I had the opportunity to preach on 1 Kings 19:1-19 at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church yesterday. After moving through a few levels of anxiety in the construction process, I had a really great time working with the text, and looking at how the exchange between God and Elijah on Mount Horeb poses the question of what happens when a prophet has lost his nerve, and attempts to resign not only his prophetic office, but also his life.
It’s been almost four years since the first time I stood in this pulpit, on Theological Education Sunday in 2009.
I was one four Union students who were active members of Ginter Park at the time; and, as is the case every couple of years, we were asked to help plan and execute the service.
I think I’m safe to admit, now that some time has passed, that I did not want to be here that Sunday morning. I was just beginning my first year of seminary, and was reluctant – intimidated really, to do anything that required me to stand anywhere. . . Up here.
This pulpit. . . Well, any pulpit. . .can loom pretty large if we let it. I didn’t feel worthy, and I didn’t feel ready.
At the outset of our first planning meeting, I made my reluctance known to the group, saying that I would love to help write prayers or choose music, as long as I didn’t actually have to stand in front of the congregation and deliver any of those prayers. I was perfectly comfortable in the background, thank you very much, and was content to stay there. As the planning got underway, however, it became clear to me that no one in the group was willing to indulge my desire to stay safely in the pew. It was like they didn’t even hear me.
“Okay, so who’s going to deliver the call to confession?” someone asked.
“Give The Prayers of the People?”
“Preach the Sermon?”
Looking around the room, I did some quick math, calculating the number of people participating (four) and the number of roles to be filled (more than four). I began to see my notions of staying in the background diminish before my eyes.
“Okay, okay.” I said, my words still falling on deaf ears. “I can participate in leading worship as long as I don’t have to go anywhere near the sermon.”
As you might guess, “we” decided that the time for the sermon would be divided among the four of us.
Still trying to hold my ground, I offered the only thing that came to mind. “Okay, fine. I’ll participate in the sermon, but only if I can talk about the silence of God.”
Begrudgingly, I went to the same text Eleanor read this morning. I talked about God’s presence in the stillness, coming into our lungs as we breathe, telling us that the gentle nudging of our beating hearts may well be the most tangible sign of God’s claim on our lives that we ever receive.
While I hold that such messages are important, and I appreciate my reading of the text from four years ago, as I prepared for today’s service I found a number of things that were lost on me then. First, and most glaringly, is that God is anything but silent in this exchange. And while God’s self-revelation in the sound of sheer silence marks an important transition in the relationship between God and the people of Israel, it is only part of the story.
Set within a broader context, the narrative of Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb fits within a much larger story of the relationship between God and the people who continue to forfeit the benefits of their covenant with the God who has chosen them. When Ahab became king, he abandoned the commandments of God and followed Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Actions such as Ahab’s – building altars and giving official status to pagan gods – lead the people away from who they are called to be, and eventually into exile. Within this larger saga, stories such as ours today address questions about the role played by the prophet in the divine-human drama.
The exchange between God and Elijah on Mount Horeb poses the question of what happens when a prophet has lost his nerve, and attempts to resign not only his prophetic office, but also his life.
In many ways, Elijah’s flight to the wilderness and attempted renunciation in Chapter 19 seem a bit confusing. Though our story today does begin with a death threat, as the lives of prophets go, Elijah’s is actually pretty good. In the previous chapter, he makes a mockery of the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, calling forth God’s fire onto a water-soaked altar and leading all of those who witness it to “fall on their faces” proclaiming that the Lord is the one God of Israel.
In a brutal and disturbing follow-up to this contest, Elijah slaughters all of the 450 priests of Baal, demonstrating God’s power and lack of patience with false prophets.
At the end of chapter 18, a heavy rain comes, ending the drought Elijah successfully predicted three years prior.
Through Elijah, God has shown power over fire, water, and the sword. And yet, upon hearing of the queen’s threat, Elijah heads for the wilderness, abandoning his homeland and, eventually, his only companion. In the face of such cosmic victories, one has to wonder why even an intimidating earthly threat from the queen would send Elijah into a tailspin. Why, in the face of so much resounding assurance from God, is he so shaken?
In short, Elijah is burned out.
On the surface, it appears as though the faith and courage that he has shown have had very little effect. Jezebel is still intent on taking his life, and Ahab hasn’t budged an inch. God sent Elijah to convert the king and turn the people’s hearts, yet even the grandest displays of God’s power and providence do nothing. Elijah’s passion and zeal for the Lord may have motivated him to take part in amazing things, but they’ve also put his life in jeopardy. Exhausted and depleted, he comes to a lonely tree and asks only that the Lord might take his life.
“Enough,” he says. “I have had enough.” And he lays down under the thin branches and goes to sleep, ready to die.
That he is awakened by a messenger of the Lord and given enough food to strengthen him for a forty day trek in the wilderness does little to brighten his mood. When the word of the Lord comes to him, he isn’t shy about voicing his complaint: “I have done all you’ve told me to do,” he says, “but the Israelites continue to forsake you. I. I am all that’s left of the faithful, and now they are hunting me down and they will take my life.”
“What’s the point?” Elijah wants to know. We may have seen some gains, celebrated even large victories, but what’s the point of doing God’s work in the world if the very people who are supposed to be faithful turn away again and again and again?
What’s the use of a zealous heart in the face of circumstances that continue to be so overwhelming?
When Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb it is to say that God’s expectations are too high. As one scholar puts it, “by calling on Yahweh to take his life, Elijah puts the whole situation squarely before God.” If God concedes, and allows Elijah to die, it is an admission that the task is too great. If not, Elijah is challenging God to respond to the underlying causes of his distress.
God’s response to Elijah is two-fold. Rather than accepting his resignation, God expands his list of duties. However, included in that list is a compromise: one of the duties he’s to carry out is the installation of Elisha, his successor. In Elisha, Elijah is given not only a companion, but a sense of hope, seeing that when it is his time to go, the work will continue. In short, God tells Elijah that he’s not alone, gives him a companion for the journey, and tells him to get back to work.
Though it is tempting to see Elijah’s dramatic plea to God as a bit. . .well, dramatic, his words point to a deep sense of hopelessness in the face of seemingly overwhelming circumstances.
In his book The Call of Service, Robert Coles talks about the potential hazards that come with the work of serving others. He confirms that even those we hold to be heroes in the work of justice grow weary, when he quotes Martin Luther King, Jr., saying: “We have just so much strength in us. If we give and give and give, we have less and less and less – and after a while, at a certain point, we’re so weak and worn, we hoist up the flag of surrender. We surrender to the worst side of ourselves, and then we display that to others. We surrender to self-pity and to spite and to morose self-preoccupation. . .Whatever we say or think, this is an arduous duty, doing this kind of work; to live out one’s idealism brings with it hazards.”
Though our intentions remain good, when circumstances become overwhelming even the greatest of us struggle with such feelings – with depression and cynicism and the goodness getting knocked out of us. Though we may have zeal and courage enough to look straight into the eye of even the most fearful beast standing between where the world is and where it should be, doing God’s work can be a soul-crushing endeavor. Shining the light in a dark world can feel like a losing battle. Compounding this weariness is the disconcerting notion that questions of whether or not we are up for the task, or even if we’re worthy of the job, seem to be beside the point.
Though God doesn’t seem willing to yield to our attempts at throwing in the towel, God does provide us with sustenance for the journey, often in the form of an individual or group who, if nothing else, remind us that we are not alone. In community, we find food in the wilderness of our lives, we find encouragement to be brave and the strength to be resilient; we find even a small broom tree’s worth of shade to rest under when we are weary. Even more, we are reminded that the work of being the church is not our work to do alone. We aren’t chosen, after all, because of who we are or what we can do, but because of what God can do through us.
What happens, though, when it’s not an individual who feels this sort of weariness, but an entire community who finds themselves at the mouth of the cave, overwhelmed and frustrated before God?
What happens when a congregation, or an entire denomination, looks at the reality of the way things are and realizes that, though we may have seen some gains, celebrated even large victories, the task before us is simply too great?
We bring our time and energy and all the zeal we can muster to conversations about how we can truly welcome people, but denominational numbers continue to shrink.
We build relationships and find new ways to feed people, but food programs are cut, reduced lunches are disappearing.
Volunteers are hard to find, resources are stretched thin. We are tired, lonely, sometimes even feeling useless.
How are we supposed to respond to God’s word courageously when none of us has any encouragement to give?
I was struck by a surprising parallel to these challenges while watching the movie The Whale Rider earlier this week (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it!).
The film’s plot follows the story of Paikea, called Pai, a young member of a dying Maori tribe on New Zealand’s North Island. Pai, who also narrates the film, was born a twin, but both her mother and brother died during childbirth. Despite the fact that she is a direct descendent (and namesake) of the tribe’s founder, who mythically rode a whale from the ancient homeland, leading them to their New Zealand home, the fact that she is female makes her ineligible for tribal leadership.
Though the people are literally facing extinction, her grandfather Koro’s expectations for a new leader to instill energy and vitality into the community are dashed with the death of his grandson, and blind him to Pai’s gifts. Faced with a loss of cultural identity and a spreading apathy among the people, Koro calls out in desperation to the Ancient Ones, the whales, for help.
“But they didn’t listen.” Pai says. “So, I called to them. . . And they came.”
It isn’t long before an answer to Pai’s call for help comes in the presence of a pod of whales.
Only . . . it goes all wrong.
Rather than delivering the community to a new land, or somehow bringing a message of hope, the whales beach themselves on the shore near Pai’s home. The villagers work to coax and drag the largest of the whales back into the ocean, knowing that if he goes, the others will follow. But, the whale too large, and the strength of the whole village is not enough to coax him into deeper water. Pai watches the last of her grandfather’s hopes dying with the slowing breaths of the giant animal.
“He wanted to die.” She said. “There was no reason to live anymore.” It leaves the viewer wondering if she’s speaking of the whale, or of her grandfather.
When the whole community has finally given up, Pai climbs onto the massive beast. “Come on,” she says gently; and, with a nudge of her heel, the weary animal begins to move.
It is not until he watches his granddaughter ride the whale out to sea, that Koro realizes that the hope he’s been looking for has been there all along. He’d become so set on finding a leader who looked like those of the past that he failed to see the future right in front of his face.
Just as Koro fails to see the presence of the ancestors in his granddaughter, so too we become blind to the potential for God’s movement in the world when we fail to recognize the gifts brought in the generations that follow, and in the beauty of relationships built across generational lines – the kinds of relationship made possible in a faith community like ours.
If we are able take off the blinders of anxiety and fear, creeping conversations about budgets and denominational decline, lingering doubts about the role of the church in the world, we can actually see signs of God’s movement everywhere.
In every seed that is planted and conversation begun. In the love and care shared among people who have seen even the worst parts of ourselves, we have hope for the future.
In nudging one another, whether to the pulpit to read scripture, to tell our stories in front of the congregation, or into the neighborhood to invite people to a block party, we have hope for the future.
In the participation of children and youth who know that they are part of this community, who read scripture and make banners, offer gifts of music in worship, and clink glasses at Supper Church. In conversations where the ages of the participants range from five to thirty five, to sixty-five and ninety-five – conversations that happen here all the time! – we have hope for the future.
When we sit with each other through joblessness, sickness, even hopelessness, we when we take communion to homebound people, and sit with them as they enter the final stages of their lives, we have hope for the future.
When we admit our exhaustion and find rest from the weariness of our days, trusting in the one who undergirds the strength of our community, and who has sustained the generations before us and will continue to sustain the generations after us, we have hope for the future.
May we only have the eyes to see and the ears to hear God made manifest all around us.