Last Sunday, after the parish picnic, I found out about the tragedy in Orlando. When the youth and I gathered for Holy Eucharist that night, we lifted up our prayers for the victims and their families. Being able to name the tragedy in the context of Eucharist was comforting, but by the time I got home and poured over news coverage, I found myself bereft. I was not in shock, for this kind of tragedy has honestly become commonplace in our country. I think I wanted to be in shock or at least surprised. But instead, I felt a sense of familiarity and coldness. I realized that my psyche has become desensitized to this sort of tragedy. Instead of feeling sad, I just felt numb. I felt powerless, with nothing to do but be resigned to the fact that this is the way our life is now. Nothing can change. Mass murder is normal – whether by a religious radical, a mentally unstable person, a racist, or a disillusioned teen. Mass death is normal – whether LGBT brothers and sisters, people going to the movies, African-Americans worshiping, or children attending school. All I could comprehend in my numbness was the fight, the outrage, and the compassion draining out of me.
The same thing happens to Elijah in our story today. If you remember, a couple of weeks ago we heard about how Elijah has been putting Ahab’s practices to shame. You see, in an effort to keep the political peace, King Ahab agreed to take a foreign wife, Jezebel, and worship her god, Baal, in addition to Yahweh. The God of Israel is none too pleased, and so Elijah dramatically challenges the prophets of Baal to a duel. Elijah is full of confidence, taunting, and dramatic flair. And when Yahweh wins, Elijah slays the entire lot of Baal’s prophets. But today, Jezebel proclaims she will avenge their deaths, and all of the fight leaves Elijah. He runs into the wilderness until he cannot run any longer. He crumbles under a tree, and proclaims that he is done. He feels that he is all alone. He asks God to take his life.
We all know the feeling that Elijah has. Maybe we or a loved one has been fighting cancer. We go for one last evaluation only to find that things have made a turn for the worse. Or maybe we have been advocating for a particular political issue and the tide seems to be turning. But a court decision is made or a vote is cast and the decision or vote does not go our way. Or we think we have finally seen an addicted friend reach the end of his addictive behavior. We are relieved to see healthy patterns until we get a late night call about how he has gotten into trouble again. The fight leaves us. We no longer feel a sense promise, victory, and confidence. Instead the darkness settles over us like a fog, and we crumble under a tree and say, “Enough. I am done, Lord.”
But something seemingly small happens to Elijah in his moment of despair. The story goes, “Then Elijah lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.” God gives Elijah food. No words of encouragement, no pep talk about how things will get better. God feeds Elijah in the wilderness, in a moment of despair, in a time of darkness.
There is a reason why we have something called “comfort food,” in our culture. In fact, every culture has some version of comfort food. Whether the food is a southern mom’s chicken and dumplings or a Jewish grandmother’s matzah ball soup; whether the food is Burmese mohingar, Vietnamese pho, or a New Mexican posole; or whether the comfort food is North Carolina, Memphis, or Texas barbeque, we all have food that brings us back to ourselves. Somehow the taste of something familiar and rooted in our identity or a fond experience connects to our entire body in a visceral way. The smell of the food, the flavors that are just right, the warmth filling our bellies, and the happy memories that flood our consciousness allows our entire body to relax. Whatever has been ailing us – a sore throat, a homesickness, or a broken heart – can be wiped away by that simple, familiar, healing meal.
But comfort food does not just make you feel good. Comfort food gives you strength: mends your heart, heals your soul, and emboldens your spirit. Elijah does not simply eat the food from God and wallow longer at the tree. Elijah gets up. He journeys for forty days on the strength from that bread. His renewed spirit allows him to have a deep conversation with God, where he eventually finds out that he is in fact not alone.[i] God has not abandoned him. God has enabled other prophets to stand with him. God is not done with Elijah yet. Though God does not expect Elijah to go at it alone, God does expect Elijah to get back in there.[ii]
I am fully aware that we as a community are a diverse group of people with a wide range of political opinions. My guess is that the violence of Orlando brought out a wide variety of responses to the event and the politicking that has happened since then. But no matter how you feel about the shooter, the victims, or the instruments of the victims’ death, a week ago, 49 of our brothers and sisters died. Life is sacred, and that sanctity was snuffed out last week. And this is not the first time this has happened. Though the stories behind the shooters, the motives behind the shootings, and the demographics of the victims are different each time, invariably, more life is desecrated.
We learn from Elijah’s story that God knows we need to mourn. God knows we need to wallow for a time. God knows that we may feel alone, or powerless, or just plain tired. That is why God gives us trees in the wilderness. But eventually, God will send us some comfort food – to soothe our aching heart certainly, but more importantly to strengthen us to continue the journey. Because whether we feel like we have the inner strength or not, God is calling us to step out of the shade of the tree, and get back on the journey.[iii]
What that means for each of us here may be entirely different. Certainly our work is to be grounded in prayer – prayers for the victims and their family members, prayers for the shooter, prayers for our nation as we sort out how we will govern ourselves, and prayers for us as we figure out how to be witnesses for Christ in the midst of the chaos. But prayers are not all we are called to do. We could do that under a tree or in a cave. Instead, God sends us comfort food to heal our broken hearts, soothe our wearied souls, and embolden our spirits.
Today, and every Sunday, our comfort food, like Elijah’s, is also in the form of bread. We call that bread the body of Christ. That bread has power. That bread has power to forgive our sinfulness and complicity with sin. That bread has power to comfort our aches and sorrow. That bread has the power to make us Christ’s body in the world, witnesses to the love that Jesus taught us about. We know that our prayers and our consumption of Christ’s body does that for us because the very last thing we do – the very last thing we say – in our worship service is “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” We do not say, “Have a good week.” Or “Be at peace.” We say “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” How God will use us to love and serve the Lord in the world varies widely. We all have a variety of vocations that take us to varied and sundry places. But wherever we find ourselves, God has work for us to do. Our work is to not only say, “Thanks be to God,” but to mean, “Thanks be to God.” We thank God for our call to love and serve others. We thank God for food for the journey. We thank God for the ways that God does not leave us alone. We thank God the ways that God will empower us and use us to be agents of love in the world. So take a little more time today to pray and to mourn. But then get ready to be sent out into the world to love and serve the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Trevor Eppehimer, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 150.
[ii] Haywood Barringer Spangler, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 151.
[iii] Terrance E. Fretheim, “Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-4[5-7]8-15a,” June 19, 2016 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2876 on June 16, 2016.