1 Kings 19:1-9a
Over the summer, people I love suffered an enormous tragedy. When they called to tell me their terrible news, I found myself saying the words so many of us say so honestly but so automatically: oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, let me know if there’s any way I can help. And then I caught myself. This family I love has faced death and is face-down in the dirt. These beloved people can hardly get up in the morning, and I’m asking them to do one more thing? How am I caring for them if I’m making them tell me what to do? So I stopped myself and changed my script. “Are you going to be home tomorrow?” I asked. “I’m coming over. I’m going to clean your house and leave you supper.”
Here is an excellent point to note that I’m a terrible housekeeper and an even worse cook. But I was serious, and remained serious as they explained they’d just cleaned their house and their fridge was full of leftovers. So I renegotiated, and the next day, I came over with a pan of enchiladas, a bag of salad, and some store-bought cookies.
I’m not a hero. I’m not telling you this story because I want you to know how wonderful I am. I’m telling you this because we all have a story like this. For we who have felt grief so strong that we just want to quit, to give up, there was someone who did something. Someone brought over a pan of bars. Someone picked up an extra bag of paper products. Someone came in and washed your dishes. Someone, somehow, in your hour of need, did something.
That someone was an angel of the Lord who touched you and said, “Get up”.
Today, as we remember those saints who have gone before us, those saints whose lives and witness made Christ known in our lives, we also remember those saints who live among us today, through whom God provides for our daily needs, especially those who brought us the most simple, humble things to restore the strength that grief saps and provided us with the strength that we would need for a lifetime of loss.
In our lesson today, we hear the briefest of stories about the mighty prophet Elijah. In the all-star list of Biblical giants, Elijah looms large. Elijah comes to God’s people in a troubled time. King Ahab has turned the people away from worshiping God and has instead worshiped the false God Baal, along with his wife Jezebel. They have killed off the prophets of the Lord, but Elijah has escaped. He has hidden for three years during a drought which he predicted. He came out of hiding for a showdown with the priests of Baal. They couldn’t call down fire for their offering, but Elijah could. In this mighty show of power, Elijah leads the people in killing these false prophets.
That brings us to our reading today. Jezebel and Ahab get word that their priests are dead, and Elijah has returned. Even though Elijah himself called down God’s power, he gets scared. He runs off and hides.
The mighty Elijah, instrument of God’s power, prophet of the Lord, collapses under a tree out in the wilderness. And here’s where it gets confusing. He just fled for his life, but once he’s safe, he says he’d rather die. “O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Just let me die, God. All those great believers and followers of days past, who worshipped you and still got things wrong? I’m not any better than they am. I can’t do this. Just let me die.
But in a way, I get it. He is absolutely overwhelmed. His grief is too much. His fear, his frustration, his exhaustion, his mourning over the loss of those priests with whom he used to serve, his shock at his rage in the face of the priests of Baal – it’s all too much. He’s done. He quits.
Maybe you know that person. Maybe you are that person. It is too much. Too much loss. Too much death. Too much suffering. Too much grief. It’s all too much, God. I have fought and run and struggled too long. It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, because I’m no better than anyone else – in fact, I’m probably a lot worse.
In the face of this overwhelming despair, God doesn’t hit Elijah with shame to add to his grief. Instead, an angel comes to Elijah and says only, “Get up and eat.” The angel gives Elijah something to eat – nothing fancy, but it helps him come back from the terrible exhaustion that comes with sorrow. Elijah sleeps a while longer, and the angel wakes him up again: “Get up and eat”. This time, Elijah needs to eat to gather his strength for what is to come. As we who mourn know, the grieving process doesn’t end after the illness, or after the funeral, or after the one-year anniversary. We carry our sadness for a long time. Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.
For we who mourn, it can be so tempting to say, that’s it. I’m done. I can’t do this any more. Here, in this story of the mighty Elijah and his despair, we hear God speak to us. In your grief, your sorrow, your pain, your loss, whatever shape that takes, God comes to you. God comes to you in the form of the nurse who kept checking in all night long. God comes to you in the form of the stranger who payed the bill for your lunch after your scan. God comes to you in the form of the friend who brought over a pot of chili. God comes to you in the form of the neighbor kids who raked your lawn but won’t admit it so you can’t pay them. God has not abandoned you. God stands with you in these most humble and simple of ways, in food, the permission to rest when you need it, and the reminder to get up when it is time to continue the journey.
Perhaps you are not in a place in your life where you need to be watching for these angelic appearances. Then, my friends, it is because it is your time to be the angel. You are the only hands, feet, and wallet God has in the world. God calls you to take an active role alongside the saints who have gone before you in witnessing to God’s work not only through your words, but through your prayer shawls, your hot dishes, your ability to scrub a toilet, to offer childcare, to be the voice saying to the person for whom life has simply become too much, the voice of God saying, “Get up. Have you had anything to eat? Did you take a shower this morning? When can I come over and do your laundry?”
We celebrate the saints on this day because we believe that we are all saints. We believe that God has redeemed us and works in us to bring God’s love, grace, and mercy to this world. When we mourn, we trust that God turns even death into new life, not only in the life to come, but here, in this life, right now. When those we love struggle, we trust that God makes our brownies and pasta salads into food for the journey, that God takes our words and makes us into messengers of God’s own love, that God uses our whole selves to bring peace and hope in a time of hurt. God calls you, my friends. Get up. Thanks be to God. Amen.