Sunday, August 8, 2021

Not Giving Up

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

Elijah was the most remembered Old Testament prophet. He resisted the Northern Kingdom’s corruption, whose pagan Queen, Jezebel, had corrupted Israel’s religion with worship of the foreign god Baal.

Elijah’s frustration followed what should have been his hour of triumph. After a dramatic competition with 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, which the God of Israel had won, Elijah then executed the 450 pagan prophets, and God finally ended Israel’s 3-year drought. Instead of triumph, however, Elijah then had to flee from the Queen, who was determined to kill him in revenge.  He descended from the mountaintop of elation into the desert of despondency – much as many of us have experienced going from a real sense the pandemic was ending a month ago to where we find ourselves now. That is where we encounter him today - on the run, exhausted in body, and 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 significant public lives, and our own dramas of frustration and failure seldom seem so dramatic. Occasionally, however, the feelings of otherwise ordinary people spill out in public - increasingly erupting in inter-personal and inter-group conflicts, verbal assaults on social media, and the kinds of violent acts we have become all too familiar with in our country. And, as our society continues to fracture along overlapping economic, cultural, and political fault-lines, feelings of frustration frequently spill out in bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling – malicious behaviors, which (as we just heard from Saint Paul) 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 and which he would not normally have expected to find there in the desert. He should have recognized that as a sign that help was on the way. But, as often happens when we find ourselves in difficult times, he didn’t. So depressed was he that, even after being helped, 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 accompany Elijah on the way, personally providing him with what he would need.

None of us is Elijah, of course. Yet God does expect real results from each of us as well. We too may feel at times as if too 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 benefits?

Just as God was prepared to accompany Elijah and personally provide him with whatever he would need, our challenge is to trust 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 there is so much in the world to be discouraged about and we too 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, Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NY, August 8, 2021.

(Image: Dieric Bouts, Prophet Elijah in the Desert, Altarpiece in Saint Peter in Leuven, Belgium, c. 1465.)

No comments:

Post a Comment