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I Kings 19:4-8 "Angel's Bread"

“Please leave me alone.  I just want to lie down and die.”  If I visited someone in the hospital who said these words, I would think they are suffering from major depression or trauma or both.  Like many people who are in need of care, healing and love, Elijah rejects help.  He would rather go ahead and die than receive care.  Why do people do that?  Is it stubbornness?  Is it excess pride that does not want pity?  Or is it a soul so devoid of hope, that help and healing seem like a fantasy? Depression can have a freezing effect on the will and the heart.  From the outside, we might tell someone suffering from depression that they have everything to live for and a long future ahead.  But from the inside it feels like iron shackles that will forever chafe and bind the soul.  Better to just sleep and wait for the inevitable end.


Depression is a profound mystery to me.  I see people who have endured so many setbacks that I think they should be depressed, but they remain resilient and even cheerful.  Other people seem to crumble into a heap at the slightest challenge and give up.  Then one day for no apparent reason they emerge and move forward again.  Before we say Elijah needs Prozac and a round of cognitive-behavioral therapy, let’s look deeper into the religious dimensions of depression from scriptures.  It strikes me that many biblical leaders said nearly the same thing.  Moses the great lawgiver, and Jonah, famous for surviving in the belly of a whale, also share in common, with Elijah, a spiritual low point where they told God that would rather die.                           


In the book of Numbers, Moses becomes so frustrated with the bickering and complaining while wandering out in the wilderness, which he says to God: (I want to read this word for word because it is so incredible!)


Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child”, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, “Give us meat to eat!” I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.  Numbers 11:1-10


(This is the first documented case of clergy burnout.)  The burden of leading a community through trying circumstances and shouldering their anxieties weighed him down to the point where he didn’t care if he lived or died.  Moses finds relief when his father-in-law Jethro comes along and quietly points out the Moses takes on too much and he should organize other people to be judges so he doesn’t have to do all the work.  (So that makes him the first biblical management consultant.)  This is speculative or imaginative theology, for it seems to me that the heart of Moses’ dire state of mind is his belief that only he can solve the community’s problems, he has to be in control and everything is on his shoulders.  In the struggles of the wilderness, he is doing the best he can, and how dare anyone complain.  There can be a self-aggrandizement in helping others, and when there is neither results nor appreciation, death seems easier than admitting we are not in control, and we need to change or ask for help.  Moses did his most important work of setting up laws for the community to live by, after Jethro’s advice to empower others and focus on his own work.


The prophet Jonah also wanted to die.  Oddly enough, he was not depressed or ready to give up in the belly of the whale.  Jonah is depressed because the Assyrians, who were the enemies of Israel, listened to him and repented.  He was hoping God would smite the Assyrians, and the fact that they listened to a prophet of Israel, more than the Israelites listened to prophets, was especially galling to his world view.  Better to die than change his opinion.  After Assyria repents, Jonah rages at God for being merciful:


 ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ Jonah 4:2-3


If we define ourselves in opposition to others, what happens when they are no longer the enemy and the resistance disappears?  God’s grace and mercy for those whom we rage against is so galling.  The collapse of oppositional energy and meaning that comes from being against someone else is depressing, almost like a death of the self.    Only redefinition in who we really are can save us.  Or we could just go the well worn path of finding new enemies, moving from Communism, to abortion, to defending traditional marriage between and man and woman, to Muslims. 


Now we come to the fascinating saga of Elijah.  Like Moses, the liberator who is grounded in the wilderness, and Jonah, the most successful prophet ever, just to the wrong side in his mind; Elijah seems to be at the height of his success in Kings 18.  Elijah lived in a time a great religious conflict.  Israel’s King, Ahab, married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel, who worshiped Baal rather than Yahweh.  In deference to his wife, Ahab is changing the national religion and erecting monuments to Baal.  The followers of Baal had some very cruel religious practices that would challenge our beliefs in the freedom of religion and the need for pluralism.  Before Ahab built his Temple, he sacrificed children to Baal and buried their bodies in the foundation as a plea for good favor.  We too may wonder what to do with murderous religion in our own day.


Elijah arranges a contest with the prophets of Baal.  He proposes placing sacrifices on a mountain to their respective gods.  Baal’s prophets will then pray to their god to burn up their sacrifices, and Elijah will pray to his God, and may the best religion win.  When the fires of Yahweh come down from heaven, perhaps in a lightning strike, and Elijah wins this religious power struggle, he seizes the day and has 400 prophets of Baal put to death.  Rather than settling the issue, this enrages Jezebel who sends reinforcements to come and kill Elijah, and he flees into the wilderness to save himself.  Rather than settling the question of national religion and orthodoxy once and for all, he has now set off a continuing cycle of religious violence, with himself as the primary target. 


Elijah sits under a solitary broom tree, a wilderness shrub that would offer little shade or comfort, and asks God to die, “It is enough, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  Imagine thinking that God is on your side, and you have won your battle, then having the tide suddenly turn on you and your life is under threat.  Elijah had seen the fires of God come down and honor his sacrifice, and he thought he had dealt the decisive blow to the enemy, only to find he had created more complicated problems through his bloodshed. 


What can we make of these stories of prophets, themselves struck with anxiety and welcoming their own death in their trials?  There are no simple generalizations, no clear cures for our own times of depression, such as positive thoughts or inspirational quotes that might fit on a refrigerator magnet.  In my attempt to find of common thread to their depression and death wish, I see three men who have come to their final frontier, the limits of their own control of the world around them.  They are profound leaders, seeking to walk in the ways of God, and yet they misunderstand events around them, mislabel others as their enemies; misapprehend their own power and abilities to force the change they want on the world.  They are partially correct that death is the next step.  But it is not their physical death that is required.  It is the death of pride and prejudice.  It is the fatality of labeling and controlling others.  It is the causality of trying to bend God to our own way.  Spiritual growth often means we have to die to some things in order to truly live.


To claim the power of resurrection is to trust that we can survive this spiritual death and live again.  Elijah survives because angels come and feed him bread and give him rest so he can heal.  Here we are again-for the third week in a row-the lectionary has fed us bread.  5000 were fed by Jesus with a small boy's five loaves, Jesus proclaims that he is the bread of life, and now we read of angel’s bread, baked on a rock by the blazing sun in the wilderness. 


And here is the new command to the prophet:  “Get up and eat.”  That’s all for now.  You don’t have to take on the whole world or even take on your whole self.  Just get up and eat.  God had more plans for Elijah, and more plans you, I expect.  The bread will come, God will sustain, and we will live anew.



Dr. Faheem Younus: Amid Sikh Temple Shooting Tragedy, a Triumph of American Values

This is the most inspiring quote from the article from Dr. Younus:

What, then, keeps the American minorities so committed to the United States? The answer lies in the wounds of the police officers recuperating in Wisconsin's hospitals. American minorities are cognizant that no matter how much hate the bigots spew and no matter how many bullets the lunatics fire, the institutions and the Constitution of America are on their side.



I wonder if there is a connection here to this week's OT reading from I Kings 19:4-8. Elijah is retreating from ongoing religious violence when angels care for him.
~ bloomingcactus

John 6:24-35 "The Bread of Life"

Kwai_HGhost_2004225753_250wBread gets a bad rap.  It’s the carbohydrate’s fault.  Our daily bread sustained humanity for centuries, but now, sadly, it has too many “carbs” for our more sedentary ways.  Please, dear God, do not give me my daily bread or I shall roll quickly to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  My old breakfast with an “everything” bagel and cream cheese has given was to yogurt and fruit.  I order the wrap instead of the bun.   I fit my peanut butter on a Triskett.  Todd no longer lives by bread alone, but by every other healthy thing that proceeds from the hand of God. 


And then I moved to Northampton and discovered “The Hungry Ghost” bakery.  The French Batard will be on the table for my first breakfast with Jesus in Paradise.  I hope to be worthy of all eight grains of the multigrain when I meet my Maker.  I love to watch them engaged in the holy arts of making bread.  Last week I watched two people knead dough, rolling out enough to cover the whole top of a 3’ x 5’ table.  Together they lift one end and fold over a thick liquidy blanket.  It is folded until the appointed time.  And when it is finished it is laid low in a storage bin, where it will rise again.  When I come in to the bakery the next morning, I smell the spices used to anoint it, and I see that the oven is empty.  As I turn to the shelves, daring to hope, and suddenly I see it, the bread of life!  And then I know why Jesus said, “Whenever you eat this bread, do this in remembrance of me.”   I pray that I could approach the communion table with the same enthusiasm and sense of satisfaction.


Jesus proclaims “I am the bread of life,” in John’s Gospel after the feeding of the 5000.  Where we left off last week, the crowd who learned to share in community from a small boy with his 5 loaves and two fish, wanted to make Jesus King.  This would have got him executed much sooner in our story.  Besides Jesus had other plans.  This discourse after the feeding of the 5000 shows the broad sweep of Jesus’ ministry.  On the one hand, he is like the Old Testament prophets, frequently quoting from Isaiah and announcing that God desires justice for the poor and hungry.  Jesus talks much more about justice on earth than on how to get to heaven.  But Jesus does not confine himself to political and economic matters.  His ultimate concern is that we come into a new relationship with God.  Justice is a practice that people who walk with God do. 


On the first Sunday of Lent the Gospel lesson is often the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Jesus is tempted to turn stone into bread when he is hungry.  This is often interpreted to mean that Jesus was tempted to be a messiah who focused on revolution for the poor so they would have bread.  The feeding of the 5000 reveals that many people want that from a messiah.   Jesus counters the temptation saying, “We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus follows the same thinking here in John’s Gospel, telling his followers, “ [You] are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life….”  (John 6:26-27) 


Some may interperate these passages to mean that the church should confine our work to saving souls and getting people to believe in Jesus so they can go to heaven.  But that is taking one passage in isolation from the whole message of Jesus.  The twofold nature of Christ’s mission is expressed in the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  For those of us in a progressive congregation like First Churches, where every justice group under the sun comes through our doors, Jesus’ bread of life discourse is a reminder that we are also called to be in a deeper spiritual relationship with God.  If we were to achieve every goal we ever had for political and economic justice, we still would not have brought the reign of God on earth.  There would still be a God-shaped void within, and as Augustine prayed, “Our souls our restless until they rest in Thee.”


Let me give some practical reasons why this balance is important.  For eight years, I managed a homeless shelter and transitional housing program.  We constantly evaluated our effectiveness at moving people from being homeless into permanent housing or treatment programs.  No matter how hard we tried, we could not get our success rate above 70 percent.  As I wrestled with ways to improve, I came to this conclusion.  You can give people a room to live in, provide three meals day, offer job training and education, have supportive social workers and therapeutic programs, but you cannot give people meaning, or purpose or hope.  These things come from the realm of the spirit.  People who were successful in our programs found a purpose to live.  A man just getting out of prison wanted to be a better husband and find a job to support his family.  A woman out of rehab wanted to be a better mother.  An alcoholic found her “higher power” in a 12 Step group, and the love of God healed her empty heart so she could love again.  Certainly basics needs for food and shelter are essential. It is challenging to find meaning and purpose when life is in chaos or and basic needs are unmet.  We need a social safety net.  But life is not meaningful just because our first level of need in Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human need is met.  We need community, love, hope and purpose to truly be fulfilled in life.  Once the stomach is full, we hunger for love and connection.  We hunger for the bread of life.


It is vital in the life of the church that we place primary importance on our spiritual growth, not just on our service to others.  This may sound obvious, but the reality is we can come to church every Sunday and not experience a growing love of God in our souls.  It is far easier to focus on enjoyable music, pot lucks, programs for social change or figuring out the budget.  We like to do what is tangible, and all these tangible things are important.  But often keeping all these things running is a distraction from our true purpose.  We are here to walk with God, to love God with all our heart, mind and soul.  This requires a challenging spiritual journey where we must face ourselves and come to terms with who we really are. 


In our reading from John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus’ followers ask:


“What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom God has sent.”  (Jn 6:28-29)


Let’s talk about that word “believe” for a moment.  In English, this a word about our thinking, and our opinions.  I can believe in gun control, the necessity of human rights and the Boston Celtics winning another championship.  Those are my opinions and others may agree or disagree.  Our faith is often turned into a matter of our beliefs and opinions.  We can hold opinions on whether God exists or not.  We may believe  Jesus is the second person of the Trinity or we may believe that Jesus was a wise teacher giving us the foundation for moral principles.  The church is much divided by opinions about gay marriage and abortion, and these things become litmus tests for what it means to be Christian.  These are important issues to wrestle with, but when Jesus told his followers to believe, that has to mean more than we just hold the right opinions about God, the Bible and religion. 


Faith is more than what we have in our heads.  Believe is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word “pistis,” which meant to act in trust, loyalty or commitment.   Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible gets closer with the word “belieben” which means to prize, treasure or hold dear.  The German root “liebe” means “to love.”  So when I see the word “believe” in the Bible, I try to hear the word “belove,” (as in “Dearly Beloved”) which I think is closer to what Jesus meant.  To say that we believe in God should be more like saying “I do.”  I pledge myself, my heart, soul and mind, to the way of Jesus.  Why?  Because I sense a “Thou” on the other side of my trust.  I believe, I belove, as an act of gratitude towards the divine source, who first loved me. 


John’s Gospel takes us out of our thoughts and into our senses.  Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”  His path fills the deepest hungers in our soul.  As we prepare to share together at the communion table, don’t let the familiarity and formalism of the ritual get in the way of the bread of life.  I think some day I would like the Hungry Ghost to deliver a dozen hot loaves from the oven right at communion so we could smell and taste amazing bread while we pledge ourselves to live in the way of Christ.  Then we could feel, taste and smell that the love of God is as wholesome as any multi-grain, as satisfying as the crunch  of the buttery crust of a French Batard, as filled with the surprising joy of finding a whole clove of garlic buried in the dough.  When we eat the bread of life, we know we are beloved and God says to us “I do.”