1 Kings 19:4-8
4But Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He 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. 7The 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.” 8He 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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I’m sure the sabbatical stories are going to find their way into sermons for years to come but for now I am sharing with you one of the most major shifts in our lives since returning to the US: our grocery habits.
To back up a second, for any who don’t know our family spent the last seven weeks of our sabbatical in Scotland, the last month living in St. Andrews (a college town) in a student apartment. So that was interesting.
There were lots of adjustments to be made - sharing rooms, sharing beds, we had no car — our washer and dryer could handle about three shirts a load. But for me the greatest adjustment of all was having to walk to the local Tesco Metro and carry our groceries home.
Here in Auburn, grocery shopping happens once a week for us. And through the magic of click-list I can literally be sitting on the soccer field sidelines, “grocery shopping” through my Kroger app, and hours later pull my minivan up to have it loaded up with anything we could possibly need for the week ahead.
But daily shopping is a different mindset. When you know you will have to physically carry home anything you purchase, you become much more discerning: Do we really need this? Can we live without it for another day? Is what I’m buying actually going to nourish us?
And perhaps the most important question: What will be too much to carry alone? (You can see I was having very deep thoughts at the grocery store on sabbatical.)
The prophet Elijah was a once a week kind of shopper. Up until this chapter we know him for his big hauls. He predicts a drought, revives a widow’s son, defeats enemies: strategic, efficient — and then… chapter 19.
All of us weekly shoppers know this feeling. The day after you’ve been to the store you live in a state of abundance. But this state is temporary. By midweek the supplies are dwindling and by day six you have a problem. Every household has their breaking point — when you know you can’t put off shopping a day longer? In our house, the indicators are cheese and coffee. If we are out of cheese and coffee, we can deny it no longer - someone has to go to the store.
That’s where we find Elijah today. The cupboards are bare. The fuel is depleted. And the prophet is discouraged.
Right at the end of our time in Scotland (see, another sabbatical story) we had the very strange but fun experience of watching the Olympics in a foreign country - constant updates on “Team GB!”.
But one story that transcended geography was that of Simone Biles. In case you missed it (and I think it would have been hard to miss it, but just in case), Biles (24 years old) is the most decorated gymnast in the world. She also happened to be the only returning member of the 2016 Olympic team.
She is a known survivor of abuse and she is a dedicated advocate for women, women of color, athletes, mental health… Leading up to the Tokyo games this year all eyes were on Simone. Not only was she expected to lead her team to gold but she, specifically, was set to perform a very dangerous vault stunt that no female athlete has ever performed in Olympic competition.
The day of the much anticipated vault, Biles took her first attempt, didn’t do so great, but then in a strange moment, went over to her coach, had some words, left the arena, and when she returned announced to her teammates that she would not be continuing in the competition. So of course everyone began speculating it was a physical injury. But what we would subsequently learn was that it was Biles’ mental health that led her to stop, turn to those around her, and say “I’m not OK. This is too much.”
Now, there’s an obvious connection here between the prophet Elijah and the Olympian Simone. And I could preach a whole other sermon in praise of what Simone Biles has done for athletes and for any of us who struggle with anxiety, instead what I want to offer today is an element to this I believe became lost in the headlines. Something we, the body of Christ, the church, need to take note of - and it has more to do with the community that surrounded Simone Biles in this moment. And everything to do with the angel of the Lord that came alongside Elijah in the wilderness and said to him, “Pause. Eat, drink, and rest. Otherwise the way will be too much for you.”
Living not just in the United States but specifically in Auburn I think it’s the case that we are steeped in a culture that prizes prizes. We love triumphs, victories, medals, trophies, things that can be added to a resume.
But no one’s life is an uninterrupted series of victories. No one’s fridge is fully stocked at all times. The fact that the lectionary includes this story of Elijah is a signal to us to take note: to sit with this for awhile so that when we are the ones in distress we understand that experience is a part of God’s story, but also so that when we see others, crying out for help, we know how to act. We know how to be the angel that intervenes and offers compassion.
I was intrigued that in this story the angel instructs Elijah to eat, drink, and get some rest not just once but twice. She also acknowledges to Elijah that without this rhythm and ritual “the way will be too much.”
“You are only human.” she is saying. “You’re fragile - if you want to keep serving God you can’t keep acting like you are God.”
If you’re a child of the eighties like me you might remember a very different Olympic moment involving a gymnast named Kerri Strug. Atlanta, 1996 - once again, on the vault, Strug did her first run and it became clear she was hurt. Much like Biles, she turned to her coach (Bela Karolyi) in her distress but the conversation that followed was much different. According to his memory, it went something like this:
Strug said: “I can’t feel my leg.”
Karolyi said: “We’ve got to do it one more time, shake it out.”
She said: “Do I have to do this again?”
He said: “Can you? Can you?”
“I don’t know.” she said. “I will do it. I will, I will.”
And any of us who watched that moment remember how it went - Kerri Strug went for the second vault, landed, and in agonizing pain, finished her dismount, crumbled to floor, and cried out for help. In 1996, the United States won their first ever gold medal in women’s gymnastics. And at 18 years old, this ankle injury ended Kerri Strug’s gymnastics career. She would never compete professionally again.
By telling this story I don’t mean to demonize her coach. Back then the conversation surrounding boundaries and wellbeing was very different than it is now. But I do hope we can learn from this story. And I do mean to praise the community that surrounded Simone Biles twenty-five years later when she found herself depleted and vulnerable.
When Jesus gathered his servants together and imparted today’s gospel words to them: “I am the bread of life” the metaphor was no coincidence. It called to mind for them stories of their ancestors like Elijah to whom the angel said - you need bread. Not just every now and then, but over and over again if you want to get up. It called to mind the days their ancestors spent in the wilderness when manna rained down from heaven but God told Moses - only take enough for what you need this one day. I promise you there will be more manna tomorrow. No need to hoard. No need to fear. Don’t fill up the minivan once a week with my presence and then let it run out by Friday.
Seek Jesus daily. For as he tells us, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
And whoever is acting in the name of Christ will know what to do when we see others in distress. We will come alongside them and say, “Get up. And eat. And drink. And rest. And then do it again.”
It’s OK to not be OK - and you do not have to do this alone. That is what it means to worship a Savior who is fully human, and knows us in our weakest and most vulnerable states. And that is what it means to act as his messengers - to recognize vulnerability in others and not turn away or force them to keep going when they need to pause and refuel.
This is an important word for us as a new academic year begins, whether our lives are tied to an academic calendar or not for better or worse we live in a community where that’s how the rhythm of life is defined.
But we can’t expect ourselves or others to fuel up in August only so we can stumble across the finish line in December. We need to be attentive to those who are fragile. The angels among us are the ones who offer firm compassion. They point us to the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and remind us that Jesus Christ isn’t a once a week kind of thing. He is our daily bread - and he calls us to be messengers to those hungering for the hope, assurance, and mercy we find in being members of his body.
Thanks be to God. Amen.