A couple of days ago a Laughing Gull brought down the stock market by several hundred points….at least that was the speculation of someone on the NPR program Marketplace. The gull was completely drenched in oil – it looked as if it had been swimming in a bucket of chocolate syrup in the picture that was prominently featured in hundreds of major newspapers on Friday. The bird apparently survived – but about 500 so far have not. About 200 Sea Turtles are said to have died not to mention countless fish and marine mammals.
Friday was one of those days when, nothing seemed to be working to staunch the flow of oil. Called into question was our American image of ourselves that tells us that there is nothing we cannot do when we set our mind to it. At the same time, a couple more countries in Europe allowed as they may be near bankruptcy and the Israelis had just stormed a boat bringing supplies to Gaza and killed several people, among them a U.S. Citizen.
The bird was a mighty powerful symbol of the fact that things have gotten way beyond our ability as a nation or as people of good will – ecologists, scientists, fishermen, fish eaters and nature lovers to control. We want our oil, just like Israel wants its security and Eastern European countries want to spend themselves into the 21st Century. We want what we want and that should be ok.
That’s the kind of world view which, when it comes into conflict with reality causes a big rush of indignation and fear and all kinds of negative reactions. So the market falls and so does our confidence – it doesn’t really matter which comes first.
It was a similar time when the saga of the prophet Elijah began in the ancient world of the near east. Elijah was from the northern Kingdom of Israel which after several decades of turmoil among would be leaders, had turned to a pretty no good man as their king. His name was Ahab. He ruled along side his wife, Jezebel, whose name has become synonymous with the character type of a grasping, evil woman that Bette Davis used to play so well – including the character of one of her great movies by the same name.
Jezebel was a foreigner – and she brought her own god with her when she came to rule along side Ahab. She was a Baal worshiper, setting up temples to the God of fertility, storm and rain that was worshipped by the Canaanite neighbors of the chosen people from time immemorial.
So what does it mean when they say that God is angry because the nation is being led to worship Baal? It’s more than anger over the breaking of the 1st or 2nd Commandments. (“Thou shalt worship the Lord and bow down to no other gods before him.”) It has to do with what more modern theologians would call, “ultimate concern.” If ones ultimate concern is self-gratification and national prosperity, even at the expense of justice, well then one might be called a classic Baal worshipper. If you love Baal then you prosper – if you don’t prosper, it must mean you did not do enough to serve your idols.
That is where I see an analogy with our own current world culture – we are still mighty concerned with quick gratification. And no one wants to be a loser.
Some Greek politician gets elected a few years back by offering the store – retirement age of 50 with a full pension, why not! A coal mining company or an oil company wants to get the oil to market; safety precautions are given second shrift, no time to plan for contingencies; after all it has never happened before.
There is lots of blame to go around, for sure….I am not even talking about blame. I am talking about the urge to get what we can as quick as we can, an urge to which we all succumb from time to time when wisdom takes a back seat, prudence goes out the window. As Elijah might have said, that is when you have turned away from God.
Our story begins when the young Elijah comes to call on the king and his consort to inform them that it is going to be a long time before they see any of Baal’s aforementioned attributes coming to fruition in Israel. It will not storm or rain, nor will the crops ripen or the flocks proper, says Elijah to Ahab, except by my word. You have turned away from God.
Let’s take note of this ancient irony – it’s at the very heart of the cult of Baal that Elijah strikes….for if there is one thing that worship of Baal was supposed to maintain, it was good weather and a prosperous harvest. The drought upon the land meant there would be neither.
At that point Elijah takes refuge in the wilderness where it says he was fed by the ravens….and then, at God’s instruction, he makes his way to Syria the very place from which Jezebel sprung. (Another irony – not sure what it means except to make the point that it was not her foreignness that made her a character of ill repute – not her alien nationality that turned God against the royal couple and the nation of Israel which they so misruled.)
What happens in Syria is one of those archetypical stories that is related to the archetypical prophet, Elijah. The man fed in the wilderness by ravens makes his way to a dried up river valley to the north and there meets a women who is half starved herself. It was those ravens which brought me to a connection with the poor oil soaked birds of the Gulf of Mexico - these inhabitants of God’s full creation that are just as much a part of that plan for life as we are. They play their part, and often they pay the price when our desires lead us to an unbalanced use of the gifts of creation.
Elijah leaves the ravens to go to Syria to find there this widow, a single mother; she and her son have but a single measure of meal and small amount of oil left to them. Like the birds of the air, her circumstances have let her to the brink. Her plan is to “eat her remaining food and then, with her son, die.”
Elijah a man who contends with Kings and who, like John the Baptist will be nearly a thousand years later, is the voice crying in the wilderness. Utterly dependent on her generosity, he asks the Widow of Zarephath, a woman who has nearly nothing to share what little she has.
In our hunger we are all connected. She does provide for Elijah and in the process there is enough for all. They survive for a time. But this is a story of how life happens. In the midst of their newfound hope tragedy strikes and the young son dies. This isn’t “..and they all lived happily ever after.”
Grief-stricken, the widow turns on Elijah “Why did you ever show up here in the first place - a holy man barging in, exposing my sins, and killing my son?” What were the sins to which she referred, we don’t know. We do know that this moment was not unlike the moment when people saw their first picture of the bird, the Laughing Gull, covered in oil. How exposed, suddenly, is the result of our excesses – pushing nature’s bounty to the limit.
The gull represents just one of the incidental victims of the way humanity seems to charge around in God’s world grabbing what we can get and leaving the wreckage to be dealt with by someone else. So, this small boy, dead in his mother’s arms, represents collateral damage in the grand scheme of God to use Elijah and the drought to punish Ahab and Jezebel.
Elijah had said to her, “don’t worry about a thing – we’ll make it through this together.” Ultimately, together was not enough; now both the prophet and the widow are racked with anger and with guilt and the innocent one has carried the burden of both to his death.
As an archetypical story, this is a good one….even the best intentions go wrong. The world, after all, is more complex than our little bit of it – more complex and fragile. When we take from or give to or use one another in some way or another, it is the innocent who pay the price… those on the margins who carry the burden. It is the hungry that feed us from the last of what they have.
Only story can convey the truth, sometimes, of what is unfolding all around us. God did not cause the oil to spill, nor is God the cause of the hunger and the fragile nature of life for those who are at the margins of our systems. Those with the least are the ones who are asked time and again to give more.
· Those dependent on the jobs on oil rigs are the very families whose backyards are inundated with that gummy slick that relentlessly rolls in on the waves.
· Those who send their sons and fathers to the bottom of the coal mine are those who become victims of the very safety violations they fear to report lest they lose their jobs.
· It is the families of Palestine, the children of Gaza who go without proper nutrition or schooling while the world postures and manipulates their lives to prove one political point or another.
Perhaps if this story of the Widow and Elijah were myth from the Eastern religions – it would end right there. There, the cycle of life and death is conceived as never broken – some survive and rise while others become stuck in the muck and never take flight again. On and on…
But this is our story – not a cyclical view of life but one that also recounts with hope the reality of a divine hand at work. For it is faith that makes Elijah confront his god over the limp body of this young boy. “Why has this innocent been struck down! Oh Lord, put breath back into his body!”
The boy is healed and we never hear about him or his mother again – until centuries later when Jesus is preaching to his home town crowd in Nazareth and recalls the foreign widow. This woman on the margins, who received the blessings of God’s restorative love even as Israel continued to ignore their God and turn to worship Baal – the God of their own desires. Her story is a story of how God does intervene on the part of those who are already giving more than they can.
Every once and a while we are confronted with the truth in such a way that we really see who pays the price for our desires and excesses… including our addiction to oil, and where it is God’s intervention is needed most.
A Laughing Gull mired in the muck of petroleum…
Are we ready now, to turn to God for help? It may mean a change of lifestyle but it seems to me hope is worth the risks. Hope is the only scenario not yet exhausted as the world whirls in these troubling times. Ours is a faith that says, God has heard the cries of his people. God in Christ has brought life back from death. God attends to the prayers of those who live in hope. God will use us in these times if we open ourselves to God’s leading.
Let’s live in hope! Amen.