Monday, August 10, 2015

The Sunday Sermon: Strength for the Journey

The call came on Ash Wednesday, a decade or more ago. I was in the sacristy, preparing for the noon service, when, most unusually, the secretary buzzed me from the office. An emergency call from a parishioner, bringing the news of a death. A well-known local musician, not a member of the church but a friend of the church, the artistic director of a small professional orchestra, someone I greatly admired, had been found dead at a scenic lookout in the Shenandoah mountains. All indications pointed to suicide.

The community was in shock. There was sadness, disbelief, denial, anger. A number of people simply refused to believe it was suicide. He seemed quite happy. He had lots of friends. If he was depressed, why didn't he talk to us? What did we do wrong? He lived in this lovely little town and got to make beautiful music. Some terrible person must have done this to him. And so on.

This was a man who was brilliant and also probably bi-polar. He was alone, living on a shoestring budget in below-par housing in the midst of an extremely affluent community. He was gay and closeted. He was devoted to the performance and interpretation of great classical music. But he was at the beck and call of wealthy patrons who hired him to play pop music at their cocktail parties. He was passionately opposed to the political climate of the time but couldn't voice his opposition for fear of losing support for the orchestra. It made perfect and tragic sense to me that in the midst of a severe depressive episode he could see no way out except death.

Such is the power of this awful disease of depression. It can take someone who is brilliant, accomplished, engaged in transformative work, and convince them that they are worthless, that the world will be better off without them. That's where we find the prophet Elijah this morning.

Here's the backstory, from the first book of the Kings. Ahab has taken the throne in Israel. His wife, Jezebel, is a foreigner and a worshipper of the false god Baal, whom Ahab, definitely the weaker of the two, also honors. Ahab and Jezebel are guilty of abominable practices such as child sacrifice and the massacre of the priests of Israel's true God. During a devastating famine God calls Elijah to go and ask a poor widow for food. She shares the last of her food with him and the grain and oil are miraculously refilled for many days. When the widow's only son dies, Elijah restores the boy to life.

With his credentials as a prophet established, God next sends Elijah to confront King Ahab. He challenges the priests of Baal to a competition: whose God will miraculously ignite the sacrificial fire? There follows quite a humorous account of the 400 priests of Baal doing their limping dance around the altar, hour after hour, cutting themselves and uttering incantations, all to no avail. Elijah then has the altar and its fuel soaked in water and he successfully calls down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Then he successfully calls down rain on the parched land. In the moment of triumph, Elijah has the priests of Baal put to death, and Queen Jezebel is enraged. She threatens Elijah with death and he flees into the desert. This is where we catch up with him today.

Elijah has done great things. He has proved his power as a prophet and has been faithful to God. And yet now he wants to die. It seems a likely case of deep and potentially deadly depression, undoubtedly brought on by the multiple traumas of seeing his colleagues massacred, of facing down dangerous opposition, of participating himself in atrocities, and of being threatened with murder by the highest powers in the land. Today we might diagnose Elijah with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When I visited Israel in April our group heard from a rabbi who works to bring healing to an entire nation suffering from PTSD. Israel's entire history has ben a traumatic one. Civil war inflicts particularly deep wounds on a people, as they injure and are injured by their close neighbors and even family members. The symptoms of PTSD include a hair-trigger temper, overreaction to minor incidents, sadness, feelings of worthlessness, hyper-vigilance, and ongoing anxiety and fear. That fear and anxiety prompts aggressive behavior, and the cycle of violence is perpetuated. For some people like Elijah, the violence turns inward and can result in self-harm or suicide. For others, like Jezebel, the violence is directed against others.

This weekend marks the anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the surge of protests and increased visibility around the treatment of people of color by the law enforcement community across the nation. I am currently reading a book that documents the stories of several African-Americans who migrated early in the last century from the South, with its institutionalized racism, to other parts of the United States. Its title is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is painful to read of the abuse they routinely endured and which they sought to escape by going north or west. Large portions of the population of this country live with traumatic memories and still endure daily abuse and oppression. Every time we fail to recognize another human being as a child of God, worthy of dignity and hope, we participate in that oppression, and we add to the national burden of depression and self-injury.

And, if you can take one more somber reference, this week also saw the 70th anniversary of the atom bombing of Hiroshima. A poem by Togi Sankichi, a survivor of the attack, expresses the mindset of one who has experienced extraordinary personal and national trauma. Here's an excerpt, which some of you may recognize from Karl Jenkins' work The Armed Man, a Mass for Peace:

Pushing up through smoke
From a world half-darkened
By overhanging cloud -
The shroud that mushroomed out
And struck the dome of the sky
Black, Red, Blue -
Dance in the air,
Scatter glittering sparks,
Already tower
Over the whole city.

Quivering like seaweed, the mass of flames spurts forward.
Popping up in the dense smoke,
Crawling out
Wreathed in fire:
Countless human beings
On all fours.
In a heap of embers that erupt and subside,
Hair rent,
Rigid in death,
There smoulders a curse.
            Togi Sankichi, 1921-1953

Our forum speaker last week echoed the Jerusalem rabbi in saying that peace will never take root in the Middle East until the people pursue healing from the traumas of the past. So that begs the question: what about healing? Where is the good news in today's Scripture for us, in the face of all this trauma? How does Elijah experience healing, and what does our loving God offer us?

In my own blessedly limited experience of depression, the basic symptom is the lack of hope. When I was depressed after the end of my marriage and the death of my husband, I lost my lifelong ability to look forward. I was unable to plan constructively because the future didn't seem hopeful. I believed that I wasn't capable of the next thing, that my career was over, that my vocation was no longer useful. I started to think a lot about retirement, and I couldn't see the possibilities that lay before me. The greatest sign of healing was when I started once again to dream, to imagine something new, to feel energized by the possibility of an adventure, such as a move across the country or a position in a very different church. The gift of hope was restored, and I was able, with the help of God, with the embrace and love of good friends, and with appropriate medication, to climb out of that dark pit and set forth on the road again.

Elijah is woken from his death-sleep by an angel, who touches him and speaks to him. That touch is crucial. Elijah has been alone. He has been ready to die for lack of supportive relationships. But now his existence is acknowledged with a touch. And the angel speaks, offering him food - the very same food the widow once shared with him and that miraculously sustained them both. The gift he had offered returns to him, as a reminder of the life-giving ministry he himself has offered. It takes a couple of meals to restore him sufficiently for the journey ahead: the repetition assures him that the supply will not fail; he can trust in God to provide for him. And so it proves; he endures for the proverbial 40 days and nights, strengthened by the bread of angels, just enough to get him back to the work God calls him to do.

Any of us might be brought low by the threat or reality of violence, by the challenges of ministry, by the abusive structures of our world. Depression is real and it is dangerous. But our God is the God of life, not of death. Our God offers hope when we are despairing, light when we are in darkness, divine nourishment when we are starving. God's word, the sacraments, the fellowship of the Church, all of these touch us with the reality of God's loving presence and give us the strength to continue on the path, to do the work God has given us to do. And we should not overlook the possibility that we might be called to be angels, to offer to others that touch of hope, that morsel of bread from heaven, that word of encouragement. The Psalm offers us words with which to praise the God who stays with us, who feeds us, who brings us back to life. "O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him."

The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
9 August 2015

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