Text: 1 Kings 18:17-39 (Elijah calls down fire)
Saskatchewan loves the Roughriders. This was one of the first things I learned when I moved there five years ago.
It was five years ago this week that I moved from Toronto to Coronach to begin my career as an ordained minister. I loved many things about my two and half years in Saskatchewan as the minister of three churches along the border with Montana. But devotion to the Roughriders football team was not one of them.
I understand why people become fanatical about sports and why the people of Saskatchewan love the Roughriders. As a province with just one million inhabitants, Saskatchewan has only the one professional sports team.
If the Roughriders were ever to be sold to a city like Halifax or Victoria, I fear that the anguish and rage expressed would know no bounds. I pray that Saskatchewan never has to undergo such a trauma!
Still, I never caught the bug. I enjoy sports highlight reels and the excitement of a close game. But team sports seem too arbitrary to me for me to devote spiritual energy in the worship of one franchise or another.
The Roughriders are named after the province, but most of its players are recruited from elsewhere. Like all pro teams, it exists to make a profit in a violent sport that often injures the players. Fans experience transcendence while watching the games, especially if they are part of the crowds that cram Taylor Field in Regina. But as a form of worship it strikes me as shallow and contrived.
I am not suggesting that sports should be banned. While I view the love of a sports team as a kind of idolatry, I also see it as relatively harmless. I believe that one can worship the Roughriders, the Oilers, or the Raptors and still have room in one’s heart for the worship of the God who is Love.
More serious to me is the worship of nation. Nationalism has become the main form of idolatry in the modern era and it can lead to a lot more harm than the worship of professional sports teams.
Unfortunately, nationalism is on the rise around the world. In Europe in the face of millions of migrants who are trying to flee North Africa and southwestern Asia, country after country has closed its borders. These countries are willing to allow thousands of people to die in attempts to cross the Mediterranean and millions more to live in misery on its borders despite the fact that their misery is directly linked to recent wars by Western powers in the Middle East.
Anti-immigrant parties are on the rise. The slogan is always the same: Germany for Germans, France for the French, and England for the English.
Nationalist and anti-immigrant forces achieved a spectacular victory two weeks ago in the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. While Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the European Union, as did the people of London and a large majority of young people, most people in England outside of London voted to leave.
Many issues get folded into a referendum like the one in the UK: dislike of political, economic, and intellectual elites; fears of social and cultural change; anger at poverty and joblessness; and so on. But dislike of immigrants and the challenges they bring to England’s identity seemed to loom large.
As with any state, it is easy to find things to criticize about the European Union. But given that it was created to bind together the nations that had destroyed one another in two world wars in the 20th century, I am discouraged that English, French, and German nationalism might now unravel the project.
I understand the desire to identify with a nation made up of people with a common language, history, and culture. As with a sports team, focusing on one’s nation is a way of transcending one’s self and of giving thanks for the blessings of life. Nationalism reflects the same impulses that lead us to worship God, I believe.
English nationalism carried the day in the June 23rd referendum. This victory has weakened the European Union and it may now lead to the dissolution of Great Britain, which was formed in 1707 by a union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England. The Scottish parliament is now debating if it should remain in Europe by separating from England. The Brexit victory may also lead to the dissolution of the 200-year-old United Kingdom, which was created in 1801 when Great Britain annexed England’s first colony, Ireland. After nearly a century of separation, Northern Ireland might now try to rejoin the Republic of Ireland to its south and so remain part of the European Union.
Many people in England are proud to identify with their country despite the violent history of the British Empire. I applaud the desire of such nationalists to find something bigger than themselves to worship. I just think they miss the mark.
But what about non-European countries? Tomorrow, the United States celebrates Independence Day. There is much to like about the history of the United States, as there is of any country. There is also much to dislike about it given the wars the United States has fought.
This year, July 4th will be celebrated under a cloud cast by Donald Trump. As the nominee of the Republican Party for President, Trump has led a campaign based upon hatred of Mexicans and Muslims. He appeals to people’s grievances about social and economic conditions but does so with a program that can only lead to economic crisis, racism, and war.
Whatever the outcome of the U.S. Presidential race and the fallout from the vote of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, I believe that we as a church and as individuals will be faced with the charms and perils of nationalism more and more in the coming years.
Perhaps Canada provides an antidote. Last Friday Canadians celebrated the 149th anniversary of Confederation. I liked the notes struck by the Prime Minister. He said that “no matter where you are from, or the faith you profess, or the colour of your skin, or whom you love, you belong here. This is home.”
When love of nation is predicated on universal values like this, a lot of the venom of nationalism is extracted. At the same time, living fully into these values would lead us beyond Canada with its own history of war and racism towards a world without borders where a united humanity works to mend the wounds of colonialism.
Our reading today about Elijah highlights some of the issues. Elijah is a prophet who is second only to Moses in the Hebrew tradition.
The problem for me is that Elijah is portrayed as intolerant and violent. Not only does he rail against the prophets of Baal — the Phoenician god that King Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel, brings to Israel. Check out the verse immediately following today’s reading: “Elijah told them, ‘Grab the prophets of Baal! Don’t let one get away!’ So they grabbed them, and Elijah took them down to a nearby brook where he killed them.”
Elijah warns that Baal is an idol and therefore not worthy of worship. But what about YHWH? Any god that supports a massacre like the one perpetrated by Elijah does not strike me as the God of Love we seek.
Elijah also appears in the Gospels. When Jesus is transfigured on a mountainside, Peter, James, and John find Jesus talking with Elijah and Moses. Mark does not report what they say, but I wonder if Jesus tells Elijah and Moses that unlike them he is not going to kill anyone.
If the gospels said that Jesus took 450 of his religious opponents aside and killed them, I would have trouble remaining in the church. Fortunately, there is no such passage. Jesus refuses to kill his enemies. Instead, he offers his life in solidarity with his friends and for the values of inclusion and love for all people.
In the sacrament of communion, we uphold universal values of justice and love. We also uphold Jesus’ refusal to kill and his willingness to die in defence of Love.
At the communion table, we try to follow Jesus by welcoming everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality.
At the communion table, we are given a new identity within the heart of God. It is an identity much deeper than any nation, an identity that unites people of all backgrounds.
Today as we come to the Table, may we remember the promises of Love: that all humans are sacred; that God’s realm embraces people of all nations; and that God’s dream is for a world under the banner of one Love and one Spirit.
May it be so