1 Kings 19:1-15a
I think I said the most important things about today’s passage about the prophet Elijah when I was talking to the children this morning. His story reminds us that there are times in our lives when we all experience sadness, despair, and even depression. And even if we are completely alone, God is with us in those times, seeking to strengthen and help us, ready to speak to us words of love, courage, and hope for the future.
But there are two details in the story that I want to invite you to notice and to think about. First, it’s the fact that Elijah felt very alone. When he speaks to God he repeats, “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.”
“I alone am left.” I wonder how often some of us have felt like that – like we’re all alone and we can’t handle all the responsibilities and tasks that we have to do. We may experience that heavy load and loneliness in our work lives or in our family responsibilities when we are short-staffed or when others don’t seem to be contributing as much time or effort towards our shared goals.
I’m thinking of my sister who is a nurse in Ontario. When I visited her recently, I heard a little of that sentiment – that feeling of “I alone am left” because of the severe nursing shortages, and the fact that the nurses they do have are so new and inexperienced. It means that the few nurses with years of experience, like my sister, carry a huge burden of teaching and supervising in an environment where there is never enough time to do that properly.
I’m also thinking of the leaders in our congregations and in our presbytery. In most of our congregations, the pandemic has caused a reduction in regular attendance at worship and a decrease in the number of people volunteering for various tasks and leadership roles in our churches. Those who continue to serve sometimes feel like the responsibilities are too much. “I alone am left” may not literally be true, but it certainly feels true when helpers are needed, and the same people end up being those helpers again and again, when no one else steps forward.
In the Presbytery of Assiniboia, the group of Presbyterian congregations in the southern part of Saskatchewan, the shortage is in ordained ministers. Many congregations cannot afford to call full-time clergy, so the few clergy that are called, together with a shrinking supply of retired ministers, struggle to look after all the congregations.
Although Elijah twice declares to God that “he alone is left,” that doesn’t exactly turn out to be true. It certainly feels like the reality for Elijah when he has to flee to the wilderness to escape getting killed by Jezebel, and when he sits dejectedly under a broom tree in the desert, wishing that he was already dead.
But just after hearing God’s voice in the silence on the mountaintop, Elijah follows God’s instructions and returns to Damascus. As the story continues beyond the verses we read today, God directs Elijah to anoint new kings over Aram and Israel, and to anoint a new prophet, Elisha, who will eventually take Elijah’s place, continuing his important ministry to God’s people.
By the end of the chapter, Elisha is saying goodbye to his parents on the farm where he was working, following after the prophet Elijah, and becoming his servant and successor.
I have to believe that in the most difficult moments of our lives and work, that we are never truly alone either, even when it feels like we are. My sister discovered that last week when she did her first nursing shift on a new all-digital charting system – a system that she describes as very poorly designed by people who don’t understand nursing, and for which they received very little training.
By the end of the shift, she was in tears, struggling with the system, and feeling frustrated and angry. She went so far as to declare to a number of people that she was going to quit, just as so many of her colleagues had already done during the chaos of the health care system during the height of the pandemic.
And that’s when she received more offers of help from her colleagues than ever before. Not that it’s going to solve the underlying issues with the new system or the nursing shortage and over-work of the nurses that are there. But I think she discovered that she was not completely alone. Her second shift on the new system went a little better.
Here at First Church, we’ve experienced the same pandemic-related challenges as other churches, and people are still not returning to worship and service in quite the numbers I would have hoped. But we’ve been blessed with a Session that remained faithful to their shared ministry through all the ups and downs, adjustments and adaptations of these last couple of years. When we didn’t have any elder elections the last two years, our current elders were all willing to extend their terms in order to keep a full complement of leaders.
And in 2022, when we decided to go ahead with an election of new elders, we were blessed with new people, with new energy, new ideas, and new gifts stepping forward to join the team that is the Session of First Church. It didn’t even take any of our current elders throwing up their hands in despair and weariness in order for Mary, Al, and Ron to agree to join in this ministry of leadership, vision, and pastoral care for First Church.
One of the things we’ll be doing over the next while in our Session meetings is spending some time talking about the role of an elder and the responsibilities of the Session. Sessions set the hours and forms of worship, oversee everything that happens in the church building, receive new members and keep the membership roll, provide pastoral care, Christian education, and encourage stewardship and mission.
Elders work together as a team with the minister to guide the ministry of the congregation. We bring all our various gifts, skills, and experiences to the work that we share. But I think the most important thing we do together is to listen.
That’s the second thing I wanted to point out about today’s story about Elijah. Did you notice the way that he listened, and the way that God guided him when he did?
There certainly is a lot of noise in our world today. There are many voices competing for our attention, and sometimes it is difficult for us to even find some time of quiet in which to listen for God’s voice.
We don’t always remember to do this well at Session. But I’m reminded, as we begin a new season with new elders and returning elders, in the post-pandemic time that we are entering, that we must take time to listen.
To listen to Scripture. To listen for the Holy Spirit. The listen to how God may be speaking to us with words of comfort and encouragement. To listen to how God may be speaking to us with words of challenge and pushing us to new ministries of justice and care.
Presbyterians believe very strongly that God’s Spirit will guide us when we listen together. When we pray and ask God to guide us. When we carefully listen to God’s Word and to the voices of others around the table who are also listening carefully to God’s Word.
And that gives me hope for the future of First Church and for the future of God’s mission of love in the world. We are most definitely not alone. Let’s remember that as we listen together and follow where God is leading us next.