Sermon on 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a and Luke 5:15-16 for Pentecost +5, Father’s Day, June 19, 2016
1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus….”
But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. 16 But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
It is always complicated when times of celebration and sorrow come together. We want to celebrate Father’s Day with full hearts today, and yet our whole country is in the middle of grief over the worst mass shooting in our history.
We grieve with the families and loved ones of the people of Orlando, especially today for the fathers who have lost sons.
We grieve for the gay community that once again has been targeted for harm.
We grieve that after all this time, humans still practice scapegoating victims, as we have done since the days we wore animal skins and bones in our noses.
We grieve that religion, again, has been invoked as a justification for violence – even if, in this recent case, it was evidently invoked cynically, for publicity by a deeply disturbed man.
I grieve for the fact that it is so easy for just about anyone to get guns, especially guns that were designed for the battle field.
I grieve that there are people who believe conspiracy theories, like that the government wants to take away everyone’s guns, and on the basis of that baseless belief, will never consent to any sensible restraints. I grieve over the number of people who have lost their lives as a result.
It was quite heartening, on the other hand, to see the news that Muslim leaders here in America publicly condemned the violence, saying that nothing in Islam could be used to justify it.
Religion and Violence
Now, thinking people may, at this point object, and say that Islam is inherently violent. Is not ISIS a prime example, not to mention the Taliban and Al Qaeda?
But, as thinking people, we ask ourselves: is there any religion on the planet that has not been invoked to justify violence? People who believe in violence will always find ways to use their religion to justify killing. They always have; they always will, whether they are Jews, Christians, Muslims – even Buddhists! If you are going to kill and risk being killed, it always helps to have God or the Gods or Karma or whatever backing you up.
As Christians whose faith grew up in soil of Judaism, we must confess the violence in our tradition. What we are going to see today is that although there is violence in the heart of our tradition, there is more.
That “more” begins as a seed that grows into a beautiful flower. There is a movement away from violence to an embrace of peace, which calls us to be people of peace.
The Elijah Story’s Seed
The texts for today from our wisdom tradition, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, will help us to see how this trajectory from violence to peace works.
First, we begin with terrible violence. We read from the story of the prophet Elijah. It began,
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.”
King Ahab had told Queen Jezebel about the previous episode. It was that famous story of the contest on Mt. Carmel. All the 450 prophets of Baal were there. They built alters to their god, and called for fire to come down from heaven and burn up their sacrifices. Nothing happened.
Then, in the story, Elijah builds an alter to Yahweh, Israel’s God, places the sacrifice on it, and even douses it with gallons of water. He prays for God to send fire from heaven to ignite the sacrifice, which God does.
All the people watching are instantly persuaded that Elijah’s God, Yahweh is the true God, so Elijah tells them all to grab their swords and slaughter all the prophets of Baal so that none of them escapes alive.
This is what king Ahab told Queen Jezebel, a follower of Baal, about, which is why she promised to kill Elijah, which is why he ran away to the mountain, where our text begins.
So, our wisdom tradition, our scriptures, have divinely sanctioned violence, which no one can deny. And this is only a single incident. A couple of years ago we all read the bible in 90 days . Some of you were astounded by the frequency and brutality of the violence in its pages.
Let us admit that yes, these texts from the Iron Age reflect the values and ethics of those violent times. Just like they reflected misogyny and patriarchal hierarchies, just like they reflected homophobia, just like they had blood taboos and many practices that we have left behind.
But even in the context of those rough times, there are seeds planted, that can, and do, grow in to a beautiful alternative.
The Prophet’s Vision of Peace
We see those early seeds planted, for example, in the vision of the prophets. Elijah was not a writing prophet, but others left us a record. Even from as distant as the eighth century before the time of Christ, we read of a vision of a future day when, as Micah said, when:
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;”
The prophet Isaiah held out the vision of the peaceable kingdom with these famous words:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isa 11:6-9)
These visions of the peaceful future are the seeds, planted even in that violent soil of the Iron Age, that take centuries to germinate, but finally come to flower in the life and teachings of Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we are called to be people of peace.
“Blessed are the peacemakers” Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount, “for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
We follow Jesus who did not allow his followers to use violence to protect him, even to protect him from certain death. When the soldiers came with swords to arrest him and Peter tried to defend him Jesus said,
“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Scholars of the historical Jesus have pointed out that the proof that Jesus’ movement was non-violent was that when Rome was convinced that he was a threat to their order, Jesus alone was killed, and not his disciples also.
Violent movements were suppressed, in the Roman empire, by slaughtering all the supporters. Non-violent movements, like Jesus’ or like his predecessor John’s were put down by simply removing the leader.
We have been studying the the topic “What Was Jesus Thinking?” these past few Friday evenings. We have seen that the ethical framework, the paradigm or the pattern for our morality is, and has been since the Hebrew Bible, the imitation of God. We are to be as God is, to each other.
This brings up a difficult challenge – how do we know what God is like? In the ancient times, people conceived of God as a king, only greater than the greatest human king. As king, God could, and did, use violence just as human kings did. It was normal and accepted.
The way the biblical story goes, God manifested God’s presence in violent images: think of Moses on Mt. Sinai, a volcanic mountain, billowing black smoke, thundering and lightening, quaking, producing awe, if not sheer panic. (see Exod. 19)
Alternative Images of God
But even in those times, there are other, alternative images of God that, like the seeds of the prophet’s visions, take time to grow.
We read in our text today about one of those seeds. How does God become manifest to Elijah? The story tells us that in his flight from angry queen Jezebel he goes to the same mountain on which Moses met God, Mt. Sinai, (in Kings they call it Mt. Horeb).
Elijah’s encounter with God begins with strong, violent images that echo Moses’ experience. It says:
“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire;”
The odd and surprising element here is that God is not best known by any of these violent images. The Lord is not in the wind that breaks the rocks, not in the earthquake, and not in the fire. How will God be manifest to Elijah?
“and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence.”
Here we have an entirely new and different way of understanding the Divine. God can be encountered as the sound of sheer silence. Of course it is a mystery. It is an oxymoron: silence makes no sound. A paradox.
Mystics of many traditions, speak of dual consciousness which is the way most of us think. But, they tell us, the contemplative is able to think beyond the binary, either-or categories of the dual consciousness. Non-dual thinking is able to accept that paradox is often a path to truth. How do we listen for God? We listen for sheer silence.
Silence is completely non-coercive. God is non-coercive. The God of sheer silence lures us and draws us, in every situation, toward the good, the beautiful, and the true: towards peace.
Jesus himself practiced contemplative, silent wordless prayer. In other words, he meditated. We read in Luke about his pattern of spiritual practice:
“he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
“He would withdraw” it says, indicating his lifestyle, his regular practice. Jesus encountered God in silence. So we, as followers of Jesus, make space in our lives for silence. And in that silence, without the ego voice in our heads, with all of its judgments, its anger, its dualistic preferences, we become people of peace.
The fruit of the practice of silent meditation is a life that is less dualistic; what does that mean in daily life? We begin to think in far broader categories than binaries of friend or foe, good person or bad person, us or them. We can begin to see that those old categories simply do not work any more. They are wildly inadequate.
The contemplative mind does not have to have enemies to fight. The fruit of the practice of silent meditation, in other words, is peace inside ourselves, and peacefulness and peacemaking with others.
So we can look at Muslims without either-or categories of friend or foe. We can understand that the God who is known in sheer silence is a mystery far beyond our categories, even our religious ones. We can open our hearts to the fact that there are millions of peaceful Muslims who hate violence, who reject ISIS, who simply want to raise their families in safety, just like us.
Let us be people, then, in whom those seeds grow and flourish. People who regularly make space for silence, so that we can embrace the mystery of the God of sheer silence. People who are at peace; people who make peace.