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Elijah and His Secrets

Elijah and His Secrets

“Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’” 1 Kings 19:4

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 12, 2018 – 12B Pentecost

 

I first met the prophet Elijah in San Francisco. Sure, I had read about Elijah in the Bible before, but I had never really encountered him in any meaningful way until Pat and I were invited to a friend’s house for what was my very first Passover Seder. The year was 1981 and these friends lived near the Presidio on the west side of the City.

The Seder meal, as I’m sure you know, is a ritual re-enactment of the Passover story from Exodus, told as much through the symbolism of food and drink as anything else. Each food on the Seder plate symbolizes some aspect of the story of the Hebrew people’s liberation by Moses from captivity in Egypt: A roasted lamb bone represents the Paschal sacrifice itself, bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, haroset (which is a mixture of wine, nuts, and apples) represents the mortar used by the Jews in Egypt, a sprig of parsley represents the freedom of new life beyond slavery. There is also matzah — a cracker-like unleavened bread — that represents the bread the Israelites took with them when they fled Egypt, unleavened because they were in a rush and had no time to wait for the bread to rise. And then there is salt water, too, representing the tears of the slaves.

All of this is rich enough in symbolism, but for me the moment of high drama was when a cup of wine was poured and placed at the center of the table, and then an empty chair moved to the head of the table, right before the host went over to the front door to welcome a mystery guest. As the host opens the door with a grand gesture, the special, if invisible, guest is then invited to take his seat at the head of the table before the Seder can properly begin. And that special guest, as you may know, is none other than the prophet Elijah.

Why Elijah? Well, if you take a look at the very last book of the Old Testament, which is the Book of Malachi, and then read the very last verse of that book, you will see written these words: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and final day when the Lord comes.” Both in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Elijah is the forerunner of the Messiah, the messenger whom God will send to announce the coming of the Lord at the end of the ages. And for this reason, within the drama of the Passover Seder, Elijah has an exalted place.

Of all the prophets in the Bible, Elijah is the fiercest and most faithful. Elijah lived 800 or so years before Christ’s day, at a time when the once-united Kingdom of Israel had divided into two kingdoms and idolatry was rampant throughout the land. Ahab was then king in the northern kingdom of Israel, and Jezebel was his ruthless queen. Ahab and Jezebel were notorious for promoting worship of Canaanite gods, including most notably Baal, and it is Elijah whom God recruits to remind the people that the only true God deserving of their loyalty is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

And so, in one of the most memorable showdowns in the entire Bible, Elijah fearlessly agrees to a competition on Mount Carmel that pits him against 450 of Baal’s loudest prophets to see who can bring an end to the drought that had plagued the kingdom for three years. Baal’s team is up first, and they pray and pray, and offer one sacrifice after another, but to no avail. Elijah then takes the stage, makes his own altar and prays to the God of Abraham, and sure enough, God responds to Elijah’s pleas, proving once again God’s unrelenting fidelity to his people and bringing humiliation on Ahab’s reign.

This showdown on Mount Carmel is Elijah at his boldest and most courageous, but he had a tender side too, as when he visits the widow at Zarepheth, and shares a simple meal with her. And then, when the widow’s little boy becomes ill and dies, Elijah is the one whom God compassionately empowers to breath life back into the little boy, in what is the very first episode of a resurrection in all of Scripture.

While these two stories of Elijah’s ministry are perhaps the most famous of his prophetic career, today’s quiet and less dramatic story about Elijah’s wilderness experience is my favorite Elijah story, both for what it reveals about Elijah’s humanity and about God’s compassionate care. Today’s lesson, ironically enough, immediately follows Elijah’s smashing victory on Mount Carmel. Having humiliated King Ahab by outgunning the prophets of Baal, the ever-jealous Queen Jezebel vows to get revenge on Elijah, sending him fleeing into the wilderness.

As Elijah sits down by himself under a solitary broom tree in the wilderness, panicked that Queen Jezebel’s murderous army will soon catch up with him, Elijah becomes disconsolate, seeing no way out and beginning to doubt himself. This is Elijah at his most vulnerable. “It is enough,” Elijah says to God. “Take away my life,” he pleads, “as I am no better than my ancestors.” And then, exhausted from his journey, and depressed by his predicament, Elijah collapses into a deep sleep.

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Jesus’ Team

Jesus’ Team

“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. . . . [And] we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:4-6, 16

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 5, 2018

One of the challenging realities of my childhood was the fact that my family moved a lot. After my father finished his tour of duty with the Air Force during the Korean War, he landed employment with a military contractor and was required to move from job site to job site, following the work wherever it went. And so, as a kid I went to a lot of different schools: fourteen different public schools by the time I graduated high school. Counting nursery school and kindergarten, that is exactly one school per grade on average. And that doesn’t include college, a year abroad at a Scottish university, graduate school, law school, seminary, or the six different schools I have served as chaplain.

Being the new kid in school was not easy. Let’s just say that children are sometimes not as welcoming to newcomers as they should be; and, as I discovered, their own insecurities can lead them to tease the new kid for being different, for not knowing the ropes, for being an outsider. And so I quickly figured out that if I wanted to belong, I needed to figure out a strategy for winning my peers’ respect and finding some common bond.

For me, that strategy was team sports. It is not that I’m a super athlete by any stretch; indeed, truth be told, and as I later discovered in college, I’m more of a nerd than a jock. But, at least among the kids with whom I grew up, being a nerd was not the way to endear yourself to the group, whereas finding the right niche within the world of sport and games certainly was.

My parents, I think, sensed this reality too, and so, from an early age they encouraged me to play different sports, to figure out what I was good at, and then to join a team every season wherever I lived. They knew, and I learned, that this was the surest way to make friends and find the community I longed for. And so it was football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball, my true love, in the spring and summer.

What I did not know then, but now appreciate, is the profound theological and moral virtue of team play. It is no exaggeration to say that most of the really important lessons I have learned in life were first introduced to me, not in the classroom, or in church, or even at home, but rather on the playing field.

If you have been a part of a successful and healthy team, you know these lessons, these deep truths of team play. On a team, you learn that it is not your interests that matter, but rather the greater good of the group. You are asked and expected to subordinate your own desires to those of the whole, knowing if the team flourishes, you will too. As the cliché goes, there is no “I” in “team.”

On a team, you also learn that not everyone plays the same role, but that there are a variety of gifts and skills, and that finding where you can contribute is the key to being a good teammate, as is supporting and encouraging others in their own distinctive roles. The whole of a team is greater than the sum of its parts.

You learn, too, that you answer to one coach who calls the shots, develops the game plan, and in whose judgment and care you learn to trust. Teams teach a healthy respect for authority, and how one generation can learn from the next.

Flourishing as a team requires hard work, the development of healthy habits, practice, and a range of other qualities such as perseverance, resilience, discipline, cooperation, and patience. You learn about forgiveness and redemption too: When a teammate makes a mistake, you don’t browbeat her, but you help her to learn from the experience, and then to put the past behind her and to move on to the next play stronger and better than she was before. And when a teammate makes a great play, you cheer her success, not so much because she is the star, but because the good of the team has been enlarged.

At their best, team sports also develop our appreciation for fairness and equity, as well as respect and affection for our adversary when the game is well-played. And at the end of the day, when your team loses, you grieve together and share the pain and burden of the loss. And, when your team wins, you celebrate the victory together and hold up for admiration each member’s contributions to the whole.

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Gather Up the Fragments

Gather Up the Fragments

“After the people were fed, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’” John 6:12

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 29, 2018

In 1989, Robert Egger was an unknown nightclub owner trying to scrape together a living in Washington, DC. One day, Egger was approached by a friend who invited him to go along on a community service outing to a soup kitchen sponsored by a nearby church. As Egger tells the story, he didn’t want to go, but felt too embarrassed to say ‘no’ to his friend; so he went. The soup kitchen they visited was a traditional one: the program enlisted volunteers to purchase ingredients for the meal at the nearby Safeway in Georgetown, to prepare and cook the meal themselves in the church kitchen, and then to serve anyone who wandered in off the streets looking for a warm supper. At the end of the meal, the unhoused guests said their good-byes, went back out onto the streets, and the volunteers cleaned up. The model is a common one, and I’m sure many of you have volunteered in just such a program.

Eggers’ experience of the evening, however, was different than the usual volunteer’s. As he explained it to me years later when I first met him: “the whole model made no sense to me. It seemed designed primarily to make the volunteers feel good about themselves for doing a good deed, while keeping the guests at a safe distance in a state of helpless dependency. Moreover,” he told me, “this traditional model is grossly inefficient. Why buy ingredients at the most expensive market in Georgetown when perfectly good food is being thrown away every single day at restaurants and markets across the city?”

Drawing on his prior experience in the restaurant business, Eggers knew just how much food is wasted every day either because it is just beyond some arbitrarily imposed ‘expiration date,’ or because it is deemed too bruised, misshapen, or aesthetically imperfect to sell. So, rather than patting himself on the back for his one night of volunteerism, Eggers went about constructing a new model for feeding the hungry. He contacted all the restaurant owners in town he knew and secured from them commitments to donate food they no longer needed; he did the same thing with a handful of grocery stores; and he put together a small team of volunteer chefs and restaurant workers who were willing to train any homeless or unemployed person interested in learning how to cook and serve food. By inviting the homeless and unemployed to participate in the project of cooking and feeding, he explained, we not only put food in people’s bellies but we give them a skill that can help break the chains of poverty, and offer them a liberating sense of purpose and self-determination.

When Eggers promoted this new model to local church leaders, they resisted, convinced they knew better than he did how to serve the needy. The church leaders were worried about the liability risks of using donated food; so, Eggers did some research and secured a legal opinion that local ‘good Samaritan laws’ in fact protect non-profits from such liability. The church leaders then insisted that homeless populations would be too challenging to train; Eggers dared them to give it a try, offering to manage a pilot training program himself. But the church leaders were unmoved.

So Eggers set out to prove them all wrong and established what is now known as DC Central Kitchen. Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, DC Central Kitchen has prepared more than 27 million meals for homeless shelters, transitional homes, and other nonprofits in the Washington area. Moreover, it has done this at little to no cost, using donated food exclusively and relying on a program of previously unemployed persons enrolled in its culinary arts program to do the preparation, cooking and serving. Not only that, but ninety percent of the graduates from this culinary arts program now go on to secure jobs in the restaurant industry.

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