PENTECOST 12 | 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:1-8; Eph 4:25-5:2; sub. Mat 7:9-11
As many of you have heard, last week Lisa and I came home from a wonderful, much-needed Eastern European vacation, and I immediately wound up flat on my back from dysentery. Egad. For me, this was kind of like a visit from an old friend—and old, dangerous, deadly friend. When I was in India a few years ago, on my last sabbatical, I contracted dysentery six times. So…me and the bug are a little more than casual acquaintances.
This time was pretty mild, comparatively. The last time I got it in India was the worst. I remember exactly how I got it, too. I was in Amritsar, and had ordered dal from my hotel restarurant. Anything cooked is supposed to be safe, after all, but I overlooked the garnish—a little sprig of chopped bamboo shoot sprinkled ornamentally atop my lentils. (Close eyes, shake head.)
I was so sick I couldn’t move for a week. Now, it’s hard enough to be sick, it’s harder to be away from home when you’re sick, and it’s WAY harder when you are in a foreign county where most folks don’t even speak your language.
I got lucky—when the worst of it hit, I was in a hotel near the New Delhi airport. I was travelling alone, and felt like I was ready to die. The hotel owner came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. He put his hand on my arm and said, “Do not worry. We are going to take care of you. We are going to take you to the doctor. We are going to give you food. We are going to check on you often. You are going to be all right.”
I almost started crying right there and then. In fact…I might have. I don’t remember, because it’s a bit of a blurry fever-dream. What I do remember, however, was being on the back of the hotel owner’s motorcycle at three in the morning, weaving in and out of Delhi’s night traffic on the way to the clinic, clinging to his waist for dear life, so woozy that I couldn’t stand by myself. Good times…
But you know what? He got me medicine, and he came by a couple times a day to watch me take it. He made me get out of bed and made me eat, whether I felt like it or not—white rice, bananas, plain yogurt—the same meal every time.
I will never forget his kindness. I thought I was going to die, and he comforted me and fed me and nursed me back to health. I will be forever grateful.
The image of being fed, especially in a state of extreme distress, is echoed in our reading from 1 Kings. Both Elijah and I were saying, “God, kill me now!” But Elijah’s problem wasn’t dysentery, but fear, despair, and remorse.
He had it bad, so bad he was ready to lay down and not get up again—but as scripture makes clear, God had other plans. God sent him and angel, too, to make sure he ate, and he woke up to find cakes and water. He slept and when he woke, he was fed again—enough to sustain him for forty days.
But why was Elijah in this mess to begin with? Well, while I went to India to cozy up to Buddhists, Elijah’s “project” was a little harsher—he had just, in the last chapter of the book of Kings, single-handedly slain all the prophets of Baal, with a sword, with his own hand, and royally pissed off the Queen in the process.
Elijah was not an interfaith kind of guy, and since the Queen was a worshipper of Baal, his swordplay was not what you would call a politically sensitive move. She sent out the guards, calling for his head, and Elijah ran for his life.
And here he is in our reading today, scared for his life, writhing in existential agony in the desert. But here’s what’s interesting, look at what he says to God. “I am no better than my ancestors.” Not, “O my God, I’m about to die.” Not even, “You got me into this, you get me out.” What strikes Elijah so powerfully, what lays him so low isn’t really the dangerous situation he’s in, or even the fact that he’s upset the Queen so badly—it’s an overwhelming sense of just how badly he has messed things up.
Like me and my dysentery, Elijah is sick, but it’s the same sickness we all struggle with. Now most of us would think, “Okay, killing all the neighboring clergy is probably messing up pretty badly.” Elijah is getting this, too. He stepped over the line. He got carried away with himself. And now he feels like the absolute screw-up that he is.
I’ve never had a screw-up of quite that magnitude before, but I’ve had my share of doozies. I’m guessing you have, too. And while we need to take responsibility for our actions, especially our bad actions, we aren’t brought up in a moral vacuum, and there’s enough blame to go around.
The fact is, we are daily oppressed by the destructive force of sin in the world—our reading from Ephesians gives us a whole list: bitterness and wrath and anger, wrangling and slander, to which we might add injustice, prejudice, pride, greed, ego, and so much more.
And we are so surrounded by it, it’s everywhere. Everyone we meet is assaulted by it and twisted by it, and this includes our parents and caregivers, so we cannot HELP but be infected by it. After all, no one can dispute the fact that people who are hurt, hurt others in return. And we are ALL hurt, and we ALL hurt others.
I can practically see people squirm when I use the word “sin.” People don’t it, but I can’t not talk about it. It is an ugly word for an ugly reality—one that we cannot escape, one for which no one comes away unhurt. It’s a reality that oppresses us daily, even hourly.
And yet—and this is the most amazing thing—this does not seem to matter much to God. Elijah says, “I am no better than my ancestors,” and that is true! He’s a murderous savage, just like so many other bronze-age men, barely out of the caves and struggling to control his emotions. He’s done a terrible, heinous, unjustifiable thing.
AND…it does not change the fact that God loves him, cares for him, provides for him, and saves him.
The outrageous over-the-topness of Elijah’s monumental screw-up, the heinousness of his sin only serves to emphasize what is true for all of us. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we screw up on a daily basis. Yes, we have done things we are not proud of, and if we could take them back, we would give almost anything to do so. AND…God. Still. Loves. Us.
I often tell Lisa that I love her, and she blushes and says, “But I don’t understand why.” Of course, anyone who knows her understands WHY, but this is one of the ways we’re all wounded. All we can see in our own faults, sins, and screw-ups, and it is hard to understand how we might be loved in addition to, alongside our faults and sins. Despite five hundred years of Reformation theology, there is still a part of us that feels we must earn it, be worthy of it—and if we feel we’re NOT worthy of it, we mostly likely will reject it.
But the wonderful Good News is that God’s love for us has nothing to do with our worthiness or our performance—it has only ever had to do with God’s goodness.
I have plenty of issues with the harshness of the theology I grew up with, but one great gift the Southern Baptists gave me was this: “Oh how I love Jesus…because he first loved me.” Because he first…loved…me.
Our relationship with God is not contingent upon our being GOOD ENOUGH for God to love us. Likewise, our relationship with God does not begin with a motion TOWARD GOD, but upon GOD’S MOTION TOWARD US. It does not depend on OUR action, but upon GOD’S action. For in spite of our worthiness or unworthiness, God’s love for us is the same, and God’s actions and response to us is the same. Right or wrong, evil or good, God feeds us, ministers to us, loves us, saves us.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God in heaven give good gifts to those who ask!” (Matt 7:9-11).
When we come to the eucharistic table, we come to be fed by God. Often we are in moral agony, just as Elijah was. I have often heard people say they don’t want to receive communion because they don’t feel worthy. The Eucharist is medicine, and you don’t give medicine to people who aren’t sick. We come to Jesus’ table BECAUSE we’re sick, not because we’re well. We come because we’re sinners, not because we’re perfect. We come to be fed because we’re hungry, not because we’re full. We come because we NEED, not because we are self-sufficient.
What we need differs, however, depending on our circumstance. One of my favorite calls to the table comes from a liturgy Lawson and I collaborated on many years ago. It says, “We have named these gifts the Bread of Life and the Cup of Joy. But may they be whatever it is you need God to feed you today.”
We may be hungry for very different things, but whatever it is we need, God’s desire is to provide it. No matter what it is, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done. I invite you to share that need with God and allow yourself to be fed what you most need at when you come to this table tonight.
God will not give you a stone if you ask for bread—and if you fear that, someone has been lying to you about God…maybe even YOU have been lying to you about God. Instead, I invite you to trust God, to trust God’s goodness, to trust that God loves you and will give you what you most need. Taste and see that the Holy One is good, happy are they who take refuge in God (Ps 34:8). Let us pray…
God, your love confounds us. Help us to trust that love, even if we do not love so well ourselves. Help us to trust your goodness, even if we are not terribly good at the goodness thing ourselves. Help us to set aside our pride enough to clutch at the gift of grace and life and forgiveness that you offer to us. For we ask this in the name of Jesus, who showed us your true heart. Amen.