Proper 14, Year B, RCL
12 August 2018
I try not to look at Facebook too much these days — or at least, when I get on there, I scroll as quickly as possible through all the random photos and links and placards of outrage and shallow quotations and horrifying news, just looking for the basic updates of my friends’ lives. But even as I scroll past all of that, I can’t help some things just sticking with me.
One of those things was a picture. A small child, a refugee, who had been separated from her family, found herself with a piece of chalk. With the chalk, she drew an outline of her mother on the hard concrete. Then she curled up in a little ball over the chalk-mother’s heart and went to sleep.
Now, like a lot of you, I have been pretty exhausted of my capacity for galvanizing rage and compassion. So the reason why I keep returning to this image in my mind has less to do with a feeling of urgency to help that particular child and others like her, and more to do with how that child, that particular child, is bearing witness to something going on in all of our hearts.
A person can be provided for with all the basics necessary for physical life — food, clean water, safe shelter, warmth. But cut a person off from their source of blessing — from the gaze and the voice telling them that they are loved and claimed permanently — and they become lost and bewildered. The basic provisions become irrelevant, even useless. This is a wound that can follow us all of our lives, and so we find ourselves trying to get back to the source somehow, drawing in chalk a placeholder image that we can go to for our blessing.
Elijah found himself in a similar situation. He fled into the wilderness because the king of Israel was seeking out the prophets of God and putting them to death. He was trying to exterminate the very ones who were called to keep God’s people connected with their source of blessing. He was exhausted and heartsick. He said to God, “I am no better than my ancestors. Just kill me.”
Now why would Elijah say that, if he is the prophet trying to recall Israel to their best selves? His failure to speak an effective word was so devastating that it seemed to drag him down along with his people. His failure has cut him off from the same sense of blessing he was trying to bear witness to. He is exhausted and heartsick. So what does God do about this? Well, the first thing God does…is feed him. God doesn’t try to argue with Elijah, not yet. God feeds Elijah, and Elijah finds the strength to get up and walk to Mount Horeb. To Mount Horeb, the historical place where Israel was incorporated as a people. God gives Elijah what he needs so that he can get back to the source, where, in the next passage, he will discuss the problem with God and decide what to do about it.
And in today’s passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus makes explicit what is implied by Elijah’s story. Yes: it is important to feed the people of God with physical food — generously, abundantly, ungrudgingly. And what makes that feeding effective and worthwhile — the point of feeding people — is so that they will feel the contact between themselves and the source of their blessing. Jesus says baldly: “I am the bread of life. I am the source of your blessing. I am God’s Word spoken to you, to claim you and name you the Beloved. Believe. This physical food keeps your body going, but it’s the blessing that will give you the real life. And you can try to draw this blessing for yourself, but…it’s just chalk. The real Source draws you.”
We can see from these passages what it means to need our source of blessing. We can see that it’s a deeper and more fundamental need even than food and water. And we can see what it is to cut someone else off from that source, because all of us have some idea of what it’s like to be cut off ourselves. The monk and theologian Henri Nouwen says: “To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. Maybe our minds will never understand it. Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this. Every time we hear about ‘chosen people’, ‘chosen talents’, or ‘chosen friends’, we almost automatically start thinking about elites and find ourselves not far from feelings of jealousy, anger, or resentment. Not seldom has the perception of others as being chosen led to aggression, violence, and war.” We cannot afford to be jealous of our blessing. To hoard the blessing is to kill it.
In today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians, we hear this: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, for that Spirit is the seal with which you were marked for the day of final liberation…. Be generous to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. In a word, as God’s dear children, you must be like him. Live in love as Christ loved you and gave himself up on your behalf, an offering and sacrifice whose fragrance is pleasing to God.”
Just like the bread that Jesus held up at the feeding of the multitude, just like the bread that we will watch the priest hold up in the Eucharist, God has taken us up: chosen us. God has pronounced a blessing over us. With our consent God breaks us; and then God gives us away. Just like Jesus. Not just chalk.
Our mission…should we choose to accept it…is to magnify, propagate, and channel the Source of blessing, through our very brokenness, through our very exhaustion, through our very complicity in the sins of our people. These are the conditions — there are no others — in which God sustains us, and draws us, and gives us what we need to keep going. Our very exhaustion, if we make an offering of it, is something God can use. After all, Jesus took a boy’s lunch and served it to five thousand people. And then he sent his disciples out with baskets to collect the leftovers, “so that nothing will be lost.”
Realize: God is paying attention to the broken pieces. Because those pieces have been personally blessed. God will not see one person lost. God will not see one person left unchosen. So when we give our alms today, let us make an offering of ourselves as we actually are. And when we take communion, let it give us the strength that we need. And when we share our lives together, let us remember that it is God who does the impossible stuff. Our jobs are bite-sized jobs. Let us taste and see that the Lord is good, and take joy in trusting him.
Let us pray again together today’s Collect.
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.