Sermon – Into the Wilderness by Nanette Sawyer
Jazz Vespers, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL
June 16, 2016
Our biblical story today is from the book of 1 Kings—a book that begins with the death of King David, tells of the rise and fall of King Solomon, and the division of the kingdom into two kingdoms: Israel, the northern kingdom and Judah, the southern kingdom.
It’s a book that is more a book of theology than a book of history, reflecting on theological reasons for why things happen the way they do. Each king in a long list of kings, the bible tells us, “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and their evil actions brought ruin upon them.
Our main characters today are King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and the prophet Elijah. Ahab was king in Israel, the northern kingdom, and he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon, also in the north.
The people of Sidon worshipped Baal and the King’s name, Ethbaal, means “Baal exists.” His daughter Jezebel’s name could mean a few different things. It probably means “where is the prince?” An interesting name that might cause us to ask where does power lie? In other words, where is the one who rules?
The prophet Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is (my) God.” So built right into the names of the characters we have a tension between Baal, the violent storm God, and Yahweh. The question in the story is, who controls lightning and thunder, earthquakes and rain? Is it Baal or is it Yahweh? Where is the prince? Who is the king? Who rules?
This is what I mean when I say that the story is more theological than historical. It’s written not so much to give an account of events, but instead to get us asking these kinds of questions about life and death, power and relationships.
Where is God? Who is God? Why are we here? How are we related to God? And how does God relate to us?
Listen to our reading from 1 Kings chapter 19.
1 Kings 19:1-7, 8-15a (Common English Bible)
19 1 [King]Ahab told [Queen] Jezebel all that [the prophet] Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. 2 Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”
3 Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. 4 He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey.
He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.”
5 He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush.
Then suddenly a messenger [an angel] tapped him and said to him, “Get up! Eat something!”
6 Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep.
7 The Lord’s messenger returned a second time and tapped him. “Get up!” the messenger [the angel] said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.”
8 Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
The Lord’s word came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
10 Elijah replied, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too!”
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind.
After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet.
13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance.
A voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
14 He said, “I’ve been very passionate for the Lord God of heavenly forces because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant. They have torn down your altars, and they have murdered your prophets with the sword. I’m the only one left, and now they want to take my life too.”
15 The Lord said to him, “Go back through the desert to Damascus…”
Here ends our reading.
May God add a blessing to our hearing of this word.
Now it so happens that in the earlier chapter we learn that Elijah had just killed 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. 850 people he had killed. He had them seized and brought them down into a stream bed where he killed them. These were the prophets, the story says, who “ate at Jezebel’s table.”
I lift up this part of the story because it creates a tension that I just can’t let go. It’s just not as easy to say that Elijah is the good guy in this story when we notice this part of the story.
Jezebel moves immediately into retaliation mode. She had already tried to kill all of Yahweh’s prophets and she succeeded in killing many. Obadiah testifies in the earlier chapter that he was able to save 100 of them by hiding them in caves and feeding them.
So Elijah is stretching the numbers a bit when he reports to God that all the other prophets of Yahweh have been killed already and he’s the only one left. Why does he do that? Why does he say, “I’m the only one left”?
Could it be because he feels so alone at this point? Because he feels like he’s the only one? Or could he think he has to make it that extreme in order to get God’s attention? To get God to listen to him? I don’t know.
This story makes me ask a lot of questions—a lot of questions about retaliation for example. Would it be just and right for Jezebel to kill Elijah at this point, after he had killed 850 prophets who ate at her table? Or similarly, was it right for Elijah to kill the prophets of Baal and Asherah after Jezebel killed so many prophets of Yahweh? Is retaliation ever going to bring this story to a positive end?
And that leads me to ask broader and deeper questions about the nature of hatred and fear—the kind that leads to violence. Where does that come from? Jezebel doesn’t feel safe. Elijah certainly doesn’t feel safe. And they’re stuck in this cycle of violence with each other.
Someone told me a story once about a school that did a study on safety and bullying in their school. They interviewed students and asked them to draw a red line on a map of the school to show any place where they did not feel safe.
There was one boy who colored the whole school red. When the researchers talked to the administration at the school about this they said, “oh yes, we know that boy. He’s the biggest bully in the school.” He did not feel safe anywhere.
This week of course, I’m thinking about the shooting of 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando FL, targeted because of their identity, because they were at a club that serves the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, the LGBTQ community. I wonder how many of them were feeling safe before the shooting began.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that this week, thinking about safety asking myself if I feel safe and when I feel safe. After this shooting in Orlando, so I feel less safe? Over the years, as our society has changed and our churches have changed, and haves become more inclusive and welcoming, I have grown to feel more safe.
When I came onto the pastoral staff here at Fourth Church, the little flyer that introduced me to the congregation mentioned my wife, Andrea. Such a simple thing was so affirming, so liberating for me. It made me feel more safe. But sometimes I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
One day at the dentist the receptionist asked me in a friendly tone whether I would like my wife’s phone number listed as my emergency contact. So, so simple a thing, and yet it made something in me blossom with amazement. I was startled by her kindness because a part of me still expects antagonism to come.
Society has changed so much. The church has changed so much. And now my love is seen as love—it seems such a simple thing to be seen truly. My wife is understood to be my emotional home. She is my family and this is being realized by more and more people.
Do I feel safe? Sometimes I do, more and more. But sometimes I let go of my wife’s hand when we’re walking down the street because I am afraid that someone will see it and decide to hate me.
23 of the 49 victims in Orlando were Puerto Rican. This week I learned a new word for me. Latinx. It’s a name that the Latino/latina community has adopted to describe themselves in an inclusive way: latinx. It was latinx night at the Pulse nightclub last Saturday, and nearly half of the people killed were Puerto Rican.
This week I’m also remembering the 9 African American church members, including their pastor, who were shot a year ago this week, while they were at bible study in their church in Charleston, NC.
One of the most haunting details about the North Carolina shooting (and there were many haunting details) but one that haunts me still is that the man who shot the church goers said that he almost didn’t go through with it because they were so nice to him.
It seems that for a brief moment he glimpsed a truth about who they were. He didn’t just see them as the stereotypes that he had been taught to see. He saw through that veil of lies and that new vision almost prevented a tragedy. Almost.
The wilderness of violence is all around us. The failure to see beyond our stereotypes, to see beyond our fear, or our hatred. That is wilderness, a lost place. We are so lost when we allow ourselves to be cut off from each other, isolated, alienated. Will we let that wilderness grow in our hearts? What will our choice be? Or, on the other extreme, will we forget it and avoid it and deny that it’s real?
Elijah passed through the wilderness of violence and it eventually brought him to his knees under a bush in the desert. It’s more than enough, he said to God, too much. He wanted to give up completely.
But God had another idea. God asked him, not once, but twice, “why are you here?”
Maybe it was God about why are you here on this holy mountain, but maybe God was also asking why are you here on this planet?
What is your purpose? What choices are you going to make now? It’s a question we all can ask ourselves. We probably do, many days.
On Tuesday in our staff meeting here at the church we talked about the violence. And on Wednesday an amazing thing happened. We gathered at 3:00 on the front steps of our church for an interfaith vigil. All the pastors from our church and the two rabbis from Congregation Sinai and a leader from the Downtown Islamic Center gathered in compassion and solidarity with the loved ones of those who died, and with LGBTQ people everywhere who have suffered so much violence.
The rainbow flag was dropped over the front door (you might have seen it when you came in) and hundreds of rainbow colored ribbons were tied along the fence. Pastor Layton mentioned in her sermon this morning too that the colors of the flag and ribbons bloomed in front of the church. It felt like that. It felt like they were blooming.
I cried a little at the service, just a few tears, as many people did, as we listened to the church bell toll 50 times in recognition of 50 lives lost. It took a long time to hear that many bells.
There was a reading from the New Testament, from Hebrew scripture and from the Koran. There was music and a prayer, and we read the names of all the victims. There was an understanding that we were not alone. We held hands and we sang “we shall overcome, black and white together, gay and straight together, we shall overcome.” There was healing in that place.
Where does power lie? That is a theological question. Where is the prince? Why are you here?
These are some of the questions that our bible story brings to us today.
On Wednesday, like every day really, there was power in our hands holding each other; and there was power in our voices, grieving, remembering and proclaiming that God is a God of love and mercy.
There was power in the blooming of color that says we cannot be divided; we stand under the rainbow of God’s promises in solidarity and we hold on to compassion.
We were there on the steps and the sidewalk because the prince we follow is the prince of peace and we envision a kingdom that is truly a commonwealth, a reign based on kinship and relationship. Not a divided kingdom, but a united kingdom that celebrates our diversity.
We were there to model that kinship, to hear readings from the different faith traditions, to affirm that we are all children of God, created in the image of God, and we look for that image of God and we find that image of God in each other’s faces.
After God questioned Elijah he gave him a command. He said go back, the way you came, through the wilderness. Your work is not done yet. And so Elijah went, and set up kings and found a successor to follow after him…Elisha. Elisha’s name means “my God saves.”
Elijah’s work was not done yet. And our work is not done yet either. But we are not alone in it. God is with us in it, guiding us. And we are in it with each other. And we can give thanks to God for that. Thanks be to God for that, that we are together in it. AMEN.