Eleventh Weekend of Pentecost B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.
1 Kings 19:4-8
John 6:35, 41-51
In the fall of 2006, I had the opportunity to go on my very first backpacking trip. Capital University’s Campus Congregation was hosting the trip, and two students from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Jim and Erica, were leading it.
I’ve been camping my whole life, but I’d never been back-packing before. I was excited to go out on a journey, carrying my supplies, shelter, and especially food on my back and enjoying the many gifts nature had to offer.
We drove down to Zaleski State Forest and unloaded the van just after dusk. The weather service predicted rain that night, so we hurriedly loaded our packs onto our backs, went over basic trail and pack use, fired up the flashlights, and hiked the 1.8 miles to the first campsite. Sure enough, as we set up our tents (which, if you’ve never done in the dark, is a hoot), it began to sprinkle, and we fell asleep to the sound of the water bouncing gently off our shelter.
I spent that trip taking in every detail I could: the breathtaking view of the old railroad line from the top of a cliff; the few remaining stones that were the only sign left of an abandoned ghost town; the red water poisoned with runoff chemicals from the old mine that was never sealed properly; the way pita pizzas taste after a long haul on the trail.
As the day of departure grew nearer, I dreaded going back. I loved it out there, hiking the trails, sleeping in the tent, learning about outdoor survival from Jim and Erica. I didn’t care about getting back. It was the journey that was important. A shirt I bought in Gatlinburg, TN says so.
I loved that journey so much that I went on the next two backpacking trips offered by Campus Congregation. During my senior year and for a year afterward, I even led the trips, taking care of their organization, signing people up, and instructing them in the very basics of backpacking (I am no expert).
I couldn’t get enough of that journey. Now only did the pita pizzas feed me, but the whole journey fed me with strength to get through my exams, confidence in leadership ability, and simply time to not worry about time. I wish I could say that all journeys are as grand and filling as those backpacking trips were. But you and I both know that life’s journeys aren’t always so easy.
June, 2008. I had graduated from Capital the week before (barely—just ask my Mom, she was freaking out the whole week before, and so was I). Unclear of what was coming next in life, and with no money to figure it out anyhow, I moved back to Chicago and picked up first a construction job, then my old job back at a bar and restaurant I’d worked for years. Seminary was on my mind, but I wasn’t in a rush.
I received a call one morning driving the construction company pickup from my girlfriend back in Columbus a week before I was to visit her saying that we were done and she didn’t want me to come see her anymore. I began the hardest journey I’ve yet faced in my life. This was a journey unlike backpacking in every way. This was not a temporary getaway, a time and place for relaxation and enjoyment. It was a long journey, a hard journey, that left me anything but fed.
In some ways, I felt like Elijah as he flees from Queen Jezebel. Having just killed 450 of the Queen’s false prophets, and having received a death threat from the Queen, Elijah is rightly fearing for his life. Something terrible has happened to him, and we human beings usually respond in two ways: we face it, or we run from it. Elijah chose to run.
When he flees to Mt. Horeb, he is met by a question from God: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Is the question for God’s benefit, or for Elijah’s? Where do we go when we are in trouble? Where do we go when we are afraid?
Elijah went to find God in the one place he was sure God would be—the place where God made the covenant with the Israelites. And God knows why Elijah is there. The real question, and why God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” is whether Elijah knows why he is there.
Human beings have the remarkable ability to ignore the truth right in front of their eyes and replace it with a lie. After that call from my girlfriend, I decided that I was moving back out to Columbus to try and make things right. It was a stupid move. After I moved, I kept thinking to myself, “What am I doing here?”
I thought I had known, but looking back, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no plan for the future, no job lined up, no school lined up. If friends of mine hadn’t been looking for a third roommate, I wouldn’t have had a place to live. I have to give plenty of credit to my parents, who put up with my ill-conceived journey and kept me afloat.
Elijah fled to God. I fled to… I don’t know. Elijah had a set destination in mind. I didn’t. Both of us were confused, but at least Elijah knew where to go, if not why.
You see Elijah didn’t go to God to make things right. He didn’t go to God to appeal to God for a solution or to find protection. He went for vindication before God, to show God that he was right and, in his mind, the only one left.
‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ He went to prove his self-righteousness. Which is, I guess, what I was doing in Columbus, too. I wanted to prove I was right and could fix things on my own. Boy, did I fail spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean that the journey was fruitless. God didn’t ask Elijah, “What are you doing here?” out of confusion, but out of love, trying to help Elijah work through his fear and anger and issues.
When I used to backpack in Zaleski State Forest, because of the mine runoff, none of the water was potable. Instead, three water tanks were sunk into the ground along the trail. In the years I hiked those trails, I never once ran out of water. I was provided with more than enough to get me through the trip. Elijah, on his trip through the wilderness to Mt. Horeb, is touched by an angel and given bread for the journey, an amount that, though small, gave him strength for the forty day journey.
In Columbus, those angels took the forms of friends who watched out for me, held me when I cried, calmed me when I grew angry, and talked me straight when I babbled senselessly. They were my bread for my journey on the way to my own Mt. Horeb. Perhaps reconnecting with Debbie was my own “What are you doing here?” moment.
It took me a long time to begin to understand my journey. Sometimes I wish God would just give me the answers I want and be done with it. Why drag it out, and make me go through all of this pain and sorrow?
But God is a lot smarter than I am. Like I said, human beings have this remarkable ability to look truth in the face and deny it. I once told my angels how I had come to some conclusions about how my former relationship had ended, and how maybe it was for the best that it did end. They merely smiled and said, “We could’ve told you that from the beginning.”
I was shocked. If you felt this way, I said, why didn’t you ever tell me? Their reply was true then, it’s true now, and it’s true in the future. If we had told you, knowing how you felt about her, would you have listened to us? The answer is, of course, no, I wouldn’t have. I was too occupied with myself and how I felt to be able to hear those words. But being on a journey has a tendency to make the false things fall away and the true things come to the light.
God tells Elijah, in no uncertain terms, that he is not the last one, to get over himself, and to get to work. His false sense of self-righteousness has to fall away for the truth to come out, that he is still needed and valued and loved by God, so he might as well get on with it. His journey isn’t done, but at least he now knows why he is here. Elijah had a calling, and even in the midst of danger and fear, that gave him the strength to continue.
This past year of internship has been a journey. Some days, it’s felt like a backpacking trip through Zaleski State Forest. I am proud to say that I experienced twelve of the finest eating establishments in Muskegon, a different one each month, with the ladies. I relaxed at Stony Lake Camp and was moved in ways I still can’t describe at the National Youth Gathering in New Orleans. I went to picnics and hockey games and No-Shave Novembers and campgrounds and enjoyed every moment of it.
Other times, it’s felt like a journey through the wilderness, or a journey through grief with a broken heart. I’ve had to wrestle with my own self-doubt and confidence to get out and meet new people. To engage you face to face. I’ve missed friends and family. I’ve watched, disappointed, as I didn’t grow in some ways as much as I thought I would, or didn’t accomplish the big plans I thought I’d have. I’ve worried whether I would make it through internship or face the terrifying prospect of learning that this is not my calling.
You have been my bread for the journey. You have been the angels that touched me and said, “Get up, eat” when I had laid down in the desert. You have been the cakes baked on hot stones and jars of water, sustaining me for the journey to see God, to have my fears and falsehoods exposed and to be set on a path toward my calling.
You are a people who takes people like me as we are, wraps your arms around them, nurtures them. You let them find themselves, answer the question “What are you doing here?” for themselves, and in the doing, empower themselves for God’s call for them in the world.
There are a lot of people out there who need that care, the care that my angels gave me, that God gave to Elijah, and that you give to us. So as you have done this for me, and for past interns, and for future ones, I point you towards those doors, and in the words of Jesus, the living bread from heaven, tell you: “Go and do likewise.” Be bread for the journey.