Under the Broom Tree
by The Reverend Jeffrey C. Johnson
1 Kings 19:4-8
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
If I were to give this sermon a title it would be “Under the Broom Tree.” For me that is the single phrase that sticks out so much in this Old Testament story of Elijah. Elijah is one of my favorite biblical characters in that he acts so very, very human. He is full of self-doubt, he’s wondering if he did the right thing, and after doing the “right thing” he’s wondering if he’s still doing the right thing. At times I really see myself in Elijah. Because Elijah really wants to get it right the first time.
As always background: Elijah has just fled both the wicked husband/wife duo of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in a showdown with the priests of the false god Baal. Elijah defeats the 400+ priests in basically a network battle of the stars. Of course the false god, Baal, produces nothing in the showdown and Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews blows up the altar to Baal in a single, thunderbolt stroke. Never let it be said that the Bible ain’t exciting.
Fearing for his life, Elijah high tails it out of town to the desert to this solitary broom tree where he wonders if he has failed?? And then our unexpected visitor…an angel bearing a freshly cooked cake (what sounds like a pancake) and a jar of water. “Get up and EAT.” Elijah chooses to snooze perhaps with a little dusting of self-pity. And a SECOND warning and admonishment… “Get up and eat…for the journey is long and otherwise too much for you.” I must admit when I read this I sometimes hear my mother’s voice as the angel’s voice.
But seriously and from a psychological standpoint, Elijah literally finds himself in the wilderness, but he also seems to be figuratively in the wilderness as he asks the Lord to take his life. Elijah has endured a traumatic episode with the prophets of Baal. Although he successfully dispatched the prophets and demonstrated God’s power to Ahab and Jezebel, something is wrong. Elijah experiences a sense of shame or failure or some type of emotion on which we cannot quite put our finger. It leaves him deflated, despondent and depressed.
Don’t’ you find this strange…Elijah’s sense of loss and shame? This feeling that we cannot put our finger on. How many have you experienced a sense of loss or shame after what seems to be an accomplishment? And even darker, have you ever experienced someone for whom death seems a better option than living? Could that person be you? It seems that Elijah is starving and not just for bread; it seems that Elijah’s biggest problem is that he is his own worst enemy.
That must the utmost of despair. For Elijah and maybe for some of us in dire need, Death appears to be the only avenue of God’s redemption. (READ AGAIN) And these longing for death is not just limited to the historic Elijah…it can also speak to those trapped by us caught in depression especially after trauma.
But God does not choose to redeem Elijah through death. And God does not choose to redeem us through death. God chooses to show up to Elijah with a pancake and some water. And God shows up for us too.
This week at Camp Calumet I was the family camp chaplain. And this past week I was fed and I got to feed. In fact the whole week was like one big sacrament. For those who have experienced CC, you know of its beauty, its community, and its deep history with the Lutherans of this synod. I renewed my baptismal vows in Lake Ossipee where people shared with me their personal histories of Calumet back to the 1960’s. Frequent themes and red threads in these stories are Calumet’s restorative powers: Calumet’s ability to reset people, Calumet’s redemptive action, and Calumet’s ability to feed.
Calumet feeds in the literal sense and certainly the transformative sense. One is fed delicious food by a kitchen staff whose ministry is extraordinary. But as importantly, Calumet feeds anyone with this bread of life of which Jesus speaks.
It was privilege to preside at two Eucharistic Services with one being outside in the outdoor chapel and one inside the conference center. Both were well attended. Those who attended were engaged and wanted to be there. Why? Because, my friends I believe that we Christians are at times starving, yes starving. Yes our lives have become like eating fast food. Because in God’s eyes and in the fictional Mame Dennis, Auntie Mame’s words, “Life is a Banquet and most poor suckers are starving.” Neither God or Auntie Mame wants us to starve physically, emotionally, or mentally. God does not call us to starvation. God calls us to life abundant.
And with that feeding, we need quality, intentional, slow cooking. Jesus doesn’t feed us fast food; he feeds us on the Bread of Life from Heaven that was once bought with sacrifice. But in that sacrifice, is that bread freely and gladly given.
Our lives in the world can become so easily impoverished by stress, depression, overwork, worry, and isolation that we too feel like poor Elijah. We feel Elijah’s burnout and sense of failure. However, Much like Elijah’s angel, Jesus is there. Nudging us…telling us to get up and eat. To get out from under our Broom Trees.
So today when you come to communion, to the altar rail, to eat, please remember that you come not for comfort alone to meal. Yes, the meal is comforting. We come to this meal for food for the journey, the journey after our nap under the solitary broom tree. A journey that will have great triumphs followed by great loss. A journey that will seem very ordinary in many ways. A journey that at times will seem meaningless. But our journey is always accompanied and ends up at the Cross-where we are redeemed; we are fed and made full by the God who calls us.