Nov. 10,
2019 // Narr 2.10 // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // First Congregational UCC,
Ashland, OR // “Holy Troublemakers” // I
Kings 18:17-28; I Kings 18:29-39


When the prophet Elijah abruptly appears in the story of our
faith ancestors, it is to announce a drought. Elijah is one of the most storied
of the ancient prophets. When he shows up to announce this drought, it feels
like a bitter judgement on the saga of kings who follow Solomon, leading an
increasingly divided Israel North and South, each monarch doing more evil than
the last. After giving King Ahab the terrible news, Elijah, whose name means
“My God is Yahweh,” goes into hiding, fed by ravens and a drying up river bed.
When the river dries up, he travels even farther away to impose upon a poor,
starving widow and her sick child. Just before Elijah appears to announce this
drought, King Ahab has come to power in Israel. He has married a Phoenician
princess, Jezebel, and already erected altars, holy poles, and monuments to
every God but the one who brought him. Baal, in particular, is supposed to be
the God of storm and rain. But there hasn’t been any rain, despite the lengths
Ahab goes to worship Baal. There has been no rain. For three years. King Ahab
sends servants out to cut grass for the palace livestock while widows starve.
And maybe that’s the last straw for God, who calls Elijah out of hiding to
confront Ahab. Ahab sees Elijah, and
greets him — I imagine with the drawl of an old western film: “Is it you, you
trouble maker of Israel?”


Trouble maker. King Ahab thinks Elijah is the trouble
maker. The feeling is definitely mutual.  Elijah blames Ahab for the environmental and
economic trouble the whole country is suffering.  “You have forsaken the commandments of
God-Who-Is,” Elijah tells him, “And followed after the Baals.” For
three years there has been no rain in the land.


Troublemakers. We like troublemakers
most in retrospect. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., [led] the Civil
Rights movement, a large majority of Christians across the country did not
support him, though his movement was deeply grounded in the love and justice of
the gospel. Newspaper editorials condemned him. The FBI harassed him. His
Letter from the Birmingham Jail excoriated white Protestant pastors and
congregations, especially. His critique of the military industrial complex lost
him friends in high places. He was a trouble-maker. Or, take Bayard Rustin.
Mastermind of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rustin worked
behind the scenes. He advised King on those Ghandian tactics of nonviolence. A
Quaker and disciple of nonviolence, Rustin was gay, outed by politicians hoping
to submarine the march, and for this “liability” many civil rights leaders did
not want Rustin to receive any public credit for his role in organizing the
march. They were pretty successful. I knew nothing about his role until I read
an excerpt of the forthcoming children’s book Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints. The picture book, due
out later this year, profiles people of faith who “rocked the religious boat on
behalf of love and justice,”[1] and Rustin is one of them.
He once said, “We need, in every
community, a group of angelic troublemakers.” In truth, we appreciate
trouble-makers most after the fact.
And how can we tell which are angelic?


Elijah is definitely a trouble maker. I’m not so
sure about the adjective “angelic” though.
He is not the guy you would invite to
your holiday open house. Today, I would pull him aside to say I was worried
about his poor self-care and isolation in ministry. Elijah stands alone against
not only the monarchs, the rulers, but all the other priests in the land. He’s
been on the run since announcing the drought. He tends to appear out of thin
air in fields at just the most inconvenient times for passersby. He challenges
political rulers and religious leaders alike to public demonstrations of divine
authority. And if you read the whole story, Elijah has a biting, mocking sense
of humor for the poor prophets of Baal. (“Maybe your god is sleeping. Or… or…
wait, maybe your god is indisposed, relieving himself in the divine John.”)
Elijah also complains, a lot, about his job, though I guess if I’d been hiding
from monarchs vowing to kill me, on the run for three years of drought, I might
be a bit grumpy with God, too. How can
we tell if a trouble maker is angelic or just trouble?
I do believe Elijah
gives us some clues, because he is not wholly holy in his troubling work.
Though I find God nowhere in this story telling Elijah to commit murder, he
slaughters hundreds of prophets of Baal. Exhaustion? Vengeance? Which makes me
wonder if he forgot in the moment: part of what makes a holy troublemaker: the
insistence that God can change people’s hearts. (Pause)


The God
Elijah calls upon is no stranger. Elijah is the wild card who remembers… that
Israel is named for that heel-grabber Jacob whose name God changed to “one who
prevails.” Elijah is the one who remembers that God’s name is I AM. Elijah is
the one who still believes God can change people’s hearts. That’s ultimately
his prayer before the fire flies down from the skies and burns up the soaked
offering. And that’s part of why Elijah
is such a trouble maker. He calls on people to remember God and to change.



When I
asked in this month’s newsletter column what kind of people we will be over the
next 12 months, I did not know that a coalition of churches would release a
statement as they did this past week.Their
statement, called a “Golden Rule 2020 Pledge,” is a call to civility signed by
a broad cross-section of people from different denominations and groups.[2] Anticipating that leading
up to the 2020 presidential election things might get even more ugly, these
Christians asked people to pray for a healing of division and to emphasize
Christian teachings about human dignity and respect. But something feels off in
the call. Something makes me wonder if civility is really our central concern
as followers of Jesus. I’m on board with the call for respect and human
dignity, but it also makes me wonder what the holy troublemakers would tell us.
Reading Elijah’s struggle against the
prophets of Baal this week, I remembered it is often very advantageous to
follow after Baal. Economically and otherwise, it’s easier. So we would be wise
to ask what substitutes for Baal today? Holy troublemakers will give us the
clues we need.
Christena Cleveland, a theologian and professor formerly at
Duke Divinity School, names our current Baal “whitemalegod” – a way of
designating the ways that white supremacy and patriarchy and religious
colonialism combine into an idol. She and others this past week have called
with hope to awaken our better angels. At the same time – Kaji Djousa preached
this past week – we are called to love our neighbors and to love our enemies
and to know the difference. These prophets call us to the hope that civility includes
opening up camps of children separated from their parents and stopping the ways
in which people are oppressed, and remembering that the oppressed do not cry
out quietly. Just as in Elijah’s time, people of power and privilege (and that
includes me and a lot of us) can mistake a prophet’s plain description for the
problem itself, find more fault with the truth teller than the truth being
told. That’s how people who point out systemic injustice like racism and
economic exploitation and theological abuse get dismissed as “divisive,” even
though they have not created the divide they describe. With those signing on to the Golden Rule 2020 Pledge, I too pray for an
awakening of our “better angels.” But if civility – not justice – becomes our
central concern, God’s holy trouble makers will tell on us.


Later this
year, our gospel writer Mark will tell a story in which Jesus asks, “Who do
people say that I am?” One of the first answers will be: Some say, Elijah. Knowing
this holy troublemaker helps us also understand that troublemaker Jesus. Which
is why today’s story is one of the best Sunday School stories to know. Because
Elijah reminds us that:

  • Baal’s prophets are
    always going to outnumber the prophets of I AM. It’s easier to ally with the
    powerful who take resources from the poor to reward the rich.
  • That troublemaking may
    be holy work.
  • And that sometimes, sometimes
    the Spirit answers with what looks and feels like fire.

May we be
open to hearing the truth this year, I pray.