Pentecost 11B: Less Fire, More Bread

The readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      1 Kings 19:4–8

Psalm                    Psalm 34:1–8

New Testament     Ephesians 4:25–5:2

Gospel                   John 6:35, 41–51

I believe the Sunday reading most fitting for this pandemic time is the one about Elijah in 1 Kings 19.

The Bible shows us a thunderous God who rains down fire; but also a God who, like a doting mother touches us and says, “Get up and eat,” and feeds us with bread for the journey.

This theme comes to the surface in this story of Elijah, along with the startling lesson that the story of all humanity and the story of a chosen nation, can be recapitulated in the saga of a single individual.

Which kind of God are we reaching out for? The great tragedy of our moment is that, as a species, we are presently failing our most obvious global challenge. Covid-19, with its emerging variants, is surrounding us and invading us…ALL of us. No single nation—no single race—no single class of people—but all of us are threatened. But do we lock arms and join forces and fight back? Do we pick up and use the obvious weapons of mask wearing and vaccines to stop this invading enemy? And, while we are at it, are we working together to slow or even turn back the tsunami of climate change?

No. Instead we have found ingenious ways of turning every decision point into a partisan battle. And, instead of facing the fact that our ethnic and political divisions and animosities are ridiculously self-destructive, and deescalating them for the sake of species survival, we have turned up the heat. Pundits have concluded that everywhere where diverse communities used to coexist in peace, it was all just a façade. Working across ethnic and party lines is surely a artifact of the past. And so, in our hour of greatest need for cooperation, we have concluded that our default mode as a species is to war with each other until we become extinct.

So, which shall we choose? The macho King of thunderbolt and fire, or the motherly God of bread for the journey?

In chapter 18 of 1 Kings it is the former. Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh, is full of burning zeal. He sets up a contest with the priests of the Canaanite god, Baal. Winner takes all. The god that can use fire to burn up the sacrifice will be vindicated when the watching crowd slaughters the loser god. And so it happens. And so, to this day, this is the image of god imagined by all who believe life is a zero-sum game. We win only when they lose.

But what happens when we learn that both we and they are really up against a more deadly enemy with the intent of wiping us all out?

In chapter 19 Elijah begins to see the other, essential dimension of Yahweh. And here the life of this prophet of Israel is shown to be in the shape of Israel herself—and of our shared, universal  humanity.

Human life isn’t lived in an instant. It isn’t a zero sum game that we must win at all costs. It is a long journey. Israel’s definitive span was 40 years in the wilderness, but actually it has been taking shape for thousands of years. Elijah’s definitive journey is going to be 40 days, but when we celebrate Passover or the Christian Eucharist he is taking his seat right next to us on the human voyage.

Elijah’s experience in the wake of the awful reality of the slaughter of Baal’s prophets—his neighbors, now becomes a threat to him. Fear grips him. What if he is caught and slaughtered in similar culture-war fashion by Jezebel and Ahab? The beast of “public opinion” that turned against the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel is surely fickle, and can easily turn against him. This god of fire that early Israel fashioned along the lines of every other nation’s vindictive god seems fickle as well.

In this crisis of faith Elijah the brave quickly becomes Elijah the suicidal. Death seems to be preferable to this life with a hollowed-out faith. Elijah recognizes that he is no better than his ancestors. Is this because he realizes he is following their ancient god that is self-destructively one-dimensional. Is his only choice the fiery god of old—not the one that has the ethical dimensions that Deuteronomy described and Israel has striven to understand and embrace?

So, now God’s angel comes, touches Elijah, and says, “Get up and eat.” This mothering, nurturing God has set out a breakfast of cake and water. It is bread enough for a long journey ahead—just like Yahweh has served up for Israel for her journey as the suffering servant of all humankind.

And when we read on in this chapter we will follow Elijah to Horeb, which is another name for Sinai. Again, as an individual living out the story of all Israel and all humanity, Elijah will hear the voice we all need to be attuned to on life’s journey. Not the deafening roar, but the “still small” whisper of the mothering God who understands we have more in common with those nasty Canaanites than we imagined. We all have sins that must be burned away, and we all need bread for life’s journey.

The fiery, vindictive god is good in a pinch, but humans need more for their long journey through life. A scorched-earth approach may get our blood up for a political campaign; but will it help us govern? Lobbing rockets and bombs may help us neutralize our enemies, but can we survive together as perpetual enemies? Can we work together to beat back the Delta variant or the ravages of climate change when we cannot stop posturing and shouting slogans?

The mothering God is the God who feeds us for the long journey of the human species. This is the God we need for the survival of our species.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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