Sunday, August 12, 2018

12 Pentecost

August 12, 2018

I Kings 19.4-8; Ephesians 4.25-5.2

+ Occasionally in our Sunday scripture readings, we find a story that kind of perfectly matches our own faith journey, or a situation in our own lives. I think that’s why people find such consolation in scripture. Very often, we can find our own lives reflected there.

Well, one of the stories from scripture that truly resonates with many of us is our very short reading this morning from the Hebrew scriptures. In our reading from 1 Kings, we find the prophet Elijah in the wilderness. In that wilderness, after traveling a day’s journey, he asks God to let him die. In fact, we find him praying a very beautifully profound prayer, despite its dark tone.

Elijah prays, “It is enough: now, O Lord, take away my life…”

Actually, it’s pretty theatrical. Very Tallulah Bankhead.

But, if we’re listening closely, that prayer should actually cause us to pause uncomfortable for a moment. It’s actually quite a shocking prayer. But it is brutally honest too.

Anyone who has been in the depths of depression or despair knows this prayer. Anyone who has been touched with the deep, ugly darkness of depression has probably prayed this prayer.

“It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life.”

Now, some people would be afraid to pray this prayer. Why? Because they’re afraid God might actually answer their prayer.

Well, in the case of Elijah, God actually does.

Wait, you’re probably saying. No. God didn’t answer Elijah’s prayer.  Elijah lived.
Ah, but, yes, actually, God did answer the prayer.

In the midst of his depression, in the midst of his anguish, in the midst of the wilderness of not only his surroundings, but his own spirit, God really does answer the prayer of Elijah. But…it is not answered in the way Elijah wants.
The prayer is answered with a beautiful “no.” And we all have to understand and accept that sometimes “no” is the answer to whatever we might be praying for.
But before you think this is cruel—before you start saying that God’s “no” is a cruel no, follow this short, short story of Elijah all the way through.

Yes, God answers Elijah with a non-verbal no. But God still provides even after the no.

For Elijah, an angel appears and feeds him in his anguish and in that wilderness. Elijah is not allowed to die. But he is sustained. He is refreshed so that he can continue this journey.

This is a beautiful analogy for us, who are also wandering about in the wilderness. I think most of us have probably come to that time in our lives when we have curled up and prayed for God to take our lives from us, because living sometimes just hurts too much.

We too, more often than not, in our despair and pain, cry out to God.

 We ask God to relieve us of this anguish.

“Take this away from me, God,” we pray. Or, on really bad days, we pray, “Take me away from this pain, God.”

“Let me die.”

When that happens, God’s no is not the final word. The final word is God’s sustenance.  The final word is that fact that, even in our anguish, even in our wilderness, even when we are exhausted and worn out and so depressed we can’t even function, God still provides us with Bread. Maybe not actual bread.  But with the Bread of Life. A Bread that truly sustains, that truly refreshes.  God provides us with what we need.

As much as we may relate to this story of Elijah in the wilderness, we also have this reading from Ephesians this morning  Now, I will say this about our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: it is one of the most difficult scriptures I have ever had to deal with in my life as a Christian. Every time I have heard it or read it, I feel myself sort of (and this is a very evangelical term)…convicted.

In the mirror of this scripture, I feel inadequate. I see my own guilt staring back at me.  St. Paul lays it on the line.

“Be angry,” he says. “But do not sin.”

OK.  Yes, I can do that.  Trust me, I’ve been angry plenty. So, be angry, but don’t act on your anger.

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouth...”

Shoot! I was doing so well. But, this is hard.

“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit…”

We grieve the Holy Spirit when we let those negative, angry words out of our mouths. When we backbite and complain. When we bash others when others aren’t there. What harm can it do? we wonder. They can’t hear it. But the Holy Spirit hears it. And those negative words do make a difference.  They make a difference with God.  

 “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” Paul writes, “and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Ok. Yes. We understand all of that as followers of Jesus.  But, then, as though to drive home his point, he puts before us a challenge like few other challenges.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

“Be imitators of God,” Paul says to us.

Be imitators of the God of love we worship.  

Be imitators of the God of love who loves each of us fully and completely.

Be imitators of the God of love who loves us for who we are, just as we are, even when we lash out with our angry words at others.

Be imitators of the God who hears our prayers and answers us by feeding us with a life-giving bread in the wilderness of our lives.

For me, this has to be the most difficult thing about being a follower of Jesus.  There are days when I want to be angry at those people who have wronged me and hurt me.  There are days when I want to get revenge on them and “show them.”  There are days when it feels almost pleasurable to think about “getting even” with those people and “putting them in their place.”

It’s so easy and it feels so good. And it makes the pain of betrayal less.  That is certainly the easier thing to do—at least for me.

But driving that anger and hatred and frustration from me is so much harder. Being an imitator of God—a God of radical acceptance—is much harder, much more difficult.  To be an imitator of the God of love takes work. Hard, concentrated work. 

But, in the end, it’s better.  Life is just so much better when the darkness of anger is gone from it.  Life seems so much less dangerous when we realize everyone is not our enemy.  Life is so much sweeter when we refuse to see a person as an enemy who sees us as their enemy.  Life is just always so much better when peace and love reign.

Yes, I know. It seems so Pollyannaish.  It seems so na├»ve.  It seems as though we are deceiving ourselves.  But, the fact is, it takes a much stronger person to love.  

It takes a very strong person to act in peace and love and not in anger and fear.  It takes a person of radical strength to be an imitator of a God of radical love.  The strength it takes to maintain peace in a time of strife is more incredible than anything we can even imagine.

I have had more than one former enemy become my friend, or at least my acquaintance, because of the effort to maintain peace rather than to antagonize.  Not always.  But a few times, peace has changed people’s hearts. Peace can do that.  It can change people.  But it has to change us first.

We, as followers of Jesus, as imitators of God, need to rid ourselves of the thorns and brambles of hatred and anger so we can let the flowers of peace blossom in our lives.  But it begins with us.  It begins with us seeing ourselves for who are—loved children of God attempting to imitate that God of love.

So, let us be true followers of Jesus in all aspects of our lives.  Let us strive to imitate our God of peace and love in everything we do.  Let us, in imitating our God, also reach out and feed those who are in their own wilderness.  Let us let peace and love reign in our hearts and in our lives.  Let that peace and love overcome all that anger, the hatred, the frustration that seems to reign in most of the world right now. And when we let peace and love reign, we will find that it permeates through us.  Everything we do is an act of peace, is an act of love to others. And that is what being a follower of Jesus in this world is.  That is the sermon we preach to others. That is the message of God’s love that we proclaim in our very lives.  That is true evangelism.  And that is what each of us is not only called to do by Jesus, but commanded to do by him.

“Live in love as Christ loved us,” Paul says to each of us.

When we do, that love will change the world.

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