Recounting how a zealous-but-whining Elijah, on the run after challenging the vindictive and authoritarian Queen Jezebel, receives not sympathy from Yahweh, but a piercing question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" the Rev. John H. Thomas said the same question well could be asked of the UCC on its 50-year anniversary.
Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, preached to an estimated 9,100 attendees during Synod's festival worship service on June 24.
The gala service began with a 20-minute processional of nearly 200 colorful banners, along with vestment-clad church leaders, representing the church's schools and seminaries; Conferences; Covenanted, Associated and Affiliated Ministries; ethnic/racial constituencies; and the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries.
Thomas said the story from 1 Kings 19 portrays a different Elijah than the much-lauded and confident figure we've come to know from more-celebrated Hebrew tales.
However, this particular story portrays a proud-but-pouting Elijah, hiding in a cave.
On its 50th, said Thomas, the UCC — like Elijah — could fall victim to the prophet's same delusional self-absorption. "We have been zealous for the Lord … look at our firsts!" Thomas quipped. "We like to think of ourselves as Elijah, taking on Jezebel's court prophets, those 'reassuring seers of good things,'" he said. "… But life, country and security loom large in our list of wants and our sanctuaries threaten to become stained glass caves."
Thomas did laud many courageous UCC clergy and members who have been deeply engaged in the struggle for justice and peace.
"Some have paid the price," Thomas said. "Dismissed from pulpits. Ostracized by fellow members. Shunned and mocked by neighbors. Threatened, even jailed by Jezebel."
But Thomas also asked church members to ask more of themselves, particularly when he questioned if our concern for Darfur is "lamentation without urgency" or if our rebuilding of New Orleans has come without forcefully asking about "the disgrace of a broken social contract."
He also asked if we "worry more over the high cost of gasoline than the generations who will pay the price for our foolish greed." Or, in Iraq, if we are delusional with "royal enthusiasm that refuses to say, 'Enough!'"
Remembering how Yahweh never allowed Elijah to rest in his past achievements, but constantly asked more of him, Thomas asked stingingly of the UCC, "Would any of the amassers of wealth tremble before us today? … Have we been willing to be the enemy of those who deceive and deny the poor of the earth from their birthright?"
Thomas, interrupted by applause more than a half-dozen times, closed by asking the church to "go back, but not to the past."
"Go back home from this cave," he said, "God back home and find Elisha who will succeed you. Go back, United Church of Christ, into your next 50 years."
"Find, commission, enlist and inspire," he said of the ones who will come after us.
"Faithfulness — and presence — is found not on the run, but on the way home to our future."