I took a class in seminary called ‘Evil, Suffering, and the Liturgy’. It consisted of heady discussions of different theological ideas about why evil occurred in the world, and religious concepts of suffering, and very practical case studies about how to construct different liturgies around tragic events: suicides, miscarriages, civil emergencies, etc.
It turned out to be the most practical class I ever took.
The massacre at Virginia Tech happened while I was in that class. I had friends attending Tech at the time, and I had just found out that they were all ok. When I walked into the classroom, Professor Farwell said, “I know today is hard, and I am sorry to do this to you. But our assignment today is to figure out your response were you the rector of the parish in Blacksburg. Because this will be your job.”
What I didn’t figure on is that this would be my job as often as it has been. It doesn’t get easier; I think it gets harder.
I was beginning a week at camp when the news of Orlando broke. I said something about it in my homily with the camp staff, and talked it through with shaken and scared youth during the week. I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to pull together a city-wide vigil at the cathedral. I did those good church things you’re supposed to do. But in the end, I am left wondering how many weeks until I have to do this all over again.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
June 19, 2016
Ordinary Time, Proper 7
1 Kings 19: 1-4 (5-7)8-15a
Cast your minds back–way back several weeks ago. I know lots has happened, but see if you can recall. Remember last time I talked to you and Elijah was calling down fire from the sky in a contest against the prophets of Baal? Oh good times. How young and innocent we all were.
If you missed that Sunday, here’s the fun recap: Elijah is mad because the people of Israel have again gotten confused (they have the attention span of Dory). And they have started worshipping other gods. They are encouraged in this by the new queen, Jezebel, who is not an Israelite, and doesn’t worship YHWH, but does worship Baal.
So, Elijah thinks up a neat contest. He challenges the prophets of Baal to a fight–whoever’s god sends down enough fire to consume a sacrifice wins. The priests of Baal try hard, but to no avail. (They are not helped by Elijah, who taunts them sarcastically the whole time, in some masterful biblical snark.) Then, Elijah steps up. He shows off by dousing his offering in water, and THEN calling down fire.
And then, he goes even further, and kills all the rival priests, to really make his point. Elijah is a bit scary.
So that’s where our story picks up–Elijah has just gone all Rambo on some Canaanite priests. And Jezebel is understandably upset. So Elijah panics and flees from Mt Carmel (which is up in the north of Galilee) all the way to the southern tip of the Negev desert.
Unless you have a solid grasp of Israelite geography, it’s hard to understand what he’s doing, but essentially, he’s running away as far as he can absolutely get. He heads to the ends of the earth, because his actions are catching up with him.
And once he reaches the desert, he holes up in a cave, and pitches a fit. I HAVE BEEN SO GOOD AND DONE SO WELL, BUT NO ONE LOVES ME. LET ME ALONE SO THAT I MAY DIE. he says. Elijah is not pleased that his stunt with the Canaanite priests did not work out the way he wanted. I don’t know what he thought was going to happen–a parade, a festival in his honor, a rededicated people to the service of the Lord, but evidently it did not include exile and an angry queen. Elijah is annoyed. (Btw, there is no whinier group of people in all creation than either the prophets, or the people of Israel. It’s amazing.) So he sits in a cave, in the desert, and pouts. And waits for God to either kill him or speak to him.
And God does speak–but not in the right way. Or not in the way Elijah wants.
Because first there’s a mighty rushing wind, that splits rocks, and breaks the face of the mountain. But that’s not God. Then there’s an enormous fire, that wrecks havoc and destruction across the landscape. But God’s not there either. And there’s an earthquake, that shakes the ground, and shatters boulders. But that’s not God either.
Finally, there’s the sound of sheer silence.
That’s where God shows up.
It’s tempting to read this as “God likes the quiet! Meditation is good!” And that’s perfectly fine. Representing God as a still, small voice is fine. That inner voice, we do need to listen to that.
But location, as any real estate agent will tell you–is everything. And Elijah is searching for divine reassurance after he’s committed a pretty horrific act of violence. And quite frankly, on this day, on this week, if this is just a story about how God likes quiet walks, and has no comment over acts of murderous rage–we have a big problem.
Because what Elijah did was horrible. The slaughter of the Canaanite priests is one of the more gruesome stories in scripture. Elijah might be a prophet of God, but I don’t care who you are, killing a whole bunch of people is not okay. It’s just not, regardless of Elijah’s bravado.
And so watch closely. The violence of nature mirrors the violence that Elijah has been enacting. The wind, the earthquake, the fire. They destroy creation like Elijah has been doing. And yet, despite what Elijah has been saying, God isn’t present in this violence. God isn’t glorified in destruction.
God shows up in the peace. God shows up in no act of power, but a total absence of it. That is where God shows up.
It’s a lesson Elijah struggles with all his life–this is the last we see of him, really. The next thing he does is go off to name his successor. But lest we be too hard on Elijah, it’s also a lesson we all struggle with.
The thought that God supports violence, that God is praised when we hate others is pernicious untruth that has persisted through the millennia. It’s endemic to all of humanity. God is powerful, therefore God must be glorified when we use our power over others–the story runs. And we are tempted into believing that the more power we accumulate, through violence, through weapons, through weaponized hate, then the more like an all-powerful god we will become.
We don’t have Baal to tempt us in 2016. What we have is hatred and violence.
And this week, in the massacre in Orlando, we see again where these false gods lead. Not to a just and secure world, but to heartache and pain. Again and again and again. Because while hatred and violence might promise relief from the fear that plagues us–they don’t. And we just end up here again.
The hope that we have is that God is not found through violence. Indeed, God came among us and became so powerless that Christ suffered a violent death himself. Because the heart of God is peace. The will of God is love. And to prove that point better than anything else, Christ embraced the suffering endemic to our world.
So what we learn again this week is that God is with us when we suffer. When we are in pain, when we grieve, God suffers too. When we suffer loss, God weeps as well–urging us to choose a better way. And one day, one day, maybe we will.