When I was working full-time in youth ministry, I used this text next to a camp fire. What are you doing here? To be fair, after all these years I don’t really remember if the question was about what they were doing in that particular moment around that camp fire or what they were going to do with this one life they were given, the kind of existential question that those in their 20s ask 13-year-olds. It turns out that it could also be translated into “Why are you here?” which is a fairly solid question. Why have you come here? What do you expect?
We could have asked: How did we get here? How did Elijah get to this place, this time, this mountain?
We need to take a couple of steps back. Last week Solomon built the temple. Things went well more or less, depending on who you were, if you had means and wealth. That’s not really the point. Solomon dies, his son takes over, the 10 northern tribes rebel and form a new kingdom. The southern kingdom is Judah–its capital city is Jerusalem. The northern kingdom is Israel. It has its own king, capital, temples. Their kings were not from the line of David and the Biblical authors thought every last one of them was trash.
In about 850-ishes, we find Israel being ruled over by Ahab. Ahab was the king but the only one that people really care about, to this day, is his wife, Jezebel. So much so that I couldn’t find more than a couple of images of him–Jezebel has a lot. She was a Canaanite princess, this was a political marriage that would have helped Ahab acquire more power. And, Jezebel seems to have been a force of her own–determined, committed, uncompromising, faithful to her people. She was a woman who strove to make her own mark in the political world and that is why generations have called her evil. I have this quiet goal of redeeming the women of the Bible who have been given a bad wrap. She also brought her gods and worship with her and the worship of Ba’al was part of the life of Israel. Jezebel had 450 prophets who were her closest advisors. The last things are what brought her the ire of the prophet Elijah. God would call judges and prophets to speak truth to the powerful, to call them to task, to call them back to God, to begin a reformation among the people.
That is what Elijah had been doing. Elijah had said there would be 3 years of famine until they repent. There was, they still didn’t. Things had taken a turn just before our reading for today. Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Ba’al to a competition of the god. The prophets of Ba’al, and Elijah, would sacrifice and animal on an altar on Mount Carmel. Then the prophets, and Elijah, would pray to their respective gods and see which God accepted the sacrifice by raining down fire. The prophets prayed from sunrise to noon. Nothing. Elijah is in no hurry, he just waits and then he started taunting them. “Maybe your god is off somewhere. Maybe he can’t hear you, pray louder! Maybe he’s on the toilet!”
To add insult to injury, in the afternoon he digs a trench and covers the sacrifice to his God in water. He says the simplest of prayers and…
Fire. It consumes the sacrifice, the water, the other sacrifice. Elijah won. He just proved his God is real and their god is, at best, ignoring them for bodily function but at worst, not real. Elijah is zealous–full of zeal, committed and pursuing his cause, convinced of his right-ness.. and has the 450 prophets of Ba’al killed. And that is why Jezebel wants him dead.
I’m not sure what Elijah thought would happen. And when he heard what was to come, he ran. It’s possible he thought that this whole situation, this winning, this undeniable proof of his God would change the course of his home, would convince the leaders to follow the goodness and worship of the God who lead them out of Egypt, who showed up in fire from heaven, and fire in bushes. It didn’t. Nothing changed. He just took off. He walked and he walked until exhaustion, he settled under a broom tree. He was tired, he felt hopeless, he felt alone. He didn’t think he could go on, or that there was any value in going on.
And the strangest thing happens. God shows up, in the middle of nowhere and offers Elijah some food and drink and everything that Elijah would need to get up and get to the next place. Just enough of what he would need to continue his journey because the journey was going to be too much if Elijah tried to do it on his own, or tried to make it on his own strength alone.
You might know what it’s like to for from winning to sitting beneath your own broom tree, wishing for death–whether that was sudden or took years. Sometimes it is spiritual which 16th-century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. It might be emotional or mental darkness.
I think the church, in general, has had a hard time with mental illness. I think we look at the stories of Jesus healings, of removing demons and calming the “ravings” of people and think “that could be mental illness” and think “there is a demon that must be freed.” I think there is a lot of bad theology of mental illness. Sometimes it tells you that God will not give you more than you can handle or handle on your own. Sometimes it tells you that you just need to pray hard, or be radically healed, or it is a result of your own sin. If you have ever sat beneath your own broom tree, you might know how dangerous these ideas can be. It isn’t that God isn’t there, and it isn’t that sometimes sadness can be prayer, or as Joy Clarkson put it: “This is your Gengle reminder that one time in the Bible Elijah was like “God, I’m so mad! I want to die!” so God said “here’s some food. Why don’t you have a nap?” So Elijah slept, ate, and decided things weren’t so bad. Never underestimate the spiritual power of a nap and a snack.”
Sometimes it takes more than a nap and a snack. Sometimes our coping mechanisms are snacks and naps–lots of them. Those are mine–chocolate snacks. bakery snacks. and we don’t judge each other, or ourselves, for the things we do to get through each day.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four Americans is affected by a diagnosed mental health disorder every year. You might say you’ve been affected this year and not next. That doesn’t include the loved ones who are affected by their loved one’s mental health. And bad theology might tell you to pray harder. And bad theology might shame you. Because bad theology and mental illness tell the same lies: the lie of mental illness and depression and anxiety and deep grief and sadness and anger is that it tells you that you are alone. That no one will understand, that you can’t say anything or tell anyone or they won’t care.
You are not alone. You are not alone.
There is no shame in getting help, when you are able to ask for help. There is no shame in medications if that is what you need. There is no shame in caring for yourself.
So, if the church is going to be anything, it ought to be a place for the broken and the healing, for those who try their hardest and those who still fail, for those filled with compassion, and those who can’t even find kindness for themselves, a place for the sinners and the saints, the sinners who are saints. Then the church is a place where we can be honest with our struggles, about our darkness, about our depression or anxieties or addictions.
The church is a place where we come alongside and underneath the broom tree, where we show up and we ask how we can help. To accept each other in love and compassion and not be judgemental and call the beloved. It’s where we start a fire and bake a little bread. It is where we show up for each other and carry the hope when folks can’t find it on their own. It is where we do what we can to offer the strength and the courage that is needed to take the next steps in the journey of healing and whatever ways they need to be taken because the way, the journey is too much on our own.
And so again, I want to remind you that you are not alone, and there are resources for you, there is support for you. There is a community to rise up and be with you, open to your honest experiences. There are professional services, psychologists, therapists, counselors, medication, groups, hotlines. There is no shame and we will celebrate with you for taking that step.
God told Elijah to eat cause the journey was too much to do on his own and sometimes our journeys are too much to do on our own and that is when we come alongside each other, in a moment of support in a moment of love and compassion. In a moment where we might Offer courage and strength for the journey and not have to take it alone.
The Bible is full of trees, and sometimes folks sit beneath them. Micah says they will sit beneath their own fig tree and not be afraid and sometimes we’re like that, in comfort and with enough. And sometimes we sit under the leafy plant like Jonah pissed off and bitter about God and the world. And sometimes we sit under our broom tree exhausted and longing for death. You are not alone. God is showing up on the way and where we are going, under the tree and on the mountain. God might show up in a friend’s phone call, or message, or at our dorm room or home. So may the church, may this community, may each one of us be a safe place of hope and courage for those who don’t feel they can keep going, who can’t make the journey they’re traveling on their own. And may this be your reminder that you are not alone.