1 Kings 19:3-12, from The Message
Normally, a sermon series is designed to develop and deepen over time—not only in terms of themes and content but also in understanding and application. And yet, as we conclude our “Rooted and Grounded” series today, I can’t help but wonder how many of us are feeling even less grounded than we were a month ago.
When we reflected on being rooted and grounded in power, it was encouraging to remember that nothing less than the healing and transforming power of the Spirit is at work in us and through us. We imagined ourselves as mighty trees able to grow up high into the sky because our roots were planted firmly in the rich soil of Spirit power.
When the time came to consider what it means to be rooted and grounded in love, we imagined ourselves adrift in a vast ocean, tossed to and fro by every wave of bad news and every riptide of uncertainty. And so we resolved to plant our feet and our lives in the hard and holy work of loving and to stand firm in the unfathomable love of Christ.
All that is well and good. All of that is fundamental to what it means to follow Jesus, and essential to all manner of spiritual journeys.
And still we live in a complex and sometimes scary world. Still the daily demands on our time and energy can render us unable to focus on much of anything beyond the here and now.
And now, on top of all that, we are swimming in a sea of anxiety. There’s pandemic anxiety, fueled by case numbers and death counts that continue to climb even as our willingness to limit our lives weakens. And then there’s election anxiety, a non-stop roller coaster of hope and fear that has us living on edge most of the time.
We may think we’re holding it together, but I see evidence of our anxiety everywhere—in impatience and irritability, in tears that begin flowing at the drop of a hat, in harsh language and inappropriate behavior, in emotional withdrawal and denial. Most of us have been doing a pretty good job of holding it together for seven long, disruptive, and isolating months, but now “election stress disorder” (a therapist’s fitting term for an all-too-real condition) threatens to undo us.
So, before we reflect on what it means to be rooted and grounded in all the fullness of God, and before we consider what the story of the prophet Elijah might have to teach us about that, I want to invite us all to take a deep breath.
Go ahead: Just stop for a moment a focus on your breathing. Take a deep breath in, letting the air fill your lungs and expand your diaphragm.
Feel the fullness of it. Fill yourself up with it; feel your heart rate slow and your heart open.
Notice what it feels like to be filled with something that is good for you. Consider what happens when you pay attention to something that you rarely think about. Consider that deep breathing is something that is always available to you. Consider what breathing deeply and grounding yourself in the fullness of God have in common.
And now let us turn our attention to the prophet Elijah, who, not unlike us, is more than a little anxious. He exhibits some of the tell-tale signs of anxious behavior: running away from his problems, playing the drama queen, feeling sorry for himself, blaming others, and exaggerating the seriousness of his situation. He comes across as one big hot mess.
But let’s not be too hard on Elijah. After all, he has done pretty much everything God asked of him—confronting the evil king and queen and their false gods—and now there is a bounty on his head. And yet his biggest problem is not the royal posse that is coming after him; nor is it his exhaustion and despair. Rather, he’s a hot mess because he’s forgotten that God is with him and that God is for him. Addicted to the results of his own non-stop activity, he believes that everything is up to him.
But that doesn’t mean that it is. That doesn’t mean that all the mystery and power, grace and love, closeness and vastness, depth and fullness of God is not as available to him as ever.
When Elijah collapses under a bush, God is right there with him—in a jug of water, bread still warm from the baking, and an angel’s not-so-gentle nudge. Elijah eats and drinks, and then settles down for another nap. And still God is with him—with yet more food and encouragement.
So full is Elijah with the bread of life and the nurturing breath of God that he walks for 40 days and nights, all the way to the mountain of God, before taking another nap.
Then, when he is finally well-rested, the word of God comes to him, saying, “So, Elijah,” what are you doing here?”
And, well, maybe Elijah is not so well-rested after all, because he immediately returns to whining and blaming and exaggerating.
“I did what you said, God, and look where it got me: I’m the only one still following you, and everyone else is trying to kill me.”
Notice that God does not respond to Elijah’s portrayal of the situation. A voice says only: “Go over there and pay attention. God will pass by.”
You know what happens next: First, a mighty wind whooshes through the mountains, breaking rocks with its force—but God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, so strong Elijah wonders if that mountain will come crashing down around him—but God is not in the earthquake. Next it’s a roaring fire—but God is not in the fire. And then, finally, there comes the sound of sheer silence.
Up until now, Elijah has been hiding at the back of a cave. But when Elijah hears the silence, he wraps his face in his cloak and goes out to stand at the entrance to the cave. Again, the voice says to him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?”
Beloveds, I know we have been busy. I know we have been working hard to follow Jesus and to do justice and love kindness. For four long years we have been working our hearts out for the God of the poor and the stranger, the marginalized and oppressed; we have been pulling out all the stops for the Creator of our groaning earth.
And, speaking only for myself, I realize there have been times when I forgot about the power and love of God, when I thought it was all up to me or to us, that everything rested on our organizing and activity and prayerful appeals to the powers of this world. And now, here we are: isolated by a pandemic, still working hard for what is right and good, and standing on the precipice of an election whose outcome will shape the futures of everyone and everything we care about—everyone on earth, really, as well as the earth itself. The stakes are unbelievably high. And almost every day there is another mighty wind, an earthquake, or a fire—both literal and figurative.
If we allow ourselves to be still, if we let ourselves hear the silence, if we stop rushing and worrying and living in fear, we, too, may hear a gentle voice, saying, “What are you doing, beloved? I’m right here. You are not alone. I am with you, and I am in this epic struggle. No matter what happens, I will remain with you and all my beloved children. Know the love that conquers death. Tap into the power that creates new life. Be filled with all the fullness of your God.”
Now, this is where I could get practical. I could talk about centering prayer, the importance of presence, the necessity of spiritual practice, and what it means, as Richard Rohr says, to dedicate ourselves to “the deliberate seeking of God,” whatever that means to you.
Instead, I will simply remind us that Jesus was forever going away to pray, that even Jesus needed to be intentional about staying rooted in power and love and all the fullness of God. Instead, I invite us to make like a tree, rooted in power. I encourage us to ground ourselves firmly in small acts of love—for our enemies as well as our neighbors. I appeal to us to make time for silence and space for stillness, that all the love and grace, power and wisdom and compassion of God might fill our hearts and minds as air fills our lungs.
In a moment we will share the love feast Jesus has prepared for us. We will partake of the bread of life and the cup of blessing. As we remember the one who loved us unto death, let us also hear the angel’s words to Elijah: “Get up and eat. You’ve got a long journey ahead of you.”