June 23, 2019

2019 June23

It's Not Over Till It's Over: Hope vs Despair


Proper 7– Year C
A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Karen SiegFriedt

 

Then the prophet Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness…and asked that he might die:

 

“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.  (1Kings 19)

 

Have you ever come to that point in your life when you wanted to throw in the towel? When you wanted to go to sleep and never wake up? When the problems in life seem so great that they sap your joy and shadow your life with darkness? I know that I have! Life is a struggle and the cold, hard fact of human existence is that we often find ourselves adrift in a hostile universe, shouldered with the added burden of having to summon enough strength to continue on the journey. Our losses are real. Fear raises its ugly head. And the disappointments in life threaten to plunge us into the pit. The real spiritual question becomes how to deal with loss and pain without giving into the death of the soul. The title of today’s sermon is: “It Is Not Over Till It’s Over; Hope vs. Despair.” I will use today’s story of Elijah from the Hebrew Scriptures as my text.

 

At this point in the story, Queen Jezebel has put a price on Elijah’s head for killing the prophets of Baal in her territory. Elijah (as you might remember) is one of the great prophets and miracle workers who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Ahab, some 2900 years ago. Elijah defended the worship of Yahweh (the God of the Hebrews) over the pagan god, Baal (the god of the Canaanites, who was believed to have power over fertility, rain, and war). Having just killed the prophets of Baal, Elijah flees for his life. Filled with fear, he escapes into the wilderness, and contemplates suicide: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”

 

The kind of depression that Elijah is experiencing is not caused by a chemical imbalance of the mind that leads to sick despair and requires immediate medical care. The kind of depression that Elijah is experiencing is situational, that standard brand of weariness of heart that takes the light out of life and the spark out of the soul. Most of us have been there at one time or another when the shocks of life darken our day, leaving us with the burden of survival which if not attended to, can destroy us in the end. This is the spiritual state that Elijah finds himself in and so he lays down and goes to sleep.

 

What can we learn about depression and despair from such a prophet who himself contemplated suicide? (Insights from Matthew Thomas)

 

1. Depression can often come after big achievements. If you read the preceding chapters, things were going quite well for Elijah. He just triumphed in a big showdown with the prophets of Baal, a highlight of his career. And yet all it took was a threat from Queen Jezebel to send him shaking, fleeing, fearing for his life and feeling suicidal. Sometimes, when we step off the mountaintop, we are plunged into the valley. This is what happened to Buzz Aldrin, the first astronaut to walk on the moon. After he came back to earth, depression robbed him of his joy, and he turned to alcohol to cope with the darkness. Sometimes this happens to people after they retire from a fruitful career, falsely believing that they are no longer useful.

 

2. When we are brought low, we have a tendency to isolate ourselves. Elijah in his fear and depression, left his servant behind, and then went alone into the wilderness where he chose to isolate himself from the community. As a pastor, I often have seen surviving widows/widowers abstain from coming to church or refusing invitations because they feel awkward at being single. Buzz Aldrin admits that he would often stay in bed for weeks, going out only to buy booze and buckets of fried chicken.

 

3. When we are depressed, our mind focuses on dark and distorted thoughts that further plunge us into a hole. We have a tendency to believe everything our mind is telling us even if it is not true. For instance, depression often tells us that we are all alone and we are the only ones struggling with this burden. Take Elijah for instance who claimed: “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty…I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” (1 Kings 19:10) But Elijah was mistaken. When Elijah finally opened himself up to hear the word of God in the sheer silence, he was assured that there were 7000 other people in Israel who would stand by him (1 Kings 19:16-17.) Oftentimes, we need an external voice to help clarify our distorted notions, and to assure us that we are not alone in our pain. So if you are in a good place in your life, maybe you could be that voice for someone else who is not.


4. Sometimes when we are depressed, we just want to throw in the towel and sleep which is what Elijah did. He hid in a cave and checked out. While it is important to rest and take care of ourselves when we are hurting, it is also important not to wallow in obsessive thinking and feelings. Each day, whether young or old, it is vital to get up, get dressed, and get going, even if it is only to walk around the block for 10 minutes. Spending too much time reliving one’s pain only adds fuel to the fire and does little to heal the heart.

 

5. Having an angel can help with depression! Perhaps that angel is a friend, a family member, the lady next door, or a community of faith who can cheer you up when you are down. Sometimes, it is as simple as walking with a dog owner or grabbing a cup of coffee with a parishioner. Fortunately for Elijah, someone cared enough to leave him something to eat and drink, thus providing sustenance for the journey ahead.

 

6. Finally, in Elijah’s distorted mind, he thought ‘it was over before it was over.’ He put a ‘period’ where he should have put a ‘comma.’ The queen did not kill him. God was not finished with him yet. He had an important mission to complete which was to raise up another leader who could take over the reins. Thank goodness Elijah listened and his hope was restored!

 

Hope is having the confidence that no matter how bad things are today, the future is open to new possibilities that are not evident in the present. Hope is different from optimism, which sees something positive in all situations (e.g. cheer up, look at the bright side). But Christian hope is based on the belief that the Spirit of God is actively working through creation. And because of this powerful presence, all things are possible, even a new heaven and earth.

 

I remember feeling like Elijah back in the 8th grade when I failed to gain admission to Latin School. The high schools in the City of Boston were all substandard except for Boy’s Latin and Girl’s Latin. It was my belief that if I were ever to be successful and get ahead, I would need to graduate from Latin School. When I received my rejection letter, I was devastated. I saw no decent future ahead for me and became despondent. I put a ‘period’ where I should have put a ‘comma.’ You might smile at the naivete of an eighth-grade girl who believed her future was over. But we believe what our minds are telling us and the emotional distress can be great. Like Elijah, I felt afraid and wanted to run away.

 

But then a few months later, I received a grace from God that I never expected. I was filled with the Holy Spirit in such a way that I was overflowing with an inner power of joy, purpose, fortitude, focus, and calling. This inner strength propelled me forward in the years that followed, and I have since lived a fruitful life with much meaning. As it turned out, had I gone to Latin School, I would have been a small fish in a big pond. But at the local high school, I ended up being a big fish in a small pond, receiving full scholarships to every college I applied to. In summary, I finished my college education with no debt, 5 degrees, and the gift of an abundant life. Who could have known what the future would hold when the door to Latin School was closed!

 

So, I find it comforting that even
the great prophets of the Bible
suffered from despondency and
hopelessness from time to time.

 

The stories of Elijah, Job, and even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane portray those times when these great people felt tremendous darkness, not knowing about the glory that would be revealed in the future. These stories remind me that ‘it is not over until it is over.’ That when a door closes in front of us, what we need to do is to stop pounding on the door that just closed. Instead, we need to turn around (which puts the door behind us), and then welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls.

 

In summary,

 

hope is having the confidence
that no matter how bad things
are today, the future is open to
new possibilities that we can’t
even imagine.

 

Hope is the one human emotion, the one virtue that keeps humankind afloat, diverting tragedy, healing the sick, comforting the desperate, deciding with certainty that there is a way out. Hope says that God’s world is in God’s hands and therefore cannot possibly be hopeless. Hope is a choice! And because it is a choice, hope it is the theological virtue that we need to nurture in our own lives against what seems like a hostile universe. Nurturing hope is an integral part of our spiritual journey towards wholeness;


for without hope,
the human heart would break.

© 2019 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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