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.

God in the Valley – Last Epiphany B

I forgot to post my sermon from Sunday. Better late than never.

When I was in high school, I was deeply involved with my local Young Life chapter.  Every Wednesday, I would cram into somebody’s basement with a hundred or more other high schoolers to sing praises to God and hear a Bible lesson.  Thursday nights, a small group of us spent the night at our Young Life leaders’ house so that we could wake up early on Friday morning for Bible study and monkey bread.  The highlight of the year was, of course, summer camp.  We’d pile into a fancy motor coach and make our way north to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York where we were guaranteed to have the best week of our lives.  There, on Saranac Lake, we’d spend a week immersed in experiences designed to bring us closer to God.  The music was top-notch, the food was delicious, and the Ski Nautique boats were perfect for water skiing and parasailing.  There is no mountain top experience like hanging by a parachute, three hundred feet in the air, being pulled around one of the most beautiful lakes in New York by a high-powered ski boat, captained by a college student who loves Jesus.

Mountain top experiences are amazing.  Of course, they are.  That’s why they’re called mountain top experiences.  They are the pinnacle of life experiences.  We just heard the story of the first Christian mountain top experience in Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story.  A brief look through Scripture shows us several others: God gave Noah the rainbow as a sign after the ark came to rest atop a mountain.  Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai.  Elijah heard the still, small voice of God at the top of Mount Horeb.  The mountain top is often a thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth is seemingly nonexistent, and the presence of God can be felt.  It is natural for us to yearn for those profound experiences of God.  When they happen, we should rejoice in them, just as Peter did when he recognized Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.  We should rejoice because they are amazing and few and far between.  The mountain top is hard to come by.  That’s why religious leaders often work hard to cultivate them for us.  That the mountain top experience is pre-designed doesn’t mean it is disingenuous.  It seems clear that even Jesus pre-planned this particular event.  He took a select few of his most trusted disciples with him.  They climbed a literal mountain.  A spectacular event took place.  That it was manufactured, doesn’t mean the mountain top experience of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration or my week at Saranac Lake aren’t real, but it does go to show that the mountain top, while beneficial and worth pursuing, isn’t normal.  Life isn’t lived atop a mountain, but in the ups and downs of daily life, and if life has taught me anything, it is that God is just as present in the valleys as the mountain tops.

Before I went to seminary, I was a part-time youth minister at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Like the EYC here, we were a small, but committed group.  One summer, we joined with a large, international mission trip company, to spend a week in rural North Carolina rehabbing houses.  I was so excited for that trip.  Our partner company had slick resources, what appeared to be a decent theological foundation, and everything looked like it would be easy peasy lemon squeezy.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  We were assigned to a house that needed significant soffit and fascia repair.  My crew was me and five ninth graders.  Our first job?  Build two ladders.  That’s right, we were given a bunch of two by fours and some nails to build the ladders we needed to reach the roof.  Our second job?  Climb up our homemade ladder with a Sawzall to cut out of the rotten fascia boards.  Me. And five ninth graders.  Each night, the evening program was filled with “scared straight” type stories meant to get our kids to believe in Jesus just so they wouldn’t go to hell.  Our van broke down mid-week and my air mattress was flat each morning.  We were about as deep in the valley as we could go, yet, on our last night there, my kids and I got to experience the love of God in a deeply moving way.  I honestly don’t remember what the last night’s program was about, but I remember how our kids were able to see God amidst the hardship of the week.  Despite the lack of resources and despite my grumpiness, we all knew in that moment that God loved us, and we were transformed forever in that knowing and being known.

My friend, Keith Talbert, pointed out to me that the lessons for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, while often used to highlight the mountain top, could just as easily teach us to look for God in the valleys.  In a season specifically set aside to look for the “aha moments” of God in our lives, the lessons for this Sunday shine the bright light of God both on the mountain top, in the story of the Transfiguration, and deep in the valley, in the story of Elijah and Elisha from Second Kings.  Elijah’s final journey begins at Gilgal.  I’ll spare you most of the details, but it should be noted that there are several different Gilgals mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.  A Gilgal is a circle of rocks, built as a monument to a major event, and we have no idea which Gilgal marked the start of their journey.  It could be the Gilgal near the River Jordan, where the Israelites camped just before they crossed the Jordan and entered into the Promised Land, but that doesn’t make much sense given that the next stop is Bethel.  More likely is one of the gilgals erected in the mountains north and west of Jerusalem.  The story of Elijah and Elisha could, quite possibly begin on the mountain top, but like it was for Peter, James, and John, they couldn’t stay there.

As Elijah made his slow and steady march toward the Jordan River valley and his death, Elisha, heir to his prophetic voice, travelled with him in grief.  They came down from Gilgal to Bethel, where a company of prophets tried to dissuade Elisha from continuing to journey into the valley.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Bethel, Elijah and Elisha continued down to Jericho, where another company of prophets tried to keep Elisha from following his mentor into the depths.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Jericho, God called Elijah to the Jordan River, and Elisha followed yet again.  Finally, Elijah struck the river, the waters parted, and Elijah and Elisha found themselves standing in a dried-up riverbed.  There, about as far from the mountain top as one can go, Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit that rested upon Elijah and the glory of Lord came as a chariot of fire and took Elijah up to heaven.  At one of the lowest points on earth, during one of the lowest points of his life, Elisha experienced a profound encounter with the living God.

I don’t know about you, but after all that we’ve been through in the last eleven months, I find myself drawn to the story of Elisha and Elijah in a dried-out riverbed this morning.  From where I’m standing, there seems to be a lot of opportunities to walk uphill from here.  Even in the difficult times, however, we can rest assured that God is here.  God is present and ready to pour out grace and love in abundance on the mountain tops, in the valleys, and everywhere in between.  There are better days ahead, of this I am sure, but in the meantime, my prayer is that each of us will have the chance to experience the transfiguring love of God in the highs and lows of our everyday lives.  Amen.

Some Dark Comedy?

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Almost forgot to give this to you!

There are some lessons, especially in the Old Testament, that if they are read well, can really be hilarious.  The back and forth between God and Moses about the golden calf is probably my favorite, but the 2 Kings story of Elijah’s departure into heaven is a very close second.  The context isn’t particularly conducive to humor, the great prophet Elijah is being taken away from earth, after all.  Yet, the way the author uses the characters and their conversations always makes me chuckle.

On three different occasions, Elijah tries to convince Elisha to stay behind.  Each time, Elisha persists with these words, “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”  Elisha knows that his master and friend is not long for this world, which makes his choice of words so darkly ironic.  Basically, Elisha says, “as long as you’re alive, I’m sticking with you.”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, the prophets there try to tell Elisha what’s up.  “You know the Lord is taking your master today, don’t you?”  Twice, both at Bethel and Jericho, Elisha snaps back, “Yes, I know, now shut up.”  That part always makes me laugh.

Even in the story’s most poignant moment, as Elijah is finally being carried away to heaven in a chariot of fire, Elisha’s response makes me smile.  It is similar to Peter’s nonsensical response to the Transfiguration, as Elisha just blurts out what he sees, “Master!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.”  Funnier yet are the really terrible pieces of art that have been created in response to this story.  The one at the top of this post is pretty good.  So is this one.

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You should do your own Google search on it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

By now, you must be wondering what on earth this blog post is about.  I’ve been wondering that myself along the way.  What I think has hit me this morning is how often we take the personality out of the Bible.  We hear these stories or we read them silently, as if they are just words on a page – matter-of-fact accounts of things about God – as if God doesn’t have a sense of humor, or a personality, or engage with humanity on our own terms.  We tend to think the only emotion God can show is that of anger, but what if that isn’t true?  What if God can offer a wry smile?  What if God has a sarcastic streak?  What if God wants to use things like humor and joy to help tell the story of God’s love for all creation?  Is there some dark comedy in the story of Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind?  I kind of think so.  If you don’t, that’s ok.  Maybe you find humor somewhere else in the great story of God’s steadfast love.

Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.

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At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”