Proper 7, Second Sunday after Pentecost
Year C, 19 June 2022
1 Kings 19: 1-15a
Luke 8 26-39
‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
The Lord asks Elijah a question we can ask ourselves. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’
‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Here matters. Should he/should we be somewhere else? And what matters. What are we doing with the finite, fleeting time we have.
Here is today’s story. Ahab was the eminently wicked king of Israel; Jezebel, a notorious worshipper of Baal, was his queen. But one person cast a persistent shadow over their lives. Elijah today has just cut the throats of 450 priests of Baal. They had lost a competition to see who was greater, their gods or Elijah’s. For hours the priests of Baal [had] hopped and danced around the altar they had prepared. And still their gods had failed to consume the sacrifice they had prepared. Elijah, in contrast, had prepared his sacrifice very precisely but said very little to Yahweh, focusing on these three words, “Answer me Yahweh,” an abrupt, intimate request. And God sent down fire.
No one terrified Elijah so much as Jezebel…Elijah knew that the game with the queen was far from over. The very next day Jezebel sent him a message: “So may the gods treat me or even worse, if by this time tomorrow I have not made your spirit like one of theirs.” By “theirs” Jezebel meant her gutted priests. And the queen had used the formula of the oath, calling upon her gods.
Elijah had to get out at once. He headed south, toward Egypt. He kept going into the desert, as if intending to follow Moses’s footsteps in reverse. He despaired. But an angel brought food and a command to eat and continue his journey, 40 days of wandering. Elijah retreated to a cave. At last he heard a voice, that might have seemed mocking, for it said: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah said, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” The voice told him that the Lord was about to pass by. Then, wrapped in his cloak, he stepped out into the open and waited to hear God’s voice through wind and earthquake and fire.
And then Yahweh decided to speak to him. It was only thanks to his long flight, and because his desperate escape had reduced him to such a state of exhaustion, that Elijah was able to recognize Yahweh in the barely perceptible sound of the breeze. And Yahweh told him to cross the desert to Damascus.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah was called to prophesy. But he strategized. “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He thought: What good will it do if I get killed? That will be the end of the prophets. So he retreated to the desert. Who can blame him? He shuts out God’s voice, until he hears it at last. God tells him that he has to keep going.
And to look ahead from what we read today: Elijah will go on and anoint another king. He will keep on appearing before Ahab as a kind of bogeyman, to remind him of the law. And – spoiler alert – it is Ahab and Jezebel who die grizzly deaths as Elijah predicted. Elijah was worried about the wrong thing. Jezelbel wasn’t going to kill him. He wasn’t going to die at all. He would be whisked away in a chariot of fire.
Elijah didn’t know that ending, but even without that ending, he needed to go back. He is not to strategize, not do the wrong thing, not think that wrong ends justify good means. His job is to stand up for truth, for God’s law.
So that’s the question. Are we in the right place? Should we be somewhere else? The stakes for us are not life and death. Some of our steps, some of our asking has more to do with will than risk, like taking up the kind of concrete steps of the work of love, of living, and prayer in the Spirit, that Larry shared with us at Pentecost. Or, that Jon Owen, in the same spirit made in a list of in this week’s newsletter — concrete actions on the pressing issue of gun violence, made even sadder if that were possible with the shooting at our fellow Episcopalians at the Church of St Stephen in Alabama this very week. The kind of actions that Jon and Larry suggest are an example of what we can think of — in the unforgettable image of Father Jim’s vision of engagement with the Trinity that he delighted us with last week — as a moment of perichoresis!! a dance where we are handed off from Person to Person. (I had to go look for that word but it certainly is one to cherish.) To dance with the Son, Jim said, is “serving Jesus in the neighbor, concerned with social justice, and working to help those on the margins.”
Juneteenth asks us the question of what we are doing in relation to our place in the systematic racism that has marginalized and distorted everyday life in our country’s history and present. It is
an invitation to engage with the past – sins we have done and sins done in our name – and what is needed for us to live our ideals. We’ve had study groups – Sacred Ground, the anti-racism reading group, an on-going group with All Souls’ on criminal justice. Some of us joined with OrZarua pre-pandemic in doing bystander training. We’ve had a modest discussion on finding an equivalent to ASCAP licensing fees for when we use spirituals. For some of us it’s time to look forward to the November election — money if we can, with get-out-the vote postcarding, with canvassing in Nevada or the Central Valley, writing letters right now to express outrage at DNC strategists supporting right-wing and denouncing moderate Republicans. Gandhi knew that ends never justify wrong means.
This is not a time – overwhelming as so much seems, worn out by Covid stops and starts – to retreat to the desert.
Look too at Luke, a passage from an amazing chapter that starts with a parable that reminds us to act not only with our lips but in our lives; that turns us toward community; and that then overflows with four miracles. The miracles tell us that Jesus is in the midst of crises of the natural world, of grievous sickness, of untimely death, and even societal oppression. Today we encounter the marginalized unhoused man possessed of demons, whom Jesus cures and whom he comes to know by name. Madness takes many expressions depending on time and place, and our Gerasene has the madness that comes with (let’s say) exploitative disrespectful colonial rule. The multiple demons who possess him take for him the multiplicity of the undoubtedly oppressive Roman military unit, the Legion. The man is saved. The demons die and they take with them the despised unclean swine that presumably under God’s law, not Roman, should not be there.
Once he is healed, the Gerasene too must answer the question. What are you doing here, Elijah? He thinks he has found his place, sitting at the feet of Jesus. He begs to stay. But Jesus tells him that he must go, to reintegrate into society. Long marginalized, looked on with contempt, like Elijah, he has a gift: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
I have a parting thought. If “you” is our little congregation, What are we doing here? Are we in the right place, the Zoom-land? Should we be in our sanctuary more, with or without clergy? And beyond that, what are we doing as a congregation? Our gratitude for God’s grace and for each other in sustaining our community in these last years against all odds is unbounded. But still we need to question what we should be doing differently. It was a question posed to us in early pandemic times by Deacon Kathleen, trying to shake us up about our small and not growing numbers – maybe a question asked too early but good to return to now.
Our hymns this morning are about moving, moving to get where we are meant to be. “Good Lord, show us the way.”
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1. My friend Lee, in Ann Arbor, eight months into glioblastoma, recently started a reading group to discuss Roberto Calasso’s The Book of All Books (2019). Lee is beginning to manifest some of the effects of this cancer though they were only slightly evident when he moderated the first discussion last Friday. Calasso recounts stories from the Hebrew Bible, imagining himself into them. It seemed uncanny that Calasso’s section on Elijah was in the section we are reading for our next meeting, just as I was turning to this reflection. Calasso’s wording is so evocative that I’ve taken some of his phrases w/o quotation marks, defying all academic conventions.
2. There was an NPR segment on the Brookline project noted in the site below that peaked my interest in this. Note that our hymns today, unlike the classic spirituals, have known composers so do not fall into this category.