Sunday, August 12, 2012

Food for the Journey

Here's today's homily.   I went with the alternate reading of 1 Kings 19:4-8 because I didn't have the courage to tackle "Absalom, Absalom!"  The Gospel is John 6:35, 41-51.


Most of you know that I’m an English professor.  At least once a semester, usually around midterms or finals, a student comes to my office in panic and pours out a tale of woe.  Everything is due right now in every class, and the student also has a job and family crises and had the flu last week and just can’t keep juggling everything and doesn’t know what to do –

By now, the student’s usually sobbing on my tiny couch.  “I don’t know why I’m crying,” he or she will say, sniffling, as I hand over a box of tissues.  “I’m not usually such a mess.”

I give these students academic guidance, and I’ve been known to walk them over to UNR’s free Counseling Center.  But that’s not the first thing I do.  The first thing I do – something I’ve learned over many years of dealing with these situations – is to ask the student, “When’s the last time you ate something?”

And the student, who’s usually sitting on my tiny couch at about three or four in the afternoon, inevitably sniffles and says, “Yesterday, I think. Why?”

At that point, I reach into my desk and hand the student a power bar, a box of which I keep handy for just such occasions.  “You need to eat,” I say.  “You can’t think straight on an empty stomach.  This will all seem much more manageable when you have fuel in your system.”

As far as I know, none of my students have been prophets, and I’m certainly no angel.  Nonetheless, Elijah would recognize this scenario.  “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”   Elijah, fleeing Ahab and Jezebel’s death threats, was having an even worse day than my students usually are.   After hours of wandering in the wilderness, he was so exhausted and discouraged that he asked God to let him die.   Bone-tired, frightened and depleted, he couldn’t imagine how to continue.

Elijah’s despair certainly wasn’t caused by a lack of faith.  Two chapters before this reading, he called on God to restore a widow’s dead son, and lo, the child lived.  Note that in our lesson this morning, he again calls on God, shaping his desire to die as a prayer.  “O Lord, take away my life.”  The Lord doesn’t do that.  The Lord gives him bread and water instead.  This famous prophet has already seen and performed miracles, and will go on to see and perform many more.  He’s going to hear the still small voice of God a mere six verses from now, and he’ll conclude his career by ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire.  Right now, though, he has a serious case of low blood sugar.  He can’t think straight on an empty stomach.

Elijah reminds us that the physical and the spiritual can’t be separated.  Ours is an incarnational and sacramental faith: God has given us marvelous, intricate bodies, and has placed us in a marvelous, intricate creation that nurtures and sustains us.  If having a body is hard – we suffer from hunger and thirst, illness and injury – it is also a source of wonder.   Miracles needn’t take the form of angels or chariots of fire.  Miracles are within us and all around us: stars and stones, trees and grass, birds and beasts.  The seemingly ordinary is also always divine.  This is why Jesus came to us in a human body, and why the eucharistic feast is simple bread and wine.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ neighbors haven’t figured this out yet.  They don’t understand how this kid they watched grow up – the boy whose parents they know, whose games and pranks and skinned knees they witnessed throughout his childhood – can also be the bread of life that came down from heaven.   They labor under the misconception, still common in our own day, that holy things have to be rarified, otherworldly, set apart:  that miracles have to take the form of angels and chariots of fire, 3D special effects straight out of some CGI blockbuster.

And, in truth, Jesus does sound a little otherworldly in this passage from John.  “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  That all sounds more than a bit mystical and off-putting, and I think the neighbors can be forgiven for being confused.

Jesus’ life on earth, though, very much depends on ordinary, prosaic bread.  Throughout the Gospels, he’s obsessed with food.  After he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead, he commands her parents to give her something to eat.  He scandalizes the Pharisees by sharing meals with people who haven’t washed their hands.  One of his last acts on earth is to feed his disciples:  even Judas, the one he knows is about to betray him.   In one post-resurrection story, he asks what’s for breakfast; in another, he fries up some fish for the disciples on the beach.   He feeds us, now, whenever we take communion.  Jesus wants us to work to heal the world, but first, he wants us to have food for the journey.  He knows we can’t think straight on empty stomachs.

But he never force feeds us.  The feast depends on our consent and participation.  Elijah has to reach out to take the food the angel brings him, just as my weeping students need to agree to eat their power bars (and not all of them do).   The elements of the Eucharist represent not only God’s good creation, the grain and grapes that nourish us, but human stewardship in tending them and human skill in turning them into bread and wine.   God gives us what we need to live, but like any good parent, he knows that we must ultimately learn to feed both ourselves and others.  We have to learn to cook our own food, to share it, and to clean up the kitchen afterwards.

Even when we have done this, most of us will hit low points, moments when we feel too discouraged to continue.  Sometimes our despair literally takes the form of praying to die.  At such times, it’s crucial to remember that bread and water almost always help; low blood sugar and dehydration only make things worse.   But it’s also important to look elsewhere in the creation for sustenance, to remember that simple physical things can offer spiritual nourishment.

Years ago, during one of my volunteer-chaplain shifts in the ER, an ambulance brought in a suicidal patient.  He lay in a fetal position, unmoving and unspeaking, as the paramedics rolled him into a room.  Later I learned that he’d had no food or water for three days before, finally, summoning the strength and courage to call 911, to ask for help.

The ER staff started a saline drip to rehydrate him, and gave him a meal.  When I went in to talk to him, he was slowly munching a sandwich which, blessedly, had simply appeared without his having to prepare it.  In severe depression, even making a sandwich can seem overwhelmingly difficult, and a hospital food tray can be a miracle.

He poured out a long tale of woe: mental illness, job difficulties, abandonment by family and friends.  This had all been going on for many years.  “So what’s kept you going through all that?” I asked him.  “What makes you happy?”

“Nature,” he said.   He told me about camping at a lake in the mountains.  He told me about a waterbird he liked to watch there, about its antics and feeding patterns.  His descriptions were very precise, and as he told me about the bird, his face brightened.  He sat up on the edge of his bed, put down his sandwich, and whistled the bird’s courting call while he used his hands to imitate its mating dance.  And then the man who had wanted to die laughed for pure joy.

I know the saline drip and sandwich were food for his journey, but I believe his memory of the birds was, too.  I pray that after he left the hospital, he went back to the lake to see those birds again, and I pray that as he listened to their calls, he also heard the still small voice of God.