A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost • May 29, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved
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Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me. [Exodus 20:2-3]
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. [Deuteronomy 6:5]
Together, these are the three great commandments for our relationship with God. Like a three way mirror, they show a full picture of a single, shining, absolute principle: that faithfulness consists in the authentic worship of the one God who is the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord! This is the question Elijah is asking in our reading today, this is the question God is asking every day: will you worship the Lord or go after other gods?
It’s summer: finally! Perhaps it seems like too nice a day to think in such cosmic terms, we want to kick back a bit, enjoy the late arriving warmth, say something nice about service members, sing some good songs and let it go with that. Why bring up something that seems so remote, so big and yet so theoretical? Perhaps because it is Memorial Day weekend: what is bigger than the long line of legions of those who gave up lives for the causes that underlay our way of life? What choices are we making that honor that choice? What choice can we make that makes a difference?
Elijah and Ba’alism
Elijah is a mysterious figure, called out by God for a unique role. Things have fallen apart; Elijah is the builder putting them back together. From Abraham to Solomon, the story of God’s people is a rising curve of grace punctuated with covenants in which God freely promises to be the God this people and inviting their faithfulness in return. Like a groom at a wedding, God has made a promise: the people, like a Bride, are asked to make it mutual. And they mostly do. Then something human happens, violent disagreement breaks up the Kingdom of David after his son and in the northern half, a series of kings rule who turn increasingly away from the Lord to the local gods, the Baals.
Baalism is an attractive religion because it promises a neat transaction resulting where you buy what you want. It’s rituals are fun: they involve wine and sex and a good time. It has a system too where you purchase a sort of charm, a little statue of Baal, and use it for what you want. If your north field just isn’t producing, you buy a Baal, bury it and the promise is that things will go well. If you can’t have a child, buy a Baal, put it under the bed. So it goes. It’s a popular religion; still is. Oh, did you think Baalism went away? Not at all: today we call it prosperity religion. It’s cash for service religion. I remember once watching a late night preacher explaining that if people would just send in a donation they would get back a prayer rug and a promise that God would give them 10 times what they donated. “So if you only need $1,000,” he said, “Only send in a hundred bucks; don’t send $500 unless you need $5,000.” The rugs were made in China, it was later revealed. That’s ok: I’m sure the Baals weren’t manufactured onsite.
Now Baalism had taken over Israel. King Ahab had married a young celebrity princess named Jezebel a while before and she was a big believer in Baal. So she had shrines set up, she encouraged Baal prophets, I’m sure there were hats that said “Be Bold With Baal” or something similar. Prosperity has its rewards—for those on top. Israel had been a community where most were more or less equal; now it separated into a small group of rich at the top and many more poor at the bottom. Jezebel and Ahab built a new palace: who do you think paid for it? And God saw it all, God I think must have grieved for it all. This was the promised land but oppressing the poor was not the promise.
So God does what God always does: sent a prophet, a man named Elijah. God did something else: at Elijah’s word, God stopped the careful ordering of nice days and rainy days; the rain stopped and there was drought. And so did the prosperity. Everyone agrees it’s time for a change; now Elijah presents the problem to the people: “”How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” [1 Kings 18:21]. No one says a word.
Making a Choice
What do you do when you offer the most important choice ever and no one speaks up? What Elijah does is propose a contest. He invites the 450 prophets of Baal to show what they can do so they build a nice pile of wood, add a side of beef as an offering and start calling on Baal to light the fire. All day they call; they dance, they sing, they holler, they limp around, as the text says. No fire; no nothing. More and more the point becomes clear: Baal is nothing. They cut themselves with swords; Baalism often involved blood sacrifice. Nothing happens. Finally, exhausted, they fall back. In the midst of a drought, Elijah makes a trench, prepares his sacrifice, sets up 12 stones to represent the tribes of Israel, and then stands back. I imagine everyone getting quiet; I imagine the Baal prophets rolling their eyes, snickering. Now Elijah offers a simple prayer; now the winds gather, the clouds darken and suddenly in a moment there is lightning, there is thunder, the sacrifice is consumed, the trench fills with water. The Lord is God; the one who separated the land and water, the Creator God, acts and restores the balance. Wow! The people cheer and choose God. It’s a great win for the home team.
But is it? The reading we heard leaves out the aftermath, perhaps because it’s not very pretty. Elijah has the Baal prophets arrested and he kills them in an act of violent vengeance; oppression stores up violence and now it bursts forth. Queen Jezebel, when she hears about it, promises to have Elijah killed; he ends up running for his life. It’s a lesson for all preachers who secretly wish we could call down such cataclysm: be careful what you wish. We’ll hear more about the aftermath another week but at the end, the drought ends and a battle is won, it’s clear the struggle to restore the worship of the one God is not over.
We can see the same thing in our own history. Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a time to decorate the graves of the thousands who died in the Civil War. It’s origin history is so various that it seems to have risen from a common desire to honor those who had given their lives. Now raising the Civil War still brings up controversy but what is clear from the diaries and documents of ordinary soldiers is that there was an animating ideal for which they fought: the end of slavery and the restoration of a democratic Republican often referred to as “the Union”. Many volunteered; many chose and their choice came from the preaching of churches like ours that led the way in changing the understanding of slavery, moving a nation to understand it as a sin instead of a particular kind of prosperity.
Memorial Day acquired a special significance again in the last century when a great struggle against authoritarianism led to wars that killed millions. It’s opening conflict was the Spanish Civil War, when Americans joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism; the last survivor died this past week. Most of us who are my generation had parents who joined this fight later and we were surrounded by its memories, from movies to parades. Fascism is a simple system that proposes we should let one great leader have power; it’s always backed by rich people who believe they are better, better able to make decisions because they are better at getting money. It’s a political form of Baalism and it always leads to oppression that has to be supported by violence.
Baalism, fascism: they’re attractive. They promise we can get ahead; they promise to make us great or great again. God offers a different vision, not our greatness, but the greatness of God. God invites us to choose but to choose up: that is to say, to choose a higher value, a greater vision, than our own prosperity: to choose the greatness of God instead of making ourselves great. We all hear the invitation to make our own previous prosperity the goal of our choices: Memorial Day challenges us to choose up and choose a finer, better vision, of justice for all. We all hear the invitation to make ourselves bigger, better; Elijah and this story challenge us to choose up and choose the Lord.