May 29, 2016 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
This morning we start five Sundays on the stories of the prophet Elijah found in the first and second book of Kings. As we get started, here’s some of the backstory to help you have a better sense of what’s going on in this morning’s reading.
After the reign of King David and then his son Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided. There are a series of kings who rule in each kingdom. Many of whom are bad. But King Ahab, who we hear about in today’s reading, is one of the worst. The story says he “did evil in the sight of God—more than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16.30) Chief among his failings was his marriage to a Canaanite princess who was a Baal worshiper and then Ahab’s own allegiance to the Canaanite god Baal rather than the God of Israel.
During Ahab’s reign, there is a long drought in Israel and with it widespread famine. About three years into the drought, Elijah, the prophet of the God of Israel, and King Ahab meet up. They both blame the other for being the source of the drought. Ahab blames Elijah because Elijah said early on that there would be a drought. Elijah blames Ahab because Ahab has broken the covenant relationship with the God of Israel by worshiping Baal.
So Elijah proposes a contest between their gods. With the people of Israel as witnesses, 450 prophets of Baal meet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Each side will prepare a sacrifice and then call on their god to send fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice. The god that sends the fire will prevail.
This sort of competition between gods is typically not in our direct experience so let me say a few words about it. In a world where there are multiple gods, there’s always a tension about which god is the most powerful. We have multiple gods in our culture including status, money, power, family, beauty, material possessions; but they don’t typically have a face-off in this manner.
In the ancient world, each god had a particular responsibility or trait and there were frequently competitions between them. Baal was the god of fertility and storms. Agrarian people, as the Canaanites and Israelites were, needed rain each year for their crops. A drought would signal the powerlessness of Baal. When there was rain it would be presumed that Baal was powerful.
So the prophet Elijah tells King Ahab, “Let’s see whose god—yours or mine—is more powerful.”
Read: 1 Kings 18.20-39
Now if your eyes slid on to verse 40 you saw that the end of this particular story is that Elijah slays all the prophets of Baal. (A detail the lectionary would like us to skip over.) Presumably this is in retribution for all the prophets of the God of Israel who were killed by Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel.
In our day of interfaith dialogue and in our city where the Festival of Faiths just took place, I hope this story feels terrible to you. Two sides jousting (almost literally) to see whose god is more powerful. An adherent of one faith mocking the god of another. The losers of the religious competition being killed by the victor. This is not the kind of religion we want to be part of. The last thing we need in our world is more violence between people of different religious traditions.
Let me first say I don’t see the point of the two stories, from 1 Kings and Luke, as being about a difference between the God portrayed in the Old Testament and the portrayal of God in the New Testament or a comparison between Jews and Christians. I don’t think that is what this story is about.
Let me give you a little context for 1 Kings. The final form of the Book of Kings came about during the exile of the Israelites in Babylon. I think that is really important to understanding its stories. In the time of exile, those who are exiled often become strict about their identity, fearing assimilation with their captors. It is important for maintaining culture, tradition and religion for those who are exiled to band together, to shun any move toward syncretism or pluralism. And so a militancy about behavior and belief, a sharp drawing of the boundaries, a precise understanding of who is good and who is evil often comes about.
Exile is an experience of enormous upheaval. And there are other circumstances of upheaval where people take a similar defensive and exclusive posture.
We see that in our Book of Confessions in the PC(USA). The statements of belief in that book from the time of the Reformation—statements we say we will be guided by—are replete with horrible words about Catholics and Jews; words most of us would never say today. But in a time of enormous upheaval as the Reformation was, it was important for the Protestants—those who were leaving what had been THE church—it was important for them to say “We are not THAT.” And we know that people were killed over the things they believed—or didn’t believe—during the Reformation. I’m not condoning any of it. I am saying it is a too often a consequence in times of stress and change. It’s kind of an adolescent developmental stage—coming into our own we often draw strict lines about what we’re not and will never be (although the truth is we’ll probably discover we’re a lot more of what we think we don’t ever want to be than we want to admit).
Look at what’s happening in Germany right now. Last year more than a million refugees and migrants arrived in Germany. Now, people in Germany are asking, “What is German—and how German do you have to be to belong to Germany?” And not surprisingly a very vocal answer is coming from Germany’s right-wing party that is advocating for a homogeneous, Christian and “pure” German culture that they experience to be under threat from immigrant cultures.
Or look at what’s happening in our own country with political talk of building a wall at our southern border to keep Mexicans out, deporting 11 million people who are undocumented and excluding Muslims from entering our country at all.
In the story from Luke’s gospel, a Roman centurion reaches out to Jesus on behalf of his slave who was ill and near death. The centurion—a commander of a division of the Roman army—is a Gentile but he appears to worship the God of Israel and obviously knows something about Jesus. He sends some of his Jewish friends to Jesus on his behalf to ask Jesus to heal his slave. Jesus is on his way to the centurion’s house when the Roman leader sends word, “You don’t need to come to my house. I’m not worthy of that. I know how my world works. I say the word and things happen. All you need to do is say the word and my servant will be healed.” And Jesus is amazed at the faith of the centurion. And when the people returned to the centurion’s house, the servant had been restored to good health.
The centurion doesn’t trust in the miracle working power of Jesus. He trusts in Jesus’ person and Jesus’ authority. Like Elijah, Jesus too is a prophet of Israel. The centurion recognizes the Divine power at work in Jesus. Jesus speaks and with his words he subdues death-dealing forces with the power of God’s word.
In this story it is a Roman centurion, one who is an enforcer of the oppressive and occupying Roman empire, who approaches Jesus. It is a Gentile, not a Jew, whose request for healing Jesus answers.
Occupation is a circumstance of upheaval and fear—a time when the boundaries can get drawn narrowly. Who can be included and who must be excluded. Who is right and who is wrong. Who is good and who is evil. In the ordinary course of things, it would not be unexpected for Jesus to have said, “I have only come for the house of Israel. I don’t go to the house of Roman centurions.” But he doesn’t. As the Roman centurion recognizes the person and power of Jesus, Jesus recognizes the person and faith of the Roman centurion.
“When the political rhetoric of [our] day is so charged with fear of those who are different—from a different country, professing a different faith, living in a different neighborhood, looking different from us, having different needs or hopes,” or being required to use a different restroom—here we have a story where Jesus is amazed at the faith of a person many might say he should shun.
David Lose, the president of Lutheran Theological Seminary reminds us that all through the bible there is a theological thread running through that says “God loves everyone. God works through everyone…And we may be surprised who God chooses, who God works through, and who God commends.”
Now that’s a fairly familiar liberal theological posture. But I think even we liberal Christians can be quick to draw the lines about who God is working through and whose faith is commended by God. We too can be threatened and fearful and allow that fear to take us to places where we draw the boundaries tightly. When the boundaries are determined about who’s right and who’s wrong, I wonder if we aren’t more likely to miss the presence of God because we think we know what to expect.
I’m not suggesting sloppy thinking or an everything goes mentality.
Think back in your own experience. I imagine there was a time when there was someone—or a community of someones—whose faith surprised you; whose witness opened your heart and mind to new possibilities. Maybe it was someone who was gay or transgender and Christian. Maybe it was a woman called to ministry in the church. Maybe it was a conservative Christian. Maybe a Buddhist from Vietnam or a Muslim from Iraq or a young African American man from West Louisville.
Where have you been surprised?
Perhaps, following the way of Jesus, we can continue to cultivate our ability to be amazed, to be impressed and awed by “whom God is using and [the people who are] similarly committed to sharing the good news of God’s love for all.”
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 Anna Sauerbrey, “What Is German?” The New York Times, May 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/27/opinion/what-is-german.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region®ion=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region, accessed 26 May 2016.
 Gregory Anderson Love, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word – Luke 7:1-10, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 94.
 http://www.davidlose.net/2016/05/pentecost-2-c-welcoming-difference/, accessed 28 May 2016.