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FINDING YOUR VOICE UNDER A SILENT HEAVEN[1]

1 Kings 18.17-49   Psalm 96    Galatians 1.1-12   John 6.53-71

June 2, 2013

Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey

It is wonderful to hear “God Bless America” being sung these days at ball parks, hockey rinks, and race tracks.  In the face of horrific acts of random violence, it is a testimony to our determination, our stamina, our grit as Americans.  As a someone who loves his country, I am proud to be an American and to sing what has become our second national anthem.

But I must tell you that with my ears I hear a new and strange undertone coming out of my voice and mingling with the voices from other singers around me.  What I am hearing may not ring true with you.    I, however, hear notes of lament creeping in to “God Bless America.”  I’m afraid that we are using “God Bless America” to lament over the loss of an America we will never get back in the way we once knew it.   Despite a glorious 1776 feet of the new One World Trade Center, the images of 9/11 are burned into our psyche.  Much more was destroyed in Boston than the killing and the wounding and the maiming.  Much more in the shootings in Colorado, Connecticut, and New Orleans.

If we could sit down and talk about this, we’d each have important things to say about how we feel about this.  But I suspect that our individual observations, when taken together, would show that we can no longer tell the story of what it means to live as an American as we did once upon a time.  Something of that story has been taken away by bombings and killings and suicide planes.  Something has been taken away by the realization that we have been betrayed.  This story, which has shaped and dominated our lives, has been damaged.  It has left us psychically crippled, emotionally hobbled, and spiritually shamed.  It is our lamentation for that loss that I voice and hear others voicing when we sing “God Bless America.”

Because we are Americans as well as believers in God, we are crushed twice over by this loss.  Like in our song, God and America go hand-in-hand in the story of being an American.  Americans call on God to bless so many things.  We call upon God to protect us.  We call upon God to bring our military victory in battle.  We call upon God to make us rich.  We call upon God to endorse our grandiose plans to be the only and unsurpassed power of the planet.  God and America are intertwined in a cozy togetherness so that what happens to America happens to God.

Consequently, when we are attacked by bombs or assault rifles, when planes become missiles, when we struggle to justify all that we have spent and lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, when we are still worse off economically today than we were five years ago, what is the conclusion we draw about God?  We call on God to bless America, but the heavens are silent to our cries.  So when we sing, “God Bless America,” are we really singing, “God, Are You There?”?  Something has happened to the story of God and America on which we based our lives.  Here is what I think has happened.  The god of cozy togetherness has evaporated into the god of irrelevant aloofness, leaving us psychically crippled, emotionally hobbled, and spiritually shamed.

Now I have never been crippled.  But I know people who suffer from one degree of handicap or another.  I know that you are always anxious about being unsteady.  You are scared of hurting yourself even more.  I know that you suffer under the disapproving and embarrassed looks of others.  I know that not only are you in pain at the point of your handicap but also that your handicap can throw other parts of your body out of line, so that you get all out of whack and your pain intensifies all over your body.  I know that being crippled subjects you to strong influences to withdraw; to retreat into loneliness, silence and depression.  I know that you can hate the feeling of being a crippled so much that you are driven to act out your hatred in vicious and destructive ways.  But this doesn’t happen only on an individual level.   Look around and you can see how this is happening in a country which is psychically crippled, emotionally hobbled, and spiritually shamed.  The god of cozy togetherness has evaporated into the god of remote aloofness.

So, my friends, at a different time and in a faraway place Elijah gathers the children of Israel together and asks them, “How do you like living as a nation of cripples?  How long do you see yourselves living as nation of handicapped people?  Can you imagine an alternative and better way to live?” And when they are silent, Elijah shows them why they cannot answer him.

The people are silent to Elijah because the heavens are silent.  Their god in the heavens is the cozy togetherness god.  The religion they are following promises security through technological manipulation and exalts earth, blood and productivity as the basis for self-respect.  They call their religion Baalism.  It is the religion of self-invention, competitive productivity and self-sufficiency.  The priests of Baal, all 450 of them, hobble around the altar for hours.  The heavens were silent to their cries.  Apparently, they did not know what to make of it, so Elijah supplied them with some suggestions.  “Perhaps he is asleep or has gone on a journey or is answering the call of nature.”  The god of cozy togetherness has become the god of distant indifference.  This was galling.  So they girded themselves for a great surge of religious ferocity.  But the sky was a brass bowl which bounced back in mocking echoes the shrieks of the priests.  Finally they collapse in a bloody heap.

“Is this the way you want your story to turn out?” Elijah asks the people who have watched this debacle.  “How do you like living as a nation of cripples?” The people are silent, the people are paralyzed, the people have no voice, no vision, no say in what happens to them because the god of their religion has left them on their own with no plans beyond what they can accomplish through their own power, their own productivity and their own sufficiency.  They have simply run out of options.  When the priests of Baal implore Baal to do something new, to give them some different, fresh options, the cozy god has gone away.  Consequently, the people are doomed to silence, to a future devoid of imagination and alternative.  They can only lament what is lost.  They cannot imagine anything new.

But the God who can imagine something new is precisely the God that Elijah demonstrates to his nation of silent cripples.  Elijah’s God is the people’s long-forgotten God.  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   The God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s story with this God shows that the signature act of this God is to make a way out of no way.  In the story of these families, God made a way out of no way when it seemed that the string of life was about to run out, when it seemed that extinction was ready to swallow them up.  God made a way out of no way when it became so plain how human efforts to preserve safety only made matters worse.  Elijah creates an opportunity for the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Rachel to reintroduce God’s self to this nation of silent cripples by making a way out of no way.  Elijah re-presents this God all over again.

Elijah’s altar is soaked through and through, drenched with hundreds of gallons of water.  Only Elijah kneels in front of this altar to pray a quiet and confident prayer.  And the heavens are no longer silent.  What was literally unimaginable under normal circumstances happens.  What was certifiably impossible becomes certainty.  What was impenetrably beyond the realm of thought is now a live option.  Suddenly silent people find their voice.  When the heavens speak, the people speak in a chorus of awe and doxology.  It is as if a deep wave of elation sweeps over people who can look death and despair in the face and proceed to defeat their power to capture them.  It is as if a deep wave of elation sweeps over people who get back a story that pulsates with hope, fresh imagination and lively alternatives.   Thus those who have this story can sing with the psalmist:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his faithfulness.

 

Our God makes a way for us out of no way, and we will not let anyone talk us out of this life-creating story.  It demands courage, conviction, vigilance, and resistance.  We cannot let anyone talk us out of this life-creating story of our God who makes a way for us out of no way. That story is the only story that lets us see our life for what it is—a rat-race of self-invention, competitive productivity and self-sufficiency.  We are so prone to violence when we do not get our way. Our only protection against resorting to violence is in sticking to the story of our God who makes a way for us out of no way.  It demands courage, conviction, vigilance and resistance.  Our only fountain of fresh thinking, original ideas, daring options, soaring aspirations is the story of the God who makes a way out of no way.  Every other story must be named for what it is, an agent of death, and we have to counter it with with courage, conviction, vigilance and resistance.

Jesus spoke about himself as that God who brings life to us by inviting us into his life.  His words of eating his flesh and drinking his blood were offensive to those who took him literally.  People who would consign God to an irrelevant transcendence have a hard time with Jesus’ insistence upon the closest communion with him.  People who imagine God in cozy togetherness have a hard time with Jesus’ putting his invitation to communion in terms of broken body and shed blood.   But the gods of irrelevant transcendence or cozy togetherness will rat out on a psychically crippled, emotionally hobbled, and spiritually shamed America.  Only the story of the God who makes a way of resurrection out of the no-way of the cross will equip us to get past being a nation of cripples.  As the disciple Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

 



[1] Works consulted for this sermon are: Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, Preaching an Emancipating Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012); idem, “Four Proclamatory Confrontations in Scribal Refraction,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 56 (2003), 404-426; Alexander Rofé, The Prophetical Stories, The Narratives about the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Their Literary Types and History (Jerusalem: The Magness Press, 1988); Gary Dorrien, “Consolidating the Empire: Neoconservatism and the Politics of American Dominion,” Political Theology, 6 (2005), 409-428.