On the Run
Written by Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President
June 24, 2007
A Sermon Preached for the 50th Anniversary of the United Church of Christ
General Synod 26
1 Kings 19.1-19
Elijah is on the run. Thus saith Queen Jezebel: "You've killed my prophets, demeaned my god, disrespected my authority. By this time tomorrow, you'll be dead!" The great spectacle on Carmel had been an unmitigated disaster for her and her consort Ahab. It was not just that Jezebel's god had lost the tournament and her court prophets had lost their lives. It was the mocking manner in which the contest had played out. When the prophets of Baal failed to rouse their idol Elijah can't suppress his condescension: "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." Elijah pours on the sarcasm, literally! "Pour water on the burnt offering. Do it again! Do it a third time! The Lord God's consuming flames will not even be deterred by a soaking wet offering." The loss of her prophets would have been bad enough. Humiliation was simply intolerable as it always is for vain rulers. "By this time tomorrow you will be dead." Elijah is on the run.
For Jezebel, Elijah is nothing more than a terrorist fueled by religious zealotry that allows no compromise, no dual allegiances. "Don't limp with two different opinions," the prophet shouts at the people. When it comes to the Lord God and the false god Baal, there is no dancing on both sides of the street, no straddling the fence, no middle position. "If the Lord is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him." Take a stand! Elijah's fundamentalism is familiar to us, and so is the vanity of small minded but dangerous Jezebels who have grown oblivious to their arrogance and idolatry masquerading as respectable piety. Elijah is a threat to the court, and to the court's idols, and to the court's prophets. So he is "wanted, dead or alive," and all the intelligence apparatus of the state is focused on "smoking him out of his hole," or whatever cave he may have found for a hiding place. The threat level is orange, and all good citizens are to report any suspicious behavior to Jezebel's minions. On the run!
Elijah is not the first, nor would he be the last to feel the fury of a Jezebel breathing down his neck. Moses and Miriam on the run toward the sea and the miraculous way out of no way. The Holy Family on the run from Herod's planned slaughter of innocents toward safe haven in Egypt. The two disciples on the run toward Emmaus after the disaster in Jerusalem. On the run. Scripture is filled with political refugees fleeing those whose respectable religion, so eager to bless the political and social order of the day, is scandalized and threatened by evangelical faith. By this time tomorrow you'll be dead.
To be honest, this is not Elijah's finest moment. We remember him as the one who confronts Ahab, alleged to be the worst king ever, standing up to the king's accusation, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" We remember him standing up to God when the widow's son had no breath left in him. ""O Lord, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying?" We remember him confronting Ahab again when the king, succumbing to his wife's taunts, seizes Naboth's vineyard. "Have you found me, O my enemy?" We remember him shot to heaven like a flaming rocket in a blaze of glory, eliciting Elisha's exclamation, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" (He might have said, "let it shine!") For Jews he is never really gone, but a mysterious presence, visiting, performing miracles, hinting at a Messiah. At Passover Seders a chair is left for him, awaiting Malachi's promise: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."
But, to be quite honest about it, in our text he is a pathetic, self-absorbed, whining figure. Fresh from victory, one word from Jezebel is enough to send him fleeing to Beersheba and beyond, a grumpy lament on his lips that "no good deed ever goes unpunished." Under a tree he pulls a pillow over his head and yearns to die. Fed miraculously, he continues on the run until he comes to another mountain – always a mountain - where he finds a cave
Then, God speaks: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Not curiosity, but challenge. There is no divine sympathy, only confrontation. And why not? Elijah had just orchestrated the Lord God's triumph over Jezebel's idols and her prophets, and now one threat from the same sends him in fear, on the run? "What are you doing here, Elijah!" To his credit, Elijah doesn't crumble before the Lord. He stands up to God like he stood up to Ahab. But it's a pretty sad performance, filled with self-serving, conceited complaint:
I have been very zealous for You. But Israel? They have forgotten your covenant, trashed it. They have defaced your altars and killed your prophets. And now I am the only one left, the only faithful one, and these rebels against you are seeking my life, to take it away.
Nursing his bitterness while stroking his own ego, Elijah decides he likes his little speech so much that he delivers it twice! So there, Yahweh! "What are you doing here, Elijah?"
It is, I think, the perfect question for the United Church of Christ at 50. What are you doing here? At this mountain top event, standing at least for a moment outside the celebratory caves that can offer respite but also lure us into hiding, the still speaking God confronts us as Elijah was once confronted. What are you doing here? But before we quickly claim Elijah's mantle, let's ask ourselves another question? Have we been sufficient trouble for the Ahab's of our day, sufficient danger to the Jezebels of our time to have some cause for being on the run.
Since our last General Synod the genocide in Darfur has kept up its dismal cadence of death, while the nations, while we offer lamentation without urgency and complaint that costs little. We watched the outrage of the "left out, the left alone, the left behind" in New Orleans, and we embarked on rebuilding, restoring, rehabilitating, but not often challenging with passion the disgrace of a broken social contract. Global warming continues apace, and so does the denial of many, including we ourselves who worry more over the high cost of gasoline than the generations who will pay the price for our foolish greed. Naboth's vineyard is stolen again and again in a global economy where merciless Ahab and Jezebel accumulate more and more of the land and the resources of the poor. Would any of the amassers of wealth tremble before us today, saying, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" Have we been willing to be enemy of those who deceive and deny the poor of the earth their inheritance?
And then there is the war - its deceit, its torture, its demoralizing death and dismemberment, its relentless march toward chaos, all accompanied by an royal enthusiasm that refuses to say, "Enough!" Brother Dietrich, martyr of the Confessing Church, surely speaks for us today in this post-9/11 world of presumed insecurity and manipulated fear:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and made us cynical. Are we still of any use?
Can we claim to have troubled violent Jezebel and her consort enough to have any real reason to be on the run? We like to think of ourselves as Elijah, taking on Jezebel's court prophets, those "reassuring seers of good things," as Abraham Joshua Heschel describes them, "minions of monarchs and favorites of the people, [proclaiming the] certainty of divine protection for what normal people care about: life, country, security." But life, country, and security loom large in our list of wants and our sanctuaries threaten to become stained glass caves where manufactured wind, earthquake, and fire suffice for a judging, clarifying word. If today's Jezebels are not even chasing us, are we of any use?
Even if we have stood with the Elijah's of our day, even if we have stopped trying to have it both ways – fidelity and respectability, cost and comfort, critic and beneficiary of our accommodated culture – even if we have placed both feet squarely in Yahweh's camp and faced down the idols, is it enough to stagger – or swagger - toward fifty years content with caves of nostalgia and self-satisfaction? "We've been zealous for the Lord!" - Look at all our firsts! - "And we've done so even when all the others have forsaken the covenant, torn down the altars, killed the prophets." We have been engaged – some deeply engaged – in the struggle for justice and peace. And some have paid the price. Dismissed from pulpits. Ostracized by fellow members. Shunned and mocked by neighbors. Threatened, even jailed by Jezebel. These fifty years have been graced by countless saints who had good reason to be on the run, having declared, again with Heschel, "that God is no unconditional protector and patron" of our own preoccupations: our privileged life, our flawed country, our precious security. Saints who have taught us that every day is Carmel and that we can't serve two altars, can't worship some comforting amalgam of Baal and Yahweh. Respectable religion and evangelical faith can't happily co-exist. On the run, in the cave, surveying the political and religious scene, sorely tempted to cry out, "I only am left, and they seek my life, to take it away."
What are you doing here, Elijah? What are you doing here, United Church of Christ? On the run for no good reason, or for very good reason? What are you doing here? Our therapeutic age yearns for a divine arm around the collective shoulder, telling us we've been wonderful, that the world is harsh, that we've earned our rest in the cave. But God's response is tough love that seems to offer more toughness than love. "Go back, back to the dangerous places, the places where Jezebel reigns. Go back, back to find Elisha who will replace you. Go back." Only in the rebuke is the promise: "There are yet seven thousand who are with you." Seven thousand who have not succumbed to Jezebel's seductions, so pervasive in Elijah's day, and in ours. Seven thousand who know that life is more than the privilege secured by our wealth. Seven thousand who know that borders mean little to the sovereign God who mocks our petty and parochial patriotisms. Seven thousand who know that security is never found in weapons, but in the comfort of knowing that we belong to Christ. "You're not alone, Elijah. And it's not all about you!" Go back.
Go back. But not to the past. Not to a pleasant place of yore existing only in faulty memory. Go back to the place where the idols of respectability still lure and Jezebel's intimidations still threaten. Which is to say, go back home from this cave. Go back where the seven thousand are waiting, and find Elisha who will succeed you. Go back, United Church of Christ, into the next fifty years. Go back, neither strutting in pride nor licking your wounds. Go back as I heard it from Davie Napier of blessed memory in his Beecher Lectures at Yale the year I began in ministry, "Go back. Always go back; and on the way, always on the way, find, commission, enlist, and inspire Elisha and Elisha and Elisha."
And what of God? Will God be there? Will there be for us, as for Elijah, a sound of sheer silence where Christ will be encountered, "in, with, and under" the silence, where the breaking of the silence, and the breaking within the silence will reveal the presence of the Risen One in our midst? Surely that is the promise, confirmed not in the howling wind, the powerful earthquake, or the consuming fire, but in the quiet, always in the sacramental quiet, where the stillspeaking voice is heard, and the holy One is met. Today let that voice be one of our cherished global partners, Megrdich Karagoezian of the Armenian Evangelical Union in Lebanon, truly one of the seven thousand, who wrote us this week: "we give thanks for your dedicated service and your courageous affirmation of being the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Courage to faithfully confront all issues at home or far away, and dedication to serve even the least of Christ's brothers and sisters. That courage has brought you near, and through you, has brought Christ's presence closer to all who needed Him." Faithfulness - and presence - is found not on the run, but on the way home to our future. There we will find the seven thousand. There we will find Elisha. There in the silence, God will yet speak. What are you doing here?