I am not a gold card sort of a guy. Sure, I made some nice coin when I was in the tech industry, but not enough for platinum or titanium, and I’m not really that flashy. But I do have one gold card. With it, I can pay for my Grande Mocha at Starbucks, not much use around here.
It never occurred to me that Mocha meant more than the intersection of two amazing things, coffee and chocolate, but it turns out there is a Mocha Island, just off the coast of Chile, and historically inhabited by the Mapuche people. Considerable evidence has emerged in recent years that the Mapuche had contact with Polynesians, of great interest to anthropologists, though it is something else that happened in the waters around Mocha that still captivates our attention, even if we don’t know it. In the early decades of the 19th century, the region was home to an albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick.
First spotted in 1810, he became the holy grail for Nantucket whalers. Docile until attacked, powerful enough to sink a small vessel once provoked, he is believed to have survived more than a hundred encounters with whaling vessels. He was finally killed in 1839, coming to the rescue of a mother whose calf had been killed.
As you will have guessed, he was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a classic of American literature, but a novel that actually went out of print in the author’s own lifetime.
The narrative is driven by Captain Ahab’s obsession with revenge, relentlessly seeking the great white whale that took his leg in an earlier encounter. And this, for me, was the only context for the name Ahab, despite my upbringing in a Bible-worshipping church. It wasn’t until divinity school that I dug deep into the historical books. I had always preferred the gospel, the prophets, the psalms, didn’t see how important the ancient stories were to understanding. I learned the error of my ways. There, in the Book of Kings, I discovered that other Ahab, the worst of kings, though you have to read him with a deep understanding of the Exodus for that to make sense. Like his name, Ahab bad king, Ahab bad ships captain, the ancient Israelite queen’s name would live on as a wicked archetype, the Jezebel, even becoming the title of a film with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda 99 years after the death of the great whale. And then there is Elijah, locked in epic combat with the king and queen, but better known for his ending in a chariot of fire than for his actual deeds.
The narrative is carefully constructed to support the Temple cult, for much to the chagrin of the priests, the Hebrew people often combined the worship of Yahweh with that of other gods, and not just during those moments when Yahweh sent prophets as warning and invading armies as punishment. Constructed from their experience of the divine and a Midianite deity, Yahweh took on aspects of the chief of the Canaanite pantheon, El, as well. Asherah poles, named for El’s consort, and Baal worship, cited in today’s reading, were more common than scripture would have us believe. The story we tell ourselves is black and white, actual history not so much.
We are supposed to side with Elijah in his bloody pursuit of religious purity, the mass slaughter of the priests of Baal in the Kedron Valley, though Elijah’s obsession looks all too much like that of the captain of the Pequod chasing his leg-snatching whale.
Not that the biblical Ahab comes off looking good. The whole story is gruesome, and yet worth a read. But this morning, we are back on the mountain at Horeb with Elijah, a mountain where bushes once burned but weren’t consumed.
So many Christians, even many preachers, grab the wrong end of this narrative, focusing on the contrast between the dramatic and the quiet, always an approach that favors the powerful, for the oppressed all too easily buy into the idea that they must be docile and passive, must be quiet, awaiting divine deliverance. This misreading, mis-focus on the quiet, is equal parts, bad translation, poor theology, and sloppy reading, for the text does not say God is in the silence either, and this is the same God that sends plagues on Egypt and leads the Hebrews through the wilderness as a pillar of storm,. Elijah is consciously modeled on Moses, something the ancient Hebrews would not have missed. Our reading ends with “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.” Really, you want to focus on the still small voice? Dogs will end up licking Ahab’s blood, prostitutes bathing in it. This is not some bucolic idyll and the lesson isn’t contemplative prayer, as worthy as contemplative prayer might be. This passage, this narrative, is action.
This is not about the contrast between whirlwind, fire and earthquake and silence. God is in all of those things. This is about a man called by God in difficult times who, despite his success, is burned out, who is so exhausted that he can no longer see, who hides in a cave.
“I alone am faithful!” says the prophet pouting in the cave. And God replies, “Well, no, there are 7000 actually. Now, get back to work.” Elijah is re-commissioned.
We get tired, tired when things aren’t succeeding, tired when things take too long to succeed, tired generally of sin, our own and that of others. We grow tired of injustice that seems to claw back every time we think we have made progress, tired of allies who don’t have our back, tired of those who are supposed to be on our side who engage in campaigns of sabotage and division. We get especially tired when that sort of destruction and hubris erupts in places that should be secure in shared purpose, places like PTA and church. We get tired because what we are asked to do is really hard and really important. We are asked to announce and model a different way of being in relationship with the divine, with the earth, with one another, and, in the teachings of Jesus, with those we might not otherwise choose to see, the unclean and vulnerable. We are going to fall down on our own, be struck down by evil, sometimes by our own, like that rabbi from Nazareth. We will know defeat. Sometimes we are going to hang out in a cave. Or a cell.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in a cell in 1944 awaiting execution when he penned a series of letters that were profound, provocative, and filled with despair. Looking at churches that chose institutional power, political security, and social acceptance over gospel until it was too late, Bonhoeffer speculated that a religionless age was dawning, wondered what a religionless Christianity would look like. His words are as true today as they were then, with Christian leaders aligning themselves with greed and the debauched. Would there have been an Auschwitz if Christians had resisted, if the church had not been co-opted by nationalism?
And God asks “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
I’m not a boxing fan, but I’d like to suggest a modern day David and Goliath story as a reminder to us that we just have to keep on keeping on, getting back up again and again.
Tokyo seems an unlikely setting, but there we are, the Tokyo Dome in 1990. Mike Tyson is undefeated, 37-0, and holds three heavyweight belts, because boxing is a mess of disorganized authorities. Tyson was already controversial, already known as a domestic abuser, but no one doubted that he would win the fight against Buster Douglas, a four-time loser. To make it worse, Douglas lost his mother three weeks before the fight, was drowning in grief, and had come down with the flu.
Near the end of the 8th round, Tyson sent Douglas to the canvas, but with just seconds left, the challenger was literally “saved by the bell.”
Two rounds later, Tyson was on the canvas, and Buster Douglas was the reigning champion.
Elijah in a cave, defeated, alone. Buster Douglas in his corner, sick, grieving, facing sure defeat at the hands of the undefeated. Disciples behind closed doors on Holy Saturday. It is only a “holy” Saturday in the re-telling. At the time, it was crushing grief. Everything they had believed in was dead. A crown of thorns, a spear in the side.
What are you doing here, Elijah? Go!
Some of us have been in the trenches for reproductive freedom for decades, only to see protections chipped away, inch by inch. Some of us have been on the front lines for civil rights, protesting the new Jim Crow that uses the war on drugs as a way to enslave men of color, only to see a day when the most vile racist can emerge from his hole and receive the support of politicians. Some of us have been fighting for creation, for the survival of life itself, only to see corporate greed slowly destroy the EPA. We know the pique that sent Elijah to the cave. The storm is raging out there.
For some of us, it is all we can do to get up and care for ourselves, our families, the aging, sick and disabled in our own lives. We want to make the world a better place, but we’ll be happy to get to tomorrow.
Go hang out in a cave. Fair enough. I can assure you I understand what it feels like to keep banging your head into the wall. I serve an institution that pundits and statistics say is failing, yet I still choose belief, still choose hope. Yeah, about that cave… can it have a beer cooler? And can we get delivery, ’cause I don’t want to come out.
What are you doing here, Elijah? Go! There are new people to anoint, and this will all go on after you are gone, so make succession plans.
The Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom of God is yet to come. Both and…
We’re in a cave. We’ve earned the right to pout a little. But we’re not as defeated as you might think. And after the fire and whirlwind there was a pause, silence. Elijah stepped outside. Then God spoke.
There will be more sturm und drang, more chaos, more moments that feel like utter defeat.
Buster Douglas would credit his late mother for his win. In truth, it was grit and determination. It was breathing in the corner, then getting up and going back out there again.
Bonhoeffer found himself at the intersection of doubt and destruction, just like Jesus. And unlike our Savior, there was no resurrection, real or perceived, bodily or in spirit.
But we’re still talking about him. He still inspires thousands if not millions to courage and faith in action.
There is a storm raging. It is a little terrifying. You can’t stay in that cave forever. What are you doing, Elijah?