A Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
1 Kings 19.4-8, Ephesians 4.25 – 5.2 & John 6.35,41-51
When I was working as a physicist, part of my job consisted of facilitating experiments for visiting scientists. Individuals or small groups of researchers would come to our lab for a week, or sometimes two, to use our facilities for particular experiments they would not be able to do at home. Generally, it was a very exciting time, meeting people from all over the world, usually experts in their fields, and I would be infected by their enthusiasm for their research and experiments.
However, I also remember many long evenings, when supper was overruled by yet another attempt to make something work, and just as we agreed to go home, someone would suggest only one more try, which would take us another hour or two further into the night. It was those moments, when I, hungry and tired, sometimes felt tears welling up in my eyes, as well as anger and frustration for having to keep going when I felt I couldn’t.
Usually it was the more experienced, slightly wiser, scientist who at this point instead of pushing people on, would tell everyone to stop, to go home, to eat something and to rest, so that the next day we would look at the problem with a fresh perspective. And indeed, over the years, that led to better results than to keep going.
So, reading the short passage about the prophet Elijah this morning from the book of Kings, I think I can appreciate some of what he feels when he exhaustingly says to God ‘It is enough’. And that the answer is to sleep and eat; to prepare to continue on the journey that lies ahead of him, the journey that will be long and difficult.
We all know, life is not always easy, no matter whether we are people of faith, or not. Both in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, we read how faithful people struggled, how both individuals and religious communities faced doubt, anger, frustration and unrest. And of course, Jesus himself was not a superhero who lived a life without pain and tears. Instead, far from it, apart from being God, he was utterly human, with feelings of anger, hurt and pain like each of us.
It is not only when we’re tired after a day’s or week’s work that we may become frustrated, angry or disappointed at situations, with people, or with God, but this dynamic is also part of our spiritual journey, it is part of our journey of faith.
The Christian faith, as I already implied, is not a miracle cure that gives us endless strength: most of the greatest figures in Christian history, both Biblical and later on, have struggled in a similar to the prophet Elijah in the reading we heard this morning. Most, if not all of us, will have experienced times when God seemed absent, and when we didn’t know how even to take one more step.
A recent conversation comes to mind when someone had just heard that her husband was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and only given six more month to live. Or we can all think of situations of conflict, whether within a family, in the workplace or elsewhere, when injustice has corrupted our relationships, and we don’t feel the strength to fight it any longer.
At those times, Jesus’ words ‘I am the bread of life’, and ‘whoever eats of this bread will live forever’ don’t necessarily seem much of a consolation, and we can wonder how, if at all, that promise will make the situation any better.
I would like to suggest that indeed, these words, this promise, won’t make the situation any better, but they will help us to face the situation, to continue the journey with the resources we need. And just like Elijah, this may mean that we also need to stop momentarily, to sleep and to eat. It may mean that we may have to pause our journey, whatever that is, to be fed and nourished by God. But of course, therein lies a difficulty. How can we be nourished by a God who feels distant, who seems absent? Looking once more at the story of the prophet Elijah, maybe the first thing we need to do first is to sit down, so to say. To acknowledge our situation, and to acknowledge our need for rest and food.
That means acknowledging our limitations, but it doesn’t mean giving up altogether. Someone once said that Christianity is not a faith of optimism, but of hope, and indeed the two are different. Again, in a lot of cases, the situation we face won’t get any better, but we will be better equipped to find our way through.
Elijah’s journey is a solitary one, and at times our journeys will be solitary too. But as Christians, we are also committed to each other, to the Church, the community to which we belong. In the second reading set for today, St Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus ‘let all of us speak truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil’.
Yes, it is fine to be angry when we see injustice, but, as we figuratively rest at the end of the day, it is important to try not to let that anger get hold of us. The challenge at this point is to let go, even if it is just for the moment, to make space for the rest and food we need.
That is hard, very hard, especially when things matter to us: when we see suffering, injustice or pain inflicted on, or indeed caused by, those whom we love and respect. But part of our spiritual discipline and challenge is to learn to let go. Not to give up, but to step back for a moment. To force our thoughts away from where they are, to direct them to God.
For me, one way of doing that is what we do in Church each Sunday: celebrating Communion. In the words that recall Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and particular in the words ‘eat this, this is my body, given for you’, ‘drink this, all of you’, I feel I can step away from the particularity of my own situation, to the universality of God’s unconditional love. A love that is given to all of us, including me, including you, including those who suffer, and those who cause it.
It also reminds me that I am, that we are, all of these at once: sitting at Jesus’ feet, with Peter, we have denied him; with Thomas, we have will doubt him; and with Judas, we may betray him; and with Christ himself we may suffer. Here we are, in all our complexity, both individually and as a group of followers, sharing the same bread and the same wine. In this moment, maybe just for an instant, and not every time, I grasp the immensity of the promise that ‘whoever eats this bread will live forever’.
For Elijah, an angel came a second time, telling the prophet to eat more, else the journey would be too much for him. So we too, may need to rest and eat more before we can face the challenge that lies ahead of us. It may be a long challenge: forty days of wilderness. However, the challenge comes with a promise: just like Elijah will reach Mount Horeb, so we will reach our final destination: an everlasting Communion with God. It can be hard to trust, but I do believe that we will know when we’re ready to continue.
Finally, we know that we are not alone in this: not only we will be strengthened by fellow-pilgrims on our way, we also know that Christ went before us, and will walk beside us, even when we can’t see. Amen.