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In the reading from the First Book of the Kings the prophet Elijah is in a pitiful state of mind. He has just come from a major confrontation with the prophets of the Phoenician God Baal which has deeply angered Queen Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. She’s now out for his blood. Despite his great victory over the prophets of Baal, his courage fails him, and Elijah flees to the southern kingdom of Judah from where he takes a day’s journey into the wilderness where he simply gives up and prepares to die under a broom tree. Yet, God has other plans for Elijah and I’ll return to these later.
By temperament I am drawn to the big brushstroke vision end of the spectrum. This means that for me being faithful in little things does not always come easily.
In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa of Calcutta writes, “Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .
This is a timely reminder for me and I suggest for all of us.
Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .Mother Teresa
Last Thursday John Bracken, our Senior Warden, hosted a lunch for previous churchwardens – those still living, that is. Nine were able to accept John’s invitation and gathered around a long lunch table for what in essence became a process of shared reminiscence. We heard how each warden in their time had faced and surmounted difficult challenges. Amidst tales of woe, there was also much laughter as we mused upon some of the absurdities of human behavior.
No one at the table on Thursday imagined themselves as heroes who had achieved great things. In fact, I felt their experience was more akin to an attrition by a thousand small and tedious cuts. Yet listening to the men and women around that table brought home to me my deep admiration and gratitude for all those who when called answered the call to serve. In so doing these former churchwardens revealed a quality that Mother Teresa called the practice of fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that God is doing in our midst.
Sometimes we approach the call to be faithful with gritted teeth. But fidelity is a joyful experience and if we can be careful to note the desire to overreach, we can relax and enjoy being faithful, and take time and trouble in the small things of life.
An important question for all of us to ask ourselves is what sustains our life together in community? As I’ve noted community life can often feel like attrition of a thousand cuts that leave us drained and worn out. Servanthood can be costly and therein lies its real value because there’s no such thing as cheap grace.
Since Easter, increasingly aware of approaching the beginning of my sixth anniversary as rector, I had been asking God what is it that will emerge to sustain me for the next phase of my journey at St Martin’s. God responded with: I’m giving you the roof, Fr. Mark!
Actually, God doesn’t address me as Fr. Mark, but that’s beside the point for I have definitely heard the message of it’s the church roof. All I can say to that is ha God, you’re quite the joker!
This was not the message I wanted to hear. In fact, it frightened me because it immediately raised a question in my mind – will I be able to rise to this challenge? As the reality of a major renovation and the anticipation of a capital campaign sinks in, what I am coming to understand more clearly is that the roof is a catalyst for moving St Martin’s into the next phase of our journey as a community.
So, I want to share with you what I have discerned so far.
Firstly, the church roof and tower are clearly physical realities that need urgent attention. Yet, they are also symbols and metaphors for something more than blocks of stone and strips of copper flashing.
Secondly, roofs and walls are metaphors in stone and slate for the protection and nurturance of Christian community. We have been given a trust to fulfill so that our children and their children (metaphorically speaking) will find a spiritual home under the shelter of this roof and within the protection of these walls.
Thirdly, in the course of new renovation work we will have an opportunity to also update our facilities so to become a better resource for the wider community we are here to serve.
Finally, the building as a temple is only a metaphor for the community as the temple of God’s presence in the world. Mounting a long overdue capital campaign enabling us to provide for a dynamic future, built on the solid foundations of a strong community will challenge us, requiring us to dig deeper discipleship wells in our own spiritual garden.
In First Kings 19 a passage rich in symbolism Elijah, who has slumped down under a broom tree, waiting to die, is roused from his lethargy and given food that will sustain him on his journey to the mountain of God where in an earlier time Moses had encountered God. Whether he realizes it or not, at a point of real crisis when the covenant between God and Israel is in real peril, Elijah returns to Israel’s spiritual wellspring.
However, despite this Elijah still does not know why he’s come. When God asks him why are you here? he continues to cry out in self-pity: why me, God; why has this disaster come to me; how can it be that I am left as the only prophet in Israel? Elijah in his depression and self-pity has forgotten that he’s not alone for at least 100 other prophets of Yahweh have also escaped Jezebel’s wrath.
Elijah is then given a lesson about the source of spiritual courage. He witnesses God’s devastating display of pyrotechnics; which seems thrown in simply for entertainment value. After the noise and turbulence subside there comes upon Elijah the experience of sheer silence. This palpable silence piques his curiosity and draws him to the opening of the cave. This is as much a metaphor for emerging from shock and depression as it is a description of emerging from the physical cave in which he’s found shelter.
Elijah emerges into the silence to hear once again God’s question: what are you doing here Elijah? Although from the text Elijah seems to give his previous answer to this question, something in him has shifted. Elijah has discovered through the sheer silence of God’s communication that faithfulness is a series of small steps taken one after another. He’s now ready to hear God calling him to return to his mission.