Introduction to the Word
We’re going to hear a little bit of the story of the prophet Elijah today. Within the history of our faith he is one of the biggies. Remember at Jesus’ transfiguration there was Jesus himself, Moses and Elijah.
Like many of the prophets before and after him Elijah spoke to power; correcting, chastising kings. He defended the common folk like Naboth who owned a vineyard and the Widow of Zarephath who suffered during a drought. He became the stuff of legend and at at the end of life it is said that he was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind.
But the story we’re going to hear today is taken from a low point in Elijah’s life, a time when he felt as though he had failed, the powers of the world had beaten him, and the good he had done was all too small. Hear the word:
Scripture I Kings19: 9-18
Psalm 85 p. 802
Romans 10: 5-15
Matthew 14: 22-33
Being away in July I missed the Canada 150 celebrations. I know it’s a year long event but really the focus was the lead up to July 1 and everything now is a little late, a little after the fact. Regardless, let me tell you one of the things that makes me proud of this country – our increasing ability to apologize for past wrongs. To the Japanese interned during World War II, to the Indigenous peoples forced into residential schools, to the LGBT community who endured the anti gay laws – we’ve gotten better at admitting that we do not always live up to our values. Our payment to Omar Khadr is our latest admission that we did not live up to our own values. Painful as it is to confess our sins, it is good that we do so.
The alternative to owning our sins, to accepting responsibility, to acknowledging suffering and woundedness is to be like Elijah on Mount Horeb, doomed to ongoing cycles of violence and destruction. What a horrific story it is. It oozes brokenness, woundedness and pain. It is so filled with violence. And at at the end of it there is no redemption. It ends with the promise of more blood. Anoint Hazael king, he’ll kill some people, anoint Jehu, he’ll kill more people, and anoint Elisha; he’ll kill whoever’s left. Terrible.
This is the kind of stuff that causes modern North Americans to stop reading the bible or at least the old testament. “It’s too violent, pastor.” Oh, it’s violent… but as are we who sell arms to the Saudis to oppress their own people, who refuse to even participate in United Nations talks on a global nuclear arms ban, whose neighbour and ally speaks of visiting fire and fury upon another nation. We are violent and so must have texts in our sacred scripture that hold up a mirror to our violence and force us to see where it will lead.
Reflected in Elijah we see brokenness and woundedness and pathos. God says to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” How do you wish he had responded? Wouldn’t it have been great, redemptive, salvific if he had said, “I’m here to confess, O Lord. I’m here to confess that I have butchered others in your name. I have cursed my neighbour because their faith differs from my own.” Or he could have said, “I am here because I am a broken and wounded man and I can’t keep going like this. I need to be remade, recreated, restored, reborn. Help me.” That’s the sort of thing I wish he had said. But instead Elijah just keeps repeating a sad and pathetic narrative, “I tried really hard, everyone I have known is dead, and now they are coming for me.” That’s not an answer to the question of what he was doing there. That’s just the brokenness of a man who is so lost that he doesn’t know which way to turn. He is so scarred by his past that he cannot see his future. He is doomed to repeat the cycles of violence that have broken him. Of course there will be more killing. Elijah is blind to all else. He could not see God in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. He only knows God in the sheer silence of death. It is a heartbreaking text. Elijah does not know how to carry his woundedness in any other way than that which brings more hurt.
You know like spirited people. They have suffered in life and cannot see past their suffering and everywhere they go they radiate pain and inflict pain. It is as though they believe their pain makes them unique, as though they alone have suffered, as though there are people in the world who have not felt abandoned, wounded.
Noel O’Donoghue, a Carmelite mystic and philosopher from Ireland said, “life is a gift. But it is a gift shrouded in pain.” This is a truth we seem to have forgotten. In our abundance we seem to have convinced ourselves that life can be lived without pain. That has never been true. Life is a gift shrouded in pain. What divides us is not whether or not we suffer but how we learn to bear our suffering. Our suffering can isolate us, separate us from God and humanity and the earth or it can unite us. You have known such spirited people as well, those who, in pain, reach out to help others who share their suffering, those whose pain humbles them beautifully and reunites them with family and friends.
The beautiful power of the cross is not that it divides us into categories of saved and lost but that it unites us. In the suffering of Jesus all recognize their own pain and in that recognition find the communality of their humanity. When Jesus is risen his wounds are not miraculously gone. They are still visible. Jesus can invite Thomas to touch them and it is when Thomas touches the woundedness of Christ that he believes and affirms his Lord and Saviour. Woundedness need not divide us. It can be our salvation.
It is good to acknowledge our woundedness. In so doing the Robbie Dean Centre gets started. In high schools gay/straight alliances are born. Grief support groups, 12 step groups; all know that the path to healing begins with the acknowledgment of pain.
In the sixth century St. Columba of Iona told his monks to pray, “until thy tears come.” He knew that touching our wounds, releasing our pain was the way to begin transformation. Modern mystic, John Philip Newell says, “When we weep we see that the hard edges of life have become blurred.”
Elijah needed to weep on Mount Horeb. He needed to break down and sob. He didn’t and so what follows is war, endless war. He cannot even die in peace, he is swept up in a whirlwind. It’s a hard story to read. “It’s too violent pastor.” It is violent. It is filled with woundedness and pain as is life. Perhaps Elijah is imagined standing on the mountain top with Moses and Jesus as the representative of all our woundedness and pain? Life is a gift… but it is a gift shrouded in pain. That truth can divide us or unite us. It can lead to organizations and circles of healing or to talk of fire and fury. As a nation we are gaining the maturity to name our woundedness and to seek reconciliation. As individuals may we be as wise. And as Christians may we show the way. Amen.