Two years ago, I visited the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Housed in Greensboro’s former F.W. Woolworth’s department store, the Museum features the store’s lunch counter and stools preserved in situ. Once designated for whites only, in the winter of 1960, four African-American college students began sitting on those stools, day after day, silently demanding service, peacefully protesting North Carolina’s Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation. The scene, apart from its historical significance, is unimpressive, very ordinary. But, just think how different North Carolina, indeed our nation, is than in 1960.
Those college students were tired of injustice. So they organized a non-violent protest that insisted on the right of all people, regardless of race, to enjoy equal access to public facilities. For reasons ranging from economics to racial bigotry, F.W. Woolworth, its employees, the City of Greensboro, and much of the white public responded angrily to the sit-ins. The four organizers and their supporters faced threats, verbal abuse, and legal sanctions.
Challenging entrenched power generally provokes unrighteous anger expressed defensively and destructively. I’m guessing that those four young men would probably have identified with Elijah in the scene described in this morning’s lesson from 1 Kings (19:4-8).
Previously, in one of the great biblical narratives, the story described Elijah’s archetypical triumph over the prophets of Baal. At Elijah’s instigation, Baal’s prophets constructed a huge altar, piled it with wood, and set a sacrificed bull atop it. The prophets then beseeched Baal to ignite the pyre and consume the sacrifice with fire. Their pleas being of no avail, they cut themselves with lances and swords, gushing blood, displaying ardent devotion. Still Baal remained silent.
His patience finally exhausted, Elijah, took center stage. The only prophet still alive who was faithful to the Lord, he repaired the Lord’s altar, heaped it with wood, set a sacrificed bull atop the wood, and then had the people douse everything with water not once but three times. Only then did he call upon God; God responded with fire so powerful that it consumed the offering, the wood, and even the stones of the altar. Elijah next directed the people to bind Baal’s prophets; he took them to a wadi, a dry streambed, and slaughtered them.
Most people would savor their triumph, thankful that God had vindicated their confidence. But Israel’s wicked queen, Jezebel, hears what Elijah has done and vows to kill him. This morning’s reading continues the story from there. Jezebel’s anger prompts the triumphant Elijah to flee to the wilderness, afraid for his life. Elijah, in psychic and spiritual distress, thought himself better off dead than alive.
The four North Carolina A&T University freshmen may not have experience prior success as grand as what the Bible attributes to Elijah over the prophets of Baal, but attending college in 1960 represented a considerable achievement. Deciding to jeopardize their educations, future career options, physical safety, and to risk upsetting or even alienating friends and family cannot have been an easy choice. Facing angry, potentially violent crowds, uncertain what might happen, must have been even more difficult. I wonder how many times the four students who began the protests doubted their wisdom in initiating the sit-ins, how many times they felt like following Elijah’s example: fleeing, finding a tree under to which set, and wishing they were dead. Yet they persevered.
In the biblical narrative, an angel brings Elijah food and water. The Bible employs angels as God's messengers. Thinking of them as supernatural actors is both unhelpful and distracting. Instead, the angels involvement emphasize that God exercised personal care over Elijah. Food – actually, a cake or delicious bread – and water sustained him and ensured his survival.
Similarly, angels ministered to the four young men in Greensboro. Family and friends provided encouragement. For six months, thousands of students and others, in Greensboro, Durham, Winston-Salem, and elsewhere, participated in sit-ins protesting segregated lunch counters and other public facilities. All of these people were God's messengers, angels, giving the four students and their supporters the courage and perseverance to stand firm against injustice.
The story of Elijah reaches its climax following today’s reading. Elijah has fled to Mount Horeb where he seeks shelter in a cave. There, God inquires what Elijah is doing. Elijah responds that his zealousness for God's covenant has gotten him into trouble with the authorities and that he now fears for his life. God instructs Elijah to exit the cave and to stand on the mountain, for God is about to pass by. Wind, earthquake, and fire precede a deep and total silence, in which Elijah encounters the living God.
When the upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights movement ended – when the great winds of oratory, the convulsive forces that shook society’s foundations, and the great passions that stirred the nation calmed – we, like Elijah, realized that in those tumultuous forces we had encountered the living God at work in building a more just, not perfect, but more just society.
More than history, more than a sourcebook for religious truth, the Bible gives us windows through which God's light shines to illuminate our path, revealing God's presence, power, and loving embrace. The story of Elijah, for example, provides a window through which we can see God at work in the tumultuous events of the Civil Rights movement.
What is God calling you to do? Do you feel like you’re in the wilderness, sitting under a broom tree and wishing you were dead? Who are the angels God has sent to sustain you? For whom does God intend you to be a sustaining angel?