against the death camps.
Karski, who had trained for the diplomatic corps, strained every diplomatic muscle he had in trying to persuade the Brits and Americans, even going so far as obsequiously and gratuitously addressing his appeal to FDR with the title, “Lord of Humanity.”
In 1985, the French Film Director Claude Lanzmann released his 9-1/2 hour documentary Shoah. I committed 4 afternoons of a winter week in 1986 to seeing the four parts of Shoah at the Key Theater in Washington, DC. During the second installment, Karski appeared discussing the conditions of the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he wept. I was moved to tears by his descriptions. Later, he discussed the conditions in Bełżec.
I left the theater that Tuesday very emotional and got on the bus. It was raining. I sat down and was focused internally on my memories of the witness to the Holocaust in the documentary. I then became aware of a disturbance at the front of the bus. It was Karski, who was having difficulty putting away his umbrella while trying to secure his senior citizen bus discount. The bus passengers were surly at the slight delay and hurling their anger frontward at him: “Down in Front!” “Go Back to where you came from!”
Carried by instinct and empathy, I got up from my seat and went to the front and embraced Karski and gave him my arm for support as I almost carried him to a seat. At our seat, I told him of my emotion at just now seeing him in Shoah. “Yes,” he said, “an important document of the time.” I sat mostly a silent vigil with him during the bus ride back to Maryland.
I’ve thought often of that bus ride and have wondered if I should have addressed the surly passengers on the bus, shamed them with words, “this is a great man, people!” But what I’ve concluded after reading our texts this morning of the interpreted silences and elusive wisdom of God holds like with the parents of the dead boy in the Emergency Room: silent compassion and vigilant companionship was the better course that Tuesday on the bus in rainy Georgetown.
Don’t try to explain what would not be understandable without the context of faith and history.
As the Book of Ecclesiastes’ Teacher Qoheleth might say, “To every thing, there is a season. A time to speak out, a Time to be silent.”
[Jan Karski statue at Warsaw Museum of Jewish History. Photo Credit: Thomas Kennelly]
[Jan Karski statue at Warsaw Museum of Jewish History. Photo Credit: Thomas Kennelly]
For Karski, there was the season of speaking out: a time of moral revival and assertion. For us sometimes in the church confronted with the ugliness of depression and the letdown of humanity in our fellow man, there is a season of silence for reaching out. In those times, connection isn’t in the thundering words we offer, but in the soft companionship of standing firm next to someone until they are ready to go their own way.
The church is an institution from our Lord Jesus Christ to offer testimony to the truth of God's entering our lives for the better, and the difficult, though that sometimes entails struggle and pain. If we offer our testimony to our own heroic struggles with God’s silence and our debilitating struggles with depression and letdown, followed by our coming out the other side in softness and stillness, we speak authentically and deeply to those who look to us for guidance in times of senseless crisis.
It is not our role to provide easy answers, but to tell our stories of our enduring wonder with the mystery of God and the enigma of faith.
Telling our story and living life to the fullest requires risk.
But risk is the price for social peace and wholeness, the change that we all crave.
While perhaps God can burn and bomb God’s way to peace and softness, we as creatures of memory and pain cannot.
Come, let us make neighborhood together in shadow of God’s awesome power, in the softness of God’s tender voice.
Come, let us live without fear. -
Let us lean on the everlasting arm.
Even amidst the rage, fire, and storm of modern life:
Come let us live with the whispering softness of a gift-giving Lord.
Let us be changed in our inner being by our glimpse into and recollection of the abyss of natural disaster yet let us thrive in the ongoing springs of divine whispers that tells us that we are friends of the Lord of Life and the Living.
May it be so for you and for me. AMEN.
 Mitchem, S. Y. (2011). Theological Perspective on 1 Kings 19:9–18. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A (Vol. 3, p. 314). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Karski accessed on 6 August 2015.