Magic, distractions, and the nearness of Christ

Pentecost 11, Proper 14A

In the name of God: may we focus ourselves as you intend.  Amen.

When I was a kid, we had this little TV/VCR combo that we used in the back of my mom’s van.  Our van wasn’t like the fancy ones that had the TV and VCR built in, but my mother had bought this “portable” device so we could use it on road trips.  I put these air quotes around “portable” because, by today’s standards, the thing was a monster.  It was heavy.  As I child I could lift it, but it took both hands and was all I could carry.  Even so, the screen was very small – maybe 10 inches?  But even that was an upgrade from a different model we’d had a few years prior – it was black and white, and the screen was maybe 5 inches.

But, on our little road trips to my grandparent’s house, this little thing came along.  Along with a box of VHS tapes.  Portability was really something very different back then…

One of the tapes that I most clearly remember watching over and over again, had a video where a man taught you how to do magic tricks.  These were simplistic tricks designed for children that mostly involved capitalizing on easy-to-reproduce optical illusions.  But, like all good magic, there were lessons in misdirection – how to draw the audience’s eyes to someplace where they would overlook what you didn’t want them to see.  Or, how to use your performance skills in the trick to make your audience believe they were seeing something expected, before revealing what they didn’t expect.

To be honest, I was never particularly good at it.  I’d watch that tape on repeat trying to analyze the skills the magician was trying to show us, and pause it every few seconds to try it for myself, step by step.  I could do a few of the things he demonstrated, but most of the tricks quickly passed my abilities.  But the lesson I will always remember was the role that distraction played in the process of performing “magic”.  Because, of course, it wasn’t really magic.  There was no magic at all.  Instead, misdirection and distraction would keep us from seeing how the end result came to be.  Distraction kept us from seeing the truth.

In the first reading that we heard today, the reading from First Kings, we pick up the story of Elijah, already in progress.  He’s been on the run.  He’d battled with the prophets of the worship of Baal, and Jezebel had threatened to kill him in retaliation.  So, the story tells us, he first fled to Beersheba – a friendly town – where he left his servant.  But then he fled a full day farther into the wilderness.  He was exhausted and spent before finally resting under a tree.  Twice he slept, and twice he was awakened by an angel who told him to get up and eat and drink with hot food and water that had been prepared for him.  After that second meal, the story tells us that he fled for forty days more on the strength from those two meals before finally reaching Mount Horeb – the mount of God.  That’s the place that our reading this morning was talking about – this mount of God.

But this story is so moving to me, not because of the drama of his fleeing, but because our experience of looking for God is so much like this experience we hear about from Elijah.  In some ways, his context was like our own.  He lived in a time of political unrest and threats of violence.  His nation had fallen from God’s grace and was lost to another way.  So, like so many of us, he went in search of God.  He wanted guidance about how to return to paths of righteousness.

In his search for God, he found a lot of distractions.  There was “a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks… but the Lord was not in the wind.”  Next, the whole earth shook, “but the Lord was not in the earthquake.”  Finally, there was a fire, but again, “the Lord was not in the fire.”  It wasn’t until all of this had passed that Elijah finally found God in “the sound of sheer silence.”

Like Elijah, our worlds are also full of distractions.  There’s a lot of noise.  There is political instability, and too often, threats of violence.  Many people believe that we, too, have lost our way.  But it’s not until all of that falls away – it’s not until after we’ve turned our attention from the distractions – that we really do encounter God in God’s clearest, purest form.  And God’s answer to us is also very often like what Elijah kept hearing: go.  Do my work.  Spread my ministry.  Empower those who need to know that I am here.  Redirect those who have lost their way.  Go.

In the Gospel that we read today, Jesus, like Elijah, had also gone up to a mountain to encounter God.  And when he came back down, he found the disciples, like Elijah, embroiled in distractions; blinded by fear; unable to see and recognize the Christ they had come to know.  But that’s all they were.  The stormy sea, the terror of seeing this figure walking toward them on the water, even the peril of Peter’s own walk on water – all of these things were just distractions.  They were experiences that pulled them out of the moment.  They were experiences that distracted them from what was truly important: the nearness of Christ.

The nearness of Christ is the real point of the story.  It’s not that in the face of perils, you could die.  The point is that in the hands of Christ, you can live.

I think most of us hear Jesus’ words here as chastising.  “You of little faith.”  I’ve always heard the undertone of that to mean that if you had more faith, Peter, you wouldn’t have lost your footing.  If you had more faith, you could have held yourself up.

But remember: just a few weeks ago we heard about the mustard seed.  We heard that a little faith could move mountains.  We heard that a little faith could do more than we could imagine – it could outgrow itself.

So maybe a little faith was enough.  A little faith was enough to help this one disciple look past the distractions.  A little faith was enough to send Peter into the arms of Jesus.

We could all use a little faith like that.  We could all use a little faith to help us see beyond the noise and the distractions that keep us from really finding God.  We could all use a little faith to propel us from our existing comfortable places, into the deeper stability and security of the loving arms of Christ.

The real magic is finding a way to see past all the distractions that are always being thrown at us.  That is where we will find God.  Amen.