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Bread for the Journey 

A sermon by Dr. Randy Ashcraft
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
July 8, 2012

1 Kings 19:1-9

I lifted this walking stick this morning from the Pastor’s office.  I don’t think that he will mind as he has about fifteen or twenty of these things in his office.  I don’t know if he’s planning a long journey or not, but he has the staff to be able to make a journey. 

I brought it with me because a few weeks ago, I held one of these in my hand and used it to steady myself when a group of friends traveled for three days on the Appalachian Trail.  We walked between the Lodges, which is not necessarily roughing it, but we had a great time.  And I love hiking on the trail.  I love the experience of being in places that you would not normally see unless you make the effort to travel into these normally obscure locations.  I like the journey.  I like the preparation.  The getting ready.  Laying things out that will go in the pack.  Food, clothes, shoes.

But I have a proclivity to put too many things in my pack.  I always think that when I hold an item in my hand that it is very light and it is, basically, by itself, but when you lump many things together in a small pack, it can get heavy in a hurry. 

On this particular trip, I had thought about other trips and I hopefully had learned some lessons.  But I thought I want some unique things for this hike and so I was thinking if you are up in a high place and you are gazing out across the vastness of the Shenandoah Valley, what do you need?  And I thought well you need a stereo system.  You need sound.  You need to be able to listen to tunes that bring to mind for you wonderful places and so I packed a small set of stereo speakers that would plug into my I-Pod and then I thought well I need my cellphone, and then I thought well I need a change of shoes when I get to the place where we will spend the night. So I added a pair of shoes and some extra clothes and some beef jerky and some trail mix and Gatorade and water and pretty soon, I had a very, very heavy pack, heavier than one should take on a “day hike.” 

About the time we were leaving, I thought there is something missing.  I’m up in a high place.  I’m sitting on a rock. I’m listening to great music. Maybe the soundtrack from the movie, “The Mission,” with the grandeur of that and what do I need?  I need a cup of coffee.  And so I remembered that Big Meadows and Skyland Lodge sell Starbucks Coffee and so I got a thermos and I put the thermos in the pack. 

And so now I am fully prepared.  I’ve got stereo, I’ve got the right shoes, I’ve got the right clothes, and I’ve even got a hot cup of coffee.  Now the pack is way over the weight limit.  But nonetheless, I took it on the hike. 

I don’t why I didn’t learn the lesson the first time.  My first experience on the trail was several years ago when I went with a group from my church in Tampa, Florida.  Went with a younger group, college students.  They were strong like bulls and they could carry a lot of weight so I kept asking, “How heavy should the pack be?” And they said, “Oh, we don’t know, Dr. Ashcraft.  It could be 60-70 pounds; that wouldn’t be too much.” 

And so I kept adding things into my pack.  I put a couple of cans of peaches because someone said that would be good.  True.  Summer sausage.  More than two.  A lot of clothes, a lot of heavy stuff. But here’s the kicker. I’d always imagined on my first hike on the AT that when we got to the top of the mountain, we would built a campfire and then in that campfire, I would take out what I learned to fix as a young Cub Scout, something called a cowboy dinner. 

I grew up in Texas and I read about this in a magazine.  A cowboy dinner – pieces of meat, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, celery, whatever you want to put in it, and you chop all these ingredients and you put then in tinfoil.  You wrap it with about three pieces.  You put it in the freezer and then when you get to your location, you take it out and you put it in the campfire, then you tear open the tinfoil, and you have a ready-made hot stew.  What I didn’t know was that once I got this concoction prepared, it would weigh about 10 pounds.  And every step of the way up that 2700 foot ascent, over 6.2 miles, I thought to myself, “Throw away the cowboy dinner. You don’t need it.” 

But that was not the only thing I didn’t need. I carried things I thought would help me on my journey but I did not carry other things that I truly needed.  And I ‘m still not sure after a few weeks ago in that hike, I’m still not sure I have learned the lesson of what is necessary on this journey and what is not necessary on this journey. 

To be sure, Elijah, who we heard about this morning in the story from First Kings, is on a tumultuous journey.  He has signed on to be a prophet, and he has done his job faithfully.  He has assumed the task of speaking the truth to power and at times, it has come close to costing him his life. 

In the 19th Chapter of First Kings, Elijah has just come from a showdown on Mount Carmel where it is the one God, the Yahweh God, or as Karen Armstrong calls it in her book, The God Alone, the Yahweh God alone, is the one who is saying, “We are chasing after gods who will not help us.”

We’re tending to gods who ultimately do not have our best interests at heart.  We have the opportunity to worship the one true God and so there is an historical movement going on in this particular story line in scripture where the Israelites are moving from a multi-faceted approach to understanding God to a singular understanding of who God is.  And in this particular battle at Mount Carmel, there is victory for the one true God.  It is a moment of truth celebration.  And adulation. 

What do you do after you have won a big battle?  What happens when you have victory?  When the medals are hung around your neck and when someone declares that you are the winner, you sit down and you relax and you enjoy the adulation that is coming to you.  You have a celebration.  You pop some bubbly and everyone is patting you on the back and explaining what a wonderful job you have done but not so with Elijah.  Immediately  after this victory, he is running for his life. 

Ahab, the King of Israel’s wife, Jezebel, has determined that she is not happy.  She is a woman scorned because she is fond of the gods, of the priests of Baal.  She has brought them to the kingdom and so now she is angry, she is embarrassed, and she wonders whether or not her very life will be taken and so she sends out the word that “I will have the head of Elijah.” 

And so in fear, he runs and he hides and he explains, “This is the end of the journey.”  Life as Elijah knew it was coming to an end. 

So we find Elijah under a broom tree.  Seventy-five miles south of Beersheba.  He lies down and he gives up, basically.  He explains that he would rather be dead than have to live like this. 

It is a tribute to exhaustion and despair and disappointment. It is an example of what happens when we get burned out and tired.  But primarily, this burnout that is experienced by Elijah is brought on by lack of meaning, which also brings our burnout to fruition.  He’s not so tired.  He hasn’t run that far.  He has exhausted truly a great deal of emotional and spiritual energy in the battle with the God, with the priests of Baal, but this is not the reason why he has given up.  Life has lost its meaning. 

This God that he trusted in, this God that he hoped would deliver him, has now disappointed him.  The God that he thought would bring reward to his life has only brought heartache and pain and now he is literally running for his life and my sense is, he simply got to a point where he said, “I don’t understand what it means to follow this God.  I’m not happy about it.  Beyond that, I am depressed.  I have nothing else to give.  I just want my life to be over.” 

I don’t think Elijah is the only person who has found himself in this position.  In fact, I am certain of it.  I know that he’s not the only person who has been thought to have high spiritual impact who has been in this situation. 

Maybe some of you remember a few years ago, Time magazine ran an article about the life of Mother Teresa.  Mother Teresa as you know in the 1950’s went to India to live in the midst of squalor and poverty, bringing people into her home, caring for them, people who were dying, terminally ill.  She knew they would not get better yet she gave her life on the streets of Calcutta for this ministry. 

She has been lauded all of these years, even in her death, as a person who was in touch with God, was spiritually connected to God, and gained her power and her strength from God.  So we were all a bit shocked, even disturbed, when we read excerpts from her diary.  Posthumously, these words were printed, never before seen.  And what we were surprised by were words like dryness and darkness and loneliness.  Even describing her life as torturous. 

She talked about her own private despair. About the disconnect between her real life and her spiritual life.   She talked about this being like living in hell and she wrote these words, “The smile that you see is merely a mask that cloaks over everything.  It is an exterior example of something that does not exist in my interior life. If you were to be close to me,” she said, “what you would find is hypocrisy.” 

And so when I read those words, I did not want to hear them because I thought that she had found something that the rest of us might have missed.  But what she really found and what she really shared was out of the honesty that brings all of us sooner or later to a place where we think that life is coming to a close. 

Louie L’Amour,  the famous Western writer, said that “just about the time that we believe that everything is finished, that,” he said, “is the real beginning.”  I’ve heard those words. I’ve leaned into that truth, but I’m not sure that I really believe it.  Because the end just simply feels like the end.  We get burned out.  The world tells us that we can’t change, or that we need to continue doing exactly what we have been doing.  Yet we know that it’s not true.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology is known for brilliant, high energy, high impact students.  A few years ago, a piece was printed and it was an example of how you should treat burnout.  A healthy example and then the way that a MIT student might treat it.  This is not a diatribe against MIT.  It could be said for any place that demands more than what someone is capable of giving.  But I thought I might share a few of these with you this morning just in the sense that perhaps it might ring true for you in what you think about your own life. 

The healthy statement is:  Stop denying.  Listen to the wisdom of your body.  Begin to freely admit the stresses and pressures which have manifested physically, mentally, or emotionally. The MIT view:  Work until the physical pain forces you into unconsciousness. 

Avoid isolation.  Don’t do everything alone.  Develop or renew intimacies with friends and loved ones.  Closeness not only brings new insights but also is anathema to agitation and depression.  MIT view:  Shut your office door.  Lock it from the inside so no one will distract you.  They are just trying to hurt your productivity. 

Change your circumstances if your job, relationship, a situation or person, is dragging you under, try to alter your circumstances or if necessary, leave.  MIT view: If you feel something is dragging you down, suppress these thoughts.  This is weakness. Drink more coffee. 

Learn to pace yourself.  Try to take life in moderation.  You only have so much energy available. Ascertain what is wanted and needed in your life.  Then begin to balance work with love, pleasure with relaxation.  MIT view:  A balanced life is a myth perpetuated by liberal arts schools.  Don’t be a fool.  The only thing that matters is work and productivity. 

And finally, take care of your body. Don’t skip meals, abuse yourself with rigid diets, disregard your need for sleep, or break doctor’s appointments.  Take care of yourself nutritionally.  MIT view: Your body serves your mind.  Your mind serves the Institute.  Push the mind and the body will follow.  Drink more Mountain Dew. 

Well, we laugh but we push and we lose meaning and we carry with us on this journey the wrong things.  And then we wonder why it might be that we get to a place where we say, “I just don’t feel close to God anymore.  I don’t feel connected like I used to. I wonder if God really cares about where I am and what I’m doing.” 

You see, it is no made up story that we are reading this morning in First Kings.  I think this story is placed here for the appropriate reason.  And that reason is this:  We all will face a time when we want to sit under our own individual broom trees and say, “Enough is enough.”  We might still go through the motions.  We might find ourselves even in church reading the Bible, saying things to people that we don’t really believe, and hoping that one day we will feel differently. But the truth is, we will all have those broom tree moments.

We could be critical of Elijah as some authors are and some ministers have been.  That he didn’t take care of the real business of his life, but nonetheless, if we are honest we will know that even with our best efforts and energies, even with all of the attentiveness that we may give to our spiritual lives, we may be exactly as we heard in the words of Mother Teresa, at those points where even though we cannot share it with anyone, we are struggling in our faith and we are struggling to make connection with God.  And we want to have a better relationship.  We want to sense the energy and commitment and excitement perhaps that we once did.  And, yes, it is important to put the right things in the pack.  What Elijah received was rest, replenishment, eating the right kinds of nourishing things.  I mean that metaphorically and figuratively.  Needing to sense the spiritual opportunities that were around him and he was refocused on a new task and so he understood that God was not finished with him yet.  And there was more to be accomplished. Even though he thought that it was over, there was a brighter calling in the future. 

That’s a gift that God gives to us.  And so we need each other.  We need community.  We do need the opportunity for solitude where we are able to listen to God.  We need community.  We need a vision, something to put our hands to work doing that is beyond ourselves.  But mostly, we need to rest in the trust and the goodness that we hear in the scriptures that are, these things that are offered to each of us this morning.

My cousin Ron lives in Houston, Texas.  He’s an attorney and a good one.  He married Sue 45 years ago, maybe longer.  Wonderful life together, raised two beautiful daughters, grandchildren.  Sue felt late in life as if God was calling her to the ministry so she went to Seminary and she became an Episcopal priest.  

Ron and Sue moved to New York City.  Ron was asked to open a law practice with Rudy Giuliane as part of a merger of his law firm in Houston and so they moved to New York, had a beautiful apartment in Manhattan, amazing view and opportunity for him.  They’d been there about 10 months when Sue had a reoccurring experience with breast cancer.  Sensing that this was more serious than her first bout, she determined she wanted to go home.  She wanted to go to Houston so they moved back to Houston and it was just a few months after that that Sue succumbed to this hideous disease and she died of cancer.

Ron has always been a studious, a rational, tough individual. He is no pushover as many have found.  But I called him several weeks after Sue died, after the initial funeral, and I said, “How are you doing?” and he said, “I am not doing that well.” 

And I said, “Well, what do you mean?”  And he said, “I just want to go on, too.”  He was 62 at the time.  He said, “I just want to go on.” 

I said, “Ron, you can’t be serious.”  He said, “I am serious.  Serious as I’ve ever been.  I don’t know how I’m going to move to the next step.” 

I called him a few months later. Similar.

Called him a few months later.  And there was a difference in his voice. 

I said, “Something’s going on.” 

He said, “Well, since you’re a minister, I can tell you this.”  He said, “You know that I am not prone to mysticism and I am not a pietistic person and I believe in God and I was, you know, I was baptized, but you know me, Randy, I’m pretty suspicious of many things that happen in the religious world. But,” he said, “I wandered up to the church, to Sue’s church, on a Monday night to a spirituality meeting where people were talking about spiritual practices . I was at a punchbowl at a break and this woman came up to me and she said, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘I’m not doing very well.’ 

Told her his story and she said, “Well, have you had opportunity to pray?” And he said, “I don’t really believe much in prayer anymore.”

He said, “I’m disappointed in God.” 

And she said this, the most amazing thing, she said, “Well, would you mind and would you give me permission to believe for you this week?  Could I be the conduit through which you believe in this week?” 

And Ron said, “Whatever floats your boat.  If that will help you, that will be fine.” 

He said on Wednesday of that week, he hated to admit it but he said, “I felt a little different.  A fog began to lift for me.”  He said, “Some of my friends had been encouraging me to call this woman named Linda. Her husband had been an NFL football player in Houston and he had recently died.” 

And he said, “I was about as interested in that as I was in life. I just had no interest in calling her.” 

But he said, “Something about that Wednesday caused me to pick up the phone and I made the phone call” and then he made another phone call and then a friendship developed and then a relationship developed and then a courtship and then love sprung forth and then a wedding and the happy news this morning is that Ron and Linda are living in Houston and meshing their two families and he off on a journey and on a path that he could never have imagined.  Now, I tell you that story this morning not to be Pollyannaish about it or to suggest that everyone always has that outcome. 

I’m sharing that story with you because it’s a real story about a real person and about a real circumstance where life sprung from death.  And the other thing I am saying this morning is that is the message of Elijah.  When you want to sit down and die under a broom tree, there might be something else to consider.  Put the right things in your pack. 

 

—Randy Ashcraft 2012

 
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