June 23, 2019
Pr. Craig Mueller
Take a Chill Pill
“Take a chill pill. Calm down. Relax.” Easier said than done. We seem hard-wired to freak out when anxiety or fear take over. It’s the “fight or flight” response, we’ve been told. Like animals reacting to threats to their safety, it’s natural for us to respond quickly, too. To stand back and think rationally, to take a breath, to practice meditation— these are good things when we feel out of control, but our first response is to freak out a bit.
When are your insides not so calm? When you’d do well to take a chill pill? I get that way when there is some technology glitch on my computer that I can’t figure it out after hours of trying. Or in traffic. Or when I’m late for an appointment. Or when my email box seems unmanageable. Or when someone really gets to me and I forget that much of their anger or unreasonableness comes from their own place of pain and vulnerability.
Today we join “the Elijah story” already in progress. Our lectionary has five weeks in a row of Elijah narratives, but due to a late Easter, we begin with week four. Full disclosure: before a little Elijah refresher for this sermon, I would have failed a basic test on this significant figure in the Hebrew scriptures. Not only is Elijah a co-star at the Transfiguration of Jesus, he ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, he is connected to John the Baptist, Jews leave a place for him at their Passover meals, and we discovered churches dedicated to him during our recent trip to the Balkans. The churches are called Saint Ilias in Greek and Macedonian—I had no idea Ilias was Elijah!
Before today’s passage, Elijah seems in charge, cool, calm and collected. Everything seems to be going his way. He’s a super prophet. He confronts kings and followers of Baal, considered the false god of the Canaanites. Elijah performs miracles, raises a dead child, and calls down lightening from heaven.
But after Elijah kills the false prophets of Queen Jezebel, she makes death threats against him. And he flees for his life. He is filled with self-doubt and he thinks he might be better off dead. Oh my, was Elijah thinking of taking his life? From our perspective, he needs a chill pill, some deep breathing, a therapist, some self-reflection, or a strong dose of hope.
But then Elijah’s difficulties lead to some pretty amazing things. First, after feeling sorry for himself and getting it out of his system, God meets him where he is. Elijah falls asleep under a broom tree. We get it, sometimes when you are overwhelmed, you just want to sleep. An angel comes and gives Elijah a hot cake and water and tells him: “Get up. You now have strength for the journey ahead.” Reminds me of communion each week. God feeds us with food and drink to sustain us for challenges that are ahead.
And then comes the part that Elijah is famous for: retold in countless sermons, hymns, and images. God tells Elijah to go to the mouth of a cave for the Lord is going to pass by. Like Moses, he is going to come face to face with God. Yet there is an awesome surprise. Elijah experiences an earthquake, fierce wind and fire. But the Lord was not in them. Instead, God comes to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence. The more literal translation would be a “gentle whisper.” Many of us know the older translation: “a still, small voice.”
After the storm comes . . . calm. Calm: what we so fiercely desire, but often eludes us. Inner peace. The sense that everything is and will be okay. The assurance that God is with us. The holy chill. Mystics through the ages have spoken of a divine presence that comes in silence—in emptiness and nothingness. No wonder, in our busy, frantic lives we turn to our breath—to meditation, mindfulness, being in the moment. Then Elijah is ready to go on with his life, with his calling.
The strange, wild man in our gospel seems anything but calm. He tells Jesus that his name is Legion, for the demons of his life, and his own physical and emotional wounds are countless. The text suggests that he is not in his right mind. Jesus releases the demons from him and heals him. Previously running around naked, the people now see the man clothed and in his right mind. And like Elijah, Legion reenters life—telling everyone what the man called Jesus did for him.
I’m not exactly sure what being in our “right mind” means. Mental illness is a continuum and it could happen to any of us at some point in our lives. Or to say it differently: all of us have been out of our minds at some point. When stress takes over, when we fall in love and go a bit crazy, when grief envelops us, when we don’t know whether we can make it through the night.
There is less stigma associated with mental illness than decades ago. Yet there is more work to be done. And churches should be safe places where we can be vulnerable—places where we can accept and embrace one another, especially when we are not calm and when our lives seem out of control. Several weeks ago, our synod passed a resolution asking that congregations have resources available to assist people struggling with clinical depression and loneliness—and that they provide support for those who have lost loved ones due to suicide even as we join the ELCA in its commitment to suicide prevention.
These days it seems everybody is a bit out of control, especially in the political and social media sphere. We all overreact. There are certainly injustices worth getting worked up about. But the stress of constant shock and anger cannot be sustained and is not good for us. One Buddhist writer suggests we need to practice equanimity: holding two things in tension at the same time. First, we need to accept that this is the way people are and this is the way life is. Life is unfair and human beings often only look out for themselves and their kind. Chill out. Accept it. Second, from this calm inner place, do everything to vanquish injustice and inequality with every ounce of your being.
As a child, I loved the hymn that we will sing in a few moments. It was probably the music that touched me then, but in light of Elijah and Legion, and all of us who confront worry and stress, lines of the hymn now jump out at me in new ways. In fact, why not let these words be a prayer for some holy chill? Reclothe us in our rightful mind . . take from our souls the strain and stress . . . speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm.