“Good Morning, Promised Land”
All Souls Bethlehem Church
Rev. Tom Martinez
February 15, 2015
I was tempted to cut off that last verse about Elijah rounding up the prophets of Baal so they can be killed, but figured I should leave it in to remind us that all the Abrahamic religions contain stories and teachings that appear to advocate or at least sanction violence. In fact it’s worth noting that we all share the prophet Elijah, who is found in the Quran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (as we saw in today’s NT account of the Transfiguration, in which Jesus shines as if illuminated from within, while Moses and Elijah appear on either side of him).
So in the end I kept that verse we all have to contend with in which Yahew appears to be orchestrating violence (prompting us to ask as we must always ask, is this part of the Divine plan or the influence of the human plan?). But of course the main start in this story is the Divine fire that came down from heaven and consumed the altar.
And did you see how Elijah had water dumped on the altar to make it even more impressive? That got me to thinking about the challenges of making an actual fire. How many of you have ever had to start a fire yourselves, like while camping? (About half the folks had.) Back when I was preparing to go to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with my first wife, Lynette, we spent some time trying to prepare ourselves for every eventuality, you know, being devoured by a Grizzly, and having to make a fire without matches. We even hired a consultant who taught survivalist skills. I don’t recall if he taught us this but somewhere along he line I got to the point where I could start a fire with just one of those little sticks of flint you bang a knife against to make sparks. To do that successfully, needless to say, you have to be shooting those sparks directly onto some highly flammable (and ideally dry!) materials, preferably materials that have been previously soaked in gasoline. Just kidding about that last part.
Now I don’t mean to be tooting my own horn here but I have made a fire or two in my day. So trust me when I say you basically need three things: fuel, a spark (or a flame if you’re doing it the easy way), and air. Now I realize we city folk don’t exactly to be on top of our fire making game, but I bring this up by way of talking about fire as a metaphor for spiritual transformation.
That’s of course not a stretch. We’ve been talking about the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the Desert, relating that to the Civil Rights Movement and the role of its leaders. We have the story of Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit manifested in fire. Hence the title of Harvey’s Cox book, Fire from Heaven: the Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (1995). From the perspective of depth psychology and religion, we could look to the symbolism of ancient alchemy in which one of the alchemical stages is calcinatio. Alchemy is the ancient practice of turning metal into gold, which Jung (followed by Edward Edinger) suggested we can look at metaphorically, as a model of spiritual transformation. In the calcinatio stage, all of the elements present in one’s life are combined as in a furnace, transformed by fire or, we might say, the crucible of Life.
Now all that crazy-talk about pyromania is really by way of background today as what I really want to explore is the idea that religious experience is foundationally about transformation. In other words if we were to look at the Transfiguration of Jesus with an eye toward personal and collective transformation, what might we glean from the story?
Let’s start with Elijah. What might his presence mean, at this moment of transfiguration. As we saw in the account of Elijah’s battle with the priests of Baal, Elijah has a passion for the sacred and won’t stand for idolatry. As we evolve in our understanding of religious tolerance and interfaith respect, it’s worth noting that the text offers some interesting insights into Elijah’s murderous fury toward the followers of Baal. The context provided in I Kings notes that Ahab (son of Omri, King of Israel) married Jezebel (a priestess of Ball) out of political expediency. So one possible reading here is that at the heart of the problem is an expression of spirituality that’s more about worldly power than a connection with the Divine. From that point of view we could say that Elijah (whose name literally means “My God is Yahweh”) represents a passion for the sacred.
In our modern context we of course have to critique the implicit notion that God is eager to kill those who are failing to worship the Divine properly. That’s a dimension of the text that we can hopefully call into question and move beyond. It’s worth noting here that all three Abrahamic religions celebrate Elijah as an important prophet! So rather than critiquing the faith of our neighbor, we can affirm along with our Muslim and Jewish neighbors that God exists, and that this foundational belief is shared by all three traditions. So the take away here, as I see it, is that an important ingredient for spiritual transformation is an affirmation of the sacred.
But, as we know, while connection to the sacred in and of itself is a beautiful thing, it invariably leads to the struggle for justice. Hence the appearance of Moses alongside Jesus and Elijah. We’ve been talking about Moses in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, in part through the influence of Taylor Branch’s volumes, Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire. While recognizing that the Civil Rights movement was just that—a movement consisting of many essential individuals joined by various network of activists, the overall narrative arc of being delivered out of bondage lends itself to a view of MLK in the role of Moses.
More broadly still we can step back and look at the entire experience of African Americans beginning with slavery on through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement as a story of liberation. (This is not to ignore Michelle Alexander’s observation that the prison industrial complex is, The New Jim Crow.) Hence it’s no surprise that this liberating dimension of the Gospel finds expression in Black Liberation Theology. It’s also foundational to Liberation Theology as practiced in Central and South America, as well as in Feminist and Queer theology. Moses’ demand to the leader of the Egyptian empire echoes throughout all of these efforts: “Let my people go.” We invoke this demand in every instance in which we stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
In recent sermons I’ve suggested that perhaps the Promised Land isn’t a circumscribed geographic region but rather a state of mind, a global consciousness of the human family and our place in this vast, fragile, mysteriously interconnected universe in which we live. In this sense we are all on a journey together toward this new consciousness, toward a way of being that’s defined not by aggressive extraction of the Earth’s resources and the oppression of the poor, but of harmonious co-existence with the Earth and all her creatures.
So Elijah brings reverence for the sacred. Moses stands for the liberating power of justice. What about Jesus? It stands to reason that Jesus is being placed in the tradition of his forbearers as one who is to carry the work forward, which of course he does. Through his ethical challenge to love even one’s enemy and to refrain from harsh judgments against the “other,” Jesus offers a way out of the cycle of violence sweeping up human civilization since the dawn of time. This ethic birthed the wave of compassion for the world’s victims that has risen on the horizon of history for the past two thousand years and which, today, calls into question all those who seek to justify and rationalize their murderous violence. More challenging on a personal level, it requires that we assess in what ways we are in collusion with the powers that be. Where are my tax dollars going? What is being done in my name, under the flag of “the war on terror”?
We could of course also note the ways in which the ethic of Jesus challenges us on an even more personal level. Who in my social circle do I judge? Who do I project my own shadow onto? In what ways am I blind to my collusion? If I were to go through my own conversion on the road to Damascus a la St. Paul, what would I see once my eyes were opened? It is unwise to think Jesus’ challenge is only for others. The entire crowd was prepared to stone the woman allegedly caught in adultery. Jesus brought the frenzied scapegoating dynamic to a standstill by merely inviting him who is without sin to throw the first stone. This is the power of the Gospel: it stops us in our destructive path and invites us to a table where there are seats for everyone.
Well this is all well and good if you just want to sit around and talk about theology all day, but it’s of no relevance for the real world. Right? Somehow we think the ethic of loving your enemy was easier in Jesus’ day. With Lent fast approaching it’s a good time to consider the price Jesus paid for standing on the side of love. To his death we can add all the martyrs up to those killed in our own lifetimes—people like Arch Bishop Romero.
You may recall the name John Dear as he’s a hero of mine and I’ve mentioned him before. I love that story about him being sent to New Mexico by his ecclesiastical superiors, a punishment of sorts for his anti-war activism. So they sent him to the never center of our nuclear arsenal! While there a local drill sergeant got wind of his presence and decided to lead a group of recruits over to his cabin to harass him a bit. So they were standing in formation doing jumping jacks and chanting something about killing when he stepped out onto his deck holding a cup of coffee. There was a moment of silence and he shouted out Romero style, “I order you in the name of God not to kill!” I’m paraphrasing as it’s been a while since I heard him tell that story but that’s the general gist of it.
This is a guy who has devoted his life to peace, writing over forty books and spending long stretches in prison for committing acts of civil disobedience aimed at waking us up to the insanity of nuclear and “conventional” war. The most impressive thing about the man though, I have to say, isn’t all of his many books or the time he spent in prison—no, it’s the deep peace he emanates, the sense that this is someone who actually does love those who others would consider the enemy. I’d imagine it’s what it was like to be in Gandhi’s presence, which is why British officials advised any of their representatives headed off to India to try and avoid meeting with Gandhi in person—as to do so was to risk being won over by his powerful love.
So I’ve long been an admirer of John Dear but somehow I’d never read his actual conversion experience until just to other day, when I happened upon it in his book, Living Peace. As he describes it, he was outside Galilee on a spiritual pilgrimage, reflecting on his sense of call and vocation prior to taking his vows and beginning a formal process of becoming a Franciscan. While there, in the Chapel of the Beatitudes, it suddenly hit him that Jesus actually meant that we take the beatitudes seriously:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and
thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for
the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and
persecute you and utter every kind of evil
against you because of me.
There in the chapel of the Beatitudes, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, John Dear made a decision. He prayed, he writes in his book, Living Peace:
“Okay, God, …I promise to live the life of peace, to live out these Beatitudes for the rest of my life—on one condition: if you give me a sign!”
With that, I put my first down on the stone wall, proud of my conditional commitment.
Just then, two Israeli war jets fell through the sky, breaking the sound barrier with sonic booms, over the Sea of Galilee, flying flow, straight toward me! I ducked instinctively. They race directly over me and the Chapel of the Beatitudes and, seconds later, dropped several bombs along the border between Israel and Lebanon.
I rose and looked back up the sky.
“Okay, God,” I said, shaking. “I promise to dedicate myself to peace and justice for the rest of my life—and I’ll never ask for a sign again!”
As a Christian, I committed myself to live according to the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ peacemaking life. That meant, like Jesus, I would be required to find inner peace and publicly oppose violence and war, pursing a world of peace with justice for all (Living Peace, p. 78).
I suppose it goes without saying that powerful forces were at work that day. Here was a man who would go on to live out the Beatitudes with transformative power. He was in the Chapel of the Beatitudes, a sanctuary built in reverence for Jesus’ teaching and for his life, erected in the very area he lived and taught. At the critical moment that he asks for a sign two Israeli jets pass by overhead “breaking the sound barrier” before dropping bombs nearby. Horrified by his own participation in the violence of the world (though having asked for a sign) he vows to dedicate his life from that moment on, as promised, to the path of peace.
The transformational fire at the heart of the Gospel has spread beyond the confines of the Church and people like John Dear. More and more people are realizing that we cannot simply demonize the other while shirking our own participation in evil. While knee-jerk reactions to violence spawn yet more violence in the ongoing spiral of redemptive violence gripping the world stage, the truth continues to assert itself, like a fire that refuses to be extinguished. After the massacre in Paris at Charlie Hebdo the new editor said about the issues next cover mentioning forgiveness, “We would lose if we used the language of hatred.” What a brave, courageous and brilliant response to tragedy.
Of course we don’t always feel so brave or brilliant. Faced by the terrifying actions of ISIS, the dire environmental predictions threatening the entire planet and the ever-growing chasm dividing the rich and the poor, many of us are simply trying to hold on. What meaning can we possibly obtain from Jesus call to cease and desist from our collusion with the powers that be? What if we’re not feeling the heroic capacity to heroically defy the fear-based aggression driving our military aggression in the world, or the seemingly bottomless greed driving our extractive policies harming the Earth? What can any of us do?
I want to close today by recalling a scene from Good Morning Vietnam, a film that’s actually based on the true life story of a US soldier in Vietnam, Adrian Cronauer. Cronauer had a background in radio which eventually landed him in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam “conflict.” Needless to say this wasn’t the healthiest of environments nor one that would be the slightest bit receptive to a “progressive” point of view.
Robin Williams plays Cronauer in the film version of the story, joking around and playing music the soldiers actually liked and that provided a cultural connection to what was going on at home. Eventually Cronauer gets reprimanded for not towing the line. But following an outcry by the troops a general that finds him funny decides to re-instate him.
At first Cronauer says no, he’s had enough and won’t go back on the air. But his friend played by Forrest Whitacker won’t take no for an answer. Driving in an open air military jeep, he’s jabbering on about how the troops need Cronauer’s humor and style to stay sane, but Cronauer won’t have it. Then they find themselves snarled in a traffic jam surrounded by troop carrying trucks overflowing with soldiers.
Whitacker shouts out at the men, “Hey guys, you wouldn’t believe who I have here!” Everybody knew Cronauer’s voice but few people actually knew what he looked like. Once they found out it was him sitting there in the jeep they start hootin’ and whistlin’ and begging to be entertained, at which point Cronauer gets up and starts interacting with the men, asking one where he’s from and as you can imagine, it takes off from there. For a few minutes they forget about the war and the madness they’re heading off to and the heat and the politics of fear strangling the world. They’re just some guys from Jersey and Brooklyn joking around and having a laugh. It’s a powerful testimony—to Robin Williams and his great gift—and to the resilience of the human spirit in the midst of the most extreme pressures we can imagine (war).
There are other sub-plots and theme in the film which call into question US military aggression in Asia. Walking the path of peace requires that we come to see the folly of the war, how those in power misled the entire country, so that we might better resist current and future enticements toward bloodshed. But this scene can reminds us that sometimes all we are required to do is our own small part, that we can make a difference, should we gather together what kindling we have and try to catch a spark.
May it be. Amen.
OT Biblical Text:
Elijah’s Triumph over the Priests of Baal
20 So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. 22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. 23 Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27 At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29 As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32 with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33 Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35 so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.
36 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.” 40 Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.