Pentecost – Proper 11
1 Kings 19: 4-8; Psalm 34: 1-8; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5:2; John 6:35, 41 - 51
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
In early 1980s my family lived in Phoenix, Arizona. We lived across the street from the Luftman’s, a Jewish family who we became close friends with, as they had two daughters, Amanda and Jessica, who were of similar age to me and my older brother. We were always at each other’s homes, playing hide and go seek, blind man’s bluff, and all other sorts of other games that passed the time during the long hot summer months of Arizona.
Amanda and Jessica’s mother, Barbara, and my mother were close friends, and on November 24, 1983, Barbara came over and surprised my mother on her birthday by hanging colorful banners around our house inscribed with the number forty. It was my mother’s fortieth birthday. At the age of eight back then, I remember thinking, “Wow that is really old!”
Around that time, at least as I remember it, Amanda and Jessica’s maternal grandparents, Gertha and Joseph came to visit them. I remember this visit because it was the occasion of my first, and to date, only argument over religion. I was raised attending an Episcopal school, and in the religion class, learned about Jesus. One day I shared what I had learned with Jessica, who was playing with My Little Pony horses at the time, that I knew Jesus was the Messiah. And Jessica said, “No, he isn’t, the Messiah has not yet come.” I grabbed one of her My Little Pony horses, agitating here more, and said, “Yes he is the Messiah, my Bible teacher said so!” The argument escalated, and finally I said something so foolish, so ignorant, and so un-informed, that it could only have come out of an arrogant eight year olds mouth. I don’t remember exactly what it was that I said, but it was something about Christians being superior to Jewish people because Christians had Jesus.
The next day, Jessica and Amanda’s mother and grandmother showed up at our doorstep, and wanted to talk to me. I was in big trouble! They sat down in our living room and explained to me that it was okay for people to have different religious beliefs, but that we should never use our beliefs to divide us from each other. I learned that my hurtful rhetoric about Christianity being superior to Judaism touched them on a much deeper level than I could have ever imagined. They explained to me that Joseph, Jessica’s grandfather had a tattoo on his arm, which was his prisoner identification number, possibly tattooed upon him by a German Christian military officer. Jessica’s mother, Barbara, I learned, was smuggled out of Poland as a young girl, as her parents fled for their lives to escape Nazi persecution. While it could be argued that there were atheist or at least agnostic Nazis at the time, it is undeniable that many of them were Christian. It was when I saw the number on Joseph’s forearm that I felt realized just how utterly stupid my comments were. Since that moment, I have never had any desire to argue religion, unless religion is used as a means to persecute or threaten the well being of another human being – then I will have plenty to argue!
Numbers matter, you see. Whether that number is tattooed as a means of identification, or if it is in reference to someone’s age. Numbers matter.
In the Bible, the number forty appears again and again throughout different books in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. In our reading from 1 Kings today we hear about the courageous prophet Elijah who spoke truth to power – and won. Before the story we hear this morning, Elijah encountered the wrath of Queen Jezebel when he challenged the priests of the Canaanite god Ba’al to a contest between their god and the god of Israel. What was this contest? Which god would strike a pile of wood with fire and cause it to burn? The priests of Ba’al tried, but to no success. Elijah prayed to God, and fire came from heaven and struck the pile of wood.
So furious was Jezebel she threatened Elijah with his life. This is where we meet Elijah this morning: on the run, tired, hungry, and ready to give up. So destitute and afraid is Elijah, he asks God that he may die. Thankfully, that prayer goes unanswered, Elijah instead falls asleep. Instead of bringing death, God’s angels bring food and water, ministering to Elijah in the desert, as they ministered to Jesus for his forty days in the wilderness.
The food and the water the angels offer Elijah fortify him for his journey, a journey that lasts forty days and forty nights. The destination of that journey? Mt. Horeb, or as it is known elsewhere in the Bible as Mt. Sinai, the mountain where Moses spent forty days and nights where he did not eat or drink until he had written down the words of God’s covenant.
All of these examples of the number forty, whether they are about Elijah, Moses or Jesus point to the same thing – that forty symbolically represents in the Bible a time period of testing or trial. The number is not literal as much as it is symbolic – when we read the number forty in scripture, it means a period of time of testing, of struggle. For some people that might be a month, a year, a decade, or an entire lifetime. Many of us, like Elijah or Jesus, have experienced those seasons of trial, those periods of time where it seemed as if God is far away and unconcerned about our struggle. Some of us are in that moment now. If this is where you are, there is something so important for you to know.
As angels ministered to Jesus for his time of trial in the wilderness and Elijah as he was fleeing Jezebel, so too are angels ministering to you right now. Joseph and Gertha were angels to me. As much as you may feel alone, as much as you may feel that you are the only person struggling with an addiction, a failed relationship, a lost job – you aren’t. There are others here who have the same experience, and because they have that in common with you and they have experienced what you have experienced, they are an angel to you, as you are an angel to them.
Who are the angels that are carrying you through this moment? Have you thanked them? Have you told them how grateful you are? If you are in the forties (and I don’t mean age, I mean if you are in a period of struggle or trial), know there is food and drink for your journey here, as angels provided the same for Elijah.
If you choose to come to this altar later, you will receive a food and drink, and you will be ministered to by angels.
The number I saw tattooed on Joseph’s arm that day has never left my mind, and it was the first time I ever associated a number with a period of time. I will never imagine pretending what his experience was like, but in some way that transcends my feeble understanding, I believe that the angels that reached out to Elijah and Jesus reached also out to Joseph and Gertha, and that they reach out to us today. I cannot explain this, except to say that in life and in death, whatever our age, there is an angel reaching out to us, always. AMEN.