Sunday, August 9, 2015

Lesson Under a Tree

There are times in life when nothing seems to go right, despite all our best efforts. We try our best, but our best just isn’t good enough. Too much is being demanded of us; too much expected of us. We get worn out and want to give up – just like Elijah in today’s 1st reading.

Elijah was maybe the most remembered prophet of the Old Testament. He appeared abruptly - as if out of nowhere to resist King Ahab and his pagan Queen, Jezebel, who had corrupted Israel’s religion with worship of the foreign god Baal.

In competition with 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, he had dramatically demonstrated God’s superiority over Baal. He had then executed the 450 pagan prophets, and God had finally ended Israel’s 3-year drought. But what should have been Elijah’s greatest moment of triumph ended in frustration as he then had to flee from the Queen, who was determined to kill him in revenge.  So he descended from the mountaintop of elation into the desert of despondency, which is where we encounter him at the beginning of today’s reading [1 Kings 19:4-8] - on the run, exhausted in body,  broken in spirit, filled with an overwhelming feeling of failure: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

Most of us don’t lead such significantly public lives. So our own dramas of frustration and failure seldom seem so dramatic. Occasionally, the feelings of otherwise ordinary un-public people sometimes spill out in public - even erupting in violent acts such as so many of the ones we have witnessed over and over again in various cities around the country. At the other extreme, some try, with greater or lesser degree of success, to keep such feelings behind a defensive wall, in an attempt to insulate both themselves and society from their effects. In between these extremes, feelings of frustration and failure frequently spill out in bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling – malicious behaviors, which Saint Paul [Ephesians 4:30 – 5:2] said grieve the Holy Spirit of God.

In contrast, Paul instructed the Ephesians to be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done!

So how does one get from here to there?

Ready to give up, Elijah fell asleep under a tree. Awakened by an angel, he found the nourishment he needed (which he obviously would not normally have expected to find there in the desert), a sure sign that help was on the way. So depressed was he, however, that even after eating and drinking, he fell asleep again - only to be wakened and fed again.  Apparently, Elijah was ready to give up on God, but God was not willing to give up on Elijah.
God really was demanding a lot from Elijah. Hence, God’s unwillingness to let him give up, but hence also his readiness to help, to accompany Elijah on the way, personally providing him with what he would need.

None of us is Elijah, of course. Yet God does expect results even from us. Like Elijah, we too may be tempted at times to feel that much is being expected of us. After all, who can really be expected to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving – especially when it seems to produce few if any results?

Just as God was prepared to accompany Elijah and personally provide him with whatever he would need, he does the same for us on our own difficult, tedious journey.  As Saint Paul has reminded us, Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God. Paul’s reminder is always timely – but never more so than in those times and situations when we too feel discouraged and are tempted to give up.

As we have been hearing now week after week, Jesus, the Bread of Life, is our very visible food for the journey – our life-long journey out of the desert of bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling to the mountain where, having experienced for ourselves God’s kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, we can at least begin to become in turn people of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness for the life of the world.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 9, 2015.

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