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Framing the Issues

In times like these where many of the faith feel that there is a crisis among us, when we feel that there is a transition, we talk about paradigm shifts. Where there is uncertainty, in times like these, I think we find born so often apocryphal narratives. They provide us instruction, insights, and at least intuitive truth. And they are usually based on forms and events of other narratives within the canon of traditions, whatever those traditions may be. As we gather here in the whirlwind of times of transitions and uncertainty, we hoping to come out of it living a vision.

In times like these, it is important for us to be definite and to use the words which tend to impress us. So, in times like these, I think it is important for us to expand our understanding of our life together through apocryphal narratives. And so, in times like these I am proposing a post-modern, progressive, apocryphal story of Elijah with passing acknowledgment to Ellen Wondra.

In quantum and chaos theory, truth is free, open ended, evolving, but has a pattern in times like these. Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done: how he had put the priests of Baal to the sword and killed them and torn down their altars. And Jezebel put it in her mind to erase Elijah from the land of the living. Elijah was afraid and felt alone as he fled for his life, past Beersheba in Judea into the wilderness. Now so far folks, I hope you are with me because this is pretty much scriptural.

Then he came to rest in his journey. As he put his head upon the rocks he wished to die, saying, “Yahweh, Yahweh take my life. I have been zealous for you, and I have had enough for they are seeking my life.” But an angel of the Lord appeared and said, “Elijah, get up and go.” And so he did. A second time he came to rest and put his head upon the rocks and said, “Yahweh, Yahweh, I have been zealous for you; take my life for they are seeking to kill me.” And the second time the angel said, “Elijah, get up and go.” So far, I am still with Scripture. Are you with me? Elijah walked forty days and forty nights until he came unto the mountain of God called Horeb. There he went into the cave and spent the night.

And the Lord said to Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah? And he answered, “I am a zealous servant of the Lord, the God of hosts. The people have forsaken your covenant and I have torn down the altars of Baal and killed their priests and I am left alone. And they are seeking my life to take it away.” I am still with Scripture; are you still with me? Now it is time for audience participation.

And the Lord said, “Elijah, go out and stand on the mountain before you, for the Lord shall appear and pass by you.” There was a mighty wind that shattered the rock, but the Lord was not in the mighty wind. And then there was a great earthquake that shook the earth on which he stood, but the Lord was not there. And a fire came upon the mountain and it scorched the earth, but the Lord was not there. And then there was silence. The Lord was in the silence, or was he? We are not sure. Elijah wrapped his mantle around him, and he stood at the entrance of his cave. And the Lord said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he yet answered again. Now for the apocryphal part.

Yet the third time the Lord God asked, “Why are you here, Elijah? Again he answered, “Why did you leave me here alone to die, Lord?” And the Lord said, “Elijah, go and look out upon my holy mountain. Look on this mountain into the other caves. Look. Go out now.” And behold, Elijah went out, and he looked and he saw in all of the caves in the mountain of God the other prophets of God, who also thought they were alone and abandoned and left to die. And the Lord said, “Gird your loins and join together. Go and anoint others and proclaim the word of the Lord, beginning with Elisha, that they might succeed you. Go. Do not live in fear. Do not look who is behind you, but know that I am in front of you. Go, and just do it.” And Elijah quit the whining.

Now Ellen Wondra and I know that that is not in the Bible, but we think it should be. But the truth is that, for those of us who believe in Christianity as a progressive message from God, the truth of Elijah’s situation often is the truth of our own. Elijah was powerless, isolated, alienated. He felt that he was under assault. He was pushed to the margin by the methods of the prophets of the time, who gave smooth words, fiery and sparkling truths, and easy answers.

Those times are like these times, and we too often feel like Elijah. We are concerned about what the Christian Right, the Christian Coalition, is saying. And we are alarmed at the national forum and the national agenda of the church. It is occupied and dominated by selected, crafted, and narrow concepts of God. But, you see, that concern and distress disempowers us. It does create a whirlwind that is of a destructive nature. It is a spiral of opposing forces one can look upon. Whereas breezes caress and enrich life, the vortex can be destructive and violent. It can uproot and confuse, alienate and abuse.

We feel that we are living a legacy of upholding a dualistic reality, where opposing forces create the world. Whether we want to date this dualism from the influence of Hellenism or the Scientific Revolution and Newtonian Physics or the Renaissance, we tend to look at the world as physical or spiritual, black or white, either/or, us/them, win/lose, holy or secular. By living into that dualism we feel often that the Right has captured the agenda, the attention. And often we act as losers under the assault of the Right. We live as if we are isolated in a cave waiting to die. As in that apocryphal story, if God was not in the earthquake or the fire, then our focus is not to be on the Christian Right or the fundamentalists, but rather on our God.

This gathering is not about answering Bible proof texting or word games, but rather on the Incarnate Word. I know you and I are tired of Pat Robertson and Reed and Company. We are tired of Newt and Company, and Buchanan (the other Pat). I am tired of trying to respond to them, reacting to them, and opposing them, because it takes my energy and focus and just gives me anger which damages my ability to focus on God.

Our call to be a progressive community that understands faith in a broader perspective is not one that is a reactionary call or even a call to battle. The call is not against anything, but rather for the nurturing of God’s people, for their inclusion, for hospitality. It is for the opening of our hearts and minds and spirits and the opening of the doors where we are gathered as the people of God. The call is to celebrate, to honor, to love, to grow. The call is to, of, from, by, and for God in our midst. This is what we are to be for. This is what will energize us. It is time for us to move away from the tiring us/them arena and to rediscover God and tocelebrate God and the diversity around us.

I get tired when I think I’m fighting those other folks. I get tired just like Elijah. But there is a spiritual that I love and that I love to quote.It is an old spiritual, and I guess my sisters should know it with me: “I don’t feel no ways tired” when I think about God’s love and mercy, when I think about God’s creating us, a rainbow of people, and I don’t mean just color. “I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come too far from where I’ve started from.

Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don’t believe that God has brought me this far to leave me.” God has given us too much in the gospel. God has given us too much of God’s self on that cross for us to stay in the cave when we feel alone or when we are being assaulted. With the gift that God has given us in the message of the gospel, with that gift is a challenge for us to focus on the needs of the people around us in a search for meaning.

While we note that there are pain and alienation and damage done to people in the name of Christ, and while we can observe that the gospel has been distorted and that it does suffer, our call isn’t so much as to control it, but rather to respond to it.

There is a Bishop with whom I don’t always agree, but—in addressing the issue of racism and sexism, elitism and the narrow vision that often is applied by the church and to the church—he has said that Christianity was born in Jerusalem and became a faith community. It then washed up on the shores of Greece and became a philosophy. It then marched on across the Alps and down to Rome where it became an institution. Then it continued to travel across Europe to the British Isles where it became a culture. And then finally it disembarked here on the shores of America where it has become an enterprise.

The challenge before us is to move it from that enterprise into an open environment, an ecology where people can assemble and make community that reflects the realm of God, community where the center of meaning surrounding God is open and accepted and continual discovery. The challenge before us is to make ourselves instruments of progress for moving today’s society from a limited understanding of the gospel, from passive restrictions and no prohibitions and the selfishness that seems to hold it captive. The challenge is to do that not as a reaction against it, but rather as an embracing of an ecology of life, an environment where we learn and live the kingdom of God and support one another, a kingdom where all know that we are created in God’s image and that we are connected to one another and that God seeks us in as many different ways as we are different from each other.

This is a lot of challenge before us: to sustain such an environment that welcomes the unknowing, the voiceless, the un-cared for, the abused, the frightened, the marginalized, and the uncertain. But it is something to embrace, not something to move against. For the gospel tells us we are to be the people who want to be with God, who speak up. It is our role to be with people seeking God and with God who seeks people.

In The Politics of Meaning Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism, Michael Lerner has laid out the map, the terrain of what’s before us. Lerner says that religious traditions and spiritual communities have come to be seen as those places where people are demeaned when they disagree with the establishment, places where the church and Christianity seem to be an instrument of domination and control which advances and serves self interest of the elite.

It appears that the church has sanctified inequality and intolerance. Those inside the church know that, too. And the landscape has made too many of us cynical more than skeptical. Because cynicism says, “Why bother?” But skepticism says, “What can we possibly learn from this?” Cynicism is part of the terrain we must travel together, but cynicism has a lethal quality about it. As Lerner says, it disempowers us, and where there is powerlessness, there is corruption. For then we see each other as competitors, and our focus is distorted.

Being progressive means coming out of the cave to look and to see that indeed there are religious traditions, there are spiritual seekings. There are places for spiritual seekings, for mining the very depths of our faith tradition. There are places that still and will continue to struggle against the existing hierarchies that tend, as Lerner says, to manipulate our spiritual language so that power may be maintained.

So, the challenge before us is big and large. It is to create a living ecology. Part of that is within the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. Part of that challenge is worded in the Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Diversity of People, which says that we must give thanks to God for enriching our lives and that we must enrich the lives around us by ever widening circles of community. We must see God’s presence in those who differ most from us, who differ from us most. The challenge is not about us-or-them, liberal-or-conservative, or about being against something, but rather it is about being for God’s love and for God’s presence in the love that makes us perfect when we love one another.

Finally, Lerner says something that I think is very important to that concept of ever widening circles. He says that if we go about that task, we will be going opposite to the dynamics of today’s society, where the flow is to create smaller and smaller circles. In our society, the good life means to limit our caring to the smallest circle possible, our immediate families. But yet, he says, much of what we want most in the world — loving relationships, mutual recognition, friendship based on loyalty and commitment, physical and emotional safety, a sense of meaning for our lives — cannot be sustained in a world that is continually narrowing the circles of caring, because this very process narrows and creates an echo of selfishness that undermines loving relationships, our relationship with God, and our search for meaning.

So, my sisters and brothers, as my great-grandmother would say, “Children, get ready! Don’t worry about what others do to you, but rather what you and I will do in Jesus’ name.” Get out of the cave and get the others that they may come out, too, and be renewed, that they may rediscover, may articulate, may be empowered, and may empower others. Talk across boundaries. Focus on the word and its full concept, on the word and its incarnation. Refrain from what Lerner calls the essence of idolatry — letting what is today define what could be.

So, children, let us be hence. Let us get out of our cave. And let us not feel no ways tired, because we have come too far from where we started from. Nobody told us that the road would be easy or well-defined. We don’t believe God’s died on a cross to abandon us. We don’t believe God’s forgiveness is limited. We don’t believe God has brought us this far to leave us.

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