A Time for Troubling: A Sermon for Charlottesville

The sermon from Sunday, August 13, 2017 on 1 Kings 19: 9-18 

The great priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan writes that 1 Kings (among other books in the Hebrew Bible) offers us “a diagnosis of the pathology of power.”

What then is the role of the prophet mired in the pathology of power, residing in a bloody land that worships idols?

Berrigan lifts up the idea that “Prophecy [is] speaking loud and clear, interpreting, warning and blessing, praising goodness and denouncing evil in high places and low.”  

The prophetic role is rare in the conflict-laden, harsh world of the books of Kings, this theological review of empire and its mistakes, written much later to explain the rise and the fall and the rise and the free-fall of Israelite faith and culture. In the passage we read to day, we walk straight into the work of the prophet Elijah. He has condemned the idol worship of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and those who follow them – and now they are coming after him.

It is no easy task to go against the grain of the culture. Prophets are summoned to speak into the hard spaces. Ahab calls Elijah “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah is indeed that, for the Israel of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel needed to be troubled. They broke the covenant established with God and served other gods and their own indulgences.

The Israel of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel needed to be troubled and Elijah was quite effective at the task.

America needs to be troubled. In 1967, one our of modern Elijahs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr described the problem of the United States as 3-fold – racism, militarism, and capitalism.  

To look at the events of this week is to see that this is still the case.

We glorify in our national swagger, substituting rash rhetoric for the hard and patient work of diplomacy and coexistence on the global stage. We adopt toxic masculinity as a foreign policy strategy. We revel in American exceptionalism, as if our lives matter more than the lives of others around the globe.

We’ve been doing it for centuries – this is not about any one leader or any one era of government – but  we see it with harsh, stark clarity right now.

Some people act like nuclear war and intervention in other countries is a game we’re entitled to play. We dedicate our spending and our brightest minds to developing the technologies of war rather than the methodologies of peace.

As for capitalism, well, we live in a system dedicated to adding to the wealth of the 1% by exploiting the earth to sell the lure of happiness to the rest of us.

I can tell you this for sure. When more than a 100 people – family and neighbors and friends – gathered from all over New York and all over the country this week to celebrate the life of my mother-in-law, they didn’t come because of how much cool stuff this 97-year-old, working class, immigrant Jewish woman had.

And that’s a good thing because most of the items in her apartment had been around for decades, simple, durable everyday items.

No, people came and told stories and shared plates of food and countless hugs because of who she was and what she meant to them. They came because of her enduring kindness, her commitment to showing up, her humor, and her practical wisdom. They came because of her hospitality and her generosity of spirit. They came because she loved them and she showed it.

They didn’t come because of her stuff.

We all need adequate shelter and nourishing food and decent medical care and enriching education and meaningful work and opportunities to grow and learn. We need healthy, sustaining relationships born of spiritual and emotional maturity – and we need to continually work on ourselves to reach that place of spiritual and emotional equilibrium. We wear our scars and hopefully learn from the things that put them there.

We don’t need to strip the heart of public service and public lands in the name of privatization and private enrichment. We don’t need every electronic gizmo, every trinket, every latest thing, every seductive experience of consumption.

But capitalism will tell you that you do. It will tell you that you need to worship the so-called free market; that unscrupulous economic power brokers are the heroes of our society; that the earth is ours to consume; that greed is good; and that the poor are poor because there’s something wrong with them – not because we have a system that is built at its very core on violently maintaining inequality among human beings and on the rape of the earth.

It cares nothing for your well-being – and it teaches you that the well-being of others comes at your expense. It lies about our fundamental interdependence as human beings and as a planet.

We worship the wrong gods. As Dr. King observes, modern society kneels at the altar of militarism and material accumulation and racism.

Let’s talk about the racism part for a moment –

The horrifying, revolting displays of white supremacy in Charlottesville Friday night and Saturday were certainly dramatic in their boldness.

Yet at heart they are nothing new. White supremacy and both systemic and individual racism are the founding cornerstones of this country. Let us not forget that it is a historical phenomenon, rooted from the earliest years of conquest and nation-building on the bloodied backs of native and African peoples and sustained through the centuries by dehumanization codified in law, policy, and culture.

But it is not only a historical relic. It is the reality of here and now. White supremacy comes not only with tiki torches and nazi salutes and ridiculous false claims about the persecution of whiteness.

White supremacy is enshrined every day in our systems of mass incarceration, voter suppression, environmental degradation, political gerrymandering, tax codes that overwhelmingly work to the advantage of the affluent, inadequate education, militarized policing, and stereotyped media images. I could keep going. Anyone want to add anything?

White supremacy is a sin against God, the God who made us all in God’s own image. Dehumanization, whether located in systems or in individual hearts, is sacrilege. It is wickedness. It is in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, that we are  to see the face of Jesus in the marginalized.

Because we are daily soaked in our culture’s white supremacy, we white folks must daily do the work of confronting it in ourselves and in those around us.  We must continually extract reinforced racism from our own souls and our own minds as well as in speaking back to it among our circles of family, friends, and acquaintances.

Does that sound like a lot of work? Well, people of color have to do the work of dealing with the brutal violence and the spirit corrosion of white supremacy ALL THE TIME. They don’t get to walk away from it – so, if we genuinely believe in the teachings of the Gospel and we genuinely care for our neighbor, we don’t get to walk away from it either.

That brings us back around to our passage from 1 Kings. Elijah’s trying to walk away from the work that God has called him to do. With echoes back to Moses and ahead to Jesus, he’s been wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and nights and now he’s taken refuge in a cave at Mount Horeb. He’s trying to hide out from his calling, but God finds him there.

Can you imagine Elijah standing there at the base of the mountain, standing through a wind so strong it split rocks and an earthquake and a fire? And then silence?

And Elijah hears God in the silence – and there is no mistaking that Elijah must do what he is called to do. There may be rest for the prophet. There may be wandering in the wilderness for the prophet.  But when the time comes, if you are listening, you have to show up. You have to confront the forces of idolatry, the forces of exploitation and dehumanization, those that worship power and privilege and money at the expense of the image of God we see in all who live and breathe and all that forms the earth.

We have work to do – and the call on us in this time is to set ourselves to dismantling all forms of oppression across difference, for these dishonor the image of God found in the face of our neighbor.

How do you do that work in your own life? How do you live in such a way that people will remember you for something besides cool toys? How do you show up for people who need you? How do you build community rather than undermine it? How do you hold your own self accountable and keep your focus on the work that needs to be done? How do you keep learning and growing?  

I began with some words by Father Daniel Berrigan and I’ll end with more – “Let a prayer arise out of the void opening by these pages: Grant us knowledge of our crimes. Help us take our true bearings in the world, to confess how rarely, in public life and private, in religion and statecraft, in temple and marketplace and home – how rarely authority is joined with virtue. Grant us knowledge of our plight, that we may cry out for relief, and be drawn forth.”



Image credit to Kelsey Weeks from a Birmingham anti-fascism rally organized in response to the incidents in Charlottesville. Rev. Jennifer Sanders was one of several speakers at the rally. 

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