Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51
Few things are as bad as thinking that you’re unimportant.
It feels, to many of us as if we are unimportant. As if the work we do doesn’t matter, as if we, as people, don’t matter. A great deal of our public discourse revolves around connecting with those who feel that they don’t matter.
I follow the ELCA Clergy Facebook group, and I’m always amazed at some of the deep questions around this topic that come up. Just recently, a pastor asked a question about a group of 20-something year olds who meet with him. They are all high school graduates working dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. They don’t care about salvation, global missions, big social justice issues, or any of the other “normal” things pastors talk about. The questions was, “How do I minister to them?”
While this pastor was talking about a group of 20-something year olds, it sounds like a lot of people I know. Some of the commenters who responded to his question suggested that in their life situation, these people felt like no one expected anything from them, so why bother trying? Another suggested that these people were working hard to make a living and barely making it–their concerns were more immediate, such as, “Where will my next meal come from?” Either way, they felt alone, like a forgotten people: unimportant.
Does it sound like anyone you know? Does it sound like you?
To me, it sounds like Elijah. We get just a bit of Elijah’s story this morning, so let me fill out the rest.
Elijah has just done something both incredible and incredibly stupid. He has just proven that his God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is the true God, and Baal is not. He held a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal to see which group could get their god to answer by burning a sacrifice laid on an altar. The prophets of Baal failed—their god never burned the offering on the altar. Elijah succeeded—he called on God to burn the offering, and a fire came down from heaven and consumed the whole thing. Pretty incredible, right?
And then Elijah goes for the gold—he seizes all the prophets of Baal and has them killed, about 450 of them, all at once. The problem is that Queen Jezebel of Israel worshiped Baal, and those were her prophets. So she sends this message to Elijah: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow”: or, in more modern terms, “Tomorrow, it’s either you or me.”
That’s a pretty serious threat on Elijah’s life from the one in power. Imagine that you’ve just done something amazing and life-changing, and you receive that message: tomorrow, you’ll be dead. Elijah does the sensible thing and runs. He runs far, far away, retracing the path the ancient Israelites took from the wilderness to the Promised Land. He goes back out in the wilderness, all the way back to Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai, one of the holiest mountains of God.
There are a few reasons why Elijah is fleeing to Mount Horeb. One is the obvious one, the one I just mentioned—the queen has sworn to kill him by the next day. But there’s another, more personal reason Elijah is fleeing in distress. He says it much earlier in the story.
When he confronts the prophets of Baal, he says this: “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD.” When God questions Elijah when he arrives at Mount Horeb and asks him why he’s there, Elijah replies, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
Elijah has reached his lowest point. He looks around him, all the work he’s been trying to do in getting the kingdom of Israel back into a healthy relationship with God, and he sees nothing. Yes, he just proved before the people that God, not Baal, was the true God, but what good does it do if the queen, a ruler of the country, will fight against him at every turn? What good is it if he, as he believes, is the only person left in the entire kingdom that trusts and follows God? “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors”, he says.
It is a feeling we in the church know well, this feeling that, no matter what we do, it’s just not enough. It’s the feeling we get when we plan a youth outing, and get no interest; or a Bible study, and nobody comes. Or a special fund-raising event, and nobody donates.
It’s the feeling we get in the ELCA when we have conversations about racism, as our Presiding Bishop did just last Thursday—and then see the Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study report that we as a denomination are 96% white European descents, most of whom have no intention of ever welcoming someone different into their midst. Or when we as a synod have trouble funding and supporting initiatives of our congregations because people are using their money as a weapon to express their disapproval.
It’s soul-crushing to feel unimportant. It’s the most soul-crushing when we start to believe it and internalize it ourselves. We, like Elijah, believe that “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”
What can God possible have to do with us? Look around you. We are a small, struggling congregation in a tiny rural town. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in our town. Most people have no idea where Three Lakes is on a map. Are we really worthy of God’s attention?
This is the same question presented by the crowd in the Gospel story when Jesus tells them that he is from the Father and is the bread from heaven. They look at him, at this man that they’ve known for his whole life, and think, “But he’s just a construction worker’s son. He’s a man who grew up in Nazareth. We know him, his mother, his brothers and sisters. He’s just like us. How could he be anything special? How could he be from God?”
My response to that question is: how could he not be?
How could the son of a construction worker, a country boy from a backwater town, not be from God? How could a tiny town like Bethlehem not be the birthplace of God’s Son? How could the little oppressed Roman province of Judea not be the location of one of the greatest religious revolutions in history? How could a humiliating death on a cross, an instrument of capital punishment, not be the perfect way for God to redeem the entire created universe?
Time and time again, God shows that not only is the ordinary and mundane important, but sometimes, they are the most important ways God is present. Of all the ways God could have chosen to create the universe, God did it with words, sounds we use every day. Of all the ways God could have chosen to fix the relationship between the Divine and the world, God chose the incarnation, coming to us in our own flesh and blood; and not only that, the person of Jesus Christ wasn’t a notable person, as the crowd points out.
Consistently, almost without fail, it’s not the fancy or the popular or the flashy or even the best that get God’s attention. The patriarchs were nowhere near paragons of human achievement. The Israelites were a pretty average group of rotten people. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were small and insignificant compared to the empires around them.
And then there are the ways in which God comes to us in the sacraments, in the “offensively ordinary,” as one of my favorite preachers puts it: water, words, bread, wine. Remember, Jesus calls himself the bread from heaven, not the cake from heaven, or caviar from heaven, or stuffed-crust pizza from heaven. Bread from heaven. Jesus healed a man’s sight with mud, cured leprosy with a touch, raised people from the dead with just words, he ate with thieves and prostitutes, hung out with the poor and blessed them.
God is constantly taking what we would consider trash and throwaway junk and turning it into something wonderful and remarkable. For God, there is no such thing as unimportant; it is those very things, the unimportant things, that God often finds the most to work with and turn into amazing, important things.
There is no end to the struggles we will face as we fight our own feelings of unimportance. We are just ordinary people living mostly ordinary lives in an ordinary, unremarkable corner of the world.
But it is in the ordinary that God is most present: a man from Nazareth in Galilee, the elements of water, bread, wine, in simple acts of charity and kindness, in imperfect people living out imperfect lives the best they can with what they’ve got.
Thanks be to God that the unimportant are, in God’s eyes, the most important of all.