Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Beloveds, hear the good news:
You don’t have to have a royal bounty on your head, as Elijah did, to worry about your future and whether you will have one.
You don’t have to all the king’s armies and all the queen’s men on your tail to want to get out of Dodge (or away from your email) and run for dear life.
Your life doesn’t have to be filled with one melodramatic moment after another for you to long for some boring alone time, maybe a little retreat in the wilderness, far away from WiFi, maybe a long, dead-to-the-world nap in a rustic room in that trendy new cave hotel.
You don’t have to be a prophet called by God to speak truth to the cruelly powerful to be thinking it might be time for a career change.
You don’t have to have waged and won an audacious holy-prophet smackdown to think you deserve a little time off.
You don’t have to be a burned-out prophet or even a college student waxing philosophical with your besties at 3 a.m. to wonder what you are doing here, in every sense of the question: from the deets of your immediate reality to your cosmic, existential purpose.
You just have to be human.
You just have to have at least one foot in this beautiful and broken world.
You just have to be brave (or maybe foolish) enough to want to live for something greater than yourself, to love someone outside of yourself, to believe (on your good days) that even you can make a difference in this world and to hope against hope that love will win in the end.
You just have to, every once in a while a least, pay attention to that longing in your heart that makes you wonder if you weren’t created in love, for love.
You just have to let the ineffable beauty of this ridiculously extravagant world have its way with you. You just have to love the people life puts in front of you. You just have to be willing to hope, willing to trust, willing to follow, willing to die, willing to let your heart be broken open—again and again and again.
And all those other things are bound to happen, sooner or later and maybe more than once.
Because, even if you haven’t done any of those things, you are human. You were made in the very image of God. You are a spiritual being having a very physical experience, and so there are bound to be some bumps in this road of life that passes by more miracles than you could have imagined.
Chances are you figured out some time ago that preachers sometimes preach what they most need to hear—not consciously (most of the time, anyway), and not selfishly, we hope. Today I plead guilty to that charge.
I’ve read and loved Elijah’s story for many years now. I’ve preached on it before, sometimes going on a little riff about angel food cake, and one time even using a jar of water and a biscuit as props. But when I re-read Elijah’s story last week, it hit a little close to home. I found myself relating to Elijah more so than in the past—not in the “everyone’s out to get me” kind of way, but in the “we’re working so hard for what is right and where is it getting us, and I’m so tired” kind of way.
And I’m pretty sure some of you can relate to Elijah, too—not so much in the running-for-your-life way as in the fighting-the-good-fight-and-for-what way.
I know I don’t have to convince you that we’re tired. And I don’t need to tell you what we’re up against. And I really hope I don’t have to prove to you that I love life and praise God for all good things or pretend that, as people of faith and followers of Jesus, we have to balance every lament with a praise song. Naming the evil in our midst and mourning the injustice and suffering in our world while we strive for a God’s realm is not negative, as some would have us believe; it is both faithful and necessary.
And sometimes it is hard. Sometimes it is exhausting. Sometimes, like Elijah, we are tempted to give up. “Enough of this!” we say. I can’t do this any more.
And so we run into our version of wilderness: away from the news, escaping into a shopping spree, away from our busy church and activist friends, into various kinds numbing, doing all we can to escape the pain of the world and delve more deeply into the simple pleasures and deep joys of our own lives.
I get that. Believe me, I do.
And, like you, I try to follow Jesus. I may not be a prophet, but I’d like to think I work for God. And so, I must speak truth to power—in love. And so I must speak both bad and good news to our hurting hearts.
And so, as with Elijah, I discover that being true to who God has made me to be will not allow me to truly escape.
But 20 months of sanctuary work takes a toll. Twenty months with no end in sight and no sure path to justice weighs heavy. Twenty months of standing with and supporting the struggles of Lucio and his family, as well as hundreds of thousands of migrants and more than a thousand separated migrant families both feeds and bleeds the heart.
As the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote the other day, “It’s hard to remain focused on all the terrible things [the president] is doing in our name. Just [last] week, a government lawyer argued in court that migrant children needn’t be given luxuries like soap and toothbrushes. The administration is planning to house migrant children at a military base once used as a Japanese internment camp. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported on a Texas detention facility where about 250 children, some separated from relatives, have been locked up for as many as 27 days ‘without food, water, and sanitation.’ Some are babies. At least six migrant children have died in immigration custody since last September. There are kids in this country being systematically brutalized by the American government, and it’s hard to keep that in the forefront of your mind all the time without going mad.”
We could say the same of some of the actions the government is taking (or not) on the environment as we approach climate catastrophe.
Let’s be clear: Elijah was no slouch. Elijah was not a minor, slightly-above-average prophet. He was one of the majors. Elijah was the one taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. Elijah is the one whose return Jews await so eagerly that they set a place for him at their Passover seders.
And yet even Elijah had his bad days. Even Elijah got discouraged and scared and wanted to give up. Even Elijah seemed to go a bit mad. Even Elijah sometimes went off into the wilderness for a little self-pity party. Even Elijah sometimes wondered what he was doing here, and whether it made any difference.
So here’s another thing:
You don’t have to feel guilty for being discouraged. You don’t have to pretend that you’re not tired. You don’t have to give up having fun and enjoying your life.
Nor do you have to work yourself to the bone.
It is tempting here to quote Mary Oliver’s most beloved poem, the one I have hanging on my bedroom wall, the one that says,
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Well, that’s a good start, perhaps, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that. The story of Elijah’s very bad day and awfully pathetic journey offers some good news and helpful guidelines for our own journeys:
We have to feel what we’re feeling.
We have to listen to our bodies, which will mean that we have to rest sometimes.
We have to let ourselves be taken care of.
We have to let ourselves be loved.
We have to feed our souls as well as our bodies.
We have to trust that when we fall apart God’s grace will be there to pick up the pieces and put us back together.
We have to trust that God is faithful, even when we are not, and that God is doing a new thing, even when we can’t see it.
We have to remember that while we are God’s partners in loving and healing the world, a big part of our job is letting ourselves be healed and changed, and that Spirit is in charge.
Sometimes we have to take a break and go looking for God.
Sometimes we have to acknowledge that God is not only in the drama or the big actions but also right in front of us in the ordinary and the everyday, in our neighbor, and in the stranger.
We have to listen for the still, small, tender voice of Holy Love.
Sometimes it will ask us what we are doing here—to encourage us to remember, to invite us to give thanks for this holy work God has given us. Sometimes it will nudge us to keep going.
And always it will love us and guide us back into the heart of God, back into the healing power of community and solidarity. Always it will remind us that we are not alone.
This, beloveds, is the good news. May it renew our hope and restore our souls.
Thanks be to God.