We’ve all had our pandemic firsts, haven’t we? That first trip to the grocery store. First meal at a restaurant, even if it was outdoors in 40 degree weather last winter. The shock and the joy of seeing that first friend, unexpectedly, on the sidewalk and recognizing them behind their mask. First hug. First excursion more than a few miles from home. First in-person Sunday worship service at St. Paul’s: here in our labyrinth garden over the past three weeks; or indoors, in the re-opened church building, just this morning.
So many firsts. They would have seemed like such little things eighteen months ago. Because, during this pandemic, really big issues have been at stake. Our own health, our lives, and those of every other person we’ve come close to.
The issues facing the prophet Elijah could not have been bigger. Our reading from First Kings finds Elijah hope-less. He has gone out a day’s journey into the wilderness, sat down under a solitary broom tree, and despairs of his life. He implores God: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life for I am no better than my ancestors” (19:4). With that he lies down and falls asleep. Not a nice, recuperative sleep. Instead, a sleep of exhaustion. Of escape and denial. Despair. Sleep as a kind of suicide – of not wanting to be at all.
To understand why Elijah is without hope, we have to turn back a few chapters in his story (1 Kings 17-18). Elijah’s work as prophet was focused on Ahab, king of Israel, and Jezebel, his non-Israelite queen, and their program of instituting the worship of the Phoenician god Ba’al in place of the God of Israel. The vulnerable in Israel, of course, suffered the social and political impact of this agenda. Elijah warns of a severe drought across the land until right worship and just rule is restored. In the ancient world, drought meant famine. Twice, Elijah is miraculously fed; by ravens and by a poor widow – fed bread and water enough to survive.
Then comes the contest on Mount Carmel between solitary Elijah and four hundred fifty prophets of Ba’al to determine once and for all which is the true God. You remember the result – Ba’al fails to answer the prayers of his prophets, while Elijah’s God responds with a fire that consumes the sacrificial bull and the altar and the trenches full of water with which Elijah doused everything. And the four hundred fifty prophets of Ba’al are killed – just as Ahab and Jezebel had previously slaughtered all the prophets of the LORD they could lay their hands on, all except for Elijah.
Which brings us to this evening’s reading. When Jezebel hears what has happened to her prophets, she vows in revenge to have Elijah killed by that same time the next day. So Elijah flees Israel for Judah, escapes one day’s journey further into the wilderness, lies down under that solitary tree and begs God to take away his life. Overnight, Elijah has gone from fearing for his life to courting his death in the arms of that suicidal sleep. Despairing. Hopeless.
Suddenly an angel touches him and says: “Get up and eat” (19:5). Elijah looks and sees a cake of bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water right beside him. The prophet eats and drinks. Hope, however, is not yet restored, despair not fully healed – and he slips back into that deadly sleep. The angel of the LORD comes a second time, touches Elijah, and says again: “Get up and eat,” but this time gives the prophet something to do: “Otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (7). Elijah now does get up, eats the bread and drinks the water – and in their strength journeys forty days and forty nights through the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God. There, to play the story forward a bit, Elijah encounters God – not in big things; not in the great wind, not in the earthquake, not even in fire like that on Mount Carmel – but in the littlest of all things: the sound of sheer silence. Having tasted God’s mysterious, new presence, Elijah is also restored to community. It turns out he is not alone after all. There are seven thousand other Israelites who have not worshipped Ba’al or cozied up to Ahab and Jezebel. Allied with them, Elijah inaugurates a new royal dynasty, true to the God and people of Israel. (1 Kings 19:9-18)
Hopeless Elijah despaired over life itself. He had lost hope that any future could exist for him. He despaired over God and God having any capacity to give life and open the way to a new future. These were hardly little things Elijah despaired over. But his despair is healed and hope restored through little things. Waking up from sleep. Getting up from under that tree. A little bread. A jug of water. Taking a first step forward. That step becomes two, then four, sixteen, then a journey of forty days and nights. A human journey fueled by ordinary bread and water leads to a new vision of God. Seeing God differently makes the world look different. Elijah solitary no longer, but part of a community of seven thousand and one.
Debra and I experienced another pandemic first this past Monday evening. We had dinner with our Ukrainian-Canadian-American friend and former next door neighbor Oleg – inside our house at our kitchen table! Such a little thing, right: having someone over for dinner? But it turned out to be a big deal as we talked for four hours about really big issues. You see, Oleg’s wife Victoria died back in March in her early fifties. Not of COVID, but during COVID.
Oleg, Debra, and I talked about the light Victoria was in this world. Her consistently hopeful approach to life – even with cancer. Her hospitality. The hundreds of pierogies she made by hand for Ukrainian New Year. (And the vodka!) Victoria’s most unusual style of leadership in a highly technological corporate environment, which was all about bringing people together and creating community.
But we also heard new stories and learned new things about Victoria. That she had two Ph.D.s, not just one. The first in “scientific communism,” an obligatory rite of passage for aspiring academics in the Soviet Union. The other in folklore studies, on how myth and ritual shape human community. Most amazing of all, to learn that Victoria’s mother’s Ukrainian family name is actually a bastardization of a French name – for in her ancestry are French soldiers fleeing from Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 defeat in Russia; men who never got home, but took up new lives in Ukraine.
And Oleg wanted to hear me and Debra – as newly retired folk – talk about life and meaningful, community-creating activities outside of work as he anticipates first steps on his unexpected journey into a future without Victoria. If we don’t dare the little things, like being known for who we really are, like speaking truthfully without fear, like listening deeply without judgment, how on earth will we ever address really big issues?
And so, this evening, I wonder when an angel has touched you and said: “Get up and eat?” I wonder what little things were right beside you – what was your cake of bread and jar of water? What were your first steps? And I wonder how just getting up and eating and drinking helped strengthen you in hope for a journey from despair to the mountain of God?
I invite your responses: to my words, to any of our scriptures, or to our gathering at this time and in this place.