August 8, 2021
Anybody else been watching the Olympics? The mostly empty venues and the absence of crowd noise have been strange, but, as always, there have been so many compelling stories. In the pool and on the track and in so many sports I don’t even begin to understand, like speed rock wall climbing.
I have been especially moved by Simone Biles’ story in these Olympic games. We all know by now what happened. As the team competition approached, she experienced what gymnasts call “the twisties” – that feeling of mind and body being out of synch, which in turn gives a gymnast the feeling of being lost in the air, unable to tell how her body is oriented or how she’s going to land.
Simone made the courageous decision to take care of her mental and physical health, to step out of the competition, to trust that her teammates could handle things, which they did. She got a lot of support from many people, including other athletes who have struggled with mental health, like Michael Phelps. But the criticism also came, brutal and cruel. Voices that called her a failure, a quitter. Most of those voices, by the way, came from people who couldn’t do a cartwheel if their lives depended on it. But even those who support her might have wondered: “But she’s the best in the world in gymnastics. Look at how well she’s done at the Olympics previously – all of those medals, all of that toughness under pressure. Why couldn’t she just tough it out?”
That’s the thing. The same mind and body that can do all of those amazing things is also a human mind and body – with limitations, with ways of being or not being that are not always within our control.
None of us here are world-class gymnasts, but we know the anguish of experiencing the limitations of our minds and bodies. We know what it feels like to be overwhelmed, to be stuck, to feel like even the most familiar tasks are disorienting. We don’t all have a formal diagnosis, but every single one of us struggles with mental health at one time or another.
Our readings for this morning struck me as timely in that regard. We meet the prophet Elijah at one of his lowest points. He’s in the wilderness, sitting under that tree, ready to die. He can’t do it any more. He’s wrung out, exhausted, stuck.
The thing is that in this moment, Elijah is coming off of a gold medal performance for a prophet. He’s just had one of the most stunning victories in the Hebrew scriptures. I want to share it in some detail so that we can understand the contrast between where Elijah has just been and where he is now, to remind us that success does not protect us from struggle.
As the book of 1 Kings unfolds, from which our first reading comes, Elijah had grown increasingly troubled that the people were turning away from their worship of the one true God and were instead worshiping all kinds of false gods. One of the most popular of those false gods was called Baal (spelled B-A-A-L). So Elijah challenges the prophets of that false god to a kind of showdown. Let’s see whose God is more powerful. Now, there are 450 prophets on Baal’s team. Representing the God of Israel? Just Elijah.
Both sides agree that they would make a sacrifice to their respective gods, and whoever got fire to appear first to burn that sacrifice would win the contest. Those false prophets sacrifice a bull, lay it out on some firewood, and they give quite a performance, crying out to Baal for hours and hours, demanding that their god answer them. But no luck. No voice. No answer. No fire. Nothing. These prophets even cut themselves with their own swords and cry out some more while the blood drips from their wounds. The prophets of Baal aren’t very effective, but they are quite dramatic.
Then Elijah goes about his work. He repairs an altar to the God of Israel that had been destroyed, stacking up twelve stones to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. He makes a trench around the altar. He cuts the firewood and arranges it, cuts up the bull into pieces, and places those pieces on the wood. As an added touch, he asks the people to drench the offering and the wood in water – not once, not twice, but three times. The water runs around the altar and fills the trench surrounding it.
You see, Elijah has a nice sense of drama as well. He begins to cry out to God: “Let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
At that moment the fire of the Lord rains down and consumes the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and even the water in the trench. The people see this and proclaim: “The Lord indeed is God.” The prophets of Baal are seized and killed – a decidedly grim turn to the story – and for that Elijah finds himself on the receiving end of the wrath of Queen Jezebel, who was a big fan of Baal and all his prophets. Jezebel wants Elijah killed – which sends him fleeing into the wilderness, where we find him this morning.
This story helps us better understand why Elijah is exhausted and overwhelmed. He has the prophet’s version of the “twisties,” feeling lost and without purpose. His mind and his body are disconnected from each other. Elijah feels ready to die. He sits down under that one broom tree and says the scary thing out loud: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life…”
Elijah falls asleep under that tree, and suddenly there is an angel nudging him awake. Notice first what the angel does not do. The angel doesn’t say, “Pull yourself together, man. Push through. You’ve got this. Be tough.” What the angel does instead is provide food – a cake baked on hot stones – and a jar of water. The angel makes sure that Elijah is fed and hydrated, lets him rest a little more, and then urges him to eat again. The journey ahead will also be challenging, and it’s important to have the nourishment he needs to face it.
I am not suggesting that food and water and rest are the only answers to our mental health struggles. They’re a good start, but the broader point is that we need nourishment from outside of ourselves. The restoration of body, mind, and spirit does not come by chance. It doesn’t come from forcing ourselves to feel “worthy” of that renewal. Those steps toward health come from resources all around us, gifts from the One who calls himself the Living Bread.
God’s provision comes to us in many forms. It comes in the support of friends and family, especially those who will sit with us and listen to us when we have gotten lost in the air. God’s provision comes to us in the expertise of therapists and other mental health professionals who can help us see our struggles with new perspectives and find a way forward. God’s provision comes through doctors and nurses and physical therapists and others who help us heal. God’s provision comes through those who offer food, drink, opportunities to rest. And God’s provision comes in community, including church – in worship, in prayer, in stillness – places that remind us that we are not alone, and we do not have to carry the load by ourselves.
A few days after her withdrawal from competition, Simone Biles tweeted: “The outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I’ve never truly believed before.”
Let that sink in. For the first time Simone was realizing that she is more than her accomplishments, more than her status as the best gymnast of all time. I’m sure all of the people who love her would say, “Of course you are more than that!” But it’s hard for her to believe that she is more than how she is expected to perform.
As Dana reminded us so beautifully last week, the gift of being the people of God is that our worth is not about what we do. It’s about who we are…and whose we are. We are God’s people in the world, and we get ourselves into trouble when we try to define ourselves solely in terms of activity or achievement. We end up lost in the air, lost in the wilderness every time we try to go it alone and be self-sufficient rather than relying on the gifts of God’s grace and provision.
Jesus says to us again today: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” The One who has claimed us from the beginning of our lives is with us still. Feeding us, guiding us, loving us in every moment – when we are flying and when we are floundering, when we’re winning and when we’re wiped out.
This week I wish you good nourishment in all its forms. Food. Water. Sleep. Companionship in the wilderness. May you be fed by the Living Bread and ready to take the next steps. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ