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The Eye of the Storm

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Aug 10

Text: 1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-3

I am someone who pays attention to trees. I notice that the river birch in the neighbor’s yard is growing fast. I relish the memory of climbing fir trees with my best childhood friend, Sue. Tall trees with regular, ladder-like branches—you could climb almost as high as the roof of the house!

I set my direction by trees. The monumental American beech trees in Concord Center. The giant sycamore tree out in Sunderland. The Brookline Park with weeping copper beeches. The two-hundred-year-old maple that used to stand on a certain corner of Comm. Ave. in Newton. When the tree was cut down, I mourned its loss and (truth to tell) even became slightly disoriented on that stretch of road. That tree had helped me know exactly where I was.

Now, I acknowledge that not everyone pays attention to trees. My husband notices music. We’ll be in a restaurant within the cacophony of clanging dishes and loud table conversation and Kevin will say, “Do you hear what they’re playing?” No I do not. And it’s not because I have hearing loss. It’s just not how my brain works, not what I’m paying attention to. Each of us humans is tuned into our own particular wavelength as a result of a combination of brain chemistry and socialization. But we can also be quite intentional in shaping what we notice.

Our tradition teaches us that what we pay attention to matters. And what’s more, we may need to train our attention so that we are tuned to God’s presence in our lives. Some people get clear—even dramatic—signals, like Moses’ burning bush incident. But most of us are stuck fiddling with the radio dial trying to pull in a signal. Sometimes the communication is crisp and clear, sometimes fuzzy and filled with static. We need to do some fine-tuning. We may even need to pull out some aluminum foil for the old antenna.

This morning we read two very different texts from very different parts of our tradition. The story of Elijah from First Kings in the Hebrew Bible and a miracle story of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew. Both stories portray followers who are consumed with fear. Both feature dramatic storms. And both suggest that God can show up in unexpected ways often at the quiet center of the storm.

In 1 Kings 19 we meet the prophet Elijah in the middle of a dramatic story—in the quiet center of the storm—if you will. Let’s start with a bit of historical background. Elijah is caught up in the midst of political turmoil, as the united monarchy splits into two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Things are not going well in the Northern Kingdom. King Jeroboam has installed golden calves in the sanctuary of Dan and Bethel and Queen Jezebel is trying to establish—in Israel—worship of the Canaanite god, Baal (1). And Elijah is trying to remain faithful to the covenant in the midst of it all. In his zeal for Yahweh, Elijah has murdered the prophets of Baal, championed by Queen Jezebel. As you can imagine, Jezebel is not the least bit pleased. She takes out a contract on Elijah. And he flees for his life.

As our story picks up today, Elijah takes shelter in a mountain cave at Horeb. He has a litany of complaints against God: he alone has been faithful; Jezebel is after him; his life is in jeopardy. Full of self-righteousness and quaking with fear, Elijah seeks God’s presence. Elijah has done his part. Now, will God keep God’s part of the covenant? Will he show up with Elijah needs him most?

Elijah hears a voice, instructing him, “Go out and stand on the mountain, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Elijah goes out onto the mountain as instructed, and experiences all kinds of forces—wind, earthquake, and fire. For the Israelites, all of these are typical vehicles for theophany (the direct experience of the revelation of God.) You can bet that Elijah knows that and is listening and watching carefully for signs of God’s presence.

But God does not appear in the earthquake, wind or fire. Instead, after all the drama, Elijah hears something unexpected. A still, small voice. The Hebrew words are difficult to translate. Readers of the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) will know the phrase as “the sound of sheer silence.” A phrase evocative of the quiet in the eye of a storm.

But current scholarship suggests something more like “a softly whispering voice.” One Hebrew lexicon offers the rough translation, “a voice of stillness thin.” Yahweh speaks to Elijah, not in the commanding tones of tempest, breaking rocks, or cracking timbers, but in a softly whispering voice. Not at all what Elijah was expecting.

Elijah’s experience begs a series of questions: Are we quiet enough within ourselves to hear God’s softly whispering voice? When we do watch and listen for signs of God’s presence and guidance, are we tuning our attention to what matters? Tuning into the right band on the radio dial? If we are expecting the drama of high winds, will we hear the gentle whisper?

It is so easy to be distracted by drama, by forces swirling around us, even by the noise in our own minds! Any novice meditator knows what a cacophony of voices most of us carry within us. A constant internal dialog and running commentary as we move through daily life, voices that belie our preoccupation with self. It takes practice to quiet those voices enough so we can listen to the sheer silence—or perhaps—even hear a still, small voice.

Our tradition teaches us that our trained attention matters. It is powerfully important. God is present, undergirding all of our experience, speaking surely, insistently. But are we so riveted on the storm around us that we cannot perceive the quiet center?

Matthew’s story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee suggests that fear can be a major factor in our perceptions. And part of what needs to “be stilled” is our fear.

It’s a familiar story that follows immediately on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus and the disciples have had some full days of teaching and ministry in the Galilee and Jesus has gone off by himself to pray. Meanwhile, the disciples are out on the water in a fishing boat when a huge storm comes up.

It’s a pretty great story. Jesus sees that they are in trouble on the stormy seas and walks calmly across the water toward the boat. The disciples, in turn, are terrified. In their fear they do not recognize Jesus and take him to be a ghost. Jesus offers words of comfort, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The next occurrence is rather comical. Peter is pretty pumped about the way Jesus is walking on the water and he wants to get in on the action. Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replies, “Come.” But when he gets out of the boat, Peter takes his eyes off Jesus, just for a moment, focusing his attention on the wind and waves. He is filled with fear and starts to sink. One moment, focused on Jesus, then next moment, focused on his fear.

We’ve all had that sinking feeling when we lose our composure. One moment, we are faithful and confident. The next moment, full of fear and doubt. And we know from experience it can turn on a dime. Fear is such a common response to loss, illness, grief, and every kind of uncertainty. But we know that fear can be incapacitating.

In his first inaugural address, FDR asserted, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

We may disagree with FDR, believing that there are real things in this world we should fear. But we can’t argue with his underlying logic. Brain science teaches us that when we are in a heightened state of fear, we are riveted on threat. Our logical, problem-solving mind is not in play. Our creative, exploring mind is not active. The compassionate, loving part of our brains is not on-line. Only the fight-or-flight center of the brain is working.

And I’m not suggesting (not for a moment!) that we should ignore real threats to our well-being. Rather, I wonder, what can we do to live out of the calm center, even while the maelstrom swirls around us? To call on the powerful name of Jesus, to hear the still, small voice of God’s whisperings?

Will we prepare ourselves through prayer and study, to pay attention so that we are open, flexible, creative, and receptive? “Capable [as one author puts it] of focusing our attention on any flight of the Holy Spirit that happens to appear within our field of vision? Will we be truly open to the awesome presence of a living, loving God?”

1. Wendel W. Meyer, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), p. 319.

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