To rebuild we need silence, rest, friends, nurturing of next generation

The Rev. Dr. Zina Jacque, assistant to the pastor for small groups at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, presents her sermon on week two’s theme, Games: A Celebration of Our Most Human Pastime, on Sunday morning at the 10:45 a.m., Ecumenical Service of Worship and Sermon, July 2, 2023, in the Amphitheater. BRETT PHELPS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

When The Rev. Zina Jacque first preached at Chautauqua, each sermon featured a different prop. At the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater, she brought the game Jenga, developed by Leslie Scott in the 1980s.

The title of her sermon was “Jenga,” and the scripture reading was 1 Kings 19:1-18, Elijah’s encounter with God.

Elijah was a prophet of Israel and “he stood above all except maybe Moses,” Jacque said. “At the Transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and Elijah were there, the law and the prophets.”

Elijah was in trouble; he was by himself. He had been in a contest with the prophets of Baal, supported by Queen Jezebel. When they failed to call down fire from Baal to burn a sacrifice, Elijah called upon the God of Israel who sent down the fire.

“He had bested the prophets of Baal and Jezebel was pissed off,” Jacque said. “She sent a message to Elijah: ‘So may the gods to me and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ ” Elijah decided to run away.

When playing Jenga, participants build a tower of wooden blocks, then take turns pulling or pushing out the individual blocks. The point is to remove a block without the tower falling and then placing the block on top of the tower. Gradually, the tower becomes more and more unstable until it falls.

Jacque moved a Jenga tower to the pulpit and began to pull or push out blocks.

“Elijah decided to run and, like Jenga, his courage was pushed out and replaced by fear; his confidence was replaced by anxiety; his optimism was pushed out and so was his self confidence,” she said.

She continued, “The blocks he laid on top were fragility and depression, and when he asked for help, the tower fell. Elijah was devastated; he knew how to play on the right side of the God of history. He had stood firm and had done what he was called to do. He had built a tower on the good and the right, but it still fell.”

She asked the congregation, “What do you do when your dreams crash down?” Elijah wanted to finish his life. He did not know what to do, so he ran away and sat under a broom tree.

Sitting under a broom tree is a sign of trouble, Jacque said. Hagar sat under a broom tree as she watched Ishmael struggle; Job and his friends sat under broom trees as they discussed Job’s troubles. It is a sign that things are not good.

From under the broom tree, Elijah was called to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai. God said to Elijah, “Rest, nap, get some nourishment for the journey. Then come and see me at Horeb.”

After the theophany of wind, fire and earthquake, God came to Elijah in the silence. 

God told Elijah to be quiet and go inside himself. Jacque said, “God told Elijah to ‘check out your why. What are you doing here? Remember my promises and you will know your why. I have plans to make you prosper. Are you working for a portion of the greater design or only for what you can see?’”

When Elijah was ready, God told him to go back to Israel the same way he had come and learn the lessons of going over the land Elijah had already come through. God told him to find some friends and to build the next generation of prophets in Elisha.

“Elijah was able to rest, to rise up in his own strength. But he is not the only one who had a tower fall,” Jacque said. “I would like to celebrate the 247 years of America, but my heart is heavy. I am a proud American and I would live nowhere else by choice. When I think about our ideals and aspirations, I see how far we have fallen.”

She quoted the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men — we have a problem right there — are created equal. We are only strong when we bring together our diversity. At the base of the Statue of Liberty are the words ‘Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ ‘The New Colossus’ says send them home to me.”

In the Gospels, to sin is to miss the mark. Jacque said, “When I think about our unwillingness to tell the truth about our history — that we stole the land from people living here, that we enslaved others, we don’t honor women and LGBTQ+ people, when we think an individual is worth more than the sum, that voting laws in 13 states are more restrictive than in 2020, that we are fearfully banning books, that we have called lies truth — our national tower has been knocked down.”

She continued, “We have pushed out inclusion, truth, and the orderly change of power. We have pushed out those planks and the tower has fallen.”

Individuals can feel overwhelmed by all there is to do in this nation. What can an individual do?

“Elijah was an individual. If we are going to work to re-establish democracy, to make us whole again, we need community, but each individual needs to do their part and each pick up some pieces,” she told the congregation.

The first step must be to rest and nourish ourselves. “We can’t work out of emptiness, we have to be rested and nourished. Get away from the craziness of Fox News and CNN, put down the newspaper; eat what is good, go to Horeb where you might find God,” Jacque said. 

Out of the quiet, God spoke to Elijah. To know what God has to say, you need to be quiet, she told the congregation.

The next step is to go back and find your friends. “This is not the worst moment in our history. We are resilient,” she said. “Like the spiral theory, we go round and round but we also are moving up. We have to pick up the pieces and God will be able to build again.”

The third step is to pour our wisdom into the next generation. “We are all going to die. Who will know the legacy, the stories?” she asked the congregation. “What God said to Elijah is real for us.”

God, she said, is speaking through Jenga, from the Swahili word “kujenga,” meaning to build up. 

The nation needs to build stronger, higher and better, Jacque said. “Are you an Elijah before or after he talked with God? God can build better with us. Will we have another opportunity to get it right? Will you come and play Jenga with me?”

The Rev. John Morgan, pastor of the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, presided. Isabel Packevicz, the student minister in the Department of Religion for the 2023 season, read the scripture. The prelude was “Adoration,” by Florence Price, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. For the anthem, the Motet Choir, under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, sang “Unless the Lord build the house,” by Alfred V. Fedak with words from Psalm 127, Psalm 118 and Matthew 21. The postlude was “Toccata,” from Suite for Organ by Florence Price, played by Stafford. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Harold F. Reed, Sr. Chaplaincy and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.