Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 6, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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A nation was born. Its people had been unwelcome in their previous home land. They escaped persecution and poverty. They came to a new land, not an open or unoccupied land, but a new one.
They warred, they built a government, and lifted up leaders. They had a formal statement of values which, in theory, guided their actions.
But over time, things fell apart. Or, at least, the nation did not live up to its potential. The people who should have been protected by the founding rules were not. Corruption didn’t just occur, it was broadcast. Unity was impossible. Factions broke away and denied, rejected, any relationship with the others.
Sound familiar? Sound like America on the brink of this presidential election? As Qohelet wrote in Ecclesiastes (1.9), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is the context for today’s passage in the first book of Kings.
The Hebrew people, freed from slavery, made a home through conquer and colonialism. The Ten Commandments, a testimony to respect and relationship, should have guided them to create a community of care and wisdom. Instead the people cried out for a king so that they could be recognized in international politics.
The kings acted as kings do, selfishly. Over time the nation broke in two, with Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Now Ahab is the king of Israel in the north. Ahab “did more to vex the Lord, the God of Israel, than all the kinds of Israel who preceded him” (1 Kings 16.33).
I cannot speak for God, but I feel pretty vexed right now. This election season has brought out the worst in us, us as Americans and as individuals. The violence has crossed all party lines. There seem to be no more social consequences for writing off people of a certain race or religion or geographic origin. Threats of violence no longer need be anonymous—you can tweet them right under your own name. It feels as if any awareness of shared humanity, even if not shared experiences, has been tweeted and talking head-ed out of existence. The concept of what constitutes a fact is now unstable.
Ours does not feel like a united state but one splintered, angry, afraid, and paranoid, on all sides.
As much as I long for November 9 to arrive, I am frightened about what November 8 might bring, because no matter who wins, we will be in uncharted territory with the wounded all around. No matter where we go, be it work or HyVee or our families, we will be next to someone who feels unheard and invalidated, if not much worse.
So what wisdom might we receive from our faith ancestors, who we remember on this belated All Saints Day? What does Elijah (whose name means My God is God), as preserved for all these years, tell us about God in hard times?
A raven will feed us.
We don’t know anything about Elijah before this passage. There’s a lot more to come, but this is his inaugural story. Elijah does not rail at the king from a place of comfort, like Nathan from two weeks ago. He does not run away from God’s request that he be a prophet, as we will hear Jonah do next week. Elijah travelled from the outskirts of the nation to announce to King Ahab a punishing drought.
Then he leaves. In the wilderness he has water from a creek, for a time. But he has to rely on a raven for food while waiting for God’s next invitation.
Later in the story there’s a widow who uses the last of her flour and oil to prepare what she thinks will be the last meal for her and her son and Elijah. Instead, because of her generosity and faith, neither run out. This has echoes of Sarah cooking for strangers who are actually angels and the divorced woman at the well who becomes Jesus’ disciple and the widow who gave her last pennies in offering.
But a raven? Ravens are shiny, big carrion-eaters. During the Exodus the people had little quails with their goofy head feathers to eat plus and manna from on high. Elijah gets a big, noisy, maybe even creepy bird delivering roadkill.
So faith in hard times is like waiting on vermin for dinner? No.
MAKE A CHOICE
Elijah and Jesus and all of the prophets and all of the saints just wanted the kings and the priests and the people to remember the greatest commandment: Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Whether our candidates win on Tuesday or not, in any of the many races, our work as people of faith remains the same as always:
Care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Set the table for friends and enemies alike. Everything else is commentary, anything else is a distraction.
So I invite you to choose one. I invite you to prayerfully and intentionally pick one of those basic tasks: caring for the widow (someone without a voice), the orphan (the most vulnerable in a community), or the stranger (those without even the resources of belonging), or setting the open table (places where divisions are bridged).
Identify how you will assume that holy responsibility in real time next to other real humans. Maybe committing to serving meals at Food at First every month in 2017. Maybe working with me through AMOS to make sure we no longer need free meals in this county.
The divisions that are being so fully reinforced in this time are not the fault of our leaders. Unlike the people of 1 Kings, we do not live in a monarchy or a dictatorship. More than any group of people in human history, we have power. What we get is what we ask for—or what we allow. Whoever is elected will certainly represent one way forward, but she or he will be neither a savior not a Satan. Whether Earth becomes as it is in heaven or as in a hell, is in all ways up to us.
Us with the raven.
Our religion is not a do-gooder society, even if much of it involves doing practical good. And, yes, to get good done we need to and accept the gifts that come our way, even if the givers are unsettling somehow. But the raven is not just a metaphor for human experience.
The raven is the surviving, scavenging sacred to which we are blind most of the time. The paucity of our imaginations leaves us describing God in human terms, but, truly, God is to us as a raven: watching and weird.
What distinguishes us from other do-gooders is our willingness, like Elijah, to receive that mysterious metaphysics. What sustains us in the counter-cultural work of love is not a good and rational argument about the social consequences of social neglect but the shimmering deep dark tehom of Genesis that agreed to partner with God’s light (1.1–3), the divine well of life that we can never really see except as sunshine glints off black feathers.
So we need not be vexed, no matter the circumstances. We can be ravenous. 1We can become as hungry as that widow to live for the kin-dom of God rather than merely existing in the kingdoms humanity. Not just for the good of all, but because of the goodness of God.
So go vote this week, if you haven’t already. Then choose for yourself and your family how you will faithfully respond to this drought of kindness and relationship. As we move together into this wilderness, remember that our own strength and our own success depends on our willingness to see the eye of the raven and accept the strange nourishment that is God.
1Thank you to The Rev. Debbie Blue and her book Consider the Birds for inspiration.