This past week, I went down to a monastery in South Carolina for my annual spiritual retreat. An annual spiritual retreat is one of the stipulations from my letter of agreement here at St. Margaret’s, so one could assume that we all know what going on a spiritual retreat means. But I cannot tell you the number of people – parishioners, friends, family members, and fellow travelers – who have asked me the same question: so what do you do on a spiritual retreat? Some follow up with other questions about whether I have a schedule of meetings or classes or whether I really have to be silent the whole time. But most people do not know what a spiritual retreat really looks like.
So imagine my surprise this week, when I opened the text for today, only to hear God twice asking Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Having been asked that question by countless others over the last few weeks, I got a little defensive about God’s question for Elijah. Thinking that I somehow needed to answer this question too, my first response was a response not unlike Elijah – who twice explains to God, in the exact same words, “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 the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” As if God did not know that already. God’s double question, and Elijah’s double response give a little clue about what is happening here. God is not really asking what Elijah is doing there – at least not in the sense of, “What led you to come here?” God is asking a much deeper question. God’s question is the deeper question, “What does your being here say about me, about you, and about our relationship? Given what you know, what are you doing here, Elijah?”
So instead of answering the question in the standard way – telling others about the silence of the day, the times of worship, the periods, places, and practices of prayer, or even about the monks themselves, instead I let God’s deeper question sit with me this week as well. What are you doing here? I found that each time I tried to answer the question the response was not as deep as God’s question. So if I said I came to rest and refresh for my ministry, God’s response was, “What are you doing here?” If I said I wanted help discerning answers to some heavy questions, God’s response was, “What are you doing here?” If I said I just wanted clarity, God’s response was, “What are you doing here?”
This is the hard question from the text for all of us today. God is asking this question of you this week too. When you came in those doors and sat in that pew, God asked you, “What are you doing here?” When you listened to scripture and when you pray, God is asking you, “What are you doing here?” When you come to the Eucharistic table and consume Christ’s body and blood, God is still asking you, “What are you doing here?” Today is one of those tricky days in Church. There is no coasting through this service, just hoping to feel some sense of peace. God is actively in our faces, asking us the tough question.
The truth is most of us feel like Elijah a good portion of the time. We hear Elijah’s whiny response throughout this story. When Elijah flees from Jezebel’s death threat, Elijah sits down under a tree and asks God to just let him die. He even flops down under the tree hoping for death. Of course, God does not allow that. Twice angels wake him to give him food for the journey. Even after this sustenance, Elijah finds another place to hide – a cave hidden away. But God does not allow hiding there either. We know Elijah’s pain. We just want to come to church, hear some good music, hear a decent sermon, get that sustaining meal, and go back to the daily grind. We do not want to hear what God says in the sheer silence. In the sheer silence, God says, “Go.” God tells Elijah to get back out there and do God’s work. God does not coddle Elijah or comfort him in his fear. Instead God tells Elijah to go.
At the end of the day, God’s words for Elijah were the same words for me during my retreat. I may have lamented to God. I may have worried to God. I may have given some lengthy explanation to God about why I was there. But before I could go any further, God stopped me. “What are you doing here? Go.”
When I was in college, the first year I danced with a team, we went to a training camp. The coach realized pretty quickly those of us who were lacking in certain areas. My challenge was that I could not yet do a toe-touch. When we started doing them in training, the coach had us stand in line and one-by-one we had to do a toe-touch in front of him. When he saw mine, he laid into me. I basically remember him screaming something to the effect of, “I don’t care if you have to do sit-ups non-stop, or if you need to lift weights, or you just need to stand there and do toe-touches all day until you can’t move, I better see you up in the air before the season starts.” At least, that is the clean version of what he yelled. Never having played sports, I had never had anyone yell at me like that, and he put the proverbial “fear of God” in me. And figuring he was serious, I started working out more and practicing more just to get to where he wanted me to be.
I hear God as being like that coach for us today. God is kind of like a coach, getting up in our faces today, demanding to know, “What are you doing here?” And before we can stumble through some Elijah-like complain fest, God says, “Go.” God says that the dismissal we hear every week is not some cute phrase we say to conclude the service. That dismissal is our “Go.” “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” The answer to what we are doing here is to be empowered to go. We can be fed by the word, by song, and by the meal, but the reason we do those things is so that we can go. God’s question today is deep, hard, but simple: What are you doing here? And in case we are wondering what the answer is, God tells us: Go. Amen.