1 Kings 19:4-8
The Old Testament lesson today was only part of an whole epic story about the prophet Elijah, but I don’t blame you if you didn’t recognize it based on the four prescribed verses for today. So let me tell it for you.
The dust swirls around the prophet’s feet and his heart bangs against his ribcage, pounding from exhaustion and from fear.
Elijah, the great prophet of Israel, finds himself in ancient times doing what humanity had already been doing for centuries: running, looking for food, trying to survive. He was lacking in safety, in security, in food, in everything. He was just trying to live for another day.
He’s being chased by a powerful person who has a vendetta against him. Her name is Jezebel, and she existed long before her name became a popular blog title. She’s vowed to kill Elijah, but he’s not exactly a blameless victim: he’s responsible for the deaths of Jezebel’s prophets. He has killed for his faith, and now she wants to kill him as vengeance.
Life. Death. Hunger. Revenge. Religious zeal.
A tale as old as time.
Running for his life in the desert, Elijah slumps down beside a broom tree, known for its branches that usually stretched out enough to give you relief from the sun. Finally finding some measure of comfort from the punishing heat, feeling little other than desperation, Elijah begs to die.
He is no longer a prophet with enough religious zeal to kill his enemies. He has a moment of existential clarity: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4 NRSV).
Through the centuries, we humans have made advances: in science, in medicine. Diseases like the flu don’t kill us in large numbers anymore. Something we take for granted, like antibiotic ointment, saves our lives from infection so often that we barely remember that people used to die routinely when relatively minor wounds got infected.
We as a society think we’re less superstitious than we used to be, as people in increasing numbers join the “spiritual but not religious” ranks. I often have my doubts about this, however, as the same people I see posting things about how backwards and old the Bible is also post things about Mercury being in retrograde, harkening back to ancient astrology: but that, as they say, is none of my business.
The point is, we as a society think we’ve come so far and learned so much about our world, but even as we’ve learned to save lives from hunger and war and disease, people still die from all three, and the lives that we’ve saved have contributed to overpopulation which leads to more hunger and war and disease. The fundamental question of our time, I believe, is the same as the fundamental question has always been: how do we stay alive? How do we make sure that we have enough for ourselves and our children?
People with too many resources fear those who have too little. People who have too little, for their part, tend to resent those who have too much. And everyone all along the economic spectrum is a flawed human who just, at the core of their DNA, wants to survive.
In this way, we, like Elijah, are no better than our ancestors.
Nearly every question and policy issue we wrestle with today pits, in some form, survival against compassion, and there are no simple answers. Compassion is something almost everyone values. Compassion is one of the things that makes us human — that we do not only operate to survive, as most creatures do. At the same time, too many of the problems we face are related to survival and cannot be solved with compassion alone.
It is notable that right when Elijah stops fighting for his own survival, he finds God’s own compassion. He falls asleep in despair and wakes up to find that an angel has cooked him breakfast.
It might sound crazy, but I’m certain that an angel has cooked me breakfast before.
Last year with six of my new best friends from Camp Calumet, I ran a relay across New Hampshire, from the White Mountains to Hampton Beach. It’s around 200ish miles, and we did it to send kids to summer camp.
It works like this: twelve runners divide up between two vans, giving each van six runners and one driver. Each runner runs 3 legs of the race, running from 5AM on Friday morning until around 4PM on Saturday. We run through the night, guided by head lamps. We sleep when we can. Mattresses from camp are delivered to Lutheran churches in New Hampshire, giving us a place to crash for a few hours when we get a break.
And once, angels cooked us breakfast.
There is a particular photo from last year with my pastor friend Joseph, who serves in Marlborough. Neither of us looks particularly happy. We had each run about ten miles apiece and had just woken up feeling terrible, so we found it appropriate to take a photo in front of the sign at a church that said, simply, in big letters: “TRASH.”
But we woke up to find that Lutheran angels cooked us breakfast. I had to look back at the photo on Facebook to even remember where we were: I hadn’t known at the time. The folks at Triumphant Cross in Salem, New Hampshire, got us back on our feet with an enviable Lutheran breakfast spread.
Given strength by those folks and their food, we finished our last legs, and, together with the other six teams from Camp Calumet, we raised over $100,000 to make sure that every kid in New England has a shot at going to summer camp. (And we’re doing it again this year!)
We all put aside survival and the day to day and we gave something of ourselves: the runners, the people dragging mattresses around the state, the people working to make sure that the logistics were calculated correctly, and the angels who cooked us breakfast.
Are we better than our ancestors? Probably not by much. But I know that making things in the world better requires us to give a little something of ourselves.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus talks about how he gives himself for life. In an inhuman, godly move, he gives up trying to survive entirely and in the process, gives life to everything.
Often, we in our comfort talk in sentimental terms about the Bread of Life and about Living Water. We talk about them as spiritual realities, but they don’t make much sense if you’re starving or dying of thirst. They don’t make much sense if you’ve never been served breakfast by an angel. Paradoxically enough, you understand the spiritual reality only if you’ve understood the literal reality of having your desperate hunger satisfied.
It’s a lot like it’s hard to understand the value of community if you’ve never been lonely.
Jesus gives himself for the life of the world, and we usually come to understand that kind of grace through another person giving of themselves for us. The last time I preached this Sunday in the lectionary cycle three years ago, I was talking to my home church.
It had been a rough year in all kinds of ways, and a rough few years, really. I was preparing soon to drive north a thousand miles to meet with the synod staff in New England. I talked about Elijah and about how the bread the angel fed him sustained him for the long journey ahead. I talked to my church about how they had been the Body of Christ, the Bread of Life, that had sustained me through their love.
If you are looking for the Bread of Life, it is not some far-away reality. It is right here. It is the loaf that we bake in house. It is also the Body of Christ, the people gathered around this table, who give of themselves for the sake of helping others.
In our world of scarcity, we are the Bread of Life for each other and for the world. Like Jesus, we are called to give of ourselves. It is not our job to save the world, but we get to be a small part in it if we can help sustain someone — physically, emotionally, spiritually — for one more day. If we can only be the angels that cook breakfast for hungry people.
In our world of survival, we in the church worry about our survival too. Churches all over New England and all over the United States are closing. We worry a lot about survival and scarcity and finances. But the Body of Christ does not begin and end with one congregation.
The Bread of Life is Christ, and it never runs out. The Bread of Life sends angels to cook breakfast for hungry, desperate people who feel like trash — desperate because you’re a prophet on the run from a murderous queen, because of poverty, or because they ran too far to send a kid to camp.
As we said last week, things like love and kindness do not run out. God does not run out. God’s work will get done. We can be better than our ancestors by believing that the Bread of Life is not a commodity that we produce. The Bread of Life is the Body of Christ, the Church, powered by God who never sleeps and never runs out.
My pastor friend Drew posted a quote by the late John Kavanaugh, a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and preacher. He died in 2012 but was acclaimed for being able to get right to the heart of any issue. He does this with the Bread of Life text, and so I end with his thoughts:
He writes, “Our problem is not believing that God could inhabit bread. It is believing that God could inhabit us.”
God does inhabit us: in bread and wine and water and Spirit. You are the Bread of Life, the body of Christ, given for the life of the world. The work of God, the work of life, does not depend on you, but you are invited to participate. You are invited to give of yourself for the life of the world, as Christ gave himself for us.
And that, in this age — this human age — this age of survival and fear and scarcity: is Good News indeed, for us and for the world. Amen.