For the summer read this year Emmanuel is using Henri Nouwen’s book, “With Burning Hearts” A meditation on the Eucharistic Life. Today’s sermon is part of a 4 week series using ideas from this book as it connects with the day’s lectionary. In addition to the sermon series there will be two opportunities for you to discuss the book on August 15 and 22 following the worship service. If you have not yet read the book I encourage you to do so. Hope spills from its pages. The chapter I will be using today is titled Mourning Our Losses: Lord have Mercy.
Today’s Old Testament passage finds us with the prophet Elijah at one of the lowest points in his life. Elijah, probably the most important prophet, certainly one of the most well-known, had many occasions of dramatic stories demonstrating the power of God. His name, Elijah, means the Lord is my God, and that is what defined his ministry, his time of being a prophet. He proclaimed over and over that Yahweh, the Lord, is the one true God.
Just prior to today’s passage Elijah confronted the God Baal and his worshipers. At that time Ahab was king of Israel. Ahab married Jezebel who was a leading believer in Baal and many in Israel began following Baal, instead of Yahweh, the lord God. Elijah warned King Ahab of the errors of his wife and her beliefs and spoke openly against the Baal worship. So Elijah had a contest of sorts with 450 Baal priests. Each group of worshippers had a bull to sacrifice. First the Baal priests took a pile of wood and spent most of the day crying to their God to burn the offering, without success. Later, Elijah rebuilt the Lord’s altar of stones that has been torn down and on it put wood and the bull sacrifice. He made it as difficult as possible by pouring water on the wood and building a moat of water around the altar. Then he prayed to God to send down fire on the altar and God did! Certainly this was an effective showing of God’s power and a visible and memorable sign of who is the true God!
There are many spectacular stories in the Old Testament!
But it is not over. Elijah then proceeded to kill all the priests of Baal. And then King Ahab took this story back to his queen Jezebel who vowed to kill Elijah in retaliation.
It is at this point in the narrative that we see the man, the human being, Elijah, rather than the great prophet Elijah who has just prayed for and received a great showy miracle from God. Elijah has forgotten what God has done for him throughout his life. His fear of Jezebel and what she has said she will do to him, overtakes him and he flees Israel. He runs to Beersheba (a land not under Ahab’s control) and even then continues another day’s journey deeper into safety. However Elijah is not relieved of his fear.
That is where today’s passage begins. Exhausted and spent, worn out from the killings, the running and the fear, Elijah sits under a bush and asks God to end his life. He is overwhelmed with pain and grief and depression. Enough he thinks, enough, and he asks God to die.
Notice that Elijah takes all of his pain and his grief to God; he does not hold back this part of his very human life. At some level Elijah must have had some glimmer of hope that only God can provide.
And what happens is that God does provide very practical, tangible things, a touch to remind him of God’s presence, bread, from heaven, and rest to recuperate. We are told that Elijah is fed twice with this food to sustain him and to prepare him for what God will ask him to do next.
In these short verses we hear of the depressed and hopeless man turning to God. At some level Elijah knew that God had provided for him in the past and that he may provide for him yet again. Even, or maybe especially the greatest ones with close relationship to God need that sustenance that only God can give. Elijah came to God depleted of everything and he is fed and given strength to continue on.
As we approach the Eucharist each week, there will be some times when a few of us will be at the point Elijah was in today’s lesson. We may be despondent, fear-filled, depressed and overwhelmed by our life’s situation. Other days, while things may be going fine for us personally, our thoughts may be filled with the situation in the world and the pain of other people. We may feel the weight of the variants of the Covid virus, or the current political situation, or the increasing violence around us. And at other times we may come filled with joy from something going on in our personal life. What we seek as we gather together in this sacred space is that hope that comes from God. We are not on automatic pilot as we enter the rite. We bring our pain and our joy with us and ask for God’s mercy. We begin each Eucharist collectively saying Lord have mercy.
Losses are a part of human existence, a part of the journey of life. Some of these losses might be considered natural, a part of the human process. Others are more of a disturbance of the natural order, such as a sudden fire or a pandemic. While we do not each have the same losses we do all suffer at some point. And, we do not ignore suffering, we cannot, rather we ask God for mercy.
In the first chapter of his book Nouwen says this, “We come to the Eucharist with hearts broken by many losses, our own as well as those of the world.” And he tells us that we have two choices in experiencing those losses, we can become resentful, hardened by all that has happened or our hearts can be opened so that we become grateful for the gift of life. We can be resentful or grateful those are the options when faced with loss.
I quote again, “The word Eucharist means literally act of thanksgiving. To celebrate the Eucharist and to live a Eucharistic life has everything to do with gratitude. Living Eucharistically is living life as a gift, a gift for which one is grateful. But gratitude is not the most obvious response to life, certainly not when our experiences are a series of losses!”
Acknowledging the grief and pain of life, the act of mourning loss, is necessary before we can see the gratitude. It is through mourning that we are able to know life as a gift. As counter intuitive as it seems, Jesus told us, Blessed are those who mourn. When we try to glide over or avoid thinking about the loss we can become insulated, hardened and resentful. Yet when we acknowledge the grief and express it, rather than trying to avoid it we will be comforted. Through our mourning we will find hope, the hope that only God can provide.
As a congregation, as a group, we come here together to the Eucharist each time with a mixture of despair and hope. Some of us may have come with an attitude similar to Elijah’s in today’s reading. We may be despondent, perhaps even angry, overwhelmed by personal pain or by the pain of the world around us. Some of us arrive with thoughts of all the good we see in people around us or the good we have experienced recently. We come together with both the despair and the hope and we ask God for mercy. Lord have mercy is our continual prayer.
Certainly Elijah was not living his life as one who was grateful at the time of today’s reading. His prayer to God to end his life was really a prayer for mercy. Otherwise he could have ended his own life. Instead he asked for God’s help, for God’s mercy, at a very low and dark point. And God through his angels gave Elijah the sustenance to continue. God fed and comforted him to prepare him to continue in his journey to serve his Lord.
Like Elijah when we approach the Eucharist with our brokenness and ask for His mercy we will not be disappointed. God through the Eucharist will feed us. His grace will sustain us. We will find peace through our losses.
We begin each mass by praying: Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy. And in so beginning we prepare to receive God’s mercy and love. The hope inherent in the service is there each and every time we come. We will be fed. We will be sustained. We will be shown mercy, given hope and receive God’s love. Jesus invites us to his feast, to be closer to him and to know his love in this tangible way. His love is ready for the taking.
“The angel of the Lord came to Elijah a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
Again, I invite you to join with the Emmanuel community this summer to read and explore Henri Nouwen’s book. It spoke to me and I believe it will also speak to you about the beauty of knowing God through the Eucharist right in the midst of our very human lives.