Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Dry Season (7/20/14)

In Dry Season
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 20, 2014

The Weariness of the Prophet Elijah
Anna Kamienska

You understand such immense weariness
when one only whispers
release your servant now
deliver me from the scraps of hunger and thirst
called life
I don’t need more than
the shade of a broom-tree to rest my head
a shawl of darkness for my eyes
call back the angel
who hastens with bread and a jar of water
Send me a long purifying sleep
Lift my loneliness above its burden
above every bereavement
You know the weariness of your prophets
You wake them with a jolt of new pain
to place a new desert beneath their feet
to give them a new mouth a new voice
and a new name.

1 Kings 17:16
Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, ‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’ The word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go from here and turn eastwards, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.’ As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’ Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

During the summer, the worship theme has to do with eating.   We are listening to biblical stories that feature in some form or another, a meal.   Today’s meal provides an introduction to the prophetic tradition and specifically, the figure of Elijah. 

Elijah’s story in the Old Testament is brief, from 1 Kings chapter 17 to 2 Kings chapter 2.   He appears again in the gospels. I will get to that in a minute.    He has a role in the Passover Seder.  The fifth cup is “the cup of Elijah.”   It is a silent cup.  No words are spoken over it.   The children open the door for Elijah to enter and join the seder.  The meaning of Elijah’s cup is open for interpretation.   

Elijah is a legendary figure.  There is no history about him.  All of the stories about him are fanciful stories.    He appears on the scene in chapter 17 of 1 Kings.    The setting is evil King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel who have set up altars to Baal.   Here is how the text puts it:

Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.

The Lord does not like Baal.  Too much competition.   What does the Lord do when there are evil kings running amok worshiping Baal?   You raise up a prophet to set them straight.   Thus Elijah symbolizes the entire prophetic tradition over against the royal tradition.  If you have a king, you need someone to speak the word of the Lord to the king.   

One of the important roles of religious communities is to be a voice of conscience to governing authorities.  Think of Martin Luther King vs. Bull Connor.    Think of Bishop Desmond Tutu speaking against oppression and apartheid and still doing it.     Think of the people, the prophets, who have raised our consciousness, calling us in the words of Martin Luther King, to “live out the meaning of our creed.”

It is serious work.  It is important work.  It is often unpopular work.   Prophets are not only from religious institutions.  In fact, they often arise outside of the guild.  We can think of secular prophets, singers, poets, activists who while not religious still have that prophetic role of calling us to hear truth.    One of my favorites was folk singer Phil Ochs.    Here is a verse from his song, “When I’m Gone”:

And I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone
And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone
Can't live proud enough to die when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

The prophet laughs at the lies, anything to wake us up.  That is his or her job.   Somebody has to do it.  In the midst of well-funded propaganda machines that try to convince us that endless war and torture are moral, tell the truth.   Tell the truth.  Expose the lies.   

Religion?  Prophets do not give religion a pass.  The prophet speaks against religious institutions and its clerics for being sniveling sycophants and for misusing authority by forcing oppressive doctrines and foisting superstition on to people.    

That is who Jesus was.  That is who Mohammad was.  They were prophets of social justice.   Both got their mojo, their prophetic spirit, from Elijah.  

The irony is that the stories about Elijah are fantastic, cartoonish really.    They are obviously fictional tales and comical as well.   We need to take them in that spirit of a superhero story or a Harry Potter tale.    

We have evil King Ahab and his evil Queen Jezebel.    In one sentence we are introduced to Elijah who says to Ahab: 

‘As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.’

Prophets can control the weather.  Remember in the gospels when Jesus calmed the storm?    Many of those fictional stories about Jesus are retellings of the fictional stories about Elijah and Elisha, the prophet who followed Elijah.   You’ll notice a few more as we go ahead.   So you know we are in the world of fantasy and fable.  

Immediately, Elijah has to get out of town.  Ahab is not going to like that news of drought.  So the Lord tells Elijah to go east of the Jordan River in the desert near a stream.   Elijah is fed there by ravens.  The ravens brought him bread and meat.  There is our famous meal.    You know that has to be tasty, eating what ravens might find for you.   Google search what ravens eat.  Here is a little bit of badger carcass.  A road kill omelet.  

That is the role of the prophet.  You are compelled to tell the truth.  Those who do not want to hear it will try to silence you.   There are many creative ways to do that, mock you, smear you, discredit you, threaten you, and when all fails, kill you.   Thus your life will not be pleasant.  But, provision will be made for you, even if it is raven food. You must listen, be patient, and trust.   Nobody wants to do that.   But, that is the way it works.  

The stream dries up.  Elijah is told to go to Sidon to meet a widow.   The Lord tells Elijah that the widow will feed him.    The prophet can have no pride.  He has to live by the kindness of strangers, even impoverished widows.    He finds the widow and she and her son are down to their last meal.   Elijah tells her to fix up a little something for him first.   Really?  The point of the tale is that hospitality and trust will be rewarded.  He tells her that the jar of meal and jug of oil will not empty.   

She does it and Elijah was right.  The meal and oil did not run out.   In the Gospel of Luke, there is a legend about Jesus preaching on this story.   For Luke, the point is that the prophet Elijah was sent to the foreigner.  Of course Luke’s larger task is to showcase Jesus as one whose mission was to the outsiders.  The prophet is not welcome in his home town.      

The widow’s son dies.  She complains to Elijah.  Elijah complains to the Lord.  He stretches himself over the child’s body and the Lord raises the child from the dead.  We know that story from the gospels.  Jesus raises a widow’s son from the dead in Luke chapter 7.   That isn’t the only time.  He raises the Roman soldier’s daughter and in John, he raises Lazarus.    Jesus is like Elijah.  

After the drought has gone on for three years, The Lord tells Elijah to tell Ahab that the drought will end and to bring all the prophets of Baal out for a contest.   The contest will decide which god is the real thing.   They set up two altars and whatever god can bring down fire from heaven is the winner.  The prophets of Baal can’t do it.   Elijah laughs at them.   “Is Baal taking a nap?  Is he relieving himself?  Out for lunch?”  Then Elijah sets up his altar and drenches it with water.  He asks the Lord to send down fire and fire consumes everything and everyone is amazed that the Lord really is the god.    While folks are a bit stunned, Elijah has the 450 prophets of Baal rounded up and Elijah personally executes all of them.  

So what is the spiritual value of this story?      Sometimes Bible stories offend our sensibilities.  We are not wrong for being offended.  That is a bad story.  It has fostered millennia of “my god is better than your god” nonsense.   What I find amusing is when theologians and pious biblical scholars try to justify this story in some way.    1 Kings is written from the standpoint of a theocracy.   A theocracy is a bad idea.   It is a relic of a superstitious past that we would do well to replace.

While there are aspects of the stories of Elijah that I like, such as the prophet speaking truth to power, there are equally bad stories in which that prophetic spirit is warped, superstitious, and dangerous.  You hear this from the religious zealots of our time, using a text like this to justify discrimination against people who don’t believe in their god.  

Then again, it is just a silly story.   Perhaps it is best read as such.

After this, Elijah tells Ahab, “Hey, rain’s coming!”   Ahab gets in his chariot and heads to Jezreel to beat the rain.  Elijah lifts up his robe and outruns the chariot.  Elijah is the man. 

Meanwhile, Ahab tells Jezebel that Elijah killed all of her prophets.  So she says that she will kill Elijah.  Elijah flees for his life.   He goes into the wilderness, lays under a broom tree and falls asleep.  An angel of the Lord wakes him up three different times and feeds him.    With the strength of this food he journeys through the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights back to the mountain where Moses received the ten commandments.    From this we have the story of Jesus in the wilderness 40 days and nights. 

Elijah is depressed.  He says to the Lord:

‘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.’

While Elijah is on the mountain the word of the Lord comes to him not in the earthquake, wind, or fire, but in a sheer silence.   The voice tells him to go down and to anoint some new kings and to put his prophetic mantle on Elisha.     He finds Elisha who is plowing the field.  He tells Elisha to follow him, and Elisha balks saying he needs to take care of his father and mother first, but Elijah is not amused.    We find versions of that story in the gospels where Jesus is reported to have said to those who have to take care of business first, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  

Ahab and Jezebel were bad, according to the writer of Kings because they worshiped Baal.   But they are bad also because Ahab with Jezebel’s urging killed a man named Naboth because Ahab wanted his vineyard.   The Lord tells Elijah to pronounce judgment on Ahab and Jezebel, which he does.    This is the tradition of the prophet of social justice.    You find this in the stories of Jesus. 

It is likely that the historical Jesus had a passion for social justice.   The writers of the gospels emphasized that by creating stories about Jesus that came from the Elijah and Elisha tales.   The ancients told stories in this way by showering people with myth and legend to illustrate their character.

At another point Elijah calls down fire from heaven on an enemy king’s captain and his fifty men.  Elijah does this three different times.   Elijah has killed about 600 people by now.   In the gospels, James and John ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven and wipe out some bad guys.    Jesus declines.  That theme is from Elijah.   Jesus is the new Elijah.   Unlike Elijah, Jesus is a bit more tempered.

Elijah doesn’t die.  He and Enoch are the only characters in the Bible that do not die.  They are taken up to heaven, Elijah is taken up in a chariot before Elisha’s eyes.  That is where we get the spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  

In the book of Malachi, which in the Christian re-ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures comes at the very end, we find this sentence:

 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  Malachi 4:5

Elijah becomes a messianic figure.   The gospels have John the Baptist be this new Elijah.   John the Baptist is also a strange wild character in the desert eating grasshoppers.  The gospel writers creatively mix and match theology and legends associated with Elijah and apply them to John the Baptist and to Jesus.    

There is a story in the gospels where Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John on a mountain.  Appearing with Jesus are Moses and Elijah, the law and prophets.   The gospel writer is telling us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. 

Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, does miracles too.  He helps a woman have enough oil.  He tells her to find every empty jar she has and they magically fill up with oil.    It reminds us of Jesus turning water to wine. 

Elisha feeds 100 men with a few loaves of barley and grain and there is food left over.  We know that story in the gospels.  Jesus feeds 5000 and has food left over.  Jesus embodies the prophet’s magic and even more so.     All these stories are creative fictions, of course. 

I often wonder how to read the stories of the Bible.  What is the most profitable way to read these stories so that they might inform or even inspire?     I find that many stories of the Bible are weird and not helpful.   I think it is important to be honest about that.   

Many of them are rather silly.  Others are written from a point of view that no rational person who cares about right and wrong would share.   They contain views of God that are primitive and tribal.    Their understanding of the world is pre-scientific and thus limited.   They are the stories of our pre-modern ancestors.  

At the same time, I do see a thread that winds its way through the Hebrew and Christian Bible that is worthy to follow.   There is a thread in the narratives and within the grand narrative that lifts up the outsider, the minority, and the oppressed, over against the insider, the majority, and the powerful.     You find this even in the Elijah and Elisha tales that were inspiration for the Jesus tales. 

What I take from it and from them is not that these guys were so great, they likely didn’t even exist, but their spirit of standing up to the powers is something worthy to emulate.     How do you do that?   How do you stand up and speak your truth when the opposition is so overwhelming?    How do you keep your truth in perspective so you don’t become self-righteous about it?    How do you keep at it for the long haul?

There is a courage in these stories and a trust and a hope that I would like to have more.    I know these stories are all creative fictions, but somebody told them for a reason.  

Elijah speaking clearly the word of the Lord, a word of justice and truth to Ahab and Jezebel, knowing what they will do to him for doing it, eating who knows what delivered by ravens, living in the desert, following day to day the crazy whims of the Lord, calling down fire from heaven, girding up his loins and out running chariots, being carried into the heavens by a chariot, yes, it is all in the realm of myth and legend.   

Just maybe these wild tales are intended to inspire you and me. 
Perhaps it is inspiration not to take ourselves too seriously and to be
maybe a bit more brave than we care to be,
a bit more trusting in the mystery of things than we usually are,
a bit more willing to be hopeful that our dry deserts will receive the rain they need in due time,
and to trust
that as much as the universe doesn’t work toward our liking,
nevertheless it is pretty amazing to be alive
and while we can’t singlehandedly solve the world’s problems,
we can speak our small truth that comes to us in the sheer silence,
and we can with compassion care for the widows and their sons.
And for the few days we have on planet Earth,
maybe even we can work a miracle once in a while.

With the words of Phil Ochs, I’ll close:

Won't see the golden of the sun when I'm gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I'm gone
Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here


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