(This was my candidating sermon [6-19-22] for South Congregational Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Following the sermon, they invited me to be their pastor! I’ll leave my position with the Pacific Northwest Conference in the middle of September and join South Church soon afterward.)
1 Kings 19:1-15 (NRSVUE)
I always appreciate the legal disclaimer at the beginning of a video or book that says something like, “This story is based on actual events. In certain cases incidents, characters and timelines have been changed for dramatic purposes. Certain characters may be composites, or entirely fictitious.” It gives you a fair heads up that the goal of the writer is to tell a good story or have a vehicle for some sort of truth more than to give an accurate, historical account of some incident or time period. It’s the author’s intent to tell a story we can take seriously even if not literally.
The Bible could have a similar disclaimer. No matter what you read in the Bible, the facts shared are in the service of the story. Getting too caught up in wondering if these things actually happened can get in the way of the truths the story might point to. There’s a long tradition of this in the Jewish biblical interpretation under the category of something called midrash. It’s a means of interpretation and retelling of stories that allows us to look at the story from this angle and that angle, from this perspective and that perspective. It’s a way of looking at the text, not with a magnifying glass, but with a prism.
Today’s text comes in the middle of a story about a time of Israel’s disintegration and struggles for identity. Just before the text we read today, Elijah went to confront King Ahab and his wife Jezebel who were making room for people to worship the god Baal. There’s a much longer story here for another time but, basically, Elijah had told Ahab this was a bad idea. Eventually, there was a confrontation between Elijah and 950 prophets of the god Baal and another goddess Asherah. After Elijah gave what he thought would be definitive proof that Baal wasn’t all that powerful and God was, he, um, killed all the priests of Baal and Asherah that were present; all 950 of them. That’s what’s referred to in the very first line of today’s scripture.
Elijah’s hope to convert Ahab to his way of thinking failed. Jezebel was furious about Elijah’s actions against the prophets and wanted him dead so Elijah ran and hid in the desert. He found a tree to sit underneath for a while and just wanted to die. I can’t help but imagine that there was part of Elijah that wasn’t looking back at what he had done with regret and horror. One of the things he talks about is being no better than his ancestors and I can’t help but wonder if his act of violence is included in his regret. While out in the desert, Elijah had a lot of time to wonder about what he had done.
One of my favorite poets is Seamus Heany and he’s got this wonderful line in his epic poem The Cure of Troy that says this:
“But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.”
The opposite of these moments happens, too. Those in-between moments when hope and history clash. It can be those moments in our own lives or the times we find ourselves in.
These last few COVID years have been a time of tremendous and unrelenting change and it’s a reminder that change isn’t always exciting nor a choice that’s up to us, individually. COVID wasn’t just about COVID but how we reacted to it. In the early days, we thought we could beat it and have victory over COVID. But we were already sick with so many other things like greed, all the isms, grandiosity, impatience and more that COVID just made us sicker. Now, we’re stuck in this awful middle ground.
We tend to think of life as moving from one point to another but the place in between those points is its own location. The fancy word for this space in between is liminal space. It’s an in-between place with new, unique, context-specific decisions to make that can help you get to the next point. It’s the place between locations. It’s the grieving after a loss that may lead to wholeness or not. It’s the time of falling in love before the time of being in love or not. The pandemic has been all about this transition time. Its had its own decisions, its own realities, constant unknowns, and it takes a lot of energy. Even a joyful liminal space can make you tired because of the energy it requires. A tougher one can grind at you. We’re at that point when decision fatigue is hitting everyone. In all aspects of life, people are stepping back from situations, positions, institutions, and relationships that ask more of them. Almost everyone’s needing some extra time to collect themselves once in a while.
Like Elijah, it seems like most folks are looking for a tree to sit under and a lot of folks are struggling. When you’re in the middle of change, the first part is the easiest but, if it’s a change of any consequence, it gets harder along the way. The last 10 percent always seems to take the most time and the most energy. There are parts of change that are exciting and parts that are exhausting, too, and Elijah sounds right in the middle of it. He was so tired of life, by what he had become, by what he had done, that. dying sounded better than living. This is a prophet that told many others the consequences of their actions but this prophet couldn’t see a way forward for themselves.
I’m not a psychologist but it wouldn’t surprise me if Elijah wouldn’t be diagnosed with depression today. Lying under a tree wanting to die sure sounds like it. Needing to count on the angels in your life to help care for you sure sounds like it. Needing some set-aside time for a while sure sounds like it. At this time before an understanding of mental health, the approach was astute. Give Elijah something to eat. Take care of this person. Give them a place to rest. And give them some time.
I don’t know how many people might have been depressed during Elijah’s time but during ours, 20-30% of people in the US deal with depression before they’re 65. I get it. There was a point in my life when I could not imagine things getting better. I’ve been to that point when I needed the care and patience of friends. I’ve been to that point when my soul felt tired, used up, and exhausted. For me, depression was the culmination of ruminating on realities I was resisting and denying. Ruminating on what I wish I would have done differently. Ruminating about needing rest while feeling as though there was no space for rest. Depression was the sickness that came from the spiritual malnutrition caused by all that ruminating.
Like any sickness, woundedness, or injury you need some time to heal, to be cared for, to start the process of moving again. At some point, after caring for him with the basics, the angels let Elijah know he needed to get moving again. He needed to move from healing to recovery.
The 40 days Elijah journeys through the desert aren’t talked about that much in scripture but I can’t help but see that as Elijah’s recovery and refocus time. This was not just a journey from one physical place to another physical place but from rumination to integration. It was the journey from “This can’t be real” to “This is real.” It was that journey from soul-draining resistance to soul-recovering acceptance.
That’s usually enough, for a while and it’s important but it’s rarely the place we can stay forever. As in today’s text, after Elijah’s journey is finished, God shows up and asks a great question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” It’s good to move from rumination to integration and but there’s usually a holy pivot where God gently or not so gently asks what we’re going to do with all of our newly discovered wisdom and experience.
In today’s story, after God tells Elijah to prepare for the next things, it seems as though Elijah starts to step back into his old ruminating ways for a moment.
I don’t know if there was an actual windstorm but I have no doubt that, realizing he was going to have to move forward, Elijah felt buffeted and tossed to and fro by his internal, self-directed self-doubt. I don’t know if there was an actual earthquake but I have no doubt that Elijah felt as though the foundation of the earth were shaking. I don’t know if there was an actual fire but I am sure Elijah felt burning self-directed rage. All these things were trying to pull Elijah pack.
But, after the storm, after the earthquake, after the fire was when God showed up in the silence and lovingly asked again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
What could be a better question for this moment in the life of the world?
“What are you doing here?”
In the middle of a world that seems to worship the false god of violence; in a world where the hunger of others is no longer inevitable but a choice; in a world where two people loving each other can be controversial; in a world where we treat those who disagree with us politically as a different species; in a world we choose to damage the earth out of expediency; God asks us, urgently, gently, and persistently:
“What are you doing here?”
It’s not just a question for the world but a good question for us, too. My Siblings in Christ, there are some churches that feel called to be the biggest, the loudest, and offer a wide variety of programs so that they can be bigger, and louder, and offer more programs. If that is what God is calling them to do good for them. Truly. There are people who need that in their life and may very well find their lives improved and enhanced. Amen.
However, I’m called to be in ministry with those who venture out to join others in that journey to and through the liminal space; those moments filled with challenge where some of those things many take for granted are needed the most. Things like food, water, rest, recognition, and the loving presence of another.
That’s why I’m here in front of you, today. It’s not unusual to find churches looking to consolidate their ministries in order to lengthen their life but it is somewhat unusual to find churches considering consolidation because of how they might better serve God and God’s people together. There are churches that feed people out of a sense of duty or responsibility but it is rarer to find a whole church centered around that mission with such a sense of joy and purpose. It’s not at all unusual for a church to serve others but it is rarer for a program to have such an ingrained sense of mutuality that allows all those who participate to nourish each other in so many ways. I’m excited about the possibility of joining you in this work of co-creation for no good feeding program is just about the food. It’s about the full life that a full belly gives you the opportunity to live. It’s about the full life that comes from helping others have a full belly. It’s an investment in hope, love, and mutuality.
Today, you all get to decide whether or not you think I’ll make a good partner at this pivot point in your ministry life and, possibly, past that moment, too. I’m here because I want to join you in ministry and because I think I have some gifts and skills that could help continue and enhance what you’re already doing. Because this position is for a designated period of time, you will have more than one opportunity to discern whether or not you agree. I hope you do. But regardless of what you decide, I am so thankful to your search committee – and you have a great search committee – for giving me the opportunity to get to know this church, First Church, and this area better than I did before. I’m excited about the possibilities.
Today’s scripture reminds us that God is present at this liminal moment, this pivot point asking all of us, “What are you doing here?” Above every other question, this is the most important one for this moment and this time.
Urgently, gently, and persistently, “What are you doing here?”
May we be open to doing what it might take to discover the best possible answer. Amen.