Elijah’s Flight

June 23, 2019
I Kings 19:1-15a
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley

Have you ever poured yourself into something courageous, only to find in your exhaustion that your opposition had gained zeal?  Elijah found himself in just this predicament.  After years of trading and cooperation between their two countries, the Israelite King Omri and the Pheonician King Ith-baal had decided that the next step was for their children, Prince Ahab and Princess Jezebel to marry.  Only, when Jezebel became Queen of Israel, she made the worship of the Phoenician god Baal mandatory and outlawed the worship of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.  The faithful, including the prophet Elijah, were forced into hiding in order to pray and worship and keep the commandments.  Deliverance from slavery in Egypt, had meant the Hebrew people would be able to worship God and live openly in covenant with God, one another and creation.  Jezebel’s decree threatened their core identity, patterns and relationships.

One day Elijah arose to call the people to pray boldly and called on Yahweh to display Godself in fire.  Afterwards, as the people stood in awe, Elijah killed the priests of Baal.  And when King Ahab told Queen Jezebel, she wanted Elijah dead immediately.

Elijah’s moment of glory had become his moment of destruction.  He ran from Israel to Judah, out of Jezebel’s domain, and kept going another day’s journey into the wilderness. He found the one tree and collapsed under it, “I am finished.  There is no more life in me.”

And as he slept, an angel awoke him, “Eat and drink.”  He looked and there was a cake baked of hot coals.  The Hebrew word for coal (resapim) only appears here and with the coal that touched Isaiah’s lips[i].  With the cake was a jar of water.  The Hebrew word used for jar (sapphat), is the same as for the jar of oil belonging to the widow of Zarephath[ii].[iii]   The angel came a second time, “Eat and drink more.”

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?”[iv]

And on the strength of that food, Elijah journeyed forty days and forty nights, to Mt. Horeb—to the place Moses encountered the Holy.

The word of the Lord came to Elijah.  “Why have you come?”

“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life to take it away.”

“Go out and stand on the mountain, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

And the great wind came, but God was not in the wind.  And after that an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire… a “gentle whisper,” (NIV), and “still small voice.” (KJV), “sheer silence” (NRSV).  Silence.

Must we use words

For everything?

Can there not be

A silent, flaming

Leap of heart

Toward Thee?[v]


In the silence in the heart of the holy mountain that Elijah could hear.


A few months back, I had an inquiry by someone preparing a program for First Presbyterian Church in Lansing in honor of the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and the Pride movement.  “I’ve been directed to you and your connection to Carolyn and Phil Henderson, and to your church.”

Carolyn remembers it was the late 1980s when a young man named Michael joined the church in Lansing where Phil was serving as pastor.  Michael was gay and he had AIDS, and when he died, Phil did his funeral, and continued to write and visit his mother for years.    A little bit later, the church gardener, also revealed that he had AIDS.  In that era, most gay and lesbian people were ostracized, and kept their identity and loving relationships in hiding.  The diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence that further drew cruelty and isolated people.  Phil companioned, and did funerals with compassion, for all.  Only, in the 1980s and 90s, not many pastors would.   Word spread through the city and beyond, and so did the requests.  Phil brought the growing ministry before Session who appointed a study committee who called a congregational meeting.  While many of the church were supportive and wondered what more they could do, some began a petition to remove him.  Phil continued shepherding in the Valley of the Shadow, even under attack, until the return of his cancer in 1994.

The tears still flow when Carolyn remembers those wounds, and her tears remind her of those that flowed when Phil was assailed for his work in racial inclusion in another community.

What Carolyn also remembers, is supportive friends who shared their vision and whose hearts also broke. They gathered in the wilderness, to eat, to drink, to rest, to talk and cry and wonder.  The Hendersons found sanctuary here in our church.  In the choir, Carolyn sat next to Jean Ross, a kindred spirit who started a chapter of P-FLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays that met here at our church.  And Phil became an encourager and supporter of the clergy, knowing too well the challenges.   And Phil continued his outreach, even in disability, founding the Lansing Area AIDs Ministry, and staying in touch with people across the years.


Years ago, when I led new church membership classes at Center Park UMC, I would say, “I’m so glad you want to join.  The day will come when you want to leave.”  And then I would invite a panel of church members to share their own experiences, and what renewed them.  Often, we would hear stories of burnout or conflict, or disorienting wilderness, and some form of food, drink, and rest.  I wanted church people not to be surprised when terrible things happened, and to lean into renewal and resiliency.

The prophet Isaiah said, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  God does not faint or grow weary.  God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faith and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”[vi]

This month is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and the current gay rights movement that emerged in the decade when people also arose for civil rights for people of color and women.  My own denomination teeters on the edge of schism, or birthing pains.[vii]  Following Jesus takes us with compassion alongside those who are marginalized, to suffer with and to rise with.  Someone whispered to someone, go talk to them at The Presbyterian Church of Okemos.  The struggle and the fear continue, as does ‘the arc that bends towards justice.’[viii]

So, Elijah scored big and then fled away to the mountain.  In hiding, he was found by the one who called him in the first place.  And when his end did come, he appointed another to continue his work.  Then in a whirlwind, the heavens opened, and a chariot of horses and fire carried him home.[ix]  The ancient tradition says that someday Elijah will return.

And so, indeed, may we remember and expect Elijah to come alongside.

When situations forbid the practice of

loving God and one another and creation–

May we find ways to be courageous and faithful.

May we also eat, drink, and rest.

May we journey into the heart of the holy and listen.

When we come to the edge, either we will have ground to stand, or wings to fly.[x]

[i] Isaiah 6:6

[ii]I Kings 17:12-16

[iii]Sara Koenig, “Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-15a,  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4109

[iv] Psalm 42:1-2

[v] Elizabeth B. Rooney, Mute, as quoted on p. 33, by Sarah Arthur,  At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time.

[vi] Isaiah 40: 28-31

[vii]The Michigan Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and several regional conferences recently voted to lament the actions of our 2019 General Conference and aspire towards a fully inclusive church.

[viii] Metaphor attributed to Theodore Parker, in an 1853 collection of sermons, and Martin Luther King Jr., in 1958, https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe/

[ix] 2 Kings 2:11

[x] O.R. Melling, The Summer King, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/195282-when-you-come-to-the-edge-of-all-that-you