FIRST LESSON: I Kings 19:1-5a
SECOND LESSON Galatians 3:23-29
SERMON: “Comfort Food”
According to an old legend, God sent one of his angels to Satan one day with the message that all the methods the devil uses to defeat Christians would be taken away from him. The devil pleaded to be allowed to keep just one. The angel, thinking it an unusual, but rather modest request from the greedy devil, agreed Satan could keep one. “Which one would you want to keep?” the angel asked. “Let me keep discouragement,” was the devil’s reply. The angel agreed. Satan could keep discouragement. And the devil rejoiced for, said he, “In this one I have secured all I shall ever need to accomplish my dastardly work.”
How about you? Do you ever feel discouraged?
In today’s reading from I Kings, we read about the Prophet Elijah’s bout with discouragement. Elijah was one of the greatest of the prophets written about in the Hebrew Bible.
Today’s lesson is the story of Elijah’s flight which is part of a much larger set of stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah is one of the towering figures in the history of the Hebrew people.
The context for today’s lesson is drawn from the dominant theme of the Elijah-Elisha stories, namely, the prophetic opposition to royal apostasy and abuse of power. As the story begins we learn that Ahab, regarded by the writer of the book of Kings as one of Israel’s worst rulers, told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, referring to Elijah’s defeat and slaughter of the priests of Baal.
Jezebel, a name synonymous with the powerful, ruthless seductress, was Ahab’s wife. Her influence on Israelite religion and history of the ninth century B.C., as royal patroness of the cult of Baal was enormous, and her power was such that even Elijah, a formidable figure in his own right and the chief advocate for Israel’s traditional faith, feared her – with good reason. She threatened to do to him what he had done to the prophets of Baal.
Understandably, Elijah was afraid for his life and went on the run. He got as far as Beersheba and leaving his servant there, he went a day’s journey into the wilderness, where he sat down under a broom bush and prayed for death.
This passage is the only place in my life where I have encountered or read about a “broom bush,” So I looked it up and learned that broom bushes include a whole host of plants, which thrive best in poor soils and growing conditions. They need little care, with the exception that they need good drainage – don’t do so well in wet soils. Whenever I read this passage in the past, my literal mind had pictured either a tree that sported ‘brooms,’ or a bush that somehow looked like a broom, but pictures of broom bushes actually show something a lot like many other kinds of bushes, sporting some lovely yellow flowers.
There’s got to be some symbolism going on here, because references indicate that brooms tolerate and often thrive best in poor soils and growing conditions. Widely used as ornamental landscape plants, they are also used for wasteland reclamation and sand dune stabilizing. They are also said to be a “fire climax” species, which means that above-ground fires may kill the visible part of the plant, but create conditions for regrowth from the roots and for germination of any seeds buried in the soil. Elijah found a place to collapse and hide under a basically indestructible bush.
As he prays for death to come, the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been working my heart out for God. The people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed the places of worship and murdered your prophets. I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to
kill me.” Discouragement – big time.
When Elijah first fell asleep, exhausted, under the broom bush, an angel shook him awake and he found a loaf of bread to eat and a jug of water to drink. Still exhausted, he took another nap. Again when he was awakened, he found another meal to eat. Then, following instructions he traveled to Horeb, the mountain of God, and found a cave to sleep in.
Reading about all this sleeping and eating and instructions from and angel, reminded me of something that I learned a long time ago from some 12-step folks: HALT. God advice for all of us. Never make big decisions or take drastic actions when you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. We earthlings don’t do our best when the blood sugar is too low. You can write that e-mail when you’re angry, if it helps to “get it out” of your system, but don’t hit “send” until the anger has passed. Loneliness and fatigue foster depression and poor decisions. There’s wisdom in the old adage when you are dealing with major stuff to “sleep on it.” Things really do look different after a night of rest.
I suppose we all have our favorite biblical characters. Today many of us can identify with Elijah. We’ve given it everything we had in us to serve God, and we get tired, burned out. We’d like to go take a long nap under a broom tree somewhere.
The week before last was a refreshing one for me as I got to visit with my son and family, and meet baby Kellan, who once he gets his days and nights straightened around will be the best baby. My son and I chatted about a lot of things, and I was a bit surprised at one moment to hear him say that, considering the way things seem to be going, he wondered if it really was such a good idea to bring a child into this mess of a world. But it wasn’t long before hope re-entered the conversation and Paul said, “Maybe Kellan will be someone who brings something important, something needed into the world.” Discouragement and hope expressed within moments of each other. That’s the tension we all live in.
I feel much the same way as Moderator of our Presbytery’s Committee on Preparation for Ministry. I wonder if we are doing Inquirers and Candidates any favors by shepherding them through the training process to become ordained clergy. Then when we meet with them, and we get to hear their passion for caring for people and sharing the gospel, I become hopeful that one or two or several of them will impact the world where they serve with the love of God and compassion of Christ our Lord.
Today, as a pastor, I can understand and identify with Elijah wanting to just chill under a bush somewhere. We worry too about burning out lay leaders in the church. I don’t know if statistics have been collected on that, but they have been compiled on pastor burnout. According to the New York Times (August 1, 2010)
Please don’t hear this is complaining on my part. I love being a pastor. And most of us feel we are compensated for the stresses by the joys of helping someone through a tough time, seeing people grow in faith and discipleship, getting to do those weddings
Two weeks ago our Clerk of Session announced to you session’s affirmation of my anticipated retirement date. Some of you will be delighted to see me go. Others of you will grieve. I shared these statistics with you hoping that you might keep them in mind as this church moves forward and eventually calls a new pastor. If I know anything about NKPC, it’s that you can do almost anything you put your mind to, and you can care for and nurture a pastor so that he/she does not become the victim of those kinds of statistics.
Haggard and despondent, Elijah escaped to the desert and dove under a “solitary broom tree” to die, but God came and met him through that still, small voice. Elijah was in no condition to hear the still, small voice, until he’d listened to that loud, big voice in the pit of his stomach. Elijah needed a drink. He needed nourishment. He needed strengthening. Elijah needed some comfort food.
So do we. Comfort foods are the things we eat and drink when needing a sense of reward, security, calm or reprieve from life’s circumstances. They’re things we enjoy for their familiarity, simplicity or pleasant associations from past enjoyment.
What do you think of when you thing of comfort foods? I’m guessing it isn’t the flat cornbread and a jug of water that Elijah found. For me it’s things like pecan pie, mac and cheese or double-chocolate brownies. Each person, each culture has its favorite dishes. People who study this sort of thing have learned that comfort eaters tend to choose high-carb foods because the brain responds to their consumption by releasing the natural tranquilizer tryptophan. In other words, carbs calm.
While comfort foods speak to our bodies, where do our souls find comfort? In that still small voice. Elijah didn’t find God in the wind of a hurricane, in the earthquake or the fire. He heard God’s still, quiet, comforting voice when he paused in the entrance of the cave where he had taken refuge.
You can hear it this morning in the comforting words of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia: “By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.
“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.
In this is comfort food for our souls: By God’s grace, we are all loved by God and in relationship with Jesus Christ.