God’s Community of Support

sermon on 1st Kings 17 & for Reformation Sunday

 

Elijah is an Old Testament big wig.

When Jesus hangs out with the superstars of Hebrew Scriptures with a heavenly glimpse in the Transfiguration story, it’s Moses and Elijah, representing the categories of law and prophets.

It was feasible Elijah could show up since, instead of dying, a chariot of fire came to scoop him up by the Jordan River and carried him away. From that, our Old Testament ends with the expectation that Elijah will return, which is the famously waiting empty chair at Jewish Passover tables. Also from this, Jesus was asked if he’s Elijah, if he’s calling for Elijah’s help as he died on the cross, and he himself pointed to John the Baptist as the one filling this role of the ultimate prophet.

In a few amazing stories, Elijah called down fire from the sky and had major confrontations with nasty rulers and spoke with God and spoke for God and triumphed over 400 bad prophets in a duel.

But for all that large stuff of a big wig, in today’s reading, Elijah drops in for his first appearance and seems fairly small and around the fringes.

It helps to know that at the end of the previous chapter, King Ahab had just come to power. He was introduced twice by saying: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (16:30, 33). Not a glowing endorsement, further accentuated in its dim appraisal by the pacifist activist priest Daniel Berrigan who wrote: “In the tally of royal delinquents, one, Ahab, shines for innovative spoliating wickedness.”* This king, following his forbidden marriage to a foreign wife, Jezebel (a name with demeaning derivation for a shamelessly morally unrestrained woman, as the dictionary would have it), Ahab worsened it by promoting cult worship while ridiculing and killing the good guys.

I mention that because this evil queen Jezebel was from Sidon, where our story spends most of its time today, with a widow. If we have one woman from Sidon who was not commendable, another was. One man of Israel failed to follow God while another listened.

Now, I don’t know exactly where you might find yourself in this story, and I’m reluctant to declare any role as yours. You might feel like the one proclaiming God in hostile territory, or akin to one offering what limited care you can. You might even feel like the lifeless son, or wicked rulers. I’m going to try not to assign roles or tell you what you should be doing, but (as usual) to point out what God is doing.

For that uncertainty, we’ll notice the start of the story, where God cares for Elijah without human support. God’s work without our hands. Ravens bring Elijah food. When Elijah does go to a human for assistance, the person is less willing and less able to help than nature was. Besides God’s non-human work in creation, we might take that, especially with this Reformation celebration of the church, as an observance that even we who are supposed to be offering care and embodying what God wants still may not be the most willing or helpful. We see where people of the church have not helped things to go right, where it’s better apart from us.

That is further highlighted by which human did become helpful here: one across the border, outside the realm of God’s people, not sharing Elijah’s religion, from the place of the evil queen.

This is exactly the offense Jesus is voicing in our Gospel window, that God’s preferential treatment and operation isn’t reserved for the religious insiders. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong Lutheran or your perfect attendance awards in worship or how passionately you pray. God will be just as eagerly striving for the life of somebody on the other side of the border, speaking a different language, not sharing your WASP-y privileged presumptuous position. I don’t say that for a self-righteous immigration stance, but with the reminder that whenever we draw a line or barrier of righteousness, God will be working on the other side of that line.

This is important for us to see about God’s provision. Through this meager outsider, God provided and offered the sustenance to help the prophet’s life proceed. But it’s more than the physical relief effort. She also offered clarification about God. One commentator points out that “here a foreign woman is a sign to and of God’s people.” Once more: “a foreign woman [becomes] a sign to and of God’s people!”** To know who God is and who we are as God’s people, we may not be best served simply by looking at each other, in the obvious places of privilege, in insider mirrors.

Here we may see that benefit of being in this ecumenical partnership as the MCC. We may recognize that advantage in interfaith connections.

And in smaller perspective, it’s worth hearing on Reformation Sunday. I can be given to tout my German Lutheran heritage even over against you Scandinavians. I, too, can feel like a good chorale of “A Mighty Fortress” is the voice of our faith, but that it also can go the other direction in our mouths with good beer and some sauerkraut.

lutherans for reformationSo for myself as much as for you, the bulletin cover is a reminder not to be so confined in our sense of who a Lutheran is or what we look like or where we are. Such decolonizing Lutheranism is also why Christa Olson chose the Spanish setting of our liturgy for this service.

For seeing such places of God’s work, let’s add in the end of the story, moving from food for maintaining life to the interruption of life. Elijah met the widow as she was expecting death from starvation. That was averted, but death returned and took her sick son from her.

And then God’s work is still on behalf of life, returning breath into the son and returning him to his mother. This is small work, an isolated case, temporarily helping one family. Elijah will go on to stop the death-wielding forces of his government as he’ll struggle for life. The resuscitation of the boy, the restoration of family in a fringe location, is vital, but is a small hint, a symbol, a mere glimpse of something larger.

Once more, Father Berrigan signals well the ultimate, that this resurrection is “a prelude to a greater wonder, the miracle himself rises from death…And what do we make of that, we who celebrate each year this conquest of the ‘last enemy,’ denying a last word to the empery of death?” (p95)

That’s spot on, but not enough. I’d expand it: we don’t only celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter each year, but each Sunday, maybe every day, with each moment that we face death large or small. We don’t only deny it the last word; we take its breath away, denying it any authority over us. Or, we don’t do it, but God does.

Not by some special power of prophet Elijah did the child have life breathed back into him. This is God’s work, always and constantly. Resurrection is on the loose in the world, spreading, expanding the realm of God across borders. We may see God working through nature and through those who don’t share our religion, but this is also what keeps us coming back. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That Christ is risen isn’t only for Easter or at funerals, but in baptism, and on Monday, and at a ballot box, and on the news, and in cleaning your room, and for autumn leaves, and on and on.

One bit of that on this Reformation Sunday is to look back at history. We think of Martin Luther, maybe as another Elijah, another John the Baptist, another who pointed a way in the wilderness and named the sin that would try to contradict the Word of God that gives life. We may say that Luther breathed new life into a dying or decrepit church, one in bondage to the ways of the world that draw us from God. But it was not Luther’s breath, as he’d quickly remind us. The Holy Spirit did her breathing through him, taking whatever words she could use and filling them with godly inspiration and rejuvenation.

And that is what we continue to celebrate, that in all ways, whether enormously historical or fringe and fleeting, God’s Spirit is here, breathing new life into you and into our world, reforming us, renewing us, working that miracle in surprising places, like in the face of violently misguided government, in public schools, inside Lutheran churches, and outside the church, in a synagogue community, in food pantries and hospitals, and—maybe most surprising of all—in the obscurest and remotest of places like your life.

 

 

* The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power, p92

** Claudia Camp in Women’s Bible Commentary, p112

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All Saints Sunday / God Speaks to Elijah

sermon on 1st Kings 19:1-18
It’s hard to feel alone and have to carry on.

That is my first feeling on this All Saints Sunday, not to give thanks, not of celebration or praise, not of hope or blessing. I first feel the hardness, the lament at being left alone, the clear preference for it not to be this way.

Those people who have left me behind, those from our congregation who died, especially Eileen, John, and Lynne, those other funerals, the deaths we’re remembering today, parents and grandparents, siblings and sons, aunts and nephews, old friends, and at least one classmate, and dogs and cats, the broken community, and all the other losses we continue to bear with us—even when it wasn’t totally tragic and we might admit that the end was a relief, that suffering was over, that the wait had been too long, still I’m not ready to call that my preference. Even when the routines were difficult and existence itself uncertain, still mostly I could keep going in those relationships. In no case am I ready to be done being with the person, sharing life with them. I would rather it not be over. Even when it was a good goodbye, I don’t like goodbyes.

While we talk about a hello on the other side of this, about reunion, about being together again, while we confess our hope in life to come, in resurrection, and I cling to that hope, sometimes desperately, sometimes tenuously, mostly enthusiastically…I believe, and I believe it will be so unbelievably good…but still for this moment that later promise doesn’t sweep me into eternal joy, but feels like a shabby consolation prize. Even expecting God’s ultimate love and goodness, when confronting loss and grief and sorrow and death, it can be hard to see. It’s hard to believe when we’re feeling lonely, and hard to carry on. What we’ve known and trusted and loved about life is missing, and our lives are so dependent on relationships that when those are gone, it’s tough to know how to proceed, what to do next, even how to get up and get going in the morning.

In a way, this is what we hear of the prophet Elijah. Not exactly because of the death of loved ones, but still he is feeling alone, abandoned, diminished, with that accompanying uncertainty of how to proceed.

In Elijah’s case, he tries not carrying on. He’s reasonably running away. This is a veteran prophet, seen even by Jesus as the greatest in the Bible, and yet he’s ready to give up. He’s afraid and frustrated and is just trying to get away from it all. But, of course, a change in scenery doesn’t help, since it’s the nagging self-doubt and internal questions that hound after him. He’s so done he even asks to die. “I’m no better than my ancestors,” he says.

That points to earlier weeks in the Narrative Lectionary, of Elijah’s ancestors wandering in that wilderness. They were freed from slavery in Egypt, but didn’t find the readiness to live into their purpose. They still doubted God’s goodness for them. They kept looking back, as if there were no forward.

Like for those ancestors, then, God’s most basic work is in ongoing sustenance. God provided manna to the hungry complaining travelers in the wilderness. God provides a cake or maybe Palestinian taboon flatbread to Elijah to give him strength for the journey. God sustains you, even as you confront your doubts and feeling lost and not knowing where you need to go next or even if you can take the first step. As you gather at this table this morning, you are assured in the smallest bite of bread of God’s presence with you, God’s blessing for you, God’s life within you. And as you go out from this table to all the other morsels and meals, the bites of food and the breaths of fresh air, the places you sleep and the encounters when you awake, in all of that, you have a never-failing reminder of God sustaining you.

And yet that still may not be enough. The wilderness wanderers groused about manna. Elijah didn’t want to go on, so why would he want strength for the journey? It may not offer you any certainty, either.

So Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, where God had commissioned Moses, speaking from a burning bush to reveal God’s identity and purpose for liberation. In parts of the story the lectionary bypassed, it also says this was the mountain where God spoke amid smoke and lightning with thundering sounds, to give Moses the 10 Commandments so the people could live together well. Also on that mountain, Moses asked to see God directly, and God tucked Moses’ face into a cave and passed by, so Moses could turn to see the back side of God.

Well, that’s the cave where Elijah goes. He’s sustained for the journey by the food, but still isn’t sure why or what. He keeps feeling desperate loneliness and lack of direction. Maybe he has circled back to Mount Horeb to seek some assurance of purpose, to rediscover who God is and what that means. Maybe he needs a burning bush. Maybe he would like a clear command. Maybe he wants to see God. Maybe he longs for a Moses moment. And maybe you, too. For clear revelation. For something that makes a difference. To know that God is on the scene and doing something about it.

That is apparently about to happen in the story. At Mount Horeb, Elijah’s in the right spot for a big vision, for God to show up miraculously. Then come what the insurance industry still tries to convince us are “acts of God”—the earthquakes and hurricanes and lightning and raging fire. Certainly God didn’t avoid such phenomena in other places in the Bible. But just as those have at best an ambiguous message for us—more of destructive power than divine power—here, the cataclysmic events don’t reveal God. They don’t help Elijah.

Instead, finally, after the bombast and spectacle, comes nothing. A sound of sheer silence. Or a still small voice, a gentle whisper, calm and subdued, thin and quiet, a soft murmuring sound. These are all translations of this little phrase. This is God’s presence in a non-obvious way, and with it the question: “What’re you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah, still stuck in his fearful uncertainty repeats his feeling of loneliness. “I alone am left.”

God contradicts Elijah. It’s an odd consolation, perhaps. It isn’t dismissive that everything is going to be okay. Neither does it overturn the problem, for miracles to reverse Elijah’s fortunes. It’s a deeper, quieter, more lasting assurance that Elijah isn’t alone, that he can take the next steps, and, beyond that, God’s work will continue.

Admittedly, Elijah is sent to anoint not only his own successor to carry on the work, but with planned nastiness of regime change and brutal international politics against a tyrant ruler. But even amid those large scale words of war, the more important word—the quieter, again less obviously visible, but more lasting assurance—is that Elijah is far from alone; there are 7000 around him also going ahead with God’s goodness.

This communion of saints is why we gather here today, a brief pause, expecting God to whisper the reminder that you are not alone. As isolating and tragic as grief is, as desolating and difficult as confronting death can be, as much as only you know your loss and how that cannot be restored, and the solitary feeling of abandonment inflicted on you, still you are not alone. You are with this gathering of others, these also who are blessed and sustained by God to keep going.

And not just your own losses, but in larger tragedies and ugliness of violence and politics, you can continue striving, knowing that others—far more than the 7000—also carry on with this quiet, deep, sometimes fearful and often unspectacular blessedness.

Then there’s the still bigger picture of generations. As important as your work is, others were before and will come after us. The church of Jesus, this community of God, the work of God’s blessing and against tyrants in the world, this will persist. It does not stand or fall in our lives, in our dedication or lack of passion. God’s work will continue. That is good news, too.

And, finally, though without the obvious ways you’re told God could appear, nevertheless in your moments of sheer silence and deep, lonely, longing, God quietly is present for you in life now and forever. This isn’t a fantasy of miracles, not a dismissive faith that everything is okay because heaven is waiting. This today, amid grief and confronting the hardness, is the whispered presence to sustain you and give you strength for the journey.

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