What are you doing here?
Lectionary blog for Aug. 10, 2014
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: I Kings 19:9-18, Psalm 85:8-13;
Romans 10:5-15, Matthew 14: 22-33
By Delmer Chilton
Many years ago I stood in the hallway outside a college admissions office, sweating uncomfortably in my Sunday suit and twisting the postcard with the time and place of my appointment in my hands. I pushed the door open slowly and looked around. I saw a man sitting at his desk, seemingly absorbed in his paperwork. I eased into the room, looking for a place to sit when suddenly he looked up and barked at me, “What are you doing here?” Startled, I stammered out that I was looking for the admissions office. He said, “This is it. What are you doing here?” Again I attempted to answer. “I’m Delmer Chilton and I have an appointment.” He grunted and said, “I know that, but what are you doing here?”
Know that expression, “Look like a deer in the headlights?” That was me. I was completely bumfuzzled. Finally I shrugged my shoulders threw up my hands and said, “I don’t understand the question. You’ve got to help me out here?’ Again the man grunted and said, “What are you doing here? Not here in this room but here in this life? Why do you want to go to college? What is your calling, your purpose, your passion? What ARE YOU doing here?” I don’t know how good that man was at recruiting students, but he sure was good at asking the important questions.
Did you notice that his question was the same question that God asked Elijah on the mountain: “What are you doing here?” At one level, it’s a question about why Elijah is hiding in a cave far from where he’s supposed to be. At another level, it’s a question about Elijah’s calling in life. Without going too deeply into the history, Elijah had been called by God to oppose Ahab and Jezebel, the rulers of Israel. Ahab, under the influence of his wife, had reintroduced Baal worship and many of the people were adopting it. There was a big confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal that involved the sacrifice of a bull and the calling down of fire from heaven.
It’s an interesting story. It’s in I Kings 18:20-40. You should read it sometime. Anyway, the 400 priests of Baal failed, and Elijah succeeded in calling down fire from heaven, and the 400 Baal priests were killed. But instead of proving anything to Jezebel, she got mad and decided to have Elijah killed. And here’s the interesting thing. Elijah had just successfully called down fire from heaven, and now he turns tail and runs. After that gigantic demonstration of God’s power, at the first sign of trouble he gives up.
And God comes and finds him in the cave and asks him, “What are you doing here?” “Why did you run away?” Elijah’s answer says it all, because his answer is not about God; it’s all about him: “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 a sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah’s fatal flaw at this moment is that he believes that he is the one who has done good things for God, when in reality it is God who has done good things for the world through Elijah.
This moves to the second meaning of the question, the meaning my college admissions officer was getting at. What is your calling, your purpose in life? Elijah had forgotten that his calling was to serve God and to allow God to work in and through him for the benefit of Israel and ultimately the world.
Moving for a moment to our Gospel story of Jesus walking on the water, we discover that Peter had a similar problem. When he looked at the storm that surrounded him, he forgot that it was God who was holding him up. He began to think, “I can’t do this, I can’t walk on water.” And then he began to sink.
Now, let’s be clear here. We’re not talking about some form of “positive thinking” of “look deep within yourself and believe!” pseudo-psycho-babble. No, this is about remembering that we don’t do great things for God. God does great things for us, and God does great things through us for the salvation of the world.
Remember when the little WWJD (What would Jesus do) bracelets were all the rage? I used to joke about needing a WWPD bracelet: “What would Peter do?” Now there’s a standard I can live up to. But I was sort of serious about that. The trouble with WWJD is we are not Jesus, so we can’t do what Jesus would do. That is precisely the point of these stories; we are dependent upon God, and God is trustworthy.
Jesus could walk on water, Peter couldn’t except with God’s help. Elijah didn’t make God send fire from heaven, God sent Elijah to call for the fire. Way too often we in the church think it’s our job to do great things for God. We want to build big buildings, attract huge crowds, be a “significant” and “important” congregation in our community and synod.
None of this is bad unless we think that we do those things on our own as a service to God. We don’t. It is not our calling to be successful, as the world defines success. Rather it is our calling to be faithful, as God defines faith. It is our calling as the church to proclaim the word and administer the sacraments, to serve the world in the name of the one who came and served us.
It is our calling to be proclaimers, in words and deeds of the glorious good news of the love and grace of God. How are they to hear without someone to tell them? (Romans 10: 14) Our proclamation may result in size and significance in the eyes of the world, and it may not. But that is not the issue. The issue is remembering that to say “Jesus is Lord” is also to say “And I am not.”
The issue is remembering the words of Martin Luther in the Small Catechism: “Not by my own reason and strength can I believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” And I would add “or serve him.” The issue is remembering what we’re doing here. The issue is remembering that our calling is to be a means of grace in the world, a place and a people through whom God will love and serve the world.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.