Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?
The greatest thing about being a priest – apart from the stylish black shirts, and the white plastic collars, and the beautiful Sunday robes – is the singular honor of getting to know people. The times I am most thankful for being ordained are those times when I feel that God has put his loving arms around every heart in the room. As often as not, these times are times of pain, sorrow and deepest anguish.
It’s a privilege that, as a priest, you get to meet people in all their hope and glory. The funny thing is: we clergy are getting paid for the one Christian ministry that everyone in the Church is called to by virtue of their baptism, and regardless of their title! Whether we are called to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers, the one thing we are all born-again to do, is to get to know people, to gain their trust, and show them the face of Christ. And, let me tell you, it’s good work if you can get it. This vocation of making friends and breaking Physical & Spiritual Bread with people is the best work there is — and it’s a work that belongs to all of us here now.
Following Paul’s teaching in Ephesians, whether or not we are ordained pilgrims on the path of Christ, we are all amateurs in ministry. As anybody with a dictionary knows, an ‘amateur’ is not just some poor slob with no skills or talent. An ‘amateur’ is not the same as a ‘hack,’ a ‘duffer,’ or a ‘quack.’ A true amateur is not a dilletante of half-hearted resolve. An ‘amateur,’ in its purest sense, is a devotee. An amateur is the girl who pursues basketball out of pure love for the game and the awesome challenge to her body, mind and will. An amateur is the boy who pursues ballet because it is in his heart to fly through the air to the lofty strains of music. The amateur does not care what the other children may say about them for doing what is in their heart.
As Christians, this is what is what we must be always striving to become – amateurs in the ministry of Christ. We are called to discern those things we simply love to do, and then God will show us how we may develop them into ministry to others. But whether we mentor girls on the basketball court, or serve as chaplains in a hospital, the common thread of our joint calling is to build up the Body of Christ, by caring for one another through all the trials of this World.
And here is why it is so terribly important that we each dedicate ourselves to some special ministry of Christian love today, tomorrow, and forever: The World is in need. The World is not well. The World is not quite right. I’m sure you’ve figured it out for yourself. God may be good, but a lot of bad things still seem to happen in this world that he made and loves so much.
God may be all knowing, and all loving, but that didn’t stop the Concorde from crashing into a hotel this week, killing 114 people. It didn’t stop a young Episcopalian from dying of congenital heart disease shortly after he graduated from VCU last week. It didn’t stop a tiny child from drowning before his father could save him the week before. And as the weeks pass, and events such as these continue to unfold, there will be more suffering and more pain in this World the Lord has given us.
Maybe if you’re like me, you haven’t figured out the answer to this question either: “God, why did you let this happen?” Maybe, if you’re like Elisha, you’ve demanded to know, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” Maybe, if you’re like Jesus, you’ve cried out also: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
The problem of pain may be the greatest question that people ask of God. Just as the apostles were tossed to and fro upon their Galilean ship, straining against the wind, on the chaotic waters of grief and confusion, so are we, for much of this life, left to do the same in a world of pain. And we don’t know why.
We don’t know why the God who can bring Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire, amidst a whirlwind, cannot keep the planes from falling from the sky. We don’t know why the God who can part the water on the command of his prophets, cannot keep the children from drowning off their father’s boats. We don’t know why the God who can feed five thousand, cannot keep thousands more from starving in the Horn of Africa.
If you’ve looked into this great question, you’ve probably heard the same answers. Like, “God made us free to choose right and wrong, and people’s wrong choices bring pain upon others.” Or, “God has a plan, and we cannot understand it.” Or, “God doesn’t make suffering, he brings release.” Or, “pain is redemptive grace at work; so if you’re feeling pain, trust that it’s good for you.” If you’re like me, you may have a hard time being satisfied with the pat answers Christians often give to the problem of pain. If you’re like many of us in the Church, you also realize that there simply is no truly comforting answer to the problem of pain.
But perhaps there are some questions to which we can know the answers. Perhaps, it is not given for us to ask, “Why does God permit pain?” but instead, “Why do we permit pain?” And, “what does God want us to do about the problems of pain which we encounter?” Maybe the problem with the universe isn’t about what God can or cannot do. Maybe the problem with the universe is what we will or will not do with the power God has given us.
Certainly pain is not the end of life. And, as many of you who have suffered have testified, suffering is not the end of joy either. It blows my tiny, comfortable mind when I consider what Lance Armstrong has done – for example. A man who is a cancer survivor, and who has won the Tour de France two years in a row.
It changes my understanding of the way things might be when I consider the way people in this congregation have comforted their loved ones through life and death, only to take on greater wisdom about just how big a human being’s heart can become.
It makes my heart soft and ready to grow, when I hear the stories of tenderness which parents in this congregation have shown toward their children who suffer from disease, pain and hardship; only to become stronger and more inspiring people than I can imagine being.
It seems to me that the Good News we find today is not that God is omnipotent and capable of unusual and weird miracles from time to time on our behalf. The Good News is that Jesus will open our hearts up, if we can only let him, to do things we never imagined were possible, desirable or even necessary. The view of the world we must share as Christians is not that the world is a rocky, terrifying, and chaotic place where evil begets evil, and we are but helpless pawns cast adrift on the sea. Rather, we must focus our intentions enough to soften our hearts to the grace of Christ, so that we might find our role in bringing peace and hope to those who suffer. We must not see the confining storms only, but rather we must see in ourselves and each other the grace to bring it release.
Consider this story, someone told me the other day:
It seems a devoted wife had spent her lifetime taking care of her husband. He had been slipping in and out of a coma for several months, yet she stayed by his bedside every single day.
When he came to senses, he motioned for her to come near him. As she sat by him, he said, “You know what? You’ve been with me all through the bad times. When I got fired, you were there to support me. When my business failed, you were there. When I got shot, you were by my side. When we lost the house, you gave me support. When my health started failing, you were still by my side. You know what?”
“What dear?” she asks gently.
“I think you bring me bad luck.”
Maybe it’s human nature to see those events which harm us as being the clumsy will of an untrustworthy God. Maybe it’s human nature to be afraid to recognize those saints and angels who walk amidst the stormy seas. Maybe we are afraid to recognize them as persons who bear the grace of God because we realize that we are called to do the same thing to others. But if it is simply our human nature to be this way, then let us hear the Good News, that we may rise above our human nature, and take on the mantle of Christ himself. And like Elisha, we too may not only discern our particular ministry of love, our Amateur Calling, but we will receive immense power to do what God will have us do. And let us pray to be delivered from a hardened heart, that we might continue to grow up into the full measure of Christ.
Let us pray:
Dear Lord, help us this day to awaken our hearts, and to receive our calling to go forth into the world, as healers, friends, and lovers. By the strong name of Jesus Christ thy only Son, who died upon the cross, not that we may never suffer, but that our suffering may be like his. Amen.