In the end, no contest
The Civil War, fought from 1861-1865, intended to determined how these United States were going to live together: would they be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government AND, to what degree would all persons be equal or would it continue to be the largest nation of slave holders in the world? 625,000 people died in the Civil War, more than in any other war this country has fought. The war left this country broken from the loss of life, the bitterness over the ideologies that led to the battle, the disagreement about human rights and who is valued, and disagreements over who can live freely in this country. President Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, named slavery as the cause of the war and held the entire country accountable and complicit in the sin of slavery, both the North and the South. In many ways we as a nation are still wrestling with unresolved conflict and moral guilt for the circumstances of the Civil War: the kidnapping of innocent people taken them from their homes in Africa and sold into a life of bondage in foreign lands, for decades of raping slave women, and for breaking up families by selling off men, women, and children, for profit and to prevent uprisings. The layers of guilt, denial, and indignation are deep, unconscious for many of us living today. There remains a lingering racial tension and unresolved guilt in the soul of this nation.
Efforts have been made to help us, help this country reconcile the tragedy and deaths of the civil war, to help us be one nation under God. Shortly after the war ended cities around the country offered observances, memorials for the soldiers who had fought and died. The first recorded observance was in Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866. By 1868 a national day of observance was called for and held on May 30. Decoration Day, as it was called, was held at Arlington Cemetery where 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers. By 1890 Decoration Day was an official state holiday. Eventually it became known as Memorial Day, remembering the soldiers of the Civil War. However, with the loss of life from two World Wars, Memorial Day became a day of remembering all soldiers who lost their lives in battle, defending the freedom of people in this country and around the world. May 30 was the day of observance until 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving national holidays to Monday, thus making Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. While Memorial Day is a civic holiday, for people of faith it raises valid questions. How are we continuing the work that the Civil War inaugurated by working to reconcile the sin of slavery and the lingering aftermath of racism?
In our reading this morning from First Kings, Elijah has set up a contest, a battle of the wills between the god Baal and Yahweh, God of the Hebrews. The region was starving from years of drought, and the people had started praying to Baal, the god of fertile soil, dew and rain. The idea behind the contest was to prove to the Hebrews that only Yahweh/God has real power, only God can change lives and transform the world, Baal was just a false idol. Elijah set up two fire pits and filled each of them with water. Through the water Elijah called for fire. The contest was designed to raise questions - there are many voices for God, how to know the true voice of God? How do false idols pull one away from the true God? The pit dedicated to Baal could not produce fire, but the pit dedicated to God brought forth a huge fire. Yahweh/God won! And the people responded with trust, faith, and fidelity.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians is asking a similar questions - what false idols pull at one’s fears, and how can one respond with confidence to the authentic voice of God? The dilemma for the Galatians was over long held Hebrew traditions and how these traditions were bumping up against new people, Gentiles, who had no history with the traditions. In the end, Paul and the church, decided that these long held traditional practices, like circumcision and dietary restrictions, were not that important. Ultimately it was determined that “love” is what makes one a Christian.
Our readings today speak into the lingering remnants of the corporate soul of people in the United States, right into our ongoing contest over ideologies and belief - which is essentially what do freedom and equality, the foundational values of this country, really mean?
While I can fall victim to false idols like prestige, appearances, money, youth, ultimately for me, it’s no contest at all. Our scripture offers a very clear and unconditional basis for the values I hold most dear. Jesus says it simply when he summarizes all 613 commandments in the Bible this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. To truly live into the Good News of Jesus means I must always work on myself, to recognize how prejudice and bias reside in me, and to do what I can reconcile it and live more fully into equality and freedom for all.
A reflection on the readings for Proper 4C: 1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39 and Galatians 1:1-12