I Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51
Proper 14 / Year B
The founder of the Israel’s prophetic movement is the focus of this morning’s first reading and we meet him at what is almost certainly the lowest point in his life. How did he get here?
King Ahab rules over the Northern Kingdom from 9th Century BC. He marries Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon and a Baal worshipper. Ahab builds a temple for this foreign god and Jezebel consecrates scores of priests to serve in it. The prophet Elijah rails against this and eventually challenges the priests of Baal to a contest. He and they build separate altars of wood for an animal sacrifice. Whichever deity can send fire to light the sacrifice will be deemed the true God.
The priests of Baal go first. They pray, they sing, they dance, they even cut themselves, all the while being mocked by God’s prophet, but no fire appears. When it is Elijah’s turn he orders his altar to be drenched with water. He looks to heaven only when it is wetter than the church’s parking lot last Sunday. A flame comes down and ignites the sacrifice. The people proclaim Yahweh to be the one true God and Elijah orders them to slay the prophets of Baal – all 450 of them. It is a triumphant moment for Elijah, the highest of highs, but when Queen Jezebel learns of it she vows Elijah will be dead within 24 hours. This is why he flees into the wilderness.
And it is here, exhausted and famished and disillusioned, he prays, “It is enough. I want to die.” Pete and Al’s rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s stirring interpretation of this passage portrayed so powerfully just how shaken and defeated the prophet had become. Ponder for a moment the lowest point in your life and you will know exactly where Elijah is. And it is hard to be here with him here because our memories and our experiences which connect us to him are deeply painful. Sit with them for too long and they might just pull you back into their deep despair.
Notice the text tells us Elijah takes refugee under a broom tree; an umbrella shaped desert shrub with roots capable of drawing moisture out of near-barren land. If you do a Google search of ‘broom tree’ you will see photo after photo of a solitary piece of green vegetation surrounded by nothing else but rocky wilderness. It is a truly remarkable specimen of God’s creation.
There are several times in the bible when a person finds him or herself despairing under a broom tree. Job experiences it as a place of desolation and abandonment. The Psalmist finds it to be a place to mourn and to experience punishment. In the Book of Genesis, Hagar and her son Ishmael lie down under a broom tree ready to die of hunger and thirst after being expelled from Abraham’s household.
Yet, in spite of these examples, the broom tree is anything but a symbol of hopelessness. Its leaf cover provides shade from the searing desert sun. And its wood is excellent for building a fire because it burns slow and warm. In fact, on cold desert nights, a person under a broom tree might take warms coals, bury them a few inches under the sand, and then spread out a bedroll over top of them. The coals warm the sand, which in turn mitigates effect of a frigid night. In the morning the coals can be dug up, rekindled, and used to bake a meal of bread, which is what God’s angel offers to Elijah.
As with all moments of human despair, in the Old Testament the broom tree is a place of divine encounter. God comes to the person under the tree, just as God comes to us… at the time when we need God the most. There is always bread under the broom tree, whether it be a literal tree in the wilderness or the figurative tree of our difficult times and moments; whether it be literal bread and drink for Elijah or spiritual bread and drink for us. Whenever you find yourself under a broom tree, look around for the bread!
Last Sunday morning the back wall of Terry and Irma Mottley’s garage collapsed, creating a cascade of mud and water which came gushing in. Fortunately, the supporting structure held and has now been reinforced, but the house is now condemned until major structural repairs can take place. It will be months. As trying as this experience has been physically and emotionally, Terry and Irma are surprisingly upbeat. They talk about the dozens of people who have shown up and offered help: the fire department responded immediately to a 911 call and made sure everyone was safe, a contractor in the neighborhood is spearing heading the charge to get repairs done, adjustors are assessing the situation. A colleague of mine - a deacon in the Episcopal Church who is a professional engineer - designed an impressive iron structure to shore up the house until permanent repairs are made. Even with all the challenges this has brought on them, Terry and Irma talk mostly about the outpouring of help and concern coming their way. They have found firsthand how God provides bread under the broom tree.
The bread Elijah finds is anything but a quick fix. He is directed to eat not once, but twice because he is being sent on a forty-day journey to Mt. Horeb (better known as Mt. Sinai), where Moses first encountered God. God does not make Elijah’s problems magically disappear, but God does give him strength for the journey and promises to be present with him throughout the ordeal.
Today’s Gospel reading pairs so beautifully with the story of Elijah. Jesus tells us he is the true and living bread come down from heaven. He is the bread under the broom tree who meets us in the hopeless places and sustains us for the road ahead.
On Thursday those of us who gather for Evening Prayer read a poem from Francis J. Robert’s devotional classic Come Away My Beloved titled Move on Steadily. While it changes the metaphorical imagery of today’s readings from bread to water, it still conveys the promise of bread under the broom tree:
Many a ship has sailed from port to port
with no interference from Me,
because Strong Will has been at the wheel.
Multitudes of pleasure cruises
go merrily on their ways,
untouched by the power of My hand.
But you have put your life into My keeping,
and because you are
depending on Me for guidance and direction,
I shall give it.
Move on steadily,
and know that the waters that carry you
are the waters of My love and My kindness,
and I will keep you on the right course.
When we find ourselves under the broom tree what a blessing it is to know God provides bread and waters of love and kindness to direct us.