Last week I lost my watch. When I say that I lost my watch, I do not mean I misplaced my watch. I went for a walk, took the watch off while I was walking, and about an hour after my walk realized the watch was gone. I searched the path of my walk, I looked all over the church and our house, but the watch is gone. Now, truthfully, a watch is certainly replaceable, but this watch was sentimental – a gift from a special occasion that meant a lot to me. So, of course, ever since I lost my watch, I have been praying to St. Anthony. St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things. The prayer I learned, and have been praying for over a week is, “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around, something is lost that cannot be found.” Though I know the watch is most likely gone, I keep occasionally offering up the prayer with some desperate sense of hope.
We do funny things in our prayer lives, especially when things are not going our way. We have been known to bargain with God. “God, if you please just grant this one thing, I promise I will never blank again.” We have been known to try to negotiate with God. “I know that I am not perfect, God, but let me tell you about all the good I have done. Surely you can grant this one thing to your faithful servant.” And we have been known to rail at God. “How can you do this to me God? Haven’t I been through enough?!?” Sure, we know the Lord’s Prayer, and we may pray the daily office at home, and we may even pray with scripture, especially our favorite psalms. But when we are at our lowest, when we feel like we have tried everything we are supposed to say or do with God, sometimes our prayers simply reveal our broken, frustrated, desperate spirits.
This is the prayer that Elijah offers today. Elijah has already created quite the imposition on a poor widow. Elijah goes to the widow, a woman who is about to die of starvation, and asks her to feed and house him. Now, God takes care of the widow’s lack of food, but while Elijah is still there, the woman’s son almost dies of illness. The woman blames Elijah, and Elijah at first seems fairly composed as he asks for the boy. But when he retires to another room with boy, Elijah lets God have it. Elijah cries out to God in anger, rage, and despair.[i] “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Elijah does not come to God with a polite request that God heal the son. Elijah does not offer some traditional prayer of healing. Elijah simply cries out to God. He cries out to God for the injustice done to this poor widow – who is already clearly impoverished by having no husband. The death of an only son would mean certain death for her as well. Her son was her only hope for survival in this world.[ii] Elijah boldly accuses God of an injustice – in fact accuses God of killing this boy and all that he represents to the widow.
Some may hear in Elijah’s prayer a sense of self-interest. If he is proclaiming to be a man of God, and God then kills this woman’s only sense of hope, then the death makes Elijah look bad. Who wants to follow a prophet of a God who kills the downtrodden? Or, we might hear Elijah’s prayer as petulant. Perhaps he sounds like a man whining about fairness – something childish and narrow-minded. But I hear Elijah’s prayer as both fully human and as an honest portrayal of someone with an intimate relationship with God. In any intimate relationship, the overly polite ways of being with one another end eventually. In time, the only thing that works in that intimate relationship is being brutally and fully honest, holding one another to account and being totally open about the good and the bad of the relationship. This is what Elijah is doing here. Elijah, who knows God intimately, holds God to account. “Really, God? This is how you are going to treat people? You claim to care about the poor and oppressed, and you have forced me to impose on this poor widow, and now you are going to let her only son, her only source of potential security die??” Elijah does not ask this of God for himself or out of a sense of injustice. Elijah asks this of a God whom he knows to be better than this – a God who loves and cares for the poor and oppressed. And he also knows that God can do the impossible. Elijah knows that God can bring this child from death to life.
What I love about this passage is twofold. First, I love the very human, intimate depiction of prayer. As Episcopalians, with our reliance on our Prayer Book and our desire for beauty and intelligence when we talk to God, we can become so formal with God that we forget that we have a real relationship with God who can handle our real words. We can be brutally honest with God or even angry with God, and God will still love us. We can be vulnerable and frustrated and desperate with God. We can even come to God when we do not have words – when our emotions are so overwhelming that we no longer have anything left to say. Elijah gives us permission today to be fully ourselves with the God who loves us no matter what.
I also love that we get this passage today because today is our monthly healing service. Since I have been at St. Margaret’s, I have been regularly asked questions about our healing services. Our tradition of monthly healing services that began well before my time here still has many of us questioning. I have had adults ask me who they are allowed to ask prayers for – whether they can only ask for healing prayers for themselves or whether they can ask for healing for others as well. I have had some of our teens ask me what we are actually doing when we lay hands on people. Even my own daughter asked me why I made the sign of the cross on her forehead when she came forward once. Elijah points the way to answers for those questions today. By praying our litany of healing and by coming forward for ourselves and others, we proclaim several things. We proclaim that intimate relationship with God means that we can be fully honest about all that is ailing us, our neighbors, and the oppressed. We proclaim that God can do the impossible through prayer and we offer up our hopes that the impossible is possible for us too. And we proclaim that although we may not understand God in the midst of suffering, we still come to God, hoping for healing, hoping for clarity, hoping for peace. Whether you come forward today for healing is actually not that important. What is most important is that you know that you can, that you know that your God is a God who can do the impossible but who also cares for you so deeply that God can handle all the parts of you – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Amen.
[i] Carolyn J. Sharp, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 100.
[ii] Glaucia Vasconcelos Wilkey, “Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 102.