A Sermon based on 1 Kings 19:1-19
Preached Sunday, October 15, 2017
Context: It was one week after the fires in Santa Rosa and the Wine Country and 10 days after the congregation received letters from me and from the Session of the church that explained about dissolving the pastoral relationship between us. The focus for 10/15, 10/22 and 10/29 was chosen in July and intended to focus on the Women of the Reformation.
When an earthquake, or a tornado or a hurricane or a fire or a devastating illness, or a traumatic event leaves a wake of devastation in a community, we are astounded. We feel at a loss as to how such an event should be reconciled with our basic understandings of the world around us. How can such a thing happen? Where was God when all this was going on? What are we supposed to think about all this?
Some of us might come from the: ”It was just one of those things” place. How many times have we said these words. As much as we might feel this, this doesn’t offer us much in the way of how to address the suffering we see, the shattered hopes and dreams that come in the wake of natural disasters.
We want to assign responsibility for these kinds of things to someone… to something and we look for answers. The worst possible interpretations lead people to claim that the faith of Christians and the power of THEIR prayer prevented the effects of the disaster from being worse. We’ve all heard the implications that tragedies fall on us because some sinners refused to repent, casting God in the role of Vengeful Punisher. Never mind that observable data shows that both the just and the unjust are suffering.
At the heart of this is the assumption that human beings are in harmony with creation. We assume that nature is basically friendly toward us, that our bodies are meant to last forever, that mental illness isn’t real.
Human ingenuity, and the pride that goes along with it, helps us believe we’ve got everything under control. Think about it – irrigation overcomes the semi-desert in places like the Central Valley and the Wine Country. Dark nights have been overcome by dams that harness the power of rivers and turn it into electricity for our homes. We’ve been able to heat our homes and move from place to place just by extracting fossil fuels from below the surface of the earth. Even at the atomic level, humans have been able to dominate nature and use those atoms to see inside our bodies in order to diagnose and attack diseases and repair broken bones.
The way we deal with disasters in nature and tragedies in our communities seems to be oriented around getting back to “normal” as quickly as possible. In the North Bay, people are already turning conversations toward getting their electricity back, rebuilding homes, planting new vines. Redemption and renewal mean putting a fresh face on properties. “Normal,” for them, means bringing the world back to the way it was prior to Monday, October 9, 2017.
Yet scripture seems to indicate something quite different. Even a cursory glance at the prophets reveals a yearning for a different kind of redemption – for the repair of creation. Paul’s letter to the Romans picks up that same yearning as he notes that all creation is groaning with labor pains. Images of streams in the desert, of fruit-filled vineyards, of babies playing with poisonous snakes and of lions, wolves and lambs eating and sleeping together not only point up the hope that even nature can be improved, but also serve as a reminder to us that all is not well in the world – that the way things are is not really what God intended for creation. The world we find ourselves in is not what God wants for the people of God.
Yet all of this seems beside the point because what we want to know is: WHERE IS GOD? Why did God permit this to happen? How could the devastating loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and housing be part of God’s plan? Somehow, it seems ridiculously insufficient to say that even though God loves us, God’s plan could include the destruction of some and the salvation of others in a seemingly random fashion for which only God can see the purpose.
I wonder if Marie Dentiere, a brilliant woman in Calvin’s Geneva, ever felt the same. She spent much of her life to make her voice and the voices of other women to be heard on equal terms as her male counterparts as the church was reforming in the 16th century. When she first came forward, she moved down the only path available for female theologians in her day – she entered the convent. But love brought her out of the convent, into marriage. And passion for study and commitment to reformation values brought her out of the house and into the world of changing the church. In that work, She soon found that she had to battle not only the men in the community of theologians, but that she faced reprisals from other women as well.
Preaching in her community, she said: Did Jesus only say, “Go preach my Gospel to wise lords and grand doctors?” Did he not say, “to all?” Do we have two gospels, one for men and the other for women? …Did Jesus only say, “Go preach my Gospel to wise lords and grand doctors?” Did he not say, “to all?” Do we have two gospels, one for men and the other for women? …
Reformation theologian Kirsi Stjerna notes that: As a woman, she was criticized for achievements and fortitude for which a man would have been praised. Many believe that because she fought so valiantly, and was visibly in opposition to the many oppressive ways patriarchy functioned in the newly emerging church, much of what she wrote is lost to us today.
In many ways, Marie was like Elijah. He, too, struggled to be heard as he served the court which required sycophantic, cult-like allegiance to Ahab and Jezebel. It’s not surprising that Elijah was fed up and burned out. His struggle was real and his only wish was to get off front lines of prophetic witness and find renewal and safety outside the spotlight. Elijah was tired of being God’s fool – jumping when God said: “Jump.” He was tired of putting himself in harm’s way just so God’s message could get to the people who needed to hear it. Elijah just wanted things to get back to normal – back to what it was like BEFORE God’s call was placed on his shoulders.
When he reached the breaking point, he simply went into hiding. He took naps, ate and drank what the angels provided for him– basically did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to do it. And the world – under the corrupt leadership of Jezebel and Ahab was left to go to hell in a handbasket. But because God needed Elijah whole and wholly renewed, God waited for the right moment to speak – for the right moment to inspire and motivate Elijah to get back into the prophetic work for which he had been commissioned. And while Elijah rested and God waited – a great wind came – so strong that it split the mountainsides, breaking rocks into pieces. But the Lord was not in the wind. Elijah continued to rest and God continued to wait and an earthquake came. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. Elijah continued to rest and God continued to wait and a great fire came and burned the hillsides. But the Lord was not in the fire.
Well, if God was not in the fire, if God was not in the earthquake, if God was not in the wind, where in that hellish mess was God?
In the aftermath.
God appeared in the wake of nature’s destruction and asked one simple question: What in the world are you doing here, Elijah? You are supposed to be out there in Damascus calling attention to corruption. You are supposed to be bringing people to repentance. You are supposed to be challenging the status quo, moving people out of their complacency, motivating my people to return to me. What are you doing here?
That question echoes through the centuries and resounds in this room, this very day. God is not in the winds of worry that threaten to overwhelm us. God is not in the earth-quaking changes that sometimes bring devastation into our lives. God is not in the fire: not in those that burn across our region and not in those that leave behind scorched earth in our hearts.
Marie Dentiere said it so well: “… it is always God’s work to show His virtue and power in things considered hopeless by men, so that that honor and glory is provided by Him for all, although it belongs to Him. For He has no regard for the number or force of His adversaries, but only for the faith and confidence that one has in Him.”
Though we may feel like we’ve been through too much, seen too much, felt far too much, God is certainly here now, asking us what he asked Elijah: What are you doing HERE? Why are you hiding out HERE? God is not in the winds that seem to be blowing through this place, but God is with us, challenging us to forget about getting back to the way things are “supposed to be” and calling us to grasp what God means for us to do and be. God is not in the earthquake, but God is with us before, during and after every upheaval, offering mercy and confronting us with the task of turning toward the purposes that God has outlined for us since day one. God is not in the fire, but God is even now bringing us the balm of hope and a vision for renewal.