Year B — Proper 14 (The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

Commentary for August 12, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Our children, no matter how rebellious or “unloving” toward us, are always still our children.

There are very few words in scripture more pathetic (as in, filled with pathos) than David’s declaration of his grief over the death of Absalom. David would gladly have traded his life for his son’s, wayward child that he was.

The fulfillment of Nathan’s prophecy aside, what parent among us cannot identify with the pain in David’s heart? After sitting with the inconsolable grief for a few moments, which of us cannot be moved by imagining the same pain within the heart of God toward each of God’s wayward children across the earth?

Psalm 130
A plaintive and elegant song for the times we, too, must “cry from the depths” of life’s dark places.

1 Kings 19:4-8
Dr. Chilton deals extensively (and, quite well, one might add) with this text in the sermon below. I can’t add a whole lot, except to say that there are those places that we, both as preachers and people of God, are sometimes called to go that just feel far too wearying to endure on our own. Laying down and waiting to die sounds like a pretty preferable alternative on some days.

But, on those days, God is still there. May the “bread of heaven” that sometimes appears in the strangest ways and places fill us and strengthen us for the journey.

Psalm 34:1-8
At all times.

That’s the key phrase in this psalm text — at least, it’s a key phrase. Blessing God is fairly easy when the good times are rolling by like a parade (though, admittedly, we often forget to bless God as our first instinct.)


When the bad times roll in like a fog, our first instinct may be to offer a prayer more along the lines of “help me, God!”

I’m with Anne Lamott, who quoted a wise friend (in Traveling Mercies, still one of my favorites of her work) as saying, “The two best prayers I know are ‘Help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'”

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
More practical applications of the grace of God for everyday living from Ephesians. This is good stuff. I like that all of it comes out of the phrase, “be imitators of God… live in love, as Christ loved” in 5:1-2. A pretty good set of companion ideas when paired with Psalm 34:1 (see above.)

John 6:35, 41-51
More than one wag has commented on this series of gospel readings, “When will Jesus ever stop talking about bread?”

We all love images of freshly-baked loaves, still warm from the oven, served up delightfully for us on platters with plenty of butter or cream cheese. Now that’s some “bread of heaven” we can get into!

As Jesus’ images turn toward eating his flesh, we find that the number of takers begins to dwindle pretty sharply. More than one Christian, when faced with the complexity and difficulty of living out the Christ lifestyle, has bemoaned, “This is not what I signed up for!”

Well….     

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In her novel At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon tells the story of Father Tim, rector of a tiny Episcopal church in a tiny North Carolina mountain village. One day Father Tim is having lunch with his friend and mentor, Brother Absalom Greer, a retired Baptist minister in his late eighties.
Father Tim is complaining about his spiritual dryness, his feelings of being far from God while at the same time running himself ragged being about the Lord’s business.

Brother Absalom nods and smiles and says, “I know what you mean, brother, I know what you mean. You’re too tired to run and too sacred to rest.”

That’s Elijah in our first lesson, sitting under a broom tree, “too tired to run and too scared to rest,” too exhausted to think, and too disgusted with himself to want to go on living. How did Elijah get here? What brought Elijah to this moment of despair?

Strangely enough, this moment of great tragedy had its beginnings in a moment of great triumph. In a story with echoes in the story of John Baptist and Herod, King Ahab had married a foreign woman named Jezebel and Jezebel had brought with her into the kingdom the worship of the fertility god Baal. Elijah spoke his mind about Jezebel and her religion and a few other matters and Jezebel was not amused.

The conflict culminated in a dramatic confrontation between Elijah and four hundred and fifty priest of Baal on Mount Carmel. It’s pretty exciting and you can read all about it in chapter 18 of I Kings. There was a huge altar and two young bulls for sacrifice and the contest was to see who could call down fire from heaven. Elijah put on a show, trash-talking the priests of Baal when they failed, soaking the altar with water when it was his turn. And when he prayed for fire he got fire. It burned up everything. Then Elijah had the priests of Baal killed. What a performance, what a triumph!

Then, in the first few verses of chapter 19, King Ahab tells Jezebel what has happened and she sends a message to Elijah that he will be dead by tomorrow night. And Elijah runs. He flees. He gets out of town as fast as his puny little prophet legs can carry him. He didn’t take time to pack or to leave a forwarding address; he just left and went deep into the wilderness.

This is where we find him in today’s reading, sitting under a broom tree, “too tired to run and too scared to rest,” beating his chest and asking God to let him die. “It is enough,” he says, “take away my life. I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah has come to the crisis point in his life, the point where his faith will be most severely tested.

His words, “I am no better than my ancestors,” are a confession of sin and failure, of helplessness and despair. Elijah is acutely aware that his running away from Jezebel has undone all that had been accomplished in facing down the priests of Baal. He is ashamed and sits alone and exhausted, “too tired to run and too scared to rest,” and mush too aware of his own failures and much too unsure of God’s grace and love.
And so, Elijah falls asleep in his sins. He has made his confession, he is ready to die. As far as he knows, when he falls asleep he is falling into the eternal sleep of death.

But God has a different plan, a different ending in store for Elijah. Elijah is awakened to the gift of new life. Elijah is awakened by the touch of a holy hand and the sound of a divine voice inviting him to “arise and eat.” Get up and get on with your life. Get up God is not finished with you yet. Get up and get on with it. Get up and quit taking yourself so seriously. Arise and eat God has more future in store for you.

God’s response to Elijah’s confession of helplessness and hopelessness was not judgment and death. God’s response was forgiveness and life. The cake of bread and jar of water are more than just necessary provisions to keep Elijah’s body alive for another day. No, they are a gift from God to keep his soul from wasting away. They are a message, a sign to Elijah that the past is over and forgiven and the future is alive and in God’s hands.

When we come to our moments of sitting alone under the broom tree, “too tired to run and too scared to rest,” when we look back on our lives and see only our faults and failures, our disappointments and unfulfilled ambitions looming up and chasing us like Jezebel’s pursuing minions, when we feel like we have done all we can and despite our best intentions, we find we are no better than our ancestors, we must remember how God responded to Elijah and how God will respond to us.

We must listen carefully and hear God say to us, “Arise and eat. I know who you are and what you’ve done and filed to do and I love you anyway. Here, have some bread. I made it myself; I call it the bread of life.”

Amen and amen.

5 thoughts on “Year B — Proper 14 (The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

  1. Delmer – as always I love your words and images. Here's my problem with Elijah this week. When I read the whole of his story that leads up to the text and which you outline, Elijah sounds an awful lot like like a fanatical religious terrorist. But because he's on "our" team we call him faithful. I suspect Jezebel would have another perspective on this story that's worth hearing. In light of the events of the last week, I'm having a hard time going so quickly to the place of God's care and providence for Elijah.

  2. Amy – I take your point, and I found myself walking pretty fast through the Jezebel issues, not wishing to dwell there too long. Another sermon for another day I think.

  3. Amy, you raise a good point — we want to be pretty careful about "triumphalist" readings of the text in which "our guy" is always the good guy, as long as he's on the winning side (ours — and God's.)Even more of an issue in preaching, I believe, is the need to tread carefully when seeking to apply 3,000 year old texts to our cultural, political, religious and ethical settings today.One never wants to allow this "word of God" to descend into trivial, tit-for-tat kinds of debates (e.g., "Well, Jezebel did go first by killing the prophets of Yahweh…")– nor does the text need us to defend and justify its view of the Holy One of Israel.I think there are those moments that we must hold the text in some honest tension, allowing that "I just don't know" all that there is to know here. In fact, beware the preacher who says that he or she DOES know it all and has a personal, hand-stamped delivery of God's will already laid out for you. I have become both weary and wary of homiletical treatments that lay every detail out with precision, and tie off every sermon with a nice, neat bow.Keep the comments and the questions coming!

  4. gentle ones, thanks so very much for this stirring sermon — it occurs to me that "i am no better than my ancestors" could also be a allusion to the fact that the bones of the ancestors in 1st-century jewish tradition generally were scooped out from the stone biers in the rock hewn tombs and dumped into ossuaries. one wonders whether the elijah exclamation might also refer to how old bones in an ossuary have hardly any influence on things of the present time. "i might as well be as dead as those old fogies are…."

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