Inger B. Hanson
Year A / Pentecost 10
Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY
August 13, 2017
On 1 Kings 19:9-18 Lessons on Lamentation & Mission from Elijah
I’m no Elijah.
I officiate at weddings rather than great miracles;
I have not stood before the political leaders of our nation and taken them to task.
And much as I enjoy action movies,
I do not kill the false pastors.
Yet, in my own way, in my own time,
I strive to be zealous for the Lord, the God hosts.
You too, in your own ways, strive to remember God’s new covenant with us,
to live in joyful response to Christ’s work.
But this week, Elijah’s complaint resonates.
“They are seeking my life, to take it away.”
The life where the horrors of nuclear weapons were a history lesson rather than a present fear.
The life where racism still existed to be dismantled
but white supremacy would never be paraded, blatant and unmasked.
And yet even to use these words of life being taken away metaphorically is a privilege,
because for our siblings in Christ who are people of color, “seeking my life, to take it away”
is far more literal.
Our siblings tell us that they struggling to breathe,
that those that are sworn to protect them are sometimes threats,
and that our justice systems often fails them.
How did we get here?
How did Elijah get here?
Actually, before this moment in our first reading,
Elijah almost didn’t make it to Mount Horeb.
After outdoing the prophets of Baal, and then killing them,
Queen Jezebel has sworn her revenge on him.
He might have been the victor of that battle,
but now Elijah is on the run.
He even prays, just a few verses before our passage today:
“It is enough;
now, O Lord, take away my life,
for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Elijah laments his ineffectiveness in leading the Israelites,
in changing their ways.
It’s a lament we could sing too.
I like to point to the “theys” taking away my securities and the life I have known,
but there’s an “I” component too.
I am no better than my ancestors.
I’ve been inculcated into the idea of progress,
that we’ve been improving, slowly but surely, from ages past.
But when I read the headlines of the last week,
it’s like I’m in my history books, not 2017.
Even if I’m not comparing myself to Elijah or the other great prophets,
these words resonate with how I feel as a white American.
When I first began learning about systemic racism,
I used to want to clarify my Swedish-German ancestory:
“my grandparents weren’t involved with slavery!”
I used to wonder if I would always be apologizing for the sins of other people past
who happened to share my skin color.
This week I’m realizing again how naïve I was and have been.
These are the sins of August 11, 2017 in the United States of America, of which I am a citizen.
Forget progress. This week shows us that we are no better than
the generations that came before.
And even when I’ve been willing to engage, I tire quickly.
I’m not alone – we have terms like “terror fatigue” and “activist burnout,” –
and even without the fancy names
most of my friends and acquaintances talk about times
where we redirect the conversation rather than engage a racial slur,
or tune out from what’s happening in the world.
I find it comforting that even Elijah got fatigued.
Elijah only finally makes it to Mount Horeb for the encounter we read about today
because God sends an angel to tend him and equip him for a forty day journey.
Sometimes we do need a break,
to be fed so that this journey doesn’t overwhelm us.
So Elijah finds himself retracing the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings in reverse,
and eventually arrives at the mount of God.
Surely here, more than with just an angel’s attendance (though that seems pretty nice),
Elijah will bring his fatigue and frustration to God, and be answered.
“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.”
Here in 2017, no matter our zeal,
no matter what we had thought or hoped we had accomplished,
we have fellow citizens, some who call themselves Christians,
who have forsaken the covenant – to love God and to love neighbor.
Images surfacing from Charlottesville show white nationalists with assault rifles
facing off with clergy counter-protestors from all denominations. And there have been deaths.
In Elijah’s story, what happens next is what we usually focus on.
God passes by: not in the great wind so strong that it split mountains;
not in the earthquake; not in the fire; but in the sound of sheer silence.
The traditional renderings describe a “still small voice.”
There is something about Elijah not being alone:
that God is present in the opposite of the grandiose.
I remember preachers urging me to listen for that voice,
and I still find it comforting to remember that God shows up in the ordinary.
I think about how God is present to us in prayer,
in the sacraments, or in worship.
But on this reading something else struck me.
Elijah might be more ordinary than I thought.
Because however we love verses 11 through 13 and assign them great import,
verse 10 and verse 14 are identical.
For Elijah, the storm and the silence make no impression.
While some readers like to imagine different intonations,
it’s important that his lament, his fatigue and frustration,
“I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
Today we will pray. We will share communion.
We will worship together.
But Elijah demonstrates that our faith is not a quick fix.
The God we witness to does not erase or ignore the realities of our world on mountain tops.
God is present on those mountain tops, and here in this sanctuary,
but God isn’t done yet either.
God doesn’t get mad at Elijah, like,
“hello, didn’t you notice me in the still small voice here?”
Rather, God continues the conversation.
I’m not sure Elijah loved the answer.
God both promises Elijah more, but expects more of him, too.
“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…”
However tender the angel, however much Elijah needed this retreat,
it’s not an indefinite escape.
God is sending Elijah back into the fray.
And yet there is promise in the tasks God gives him:
God will answer the loneliness he’s experienced in his call
with new kings and even better, a successor.
Further, there will be justice: Elijah’s enemies will be killed.
What does that mean for us in our story?
While I would argue Christian testimony ultimately arcs away from violence,
I think we can learn a lot about our God from Elijah.
Even when we are still tired, even when we feel unchanged by prayer, sacrament, or worship,
we are sent back into the fray.
We are called to more. And God promises more.
God will answer the futility we feel. And God will be just.
In Romans, Paul asks, “how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?
And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim unless they are sent?”
Dear church, in these troubled times, we don’t need to be Elijahs.
But we need to be Christians.
Learning from Elijah’s example of both lament and mission,
we are sent into our community and country.
Let us be clear about who we proclaim and the God we witness to.
Our God may be present in silence, but our God answers injustice.
Our God is love, and does not accept hate.
And when we anoint people with this good news,
God will meet us in our work, and continue the conversation.
I can only imagine the hard work of being a pastor in the South,
of how at times it must feel futile and lonely.
And yet, the Charlottesville clergy found each other,
forming a collective to respond to the rising evil of our times,
refusing to let that evil and hatred go unchallenged.
In the face of torches, they sing “This Little Light of Mine.”
Whatever we feel or don’t feel in our prayer or in the silences of our worship,
let us remember that God isn’t done at the end of the service.
God asks more, and God promises more.
Let us shine too.