Proper 14/ Pentecost 11 The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris
1 Kings 19:4-8 August 8, 2021
Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
I would wager that most of us have felt a bit like Elijah at one point in our lives or another. Bone weary. Depleted. Brokenhearted. Empty. And ready to give up. It is enough. No more. I can’t handle any more.
As a community, we have a lot on our plates right this very moment. Too much if you ask me.
As the Delta variant surges and we return to mandatory masks indoors, our fear surges again as death and loss and grief at all the losses of the pandemic swirl to the surface.
As our state burns, whole towns lost, lives thrown in chaos by the loss of homes and community, safety of our firefighters once again on the line, acre upon acre of our beautiful wilds devastated, and our own air laced with smoke from far away reminding us viscerally of fires and losses even closer to home. Again.
With my eyes and heart focused on these goliaths, I have barely been able to comprehend the reality of the drought we’re in, perhaps the worst in a long time, and the need to look at how I might reduce my water usage.
And then I know that many of us, if not all, are dealing with our personal situations of grief and loss and hardship: illnesses, death, decline, and big life decisions.
We just might identify with Elijah and want to throw in the towel, sit down under that tree and wallow in our despair. “It is enough,” he declares. It is enough. It is too much.
Theologian Richard Rohr writes in his August 5th meditation,
No one escapes suffering in this life. None of us is exempt from loss, pain, illness, and death. How is it that we have so little understanding of these essential experiences? How is it that we have attempted to keep grief separated from our lives and only begrudgingly acknowledge its presence at the most obvious of times, such as a funeral? …
It is the accumulated losses of a lifetime that slowly weigh us down—the times of rejection, the moments of isolation when we felt cut off from the sustaining touch of comfort and love. It is an ache that resides in the heart, the faint echo calling us back to the times of loss. We are called back, not so much to make things right, but to acknowledge what happened to us. Grief asks that we honor the loss and, in doing so, deepen our capacity for compassion. When grief remains unexpressed, however, it hardens, becomes as solid as a stone. We, in turn, become rigid and stop moving in rhythm with the soul. . . When our grief stagnates, we become fixed in place, unable to move and dance with the flow of life. Grief is part of the dance.
The good news is that grief is normal. Grief is part of life. And it touches us all. We have not done something wrong when we experience grief. We grieve not because we are weak and cannot push past the pain. We grieve because we are human.
And the next good news is that acknowledging our grief, resisting the temptation to force it down and deny its existence, declare we’re fine, facing our grief and walking with it, will make us more human. More compassionate. More able to walk with others on this journey of life.
This is good news indeed but a tall order when we’re sitting under that tree, like Elijah, unable to even fix ourselves something to eat. This story about this moment in Elijah’s life gives us some helpful things to think about when we find ourselves in similar situations.
In her commentary on this passage, Professor Amy Oden notes that in his state of exhaustion, overwhelm, and burnout, Elijah goes out into the wilderness. She writes that wilderness can be,
… fertile as a place of unknowing. We get the sense from Elijah that he’s done all he can in service to the Lord and now, unable to see a way forward, a future, he is resigned. We need to be willing to be in such places of not-knowing, where there are no easy answers or quick fixes. Again, while this can be uncomfortable, it can also be freeing. Sitting with our un-knowing can open us up for Holy Presence. Rather than getting busy planning, managing, figuring it all out, we can become simple, aware of all we do not know, and surrender to this spacious wilderness, trusting God to meet us here.
So first, we learn from Elijah, that is okay to stop trying to fix “the problem”, fix our grief, fix… whatever… fix it all. But that we can indeed sit in this place of not-knowing and work to surrender to this not-knowing, this spacious wilderness, trusting God to meet us there.
Our passage tells us,
Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
As deacon Kate is wont to say, “When you feel like you just can’t keep going, a sandwich and a nap!” And we all know it’s true. Rest and nourishment are essential first steps toward restoring the stability of the earth under our feet. The angel does not send Elijah back to work, does not tell him to get a move on, but instead provides water and simple nourishment right there next to him. And the pattern is repeated. Rest. Eat. Rest. Eat. The angel commands him the second time, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Elijah reminds us of the basics. We must first care for ourselves, these human bodies, otherwise, the journey will be too much for us. Professor Oden writes,
“We can easily go through life as though we are brains-on-a-stick, ignoring our bodies and denying ourselves as creatures. We resist living in solidarity with other creatures who know they need rest and food. This passage invites us to embrace our creatureliness, our need for rest and nourishment, not as signs of moral failure but as our connection to the One-Who-Provides…
Wilderness, rest, nourishment.” She writes, “These are simple and transformative, yet daunting. I hope we can see them as faithful. That is, as key practices that both form and witness to our faith. May we embrace the invitation to wilderness, rest and nourishment, trusting in God’s provision for journey into abundant life.”
Caring for ourselves, our creaturely needs, is a faithful act. It makes it possible for us to be able to sit in the wilderness of not-knowing—otherwise the journey will be too much for us. Rest and nourishment—in all their diversity of forms—sleep, and food, creativity and play, connection with others, exposure to new ideas and creations in books and art and music, travel and time in nature, prayer and study—rest and nourishment make it possible to ultimately get up from under our tree and keep going.
But, they do not vanquish the grief. They do not block us from feeling all the loss and sorrow and sadness. Instead, they help us to walk with our companion grief and sustain us for that part of the dance.
It is essential for us to welcome our grief, whatever form it takes. When we do, we open ourselves to our shared experiences in life. Grief is our common bond. Opening to our sorrow connects us with everyone, everywhere. There is no gesture of kindness that is wasted, no offering of compassion that is useless. We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.
As I requested chicken breasts this week from the butcher at Whole Foods, I commented that the store was unusually quiet for that time of day. He responded that there is no more usual. They used to be able to predict busy times. But now all bets are off. All they can predict is that it will be unpredictable. And then he declared that whatever is going on is labor pains. And like a woman in labor, we’ve got to stay calm and breath and know when to push, but not push before it’s time. He declared, “you gotta brace yourself for whatever is coming and then embrace whatever comes. Brace and embrace.”
And yes, I thought to myself, this is a rather deep conversation to have over the meat counter. But’s it’s Sebastopol, I have come to expect no less. And his words are wise. It is hard to know what to make of all that is going on- pandemic, drought, and fire. It is hard not to feel as if we are living at the end of times. But he chooses to believe that out of these contractions will come new life.
I do not know what that will look like. It’s hard to imagine. We are sitting in the wilderness of not-knowing. But we are assured that the work we are doing in this wilderness is sacred work. The work of grief is faithful and holy as it connects it to our God, who knows what it is to suffer, and to one another. “Grief is our common bond.” And our effort to live faithfully in this time, caring for our creaturely bodies and for one another so that we might welcome our grief and dance with it and with one another does in fact lead to new life. “It is sacred work.”