The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Bishop’s Theological Conference 2015
I Kings 19:1-8
“More In Store For Us”
Grace and peace to you from God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
She posts on Facebook -- “When did setting the alarm for 6:30 constitute sleeping in?” What she means, of course, is that she is already running behind in the ledger of keeping up and getting ahead. Days start early and run long.
As a pastor she feels an obligation to keep the commitments she has built into her schedule, which never seems to allow a cushion for the unexpected, the unanticipated, the surprising moments of God’s grace, or the unforeseen times of heartbreak and tragedy.
Staff meeting, a hymn still to choose for Sunday, a stop by the funeral home to check on arrangements for the service later in the week, an impromptu meeting with a young man from the neighborhood, who would love to volunteer at the church, which by the way would also help him fulfill his court-ordered community service.
By 1:30 she has checked these off. Before the afternoon is over she will meet with the grieving family. She will spend a long time listening to the story of a beloved mother’s life and a longer time still listening to the divergent expectations of the oldest daughter, the estranged daughter, and the nearly mute, grown son. “Yes, yes, we can sing all those hymns and I am sure the luncheon committee can avoid using ham,” she assures them, knowing full well she will need to press hard to make all that happen by Thursday morning.
She rejoices that there’s a parking place in front of her favorite coffee shop near the church, races in to buy a latte with a shot of espresso, and is back in the office by 5 to meet with the Executive Committee. “Yes, she, too, is concerned about the cash flow. No, she does not want to send out another letter to the congregation just yet. Yes, she does believe God will provide.” Though she doesn’t say it, she secretly prays that God will lift up leaders with more gumption at the next congregational meeting.
Before gathering up her bags to leave, she checks the phone messages, knowing that only the most urgent can be answered before she calls it a day. Her car is her refuge, and though she often prays there – fervently and deliberately – this evening it is all she can do to listen to the discouraging news from Syria and Afghanistan and the report of another pointless shooting in the city.
Her husband has had the week off and has spent time readying the grill. She feels guilty that her schedule so rarely aligns with his. This evening she’d rather walk than eat but there’s no reason to ask him to set aside his plans. By the time the dishes are done, the compost carried to the bin and the recycling set on the curb, she’s too weary to walk, even though she vowed to do so every day.
“And this,” she thinks, “is what I love?” But she notices that it sounds more like a question than a declaration.
Did I get it right? Are these the facets of our lives as rostered leaders in this synod? Multiple and conflicting demands on our time. Anxiety about finances and the future – the church’s and our own. Access to more information that we can possibly digest. The lost rhythms of Sabbath, and seasons, and devotional life. Relationships to tend with family and friends that sometimes feel like one more obligation. Unrelenting invitations to go here and there, to do this and that.
Our lives are full. Our schedules packed. And yet one of the most sobering confessions I heard this past year came from one of you when you said to me in passing how lonely you were in the midst of all the church busyness that surrounds you. At first, I wondered if you were kidding but I quickly realized you were speaking a deep and holy truth that we rarely speak to one another in the church. How lonely it can be doing all we are called to do for God’s sake.
Now, dear Elijah knew what it meant to go it alone. He lived in one of the most risky political contexts in all of human history. He was a community organizer-of-one and created a great, public show-down with King Ahab and the prophets of Baal. In the chapter right before the one we just heard read, Elijah calls upon God to send rain to a nation suffering from drought and hunger. And God sends rain. And in that moment Elijah is so successful that he can even kill off every rival and put terror in the heart of King Ahab.
But soon the word comes to Elijah that Queen Jezebel has boasted that she will not sleep a wink until Elijah pays with his own life. And he was afraid and he fled for his life. He left even his servant behind and went on alone.
Now, I don’t know exactly what a broom tree was in ancient Israel, but I suspect every one of us here recognizes the soliloquy Elijah gives when he lays down under such a tree. Can we not hear our own voice, saying – “I quit. I’ve had it. It’s too much. I don’t want to do this any more. This is not the life I choose to live.”
Elijah thought he was finished. He commended his life – and the work he had been called to do – back to God. He closed his eyes and he fell asleep. All alone. At the end of the day.
And then God did something so amazing that God’s action is worth remembering – even ritualizing - every time we question whether or not God pays attention to little old you and me and to this beautiful and troubled world in which we live.
Elijah woke up. Woke up because an angel was poking him and telling him to get up and eat. And there in the wilderness was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Where did they come from, friends? Who kneaded the dough and built a fire to warm the rocks? Who fetched the water from a hidden stream?
Who calls us back to ourselves when the day is long and the work is hard? Who listens to our impatient rants and wipes away the tears that well up in us? Who sends those bright ideas we pass off as our own? Who gives us courage to stand before legislators and in front of congregations? Who speaks grace to us when we are tired, and weary, and befuddled?
Is it not the same God who warmed the rocks, baked the bread, fetched the water and came in angel-form to call Elijah to go on? It was not only Abraham and Sarah, who had a holy visitation at their tent, but the discouraged prophet under the solitary broom tree was likewise called from death to life -- with holy food and drink, miraculously provided.
“Get up and eat,” the angel said a second time, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” These are God’s gracious words for you, my friends, when the days are long, when others are indifferent or contentious, when your work goes unnoticed and you fear you are all alone.
You are not alone. We are here together. And God has more in store for all of us. Thanks be to God. AMEN.