Text: 1 Kings 19:1-4,8-10
Statement of Worship
Good morning to the highways and the byways, the dirt roads and the cul-de-sacs, the way over yonder and the right next doors, wherever you have come from, you are welcome here.
This morning, we are honored to host Dr. Ekaputra Tupamahu. Dr. Tupamahu is an assistant professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary and George Fox University. A native Indonesian, he earned a master’s degree and an MDiv from Asia Pacific Theological Seminary, and master’s degrees from the Claremont School of Theology and Ph. D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Tupamahu has a broad range of academic interests, including the politics of language, race/ethnic theory, postcolonial studies, immigration studies, critical study of religion, and global Christianity (particularly Pentecostal/Charismatic movement). All these interests inform and influence the way he approaches the texts of the New Testament and the history of early Christian movement(s). I know Eka also as friend and comrade, and his life challenges me to be more open, more understanding, more compassionate.
Much of Dr. Tupamahu’s work centers around the place of language and the importance of that language as a signifier of identity and culture. Particularly his reading of New Testament underscores that living and existing in a multilingual society leads people to think and rethink themselves and their collective identity as people of faith. This is an important reminder as we reflect on why we gather weekly at the elven o’clock hour. We are not a group that gives idle talk to an ego-driven and distant deity, but a community that creates its values based on the divine presence found in all living creatures. Our time emphasizes the attributes and characteristics that bring worth to this place, to this life, and to this world. It is not stagnant, but, as we say, is ever becoming, and it causes us to think and rethink, say and re-say, move and move again in order to be a vibrant people creating a justice-centered, love-abounding, and peace-filled world. Eka, thank you for being among us and sharing your talents and gifts. We hope that this place, because of our lives together, will always be a place where we can all be transformed.
Would you please rise as you are able and join me in the morning contemplation and call to worship.
Recently, I had a birthday, and I am now of a certain age where I can make a rather judicious pronouncement: I have seen this before. The phrase is quite useful as it quells the overt excitement often found in younger people displaying their fashionable goods as if they were treasures that had been newly recovered from the ocean’s floor. “Look at my neon yellow sweatshirt with blue geometrical shapes, isn’t it cool?” “Yes, yes, yes. I have seen this before, “ I reply while having mild nostalgia for 1983. “Ooooooh, I love how high waisted these jeans are—awesome!” My nostalgia for the 80s slumps into a disdain for the early 90s as a I sigh, “Yes, I have seen this before.” From the resurgence of vinyl records to the revival of the wristwatch, I can summarize their newly found place in society with, “Well, I have seen this before.”
This phrase is also useful beyond the realm of sartorial choices. On June 14th I read the following CNN Headline, “Tennessee Preacher-Cop Calls For Execution of LGBTQ People.” Grayson Fritts, a Baptist minister in Knoxville, called members of the LGBTQIA+ community, “sodomites,” “freaks,” and “filthy animals,” single-handedly stripping a group of people of their humanity with the quick onslaught of words. Citing Leviticus, Fritts continued his diatribe and demanded queer people be subject to federal trials and state executions solely based upon their gender identity and sexual orientation. In a fail swoop, Fritts bastardized the freedom of the church from the state, a belief held dearly by Baptists; he denied the inherent responsibility found within those Baptist traits of Biblical freedom and the priesthood of all believers; and he compromised the integrity of a justice system designed to protect all people. When faced with criticism, Fritts unapologetically returned to the pulpit the following Sunday with more incendiary speech. Less stunned than sickened, I looked over at Charles and uttered, “Well, I have seen this before.”
And we have seen this behavior before, again and again. From the hateful speech employed by Westboro Baptist Church targeting queer people to the loathsome excuses used by the current administration separating and detaining families at our southern borders, we have seen the weapons of words used to justify and sanctify hatred. We have seen the differences in our cultures exaggerated, caricatured, and stereotyped in ways that eradicate every ounce of humanity and attack it with a predatory vitriol and avarice. We have seen that unnerving brutality that strips someone of their given name only to substitute it with “vermin,” “roaches” or “trash”—-items that always need removal. We have had to bear witness to the absurdity of Japanese internment camps, the Jewish holocaust, the genocide of naive peoples, the enslaving of African-Americans, the demonization of the poor, ignoring the AIDS crisis, the list goes on. All excused and endorsed with words like “We don’t know what those people will do,” or “They will be the downfall of this community,” or “They are not like us,” He’s not like you,” “She’s not like me.”
This absurd and specious logic is where we find the prophet Elijah as he protests about Jezebel, “She’s not like us, she will be the demise of all of Israel!” His hatred becomes so consuming that he initiates a coup d’état that begins with the slaughtering of priests and continues with the ousting of the monarchs and the state murder of the queen. By this point, many of you are shaking your head and thinking, “Wait, isn’t Elijah the good guy; He’s the prophet? What did Jezebel do?”
Although the chronicler of Israelite history is not kind to this queen, we can look for other evidence to give us a more complete picture of her. Jezebel was a descendant from the Canaanites and an immigrant from Phoenicia, a place where her own customs and culture were woven into her daily existence. She grew up in a bustling port city that gathered peoples from all over the mediterranean, had diverse forms of worship, and established itself not with war and weaponry, but with diplomacy and trade. Once married, Jezebel encouraged her husband’s continued support of Samaria as the capital city, and she was influential in promoting religious tolerance among the Israelites. She adopted her husband’s religious identity and named her children using derivatives of the name Yahweh while keeping her own religious convictions as a priest of Ashera, the female god of creation often seen as the wife of many gods in the ancient near east, including Yahweh. We cannot say for certain of Jezebel’s self-reflection, but perhaps she considered herself as an ambassador who could help unite the two lands and bring about cultural pluralism, regional peace, and economic prosperity.
While the biblical text is quiet about this queen’s motives, it is thunderous about Elijah’s reasoning. Although he never meets her face-to-face, the prophet is certain in his thoughts and determined in his actions.
We cannot have a Caananite in Israel’s palace; their land belongs to us! There is no purity in an intermarriage with a woman who is not Jewish. We can only be holy in Jerusalem, nothing sacred is found in Samaria. Don’t bring your Ashera pole and female priests around here. We know our god! We have a god.
It doesn’t matter how Jezebel sees herself because Elijah writes her story bent to his own strident views of the sacred and the covenant. To him, Jezebel is an interloper disrupting his convictions and unsettling his beliefs. He is so threatened by this woman that he mounts a challenge worthy of reality television hijinks hosting a “god-off” between the priests in Jezebel’s temple and himself. He taunts, calls names, mocks, derides, sneers, lampoons, and scorns until the frenzy becomes completely untethered and he slaughters over 850 people.
Then we find Elijah in the most peculiar place: Mt Horeb or, as we also know it, Mt. Sinai, the place of the covenant. He is at that holy place where the fire, clouds, light, and smoke configured to provide Moses with a new way of life that was not about slavery in a foreign land, but about freedom in the unknown promise. He was at the place where god was redefined and reimagined beyond the statues and the stationary. He was at the place where the radiance was so life-giving that it transformed all who encountered it. Yet, now, this same place was cold and dark, and the prophet finds himself not on the mountain top, but in a cave hiding, and, for the first time in the story, Yahweh speaks. The words are neither demonstrative nor definitive; there is no certainty nor conclusion; we find no stance and statement. There is only a simple question, “What are you doing here?”
The inquiry creates a pause and we hope every reader of the story can comprehend its subtle inference. This is the place of covenant, that great agreement between the divine and the people to make the world more peaceful, more caring, more loving, and more sacred. This relationship is not a series of do’s and don’ts compiled into a checklist of righteousness, but it’s a way of living that binds you to yourself and others more fully. It is not about simply having no other god, but it is about the hard work of being committed to and searching for the sacred in us all. These agreements are not about the prohibition of god-like images, but understanding any glimpse of the holy is just a mere glance that will leave you searching for more. It goes well beyond not taking god’s name in vain and stretches into not causing any physical, psychological, or spiritual harm in the name of your faith. The question is haunting because we realize Elijah has turned the active, living, breathing, expanding covenant into a relentless and sterile fundamental law. He has replaced promise and possibility with sanctions and certitudes. He has forsaken metaphor for the mundane, and he has not only murdered immigrant priests, he has slaughtered all hope of transformation.
Before we deride Elijah to0 fully, it maybe beneficial to remember the plight of human nature with its folly and foible. At times, it is easier for us to go to war than involve ourselves in the arduous work of peacemaking. It is easier for us to be outraged than to be engaged in the complicated work of justice that requires creating and caring and forgiving. It is easier for us to hold on to the argument and hurt than to make a way for growth and newness and healing. It is easier for us to create impossible litmus tests requiring character beyond reproach than to make relationships where transgression can become transformation. It is easier for us to turn a blind eye than to meet face-to-face. It is much easier for us to follow a simple rule than to live out the covenant.
I would like to say Elijah realizes the devastation of his zealotry, returns and makes peace with Jezebel; he does not. They never meet. He continues to incite his narrow views and neglects the innate humanity of this queen. In ignoring her personage, Elijah fails to see the true meaning of Jezebel’s name: “Where is the sacred?” It is a question that by its nature works as the impetus for continual seeking. How rich Elijah’s view could have been if he acknowledged that the force found within the fire and smoke could also be sought in that which births and nurtures and nurses. The enflamed bush could be stronger beside the soothing brook. The location of the sacred transcends the imaginary borders of kingdoms and the mythical boundaries around kinship. The site of the sacred is not stagnant and stationary but ever becoming and every expanding. Searching for the sacred goes beyond what you have seen before and propels you to seek what you thought you could never see.
In the moments before her assassination, Jezebel remains steadfast to her vision even though her dreams of a tolerant and peaceful society are about to be killed. She adorns her eyes and arranges her hair as she looks out longingly for a truly sacred world. She remains devoted to husband, devout to all her people, and faithful to her ideas about the sacred. It is a moment that has been misread and maligned for centuries as we have turned her into a wanton and salacious figure. She has become synonymous with women who cannot stay in their place, and her name has been used for degradation and accusation. “Look at that Jezebel” has been used too many times to deny a person’s dignity. “Look at that Jezebel,” is continually used to silence a person’s voice. “Look at that Jezebel” is weaponized to dehumanize and deaden a way of life. “Look at that Jezebel” sends a clear message that you have gone too far, crossed the line and ignored a boundary.
Searching for the sacred will require us all to cross boundaries, and when new lines of demarcation are established we will be asked to cross once again and again. As people of faith, it is who we are, a bunch of extraordinary, caring, loving, life-affirming, going-too-far, border-crossing Jezebels. Being a Jezebel is not a pejorative, it’s the act of expanding and broadening all that is holy in our world.
Look at that Jezebel starting a church where freed slaves, prostitutes, and the poor are welcomed and find care.
Look at that Jezebel taking care of that dying man living in his car, and
look at that jezebel and that jezebel for comforting and advocating for him and his wife.
Look at that Jezebel offering her support group for trans and nonbinary people honoring their chosen pronouns and their inalienable humanity.
Look at that Jezebel at the Pride parade offering Dad hugs to children who have been shunned by their fathers.
Look at that Jezebel, marching up to Washington, D.C. and demanding to know about the expansion of voting rights for black and brown people.
Look at those Jezebels going to the mosque every Thursday night to pray with our Muslim sisters and brothers.
Look at that Jezebel trying to find a way for a community to grieve and mourn with care and compassion.
Look at those Jezebels gathering all faiths to work seriously for our planet in the midst of a climate emergency.
Look at those Jezebels going to Hammond Road or State Street to laugh and cry with those kept imprisoned.
Look at those Jezebels who after having to trespass a severely mentally-ill person for violent behavior from Round Table went out and made sure she had food and clothes.
Look at that Jezebel advocating for women’s reproductive rights and health.
Look at those Jezebels making a safe space for the agnostics and atheists amongst us knowing community is stronger when we are all together.
Look at that Jezebel partnering with the SAI Center and the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints to provide a monthly podiatry and dental clinic for those experiencing homelessness.
Look at that Jezebel sitting with those Wiley students knowing storytelling and relationships will foster dreams.
Look at that Jezebel and that Jezebel and those Jezebels and those Jezebels!
Look at those Jezebels acting in ways we have never seen before!
Her name says it all, and it signals that choice we all make as people of varying faiths when we stand upon the precipice looking into the face of the unknown. We can use our faith as stones to throw and cause harm, or we can make our faith like great rocks used to build the foundation of a loving and caring world.
This evening Charles and I will make dinner as we do on most Sunday evenings and invite friends to join us. This week we have decided to borrow a tradition from our Jewish friends who host us for annual Seder. Each year during this ritual meal, we enjoy when the toddlers rush from the table to the front door to see if the prophet will enter and take the empty seat. Tonight, we will adorn the table meticulously, and leave one empty chair, not for Elijah, but for Jezebel. It is true that I cannot imagine any holy place where the destructive and zealot behaviors of a prophet would be welcomed, but I do not want to entertain a sacred space where any person would not be embraced. Out of such respect, our chair will be open for this queen of promise and possibility, the one who stands for the hope and transformation, the sole representative of searching for the sacred. And, after our bellies are filled with butterbeans and summer peaches, our smiles are wide with care and love, and our table is bountiful with the young and the old; brown skin and white skin; women and men; gay and straight; us and them, we may take in such a feast and sigh, “Well, look at that, Jezebel.”