This summer at San Lucas, we’re following a series of scripture readings from 1 and 2 Kings, with more readings from other prophets later. I felt called to use these readings because it’s a chance to learn more about these ancient stories of Elijah, Ahab, Jezebel, and other prophets, that are still so very relevant in our current world of religious pluralism, sacred violence, and political idolatry.
In the mythology of the Ancient Near East, each land had its own god, and there were gods and goddesses for each aspect of life. There were gods of life and death, of earth and sea. It was normal to worship multiple gods, depending on the situation. Therefore, it was strange that the Israelites would worship only one God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As a prophet, Elijah tried to eliminate (or at least discourage) the worship of other gods, especially Baal, a Canaanite storm god. In archaeology and art, Baal almost always has a lightening bolt in his hand. He was responsible for the rain. He was often worshiped alongside Asherah, a goddess of fertility.
Today’s story (1 Kings 18:20-39) takes place in the midst of a long drought. Without rain or harvest, life was hard. Just a chapter earlier, in a famous story, Elijah has an encounter with a desperate widow struggling to survive in a challenging time. With all the fear of not having food or water in a time of drought, I can understand the temptation of the Israelites and Ahab, their king, to pray to a god of storms and a goddess of fertility. In 1 Kings 18:21, Elijah thus asks a provocative question: “How much longer will you try to have things both ways? If the LORD is God, worship him! But if Baal is God, worship him!”
We have in today’s story a tremendous show—a contest between four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and only one lone prophet of God—Elijah. At Mount Carmel, they had put two piles of wood and two bulls, ready to light a fire and offer a sacrifice. For hours and hours, they waited. The Baalist prophets danced and sang and prayed, but nothing happened. They even cut their own skin as a sign of faith and devotion. Still, no smoke or flames.
Then Elijah prayed, at the altar to God. Elijah prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elijah prayed that the people may know the true identity of the only God. And suddenly: FIRE. With flames and smoke, the fire came, with power and presence. Upon seeing this tremendous sign, all the people, as witnesses of this incredible marvel, bowed to the ground, saying “The LORD is God.” It was clear that Baal has no power. It was clear that God is the only God that exists. This story reminds us of God’s true presence in the world. This story shows us God’s unending power.
Elijah asks, “How much longer will you try to have things both ways?” This is a good question for us today, as well. As local communities, as a country, as citizens of the world, who will we worship: God or other gods? We may not have statues of Baal or poles of Asherah, but we live in a pantheon of all sorts of gods. It’s so easy to worship something other than God: Wealth. Beauty. Health. Sports. Success. Patriotism. Power. “How much longer will you try to have things both ways?”
At last year’s Synod Assembly, there was a breakfast where leaders from various congregations were gathered to talk about mission. I clearly remember the centerpieces that the convention center staff had lovingly placed at each table: Crosses draped with United States flags and little placards proclaiming “God bless America.” I confess that such mixture of faith and patriotism makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. First, God’s blessing is not just for [the United States of] America. God’s love is for all peoples and nations. We can’t be putting limits on God’s grace and liberty. It’s not just for one country.
When we drape a flag on the cross, we are making Jesus a United States American, when his mercy is for the whole world. Secondly, to collude cross and flag is also problematic because many brave people that died fighting under that flag were not Christians. We live in a world of religious pluralism. Our neighbors are loyal US Americans who are also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, and all sorts of other faiths and denominations. They are all loved by God, even though they may not worship God as we do. We may not all practice the same religion, but our Christian faith pushes us to respect others with dignity and integrity.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the time in which the United States remembers those who have died in service to this country. Memorial Day is more than a time to barbecue chicken on the backyard grill or to buy cheap shoes on sale at the mall. It is a solemn time to remember those lives forever changed by the violence of war and the horror of death. We also hope for an end to conflict and suffering. We hope for the time when there are no more casualties. As Americans, we remember those serving for this country, but as Christians we must also remember those of all countries who have suffered in our wars. Violence is violence, whatever the uniform. Blood is blood, whatever the source. Death is horrible, for each and every person.
This weekend, President Barack Obama traveled Japan to visit Hiroshima, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb during World War II. He did not officially apologize, but he did meet some survivors and family members of survivors from this United States attack. He did offer his hope for a world without nuclear weapons. Perhaps it was just an unintentional coincidence, but the date of the attack on Hiroshima back in 1945 fell on Transfiguration Sunday, the day in which the Church remembers the vision of Moses and Elijah together with Jesus on a mountain—another Elijah/mountain story. In Hiroshima, it wasn’t a transfiguration of glory like in the Gospels. Rather, it was a transfiguration of death and destruction, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and transforming the world forever.
Many times that I’ve preached on the Transfiguration, I’ve described Jesus as a new Moses and a new Elijah, living out the traditions of both the Law and the Prophets. After re-reading the whole story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, I’m not sure I want to think of Jesus as a new Elijah. Elijah is a bully, arrogantly taunting the prophets with sarcastic verbal jabs and mocking put-downs. “Baal must be a god. Maybe he’s day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up (18:27).”
Elijah is also a murderer. Our lectionary bulletin insert stops at verse 39 with everyone happy and worshiping God. However, in verse 40, Elijah kills all 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah is another example of why we as humans need a savior. He’s one person in a long chain of religious people carrying out horrible violence against people of other faiths. It’s completely against the faith that Jesus teaches. In the Crusades, Christians killed Muslims for centuries. In both the Americas, Europeans murdered generations of indigenous tribes. During World War II, German Christians (including Lutherans) were too often silent and complicit during Hitler’s genocide of the Jews. Closer to home, at Crystal City, in the next county over, the United States locked up Japanese and German Americans in an internment camp. Sacred violence is not that sacred. I don’t want to worship Jesus as a returned murderer nor even as a bully, as a new Elijah.
The good news for us is that Jesus is neither Moses nor Elijah. Jesus is not a murderer nor a bully. Jesus is God-With-Us. Jesus enters our world, in life, in death, in the midst of violence, even in suffering. That is the power of the cross. Jesus’ love and mercy is for all people in all places. We remember those who have died. We remember our whole world’s need for a savior. We lament violence and we hope for peace. As we remember Elijah on that mountain, we remember that there is one God. There are many things that pull us away from God, but in the person of Jesus, we encounter the God that comes to us, transforming our lives in the way of peace. Amen.
[Adapted and translated from a sermon originally preached in Spanish at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas on May 29, 2016].
With Memorial Day (and soon Independence Day) around the corner, I wanted to share a hymn text that I wrote a few years ago that pushes us as Christian people to prayerfully think about what it means to live as people of faith in an environment of violence and idolatry. It won the Macalester Plymouth United Church Hymn Contest in 2010, but I realized that I never posted it here. Think of it as a poetic #TBT. We won’t sing it here at San Lucas, since it doesn’t totally fit musically with how we worship, but it might work well in other contexts. Feel free to use it, but I’d love to know when and where it gets sung. Along with the two tunes I originally suggested, BEACH SPRING could be another singable choice.
God, we know that on this planet
we are not the only ones,
but with every tribe and nation
we’re your daughters and your sons.
With baptismal waters flowing,
dripping wet and sanctified,
we are sharing in your promise
with Christ Jesus by our side.
Help us be a peaceful presence
in a reconciling role,
trusting not in our own prowess
but in your divine control.
Feed us, form us, strengthen, nourish
with abundant holy food.
Guide us as your living body,
in the world for every good.
We acknowledge past injustice,
and for future peace we pray,
trusting in the Holy Spirit
who sustains us day by day.
When we look into a mirror,
help us have humility:
seeing strangers as our neighbors
in this blessed community.
Flags and banners blur our vision;
our own pride obscures the cross.
Jesus, mend our indecision,
bring your mercy to our loss.
As we watch the war and violence,
prejudice and bigotry,
guide us in anticipation
of the world as it will be.
2010 Prize winning hymn – God, We Know That on This Planet
By Paul Bailie, Eagle Pass, Texas
(Suggested tunes: PLEADING SAVIOR, HOLY MANNA) Meter: 184.108.40.206.D
© 2010, Rev. Paul Bailie
This winter, I was invited to accompany a congregation from the Houston area on a delegation to visit some Lutheran congregations in El Salvador. It wasn’t a mission trip to construct a building or paint houses. Rather, the purpose was to get to know better our Lutheran sisters and brothers in El Salvador and to develop friendship between the two groups. This goal of accompaniment can be difficult, because there are differences in culture and in language. However, I’m reminded of a line from the hymn we just sang, Miren qué bueno es cuando nos reuinimos juntos (Look how good it is when we gather together).
On the trip, I was often asked to translate, and I did, but Salvadoran Spanish is somewhat different from the Spanish I have been learning here on the Mexican border. Also, translating and interpretation are different skill sets than just speaking a language. One must know the cultural details and invisible rules of communication.
During the visit, we worshiped together, participated in a retreat, and saw the agricultural hardware store that helps support the Salvadoran ministry. For me, a powerful moment was when I started to see some of the divisions between the Salvadorans and the Texans start to break down. During a New Year’s Eve party at the pastor’s house, between dinner and fireworks, the young people from both countries began to play Jenga.
Jenga is a game in which you deconstruct a wooden tower, one piece at a time, with patience and concentration. The Salvadorans taught us a fun song and dance to sing in playful shame each time you lost. There was much laughter and togetherness. It was a moment of Pentecost. Although not everyone spoke the same language, there was a connection. Upon destroying the Jenga tower, understanding and unity were being born. It was like Babel in reverse.
In Genesis 11, the people try to build a gigantic tower reaching the heavens. It’s a story that explains the diversity of language and culture in the world. For Israelites in exile, it was a way to describe their differences from the Babylonians and celebrate their own identity. The Hebrew root word for Babel means confusion. In building their tower at Babel, there was confusion. In tearing down that Jenga tower in El Salvador, there was a glimpse of connection and unity.
We can also think of this festival we celebrate today as another Babel in reverse. In the story of Pentecost, the apostles in Jerusalem didn’t need dictionaries, vocabulary flashcards, or Rosetta Stone software to understand each other. They had the power of God’s Holy Spirit. With wind and fire, God gave them a gift to speak and to understand. It’s a story of unity in the midst of so much diversity. Miren qué bueno es cuando nos reuinimos juntos.
Through this Holy Spirit of God still working in our world today, we are all bilingual. Even if we only speak one human language, we are bilingual because God gives us the language of faith. In Jerusalem, some thought the apostles were drunk. Sometimes in our world, the Christian message might seem similar. In a world of violence and war, “Love your neighbor” and even more so, “Love your enemy” seem strange and foreign. In the midst of conflict, racism, and homophobia, Christian values like forgiveness and peace seem contrary. As Christians, the Holy Spirit gives us the language to share love with the world. We aren’t drunk; we are filled with the God who guides and consoles us.
We speak the language of faith (sometimes even without words) when we have patience, practice reconciliation, encounter Scripture, and speak against injustice. To grow in our faith is to learn a new language.
Sometimes, we don’t recognize the diversity and the unity that the Spirit brings. There’s division and racism, even in the Church. Too often, our communities are more like Babel than Jerusalem. We think in stereotypes and put limits on God’s presence. There’s a stereotype that suggests that Lutherans are only White people in the Midwest of Scandinavian descent, like my own family. Such stereotypical thinking is wrong, and excludes the Mexican Lutherans at San Lucas, the Salvadoran Lutherans I met in January, and the millions of Lutheran Christians in Tanzania, Namibia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and other places where very few people, if any, eat lefse, that Norwegian bread.
One time a Border Patrol agent at a checkpoint asked me about my job. I told him I was a Lutheran pastor. He responded incredulously, “Lutheran? Shouldn’t you be in Minnesota or Wisconsin?” “Well, we’re here,” I replied.
Old Lutheran is a company that makes fun t-shirts and bumper stickers with Lutheran sayings. I have their Martin Luther bobblehead doll. However, Old Lutheran has been sharing jokes on Facebook drawing on the same stereotype as that Border Patrol agent. These jokes and memes (You might be a Lutheran if…) suggest that Lutherans, with their lutefisk and potlucks, are just of Scandinavian descent. A few weeks ago, I saw this one:
You might be a Lutheran if you have more than three friends whose first names have the letter “j” as the second letter. Here in Eagle Pass, I don’t know anybody named Bjorn, Kjersten, or Hjalmar, but I know plenty of faithful Lutherans with names that end in “z:” González, Martínez, Ramírez, Rodríguez, et cetera.
I was frustrated with Old Lutheran and their jokes that tell an incomplete story: That Lutheranism is a cultural expression of the Midwestern United States by people descended from Northern European immigrants. My own Minnesota grandparents had spoken Norwegian; I get the jokes. However, my ministry in Spanish-speaking communities has given me a broader understanding of what it means to be Lutheran. After complaining and commenting, I decided to make my own meme, using a picture I snapped of food at San Lucas:
You might be a Lutheran if your VBS snack is tostadas. I posted it on Facebook as a joke, but also to show that there are Mexican Lutherans, too. Lutheranism is theological, not cultural. We’re Lutheran because we celebrate God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Jesus, not because we eat a certain food, use a certain hymnal, or tell certain ethnic jokes. Later, other people posted similar memes reflecting other non-Scandnavian cultures—roasted goat for dessert in Tanzania and pupusas from my new friends in El Salvador.
With these internet memes, eventually the hashtag #decolonizeLutheranism emerged, with a renewed enthusiasm for change. I was even invited into a conference call with the Presiding Bishop to talk about this developing movement. A conference is in the works. A website is online. Lots of talented leaders from many backgrounds are lifting their voices. Its a prophetic conversation that has been brewing for a long time. It’s a conversation we need to have in the Church.
Colonialism is the process throughout history in which Europeans came to a “new” country and put their will over others, usually with force and blood. One must speak their language, eat their food, sing their songs, practice their customs. Decolonization, then, is the process to remove this European influence and tell the story in ways that respect the dignity of the oppressed culture. For example, it is decolonizing to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day.
In the Church, we, too, are colonized. Although there are African American, Cherokee, and Chinese congregations in the ELCA, it is almost always the Anglos who make the decisions. That I am the pastor at San Lucas is itself a sign of colonialism. We have not fully developed Mexican leadership. Which young people from San Lucas will we send to seminary to be pastors? But there in seminary, what will they learn? Anglo theology? Mexican theology? Scandinavian culture? Colonized thinking? After graduating, I had to unlearn so much of my education in order to contextualize myself for ministry on the Mexican border—what books I read, what stories I tell, and what songs I sing.
It’s easy to fall into systems of colonialism. Babel is still in our memory. It’s difficult to decolonize, to break the chains of injustice, to walk together in accompaniment and mutuality. Here at San Lucas, we’ve long waited for funds and helpers from the North instead of developing our own stewardship, identity, and purpose.
This Wednesday in our multigenerational spiritual formation time, we’ll play Bible Jeopardy, reviewing what we’ve learned in the past year. Last year when we played, the prizes were all sorts of ELCA swag that I picked up at Synod Assembly—notebooks, keychains, and other ephemera. Somebody from church asked me why we don’t have trinkets with San Lucas’ logo. I replied that that stuff is expensive to print. I was told, “You need to ask your people to buy them for us.” I didn’t know what to say.
This thinking is completely colonized—that the Whites from Iowa always send money to non-White congregations. This is what we’ve been slowly moving away from in my five years on the border. Even with my Norwegian roots, as pastor here, “my people” are those of the congregation of San Lucas. So, what will we give? What will we do to be the Church? How will we continue the Pentecost story? How will we be the next chapter of the Book of Acts? How will we decolonize? How will we dream our own dreams and live our own visions?
In Pentecost, the Spirit comes to decolonize, to share the story in a new way—with wind, and fire, and new language. The Spirit comes to destroy the walls and towers that divide us. The Spirit comes to give us unity and guide us in ways that love and that seek peace and that celebrate God’s diversity.
We live in a world of sin that needs transformation, that needs decolonizing. We need to understand one another. We need to be open to the Spirit. We need that Pentecost moment. We need Babel in reverse.
Pentecost is more than an excuse to decorate with red balloons and wear red socks. It’s more than an ancient history lesson. Pentecost reminds us who we are today—God’s people. People with future and possibilities. People with visions and dreams. We’re a community of faith, animated to live, empowered to transform, guided by the Spirit.
It’s the same Spirit that moved over the waters of creation. It’s the same Spirit that breathed new life into dry bones. It’s the same Spirit that was upon Jesus in Nazareth to bring good news to the poor. It’s the same Spirit that we receive at Baptism when the pastor puts her thumb on your forehead saying, “Child of God, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” It’s the same Spirit we find in this meal—bread and wine, body and blood. Come Holy Spirit. In Eagle Pass. In Minnesota. In El Salvador. In Tanzania. In Jerusalem. In all the world. The Spirit decolonizes our injustice and our human systems. The Spirit breaks down our Babel, our confusion, and gives us language of faith. Miren qué bueno es cuando nos reuinimos juntos. Amen.
[Adapted and translated from a sermon preached in Spanish at Iglesia Luterana San Lucas in Eagle Pass, Texas on May 15, 2016].