Pentecost 3, Year C
Readings:1 Kings 18:20–21, (22–29), 30–39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1–12; Luke 7:1–10
People like me are fond of quoting Margaret Mead, the line about changing the world: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Ministers like that one. Lots of people like it. It feels empowering, especially when one’s group is small. And who doesn’t want to change the world, or think of themselves as thoughtful and committed.
Today is about faith. Our bible stories are about the power of faith. Before we leave Ms. Mead, though, perhaps we should hear some of her lesser known quotes. She was an anthropologist. Much of her early work was on the cultural basis of sex roles. Then she investigated the influence of biology on male and female behaviors. Later she gained prominence as a lecturer and writer on family and child‑rearing issues.
There’s this quote from Margaret Mead about choices: “It may be necessary temporarily to accept a lesser evil, but one must never label a necessary evil as good.” Then there’s this one about modern times that seems to require a bit more explanation: “Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump: you have to get it right the first time.” Here’s one that sounds like a Buddhist koan, a mysterious statement that is intended to get us thinking. “Even though the ship may go down, the journey goes on.” The next one applies to everyone, even thoughtful, committed people who want to change the world: “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”
And finally, there is one that makes a preacher tremble. Here’s the last Margaret Mead quote: “If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve‑year‑old can understand it, one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one's subject matter.”
What can we state clearly about faith? What can we understand? There are many healing stories in the gospels, and elsewhere in the bible. There are many stories about competition between the Jewish faith and other faiths in Old Testament times. The healing stories usually feature a line about faith–the faith of a parent or the person who is ill him- or herself. There aren’t any other stories like this one about Elijah and the prophets of Baal: the bulls, the water, the sarcasm, the fire from heaven. The issue was drought. The people had a beef with God, and so the king turns to religious leaders for help, non-Jewish priests. The passage we read stops with the dramatic consuming of all the wet wood, the wet meat, even the stones by fire. What happens next after this passage is terrifying and revolting. Elijah orders the arrest of all four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and kills them all in the Wadi Kishon, one of the dry river beds of Israel. Then Elijah tells the king, here comes the rain for a thirsty land. First a little cloud, “like your hand,” says the prophet, and finally a deluge follows, filling the valleys and soaking the fields, giving life to the people.
These days we’re so much more advanced than this kind of naked contempt and violence. We don’t compete with other faiths and murder their prophets, unless we’re talking about drone strikes on distant teachers and commanders of a certain militant form of Islam. These days we don’t pour sarcasm on the leaders of other faith communities, unless it’s the television evangelists. Faith was not easy then, and it’s not easy now.
According to 1 Kings, prophetic leadership was almost extinct in Ahab’s day. Elijah claimed he was the only one left. Certainly he was the one who least afraid of Ahab and Jezebel. She had been ordering the murder of the prophets of Yahweh. The story is to show Elijah’s power, and especially to show Yahweh’s power. Never mind those false prophets. They can’t help you. The bible spends a lot of time on what happens during the time of bad rulers, and what becomes of them. The goal for the nation is so lofty. We can almost hear the bible writers gritting their teeth as years, sometimes generations are lost off on some dead end.
The Jesus story is a little different. Jesus has power, clearly, but he hears the witness of the centurion, according to Luke, and likes the analogy of being able to give order to unclean spirits so that people can be restored to health. The writer gets in a little shot at faith in Israel as the incident winds up: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Zing. All this tells us is that details such as this reveal that the story goes with the church’s later mission to Gentiles, not that Jesus was dissing his fellow Jews. There was a healing. The person who is sick is a slave, or a servant or a son of the officer, depending on whether we’re reading Luke, Matthew or John. The details vary, in other words.
A dramatic confrontation between religions. A story of healing, the healing of a gentile. Where does this leave us? We have weather and climate issues these days. We sometimes feel like the last remaining faithful few. We know of people who need healing. We may need healing ourselves. Some parallels, in other words, with bible times. To go back to Margaret Mead, did we get it right in the twentieth century, with all our decisions about weapons, chemicals, geo-politics, health, agriculture, greenhouse gases and so on? Are we careful about labelling necessary evils as evil, and not kidding ourselves that they are good? And if the ship is going down, what will the rest of the journey look like?
Last week we began a conversation as a church, a conversation about our purpose. It’s been a generation since people at Glen Rhodes put together the What Makes Us Tick statement on the front of our bulletins each week. Much has changed since those days, but many things have not. It turns out you are still very inspired by that statement. It still says things about this community that satisfy you and challenge you. You would be interested in a shorter version of it in addition, a condensing, a summary that is both vital and memorable. The conversation continues. Can we state our purpose “clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve‑year‑old can understand it”?
At the heart of the conversation is our faith. Who is Christ for us? What do we think about someone like Elijah, so sure of himself as has the meat, the wood, the stones doused with water and still expects the whole thing to go up in flames without any human source of ignition? What do we think about the man, the generous Centurion, in the Luke story, and his confidence in Jesus, his faith that his slave, or servant, or son could be made better? One question for us seems to be about our future. Does God have a purpose for this congregation? That’s the easy question. Of course there is a purpose for a progressive, caring, big hearted Christian community in this neighbourhood. A second question is closer to the bone for many of us. How ready are we to follow God’s leading? We need to be able to state our faith clearly, too.
We are all consumers. We are all caught up in daily routines and cares. We are all people with aches and pains and worries and frustrations. And we are citizens of a world of blessings, a world of peace and justice. We are immersed in little matters and we are immersed in a beautiful vision of something else. We live in tension. We live between the one and the other. What to put in the garden, how you will pay all your bills, whether to get the brown cushion or the orange one for the couch–these things are important. When we join with others in holy conversation here, other things take priority. What call are we hearing–from God and from our neighbours? How are we being faithful to those calls already, and might there be some things we need to start, or stop, or change?
And at the heart of all that thinking about mission, do we expect that God, the Spirit, Christ will be involved, in our conversation together, and in our mission? “Answer me, O God, answer me, so that this people may know that you are God, and that you have turned their hearts back,” says Elijah. “Sovereign, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” says the Centurion. Answer us, O God. Speak the word, O Christ.
We make our offerings. Not usually large animals on the hoof these days. We have beefs with the Mystery at the source of all things. And we long for, we pray for, we hope for blessings to come our way, for the planet and for the hurting people of this corner of the world. Our faith does not have to be epic. It does not have to be perfect. It does need to be examined, shared, honoured. You can do that. We can do that. It will be intense. It will be exhilarating. It will be fun. We’re a small group. We’re committed. Let’s see if we can change the world.