Debra Hails of Hartlepool, England tells the following story:
I was waiting at a customer service station at the store when the woman in front of me was returning a disposable barbeque. When asked why she was returning it she replied, “There was no meat in it.” The shop assistant patiently explained that the disposable barbeque was simply to cook the meat and it did not include any food. Whereupon, the customer looked very embarrassed indeed. The assistant checked the receipt and asked: “There are 3 barbeques on here, are you returning the other two as well?” “I can’t,” said the woman, “they are at home in the freezer.”
Nothing says Memorial Day Weekend like a cookout. I don’t know if the framers of the Lectionary had this in mind when they assigned the first reading to this day, but it sure fits, what with the altars, the wood, the sacrifices, the inability to get the darn thing to light, and finally the blazing fire. I don’t know about you, but this reading makes me hungry and ready to do some grilling.
But the story known as ‘Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal’ is not intended to get us in the mood for a cookout. It arises from a serious situation, presents us with a serious question, and, in the end, raises other questions about the nature of religion that are deeply troubling.
Here is the background. It is the 9th Century BC and Ahab is the king of Israel. He is married to Jezebel, the daughter of a Phoenician king. Their parents arranged this marriage as part of the seal of a treaty between their two nations. Jezebel is a devoted adherent of Baal, the Canaanite god of rain and fertility. She sets up shrines to Baal and Asherah (his wife) all across the region and constructs a temple in the capital city of Samaria to be the worship center of her faith. Then she persecutes the people who worship the God of Israel; slaughtering leaders and prophets by the hundreds.
The prophet Elijah will have none of it. He confronts Ahab in the name of Yahweh – the true and living God – and pronounces a three-year drought on the land as a way to show the powerlessness of the Canaanite god of rain. Ahab sets out to kill Elijah who must stay on the run and fend for himself during this prolonged period of drought and famine.
Finally, with today’s reading, Elijah reappears and confronts Ahab on Mt. Carmel. All of Baal’ prophets are there and according to the text every Israelite is there too. The prophet, standing alone, confronts them, “Why do you go limping forward with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal, then follow him.”
Baal worship had at least two things going for it. First, it was tangible and material. You could have your own statue of Baal in your house. If it wasn’t working the way you wanted it to, you could trade it in for one bigger and better. The positive psychological effect was exactly what we experience today when we buy a new suit or a new sofa or a new cell phone. Material things have the ability to make us feel good, at least for a while. Israelite religion strictly forbad any kind of image of God. No part of the creation was allowed to stand in for the Creator. Baal worship, with its emphasis on material things, offered an alluring alternative.
And speaking of alluring, here was the second thing Baal worship had going for it: sex. It was woven right into the ritual of the service and much of the debauchery condemned throughout the Old Testament is in fact aimed at this practice.
So this sets the stage for the cookout contest. As weighty as Moses confronting Pharaoh, the destiny of the Yahweh faith hangs in the balance. Elijah gives every advantage to Baal’s followers. They set up their sacrifice and pray for hours, but there is no fire. Elijah mocks them: “Maybe your god went to beach for the weekend.” The prophets wail, they dance, they even injure their bodies, but nothing happens. Whatever pride and prestige they had is transformed into a bloody, impotent, pathetic mess.
“Why do you go on limping forward with two different opinions?” Elijah’s question to God’s people of that day is one we – God’s people today – need to ask ourselves. When, where, why, and how do we try to have it both ways: trying to be faithful to God while at the same time shading it a bit so we can make it more comfortable to us? Elijah’s image of limping suggests that trying to have it both ways does not lead to human flourishing. Ultimately it is detrimental to who God has created us to be.
Now it is Elijah’s turn to light his grill. Just as he gave his adversaries every advantage, he does everything he can to put himself at a disadvantage by pouring so much water over and around his altar that the sacrifice could almost float away. Then he prays to God and God’s fire falls with such force that it consumes not only the offering and the water-drenched wood, but even the stone altar itself. The people need no more proof. They cry out, “The Lord is God indeed!” And with this the appointed reading comes an end, but not the story. In the very next verse, in an act of definitive judgment, the fire that consumes the offering consumes all of the prophets of Baal and Asherah – 850 people in all.
Taken at face value, this story seems to suggest our religion is the only ‘right’ one and, more than wrong, everyone who believes something different is going to die. The history of religious warfare is not very pretty and on this Memorial Day weekend those who have given their lives most recently have done so to defeat Islamic extremism. Is our religion the only right one? Is violence in the name of God every justified?
The gospel reading helps us to think about the first question. In it Jesus learns of a Roman Centurion whose beloved servant is dying. He knows of Jesus’ ability to heal and sends local elders to ask Jesus to come to his house. The elders say some remarkable things about the centurion: he is worthy of a visit, he loves our people, and he built our synagogue. The Roman soldier is not a Jew. We are not told anything about his personal religion and practice, but we certainly see the fruit of it. And while Jesus never actually meets him (he heals the servant from a distance) he says he has never found anywhere in all of Israel such an amazing, deep faith as the Roman’s.
Is our religion the only ‘right’ one? Well, according to this story there is a way to be an adherent to a different religion and yet still be a person of faith whose life is exemplary. It is possible to worship in a different way and still flourish as the person God created you to be.
Is violence in the name of God every justified? Just as the gospel proclaims there are good people in other faith traditions, the first reading reminds us there are those whose religious beliefs and practices call on them to harm, degrade, and kill others. Ahab and Jezebel did not just institute a different brand of religion. They hunted down and killed those who were faithful to Yahweh.
When a religious perspective leads to the persecution of a specific minority, all people of faith must speak up and act. When a religious perspective leads to violence, all people of faith must resist. When a religious perspective instigates indiscriminant violence and death, all people of faith must stand and work together to make the world safe for human flourishing. We must challenge religious violence and terror with methods and means consistent with God’s justice and righteousness. We do not meet terror and violence by becoming like those who mean to do us harm, but rather in ways consistent with who God created us to be.
Well, I could go on exploring these big questions for some time if I wanted, but how about I let what I have said marinate for a while and you can ponder them over your grill this weekend.