Sunday, November 7, 2021

Phil Kniss: Surrounded and alone

God speaks to Elijah - A still, small voice
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary 
1 Kings 19:8-13a

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The experience of feeling alone
is painfully real, and all too common, these days.

Of course, we can point to the pandemic as a cause for much of this.
It’s entirely understandable that after 20 months
of navigating various degrees of physical separation,
that the feeling of being alone, isolated from others,
has touched almost every human being on the planet.
And for some, that feeling has become deep and chronic.

Add to that the partisan political divide and acrimony,
and opposing convictions about what is factual
on everything from election results to vaccine science,
even family members are being pushed apart from each other.

And furthermore, three-quarters of a million people
have died from COVID-19 in our country alone,
and though numbers are falling,
still 1,200 are daily dying of this preventable disease,
leaving husbands and wives and children and mothers and fathers
alone in the world, without their spouse, or child, or parents.

And in our own congregation,
we have had a year of unimaginable loss, not all from COVID,
as this front table so vividly illustrates.
Many of our congregational family,
are dealing with the pain of being alone, in some real way.
And in the last several years,
death has taken far too many, far too early,
which intensifies the shock for loved ones left behind,
and adds to their sense of being alone.

So here we are as a church family,
bringing together three different things in one service.
Our much-loved All Saints Sunday service of remembrance,
our monthly First-Sunday communion service,
and another story in our Narrative Lectionary
journey through the Hebrew scriptures.

Not surprisingly, as often happens with scripture,
they all come together in a beautiful and unplanned way.

I first reflected on this story of Elijah,
who met God—not in the earthquake, wind, or fire—
but in a still, small voice,
and I wondered to myself how it tied into
a service of remembrance, or communion.
I didn’t have to wonder long.

The first thing I noticed in this story about Elijah,
was his intense feeling of being abandoned, of being left alone.
We often focus more on the couple of verses
that describe how he heard God in the whispering voice,
and we jump right away to making it a moral lesson,
about quieting ourselves and listening.
Nothing wrong with that. That’s a good lesson.
But really, the story is about abandonment,
and how God responded to Elijah in that abandonment.

We know that’s the core point of the story,
because it gets repeated twice.
In our shortened reading, we only heard it once.
But twice, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?”
And Elijah answers, but indirectly, with a lament.
“I have been faithful.
But the rest of Israel has rebelled, killed all your prophets,
and I am the only one left.
I am here, alone in the world.”

That same exchange: “What are you doing here?”
and, “I am all alone,”
happens twice, before and after Elijah meets God at the cave.

Elijah is at his lowest.
And at his lowest is the very place God meets Elijah.
Rather than scolding him for his complaining,
or lack of faith,
God provides Elijah exactly what Elijah needs.
Reassurance of his belonging, and of his worth.

As I thought about that,
I remembered a similar time in the life of Jesus himself.
The crucified Jesus,
whose suffering we remember in communion,
moments before his death on the cross,
also felt truly abandoned, and alone.
And he cried out,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.”
Meaning, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And the people jeering him at the foot of the cross
misunderstood his Aramaic words.
“Eli”—E L I—sounded to them like Elijah.
They thought he was calling out to Elijah.
Isn’t that fascinating?
the prophet famous in scripture for feeling abandoned.
They thought Jesus was calling for him.

And then I thought about it all a bit longer,
and I remembered the passage often read on All Saints Day,
where the author of Hebrews writes to
a church under persecution,
a church losing beloved family members right and left.
The writer reassures them, over several eloquent chapters—
“You are not alone.”
You are not the only ones going through this horror.
And the writer reviews centuries of biblical history,
recalling all the saints who had gone before them,
and gone on to glory—
and uses that very history as a word of comfort.
You are not alone.
You are surrounded, by this very cloud of witnesses.
And this cloud, this crowd, is urging you on.
They are cheering you from the sidelines.
So, “let us run with perseverance
the race that is set before us,”
the writer says.

And then it dawned on me.
Elijah, and the crucified Jesus,
and the saints who have gone before us,
all knew the same sense of abandonment,
and were all ministered to by God,
whose primary gift to us is presence,
in the midst of our suffering.

How beautiful that these three scriptures,
these three stories,
can come together on this particular day,
giving us exactly what we need.
Comfort, reassurance, presence, belonging,
and an urgent word to keep running the race,
“looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him
endured the cross, disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.”

On this day, my prayer is that
we may all receive this word as Gospel,
as Good News to any and all who feel abandoned or alone.
May the Holy Spirit comfort you, be your companion,
and lead you to a place of healing, and of deep community.

—Phil Kniss, November 7, 2021

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