Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxing legends of all time, once said, “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s the problem.”
Undoubtedly, there’s been a lot knocking us down of late. News of the worst mass shooting in modern history still rings in our ears, with all the unresolved anxiety and grief that goes along with it. Political campaigns throw insults and accusations like right hooks, exhausting us with 24-hour news cycles that always seem to bring out the very worst in human nature. And all of this in addition to our own personal tragedies and struggles that, although less headline worthy, are no less painful, no less real. Life has a way of throwing punches that can sometimes knock the wind out of us, threatening to send us down for the count.
Life certainly had a way of knocking the wind straight out of Elijah, too. In fact, things had gotten so bad for the prophet that he was writhing on the ground in despair under a solitary shrub tree. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life,” he cries, “for I am no better than my ancestors.” He was “on the ropes” so to speak; down, but not out.
In this exhausted state of despair, Elijah falls asleep, only to be awakened by an angel who encourages him, not once, but twice, “Get up and eat, Elijah, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” I wonder whether the angel might’ve added, “Ain’t nothing wrong with going down, Elijah. It’s staying down that’s the problem.”
This boxing proverb reminds me very much of a promise we make in our baptismal vows, which we will reaffirm today as we celebrate Leo’s baptism. (As an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone more excited to be baptized. Leo has been asking me persistently now for months, “When can I get baptized!?” Well, here on Father’s Day, we’ve finally figured it out Leo.) So, here in a few minutes, when you are asked “Will you, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” You will respond (wait for it), “I will, with God’s help.”
Whenever. Not if. Whenever you fall…will you return? Whenever you get knocked down…will you get up again?
After going down, notice how Elijah gets back up…it’s not by his own willpower or intellect, it’s through the ministry of angels, through the simple restorative things of life like sleep, food, and drink. Elijah, even being the great prophet he is, is not super-human, he is simply-human, and he gets back up with God’s help. Sleep, food, and drink – tending to the basic needs of the body. This is the simple sustenance Elijah needs to restore his depleted soul and continue on.
Our prophet is then again drawn away into the wilderness, even unto the mountain of God, Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai; the very same mountain where Moses had an encounter with the living God, and was given a way of life, the law, known as the Ten Commandments.
For all the cataclysmic events that took place on that mountain, we are reminded that God was not in the violent wind. God was not in the earthquake, nor was God in the fire. It makes me consider that perhaps in all the traumatic events of our own time, God was not in that violent rain of bullets in Orlando. God is not in the scathing political rhetoric we hear from parties of all political persuasions. God is not in the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”
For Elijah and for us, God is found primarily in the sound of sheer silence, not in the soundbite, suffering silently with those who have been killed, maimed, and terrorized. After the gunshots and screams and sirens fall silent, after the din of the crowd falls quiet…God is found in the silent aftermath of all the wreckage.
I can’t begin tell you all the many sermons I’ve written, but abandoned, in my head this past week. I can’t tell you of all the anger and impatience I’ve felt towards an imperfect political system that makes promises bigger than it can keep; where rigid ideologies (all across the political spectrum) prevent real change for the common good. At times it can seem as if this constant barrage of body blows can take its toll.
I cannot tell you how to cast your vote, what action to take, or how to pray hard enough to keep any of these blows at bay. But I can tell you that, even in the midst of great turmoil, Elijah found God in sheer silence…in the “still, small voice” as the King James Version puts it. Even in the midst of great violence and an evil king and queen making threats on his life, Elijah becomes still, rooted in the peace of God, which passes all understanding.
“Saints are just sinners who fall down,” the dessert fathers used to say. “They fall down, and they get up. They fall down, and they get up.”
May we, like Elijah, be among those who are not afraid to dream; to get some rest, get up again, and eat so we can continue on this journey. And remember, “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s the problem.”
You, who yearn for God in silence…When you fall, will you return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Proper 7c (2016)