Scripture reading: 1 Kings 19: 4-8 and Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Elijah has just had one of his greatest triumphs. If you’re a church person, you may remember the story from childhood. Gathered on the top of Mt. Carmel for a great challenge. It’s Elijah versus the prophets of Ba’al. Two sacrifices, two piles of wood – but no fire. The challenge: the prophets will NOT light the fire themselves, but instead will pray – and the God who answers with fire is the true God. The prophets of Ba’al go first, since there are more of them. They pray, they dance, they chant, they even cut themselves ritually – but no fire.
After a few hours, Elijah steps up. He has people pour water over the wood, until the firewood is sitting in a puddle. Then he prays that God will settle the matter, and prove at last who’s really God. And POW – fire consumes the sacrifice.
Well, then comes a part of the story I don’t really like. The prophets of Ba’al are rounded up and killed. But it’s a victory for Elijah, a huge one. But then, next morning, a message comes from Queen Jezebel, who happened to be the employer of all those prophets of Ba’al: “may God do to me and more, if by this time tomorrow I do not make YOUR life like the life of one of THEM, Elijah!” (I love the wording of those ancient threats…) It turns out that nothing has really changed, even after a huge victory. So Elijah flees to the wilderness, outside the jurisdiction of Ahab and Jezebel, and instead of celebrating a victory, he asks God to take away his worthless life: “It is enough. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
Have you ever been touched by that kind of despair, burnout, depression?
In a marriage, or a relationship, have you ever butted up against the same problem, year after year? No matter what you do to change it, you keep having the same argument over and over, you keep banging into the same flaws, the same behaviours, the same issues. Why can’t we seem to learn and progress? Enough! If you’re an addict you sure know about this. No matter how hard you try, you keep finding yourself back where you don’t want to be. Whatever victory you might have, it doesn’t seem to fundamentally change a thing. Church life, same. No matter what we try, no matter how successful this or that program might be, we just don’t seem to buck the trends.
And we’re sitting there with Elijah, out in the desert, under a puny little tree that doesn’t provide enough shade for a beetle, saying “enough! I give up. I’m a failure.” Have you been there?
When he “hits bottom,” Elijah encounters God. I’m not sure he realizes it, though! In fact, this encounter feels more like an encounter with Mom, or perhaps my doctor.
I suffer from depression. It’s almost never serious depression, but it’s disappointingly frequent. I go through cycles almost every year. And as a sufferer from even mild depression, let me say first of all, “go ahead and get help!” It makes a huge difference. Don’t wait for things to get serious. Go early, go often. And here’s what my doctor says every time: “are you getting enough sleep?” “Are you eating right? Are you getting exercise?”
Basic self-care makes a difference.
Occasionally, that’s all it takes! But always, basic self-care strengthens us and opens us to the deeper solutions, and the deeper healing. The lack of basic care can hamstring our healing. I think that’s part of why we bring food to people who are sick or grieving. It’s not the answer to grieving – but it allows grieving to happen.
So how does God respond when Elijah burns out? God says, “Eat. Sleep.” This is not the answer to Elijah’s problem, but it’s a step on the way. It’s basic practical love. A foundation of self-care. Health to support the next step.
For Elijah (and for you and I too, probably) it doesn’t just take one good night’s sleep. Eat and sleep therapy needs to be repeated. And then God leads Elijah on a journey to the depths. Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, a long journey to Mt. Sinai, where Elijah both finds and is found by God. And it is that finding that IS the healing for his depression and despair.
This is also where we join the story as Knox church.
We are about the journey to the depths, where we both find and are found by God. In this world of burnout and depression, in this world of so many distractions and such busyness, in this world of advertising, and political spin and misinformation, we are journeying together towards the depths. We hope to find what ultimately matters, what is actually true and important, our higher power, our purpose, our God – and at the same time, we journey in order to be found by God.
Which brings me to the second reading.
Here at Knox, we journey to the depths together. That we journey together is our secret weapon, our difference-maker, our strength and our safety.
A few years ago, I made a choice that may turn out to be one of the most important ones of my life. I called up a couple of friends – a couple of carefully chosen friends – and I told them I wanted to create what I suppose you could call a support group. The idea was that in this group of three we would be able to say anything to one another, that this could be a group in which we had no secrets. This would be a place where we could bare our souls – our hurts, our doubts, our failings, our addictions – whatever. And with all the wisdom and love and honesty we could muster – we would support each other.
We’ve been meeting for about three years or so now, I think. Maybe more. And we’re guys, you know? So we’re only beginning now to get the hang of this combination of depth and honesty and care. Every month or so we meet at a pub, and we ask each other this question: “how is it with your soul?” For the three of us, it usually takes three hours.
In important ways, these guys are my church. They journey with me, to and through the depths, and help me to know when I have found God, and when and where God has found me. They challenge me, and keep me from lying to myself. It almost seems like when I open something up to them, I also open it up to God – and not until.
There are many different ways to do this, but I think this is what we are meant to be for each other, here in this church. If we want to reach the depths together, we need to be honest with each other. We need to show our wounds, instead of hiding them. We need to speak our doubts, ask our questions, rather than pretend we’ve got it all together. IF we hide our hurts, how will we find healing? If we hide our questions, how will we find answers?
But that in turn means that how we receive each other, how we treat each other, is tremendously important. The more vulnerable we are with each other, the easier it is to get hurt, and the more important it becomes that we learn how to be tender and respectful of each other.
Our reading from Ephesians today reads like a code of conduct, a list of things we do for each other in order to make this a safe place to be vulnerable. This kind of code is essential in any church that wants to go below the surface. Go home and re-read this passage a few times and think of the sort of conduct it asks of us, the sort of church we might become if we put it into practice.
For example: “Be angry but do not sin,” the author writes. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”
This passage reminds me of what I remember as a Quaker practice. Before you say something, ask yourself these three questions:
Is what I am about to say TRUE? Is what I am about to say LOVING, or KIND? And is what I am about to say NECESSARY?
If the answer to all three is “yes,” then go ahead.
If even one of the answers is “no,” then clam up? True, kind, necessary. And according to the writer of Ephesians, you ask yourself these questions even if you happen to be angry! Maybe even especially then!
I’d love it if our politicians would ask themselves these questions before they spoke – even during an election campaign. Maybe even especially then. Wouldn’t that be a new world?
We are journeying together to the depths. On the way, some of us, like Elijah, may be broken, burned out, at the end of our rope. We may be at a very tender moment in our journey, a very vulnerable place. You won’t know, just by looking at us. A casual word might turn out to be a revelation for us, or it might cut us to the heart. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Those questions might help us make of this a place of safety, as we journey to the depths.
It’s all about health. Eat. Sleep. Exercise. And about relational health. Is it true? Is it caring? Is it necessary?
Here’s your homework.
Look around you at all these fellow travelers, all of us who are together on this journey. Each one precious to God, each one on a sacred journey. Each one of us broken AND whole, each one saint and sinner both.
I invite you to set a personal intention, about this beloved community: that wherever these people are on their journey, whether they are up right now or down, whether they are walking the path to your satisfaction or not, whether they are doing it your way, or their way, or just the wrong way – I invite you to resolve that you will support them, encourage them, and pray for them. That you will help to create for them a safe and healing place to journey.
If it seems hard remember that all these people will be trying to do that for you, too.
Strengthened by kindness, Elijah travelled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Sinai.
There he found, and was found by, much more than he could imagine. Kindness and health enabled his journey. God worked the change, God brought the new life. So may it be for us. AMEN.