1st Kings 17:1b:
Ruskin Falls, July 22, 2018
Before whom I stand.
Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church 9th Sunday after Pentecost
TEXT (English translation: NRSV)
The Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand.
These words were spoken by Elijah the Tishbite. We’re not given any background or
preparation for Elijah’s appearance at this point in the biblical story. Rather, we are simply and suddenly informed that someone named Elijah went up to Ahab, the king of Israel, and said,“The Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand.” And having said that, we then are told, Elijah goes on to declare to King Ahab that a drought is at hand in the land of Israel. And sure enough, a drought soon set in.
A little later, Elijah is identified as a prophet of the Lord, the God of Israel. And what we’re told regarding this ancient Israelite prophet is a story of ongoing and dangerous confrontation between Elijah, on the one hand, and, on the other, King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel.
Elijah denounces Israel’s rulers for using their authority and power to make themselves comfortable and rich, in ways that are taking a harsh toll on the well-being of most Israelites. Under these rulers, decries Elijah, Israel is becoming a society formed not by the will and way of the Lord and creator of Israel, but by the worship of false gods and by self-deceit and lies regarding the true source and meaning of Israel’s life.
Perhaps the most widely remembered confrontation between Elijah and his people’s rulers is the one that occurred on Mt. Carmel. By the time of the confrontation on Mt. Carmel, several hundred prophets who identified themselves with Canaanite gods called Baal and Asherah had become intimate advisors to the royal courts. Elijah, on the other hand, had come to be referred to in royal places as “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah challenged Ahab to send those prophets to Mt. Carmel for a showdown, to see once and for all who is truly the Lord. On Mt. Carmel, the prophets of Baal and Asherah prepared an offering to be burnt on an altar of wood, and then they prayed to their gods to strike the wood with fire from heaven. All morning the royal prophets implored their gods, “Answer us!” But nothing happened. Then Elijah built an altar in the name of the Lord the God of Israel; he placed a sacrifice upon it to be burned; and he offered a prayer. Fire fell and consumed the offering.
This event enraged Jezebel, and she determined then and there to do what had to be done to kill Elijah and be rid of “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah spent the rest of his life trying to avoid Jezebel’s deadly grasp while, time and again, showing up in public places to condemn what Israel’s rulers were doing and what Israel, as a society and nation, was becoming.
Moreover, over the course of his life, Elijah set the example and the tone that, for the next 300 years, would be characteristic of those the Bible refers to as the true prophets of Israel. In the Bible, the true prophets are persons called by God to challenge this world’s ways – and especially this world’s rulers’ ways – of perverting justice, shunning kindness, and substituting hypocrisy and lies for true and honest relationship with God. And, in the Bible, those referred to as false prophets are the ones who coddle up to power; they’re the ones who say what their rulers want to hear, the ones who aim at staying in good stead with the royal house rather than critically analyzing their rulers’ policies and deeds in light of the word and way of God. The true prophets are those called by God to speak God’s truth to power. The true prophets are persons sent by God to dare take on the powers that be – in words, with deeds, and through an often peculiar (sometimes seemingly even anti-social!) style of life. The true prophets are persons called to challenge what a wayward world treats as real and true, and to do that for the sake of
the compassionate justice and peace that is the purpose and aim of eternal God, in whose presence, whether we acknowledge it or not, each of us always stands.
Let’s fast forward now a couple of thousand years to the age of the Christian Crusades. The
Crusades were a series of military expeditions in the 1100's and 1200's that were organized by Christian rulers and powers in Europe to regain control of the Christian Holy Land around Jerusalem, which by then had come to be controlled by Muslim rulers.
In the region around the Holy Land at that time, there in the course of all the saber-rattling, all the bitterness and resentment, all the fighting, and all the slaughter of the Crusades, someindividuals, mostly young men who had witnessed firsthand the brutality and darkness of the times, began pulling back from all that sound and fury, in order to lead a life of solitude. These individuals became something of a community of recluses – hermits, if you will. Each individual had a cave-dwelling where he could pray day and night, contemplate the reality, truth, and presence of God, and meditate on God’s will and way.
The location of this strange community was . . . . Mt Carmel – the same Mt. Carmel where Elijah once had challenged the prophets of Baal in the name of the Lord the God of Israel. Indeed, remembrance of Elijah became for these recluses an important source of inspiration. They even took as their watchword a line that Elijah himself had become famous for repeating. It is the line that we just read: “The Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand.”
It was Christian faith that drew those individuals into that community at Mt. Carmel. They found themselves there together, because relationship with Jesus had become for them a friendship with God that was more real than the world around them.
When they now repeated Elijah’s words, “The Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand,” they were calmly and encouragingly admonishing themselves to do what Elijah had done, namely this: even amidst all the sound and fury of life in this world, even amidst all that is baleful and dark, to let every moment be a moment of wakefulness to, gratitude for, and life in the presence of the God who, however invisibly, is always there – the God who is always already with us here, looking into us and reaching into us with a friendship that is more real than is this passing world. When they said, “The Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand,”they were saying this: nothing in this world is more real or more lasting than is the friendship that God always already has surrounded us with – the friendship that God, in every place and moment, is beckoning us to embrace.These hermits on Mt. Carmel were not seeking specific times and places in the midst of everyday life that might be conducive to working on what we might call their “spirituality.” Their point was to learn to let every moment of everyday lifeinclude wakefulness to God’s amazing friendship.
God’s friendship does not insulate us from this world’s sound and fury, or from what is baleful
and dark. By the mid-1200's, even the community of Christians on Mt. Carmel was forced by social and political circumstances to abandon its location in the region around the Holy Land. They did not, however, abandon their community. Rather, they migrated to Europe, and there they established monasteries – communities of monks as well as communities of nuns. In remembrance of their beginnings, they called their communities Carmels, and they dedicated themselves to continuing the experience and practices that had begun with the Christian hermits on Mt. Carmel.
These monks and nuns came to be called Carmelites, and they eventually became an officially recognized religious order of the Catholic Church. Indeed, there is a Carmel here in Little Rock.
It’s on 32nd Street, at the edge of Boyle Park. Those who live there live in the conviction that, through their work, through their life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, through their cultivation of the experience of silence, stillness, and surrender to God, they are letting themselves become, for the sake of all the world, vessels of friendship with God – vessels of the friendship that we so deeply need on earth, amidst the sound and fury of – and amidst all that is baleful and dark in – this world that is our home.
For several years, the life and writings of one Carmelite nun in particular have played an
especial role in my own personal and ministerial path of theological discovery. Her name isEdith Stein – since her canonization into sainthood in 1998 by Pope John Paul II, also known asSt. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
Edith Stein was born in 1891. Jewish by birth and upbringing, as a teenager she stopped praying and began considering herself an atheist. In 1911 she began university studies in philosophy in Germany, and in 1916 she received her Ph.D. degree from the University of Freiburg. She thereby became one of the very first women ever to receive a doctorate from a German university, and she received it summa cum laude, which is the highest academic honor a university can confer. By the age of thirty, she had begun sensing herself powerfully drawn toward Christian faith, and in 1922 she was baptized into the Catholic Church. Over the ensuing years, she taught in a Catholic girls’ school and at a teachers’ college; she produced profound and important articles and books in philosophy; and she became widely known and highly respected as a lecturer at conferences throughout Germany on Christian Education and on issues pertaining to women in the church and in society. In 1933, at the age of 42, she became a Carmelite nun, entering the Carmel in Cologne, Germany, and taking, as her Carmelite name, the name, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – Teresa, Blessed of the Cross.
Edith Stein was a vocal opponent of the Nazi movement that overtook German politics and society in the 1930's and that, in 1939, boiled over into World War II. Even as a nun – in particular as a nun who was Jewish by birth – she landed on the Nazi party’s enemies list. Threatened with arrest in Cologne, she moved, in December, 1938, to a Carmel in the Netherlands. In 1940, however, the Netherlands fell under German occupation. On August 2, 1942, the Nazis arrested Edith Stein. They took her to the prison camp at Westerbork, then they put her on the train to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. There, on August 9, she was executed. Ten years later, a Dutch official who had met her at Westerbork wrote the following:
The one sister who impressed me immediately, whose warm, glowing smile has never been erased from my memory, despite the disgusting ‘incidents’ I was forced to witness, is the one whom I think the Vatican may one day canonize. From the moment I met her in the camp at Westerbork . . . I knew: here is someone truly great. For a couple of days she lived in that hellhole, walking, talking, and praying . . . like a saint. And she really was one. That is the only fitting way to describe this middle-aged woman who struck everyone as so young, who was so whole and honest and genuine. . . . When she spoke, it was impossible not to be moved by her humility and conviction. Talking with her was like . . . journeying into another world, where for a moment, Westerbork [the prison camp] ceased to exist.
(Waltraud Herbstrith, Edith Stein: A Biography, Ignatius Press, 2nd ed., 1992, pp.186-187)
When they carried her off by train from Westerbork, he continued, “she went . . . smiling the smile of unbroken resolve that accompanied her to Auschwitz.”
I mention Edith Stein this morning, because I want to impress upon you an observation she
made, that I believe is an important part of what it means to recognize in every moment that we stand before God (see Edith Stein Gesamtausgabe, volume 14, page 83).
A human being, she noted, is not born into this world as a completed self, but, rather, as a self that we ourselves play a role in forming, through the decisions, choices, and moves we make. That is to say: What I decide in each moment of my life determines far more than just what happens in that particular moment. Every decision I make has a formative influence on what I, over the course of my life, become. Were I a piano student, for example, then, at a given moment this afternoon, I might need to decide between practicing my piano lessons and going outside to play in the yard. Or, for example, were I, at some point today, to feel intense anger welling up within me over something, I could either take control of the anger or I could let it explode. And, in each case, the choice I make, the route I go, is going to affect much, muchmore than just what happens in that particular moment. Naturally, whether or not I become a virtuoso piano player does not depend on whether or not I practice on that one occasion. Andone outbreak of uncontrolled anger doesn’t make it impossible over the course of my life to learn to control my anger. Nevertheless, every decision I make, every choice and move I make, plays a role in creating in me a disposition to make that same decision, that same choice, that same move, another time. The more often I decide to skip piano practice, the harder it will be the next time, to bring myself to make the opposite decision, and the harder it will be for me to become a piano player. Likewise, the more often I let my anger explode, the harder it becomes for me the next time to practice self-control. Every choice I make has an effect not only on what happens here and now, but also on the self that I can and do become. Each choice I make not only determines what happens here and now; it also affects theformation of my spirit, the formation of my self, the formation of my character, over time. It affects how I become myself. It affects who I indeed do become.
One bad decision or a series of poor choices need not destroy your character or ruin your life. But: every decision you make, every choice you make, every move you make, really does have an effect on the person you become and the choices you’ll be able to make down the road.
Therefore, Edith Stein implores us, if you want to become who you, as God’s chosen friend, can, should, and are free to become, then do this: As much as you possibly can, in every decision, every choice, every move you make, no matter how trivial or mundane it may seem at the time, know that you stand, here and now, in the presence of the God who is the beginning and end of every life, and who desires lovingly intimate friendship with you and with us all. Know that you stand in the presence of eternal God, looking into your spirit, reaching into your life, and beckoning your response. Know that God, in all God’s invisibility, is with and for you there, graciously determined, in all the mystery of God’s ways, to bring out in you what God knows is best about you. Then, in that knowledge, enter humbly boldly into the friendship that God desires to share with you. In that friendship with God, you will learn to let yourself be swayed less and less by the sound and fury of the world around you, and more and more by the reality, truth, and presence of eternal God. In that friendship with God, you will learn to let yourself be less dominated by things that are baleful and dark, and more truly guided by the goodness and light of your creator’s grace and love. In that friendship with God, you will learn to fear no one and nothing on this earth, but, instead, to abide in and to live out the courage that is intended uniquely for you by God – the eternal God before whom you stand.
Jesus said: “You are my friends. . . . I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:14 ff). May we so stand, and may we so follow. Amen.