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Bonfire of the Deities

A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Second Sunday of Pentecost

I Kings 18:20-21 (22-29) 30-39

June 2, 2013

Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

In matters of history, knowing who’s telling the story is everything. Winston Churchill said it plainly, “History is written by the victors,” meaning it’s the people in power who dominate how the story is told. Those who have no voice have no one to tell their story. No matter who tells it, there’s always the story, then there’s the story behind the story. In narrative language, there’s the dominant story, but it’s the minority stories that are typically left out in the dominant story.

In narrative therapy, it’s recognized that stories are usually crafted out of “a thin slice” of the facts of what actually happened. Thin stories tell one version, but obviously in every event in life, there are other stories that are unrecognized or neglected.

Thin stories can be thickened whenever we acknowledge that there’s more to this story and give attention to exploring the other existing stories. In fact, narrative therapists envision the neglected data of the story that has fallen on the cutting room floor. Those bits and pieces are important, maybe vital, to having a more honest, well-rounded story.

How about this example? In Columbia, South Carolina, Mary Chestnut’s diary of March, 1865, included this entry:  “Sherman marched off in solid column, leaving not so much as a blade of grass behind. A howling wilderness, land laid waste, dust and ashes.” Her despairing comments record the devastation to the Old South whose glory had been built upon the old plantation system where African slaves tended massive acres of economically viable crops thus creating ostentatious wealth for their masters. That’s the dominant story, but there’s another, equally important story that should be told and appreciated as an equally vital part of the history.

Thus, it was no small matter that Mrs. Chestnut failed to mention was that while Sherman had destroyed the plantations, the slaves were dancing in the streets.

In Elijah we have Israel’s greatest prophet; in fact, he’s a powerful figure for all three Abrahamic faiths (viz., Jews, Christians, and Muslims). Admittedly some Hebrew prophets are curiously lifeless, more like cut-out figures. But in Elijah “we are confronted with a clearly drawn historical figure.”[1]

Elijah’s prophetic spirit burned fiercely and he was powerful because he was a barking dog nipping at the heels of the King’s conscience. German novelist Gunter Gräss once said, “A citizen’s job is to keep his mouth open,” and Elijah could not help but speak out. He epitomized a prophet’s life because he saw life so clearly and he couldn’t keep from saying that which needed to be said. The narrative tension in the Book of the Kings is between the royals and the prophetic troublemakers who rail against them.

But this story continues to be problematic for us and Elijah continues to hound us even today. It’s vexing because it combines two problems that seem to be common in other religions besides our own:  Religious pluralism (endless comparisons, such as, “My God is better than your God”) and sacred violence (producing anxiety so fevered it suggests, “I’ll slaughter you if you disagree”).

What’s typically left out is the story’s end. It’s a tragic ending as it turned bloodthirsty when the 450 prophets of Baal were rounded up and taken down to the wadi where they were butchered. It was the ultimate show of strength with the winner taking all, and one might accept that if the winds of war had perchance blown the other direction and the prophets of Baal had prevailed Elijah would have instead been slaughtered. This is a victor’s story (don’t you know?), and the losers are annihilated (today such atrocities would be called war crimes).

This text of terror[2] can’t be the final answer from God about how to relate to those of other faiths. Surely we can just say this is something done in an ancient, primitive faith, can’t we? There’s a helpful story that surfaces in the gospels of that day when Jesus presented the people a choice: “Follow me. Choose this Way of living.” And when most refused, the disciples flashed their anger by asking, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven?” recalling how it worked so well with Elijah, and Jesus answered simply, “No.”

Is that what this story is about? Or is there some other meaning we should look for?

Rather than getting distracted by the flash of fire and lightning, we’re told what the point of the story is in this wonderful question, “How long will you go limping along with two different opinions?” The war between the gods is Elijah’s way of raising the larger issue of fidelity to YHWH and so a life or death drama is played out on the airy heights of Mt. Carmel “in front of God and everyone,” we might say. It’s directed squarely to the people of Israel who could not keep their fidelity to God.

This ancient question could be raised with us, those of us who want to have it both ways. Our indecision is shown whenever we try to live the faith but can’t distinguish how we’re caught in two worlds, unable to take a stand for God, for what’s right, and to live what Friederich Nietschze claimed: “(to live) a long obedience in the same direction.”

Other gods are always with us. They lurk on the corners and down the dark alleys, and in our hearts. They come to us in many forms, known often as the many “isms” we can all name: consumerism, nationalism, capitalism, blind political allegiance to a political party or to the rants of shock jocks on talk radio, militarism, racism, “But we don’t worship graven images like the heathen,” we protest. The simple truth is that anything we give our ultimate concern to becomes our deity, as Paul Tillich described it.[3] It is in those moments that we regress as Christians until we discover we’re living a sub-Christian life that only faintly resembles the faith as it’s meant to be lived.

How is it we relate to others from what one of my friends calls, “the world religion zoo?”

A Baptist, a rabbi, and an Imam take an interfaith tour to Israel along with members of their faith communities in a shared trip meant to help all three faiths learn more fully about their own faith while also learning about the other two. So they traveled together to the land held holy by all three faiths.

At dinner one night, after a long day’s traveling around the countryside where they visited ancient Abrahamic sites believed to be holy to all three faiths, they began to talk honestly with one another. They had held one another closely as friends back home, but always with caution about their questions about one another. The Rabbi said to the Baptist, “I’m sure you agreed to go on this trip together so you can practice your Christian evangelism on us … you know to convert us from Judaism or Islam into becoming a Baptist.”

The Baptist thought about this deliberately before answering, “I know you think that, but you are wrong. It would be an indignity to my faith and to yours for me to use our friendship as a means of trying to convert you. It’s true I am a Christian and for me that’s the path to salvation. But at the same time, I think it equally important that you be the best Jew you can be and for the Imam to be the best Muslim he can be. And if we can do that, we shall honor our God and live in peace.”

And so the three celebrated their friendship and held one another in their hearts as holy gifts of God.

 

[1] Gerhard von Rad, Volume II, Old Testament Theology, The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. by D.M.G. Stalker, New York: Harper and Row, 1965, 14

[2] There is a growing body of biblical studies that considers the use of violence within religion. An early important example of that literature is Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror, Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, which looks at religiously-based violence perpetrated against women and children. Another example of this is Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword; Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses.

[3] Molly T. Marshall, citing Paul Tillich, writing on the Central Baptist Theological Seminary blog, https://www.cbts.edu/blog/1/150/, May 2013