That reading from Jeremiah is so stirring: “I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar, a bronze wall, against the whole land—kings, princes, priests, people—they will fight against you but they shall not prevail, for I am with you, says God, I will deliver you.”
Stirring… but a lie. Jeremiah gets to prophecy disaster and to experience it. To denounce and be denounced. He speaks the coming doom and has it fall upon his head. The presence of God doesn’t spare him agony and humiliation and defeat. He is no more delivered by Adonai than John is delivered by Jesus. No wonder Jeremiah rants against the God who has seduced him and made his every word a sentence of death. No wonder John languishes in his cell wondering whether his awaited Messiah has come or not.
Who would be a prophet?! Who would want to speak hard words to implacable powers? Not Jeremiah and not me!
“Whew!,” we can say at the start of another Semester, “Thank God we are called to be theologians and not prophets, students and not prophets, administrators and not prophets. Thank God our words are our own!” But they are not! They burn our tongues as they leave our lips. What else is theology but words spoken about God, words written for God, words heard from God? And what can this place be but a place of prophecy? Haven’t we been called to here to hear God speak, to interpret the ache of our hearts and the world’s longing, to hear so that we may speak? So we might give God back the voice God has given us?
But God we do not know how to speak, we are like children, our words halting, unsure and the powers are vast and uncaring. Maybe theology was a mistake after all…
“Do not be afraid. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. No, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. For I am with you to deliver you.”
August 29th, 2000
There’s something about calamity that brings out the best in us. When disaster falls from the heavens we all rally round, pitch in, and do what we can with a focus and an energy that we look back on with amazement. Amazed at our own resources we didn’t know we had, or amazed at the hidden strength we muster from nowhere in one last ditch effort to move the immovable object. Yep: we are great in an emergency. Where we are lousy is in the long haul. When the crisis loses it’s glamour and becomes another circumstance and the once-in-a-lifetime Herculean effort becomes a daily grind.
Have you been watching “Survivor”? Have you seen how the exciting challenge of surviving the first nights has shifted into the struggle to endure another day of rice and rat and each other?
This is Elijah’s problem and it is ours. Standing up to Ahab and Jezebel, and the prophets of Ba’al, in an acute confrontation brought out all his nerve and all his showmanship and all his fervour but when the price is on his head and all he can do is run for his life then his feet in the desert sand slow from run to walk to lie down and die. Just one day’s trudging to nowhere and the thought of forty more are enough to ruin him.
Don’t we all have out moments when with Elijah our only prayer is “This is enough, God! This is enough! Just let it be over. Let it end. Let me die.” Whether it’s a thankless job, a chronic sickness, an abusive relationship, the desert of depression, or just one damned thing after another—we’ve known it, we know it. “Enough God! Let it be over!”
I don’t think God gets the response right. Remember Elijah’s God can pour down flame on a soaking pile of wood when it suits him, can humiliate the prophets of Ba’al, has been known to part the water of the sea into a wall on left and right. What about a bit of that now?
Nothing doing. All Elijah gets is a kick in the ribs from an angel. That and a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread, a jug of water, and an unwelcome word—”get up and eat and get on with it.” Not even a night’s fine dining on a cruise ship—bread and water.
Fast forward! There’s an heroic quality to the last supper as the other three gospels tell it. It’s Passover, the crisis is upon Jesus and his followers. There are enemies all around, a price on each head and choices to be made. In the middle of that Jesus takes bread and breaks it and shares it, makes the bread his body, makes himself the Passover offering and in one terrifying effort faces the hours of agony to come. It’s all done in a hurry. But it’s only done once.
When John tells the last supper story, though, he doesn’t mention bread broken at all. But here today and for Sundays to come he can’t shut up about bread; bread of life, living bread, bread from heaven. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says, “and the bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world.” But is it a good deal? Who wants bread except those Survivors? Who wouldn’t rather have miracles? Why can’t Elijah have be magically protected from his evil enemies? Why does he just get bread to keep him trudging through desert? Why don’t we find the end we pray for? Why is it all we get is eucharist?
“Enough God!” we pray, we plead, “End it!” but what we get is bread enough to go on. And that’s an awful test of faith. There’s a question posed every time we walk up to the table for bread and wine. And it’s not an easy one to answer. It’s this: in all your need and hope, in all your suffering and joy, in all of your hunger and thirst, is this enough? Enough. Is it? Is he?
And if that isn’t question and challenge enough for us there’s another one. The bread comes into our hands with words. “The body of Christ.” And those words name the bread but they also name us. Not as individuals but as the community who says Amen and eats. “This is my flesh for the life of the world.” We are his flesh for the life of the world. Are we enough? Enough for each other. Enough for the hungry, the hurt, the empty. Enough for another day. We don’t have to work miracles we just have to keep the world fed for another day. We just have to be enough.
August 10th, 2000