The Lord Indeed is God

1 Kings 18:20-39

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.  When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”

 

The city was in ruins.

Nearly deserted by the people, its houses sat empty and its streets laid bare, littered with the debris of a war that had raged through the country until it had destroyed nearly everything of value.

It seemed, quite literally, a city of the dead.

And as history tells it, it was on a Monday morning that spring, amongst the ruins of war, that nearly 10,000 slaves marched their way onto the old Washington Race Course, a horse racing venue turned prison camp, where hundreds of union soldiers had died.

For two weeks, they worked to bury the soldiers, 257 graves for men who died of exposure and malnourishment. And as they dug, children sang hymns—John Brown’s Body, the Star Spangled Banner, America—while their pastors preached and the people strewed the ground with flowers.

Long before Memorial Day, these men and women laid flowers on graves to honor the dead. To remember their fight. To give thanks for their sacrifice, a civil war fought in part so that they might be free.May28NYTimes_MemorialDay_Fin.jpeg

It is easy to forget the lessons of a holiday whose cost is distant to modern eyes. Easy to forget that a holiday like Memorial Day has to be because so many young lives are not. Happens because so many wars continue to be fought, not just on our soil, but in distant lands we may never see and can too easily forget

And as I reflect on this weekend, when many will lay flowers on graves, join in parades, or disappear to the beaches, I am struck by the recognition that it is only by remembering days such as Memorial Day, that we can begin to imagine a world that is otherwise.

And I am reminded of this fact today by no other than the remarkable prophet Elijah.

In the Scripture for today, you see, the nation of Israel is at a crossroads. As long as there have been kings, these powerful men have been synonymous with the voice of God. David, Solomon—they have, more often than not, led the people closer to God, and the people have followed gratefully.

But the Israel of Elijah’s time is a shadow of its former self. Infighting and politics have fractured the kingdom. They are a people divided–a north and a south, two kings who bicker and fight and then make up again, until the next time.  The people of Jerusalem now follow King Ahab, whose moral relativism has led them farther and farther from God. Scripture tells us that his wife Jezebel, a Sidonian (and therefore an outsider to the people of God) has not only encouraged the worship of foreign gods; she has murdered the priests of the Lord when they have spoken against Ahab.  For this and more Scripture tells us that the people have suffered under a punishing drought, and their desperate cries have reached to the heavens.

And it is into this vulnerable moment that Elijah comes. Out of the desert, seemingly out of nowhere, he arrives on the scene to call the people back to God. Back to faithfulness. Back to their story.

1 Kings is such a rich story, and there is so much that could be said about what happens in these moments, but for now, I think what is important for us to hear is this: that Elijah’s actions on Mount Carmel remember the people to themselves.elijah.gif

To a people who have forgotten who and whose they are, Elijah offers them the opportunity to remember the God of Israel. To remember the promise of the covenant. To remember, in other words, that there is another way than the path that they have tread up to this moment.

To illustrate what is at stake, Elijah arranges a contest between the Gods.  On one side stands Elijah.  Against him are hundreds of priests of Baal, whose job it will be to call the god down from his sleep.  And they take this job quite seriously.  As they cut them selves, as they cry out and limp around their altar, as they beg and plead and cry, I am reminded of how often I fall into the trap of depending on my own actions, my own perceived “faithfulness” to make a way in this world. How often do we tell myself that our success is dependent on how good I am? How often do I blame myself when I cannot force my life or my world to conform to my vision for it? How often do I blame leaders–in the church, in this country, in this world–when they fail to single-handedly implement their high-minded rhetoric?

And then I contrast this tendency towards self-sufficiency with Elijah, who, drawing the people closer to him, takes his time as he carefully repairs the altar of God. Twelve stones, for twelve tribes. Remember the covenant, he whispers. So calm, so assured, I almost hold my breath reading it now.

And when all is ready, the table set, the story–our story–remembered, the people close to God’s altar, Elijah prays. Not for victory. Not for power. But for God to be present, “so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” And the fire consumes. And the people remember. And they cannot forget again.


This memorial day, as politicians and elected officials cry out for peace even as they sanction the machine of war, we would do well to remember who deserves our trust. We would do well to remember that they are not God. That we are not God.

We would do well to remember that the God we worship is the God who called us not to war, but to service. Not to victory, but to faithfulness. Not to power, but to the Kingdom of God, where there is no war, no tears, and where death has no sting.

Let us not forget this, as we mourn those whose lives have been lost in service to the powers of this world, and let us pray to God for the Kingdom, even as we labor for peace in this peaceless world.28a78d3b4a5cd3f2c00b539184793858.jpg

 

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The Troubled Peace of the Cemetery

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.

Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.

Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.

Peace is the generous,

tranquil contribution of all

to the good of all.

Peace is dynamism.

Peace is generosity.

It is right and it is duty.

-Oscar Romero

What is it about cemeteries that folks find so peaceful?  As I have approached the annual observance of Memorial Day, my mind has been drawn to the ways in which our culture so often equates silence with peace.  And there is nothing that seems more quiet or peaceful than a big, sprawling cemetery.

Mount_Auburn_Cemetery_2.JPGWhen I was in seminary in Cambridge, my friends would often walk down Mt. Auburn to the cemetery.  Heck, I even went on a first date there (surprisingly, a walk in a cemetery is a great way to get to know someone).  We treated that cemetery like a park, and indeed it was one of the few substantial, wooded, secluded areas where one could go to enjoy the sensation of escaping from the sound and fury of graduate school.

There amongst the flora and fauna, it was easy to believe that this place was more than just a cemetery.  And indeed, those who care for it claim it as far more than a resting place for the dead.  According to their website, “a National Historic Landmark, a botanical garden, an outdoor museum of art and architecture, and an important habitat for urban wildlife.” Gravestones are no longer simply markers for the dead–they are works of art.  The people who are interred there? Stories that connect us to our rich and varied past.

And certainly, this cemetery (and many others as well) is incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  It is easy to imagine that those who grieved their loved ones sought it out for the rest that they believed it would grant their dearly departed.

But I would venture to offer that there is far more going on in the cemetery than perhaps we like to admit.  Too often, what makes a cemetery seem peaceful is the absence of, well, people.  To forget that one is surrounded not only by nature, but by the souls of the dead.  And that not all of these souls went quietly into the night.

arlington-875457_960_720.jpgFor me, this disquieting fact rings most true in military cemeteries.  For there is little I can think of that is as sobering as Arlington Cemetery’s 634 acres of nearly identical tombstones marking the final resting places of over 300,000 fallen soldiers.  Or the knowledge that the fields at Gettysburg are drenched in the century-old blood of 10,000 men.  These places are not peaceful to me.  For me, they call to mind the peacelessness of silent cemeteries which Oscar Romero recalled when he spoke of our Christian duty to seek the Kingdom of God, over and against the violence of this world.

Timothy_H._O'Sullivan_-_Field_Where_General_Reynolds_Fell,_Gettysburg.jpg
The field at Gettysburg

For me, to stand at a memorial, or walk through a military cemetery, is to remember the cost of human conflict. To remember that this is what the world promises.  This is the only guarantee of military aggression–more white crosses dotting a hill.  More dead children mourned as a flag is folded.  We can give thanks for their love of country, for their obedience to the uniform, for their desire to make the world better through service to their country.  But we cannot mistake the stillness of their bodies and the quiet of the grave for anything close to peace or tranquility. Theirs is a silent and unending cry, which shouts to we who would stop and see: “THIS is the cost of war.”

What We Do Not See: A Sermon for Memorial Day

who-pays-1Holidays like Memorial Day are interesting in my house—it’s one of the of those times of year when my husband and I get into some interesting conversations. You see, he is a professor of political science at UPENN, and his research focuses on war. He studies war quantitatively, which means that he ends up looking at a lot of statistical data. Things like, “how many deaths occurred on this battlefield in this month between these two countries?” His computer contains excel spreadsheets that go page after page after page, detailing battle deaths for every month of every conflict going back as far as there are decent records to rely on.

But what is interesting to me is how few of those conflicts, especially when it comes to the United States, are actually considered wars by our countries. It turns out that the last time our congress officially declared war was when we entered World War II in 1942, which means that, technically speaking, every “conflict” that we have engaged in since isn’t a war by a certain standard. The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Balkans War, the First Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan—none of them are wars, at least according to Congress.

And all I can think is: if those aren’t wars, then I don’t know what is.

Turns out there are a lot of different definitions for what counts as a war out there. And according to those definitions, right now we are currently fighting somewhere between 0 and 134 wars.

The case for zero: we haven’t declared war since 1942 so there has been no war since then.

The case for at least 6: if what counts as war is extensive military incursion, without necessarily being declared war as such by congress, then we are at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen and Syria.

The case for as many as 134: this represents the number of countries that the United States had special operations forces in as of September 2014. These forces can be doing anything from actually fighting, to training or providing support to military forces in other countries.

It is almost as if the world is a battlefield, and we are in the midst of it.

Now, not so long ago, it was difficult to avoid the realities of war in this country. Americans felt the cost of war—Americans were drafted into military service, and families endured rationing of food and basic supplies.

Things are somewhat different today. For starters, those who serve in the military are all volunteers. Unlike Vietnam, no one serves who doesn’t wish to.

But it turns out that there is a cost to a volunteer military force—those of us who do not wish to see the war, do not have to, either. When there is no threat of a draft, it is easy to live your life as though the actions of the military have little or no consequence. In a world where rationing is unnecessary and the draft is gone, the reality that our nation continues to engage in acts of war around the world gets pushed beyond the front page of the news, until we forget that we are fighting anywhere at all.

Which leaves those who serve in our armed forces to bear the burden of conflict alone. It has been said that those who serve in the military these days comprise the “other 1%,” and that small fraction of our nation bears the cost of war and conflict in their bodies, their communities, and their families.

They are the ones who know that in 2014, we lost 60 members of our armed forces during active service. They know that this year, only two service members have died while deployed thus far.

But there is another number that tells a darker story of the wounds that our military servicemen and women bear. 288. That is the number of suicides recorded among active-duty personnel in 2014. For the last five years, that number has hovered around 300, or about 30 deaths per 100,000 soldiers, which is 2.5 times as high as the rate for the general population. And this does not even take into account the number of soldiers alive today who struggle with psychic and physical wounds sustained on the battlefield–from PTSD and traumatic brain injury to chemical weapons injuries and the loss of limbs.

How heavy must the burden be that service men and women carry. To choose to serve, and then to discover that nobody knows the cost. These men and women are the ones who see what we would rather not—they serve in places we only hear of on television, they risk their lives in response to orders from high above them, subject themselves to conditions of deep risk, uncertainty, violence. They engage with communities where malnutrition and disease regularly claim the lives of the weak. They experience untold horror of killing another human being, and of seeing fellow humans killed, and are expected to make sense of it. They see what is invisible to us, and in doing so, many of them become less visible to us. We look beyond them, for they remind us of what we would rather not know—that, in the name of peace, we continue to kill each other, and use young men and women to do so.

We who serve Jesus Christ are called not to look away from the awful truths of war. We are called to open our eyes and see the truth that violence births in the world, to stand alongside the “other 1%” and carry their burden with them. We are called not to look away from that which is uncomfortable, but rather to know the cost that military violence incurs in the world. To mourn the loss of life through conflict, and suicide, and hope deferred. To remember that Jesus, who called us to be peacemakers, called on us not only to pray for peace, but to actively pursue it. To not just imagine a world in which war is a memory, but to labor on behalf of peace until we live in a world where the total number of deaths in active service is zero.

I think we can start by listening to our brothers and sisters who have chosen to serve. I heard an interview this week with veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who shared that the best thing that we can do for servicemen and women is to get to know them. To build relationships with veterans who live in our neighborhoods, hire them in our businesses, care about them as individuals. For when we know them, when we hear their stories, perhaps we can begin to understand the cost of the wars that we all too easily ignore.

 The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of God endures forever. Amen.

One Cost of Military Violence

This list represents those who died during active, deployed service to the United States of America in 2014 through May 2015. The list is divided by branch of the military, and includes information about how the serviceman or woman died, as well as the country in which he or she was deployed at the time of his or her death. Overall, this list represents 60 deaths in 2014, and 2 in 2015 (so far). It does not include the 288 suicides of active military in 2014. The information in this list was found by searching the database of Military Times at “Honor the Fallen.”

Army

Specialist John M Dawson: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Wyatt Martin: IED, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st class Ramon S. Morris: IED, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt. Matthew Ammerman: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Joseph W Riley: Vehicle Borne IED, Afghanistan

Sgt. Major Wardell Turner: Vehicle Borne IED, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class Michael A Cathcart: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Major Jonathan D. Walker: non-combat related causes, Qatar

Sgt 1st Class Andrew T Weathers: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Major Michael J Donahue: suicide Car Bomb Attack, Afghanistan

Specialist Brian K Arsenault: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Sgt Christopher W Mulalley: noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class Matthew I Leggett: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Sgt. 1st Class Samuel C Hairstron: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Major Harold J Greene: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Girard D Gass, Jr.: noncombat incident while on patrol, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Donnell A Hamilton, Jr.: illness sustained in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Benjamin G Prange: IED, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Keith M Williams: IED, Afghanistan

Corporal Justin R Clouse: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Specialist Justin R Helton: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Specialist Terry J Hume: noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Jason A McDonald: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Scott R Studenmund: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Private Aaron S Toppen: aircraft friendly fire, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Matthew H Walker: died in combat, Afghanistan

Captain Jason B Jones: died in combat, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Jacob H Wykstra: aircraft accident, Afghanistan

Specialist Adrian M Perkins: noncombat injury, Jordan

Command Sgt Major Martin R Barreras: died in combat, Afghanistan

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Deric M Rasmussen: noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Specialist Daniela Rojas: noncombat illness, Germany

Specialist Christian J Chandler: died in combat, Afghanistan

Sargeant Shawn M Farrell II: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Kerry MG Danyluk: died in combat, Afghanistan

Captain James E Chaffin III: died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Specialist John A Pelham: died in combat, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class Roberto C Skelt: died in combat, Afghanistan

Private 1st Class Joshua A Gray: Died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Specialisit Christopher A Landis: died in combat, Afghanistan

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Edward Balli: died in combat, Afghanistan

Specialist Andrew H Sipple: died in noncombat incident, Afghanistan

Staff Sgt Daniel T Lee: Died in combat, Afghanistan

Sgt Drew M Scoble: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan

Sgt 1st Class William K Lacey: Died in Combat, Afghanistan (rocket attack)

Air Force

Captain William H DuBois: Aircraft crash, Middle East

Master Sgt David L Poirier: noncombat death, undisclosed location in SW Asia

Tech. Sgt Anthony E Salazr: non combat incident, SW Asia

Navy

Commander Christopher E Kalafut:: noncombat related incident, Qatar

Lt JG Stephen Byus: Suicide Car Bomb, Afghanistan

Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Yeshabel Villot-Carrasco: non-hostile causes, Red Sea

Marines

Lance Corporal Sean P Neal: noncombat related causes, Iraq

Corporal Jordan L Spears: lost at sea, North Arabian Gulf

Sgt Charles C Strong: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Sgt Thomas Z Spitzer: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Lance Corporal Brandon J Garabrant: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Staff Sgt David H Stewart: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Lance Corporal Adam F Wolff: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Lance Corporal Caleb L Erickson: Suicide bomber attack, Afghanistan

Master Sgt Aaron C Torlan: IED, Afghanistan

Sgt Jacob M Hess: Died in Combat in Afghanistan

Wyoming Natl Guard

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew L McAdams: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew L McAdams: Died in aircraft crash, Afghanistan

Memorial Day Prayer on Trinity Sunday

In the quietness of our own hearts,let each of us name and call on the Triune God, whose power over us is great and gentle, firm and forgiving, holy and healing…

You, Holy God, who created us, who sustain us, who call us to live in peace, hear our prayer this day.

Hear us as we pray for all who have died, whose hearts and hopes are known to you alone…

Hear us, as we pray for those who put the welfare of others ahead of their own—those who have heard your calls for justice on behalf of the oppressed, the poor, and the downtrodden; those who have sought to do your will throughout the ages even at the risk of danger to themselves— We pray that give us hearts as generous as theirs, that we too might see your children when they cry out for the Kingdom that you promise is on its way…

Hear us, as we pray for those of all nationalities who have given their lives in the service of others—for those who have suffered and died on battlefields distant and near to our own shores, and for those who will die today in battles that are raging still. We pray for all people who give their lives in service, and whose names are held in our hearts and for those whose names are known only in Your heart. Help us to remember them with gratitude, just as we lament the human conditions that make war a reality.

Hear us, as we pray for those still living whose service inflicts deep wounds on the soul. We pray for the many veterans of worldwide war who live with the horror of lost friends and comrades, and who struggle to return from the battlefield whole. Grant us compassion and understanding, that we may shine the loving and welcoming light of Christ in their path as they seek healing and wholeness in your arms.

Almighty God, help us to shape and make a world where we will lay down the arms of war and turn our swords into ploughshares for a harvest of justice and peace… help us in the name of Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit to bring forth your kingdom where war is no more and death has no power, where all are healed and tears are dried. Grant us the vision to see your Kingdom and pursue it.

Comfort those who grieve the loss of their loved ones and let your healing be the hope in our hearts…help us as we seek to help your grieving children. Hear our prayer this day and in your mercy answer us.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.