OT Reading: I Kings 19: 4-8, Psalm 34: 1-8, Epistle: Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2, Gospel: John 6:35, 41-51
Well, here we are. Father Steve’s ministry among us has ended—we said our goodbyes last week. Today is the first Sunday of the rest of our life together. Our search for a new, permanent rector is entering the home stretch and we are expectant and hopeful about that. But on this August morning, right now, it’s just us. For today, this is how things are.
When Elijah saw how things were, he ran for dear life to Beersheba, way down south, deep and far into the lower part of Judah. He had a travelling companion with him for part of his trip, someone who helped him, who took care of his needs. Then, like us, Elijah parted company with his companion and went on alone. Into the desert. A whole day’s journey. In that sun. That sun that climbed higher and higher in the desert sky. And burned down from its high place. Down on the tiny solitary figure laboring slowly, step by step, across the wide, empty expanse of sand. Browning Elijah’s skin another shade darker. Blazing hotter and hotter. Brighter and whiter.
Do you feel the heat? All before him: Sand. Rocks. Dust.
All in him: Sore feet. Squinting eyes. Sweat streaming down his skin. Falling in drops off his nose and fingertips onto the sandy surface. Evaporating as quickly as it landed. As quickly as he took each next step.
Running to Beersheba with his companion had given way to walking in this wilderness alone.
And now his walking grew slower…and slower…and slower. Until finally, Elijah was Out. Of. Energy.
He came to a lone broom bush–what the Arabs called a “ratam.” A ratam is a shrub that casts so little shadow that it would be used for shade only when there was no other refuge from the desert sun.
This was the spot. The only bit of shade as far as the eye could see: that pathetic scrubby ratam. There, in the meager shade of that bush, Elijah collapsed.
“ENOUGH OF THIS, GOD,” he cried, with what was left of his voice. “TAKE MY LIFE—I’M READY TO JOIN MY ANCESTORS IN THE GRAVE!”
Exhausted, he fell asleep.
When I signed on to become Sr Warden here at St. John’s, I had a pretty good general sense that during my term, Fr Tom would leave and I would oversee an interim, transition time. I knew that my flexible time situation as a homemaker could be a gift to St. John’s in these circumstances. That my experience on the search team of 8 years ago would be a plus on the vestry side of the vestry/search team partnership. That some of my father’s expertise as a licensed specialist in interim ministry, absorbed into my awareness by osmosis, could provide some useful perspective. But how things would actually play out, remained to be seen.
Closing out the capital campaign. The discovery that we needed a new steeple cross and lightening protection system before bell tower work could be finished, before the scaffolding could come down. The boiler dying before its time, forcing an overhaul of our entire heating system. The big asbestos removal job that had to be done first. Hurricane Irene destroying our church office and nursery. The Halloween snowstorm and the heavy toll it took on our trees. The mold removal. The drainage work. The basement renovation. The furnishings.
The hellos and goodbyes: Fr Tom, Fr Steve, Dcn Ann, Ms. Marge, then Kristin in the nursery, Elaine, our office administration person, Beth who now produces our bulletins.
And positive innovations that just took a ton of work: Birthing or beefing up several new teams into existence. Teams of many, meeting at regular, published times so more concerns could get better quality focus by more people, more transparently: Buildings & Grounds, Finance, Communications, Worship Planning. Teams bringing recommendations to the vestry, freeing the vestry to do its job better—looking at the bigger picture and doing strategic planning for the longer term. Bringing in outside experts to facilitate creative discussions about who we are and where we are going as a church. Getting the church office and systems better organized. Making annual meetings more user friendly for the majority of parishioners who do not relate well to financial reports. The audit. The diocesan assessment reduction effort. The bylaws revision effort. Creating job descriptions. More programming like Via Media this year, the Lenten book studies last year and Fr Steve’s Bible study. Creating and equipping a Lay Eucharist Minister visitation team. The mission statement effort. Connecting our parish mission to our prayers.
In parallel with the challenges here at church, there’ve been some challenges in our home life. Seemingly non-stop hospitalizations and surgeries of my in-law’s and my brother Tim. Our son’s diagnosis last year that launched us on a deep dive into a brave new world of people, systems and experiences that has become a new normal for us. My brother’s death this spring. The news at 1pm that had me in the car by 3pm to catch a flight to California by 6pm: heart attack, coma, organs shutting down. The ride from the airport at the other end, directly to ICU. Ordering his removal from life support, in accordance with his wishes, and holding his hand as he departed this world. And just this past week, my father in law fell and broke his shoulder and was been in the hospital for a week. Intensifying eldercare concerns have become another new normal for us since I became Sr. Warden.
Does all this make you feel tired? It makes me feel tired.
Here at St. John’s, over and over, we pull together and get God’s work done. This is a great parish family and people show their love and commitment in so many ways, large and small, public and discreet, sometimes deeply moving. Yet, even in the midst of this community, there have been times when I have felt terribly alone. Not alone from God. But alone on the human plane. Weighed down. Moments when I’ve wanted to run away to Beersheba. Or collapse under whatever scrubby bush I could find that would offer me a little shade. And cry out to God, like Elijah did, except maybe more in today’s vernacular:
“GOD, I’M DONE! I’VE HAD IT! KILL ME! JUST KILL ME NOW!”
We have come a long way together, through many challenges, in a very compressed time. Our travelling companion is no longer with us. We’re alone in the desert. We’re exhausted. Can’t we just put everything on hold and sit this out until the next priest comes? Can’t we just go to sleep?
What happened when Elijah went to sleep?
An angel shook him awake and said, “Get up and eat!” He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head, sat a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate and drank and slept some more. And the angel shook him awake again and said, “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got to get going again.” He got up, ate and drank his fill and set out again. And that meal was so thoroughly sufficient that it sustained him all the way through the home stretch, all the way to Horeb, the mountain of God.
When Elijah couldn’t go on anymore, God provided what he needed to get going again. Water to hydrate him in the desert. And bread, the staff of life.
I’ve been told that in biblical times, bread was more than just food. The word “bread” was also an expression of speech, a way of a way of saying, “everything we need in life.” “Give us this day our daily bread.” Give us all we need.
When Jesus said, as we read in our Gospel lesson, “I am the bread of life—whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” he definitely had a larger understanding of “bread” in mind. “Everything we need in life.” Life itself. That’s what he claimed to be.
Fr. Steve was a good priest. But he was not the bread of life. Fr. Tom was not the bread of life. Our next priest–whoever he or she may be–will not be the bread of life. I am painfully clear that no warden is the bread of life. Human beings in positions of spiritual leadership, no matter how gifted or how flawed, are mere pointers to Jesus who is the true bread of life. They get as hungry and thirsty and depleted as the rest of us on this wilderness journey.
Sometimes, like today, our hunger and thirst are more strongly felt.
In the original Greek text, another priest once told me, it does not say that we should eat the bread and drink the wine—the words we use today. It actually says we are to chomp on the bread and guzzle the wine. God’s nourishment was not intended to be consumed daintily. It’s not a tea party. No, the ancient text says we’re supposed to eat and drink like, well like Elijah may have eaten and drunk in the desert when he was so desperately depleted–guzzling and chomping his way through God’s surprise meal. A meal neither requested nor deserved. But served just the same, to one shaken awake from exhausted slumber.
This would be a great segue to Eucharist, wouldn’t it? But we don’t get Eucharist today which is very awkward at this point in my sermon. Our bishop says a priest must officiate in order for us to receive Eucharist. Priests were booked for August weeks before we learned we would need one. We must feed on God in our hearts. Of course Elijah didn’t get another meal till he reached the mountain whereas we’ll get our next Eucharist as soon as we can schedule a priest to celebrate it—and we are working hard on that. Maybe after waiting till then, we’ll feel like chomping and guzzling.
So, in this time of desert sojourning, I commend to you this idea of desperate replenishment in desert times. The sustenance that comes after we collapse from exhaustion. The angel who shakes us awake and prods us forward again. The Jesus who is the bread of life—everything we need in life—life itself. God’s undeserved and yet served meal, that is really ok to hungrily chomp and thirstily guzzle, providing the nourishment that is absolutely enough to carry us, without our companion, the rest of the way through our desert, to our mountain of God. Amen.