FROM A READING FOR AUG. 9, 19TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'I am the bread of life....I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh...' -- John 6:48,51


In previous columns, I've stressed the need for strength and determination in following God for a lifetime and reflected on the evangelist John's belief that the Eucharist is a major force in our maintaining that strength and determination.

But this Sunday's first reading (I Kings 19:4-8) brings up a unique problem in our following of God: Elijah discovers that Yahweh doesn't always lead him along the most direct route. Sometimes, God even changes his destination!

Our I Kings passage provides just the middle of a three-part narrative. The whole account begins with a confrontation between the prophets of the fertility god Ba'al and Elijah on Mount Carmel. Elijah wins and has his rivals put to death, then must run for his life when Queen Jezebel -- the pagan prophets' patroness -- puts a contract out on him. He travels, on foot, from Palestine's northernmost point (Mount Carmel) to its southernmost point (the Sinai), where Sunday's passage kicks in.

Keep going
Physically unable to go any further, Elijah actually asks Yahweh to kill him. "Take my life," he pleads, "for I am no better than my fathers." Fortunately, God ignores his request and twice sends an angel with a "hearth cake and a jug of water," making certain the prophet has enough strength to "walk 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God, Horeb [Mount Sinai]."

But in the third part of the narrative, when Elijah finally reaches Mount Sinai, Yahweh abruptly informs him that he's in the wrong place! Instead of preaching to scorpions in the wilderness, Yahweh wants him in Syria -- north of where he started his trek -- to get rid of Jezebel.

At first glance, this change in direction makes sense. All of us have had to make changes in our paths in life. But by twice sending an angel with food and water, Yahweh actually helped Elijah go in the wrong direction! Since the prophet couldn't have made it to Sinai without God's assistance, God's responsible for Elijah's ending up in a place where God didn't want him to be.

The Pauline disciple who wrote Ephesians (4:30-5:2) makes sense when he encourages his readers to get rid of "all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting and reviling." All of us "other Christs" agree that we should be "kind to one another, compassionate, and forgiving."

Us and God
Yet Elijah would remind us that true discipleship goes further than just creating peaceful, compassionate relationships with one another. It also includes developing a relationship with a God who sometimes messes with our spiritual GPS.

Jewish members of John's community (John 6:41-51) had to deal with a parallel experience when they converted to Christianity. As Jews, they'd been encouraged to distinguish between the "sacred and profane." We presume that, through the centuries, Yahweh helped the Chosen People reach the point in their faith lives when that sacred/profane division became part of everyone and everything they encountered. Yet, now, as followers of Jesus, they've discovered the most sacred of persons is actually an individual whose "father and mother we know."

No dedicated Israelite could ever have anticipated that Yahweh would one day ask His followers to drastically change directions and realize that a carpenter from Capernaum had become the "bread of life" for all people.

Almost every biblical author encourages us to surface the distinct path God wishes us to travel through life. Yet, Elijah's Sinai experience also teaches us to keep our eyes and ears open, willing to change directions at any moment Yahweh's breezy voice breaks into our lives.