I Kings 18:20-39; Luke 7:1-10
Many of you may remember the book that M. Scott Peck wrote several decades ago, entitled The Road Less Traveled. The opening words were, “Life is difficult.” If I were writing a book my opening words might be, “Life is complicated.” I get a lot of my news from NPR’s All Things Considered. Have you ever reflected on how complicated life gets when you take everything into consideration? The other day I was listening to a report on President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. As the first US President to visit since the nuclear bomb, and with the opposition party ready to pounce on any kind of apology coming from the President, Obama’s visit to Hiroshima was complicated, to say the least.
In my ministry I often feel how complicated peoples’ lives are. They have to make choices between two bad options. Do I stay in this job even though my employer is so mean that my stress level is affecting my health? Or do I quit and hope to find another job, even though I don’t have papers? Do I let my son stay in jail for getting caught tagging again? Or do I bail him out one more time, knowing that it might teach him the wrong lesson? Do I hold my sister accountable for getting addicted to pain medication? Or do I just try to help her, because the pharmaceutical companies are to blame for pushing their drugs on people?
And where is God in all of these options? If God has power, what keeps God from exercising that power for good? When Elijah squared off with King Ahab, it was to answer that same question. The people of Israel had gathered. Elijah asked them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow Yahweh; but if Baal, then follow Baal.” Elijah wasn’t just another Middle Eastern religious fanatic ready to call down fire on believers of any other god but his. He was responding to a social, political and economic reality that was being legitimized by a religious structure that blinded people to injustice.
Elijah lived at a time when the Phoenician aristocracy enriched itself off the produce of the land at the expense of Israel’s peasantry. They imitated the cultural and religious practices of Phoenicia, including worshipping Baal. Elijah’s struggle to build faithfulness to Yahweh was a way to strengthen oppressed people against powerful foreign predators. He didn’t attack them directly because he didn’t have that kind of power and knew they weren’t the real problem. The real problem was what the Bible calls Principalities and Powers: the institutions, social structures and systems that ley behind the apparent problems. For example, the U.S. obviously has an immigration problem, with some wanting to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Behind that problem is a history of a country built on the massacre of native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans brought from another continent. The Principalities and Powers have their own spirituality. They are the voices that say we should not confess our sins as a nation because they are in the past and we have overcome them. Those voices are behind our problematic practices and policies. They require a different kind of battles and power.
Elijah didn’t have much political power. Oh, he had announced a drought 3 years earlier, which had in fact occurred. And it got Ahab’s attention. But Ahab still had political power and Elijah was just a fugitive. As he faced the 950 prophets of Baal, he stood alone. Just like the peasants he was fighting for, he was weak and lonely. But he spoke and prayed with courage, because he knew – or at least hoped – that God would not abandon justice, or the people who suffer injustice if someone would stand up to it. So he risked everything & God responded.
Friends, there are different gods vying for power in the world today. It may seem antiquated in our day to assert that the battles going on in the world are between different gods. Some fundamentalists assert precisely that. But many thoughtful social analysts realize that many of the world’s problems still result from a battle of myths. Just as Yahweh and Baal represented the powers behind alternative worldviews and not just rival religions, so today the battle of myths is between worldviews of inclusion vs exclusion, compassion vs competition, equality vs superiority. Do we make laws to keep certain kinds of people out, or do we create laws to make sure society doesn’t discriminate against the same people? That is a major question in this year’s elections. The people of North Carolina have been dealing directly with that battle in their decisions over bathroom use for transgender people. Does God legitimate an unjust social order, or does God refuse to tolerate injustice? Is it good for a presidential candidate to “rattle” world leaders as that candidate affirms, or does that signify a problem, as the President indicated?
I want to proclaim boldly this morning that it matters which God we believe in! It's not enough to say “the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We must say like the prophets, “The God who cares for widows and orphans,” “The God who is both my God and my enemy’s God.” If your god supports a system that hurts people, I must be against that god. But I affirm that the true God, by whatever name, is both your God and my God. You may call God Allah or Yahweh or Jesus. The real question is whether your god is on the side of inclusion, compassion and equality, & above all the petty matters that divide us.
If you and I both believe in that God, then we can pray together to change things that are bringing death rather than life. Whatever we call God, to believe things can change is to believe in prayer. But it’s important to realize that God isn't almighty without us. When the powers that oppose life are winning, God’s omnipotence is not always evident. To pray at those moments is to believe that prayer changes things, that there are forces that block God’s acting in history to bring about the purposes of life, and that God needs our help.
The Nazi death camps were the places where God’s apparent absence or impotence became emblazoned on the twentieth century human heart. The intercessors were storming heaven with their supplications for deliverance. So why didn’t God succeed in saving more Jews? Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew, anticipating her deportation to a work camp that proved to be a death chamber, prayed about that: I shall try to help you, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help us. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of you in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us but we must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.
We often say we don't have enough faith when our prayers aren't answered. Maybe we would be more empowered to pray like Elijah and Etty if we realize that the Principalities and Powers can assert their will against the will of God, and for a time, prevail. God can be temporarily limited by the freedom of institutions and systems, just as God’s capacity to heal is hindered if we rub infectious germs into a wound. When we pray in those situations, we are rattling God’s cage, waking God up, setting God free, giving this famished God water and this starved God food, cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet, washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life, vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. What do you think would happen if we were to pray like that?