This sermon was inspired by Ari Berman, a writer for Mother Jones magazine; Wil Gafney, Associate Professor of the Old Testament at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX; and by Chris Hedges, a former writer for The New York Times who is also an author, ordained Presbyterian Minister, visiting lecturer at Princeton University. Hedges, and who teaches courses at a New Jersey prison.
The calls for Stacey Abrams to run for President of the United States in 2020 have begun. Just last Friday, Abrams conceded that she could not win the race for Governor of Georgia, losing by some 55,000 out of four million votes cast. Had she won, Stacey Abrams would have been the first female African American Governor in the United States. By all definitions, Abrams is a dynamic leader. Her list of awards and achievements are lengthy and impressive. She was the inaugural winner of the Gabriel Giffords Rising Star Award given by Emily’s List. She was named a Public Official of the Year, twice-named Legislator of the Year, Public Servant of the Year, Outstanding Public Servant, and Champion for Georgia Cities. Abrams has written eight romance novels, published under the name Selena Montgomery; she is a “PK”—Preacher’s kid— and has founded several companies. Her sister is a federal judge.
Politically, Stacey Abrams is a liberal. She supports abortion rights and gun control, and she opposes strict voter ID laws. Her top legislative priority was Medicaid expansion. In addition, she would increase spending on public education, end cash bail for the poor and the Georgia death penalty, and she would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. But, because the gubernatorial election process was overseen by Abrams’ opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, we now know that a perfect storm of intentional voter suppression and gross electoral mismanagement were the deciding factors in Stacey Abrams’ defeat. This election was rigged against her.
Before the Jewish exile, polytheism—the worship of many Gods—was normal throughout the middle east. It was only after the exile that worship of one God was established. It took many more decades for monotheism to become universal among the Jews. Many Gods are worshipped throughout the book of Kings. Solomon built temples to many gods; Josiah cut down the statues of the Goddess Asherah; and Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh, built a statue for yet a different God. In today’s story of Elijah, we learn that the people were worshipping Baʿal , a false God. Baʿal was a weather God, who was believed to have particular power over lightening, rain and wind. The worship of Baʿal was connected to the regions’ dependence on rainfall for its agriculture. To try to show the people that Baʿal was a false God, Elijah suggested to the king and queen that there should be a contest between those who worshipped Baʿal and those who worshipped God. When the side that worshipped Baʿal called for lightning, nothing happened. When Elijah called for lightning, it came. The king and queen got angry and retaliated by threatening Elijah’s life. He escaped into the wilderness.
Threats and retaliation are a natural reaction for the forces of evil and false Gods of all types. Prior to the election contest between him and Stacey Abrams, Brian Kemp said: “Democrats are working hard to register all these minority voters and others that are sitting on the sidelines. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.” Kemp did everything in his power to make sure that didn’t happen. He began by shrinking the electorate, purging 2.2 million voters over the past six years from the rolls. In July 2017, half a million voters were purged in one day. Many were illegally purged for not voting, and half were persons of color. Tens of thousands more were put on “pending registration” lists—eighty percent of these were persons of color.
In 2015, Kim Davis, a Rowen County Clerk in Kentucky, cited God’s authority when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state courts saw things differently and she spent five days in jail as a result. After losing her recent reelection race, Kim Davis is now considering a ministry career. And today, more than one thousand theatres in the US are screening a movie whose premise is that God chose the President to restore America’s moral values.
Elijah may be in the wilderness, but along the journey God provides comfort, protection, companionship, food and water. In today’s text from Matthew we read, “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” In Kings, Elijah is met by God. He is fed by God and he talks with God. God directs him and God strengthens him. And in Matthew, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to what it means to be a disciple.
To believe in and to follow Jesus is not escapism from struggles or weariness. To be a disciple is to be yoked to Jesus, never forgetting who is pulling the burden with us, with his head through the other oxbow. Whatever we are experiencing in our lives, we are never alone, God is with us. As comforting as this part of the story is, we are not quite at the end. God tells Elijah to stand on the mountain and wait for God. There was a storm of wind, lightning and rain. And then, in the silence, God’s still small voice instructs Elijah to return to his people. Elijah is afraid, but he accepts his assignment from God—to go and call on others who also did not worship Baʿal, the false god. And when he meets Elisha, Elisha follows him. Elisha will eventually complete Elijah’s work. But along the way, God unveils a spectacular plan for Elijah that we won’t learn about until 2nd Kings, towards which Elijah journeys faithfully, not knowing the outcome.
Even though the November elections are over, in many ways the outcome is yet to be revealed. Stacey Abrams is still fighting. Because hundreds of polling places were closed and others had as much as four-and-a-half hour waits, because ballots have been rejected for minor reasons, because three thousand naturalized Asian American and Latino citizens were unable to vote, Abrams has filed a lawsuit. Not because she is trying to be installed as Governor but because, in her words, “the system of democracy failed in Georgia,” especially for people of color. Chris Hedges insists that our resistance to anti-democratic systems must be accompanied by an alternative vision of a socialist, anti-capitalist society. The center of the problem is not in the White House; it lies with corporate power. And if we don’t stop corporate power, we will never dismantle the corporate seduction and corporate control of our political system, which suppresses people of color, the white working class, the marginalized, and the unemployed.
A week before election day, Brian Kemp cancelled a debate with Stacey Abrams that had been scheduled seven weeks in advance, so that he could attend a rally that featured the President. Kemp blamed Abrams for the cancellation, saying that she was unwilling to reschedule it. In other words, Kemp believes his broken promises means others should do likewise. When Elijah escaped into the wilderness he could not have known that he would become a prophet, but God chose him for a reason. We can never know who God will choose but the Matthew text says, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” Like Elijah, only if we listen, will we learn from God and hear God’s message.