Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the 1st Book of Kings in the Old Testament. Here the prophet Elijah asked the Lord for death: “Lord, I have had enough. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” He then fell asleep. But an angel woke him and gave him food an drink which gave him the strength to continue his journey to Horeb, the mountain of God. John’s Gospel returns to the theme of those who complained about Jesus. Last week Jesus proclaimed that he was the “bread of life” who has come down from heaven: “Surely this is Jesus son of Joseph.” Jesus then responded by telling them that he was the bread of life. But he went on to tell them that their ancestors who ate mannah in the desert eventually died but those who eat of his “living bread which has come down from heaven” will live forever and never die. “[T]he bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
So how big should we dream? It’s a good question, but not one we often ask ourselves, or each other. I write this against the backdrop of an encounter I had a few years ago. I was talking with a man whose wife was dying of cancer; both had been raised in Christian traditions and both believed in the power of prayer. He told me that both of them had prayed for years that she would be cured of her cancer and they would enjoy more years together. Clearly their prayers hadn’t worked as she was clearly within a few days of dying.
He asked me what he should pray for. It’s not an unusual question and it’s often an opportunity to talk about the power and efficacy of prayer. But there was something in his question that sounded different and I asked him what he meant. He told me that he was nervous enough that he didn’t want to ask “too big” for fear that God would be angry or lose patience with him.
I suggested that perhaps he was looking at God in the same way he looked at his parents when he was a child. This puzzled him until I told him that most children seek a balance in asking for things: they want to ask for the things their parents are willing to provide but they don’t want to appear too greedy for fear that if they overreach they will lose what they otherwise would have gotten.
Let’s face it: sometimes we look at our relationship with God in the same way we looked at our relationship with our parents when we were young. In the Christian tradition members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) refer to God as “Our Heavenly Father” and we Catholics make the sign of the cross with the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
And it makes sense. When we were children we looked on our parents as all powerful and all loving. They provided everything we needed and much of what we wanted. They taught us how the world worked and how we should relate to them, our siblings, our friends, and how we should deal with bad events. When we wanted something we shouldn’t have they explained how sometimes the answer is “no.”
But as we aged we, to our horror, learned that our parents weren’t God. This troubled us because we understood that our parents were flawed but good people: they wanted the best for us but lived with demons of fear, jealousy, addiction, and countless other shadows. We learned as adolescents and young adults that their love for us had limits.
So here’s the problem: When we recognize the limitations of our parents we can translate these limitations to our relationship with God.
These limitations, however understandable, can limit our ability to understand God’s love and generosity to us. Years ago I found myself in a conversation with a fellow Christian about the power of prayer. She told me that we can ask God for anything but sometimes God denies our desire because God knows we shouldn’t have it, like a diabetic child who asks for a chocolate bar. She told me that sometimes when we pray, God answers “but the answer is no.”
With all due respect I don’t agree. Those gathered complained about Jesus’ claim to be the Bread of Life but but they were missing the point. Frankly they were jealous of Jesus power to end starvation. Jesus had an entirely different agenda: he taught about another type of bread that wouldn’t prevent starvation but would instead provide eternal life to his audience and would be available to all.
This promise of Eucharist gives us a path to eternal life but it also gives us an ability to ask boldly. Previous readings about manna from heaven and a bag with unlimited loaves and fishes may fulfill our greatest dreams about having enough nutrition in this life but Jesus’ promise in the Eucharist breaks through even the best of our dreams.
In our first reading Elijah declared to God that he is not good enough to do what God asked of him. But God disagreed and gave him what he needed.
Those who hoped only for the “magic bread” from the magic bag probably didn’t fully understand what we now know as the Eucharist. While our ability to accept God’s love and generosity may be limited by our shortcomings we need to understand that God’s ability to love finds no limits.
Today’s readings call us to courage, to never fear to pray boldly. Two hundred years ago we thought praying for an end to slavery reached too far. Fifty years later many of us feared that praying for allowing the vote for women violated God’s plan for us. In our lifetime Christian leaders instructed us not to pray for marriage equality for those of different races or the same sex out of fear that our prayers would anger God.
We call Eucharist “the Blessed Sacrament” not because it’s better than the other six sacraments but because Eucharist blesses us and it should empower us. God has dreams for us that we can’t even dream about.
Our prayer should reflect that. We should never stop praying for those things that we need and we should never impose our limits on God’s plan for us. Elijah didn’t know what he was capable of until God provided for him. Those gathered around Jesus kept their focus on the magic bag with the unlimited loaves and fishes until they understood Eucharist’s true power.
Let us pray boldly and allow God to dream boldly for us.