Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon: Not the Lone Ranger

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 19, 2016, Pentecost 5C
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-18; 1 Kings 19:1-16;
      Galatians 3:23-29

Not the Lone Ranger

I’m a little young to remember the TV show – not as young as some here, but a little young for that. And because of my history of studying and teaching music history, if you played me the musical theme to that show I’d be much more likely to identify it as the final theme from Gioacchino Rossini’s overture to his opera Guillaume Tell, or the “William Tell Overture.”
But, yeah, we know about the Lone Ranger.
Some of you might be mentally rehearsing the opening to that show right now: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear … From out of the west with the speed of light and a hearty ‘hi-yo Silver!’” … Yes, I can see you, it’s showing on your faces… .
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Lone Ranger, because of those old radio serials and the later television series, has been established for many decades as one of the iconic fictional characters in American popular culture.
Funny thing about the Lone Ranger, though; he was almost never really “lone.” The name, it turns out, is traceable to the character’s “origin story,” in which he was the lone survivor of a unit of Texas Rangers that was ambushed on a patrol. The five other members of the patrol, including its captain – the older brother of the eventual “Lone Ranger” – were killed. Rather than being truly “lone,” The Lone Ranger was instead virtually always accompanied by Tonto, a Native American who found the man barely alive after the ambush and nurtured him back to health. Again, I didn’t hear or watch the show, but it seems that most of what he accomplished required Tonto’s help.
Nonetheless, the image, or maybe the myth of the “Lone Ranger” as a singular individual who pursued justice on his own has persisted in the American mindset in particular, and has sometimes curdled into a image of a loner seeking revenge or retribution instead of justice (an appropriation that does no justice to the original character).
Though he lived innumerable centuries before the Lone Ranger mythology, the prophet Elijah seems sometimes to fall prey to the mindset of “going it alone.” You might remember from a few weeks ago, how Elijah took a simple command from God to announce the end of a drought and drew it out into an elaborate contest with the Baal prophets, culminating in the spectacular display of fire from heaven coming down and consuming all the waterlogged altars and soaked sacrifices. Afterwards, as the rain approached, Elijah (apparently now possessed by the super-speed of another modern hero, The Flash) ran ahead of King Ahab’s fully equipped chariot to the town of Jezreel, serving then as the seat of power in Israel.
And that’s where today’s reading kicks off, with Ahab whining to his wife Jezebel about what Elijah had done, and Jezebel issuing (via messenger) a not too veiled threat to Elijah: what you did to my Baal prophets, I’m gonna do to you.
And Elijah, the man who had been sustained in the wilderness by ravens, who had seen God miraculously extend meal and oil for weeks for the widow and her son, who had challenged the Baal prophets and won, who had slaughtered all those Baal prophets in triumph and humiliated the king … now, Elijah was scared. And Elijah ran. To be blunt, he ran like a scared chicken.
You can see the account of Elijah’s flight, falling asleep in despair only to be awakened, fed, and sent on his way (not once, but twice); arriving at Horeb the mount of God (in Exodus, that mountain was called Sinai), and repeating what almost sounds like a rehearsed, pre-packaged answer to God:
I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

Elijah says this two times: first, when he comes to the cave on Horeb the mount of God, and then after the progression described in verses 11-12; a great wind, a strong earthquake, and a mighty fire, a scene not unlike that at the end of the psalm we read earlier. But God was in none of those; only in the “sound of sheer silence” did Elijah discern the presence of the Lord.
So somehow, the bombast and tumult of the mountaintop display, not completely unlike the bombast and tumult Elijah himself had initiated back at Mount Carmel, somehow doesn’t seem to get through to Elijah, for afterwards when he is asked a second time “what are you doing here, Elijah?” he responds the exact same way as before:
I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

He doesn’t get it. Maybe if Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio with its vivid and exhilarating depiction of that scene had been available, Elijah might have had a better time understanding it. (Insert misguided attempt to sing here.) But Elijah doesn’t get it, so God has to hit him over the head with it, if Elijah is ever going to get over his severe case of Lone Ranger Syndrome.
First of all, we the reader know that Elijah has been fundamentally incorrect all along. Back in the first verses of chapter 18 we read of Obadiah, a servant in Ahab’s court who despite the threats of the royal family had secreted away a hundred prophets loyal to the Lord, hiding them in caves to thwart Jezebel’s plans to kill them. That’s at least a hundred and one examples of how Elijah was wrong when he claimed that “he alone was left,” and Elijah knows this because Obadiah told him to his face in 18:13. God then, in 19:18 just outside our reading, points to seven thousand loyal Israelites who have not bowed the knee to Baal, seven thousand faithful that God would preserve.
But maybe the unkindest cut of all comes in verse 16. Not only was Elijah not the Lone Ranger, he wasn’t even irreplaceable. Another prophet would take his place, and it was Elijah’s job to go anoint him. If that’s not a direct slap in the face against Elijah’s pity party I don’t know what else it could be.
Now God still had work for Elijah to do, but God needed Elijah focused on God’s call to him, and not hung up on his self-obsessed and self-possessed despair. It’s not hard to extrapolate the lesson for us from such a story: the same thing applies to us.
It’s not uncommon for us to fall into that pit. Australian biblical scholar and pastor Howard Wallace points out that Elijah needs to be released from the zealousness and self-control that had ruled his previous service and learn that it was the word of the Lord, which sometimes did not speak in the wind or earthquake or fire, to which he needed to submit his prophetic witness.[i] We’re convinced it’s all up to us. No one else is going to step up, it’s all on our shoulders. Yes, it’s easy to slip into that particular quality of despair, but it can be possibly the worst place for a follower of Christ to end up, It can go either of two different ways, both disastrous and potentially destructive.
This has been a week where perhaps we’ve felt that despair and sense of aloneness, in the wake of the horrific murders of forty-nine patrons in a nightclub in Orlando patronized primarily by gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or queer persons (and primary a Latino/Latina audience on that particular night). That event happened only a few days before the first anniversary of another infamous shooting, of nine members of an African-American congregation in Charleston. In the face of such horrific evil, it’s not hard to slip into that despair that no one is faithful anymore, no one will stand up and do what needs to be done.
Of course, on the flip side of that “I alone am left” mentality is the misguided, vengeful would-be Lone Ranger who takes up weapons to commit the murders, because he believes blacks are inferior or gets offended by the sight of two men kissing. “I alone am left” is not just a despairing place; it can be a pathway to acts of unspeakable evil. Even Elijah has already shown himself capable of grotesque violence in the throes of this mindset, commanding the slaughter of all those Baal prophets back in verse 18.
We can’t go there. We must not fall into that mindset (which has nothing of God in it) that the problems of the world are ours to solve by any means necessary. We also can’t be the one who is paralyzed by grief and despair, unable to take up the work of God’s kingdom. We need God, we need Christ, and we need each other too much.
The passage from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians reminds us that for all the ways we differ, God insists on making us one. Not making us “the same,” but one. We are one in Christ. We can’t go thinking we’re the Lone Ranger, folks; if we are truly following Christ, we literally can’t be alone – it is not possible. We are never abandoned, no matter how much we may feel like it.
Speaking of that masked man, besides Tonto, the Lone Ranger as originally written was bound to a strict moral code, one which governed all his actions and prevented him from veering off into revenge or other departures from his mission. For us, our ground is simpler, and yet amazingly complex; our “moral code,” our ground is Christ. It is in Christ, after all, that we are never alone; it is in Christ that we are one.
Even in dark and despairing days, we’re not alone in this, friends. Let’s not act like it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (From Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#4                Holy God, We Praise Your Name
#317            In Christ There Is No East or West
#322            We Are One In Christ Jesus
#824            There Is a Place of Quiet Rest

Yep, there's Tonto. See, he's really not "lone."