I Kings 19:4-9a
As we move through these weeks of Lent, I’m using my sermons to explore spiritual practices that can help us in these tumultuous and uncertain days—and more and more I’m finding that all days are tumultuous and uncertain.
Last Sunday we considered together the practice of repentance—living with a recognition that we are finite and fallible, that we miss the mark and go down a lot of dead ends and often need to turn in a new direction. Repentance is a traditional activity during Lent—or at least it is traditional in these days for people like me to call people to repent—to turn from all that separates us from God and one another, turning toward renewed relationships with God, with each other, even with creation. Whether you take advantage of that call or not is up to you.
This morning offers us a practice that is a little different—and perhaps unexpected—resilience: springing back; keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting reversals as normal; refusing to frighten others with one’s own fears; and remembering that human nature is, in the end, reassuringly tough.
We can see signs of resilience all around us.
In these late winter days nature itself shows a reassuring toughness. We still see the bald eagles soaring over the river—those majestic birds that have come back after being endangered. And on a smaller, gentler note, this past Wednesday I saw the daffodils beginning to push themselves up and out of the thawing ground once more. Perhaps you saw them on your way in this morning—and if not, maybe you’ll look for them as you leave. Resilience!
The political world gives us intimations of resilience whether we see it in Joe Biden’s reversal of fortune over the past week, becoming the Democratic frontrunner after being down for the count or in the current president’s astonishing ability to spring back from scandal and incompetence and impeachment to stay in power. Resilience!—although, again, sometimes the practice of repentance might also be appropriate.
Resilience is a choice. It’s said that unlike positive thinking, self-compassion, or gratitude—which can all be developed when things are going good or going bad —we need challenges in our life to develop resilience. You have to get knocked down in order to learn how to pick yourself back up.[i]
This makes resilience a practice that all of us have the opportunity to develop!
After all, every one of us here today has known some difficult times. You are familiar with those shadow times when you weren’t sure how you would make it through: a job loss, severe illness, the death of a loved one, difficult decisions. Maybe you are enduring such a time in these days. Certainly, there is much that would make us want to stop, to give up. When things go wrong, sorrow or regret or anger takes possession of our minds and drives away consolation and confidence.
At just such times, we can practice resilience.
Contemporary psychologist tell us that we develop resilience through actions such as seeing failure as more of an opportunity than a threat, recognizing that your struggle is valid, staying connected and not going it alone, taking care of yourself, and remaining hopeful.
In doing so, they echo the ancient wisdom that we heard from Paul and encountered in that story about Elijah.
When Paul writes to that early Christian congregation in Rome, he recognizes that we are broken human beings, each of us hurting and being hurt.
Paul recognizes that we are sinful men and women, each of us caught up doing the very things we don't want to do—and not doing the good we desire.
Paul is not afraid to focus our attention on the lowest points of life. He reminds the Romans—and he reminds us—of times when we have sighed and groaned with bitterness, when God seemed nowhere to be found—or absent. In just such times, Paul says, we are reminded of the sustaining love of God. This faith affirms our struggle, calls forth our resilience, and helps us to move through the darkness.
Paul writes about “persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger and sword”—all very real threats to our well‑being. I’m sure you can think of others. But these threats do not mean our defeat. John Calvin put it this way: “Though clouds obscure the clear view of the sun, they do not entirely deprive us of its light. So, in our adversity, the rays of God’s grace shine through darkness so that we need not give in to despair.”
God’s mercy, the prophet affirms, is fresh every morning, as sure as the sunrise. God’s desire is that we would be fully alive, fully in contact with all that gives life. We will always struggle with evil, we will always be tempted to give in and give up, for that is a part of living.
But, as Paul reminds us, we are not alone in our struggles. We are not alone in our despair. God is for us. Even in adversity, even in failure, we can still attempt great things, we can still pursue excellence in all that we do.
The witness of scripture reminds us of the power of God to sustain us in our weakness, in our despair so that rather than giving up, we might know resilience and keep going, finding what is both tough and encouraging.
One of my favorite reminders is in that story of Elijah.
Elijah has defeated a group of false prophets and for his effort he finds his own life threatened. What’s the expression? No good deed goes unpunished.
So, Elijah flees into the wilderness.
We encounter him, sitting underneath a broom tree.
Look at Elijah: God’s prophet—worn out, pursued by enemies. He sits down and prays: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”
We’ve been tired like that—each one of us. We would like to rest or maybe just quit.
And how does God respond? Not by taking Elijah out of danger. Not by suddenly making everything alright. Not even by letting Elijah get a good night’s sleep.
God responds—well, a lot like God, who never seems to let anyone off easily. So Anne Lamott can say: “When God is doing something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is doing something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”
In this way God calls forth our resilience. God doesn’t let Elijah off that easily—and God doesn’t let us off that easily—because that’s just how God is.
Developing the ability to keep going, God tells Elijah “Get up,” God tells him. “Get up and eat and drink.” This is the God who feeds our deepest hunger, the God who sustains us in our weariness.
We want to quit. God says, “Have a sandwich.”
“Taste and see,” the psalmist tells us, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Enjoy every good thing. That’s not the usual message for Lent when we are told to forgo pleasure, to give up. But God
Elijah isn’t fed so that he can be full and comfortable. He is given sustenance so that he can move forward.
We are not nourished to grow fat. We are not given strength to become musclebound. God’s gifts have a purpose. As we find those gifts in our lives and in this congregation we are called to use them to announce good news to the world.
The dorm room poster tells us: “When you come to the end of your rope—tie a knot and hang on.” The story of Elijah reminds us that when we’ve reached the end of our rope—even when our strength for holding on is gone—in love for us, the Sovereign God does not let go.
This is the message that comes to us today: Do not give in. Do not give up.
Your life and what you do with it, how each of us lives in the years we have—all of this is of great and lasting significance.
This is the encouragement of the good news: Do not give up. Do not quit the good and valuable work that you are doing.
What you are doing here matters.
As we develop resilience in our individual lives, we find it growing in our life together as well.
Ted Kooser, one-time Poet Laureate of the United States, wrote a poem that speaks to our collective desire to persevere. It is called “Mourners.” In just nine lines, Kooser tells of people coming together to mourn the death of a friend.
They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
but now they keep saying hello and hello,
peering into each other’s faces,
slow to let go of each other’s hands.
Resilience stems from hardship, and perhaps loss, but it is rooted in a desire to continue to survive, even thrive, and it is even better when that survival is nurtured by the collective support of others.
As we practice and develop resilience, we make room for God to accomplish in and through us far more than we can ask or imagine.
We spring back as we recall the hope to which God has called us. Yes, it is the hope of the resurrection and this is not simply an otherworldly hope for an afterlife. God calls us to a hope that can see beyond the shadows and the resistance that we sometimes encounter. Because we can see by hope resurrection beyond death, we can dare through that hope to act for the good even when confronted by all that disheartens and discourages.
You see, hope is that vision of the future that allows us to act in the present.
The challenges right now are great.
How will we as a nation spring back from a falling stock market, from an illness with a still unknown and uncertain trajectory, from leadership that seems adverse to reality and prefers wishful thinking?
How will we as individuals spring back from all the challenges and struggles that have struck us down?
We can choose to practice resilience and look beyond failure, beyond despair, beyond fear and death to what might be—and to start moving toward what we see.
It will take time, what scripture calls “forty days and forty nights”—a long time.
In these days the practice of resilience will open our eyes to the future so that we can think beyond the immediate present.
Spring back. God has not yet finished working in us and among us and through us.