A sustaining hope

A sermon for August 8th, 2021, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid. The Delta variant of the continuing COVID pandemic is on the rise locally and nationally as schools prepare for their new year. In today’s readings, Elijah sits under a broom tree in the desert and prays to God to take him home; Jesus is the Bread of Life.

There must have been some small part of Elijah that still held out hope. Even in his despair, he sought out the shade of the broom tree – the only respite from the scorching desert to be seen. Before he placed himself at God’s mercy, to take or to leave, Elijah placed himself under the shelter of its shrubbery.

It’s worth remembering how Elijah got to where we find him, exhausted and exasperated, under the broom. 

In the days of Ahab, king over Israel but corrupt at his job, God called the prophet Elijah out of Tishbe in Gilead to pronounce a drought upon the land because of the king’s unfaithfulness. You may remember that Elijah waited out the drought in the home of a widow in Zarephath. His time was not without emotional upheaval and uncertainty, but Elijah waited upon God, and eventually, God sent Elijah back to Ahab to bring back the rain (1 Kings 16:29-18:2).

The toll was heavy. Elijah ended up in a duel against the prophets of Baal, the idol with whom Ahab and his household had been unfaithful. Many lost their lives that day before the rains came. Elijah had won out against them, but at a terrible human cost (1 Kings 18:22-45).

Now, Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was seeking to avenge the prophets of Baal with Elijah’s own blood: violence has forever bred violence. It was a frightened, traumatized, and demoralized man who dismissed his servant and companion, and set out alone into the desert, trailed by death (1 Kings 19:1-5).

Even so, Elijah retained just enough hope within his body and his spirit to find the solitary broom bush, a cool patch of sandy earth in which to curl up and pray for the oblivion of sleep (1 Kings 19:3-9; today’s lesson).

What he thought when the angel woke him with food and drink, and the instruction to eat so that he would have strength to journey still further is not recorded. Perhaps it wasn’t printable. But the hope that resided somewhere deep within Elijah’s spirit and the sustenance with which God provided him were enough somehow to get him to the holy mountain, where Moses had once communed with the divine presence, and where Elijah would now witness God’s power and glory wrapped up in a still, small, almost silent voice (1 Kings 19:9-13).

I don’t know but that this is an apt metaphor for the stage of life that we are in right now. As a community, we are wearied by repeated waves of pandemic disease and anxiety. Our children are being called back into school just as things are heating back up, and without the protection of vaccination for the younger ones. We who have survived so far bear witness to tremendous losses sustained over the past several months: not only the loss of life, but loss of ways of life, of company, of confidence.

Add to that pandemic toll the news that gun violence has now become the leading cause of death in children and teens up to the age of 19 in the US, and that at a time when gun purchases are also rising. Make no mistake, there is a correlation.

In our personal and individual lives, many of us I am sure have things going on that could drive us into the desert to sit beneath and broom tree and wonder whether we have what it takes to stand back up.

And still, we are here, reaching forth our hands for the bread of heaven, expecting the intervention of God, to send us on our way.

We are here – whether in person or online, staying distant, staying safe; in the midst of it all, we have hope, because we have Jesus. He is our bread for the journey.

The interventions of God come in many forms. For Moses and his generation, there was manna from heaven. For Elijah, there was bread baked by an angel on hot stones.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry told a story this week via video that some of us have heard him tell before: the story of a sugar cube. Many of us remember receiving those pink drops of polio vaccine on a sugar cube at school. Strength for the journey – Bishop Curry told how pleased and relieved his father was to know that his son would not bear the ravages of polio in his body, as his father did, because vaccination had defeated it here.

The interventions of God, strength for the journey, can come from humans sweating over laboratory test tubes as easily and as often as angels baking on hot stones.

We live with the uncertainty of Elijah, and some of his exhaustion. We live with his hope. We know that God is with us – Emmanuel – we have seen God in the person and the passion of Jesus. We believe him when he tells us that he is our bread, and that he will not leave us hungry (John 6:35). We listen for the still, small voice of silence, the presence of God in the midst of trouble.

We pray, in the words of the prayer book, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” (Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer)

We are here, not only because we have hope for ourselves, but because we carry hope for the world. We who know the promises of God, not to leave us helpless, not to leave us hungry, we pray for strength to counter fear with wisdom, to turn aside violence with the way of the cross, to defeat death with the promise of resurrection, in this life as well as the next; in our communities, as well as in ourselves. To listen for the quiet interventions of God and to share them with our neighbours: “Look, here is help. Here is bread for the journey. Here is hope.”

In a sugar cube, or in a pharmacist’s needle; in a friend, or in a stranger; in the bread of angels and in the Body of Christ, God is with us.

Psalm 34:7 The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear God, and God will deliver them.
8 Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in the Lord!

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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