FOOD FOR THE JOURNEY – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 14, Year B; Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B (RC)

August 8, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 or 1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 130 or Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9 (9a)
Ephesians 4:30 – 5:2
John 6:41-51

Delivering a message that people don’t want to hear can be difficult, even wearing. Take, for example, the many public health officials and medical professionals who have advised protective measures and pleaded with people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 over the past eighteen months. Often these officials have been ignored, vilified, and even threatened—sometimes by political leaders who ironically are charged to care for the safety and well-being of the community. Not being listened to can be painful and discouraging, especially when the stakes are so high.

The Scriptures also include examples of people not wanting to hear, and today the Lectionary presents two such stories. Both Elijah and Jesus meet resistance to their messages, with each responding quite differently.

When we meet the prophet Elijah in today’s reading from 1 Kings, he has journeyed far into the wilderness, where he plops down under a broom tree and prays for death. Before going any further, however, it’s important to know the backstory.

Elijah had made himself a pain to the ruling powers, who had been dabbling in the cult of the pagan god Baal. In the face of fierce opposition from Queen Jezebel and a legion of Baal’s prophets, our hero had been staunchly proclaiming that there is no God but the God of Israel. Although Elijah had successfully defended his position in a dramatic contest by calling down sacrificial fire from heaven to consume water-soaked wood and had slain 400 of the idol’s prophets, Jezebel became more hardened than ever against him and his message. She threatened to kill him—and so he had fled out of fear for his life.

Elijah seems burned out and depressed as he takes refuge under a single pitiful broom tree. He is exhausted from the ordeal and the journey, and so he falls asleep. Yet the Holy One has plans for Elijah, and so twice he is awakened by God’s messenger and provided with food to strengthen him for the journey ahead. Elijah was deeply discouraged after being ignored, and so God responds with sustenance—food for the journey—so that he may meet the Holy One at Mount Horeb, just as Moses had done before him.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, the crowds were eagerly looking for yet another sign following the feeding of the multitude. Jesus responded to their demand with a simple but profound declaration: “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). They were not simply disappointed by his response; they grew increasingly agitated as he continued to spell out the implications of that statement.

His claims seemed outlandish. Why should they listen to him? They all knew his family, yet he declared that he had “come down from heaven,” that no one could come to him unless they had been “drawn by the Father” (6:44), and that the bread that he would give is his very flesh (6:51). Rather than backing away from a message that wasn’t being well received, Jesus doubles down. By using the expression “I AM,” Jesus deliberately evokes the very name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Not only is he himself the gift of God to provide sustenance for life’s journey, but his very identity is linked to the Father who sent him. If they were truly led by God, he tells them, they would put their faith in him.

Can Jesus be both someone whose background we all know—a local celebrity who is still after all just one of us—while claiming an identity with the God of the ancestors? This is the challenge that Jesus sets before the skeptical crowd. “I am the bread of life,” he declares. He himself, this carpenter’s son, is “the bread come down from heaven,” inviting people in need of sustenance to put their faith in him and receive the gift of eternal life.

Both Jesus and Elijah faced skepticism and hostility as they carried out their mission from God. Over time, that kind of resistance can lead to discouragement, as we heard in the story of Elijah. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected on this difficult experience during a 1966 speech in Chicago:

“I don’t mind telling you this morning that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I move through Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticisms, even from Negroes, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work’s in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”

Few of us are called to the level of prophetic leadership that we hear about in the stories of Elijah, Jesus, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet all of us have been chosen to give witness to the God’s coming reign of justice and truth in our families, work, and community involvement.

Life’s journey can be difficult and challenging, but the Holy One provides us with the sustenance to keep going even in the face of disdain or discouragement. Christ has called us to listen to his word, to place our faith in him, and to find in him our food for the journey. “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps 34:8)

A Hymn for Today: “All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly”

United Church of Christ minister Sylvia G. Dunstan (1955-1993) quotes directly from Psalm 34 and John 6 in this text that invites “all who hunger” to find their food in Christ. She wrote this text specifically for the American shape note tune HOLY MANNA, evoking an additional musical connection to the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.

All who hunger, gather gladly;
holy manna is our bread.
Come from wilderness and wandering.
Here, in truth, we will be fed.
You that yearn for days of fullness,
all around us is our food.
Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good.

All who hunger, never strangers,
seeker, be a welcome guest.
Come from restlessness and roaming.
Here, in joy, we keep the feast.
We that once were lost and scattered
in communion’s love have stood.
Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good.

All who hunger, sing together;
Jesus Christ is living bread.
Come from loneliness and longing.
Here ins peace, we have been led.
Blest are those who from this table
live their days in gratitude.
Taste and see the grace eternal.
Taste and see that God is good.

Text: Sylvia G. Dunstan, 1990. © 1991, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-792857

Image Credit: The Prophet Elijah, Daniele da Volterra, 1560 (Public domain, Wikimedia)

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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