When is Enough Enough?

Readings for August 9, 2015: 1 Kings 19:1-5;  Psalm 34:1-8;  Ephesians 4:25-5:2;  John 6:35, 41-51;

WHEN IS ENOUGH ENOUGH?  Homily: Ian Sowton   

ELIJAH: THE SAGA OF ELIJAH PITS ELIJAH, PROPHET OF YAHWEH AGAINST QUEEN JEZEBEL, SPONSOR OF THE GOD BAAL AND HIS PROPHET-PRIESTS.   THERE IS A SAVAGE WAR GOING ON.  KAREN ARMSTRONG ARGUES IN HER RECENT BOOK FIELDS OF BLOOD THAT RELIGION HAS A BAD RAP AS A PERENNIAL CAUSE OF WARS.   WARS ARE MOSTLY FOUGHT, SHE SAYS, OVER POLITICAL POWER, OVER ESTABLISHING THE AUTHORITY OF A SECULAR REGIME WHICH, BECAUSE RELIGION IS SO IMPORTANT TO SO MANY PEOPLE, IS ALL TOO OFTEN VERY WILLING TO INVOKE AND CO-OPT RELIGIOUS PRESTIGE AND PRACTICES IF AND WHEN CONVENIENT.    WHATEVER YOU THINK OF AMSTRONG’S THESIS—WHICH OF COURSE I’M DRASTICALLY ABRIDGING—IN THIS PART OF THE ELIJAH SAGA IT’S CLEARLY APPARENT THAT THERE IS A MERCILESS POWER STRUGGLE GOING ON BETWEEN THE ELIJAH/YAHWEH AND JEZEBEL/BAAL FACTIONS.   WHOSE GOD IS MORE POWERFUL?  BOTH GODS ARE LOCAL, TERRITORIAL DEITIES.   BOTH JEZEBEL AND ELIJAH HAVE BEEN TRYING RUTHLESSLY TO EXTIRPATE THE OTHER’S FACTION OF PROPHETS.   JUST BEFORE THE EPISODE IN THE ELIJAH SAGA THAT WE’RE CONCERNED WITH TODAY YAHWEH HAS WON THE LATEST ROUND OF THE CONTEST WITH BAAL IN A DAZZLING DISPLAY OF POWER IN ANSWER TO ELIJAH’S PRAYER.  AND ELIJAH HAS JUST TOLD THE ASSEMBLED MOB OF ISRAELITE WITNESSES TO TAKE THE UNFORTUNATE LOSERS—THOSE “400 PROPHETS OF BAAL WHO EAT AT JEZEBEL’S TABLE”— DOWN FROM MT CARMEL TO THE BROOK KISHON WHERE HE, ELIJAH, BUTCHERS THEM HIMSELF…..

TURNING TO OUR THEME WORD ENOUGH, WE CAN NOTE THAT IT HAS TWO ASPECTS: ONE NEGATIVE, WHICH IS DESPAIR, AS IN ELIJAH’S “ENOUGH! I’VE HAD IT!  I GIVE UP”; (OR AS IN GREED, FOR INSTANCE, WHICH IS DESPAIR AT NEVER HAVING ENOUGH).    BUT “ENOUGH” ALSO HAS A POSITIVE ASPECT, IN FACT A DOUBLY POSITIVE ASPECT: THANKSGIVING FOR ENOUGH IN THE WAY OF PROVISIONS AND GRATITUDE FOR ENOUGH PROVISION, OR EVEN FOR ENOUGH PLUS A SURPLUS.   IN THE EPISODE OF THE ELIJAH SAGA THAT THE LECTIONARY INVITES US TO CONSIDER TODAY WE ENCOUNTER ENOUGH IN A DESPAIRING MODE: ELIJAH’S “ENOUGH! I’VE HAD IT!”    IN THE FACE OF JEZEBEL’S VENGEFULNESS HE HAS PLUNGED FROM THE HIGH OF MT CARMEL TO THE DEPTHS OF TERRIFIED DESPAIR AND FLED FOR HIS LIFE.   IT’S TRUE THAT ELIJAH IS PROVIDED FOR, INDEED PROVISIONED WITH ENOUGH SUSTENANCE FOR A NON-STOP 40 DAY HIKE.   BUT THANKS AND GRATITUDE ARE NOT MUCH IN EVIDENCE AT THE MOMENT.

PSALM   PSALM 34 IS A HYMN OF THANKSGIVING AND GRATITUDE, FEATURES THAT WE’VE ALREADY ASSOCIATED WITH ENOUGH PROVISION, THOUGH IN THIS CASE THERE IS ONLY A BRIEF, METAPHORICAL ALLUSION TO PROVISIONS AS SUCH—“OH TASTE AND SEE THAT YAHWEH IS GOOD.”    NONETHELESS AS A VERITABLE PAEAN OF THANKFUL GRATITUDE PSALM 34 VERY STRONGLY SUGGESTS THAT IT’S FAIR TO INFER AN ENOUGH, INDEED AN ENOUGH + A SURPLUS IN THE OFFING.   FOR ONE THING, IF THE SUPERSCRIPTION TO THIS PSALM IS TO BE TAKEN SERI0USLY, DAVID IS PRESUMABLY BRIMMING OVER WITH GRATEFUL THANKS AT HAVING JUST ESCAPED THE CLUTCHES OF ABIMELECH BY FEIGNING IMBECILITY.

EPHESIANS   THE NEW TESTAMENT LESSON DOES NOT SEEM TO LEND ITSELF TO THE THEME WE’RE CURRENTLY FOLLOWING.    WHAT WE HEARD FROM PAUL TODAY IS MOSTLY A SERIES OF INJUNCTIONS FOR THE CIVILIZED CONDUCT OF LIFE IN A RELIGIOUSLY ORIENTED COMMUNITY (WHAT IS ELSEWHERE CALLED THE RUDIMENTS OF CHRISTIANITY).   A LOT OF HIS INJUNCTIONS, IN THIS PASSAGE ANYWAY, WOULD BE EQUALLY RELEVANT TO THE RULES OF CONDUCT IN ANY RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY.    IN THE INTEREST OF FULL DISCLOSURE I WILL MERELY NOTE BY THE WAY THAT I WOULD PASS THE TEST OF THESE INJUNCTIONS WITH A GRADE OF PERHAPS C+–MY SCORE BEING SEVERELY COMPROMISED BY FLUNKING THE INJUNCTION IN VERSE 35 ABOUT FORGIVING.   THERE ARE MAJOR POLITICAL LEADERS STILL EXTANT AMONG US WHOSE PERFOR- MANCES IN WORD AND DEED I CERTAINLY REMEMBER AND AM NOT YET ABLE TO FORGIVE—EVEN THOUGH THEY PROFESS CHRISTIANITY AND MUST THEREFORE BE ACCEPTED AS ENROLLED IN THE HOUSEHOLD OF FAITH.   MEA CULPA!

GOSPEL   TURNING TO THE GOSPEL FOR TODAY, I MUST CONFESS—AGAIN IN THE INTEREST OF FULL DISCLOSURE—THAT I HAVE MY DIFFICULTIES WITH THIS GOSPEL, TWO GENERAL ONES AND A PARTICULAR ONE.   THIS IS NOT THE PLACE TO INFLICT MY GENERAL DIFFICULTIES UPON YOU.   MY PARTICULAR DIFFICULTY IS THAT SO MUCH COMMENTARY ON THIS GOSPEL TREATS WHAT JESUS IS SAYING AS HISTORICALLY VERBATIM.    WHAT IS GOING ON IS A SERIES OF THEOLOGICAL MEDITATIONS ON THE PERSON AND MINISTRY OF JESUS THAT THE AUTHOR COUCHES IN THE FORM OF DISCOURSES BY JESUS.   THERE’S NOTHING ILLEGITIMATE ABOUT THIS, NOTHING ABOUT CLAIMING TO HAVE FLY-ON-WALL PRIVILEGES OF OVERHEARING; IT IS A STANDARD PROCEDURE OF THE TIME, EVEN IN TEXTS PURPORTING TO BE HISTORICAL, TO PUT WORDS INTO THE MOUTHS OF THEIR SUBJECTS THAT THE AUTHORS COULD NOT HAVE BEEN THERE TO HEAR AT THE TIME.   BUT IT IS NECESSARY, FOR ME ANYWAY, TO KEEP THIS CONTEXTUAL SITUATION IN MIND AND TO REFLECT ON THE TEXT IN AN UP-FRONT MANNER FROM WITHIN THAT CONTEXT.

ALL THAT BEING SAID….OUR GOSPEL PASSAGE FOR TODAY IS ANOTHER PART OF ONE OF THE LONG DISCOURSES THAT ‘JOHN’ PUTS INTO THE MOUTH OF JESUS—THIS ONE BEING ABOUT JESUS IDENTIFYING HIMSELF AS THE BREAD FROM HEAVEN, THAT HEAVENLY MANNA WHICH CONFERS ETERNAL LIFE.    YAHWEH PROVISIONED THE IRAELITES IN THE WILDERNESS WITH ENOUGH MANNA TO LAST FOR THE DAY AND TOLD THEM TO COLLECT ENOUGH ON THE SIXTH DAY TO PROVIDE ENOUGH FOR THE SABBATH—THE DAY OF NO COLLECTION.    WHEREAS JOHN HAS JESUS BOLDLY INSERTING HIMSELF INTO THE TRADITION OF THE TORAH BEING THE WORD OF PERPETUAL NOURISHMENT AND CLAIMING THAT HE HIMSELF IS THAT HEAVENLY FOOD, MANNA OF THE EVERLASTING ENOUGH.    SO HERE WE HAVE THE IDENTIFICATION OF HIS BODY WITH BREAD.    EVERY SABBATH WE REMEMBER AND CELEBRATE THIS CRUCIAL PROVISION: THE BODY BROKEN AND DISTRIBUTED WITH ENOUGH FOR EVERYBODY.    EVERY SABBATH SERVICE WE REACH THE LITURGY OF THE BREAD AND CUP DURING WHICH WE COME TO THE EUCHARIST ITSELF, THE GREAT THANKSGIVING IN BOLD FACE AND LARGER LETTERS.    THE HEART AND CLIMAX OF HOLY COMMUNION IS A GREAT BIG THANK YOU!!, A COMMUNAL EXCLAMATION OF GRATITUDE.  THIS ACTION GOES BACK TO THE LAST SUPPER, WHEN JESUS IN PAUL’S ACCOUNT BLESSES THE BREAD; AND ALSO TO THE BLESSING, SAYING OF GRACE, BEFORE THE ENOUGH OF THAT MEAL IN EMMAUS.   THE JEWISH BLESSING BEGINS WITH THANKSGIVING AND GRATITUDE FOR THE RICH PROVISIONS OF CREATION—FOR ALL ITS ENOUGHS.   AS FAR AS I CAN DISCERN IT, THE WORKING OF GRACE IN OUR EUCHARIST IS “DO THIS” WHENEVER YOU WANT BOTH TO REMEMBER ME AND ALSO RE/MEMBER ME—(PROACTIVELY RENEW OUR MEMBERSHIP IN CHRIST); “DO THIS” WHENEVER YOU WANT BOTH TO RECALL ME (REMIND YOURSELVES ABOUT ME) AND ALSO RE/CALL  (CONFIRM THE PRESENCE) OF THE CHRIST WHO IS IN EACH OF US, BETWEEN ANY TWO OF US, AND AMONG US ALL.    THIS EUCHARISTIC ACTION OF GRATEFUL THANKSGIVING YIELDS ENOUGH BREAD FOR THE IMMEDIATE JOURNEY AND ALSO A SURPLUSTHIS SURPLUS IS HOPE.    GREED (eg) AND ELIJAH’S SEVERE PANIC ATTACK, ARE IN THE MODE OF DESPAIR, WHILE GRATITUDE AND THANKS ARE IN ENOUGH’S SURPLUS MODE OF HOPE.   THE CHRIST WHO IS IN, AND BETWEEN, AND AMONG US IS NOT ONLY IMMEDIATE PROVISION BUT ALSO ALWAYS AND ALREADY OUT AHEAD OF US.    EVERY EUCHARIST IS ALSO ENOUGH’S FUTURE-ORIENTED OCCASION, A HOPEFUL ERNEST OF THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM, WITH THE CHRIST OUT AHEAD OF US BEING THE LIVING SIGN OF OUR HOPE, THAT SURPLUS ENOUGH WHO SUSTAINS US ON OUR LONG TERM, OFTEN DIFFICULT JOURNEY TOWARD THE COMING PEACEABLE KINGDOM.

(Homilist’s Notes: [i] After the service a member of the congregation pointed out to me that in Ephesians 4:27 Paul prohibits thievery, saying that one must work hard and honestly with one’s own hands so that there may be “something to share with the needy”.  She apologized for making such a small point, but her point was not small but entirely appropriate and to the point: work so that there’s not only enough but enough plus a surplus to share.  [ii] Thanks also to Bill Whitla, who during last week’s homiletic discussion, noted Jesus’ bold insertion of himself into that Torah tradition.  Ian)