August 12, 2018: Ruling Elder Brett Wilenzick, preaching
They say everything happens for a reason. For years now there has been an inner voice, or guide, telling me, “You are here to tell your story - you need to tell your story.” It has become an inner, driving need recently. It pulls at my heart. I feel it deep inside me. This past Thursday I had an appointment with Andrew. Sometimes I forget that he is my Pastor, too! We talked about many things in my life, and we discussed a recent post I made about thinking that maybe I should have gone into seminary. That led to a discussion around why, and us talking about programs available through Princeton and Austin Seminaries that where I could “get my feet wet” while earning a certificate in Theology and Ministry. The excitement inside me was noticeable. After more conversation about why I left called to ministry he asked, “What has stopped you?” I wasn’t prepared for that…
Soon after, Andrew notified us of the needed change of plans for today. I was given the choice to preach. I wanted to do this, so I said yes, I will. This will be the third time I’ve been blessed to stand in this position. The first two were my junior and senior year at Enid High - Youth Sunday service at Central Christian Church. I remember standing at the pulpit where Dr. Lloyd Lambert delivered his sermons every Sunday. On the inside facing edge was a sign that read, “Feed my sheep.” At that moment I realized the incredible responsibility and gift that came with standing there, in that spot, in that space, sharing the word of God. Standing there I felt humbled, yet empowered by Him. I was loved and trusted with His word, and with His people. That feeling never leaves you, and it becomes something you don’t ever want to let go of. That was just a part of the reason why I wanted to become a minister. The other reasons? Well, we will have to talk about those some other time.
“What has stopped you” Andrew asked. I didn’t have to think to hard. I didn’t have the baggage then that I do now. The very condensed version is I left the church because, well, being gay wasn’t always a good thing - even in more moderate congregations, and that’s not what the unconditional love of God is. And certainly not a place for me. I had to “come out.” I had to rediscover the me that I spent years trying to run away from, or hide. Along the way the darkness also set in, and the demons of the past seemed to be the only voices in my head. I was scared, angry, depressed. I lost my faith. I lost my way, I lost myself. I lost my scholarships and left college. I had failed at becoming what I thought I was supposed to be, what I thought society expected me to be, and what I thought my life should have been. It is a dark, lonely place, and if one isn’t careful, a place that can easily separate you from everything that you were meant to be. It wasn’t the grandiose life I had envisioned, or that I thought God had planned for me. In its place was a life of pain, guilt, sorrow, sin, physical and emotional scars, and things I swore I’d never do. How could someone with my past presume to think he could stand in such a sacred space and lead God’s people now? What if they find out about my mistakes, the hurt I caused, my shortcomings, my sins, and my battles with the darkness? Yet that voice continues to call to me - gently, quietly, “Share your story.”
God doesn’t always call the equipped, but God ALWAYS equips the called. I read the scripture lessons for today, I read Andrew’s weekly Text and Context email, and was worried that I could not pick up where Andrew was going to today. Then I took a deeper look at Elijah. We encounter Elijah surrounded by false prophets, chaos, and Israel in a spiritual downward spiral. We learn that Elijah is present in a time when God is sending his final warning to the northern kingdom of Israel. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel have not only turned from God, they have ordered the execution of the true prophets of the Lord and seek to replace them with pagan priests. Elijah now stands alone - the final true prophet of the Lord, and is the last of his kind. Much like Elijah, I felt alone, and as if everything were out to destroy me and take me from God. I allowed my self to remain in darkness and fear rather than choosing the one, true path that God had set before me years ago. Elijah 18:21 we learn that the time has come for Israel to make a choice… “How long will you waver between two options? If the Lord is God, then follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
Elijah, whose name means “The Lord is my God,” knew he had the power of the one true God behind him, and nothing could defeat him. He devises a contest between the followers of Baal and the Lord. Baal failed to answer the repeated cries and calls of the 450 pagan prophets to accept and take their prepared sacrifice. Elijah even becomes boastful and taunts them…(read 18:27). Elijah rebuilds the altar of the Lord, places his bull on the alter and has the people douse the offering, the wood, and the alter with four large jars of water - three times. Elijah called on the name of the Lord, and fire came from heaven and consumed the offering, the wood, and the water. This proved that the Lord is the only true God, and the people cried out, “The Lord - He is God!” The prophets of Baal were ordered to be gathered by Elijah, and they are then taken to the valley and killed. The Lord God has proven by consuming the offering that He is the Lord God. Surely now the people will turn from their lost path back to the Lord God. Jezebel puts a price on Elijah’s head- he will be lucky to live even a single day. Elijah grew depressed and afraid. He feels he’s failed the Lord, even though he was victorious on Mount Carmel. Elijah’s expectations weren’t met in his eyes, and he is the last standing, with a mark on his head. The grand change as the result of the miracle of the Lord didn’t materialize. How could this happen? He was scared, fearful for his life, and questioning his faith. He ran in fear. He had everything he thought he needed and was supposed to have, yet the end result was not the grandiose life he expected to follow.
I recognized myself in Elijah at this moment. My faith had never wavered. No matter the dogma of the time, or the stance of the “church” on my life, I knew I was sent from the Father into this world just as I was- His creation, perfect in His sight. I have always had an unexplainable connection to God. To serve Him, to make my life pleasing in His sight, and a deep yearning to see His face. A love that couldn’t possibly be taken away from me for any reason. I was empowered and protected. I was well equipped to handle the road ahead of me - no matter how daunting.. Yet, like Elijah after Mount Carmel, each new battle left me discouraged, lost, questioning everything, and at one point praying for death to take me from this world and bring me home to the Lord. I just wanted the darkness to be lifted so badly, that like Elijah, I was willing to give my life. But, how could I possibly face Him knowing that in my mind and my heart that I had failed and allowed the darkness to take me away from a light that once could never have been hidden from me. Broken, defeated, and separated from God, the darkness stayed, and my connection to God was hidden from me. Or so I thought.
I took a deeper look to discover who Elijah was, and I found more similarities: moody, subject to bouts of depression and self-doubt. Elijah wasn’t wealthy. He didn’t have the latest fashions and jewels, nor did he worship in elaborate temples. He was poor and struggling. He was barely clothed, lived in the wilderness, and begged for hand-outs. Life is a mess, yet God is with him. Power, corruption, and greed plague the land. The people have again turned to idols and false prophets. Darkness has fallen, yet God calls to Elijah and sends this seemingly broken, ordinary and bedraggled man into the heart of the battle to tell God’s story and lead the nation back to salvation. After Mount Carmel, he is broken, tired, and running for his life, a life he now asks God to take him from.
Elijah leaves his servant in Beersheba and heads deep into the wilderness. He stops and falls asleep under a bush. He prays to God and says, “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” He is literally contemplating taking his own life to end the pain of his perceived failure in his calling. After his prayer, he falls asleep. His sleep is broken in the night. Elijah wakes to find an angel of the Lord touching him - having prepared two loaves of bread over hot coals, and water for him to drink. He eats and drinks and lays back down. Again, the angel appears and has prepared more bread and water saying to him, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” He does as the angel tells him and is rejuvenated by the gift of the bread of heaven and sets out on a journey of 40 days and nights to Horeb - the mountain of God where he then seeks shelter and rest in a cave. Now we see God reveal himself in a different way…
God sends Elijah out onto the mountain. Unlike many of the 8 major miracles God works through Elijah- this time God comes not in a majestic or powerful miracle or public specter. The Bible tells us that a great wind came and tore the rocks of the mountain apart, yet the Lord was not in the wind. Then and earthquake came, followed by a great fire. The Lord was not in these, either. After these powerful signs, the Lord God came to Elijah as a gentle whisper and asks Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He fell to his knees and covered his face. Elijah explains that he as worked tirelessly and with great passion for the Lord, but the Israelites put the Lord’s prophets to death, that he was the last, and now they are out to take his life. The Lord send him back to complete his work, rested, rejuvenated, and again in the presence of the Lord and his love.
I look on this and I wonder… how many times have we found ourselves in Elijah’s position? Starting with a clear and zealous relationship with God. He calls us to him, writes His word on our hearts and in our souls, and sends us forth… fully equipped for the journey ahead of us - empowered to do His work and bring his people back into a relationship with Him. How many of us look for the spectacle of a miracle, looking for God is the great wonders we have seen, when all along it was but a gentle whisper that we were unable to hear, or unable to share? We let our minds and hearts become deafened by the noise of everything around us. We look on the Old Testament and see a God of fire and brimstone; a vengeful and wrathful God. We see the turmoil of the people and their repeated failures and falling back into idolatry and away from the one true God. We read and hear of the wonders of God’s work through Moses and Elijah. We look about and think for it to be truly the work of the Lord, it must be amazing in our sight. We measure our success against a vision of life that we make out to be as big as God himself. We will fall short of that greatness, we allow the noise and darkness in, and in doing so we can no longer hear the gentle whisper of our Lord saying…. “I am with you. I am the Lord your God. I love you, and you are enough.” We spend so much time marveling at and looking for signs and wonders, that we fail to see Him in the most ordinary of places, and in the most unnoticeable moments of the ordinary.
God had to take a new path, and as we move into the new testament lesson, God’s gentle whisper returns. In an ordinary stable, in an ordinary town, on an ordinary night - Jesus is born. The seas do not part, there are no pillars of fire, mighty winds, earthquakes, or burning bushes. On a quite night, under the stars of the night sky, the Son of God came to us through an ordinary couple. This gentle whisper was anything but ordinary - God had finally come to us, as one of us - human, flesh and blood.
In the Old Testament, mankind seemed only believed when they saw wonders or had proof of a living God. We raised and worshiped earthy idols of the tangible, and in doing so, we turned away from Him. Jesus became the tangible form of God. And we now come to John 6:35 and 41-51. We saw evidence of God’s love when Elijah was fed by the angel of God - bread from Heaven and water. He then went to the mountain of the Lord, he became still and heard His gentle whisper. Elijah was rejuvenated and able to continue his mission for the Lord. Now, years later, Jesus has just fed the Five Thousand as we heard last week, and has moved on to the other side of lake, leaving his disciples to follow after him. Was it the miracle they were following after, or was it something else? Jesus plainly tells them that they followed after him, “not because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” Elijah, too, followed God to the mountain, to be in His presence as He passed by. He was able to make the journey because the angel awoke him, and he ate the loaves and had his fill. In both cases, because the bread of heaven was given and consumed, the body and minds of those who ate of it were made whole, and they each were able to continue in faith, their calling, and were reminded of the love God has for us all. In receiving the bread from heaven, both Elijah and the disciples were able to be fully present in the experience of their faith in God, and come into a life with Him that would never end. No matter what, if we believe in the living body of Christ, and we believe that He is the living bread from Heaven, and we eat our fill, we will be equipped for our calling - no matter how large or how small. From old to new testaments, God is with us - always. Sustaining us with the living word through a gentle whisper, and ultimately through the living Christ.
I have seen wonders in my own life. I’ve experienced things in my waking hours and in my dreams that I cannot explain. But not until most recently have I been able to quiet my mind and listen for Him. I, too, ran into the wilderness, ready to give it up. I followed not because I ate my fill, but because I longed to see the wonders of the Lord. I kept looking for great signs, that never came. I tried so hard to be something I wasn’t just because I was fearful of what this world would do if I were to be genuinely who God meant for me to be. I couldn’t reconcile a God who made me as I am to condemn me for who I loved, or who would have me removed from his presence. I had the fire of faith burning deep inside me, but I could not hear God’s voice asking me… “Why are you here? Why do you not know that I am the Lord your God? Why do you allow yourself to suffer?” I was holding on to the past, the pain, the hurt, the disappointment. I mistakenly thought that maybe He did take his presence from me - in punishment for my sins and failures. In truth, I was looking in the wrong places. He wasn’t in the storm, the winds, the fire, the earthquakes, or the things that sought to destroy me. He was inside me all along. I was seeking His forgiveness, but unable to forgive myself.
In both these lessons today, God called upon the most ordinary, broken, and average men. Their hearts and minds were opened to see that God is much more than large displays of power and might. He dwells in the quiet places and moments that we tend to overlook. Through Christ Jesus, we are given the very bread and breath of life, our hearts will be opened, and as long as we believe, and allow ourselves the freedom to eat our fill and quiet our minds, we will always be with Him, and through Him we will always be connected to the love, grace, forgiveness and presence of God the Father. May we always follow Him, not for the signs and wonders - for these are things seen with the eyes and interpreted by the mind. Let us lay down our burdens, our fears, our feelings of doubt and unworthiness. Let us allow God to feed our souls with the bread of heaven through a faithful and loving relationship with Christ. May we know and understand that God has called each of us, and we are equipped. No matter the journey or calling, through Christ Jesus, our relationship with the Son and the Father is all we need to sustain us through the most trying of times. We need not let anything stop us.
Hear these words from the poet, Annie Johnson Flint:
God hath not promised
Skies always blue,
All our lives through.
God hath not promised
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
But God has promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the labor,
Light for the way,
Grace for the trials,
Help from above,
Sit, be still, eat of the bread of heaven, and know that in the most ordinary moments of time, God is calling each of us to Him, with the eternal promise that we will always be with Him and He in us. Through Christ Jesus, we are forgiven. We can leave our past, destroy our idols, and - even for the most ordinary or simple among us, there will always be a place for us at the table with faith in Jesus and the promise of God the Father that we will never go hungry or thirsty. May it be so for you, for me, and for all who are willing to be called to sit in the midst of the storm yet be still and listen for His voice. Amen.