Matthew 14:22-33; I Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15
What is it like to be alone? Do you think that being alone is the same as being lonely? As far as I am concerned, one of the greatest fears in life has to do with the possibility of dying all alone with nobody else around, especially your loved ones. Death is much more acceptable and palatable if I know that I don’t have to face it all alone. However, the same holds true for life. Life is much more acceptable and palatable if I know that I don’t have to face it all alone.
All three of our lessons for today, in one way or another, deal with this dynamic of being alone, for better or for worse. In Elijah’s case, he alone was left because his people had killed off all of the other prophets who had warned them about forsaking God’s covenant. As we begin our reading for today, we find Elijah hiding out in a cave because he is afraid for his life. Not only is Elijah being sought out by his adversaries, he also has to contend with the natural elements of a great wind, an earthquake, a fire, and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. I don’t know which of these four would be more terrifying, but Elijah experiences all of these natural phenomena, one right after the other, and ends up being in another conversation with God and telling God that he alone is left out of all of the prophets because the people are seeking to kill him as they did the other prophets.
In our gospel lesson for today, we are told that Jesus went up the mountain all alone by himself to pray. In Jesus’ case, this solitude was a choice and a good thing because after his demanding day of curing the children and feeding thousands of people with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, Jesus simply needed some space for himself. Therefore, he made the disciples get in the boat and head across the Sea of Galilee by themselves while he ventured up the mountain to pray. He spent the entire night on land because it wasn’t until early morning that he walked out to the disciple’s boat that was being battered by the waves of the sea.
I don’t know how many of you have ever been in a storm at sea, but the power of the wind and the waves can be pretty frightening, especially if no one knows exactly where you are or what kind of trouble you are in. Even if you are with a group of people, you can still feel terribly alone if you are out in the middle of the ocean on a boat that is being tossed to and fro by some powerful waves. I remember a youth retreat that I was on back in 1978 that involved sailing around the San Juan Islands. On the last day of the retreat, we had to sail back to Port Townsend by going across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in a mighty storm. The sailboat was tilted about as far as it would go and my stomach was all the way up into my throat because I was so afraid that we were going to tip over and drown in the sea. Had I seen a ghost in that situation, like the disciples did, I probably would have been as terrified as they were, not at the sight of a ghost, but rather at the thought that this vision was a sure sign that I was going to die.
Once Jesus identifies himself to his disciples, they seem to calm down, so much so that Peter is willing to test his wings, or in this case, his feet, get out of the boat, and walk on the water to Jesus. No sooner had he taken a couple of steps when his fear returned and he began to sink into the water. Thinking that he might drown, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Even with Jesus standing right there to assist him, Peter found himself all alone in facing an imminent death until Jesus reached out his hand, caught Peter, and saved him from drowning. After Jesus chastised Peter for having such little faith and for doubting him, once the wind died down, all of the disciples recognized the power of Jesus and worshiped him as the Son of God.
This Jesus would face his own tribulation of being alone in his final hours after he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and abandoned by all of his disciples. He would have to endure three trials all alone—one by Caiaphas, the high priest, a second by Pontius Pilate, and a third by Herod. During that time, he would be whipped and mocked repeatedly by the soldiers. Although he found himself in a huge crowd, Jesus essentially was all alone as he was marched to Golgatha where he was crucified on the cross as a traitor to Rome. As he neared his final hour, Jesus stayed connected to God through prayer and the recitation of psalms that he had learned as a child. “Do not be far from me,” Jesus prayed, “for trouble is near and there is no one else to help me. From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. You did not hide your face from me, but heard when I cried to you. Therefore, I will praise you in the midst of the congregation.”
Being in communication with God through prayer is one way of never being totally alone, especially if we recognize that God is present with us right here rather than being off in some faraway place where we can only hope that God will hear our cry for help. The Apostle Paul talks about a similar dynamic as he tries to explain that Christ is not off in some faraway place like heaven or hell, but rather is right here on our lips and in our hearts. For if we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God has raised Jesus from the dead, then we will be saved because we will know that we are never alone in this world, no matter how much we actually are.
What drew my attention to this concept of being alone in all 3 of our lessons for today was the passage from Ecclesiastes that my niece and her new husband chose for their wedding yesterday at which I officiated. As I read these 4 verses for you, listen to how being there for one another can be such an advantage in dealing with the toil, the stumbling, or the adversities in this life. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
I still remember the object lesson that we probably all were taught early in our lives about teamwork and cooperation—an object lesson that became much more relevant and powerful for me during my years of training for community organizing. The teacher would have a stack of sticks and talk about what could happen to us if each of us on our own encountered some resistance as we tried to accomplish a certain goal. At that point, the teacher would take one stick at a time and break each of them, one right after the other. However, if we would work together as a team, it would be much harder to defeat us. Then the teacher would take a whole bunch of sticks together and try to break them, but to no avail.
Even when he was hanging all alone on the cross, Jesus never broke because he knew and trusted that God was there with him to help him accomplish the mission to which he had been called by God’s Spirit in his baptism. Throughout this whole excruciating ordeal and until he took his final breath, Jesus was professing God as the sovereign one in his life and trusted that God would raise him from the dead in order to reveal to all the world that God’s way of loving every one, forgiving every one, and making peace without the use of force or violence would win the day in terms of saving the world from the self-destructive course that we human beings tend to pursue as we try to prove that I am my own master and I can do the things that I want in order to get my own way.
Unfortunately, we have lessons like today from I Kings that portray God as someone who endorses and even promotes the use of violence in order to prove who is in charge of the people. Elisha is the prophet who will be appointed to follow Elijah and who will have the authority and the right to kill anyone who bows down to Baal and kisses a statue of this false god. Such was the image of God that the kings and priests of Israel and Judah presented to the people in order to justify the use of force and violence, even against their own people. According to the covenant that they believed God had made with them, killing anyone who broke any of God’s commandments was allowed and even commanded by God in order to keep the people in check and in line with whatever the kings expected of their people.
When Jesus comes along and begins to proclaim the good news about God’s reign on earth, there is nothing in his rhetoric about anyone having any right to shed the blood of another human being. Yes, at one point, Jesus did say that he came to bring a sword, but that was only a metaphor for the division that would occur among people who insisted that they had a God-given right to kill other people while other people would understand that the non-violent way of Jesus was God’s preferred way for people of God’s realm to behave and treat one another, including their enemies. In order to help his disciples remember this non-violent way of the cross, Jesus shared a cup of wine with them on the night before his crucifixion and told them to share this cup of a new covenant often in remembrance of him.
So, how did we get from Peter’s attempt to walk on water to Jesus’ witness to the non-violent way of God? Throughout the 4 gospels, Peter often acts before he thinks. He behaved the same way in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cut off the ear of one of Jesus’ captors before Jesus told Peter to put away his sword with the warning that the person who lives by the sword will die by the sword. A few hours later, Peter denied that he ever knew Jesus, not once, but 3 times in order to save his own life—thus being a prime example of how Jesus ended up being all alone on the cross with only God as his sole companion to help him endure this agonizing crucifixion so that Jesus, as the Son of God, could reveal this non-violent face of God.
As wars rage on throughout the world, including the resumption of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, while at home we watch in awe at the Blue Angels amazing flight, it’s the lone voice of Jesus who prays to God and asks God to forgive them and us, for we don’t know what we are doing. When we partake of this communion today and share in this cup that Jesus accepted, we are being united with Jesus in this witness so that the witness of non-violence that Jesus bore all alone will not have been born in vain. As sons and daughters of God, how will we join in this witness? As we ponder this call, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Christ. Amen.