Where there are tents, there is cake

       Ever since she was a teenager, my sister has had a working theory that where there are tents, there is cake.  One weekday afternoon when we were in college, she put that theory to the test.  Lisa and her friend, Courtney, were driving past the local NBC affiliate, WGAL.  The building is on the edge of Lancaster city and sits up on top of a grassy hill.  Atop the hill, at the end of a long driveway, they noticed a large white tent, the kind you might rent for a wedding reception.  Instantly, they both knew, there was cake up there.  So, they turned around, headed up the hill, and lo and behold, there was cake.  They each grabbed a piece and went on their way.  To this day, I have no idea why there was cake in that tent.  Was it a private retirement party or a community outreach event?  I don’t know.  All I know is that 20 years later, Lisa still firmly believes that where there are tents, there is cake.

       Cake is an interesting food.  It is most often used to mark happy occasions like weddings, baptisms, and birthdays.  Sometimes, like here at Christ Church today, cake can also be used to mark sad occasions, like at a going away party.  Whether you believe Marie Antoinette once flippantly said “Let them eat cake” and caused the French revolution or not, cake has a long history that could possibly date all the way back to paleolithic caves nearly 32,000 years ago.  Like most things with a long history, what we call cake today looks nothing like the first cakes created way back when.  Ancient cakes were designed with two goals in mind, first to last a long time without spoiling and second to provide as many calories and nutrients as possible.  Flour, honey, water, nuts, and fruit were combined to provide long-lasting energy for the difficulties of ancient life.  Though, I suspect any paleolithic cave dweller would have given good money to eat a cake that gave them energy for forty days and forty nights, but that’s exactly what our lesson from First Kings says happened to Elijah.

       Elijah’s cake was definitely a sad cake.  Our story begins with Elijah so tired and so depressed that he sat down underneath a scrubby broom tree in the desert and asked that God might take his life.  If you think this is a strange way to start a story, you’d be correct.  We’ve missed some pretty important details.  It all begins more than three years earlier, at another cake serving event, a wedding.  Ahab, the King of Israel, married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon and immediately began to worship her god, Baal, instead the Lord, the God of Israel.  First Kings says that Ahab did more to provoke the anger of God than all the kings before him.  Because Baal was the god of storms and fertility, the Lord appointed Elijah to prophecy to Ahab that a drought would ravage Israel for three years.

       After delivering this word to Ahab, Elijah high-tailed it to the other side of the Jordan River where he lived on bread and meat brought to him by ravens until the water dried up.  From there, he travelled to the city of Zarephath in Sidon, where he met a widow who fed herself, her son, and Elijah from cakes – there it is again – made from the last drop of oil and handful of flour that she had left for months and maybe even years on end.  After three years of drought, during which Ahab and Jezebel angrily and systemically killed almost all the prophets of God, the Lord sent Elijah back to Ahab where he again prophesied against the sin of Ahab and challenged the prophets to Baal and the prophets of Asherah, the consort, or wife, of Baal to a battle of the gods.

       Here’s where things get interesting.  450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah met Elijah on Mount Carmel.  The terms of the battle were simple: the god who brought fire to the sacrifice would be considered the true god.  So, the prophets of Baal and Asherah picked their bull and Elijah picked his.  The prophets prepared their altar and from morning until noon danced around it, calling on Baal to hear their prayer.  There was no answer.  Elijah mocked them saying, “Cry louder, maybe your god is meditating or sleeping.”  They yelled all the louder as they cut themselves with swords and danced from noon until sunset, with still no answer.  So, Elijah took his turn.  He prepared the altar, just as the prophets of Ball had, but he also dug a trench around the altar.  Elijah added twelve jars of water to the bull and to the wood.  There was so much water, that the bull and wood were soaked, and the trench was filled.  Elijah called out to the Lord his God and immediately fire rained down from heaven.  It consumed the bull, the wood, the altar, the dust, and even the water in the trench was gone.  It was clear whose God was real, and the prophets of Baal were put to death, as was the punishment for false prophets.

       Upon hearing of the humiliation of their prophets, Jezebel and Ahab vowed to kill Elijah, and so he fled a day’s journey into the wilderness where he sat down under a broom tree, exhausted, afraid, and hopeless; asked God to take his life, for it would be easier than what was to come; and fell asleep.  Having been fed bread by the ravens and cakes by a widow, not much could surprise old Elijah, but what happens next must have made him wonder.  As he slept, and angel came and prepared, you guessed it, a cake, baked on hot stones.  “Get up and eat,” the angel said.  So, Elijah ate and drank, and then fell back asleep.  Again, the angel said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  So, he ate and drank again, and the cake sustained him for a forty-day journey from Mount Carmel to Mount Sinai where Elijah became one of only a handful of people who got to experience the very presence of God and live.

       Every Sunday, and hopefully more often than that, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God might give us our daily bread.  Last Sunday, we heard the story from Exodus where God provided manna, a flaky substance that was full of nutrients and gave the Israelites energy for the journey.  Sometimes, daily bread looks like that.  In the story of Elijah, even amidst a great drought and famine, God sustains the prophet with cake.  It might not have been a Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge Cake with Creamy Chocolate Buttercream icing, but it was substantial enough for the journey ahead.  Sometimes, daily bread is a cake that carries you for 40 days.  Later this morning, as a community of disciples, we will share cake with Laura Goodwin as we wish her well on the next phase in her life’s journey.  Over the last 12 years, this community has shared a lot of cake, cookies, and crawfish with Laura, but through the grace of God, these last pieces will sustain our relationship with her, despite the distance that is to come.  And sometimes, daily bread is like that, the reminder of our fellowship in Christ.

       Since the start of the pandemic and the months’ long suspension of Holy Eucharist, I’ve learned not to take God’s daily bread for granted.  In fact, as things seems to be ramping up again, I’m more committed than ever to not just simply seek out daily bread, but to be on the lookout for those places where God is looking to give me the gift of cake to sustain me for the work ahead and to remind me of the love we share in Christ.  I hope you will join me in looking for God’s daily bread in all its forms, for the journey is long and only seems to be getting longer, and I firmly believe that God’s sustenance and community in Christ are the keys to survival and success.  As we journey together, don’t forget to keep your head on a swivel and your eyes wide open, for where there are tents, there is cake.  Amen.

Spanger

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Nope, not that Spanger

This morning’s God Pause from Luther Seminary, written by Joe Natwick, introduced me to a new word, more a portmanteau, that I had never heard before: spanger.  Just as one can become hangry -hungry and angry – when they have not had enough to eat and their blood sugar begins to drop, the author suggest that those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus can experience spanger – spiritual anger – when we see the world around us falling so short of the dream of God.  Natwick goes on to suggest that the only cure for spanger is a heaping helping of the truth.  That is, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to speak the truth in the face of injustice, oppressing, and degradation.

A quick Google search shows that Natwick cannot take credit for having created the word, spanger, however, he might be the first to use it as a combination of spiritual and anger.  Ironically, according to that ever-trusted resource, wiktionary.com, spanger’s previous use is as a pejorative term to describe a beggar.  Again a portmanteu, this earlier usage comes from combining spare and change, as in, one who begs for spare change.  This older usage, which dates all the way back to 2007, actually creates a scenario in which both uses of the word would work.

“My encounter with that spanger outside the coffee shop left me feeling spanger.”

This rather long introduction can be blamed on the Apostle Paul (or one of his disciples), who, in the letter to the Ephesians gives the Christians there permission to get angry, but with the strong caveat not to fall into sin.  This anger that the author of Ephesians speaks of is that righteous indignation that comes when we look around and see a world full of corruption, violence, and oppression, often under the guise of Christian virtue, that is so obviously not what God had in mind at the beginning of Creation.  This righteous anger should, as Natwick suggests, lead us to action.  It should spur us to speak the truth in love.  It should motivate us to work toward justice and peace.  It is God at work within us, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that propels us out into the world to break the bonds of oppression, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, classism, etc.

The portion of the letter to the Ephesians that we will hear on Sunday is the perfect response to those who would suggest that Christianity isn’t political.  Christianity, because it is interested in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, is, by its very nature, political, calling the kingdoms of this world to leave behind selfish desires and to remember the poor, the needy, the orphan, and the widow.  May our spanger over this world being so out of sorts compel us to good work to glory of God.

I’ll give you…

… Something to be angry about!

As our interminable summer foray into John 5 and 6 continues this week, our Gospel lesson doesn’t just start where the last one left off, it helpfully includes the last verse of last week’s lesson as the first verse for this week (then immediately skips five verses that actually help that first verse make sense in context because RCL).  Having taught the hungry remnant of the 5,000 what the miraculous feeding was meant to represent, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life.  Those who eat of this bread, Jesus says, will never again know hunger or thirst.

If one were to try to figure out the most offensive thing someone could say in the 1st century Jewish context, this was pretty close.  As I noted last week, this “I AM” statement by Jesus, the first of seven in John’s Gospel, would have been fairly obviously blasphemous, unless that person really was the Messiah, the Anointed one of God.  To claim the holy name, that which has gone unspoken even about God in Judaism, for one’s self would have been unimaginable.  Yet, in a very public setting, Jesus was willing to say “I AM.”

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The tetragrammaton – the Hebrew name of God

When confronted by the crowd for making such a bold statement, Jesus essentially says, “U MAD BRO?  I’ll give you something to get mad about!”  Jesus doubles down on his claim – saying twice more “I am the bread of life” and “I am the living bread.”  He claims that he will raise those who believe up on the last day.  He is even so bold as to suggest that the true bread that gives life to the world is his flesh.

One of the leading complaints about Christianity in the early days was that it was a cannibalistic cult.  Jesus does himself no favors here, and yet, he feels compelled to make such outlandish claims because he knows that all of it is true.  Jesus is “I AM.”  Jesus is the bread of life that God has chosen to offer to the world.  Jesus’ flesh, in the bread of the Eucharistic feast, will be the nourishment of all who come after and the sign by which Christ’s Church will signify the ongoing life of faith.

It would have been hard to imagine Jesus going further off the deep-end than his initial “I am the bread of life” statement, but deeper he went.  All the while, even in this polemical rhetoric, Jesus is offering an invitation.  “If you want eternal life.  If you want the salvation that comes from a relationship with God.  If you want to know life abundant, then believe what I am saying, as outlandish as it may be, for these words which I speak are the true bread that gives life to the world.”

Anger isn’t sin, but supressing it can be.

I got my feelings hurt yesterday.  As I laid in bed, I stewed and stewed and stewed to the point of almost boiling over.  In the rare case that something like this happens, my usual response is to get out of bed, sit down in front of my computer and write an email to the person who upset me.  I don’t send it, at least not for twelve hours, and usually the act of getting the thoughts out of my head, down my arm, through my fingers, and into an email is enough to help me let go of my anger.  Last night, I chose a different path, mostly because my laptop was packed away and I was too lazy to set it up.  I just kept laying there until it occurred to me that I should pray.  What a novel idea for a priest in the Church!

I prayed for the people who hurt me.  I prayed for our relationships.  I prayed for our future together.  I prayed that I might be forgiven for my wrongs and that I might be able to forgiven them theirs.  I was still hurt when it was all over, and I think that’s OK.  I didn’t feel quite as bad, didn’t feel quite as ugly, didn’t feel quite as angry.  And while I did write that email this morning, it was from a much better place, and I most likely won’t send it.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians goes against the cult of nice that pervades the modern Church by suggesting that it is OK to be angry… for a little while.  Lately, we’ve become so obsessed with not hurting anyone’s feelings, we’ve turned their natural reaction when we do, anger, into a sin.  We’ve said that trying to be nice counts more than your feelings in response to our failure, and that is a) not Biblical and b) impossible to sustain as long as people are involved in community.

It is OK to get angry when someone hurts you.  It is not OK for that anger to lead you to sin, and yes, I think passive aggressive behavior might be the leading sin in the Church today.  It is not OK to let that anger linger and ultimately be defined by it.  We need to relearn the virtue of anger, how to work through it, how to pray through it, and how to forgive.  As long as the Church continues to assert, passive aggressively (of course), that anger is a sinful emotion we will teach people to suppress it, stuff it deep down inside which allows it to fester, to build, and to control our lives.

So go ahead and get angry, but do not sin.  Get angry and then follow Jesus’ advice by praying for your enemies.  Get angry and pray for forgiveness your own failings.  And no matter what, follow Paul’s advice and don’t let the sun go down on your anger.  Work through it right then and right there.  You’ll feel better in morning, I guarantee it.

What is it? vs I am.

As far as I can tell, supercessionism hasn’t yet been declared a heresy, and while it probably should be clearly defined as a heterodox belief, sometimes supercessionism is really hard to avoid.  Put simply by the good folks at Wikipedia, “supercessionism is the belief that the Christian Church has replaced the Israelites as God’s[2] chosen people[1][3] and that the Mosaic covenant has been replaced or superseded by the New Covenant.[4]”  It is a wildly dangerous belief that has led to violence against the Jews for two millennia.  Since the holocaust, more and more Christian theologians have repudiated supercessionism, but sometimes you read John 6 and you can’t help but think that Jesus’ rhetoric is pretty strong.

In the midst of what has been called “The Bread of Life Discourse,” Jesus pits two ways of looking at the provision of God up against each other.  Having heard the grumbling of the Jewish leadership, Jesus makes a bold and clear statement about his identity, “I am the bread of life.”  It is one of seven times that John has Jesus uses the two word phrase “ego eimi” which is a literal Greek translation of the name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush.  If you’ll recall, Moses has been called to return to Egypt to save the Hebrews from slavery, and Moses says to God, “the people will want to know who sent me, by whose authority I have come to set them free, whom should I tell them has called me?”  God replies, “Tell them that I am sent you.”

For John, it is vitally important that Jesus is God, he is just as much “I am” as the voice in the burning bush, and so seven times Jesus declares “ego eimi.”  In the next breath, here in chapter six, Jesus contrasts the certainty of who he is with the uncertainty of the Jews, reminding them that in the wilderness the Hebrews ate bread, but not the bread of eternal life.  The bread they ate was given the name manna which means “what is it?”  They were confused, untrusting, and hard headed.  In contrast, Jesus sets himself up as sure and certain.  It sounds awfully supercessionist, and it is a point upon which the preacher should spend some time, at least personally, so as to avoid leading a congregation astray.

The point of it all is faith.  The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years for lack of faith in the God who saved them.  Those who question Jesus do so for lack of faith in a man who has taught and done amazing things in their presence.  It isn’t that one way of approaching God is better than the other, but rather that both are a call to faith, a call to trust in the God of all creation who seeks to be restored to right relationship with the whole world.  He tried through the Hebrew people.  He tried through Jesus.  In both, he called the people to a life of faith, trusting solely in God’s good provision of bread from heaven.

Sealed for the Day of Redemption

If you’ve hung around this blog for even a short period of time, you probably know by now that I am an unabashed church nerd.  I love our liturgy and I love to study liturgy.  I love our history and I love to study history.  I’m not big on vestments, but I love to know the theology and history behind them.  In The Episcopal Church, there is one service that stands above all the others when it comes to church nerdery at its finest, the Ordination of a Bishop.  Here in the Central Gulf Coast, we had the opportunity to celebrate just such a service a few weeks ago, as we welcomed our Fourth Bishop, the Right Reverend Russell Kendrick.  For all the pomp and circumstance that went on during the more than two-and-a-half hour service, the piece that I find most intriguing happened hours earlier and for the most part, went totally unnoticed until the official pictures were posted today.

Photo by Cindy McCrory of Blue Room Photgraphy.

The Signing and Sealing of the Ordination Certificate is, for me, one of the coolest parts of an episcopal ordination.  It signifies that new bishop’s place in something much larger than the particular diocese two which they have been called.  The wax seals, made with the ring of each bishop in attendance, shows that the new bishop is part of a bigger church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that encompasses every denomination and every Christian since the disciples stood, staring slack-jawed at the bottom of Jesus’ feet on Ascension Day.

It also signifies the seal that every disciple of Jesus wears upon their forehead, the seal that Paul speaks on in his letter to the Ephesians that we will hear read on Sunday.  We who have been baptized are sealed by and with the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption.  We are marked as belonging to the tribe of Christ, the family of God.  We wear upon our foreheads the sign and symbol of the redeemed, the same seal worn by Peter, Paul and Priscilla; Augustine, Francis, and Teresa; William Reed Huntington, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The seals on Bishop Russell’s ordination certificate should remind each of us of the seal we wear upon our foreheads, the seal that sets us apart as sinners restored and disciples of Jesus Christ.  The seals should remind us of our place in the Church catholic throughout the generations.  The seals should remind us of the work to which each of us has been called, reconciling the human beings to God and to each other through the love of God, the mercy of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
The Book of Common Prayer, page 308

Taste and See

One must carry quite a few life skills in their quiver in order to make it through discernment, seminary, and ordination in The Episcopal Church.  You’ve got to be smart.  You’ve got to have deep, deep, deep faith in the God who has called you.  You’ve got to be skilled in the art of listening.  Perhaps more than anything else, you’ve got have a sense of humor.  Without the ability to laugh at yourself and the absurdities of the Church, seminary is likely to suck out of you every bit of joy, leaving a grumpy, life sapping, shell of human being where a talented priest might have been.  Part of my plan for surviving seminary was surrounding myself with smart, faithful, and funny people; many of whom graduated in the class ahead of me in 2006.

Towards the end of their time at VTS, the members of the class of 2006 began to discuss their class gift. Among the nominees was a soft-serve ice cream machine for the refectory that played a midi of “Taste and See” as it dispensed frozen goodness.

As I sit in the Hardman Conference Room at Beckwith Camp and Retreat Center procrastinating the second half of my thesis and reading the lessons appointed for Sunday, I can’t help but stop at the end of Psalm 34, chuckle and remember fondly the good times that seminary afforded me.  I also can’t help but give thanks for the many ways in which God is made manifest in our lives.

The Pslamist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” but we need not stop there.  We can hear the goodness of the Lord, as Paul tells us, in words that are meant to build up and encourage.  We can feel the goodness of the Lord in a handshake or a hug at the Passing of the Peace as we are each reminded that being a Christian means being a part of a community, family, the Body of Christ.  We can smell the goodness of the Lord in the simmering of spaghetti sauce cooked for homeless guests staying on campus with Family Promise.

The Lord shows himself to be good in many and varied ways, and often through the work he has called each of us to do.  Today I’m grateful for the reminder to take time each day to taste and see, hear and feel and smell the goodness of the Lord in and through the good people who God has placed around me.