Pentecost 12.18 “Runaway Food” John 6:35-51
I think I was about 5 or 6 years old. My mother told me the story when I was “grown up”. Apparently, I’d had enough. Too many chores around the house. Not enough cartoon time. Too many time outs. General lack of appreciation for my unique gifts. At least that’s what the 5 or 6 year old me reported to my mother, as she recalled. Apparently, I came to her one summer morning, sat down with her at the kitchen table, and let her know that, while I had an appreciation for her and for what she and my father had done for me, it was time for me to move on. I was running away from home, just wanted her to know and to say goodbye.
I delivered the news calmly and mom took it calmly. She said, “Would you like some cookies and milk before you run away? I just made Snickerdoodles, your favorite, I think.” I did like Snickerdoodles. Still do (trigger warning: like last week’s, this sermon also will have a lot of food references.). I don’t actually remember any of this, just taking mom’s word for it. But it does sound vaguely familiar. Fortified by Snickerdoodles, I gave mom a hug and lit out like Huck Finn for the territories. Mom called Mrs. McLung who lived down the road, let her know that I was running away from home, felt the institution no longer had anything to offer me. She said she had some fresh-made cookies too and would intercept me. Suspecting nothing, I indulged in some chocolate chip cookies at the McLung’s (slightly inferior to mom’s). Mrs. McLung was a good egg and charitably heard my complaints, wondered where I’d get cookies where I was heading? This was apparently enough to make me reconsider my plans. After getting as far as the lake to see the ducks, mom recalls I was back home by lunch.
Those were the days of “free range” kids. Good days. Like the days of Elijah. All God’s prophets were “free range kids”. There was no tight leash. They could come and go as they pleased. The Lord was lenient, maybe dangerously so, according to today’s canons of parenting? What an odd story this is with Elijah in our Old Testament reading, right?! God lets Elijah get himself into a tight spot with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. A little wager on whose God would answer by fire. God bailed Elijah out that evening, and Elijah slaughtered 450 of the prophets of Baal. I think I mentioned the leeway God gave the prophets back then? Boys will be boys. Anyway, when the wicked queen Jezebel (who could also have been a witch) hears it, she promises to end Elijah’s life (horribly!) by noon the next day. (!!).
Like Neal and Jack, Huck, and me, Elijah lit out for the territories. Ran away. I wonder: why? You’ve just called down fire from heaven(!), hacked apart 450 armed men single handedly(!!), been marvelously sustained by heavenly power against formidable foes, why would a threat (even from a wicked witch!) put such a scare into you that you run away? C’mon: man up, dude! This is very un-Elijah, un prophet-like behavior! An army doesn’t scare you, but a nasty note from a mean queen sends you running for your life?(!!!)…
We get a hint, though, when he’s made it a day into the wilderness. Sitting under a broom tree, he prays that he might die, saying he’s no better than his fathers. So maybe it wasn’t simple fear or cowardice that made Elijah run away. Maybe he’d seen something of himself in Jezebel, in her note, her ways, her methods? Maybe that’s what really scared him? That he was no better than his faithless fathers? Maybe he’s running away from himself?
Anyway, God does a strange thing. Instead of pointing out that deserting his post is a capital offense, or telling him that he’s really OK, just the way he is, or that he doesn’t want to see him go, God, like my mom, just says, “Well, since you’re going, I’ve got some butter cream cake, with caramel topping, fresh-made. How about a piece before you go?” And Elijah did like cake—with caramel sauce. Why not? After a nice nap, the Angel of the Lord comes back and goes “Seconds?” And Elijah is a man who knows and believes firmly in “second breakfast” like Pip in Lord of the Rings. “If You don’t mind, I think I will have some more, thanks!” And the Angel of the Lord is like “No problem, by all means, indulge; because the journey is too great for you, otherwise.” And in the strength of that food Elijah went 40 days and 40 nights all the way to Horeb (Mt. Sinai) the mountain of God.
Like my mom, God doesn’t try to talk Elijah out of silly ideas or stunts. He isn’t going to scold or cajole or beg the wayward prophet not to run away from home. Instead, He’ll smile, lean back laconically, and go: “How about a Snickerdoodle and a glass of sweet, cold milk before you go?” He’s a God who seems to enjoy Huck Finn, maybe’s fond even of Kerouac, too? He provides food for runaways. He’s an enabler that Way!
Why would God enable our bad ideas, fuel our weak moments, help us to abandon our post and His house? Isn’t that awfully odd of God? Well, one thing I notice is that like my 5 or 6 year old self, Elijah runs away without a plan or a clear destination in mind. He finds himself a day’s journey in the wilderness and in a little pity party, begs God to just put him out of his misery: “Take my life… but don’t let it be, consecrated Lord to Thee. No, just take it, end it, put me out of my misery!” But, instead, God serves cake and cookies that the prophet likes a lot 🙂 And I notice that it’s only after the cake, and the Lord mentioning a long journey, that the destination of Horeb, the mountain of God, Sinai comes clear…
I’ll tell you what I think: like mom’s cookies steered me in a roundabout way home, I think God’s butter cream and caramel cake steered Elijah right to God’s backyard, to the place where God talks to runaways, face to face, and gets this whole redemption business really humming. I think God’s cake/cookies fuel our journey to find Him in the oddest places, in deserts, on mountains; I think in our running away, we end up falling right into His arms…
God’s food is always for runaways, ne’er-do-wells, rouges, rebels, off-the-grid types. God didn’t give Elijah this miracle cake as a reward for his good deeds, missional-mindedness, or faithful acts. No. God served up the food of the gods when Elijah was weak, scared, tired, pouty, petulant, whiny, fed-up—ready to just give up and die. The Lord’s Feast is always like this: IT’S not made for the strong and the faithful and the good, but for the weak, the doubtful—for sinners, beggars, after all…(!)
Jesus meets us, in the Gospel, in the desert where we have run away—cold, cold heart, hard-done-by You. He doesn’t scold, cajole, or try to talk us into staying or behaving. He raises free range kids—only, always. Raises us all up—at the Last Day. Instead of talking us out of running away, He just goes: “I’ve got cake. You like cake, I think… bread of heaven, My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. Maybe have a little nibble before you go, on your Way?” “Well, maybe just one, small bite. I do like Snickerdoodles. Bread of heaven sounds OK, too…”
It’s all on offer here, now, this Food, to restore, renew, transport you to God’s Holy Mountain where Peace, surpassing understanding, guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.