Saturday, June 29, 2013

Of Pigs and Demons

Vengeance Is Mine, sayeth The Lord
Luke 8:26-39 / The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac Part II
Romans 12:19/Deuteronomy 32:35

The Gerasene Demoniac, Part II: What about all those pigs? Evidently everyone wants to know: why did Jesus send the demons into the nearby pigs instead of into the abyss?

The easy answer is that the demons, named Legion because they were so many, asked not to be sent into the abyss, but “send us into that herd of pigs” instead. Jesus, being all compassionate, complies.

As always in the world of Biblical interpretation, there is another way of looking at things. When asked their name, the demons reply, “Legion!” The name would carry a particular resonance for the first readers of Luke’s gospel – for it was the Roman Legions who in the year 70 ce had leveled Jerusalem, including the Temple, and most all of Israel/Palestine. There were those still living when this gospel was written and edited who had stood among the ruins, who had witnessed the still smoldering embers of the Second Temple – the center of the Jewish universe, and the center of the Christian narrative.

It is hard for us to imagine the impact that had on the ancient psyche – to see the place that had been the center of Israelite worship lying in ruins at the hands of the Roman Legions. We might recall what it felt like, and still feels like, to remember the destruction of the World Trade Towers in New York City. Now imagine all of New York City and an area about the size of New Jersey completely leveled. And consider that the parts of NYC near the center of the destruction on 9/11 are the modern day centers of worship for world capitalism. This is the scale of destruction the Roman Legions had exacted upon their Israelite colony. Add to this the reality that for decades the people of Israel had been waiting, hoping, praying for a messiah to deliver them from the Roman occupation.

Strange historical factoid: the ensignia symbol for the 10th Roman Legion was the Boar. That’s right, a wild pig. With all this as background, now let us imagine we are among the first audience in the late first century to hear Luke’s gospel read out loud. Chapter Eight, beginning at the twenty-sixth verse. Jesus sends the demons into the pigs, the pigs hurl themselves headlong into the sea and drown. Legion, the Tenth Roman Legion, is hurled headlong into the sea! This is just what everyone had been waiting to see happen! Serves them right, we say. It’s about time, we say. If only, we say.

But we are meant to remember. A central principal of the Bible is the theological understanding that vengeance is God’s alone. Some 20 years or more before Luke, Paul had written as much in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 12: “…for it is written, Vengeance is mine.” Recalling what had been written in Deuteronomy (the book Jesus quotes the most ) chapter 32: “…To me belongeth vengeance and recompence.” When one takes this in and internalizes it, passages such as those in Psalm 137 that advocate dashing Babylonian babies against rocks take on a whole new meaning. A psalm most likely written during the Babylonian captivity, it expresses something very much like sending Roman legions headlong into the sea to drown. At the end of the day, however, the psalmist, and God’s faithful, leave vengeance  to the Lord, the God of the Exodus – who evidently arranged for a gentile, Cyrus the Persian, to liberate them from Babylon, and who also raises Jesus from the dead. Nothing we could imagine or do ourselves could possibly been so fantastic, so great!

This is, in fact, a central premise of Confession, or The Rite of Reconciliation: we state our fears and the horrible things we want to  happen to others, and then receive absolution letting God be the final arbiter. It’s OK to think and even say horrible things, it is the acting on them that is just plain wrong. Legion and the pigs are a kind of parable, meant to make us scratch our heads and think of life in new and different ways.

Perhaps Jesus, the same Jesus who advocates loving our enemies, offers the vicarious episode with the pigs as release. Perhaps it is meant to make us laugh at ourselves and our puny ideas of vengeance. Perhaps it was a prophetic foreshadowing and sign of hope for those who had been under the rule of Rome for so long. It may even be a statement on the ultimate futility of military occupation. The Bible appears to sanction imagining what vengeance might look like were it left up to us. We are meant, however, to know that imagining is as far as we should go. The act of such imagining is meant to purge the very idea of vengeance from the core of our being. We are to let go and let God. When looked at like this, can we possibly imagine what a world ordered in such a way might look like?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

All Together On The Other Side

All Together On The Other Side
Luke 8:26-39 / The Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac

A man inhabited by demons is healed. We find this kind of story to be primitive – really, who believes in demons these days. But first, the back story.

Jesus has been busy teaching and healing in Galilee. He and his disciples get in a boat to go over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee – that is, to Gentile territory, which is to say foreign territory – strangers, aliens, people utterly unlike ourselves. It shows tremendous trust on the part of the disciples to get into the boat and go over to the other side. That trust is put to the test almost immediately. A storm comes up on the sea. The boat is filling with water. Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. Frantic and in danger of sinking, the disciples wake Jesus up. “Master, Master, we are perishing.” Jesus gets up, stills the storm, the wind and waves cease. It is calm. In a scene reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid looking back at the cloud of dust, horses and men pursuing them, the disciples ask themselves, “Who is this guy, anyway? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” Jesus has a question for them, “Where is your faith?”

Try to imagine yourself in the boat, in the storm, with Jesus asleep. The boat is filling with water, the wind is battering the boat, waves washing over the sides. Where is your faith at moments like that? After all, we all have days like this. Days when we feel as if everything is sinking, fast. Days when it feels as if God in Jesus is sleeping, not on the job, not there when we need him. Where is our faith at times like this?

As Paul Harvey used to say, now for the rest of the story. After surviving the storm, they arrive at the other side where there is a man inhabited with demons. A man who had no home. A man who had been living in the tombs outside of town – tombs - death. A man who was chained hand and foot, but he had broken the chains and had been driven by the demons into solitary places. A man who had been made to live outside the community because – he was different, he was possessed, he was not like anyone else, he was scary. He was alone.

Jesus tries to drive the demons out of the man. The man says, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” Jesus asks for his name. Legion. We are Legion because we are many – like a Roman legion. Like the occupying Roman military forces who dominated the social and political landscape of life throughout the Empire. Not just a demon, but a legion of demons possessed the man. And they beg Jesus not to be sent not into the Abyss.

Nearby is a herd of pigs. Lots of pigs. Lots of demons. The demons beg Jesus to send them into the pigs. One wonders if the disciples notice that the demons know who Jesus is. They know what he is capable of doing for them. They do not hesitate to take advantage of his great powers. Jesus grants them their wish to go into the pigs. Immediately the pigs run headlong into the sea and drown. Hog futures plummet. The local economy takes a beating, but the man is back in his right mind – he is healed. Those tending the pigs run off and tell the townspeople what is going on out near the tombs – new life for the man they had chained and left out there to live on his own, and the pigs are gone.

The people come to see for themselves. We are told they are afraid. The man is in his right mind. It seems as if life was more tolerable if he were to stay in his place, chained and in the tombs. After all, he is an outsider. They beg Jesus to leave. He obliges them, and gets in the boat to return to the other side. One imagines the disciples are all too happy to get out of the land of the Gerasenes, from the man, from the now drowned pigs, and away from the tombs.

Where is their faith now? Where is our faith? How might we deal with someone like this man? How do we deal with our own demons? Are we even willing to admit we are beset with legions of demons? What do we make of such a strange story?

For instance, do we even realize that as individuals, as a society, we treat “others” the way the town had treated this man? We isolate people, chain them with our own fears, force them to live beyond the boundaries of our own day-to-day lives, keep them “in their place,” build fences to keep them at bay. All because they are not just like us. Yet, what a terrible world this would be if everyone were just like us. We would lose the diversity that makes life interesting and whole. We would deny ourselves access to the gifts that others bring to the table, to our lives, to our culture – all in the name of protecting our “way of life” when doing so only becomes the way of being stuck in one place, or, even worse, the way of death. It turns out that God has given us all we need, only the gifts I need have been given to you, and the gifts you need have been given to me. It is only in the giving and sharing of all of our gifts that we grow and thrive and live.

Then there are those pesky demons. We like to think we are more sophisticated than all that. Demons are the things of myth and represent primitive attempts to explain all those internal fears, anxieties, loneliness, and all the spectrum of  human disorders we publish every decade or so in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Even the recent release of its Fifth edition is met with a chorus of disbelief and shouts of “how can you medically and scientifically prove” these disorders exist? And yet, when an individual or group acts out of these disordered modes of being destroying property and lives in their way we inevitably end up referring to their behavior as “demonic,” or “evil,” and seek solutions which end up taking some form of chaining them and isolating them out among the tombs at the outskirts of town.

Whereas Jesus says, in effect, “Let’s see what we can do for this man. It will be good for him, and, ultimately, for us and for the whole town and region.” We might call this approach constructive engagement. We might call it therapy. We might simply call it helping others to become whole and a fully engaged and “members” of society. This is what the Bible seems to mean by “healing.” The demons are sent away to destroy themselves, not the man. The man is sitting there in his “right mind,” and the people are afraid. As Kurt Vonnegut once said in a sermon one Palm Sunday long, long ago, leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.

We might look at this story as being rather primitive, or even somewhat bizarre. Or, we might try to look into the ways in which it really tells the tale of who we are and where we are as a society, as a culture and even as individuals. There lies the irony. We put so much hard work and effort into becoming individuals when in the end we all really want to be part of something much bigger – a family, a tribe, a culture, a town, a world which accepts us and embraces us as God in Jesus looks at this man and sees someone he can love.

As Jesus leaves, the man asks to go with him. And why not? These people are still afraid of him, and have spent a lifetime of refusing to work with him. But Jesus says, No, there is still work for you to do here right where you are, right where you have been all along. ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. Hanging in the air over the disciples who witness this episode must still be the question, “Where is your faith?”

Perhaps we are meant to see that Jesus trusts us to continue the work he begins. There is no end to the story, because we are the continuation of the story. We are meant to see ourselves living in this story. We are meant to see that God entrusts us to continue God’s work right where we are, just as we are. It may not be easy, but it will return us to our “right mind.” We may even learn how to treat others the way God in Christ treats us. This stuff may indeed be primitive, but at the end of the day wisdom knows no time and no place. We need only be open to wisdom be it ancient wisdom or new wisdom. Can we see that if the man in chains has a God given task, so do we? Together we can make a difference. And we do, every day right where we are. We are the rest of the story. Good day!  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Heart of Love

Madeline Suzanne Roberts
William Thomas Collins
15 June 2013
John 15: 9-12/Tobit 8:5-8/Love’s Growth by John Donne (at end of the text)

Here we are! Your wedding day has arrived, and on behalf of all of us who have been invited to witness and bless this day with you, thank you for including us. We might all be doing other things: mowing the lawn, gardening, riding, working out at the gym, or simply lying about the house reading a good book.

Instead, we have this time together as a community of God’s people to contemplate the nature of God’s love in Christ Jesus. As the prayer book says at the outset, marriage is a sign of the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church. Later we will pray that your life together be a sign of Christ’s love to a sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair. There can be no doubt that the world as we know it today must benefit from people like the two of you gathering all of us to take a few moments to consider the nature of God’s love and our role in God’s world.

The short passage from John’s Gospel depicts Jesus the night before Good Friday – the night before he is to die. It is part of a longer passage called The Farewell Discourse in which it becomes clear that his focus is not at all on his own fate, but on the future of those who follow him. I love you as much as God loves me, he says. Abide in my love – a rather old fashioned word, abide. It can mean rest, stay, remain, dwell – dwell in my love. Which we know for Jesus was a giving kind of love, and a growing kind of love. We are to dwell, set up household, live in His kind of love.

One of his principal followers in the late 16th early 17th century John Donne writes about the growing nature of love in his poem, Love’s Growth. He claims to know love in a deeper way than most poets who simply muse on love rather mawkishly. Donne gets inside of the seasons of love, its spring times and its winters. The more I contemplate Donne’s words, it seems to me he is examining the intersection of divine and human love, a love “which cures all sorrow with more,” as those with Jesus that night he spoke to them about the need for a community of those who love one another as he and God love this world they created came to know so well. And O, how Donne makes those connections between divine love, human  love and the intricate workings of the cosmos, connections even the world’s top physical scientists are discovering anew with a mystery and a wonder that is breathtaking.

We have for some time now placed the Hubble Space Telescope hovering above this world for which God in Christ has such deep love, searching for a glimpse of our origins, for a glimpse of the beginning, be it a Big Bang, or a command like, “Let there be….” We seek to catch a glimpse of the divine love at the origins of all we know. Just like us to undertake such a search. Very much like the great adventure of Tobias and Sarah in Tobit, seven long years and more seeking a quiet moment of abiding love in what is unquestionably one of the most exciting and surprising love stories ever written- when all the time, it is here, today, in this place, in our midst. To catch a glimpse of love I ask the two of you to simply turn around for just a moment and look into the face of love. In perhaps the second most important words of this ceremony next to your vows, each and every one of this august crowd you have intentionally gathered about you has promised to do all in their power to support the two of you in your marriage. All. Not some, not a lot, not what they feel like, but all that is in our power, we pledge to you. That is some kind of power and some kind of love.

“Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do,” writes Donne. Take a just this moment to contemplate and feel the love that quite literally surrounds you on all sides – and remember, that Jesus promises you even more love than all this. It’s a bit much to take in, but as time goes by, it will sink in that abiding in all this love is a pretty good deal.

In a few moments you will exchange vows and rings and you will be married. Then we will pray. I always find that the marriage prayers work very much as Donne describes it, “If, as water stirred more circles be produced by one, love such additions take, those, like so many spheres, but one heaven make, for they are all concentric unto thee…” I find these prayers are like that, a pebble tossed and praying that the love of God and your love will radiate further and further from your life together to touch others, to touch the world, to be a beacon of the kind of joy Jesus hopes will yours and will be full from this day forward forevermore.

We have but a few moments to contemplate all this, but that is enough – enough to sustain you and all of us as we go back to doing all the things we could be doing right now, but thanks to you, Madeline, and you, Will, we have been gifted this time to remember all these things. Amen.

Love’s Growth – John Donne
I scarce believe my love to be so pure
   As I had thought it was,
   Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make’ it more.

But if medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
With more, not only be no quintessence,
But mixed of all stuffs paining soul or sense,
And of the sun his working vigor borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract, as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their muse,
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

And yet no greater, but more eminent,
   Love by the spring is grown;
   As, in the firmament,
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love’s awakened root do bud out now.

If, as water stirred more circles be
Produced by one, love such additions take,
Those, like so many spheres, but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

No Prophet Is Accepted In His Home Town!

No Prophet Is Accepted In His Home Town!
I Kings 17:8-24/Luke 7:11-17/Luke 4:14-30

This week the Revised Common Lectionary pairs the story of Elijah raising the son of a widow in Zaraphath (Gentile territory) from death, with Jesus raising the son of a widow in Nain who was being carried to his burial: two widows, two sons in two Gentile towns. The lectionary is not needed to connect the activities of Jesus to Elijah and Elisha – Luke gets at that right away in chapter 4. Recalling chapter 4 helps to put chapter 7 and widow at Nain into perspective.

For it is in chapter 4 of Luke that Jesus teaches for the first time in his hometown synagogue. He announces that he is the fulfillment of the Year of the Lord’s Favor, the Jubilee year, when all debts would be released, the blind will see, prisoners released. At first the people are pleased and astonished: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” That is, he is ours! We should reap all the benefits of whatever he has to offer. Jesus immediately senses the narrowness of their understanding – a prophet of Israel should do his work right here at home. So rather than correct them, like any good rabbi, he tells them a story – a story everyone would know. He reminds them that although there were many people in Israel going hungry during the famine in the time of Elijah, and many lepers in Israel during the prophetic ministry of Elisha, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sent them to minister to people outside the community – Gentiles. Gentile is an all-inclusive term for anyone who is not of Israel. Aliens, strangers, foreigners are all terms the Bible uses to describe this class of people.

What is endlessly fascinating about the Hebrew Scriptures is the concern the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has for widows, orphans and, yes, strangers, aliens, gentiles. They are treated in the Deuteronomic code as a protected class. Chapters 14, 16 and 26 of Deuteronomy all make provisions that when the tithe is collected (10%) it is to be distributed to widows, orphans and aliens “so that they may eat their fill in your towns.” (Deut 26:12)

That is, the people of the God of the Bible are to care for those who have no one else to look out for them. Once widowed, a woman was largely on her own. Orphans had no family to care for them. Resident aliens, those coming to Israel to look for work or simply passing through, likewise had no one to care for them. The compassion of God is to be extended to strangers, foreigners, widows and orphans as an extension of God’s generosity toward the community of God.

So when Jesus announces that his ministry is to be extended beyond his hometown, as it had been with Elijah and Elisha, the people get angry, turn on him, carry him out of the synagogue to hurl him down a  hillside when – he mysteriously “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30)

The early Christians were often referred to as “The People of the Way” – the way of Jesus. And chapter 7 has him in short order first healing the son of a Roman Centurion (without even going to the Centurion’s house!), and then raising the son of the widow of Nain. So careful is Luke to make sure we connect the way of Jesus with the way of Elijah that the text uses exactly the same words in both stories as the sons are restored, he “gave him to his mother.” (I Kings 17:23/Luke 7:15). This is a clue to understanding this story and the Elijah story – the subject of the miracle, as difficult as this may be to comprehend, is the mother in each story – not the sons!

For it appears to be Luke’s intention to draw our attention to the far reaching invitation to all people, even those beyond our immediate community, to share in the hospitality of God. And that such radical activity on behalf of Jesus, Elijah and Elisha always leads to rejection from those at home. But. And anyone with passing familiarity with the story of Jesus, the good news, the Gospel as we say, knows that this rejection is not the last word. This rejection can also be drawn into “God’s saving plan and made to further, rather than restrict, the outreach of grace.” [Brenden Byrne, The Hospitality of God, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 2000 – p.53]

Any serious reflection on all of this is meant to make us think. First, on the nature of Biblical Prophecy – we have been somehow lulled into thinking it is all about predicting the future, when in fact Elijah, Elisha and Jesus all demonstrate it is about doing things for others – especially others who are beyond the immediate community – people who cannot possibly be self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency in the hostile environment of the middle east and Arabian peninsula was, and continues to be, a near impossibility. It is worth taking note that in Surah 96 of the Qur’an, verse 6, one of the very first things the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is called upon to recite are words to the effect, “Oh, no, humankind does indeed go too far in regarding itself as self-sufficient.” Jesus understands this. The question would be, do we?

Endless argument and prattling is wasted on what to do about resident aliens, widows and orphans to this day. And equally endless ideological propaganda is spent attempting to extol the supposed virtues of self-sufficiency, to the extent that those who are in serious economic trouble are blamed for their predicament. Even worse, if possible, is the amount of time wasted trying to mishandle the sacred texts in an attempt to “predict” an end of days, a day of judgment, or whatever, when there is serious work to be done here and now. It is truly a disgrace that the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have, over time, become more restrictive of God’s grace, more inwardly focused, and more committed to just about any way but the way of God as not only outlined in our most sacred texts, but in the actual real life activities of those we claim to be following!

It takes no amount of exegesis or interpretation of these foundational texts to see what is expected of a person who is to walk in the way of the Lord, the way of God, the way of Allah. Compassion and an extension of God’s grace beyond the community of God’s people is not only paramount, it is about all we are asked to do. Care for women, children at risk, and foreigners is, and has always been, at the center of all three monotheistic faiths. The widows of Nain and Zaraphath are the subjects of God’s care despite the needs at home. Those who advocate for such social policy will always be excoriated by the lords of scarcity, provincialism, parochialism, and yes, nationalism.

More than anything else, biblical prophets have a singular role and calling – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves. Those who have eyes will see, those who have ears will hear.

In the fourth chapter of Luke Jesus announces that he has come to fulfill the following pronouncement of God’s word:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
It’s easy to see how the people in his hometown synagogue were excited when they wanted to claim all of this for themselves. When Jesus made it clear that the Lord’s favor was to be granted to those beyond the immediate community, literally all hell broke loose. Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way. What will we do? Amen.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What Are We Doing Here?

1 Kings 18 – Elijah and The Prophets of Baal

It was a day like any other day for the prophet Elijah, which is to say it is never easy. His name says it all: My God is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and, as it would turn out, Mohammad. In those days, like ours, there were other gods, and in particular a constellation of gods going by the general name Baal, which roughly translates as “lord.” The gods of Baal were worshipped, some associated with natural events like rain, thunder, lightning, while others were associated with cities and even public officials. So you might have the Baal of Baltimore or Washington D.C, or the Baals of Obama, McCain, Rove, Bachman and so on. If there is something to be worshipped there is a Baal to which one might appeal – money, the economy, the right to bear arms – just name your own personal sacred cow and there is likely a Baal you can worship. We think this stuff is primitive, but really, just a cursory glance or listen to the day’s news and it is pretty clear we are still a Baal centered bunch of folks whether your altar is at the bank, some sports stadium, congress, your favorite cable news network, a Furthur concert, a music festival, we all bow down to a Baal somewhere. And of course any Baal worth his or her salt has a bevy of prophets on the payroll with their job being, of course, promoting and defending a specific Baal.

The Elijah saga lays it out pretty clearly in the First Book of Kings. He is even given props in the Quran as one of the true and faithful greats! Why he is even mentioned in Rastafarian literature, he is so cool! Elijah is a lonely character. He and he alone repeatedly carries the mantle of promoting and defending monotheism amongst a degenerate leadership and people in the 9th century bce.  The current king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel is Ahab. Ahab not only tolerates Baal worship, he actually builds a Temple for Baal in the palace and allows Jezebel to bring in a large number of Baal priests and prophets of Baal into the country. Throughout the kingdom are the remnants of Baal altars and shrines.

Elijah’s job is to warn Ahab that this cannot turn out well – to continue to split allegiance between Yahweh and the gods and prophets of Baal will result in the worst ever drought – there will not even be dew on the ground in the morning – perhaps a reference to the good old days in the wilderness when manna arrived just like clockwork (oops they did not have clocks then, did they?) first thing every morning, like dew on the ground. Ahab finds Elijah wearisome – “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah challenges the king and the people: how long will you continue to hedge your bets and worship every god that comes along? There is only one God. How long will you continue limping along with two opinions? If God is God, follow him. If Baal is god, follow him. Then, demonstrating that prophets of Yahweh will go where even angels fear to tread, Elijah proposes a contest on Mt. Carmel. Off he goes with 450 prophets of Baal, and, just for maximum effect, 400 prophets of Asherah (an ancient mother goddess aka Queen of Heaven) tag along. Two new altars are built, one for Baal and one for Yahweh. Wood is piled high and two oxen are slaughtered, one for each altar. Elijah then sets the challenge: call upon Baal to light the fire. The 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah begin to dance and sing and chant around the altar. They carry on for so long that they are now literally limping like the figurative limping of Ahab, Jezebel and the people of Israel. This goes on from dawn till noon, Elijah chiding them all the way. At noon they cut themselves and add their own blood to the sacrifice, a great offense to the Mosaic code. Still and all, no fire.

Elijah calls for water – four large jars of water are poured on the wood at the altar of the Lord. Three times they pour on four jars of water (by my count that is 12 jars, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel) on the wood. There is so much water that the trench around the altar is filled with water. Elijah gives Yahweh the signal, and alakazam! Fire falls from the sky, the wood, the ox, the altar and the water in the trench are all consumed. Elijah, feeling pretty flush, orders the prophets of Baal to be killed. And he orders the drought to end. It begins to rain. And rain, and rain, and rain.

This is perhaps the origin of that fundamental law of the universe that no good deed goes unpunished. Jezebel is furious. She orders Elijah to be killed. The prophet is on the run. He runs to Mt. Horeb/Sinai, birthplace of the Ten Commandments, the first four of which, at least one of my students remembered on the final (!), have to do with our relationship with God. Elijah is there for 40 days and 40 nights, hiding in a cave. The Word of God comes to Elijah: What are you doing here? "I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." No doubt the origin of that great country and western classic, Poor, Poor Pitiful Me. God calls him out of a cave to “stand before the Lord.” A great wind goes by, but God is not in the wind. An earthquake shakes the earth, but God is not in the earthquake. Fire appears, but God is not in the fire. All there that remains is a “still, small voice”: What are you doing here, Elijah?

That is the question for us all, isn’t it? What are we doing here, hiding behind whatever we hide behind, worshipping whatever cluster of gods we worship day and night on the promise that they will deliver prosperity, long life, ageless faces, endless happiness, and a partridge in a pear tree. The story is meant to make us consider our commitments. Are these commitments worthy of the sacrifices we make to such false promises, self-serving leaders, and endless entanglements with those things that have no possibility of promising life – eternal life – life lived with God? Note on the good news here: God does not leave Elijah alone. God revitalizes Elijah to go forth and witness to the good and the true another day. Be sure to read about his next encounter with Ahab. It’s all there in the First Book of Kings. The tale continues.

Whenever we get to thinking – no, believing – that we as a species upon this Earth have made so much material and spiritual progress, we ought to read and re-read the story of Elijah. Whenever we get to feeling that we are alone in our struggles, that the whole world is against us, we should read and re-read this story of Elijah. Whenever we finally come to the realization that our commitments to the Baals of this age will never get us out of Exile, we should read and re-read this tale of Elijah. For Elijah’s story is our own. This stuff is not primitive – it is eternal. We still have a lot to learn by going back over these ancient narratives and finding ourselves, our very selves, in the story. Perhaps then we will come to know that God is with us – Emmanuel – especially in those times when it appears the Lord is far far away. He is here. Now. Right now. Calling us. “What are you doing here?” Amen.