So, I used to think that my father could fix anything.
Now that doesn’t mean that it would be back to the kind of shape that it was in the beginning, but it would mean that whatever it was that needed fixing would work again. As some of you know, I grew up on a pig farm about eight miles north of Dublin, off of Highway 441, and on that farm we had all manner of fencing to keep those hogs in. There were wide metal gates that crisscrossed in the middle held up by thick posts planted deep in the ground. Those would swing open wide enough to drive a truck or combine through. Then you quickly closed them again. There were fences made of wood . . . wood of many different sizes and shapes, patched and pieced together. There was fence made of wire, the kind with the square holes in it, fencing that came in a roll, that you would stretch from post to post. In my memory, none of that fencing is ever nice, new, and silver-looking. It is always already brown and rusted a bit.
And then there was the electric fence. That one could be fun if you had a friend over that didn’t know about electric fences! And it worked fairly well until a plant or stick touched that single thin wire carrying the electricity, grounding it. These pigs “possessed” a keen ability to know that the fence was no longer working. This meant that as soon as the escape was discovered, my father and I and whatever hired hand he had at the time found ourselves running through the fields, trying to close in on those hogs and chase them back in the fence. And in that moment, we were “possessed” by our frustration and maybe anger at chasing pigs, one more time.
All the time it seemed, we were working on those fences, my father and I pacing the perimeter, patching here and there, hammer and nails and pieces of wood or wire in hand. And you know, sometimes, that just wore you out . . . always patching, always fixing, always working. I don’t know that I ever heard my father say it out loud, but I wonder whether he wanted to sit back and be done. It seems like when he came home, it was for one of two reasons: to grab a bite to eat and drink, just enough and then to return to the fields or because the sun had finally gone down. He did not come home because the work was over, not because the work was finished.
When we read about the prophet Elijah in this passage from 1 Kings 19 this morning, it is as if Elijah is saying, “I just want this all to be over. I want it to be done. I’ve done all that I can do.” And we can understand that sentiment at times . . . when it seems like the work that we do is never-ending, even the work here in the church, even God’s work. And Elijah talks about how hard he has worked, what all he has done. He says to God, “I have been very zealous for you God; I have worked hard for you; but the people have forsaken your covenant, thrown down their altars, and killed your prophets; God, they know better because I have told them, but still they don’t worship you, they don’t want to hear you. And now God, it is just me and they want to kill me too . . . . I’m tired . . . . I’m worn out.” We have heard these words of utter desperation, words that let you know that Elijah just doesn’t think he will ever finish this job, words that let you know just how tired he is; Elijah says, “I can’t do this anymore. I wish that I would just die.”
It is a frightening thing to hear someone say. It shocks us to hear some of the folks in our lives who “have always been strong” . . . to say such a thing. It is frightening to us that sometimes we can get to feeling so tired, so empty, after giving all that we can that we find ourselves out in the wilderness as Elijah was . . . sitting under a tree called a broom tree, wishing we could sweep out all those feelings of tiredness . . . of just give-out-ness, of fearing that we are not enough. Sometimes we believe that our fathers can do anything, can fix anything. Or maybe . . . you are one of those people that believes that you can fix anything, do anything. You don’t have to be a father to have that belief . . . any of us, parent or not, can allow our own egos to think that whatever the challenge is, we can do it. Whatever the problem, there is a solution.
But then sometimes we all get to that place, no matter how righteous the cause for which we have worked, sooner or later, our energy is gone. And sometimes we just wish that it would all be over, . . . and that’s where Elijah is at the beginning of this passage. Elijah had worked hard, but still the people turned away. And maybe there was a little bit of Elijah’s own ego wrapped up in this, that he had the answers and he was the one to save them. Elijah had done what he was supposed to do, he had won great victories, but still . . . even then . . . it wasn’t over . . . he was once again fleeing for his life . . . afraid, . . . tired, so tired . . . just sitting under that broom tree.
It is this seeming failure, Elijah’s anger, and Elijah’s fear, these have driven him away from his home, away from his community, separating him from them. Strangely, this is the opposite of our gospel passage from Luke about the Gerasene demoniac. In Luke we read of a place where fear, fear of someone who is different, fear of someone who is ill, this fear has driven the community to set up a fence of a sort, barriers and bindings, to keep out of the community the one who is different from us.
You see, fear is the enemy of community. But this is not God’s way.
Because in this gospel passage, after this one is healed, even though this one known as the Gerasene demoniac asks to stay with Jesus, with the one who healed him, he is told by Jesus to go back, to go back to his community. And Elijah, after sitting under that broom tree, after eating the sustenance provided by this angel, he is told to meet God, not the God in the great wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in this difficult to translate “sheer silence.” And if you read further, you will find that God tells Elijah continue this journey, that there are thousands of followers of God that Elijah does not know, that he can find a partner in Elisha to continue the work. God tells Elijah that he is not alone. And isn’t that we all want to know? In our anger, in our hurt, in our loss, in our fear . . . we are not alone. You are not alone.
And as much as it was for the Gerasene demoniac, for Elijah this is a move toward community. This is walking away from the fear, toward each other. And things are not necessarily “fixed” in community, or maybe they just won’t be fixed in the way that we think they should, the way that keeps old divisions in place.
You see, I used to think that my father could fix anything . . . but then he came to a place where his body would not allow him to climb up and down on that tractor, no longer able to chase around those possessed pigs. And several years before he died, he spent time wandering around the farm, removing nails and boards, rolling up old wire, gradually taking down all of the old, rickety fencing that used to keep the pigs in their pens. There are times of effort in the life of faith, often times doing what we feel is God’s work for us at that time . . . and then there is also a time to remove old fences, to make peace with our anger and our fear, to loosen our own hold. There are times to remember that despite the fear, our own weaknesses, our humanity, we are not alone. You are not alone. And these are times to know that this blessed community is where we return. And maybe God even gives us a bite of bread and something to drink to help us get up . . . and on our way.