Texts: 1 Kings 19:9-18 ; Psalm 85:8-13 ; Romans 10:5-15 ; Matthew 14:22-33
Do you remember the old Looney Tune cartoons? I used to watch them as Saturday morning cartoons, but originally they were shown in movie theaters before feature films. The characters have been around almost eighty years, but they’re still familiar to most young people: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck and – the ones I’m thinking of this morning – the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. The Road Runner was some kind of bird, and Wile E. Coyote was, well, a coyote eternally trying to catch the Road Runner, but never succeeding.
The laws of physics (or plain old reality) didn’t quite apply in these cartoons. For instance, the coyote might paint a fake cave entrance onto the side of a rock face to try and trap the Road Runner, but when the Road Runner came near he’d actually pass through the rock and into the cave – a trick which the coyote couldn’t repeat. The cartoonist behind the series, Chuck Jones, actually created a list of ten rules that governed the reality of their world, including the following[i]:
- No dialogue ever, except “beep, beep”.
- The Coyote could stop anytime — IF he was not a fanatic.
- All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
- Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
- The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
- The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
Within these rules the coyote was free to keep trying to catch the Road Runner, which is to say that he was free to fail – because no matter how hard he tried, no matter which rocket pack or robot decoy he bought from the Acme Corporation, Wile E. Coyote was never going to capture the Road Runner. He could have stopped trying at anytime, but he was a fanatic.
The coyote’s compulsive chasing behavior is somewhat like the thick-headedness demonstrated by the prophet Elijah and the apostle Peter in this morning’s readings. In each story we observe servants of the Lord who have lost sight of who God is and who they are in relation to God.
Peter’s story from the gospel of Matthew is most like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Following the feeding of the five thousand Jesus sends the disciples by boat to the far side of the sea so that he could retreat to the mountaintop for prayer. During the night a storm kicks up and batters the disciples’ boat. Jesus crosses the sea, walking on water, and speaks words of reassurance to them, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
The scripture says that when the disciples first saw Jesus walking on the sea they were terrified because they thought he was a ghost. I get that, it makes sense to me. People cannot walk on water, so anyone who can must not be a person in the same way that you and I are. From far away I might have thought it was a ghost as well, but up close the disciples see that it is Jesus and he tells them not to be afraid.
What is the purpose of this strange miracle? No one is fed, no one is healed. The disciples are given reassurance in the middle of a storm by their teacher, who is not affected by the storm’s power – whose humanity is filled with the promise of God’s presence with us during even the most hopeless moments of our lives. When Jesus speaks to the disciples over the din of the storm I imagine him speaking with a voice full of calm, a quiet voice, the kind parents use to soothe frightened children. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
I think the function of Jesus’ miraculous levitation, his ability to rise above the power of the storm, is to give his words authority. If he had been in the boat during the storm and had done nothing but tell his friends to stay calm while the boat threatened to capsize, his words would have been taunts – irrational and unreasonable. How do you stay calm when you’re about to drown? But, by appearing as one who could rise above the power of the waves, Jesus’ words of reassurance take on a different authority. The one who is filled with God’s power to save stands next to the disciples in the middle of their storm and says, “do not be afraid.”
Peter seems to have missed the point of the miracle. Rather than recognizing that in Christ God has promised to be with us and to save us from those larger than life forces that surround us – the chaos of the sea, the laws of gravity, the pervasiveness of sin, the brokenness of the world – Peter decides to try and imitate Jesus.
“Lord,” Peter says, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Perhaps Peter has trouble believing that this water-walking man is really his master, or maybe he’s so caught up in trying to be a leader, an example, that he can’t tell the difference between leading and following. Not content to let Jesus save him from the storm, he asks for the power to rise above the storm as well.
Peter, who is very lovable – who has our sympathy in this story – take a few steps out of the boat and actually seems to walk on water for a moment. Let’s acknowledge that there is something of a miracle right there. Peter’s faith in God carries him a short way over the waves, defying the laws of nature. It’s like the often-repeated scene in the Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner over the edge of a cliff and continues to run across the chasm on thin air… until he looks down and realizes that there’s no solid ground beneath him. Then he begins to fall. Peter steps out of the boat and walks on faith. Perhaps it was faith in God, but I rather think Peter was trying to demonstrate faith in his own faith.
This is something each of us seems compelled to deal with at some point or other in our lives, and most likely we deal with it over and over. Despite all the evidence around us that would seem to indicate that we are not in control of the world, each other, or even hardly ourselves, we tend to believe that everything hinges on us. It’s difficult not to, because we are held responsible for so many things. Parents feel ultimately responsible for everything that happens to their children, even though we all know there is no way on earth a parent can control a child’s environment. Managers and executives feel responsible for the fortunes of their workplace, even though no one can control all the variables that shape a company’s future. Pastors feel responsible for the fate of the congregations they serve, even when they are surrounded by talented, capable and committed Christians.
That last example is reflected to some degree in the reading from 1 Kings, where Elijah retreats from the hard work of confronting Queen Jezebel and the priests of Baal to hide in a cave and pray for some relief. Just before this passage, Elijah has staged a showdown between himself and all the priests of Baal to see whose God was truly in control. It was a dramatic affair that ended with a victory for Elijah and all the priests of Baal losing their lives. Running for his life Elijah stops in the desert and asks to die, but God sends an angel with food and drink and tells Elijah to get up and take care of himself so that he can continue on his journey.
That leads to this morning’s story where Elijah is found hiding in a cave. God comes to Elijah and asks what he’s doing hiding in a cave and Elijah answers, “I’ve done what you asked because your people have turned away from you, but now I’m the only faithful one remaining and they want to kill me.”
God tells Elijah to leave the cave because God will pass by. Elijah is invited to stand before the power of God. We know the rest. First there’s a mighty wind, but God isn’t in the wind. Then there’s a earthquake, but God isn’t in the earthquake. Then there’s a fire, but God’s not in the fire. Then there’s something like the sound of sheer silence, something we’ve often heard called “the still, small voice.” And after th
at Elijah comes out to speak again with God.
We sometimes make too much out of the “still, small voice” – talking about how God’s voice is to be found in silence, or in the places we don’t expect to hear it. We emphasize the presence of God in that sound of sheer silence as though the point of the story is that Elijah hears God in that silence. But the question is, does Elijah hear anything at all? Look at what Elijah says to God after the sound of silence… the exact thing he said before God put on the flashy show of wind and earth and fire. Elijah stands before the power of God and continues to complain that he’s been abandoned to take care of the Israelites by himself.
What’s a God to do?
Peter and Elijah (and, honestly, you and I) are constantly surrounded by signs of God’s presence in our lives. People who love us, food on our tables, forgiveness freely offered, a new day with each sunrise. But, rather than allow God to be God, to be the one who does not abandon us to the storms of life, but who comes into those storms with us, we try to transcend a relationship with God so that we can do it on our own – we pretend, like Elijah, that we alone have the wisdom to lead the people (even though God reminds the prophet that there are at least seven thousand in Israel who have remained faithful along with Elijah). Or we try to leave the storm by our own power.
The apostle Paul writes about this tendency of ours in his letter to the Romans. There he reminds those who will listen that faith is not a belief that you will save yourself by the power of your believing, but instead a radical trust in your dependence on God. He asks, “who will ascend into heaven to go fetch Christ and bring God to us; or who will descend into the abyss to bring God back to us?” Paul teases us, he may as well be asking, “who among you can walk on water, or run across the canyon on air?”
The cartoonist’s rules apply to us as well. We continue to find that our greatest enemy is gravity. We’d like to believe that there are a different set of rules for us, ones that exempt us from the powers of gravity, or just the power of sin to turn us in on ourselves and miss out on the presence of the community of faith that wants to hold us together and lift us up. We’d like to think we can do it alone, but we cannot. And just as that awareness hits us and we begin to sink, Jesus’ reaches for us and pulls us out of the water. God shows up in the sound of sheer silence.
I think for Wile E. Coyote the still, small voice sounded like “beep beep,” signaling that God would never be caught. We will probably continue to try, but we are always free to stop.
[i] Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.