A Message From An Angel: “Get Up and Eat.”

I love this passage from 1 Kings because it has to be the most endearingly prosaic theophany in the Bible.

Many times in scripture, people’s encounters with God or God’s messengers are grand and stirring.

There are flashing lights, wheels in the sky, chariots of fire, angels walking around inside fiery furnaces, or a multitude of the heavenly host in the skies proclaiming the glory of God.

Not for Elijah.

His angel functions something like a cross between a rude alarm clock and a nagging parent.

No “Greetings, highly favored one,” like Mary got, or, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts,” like Isaiah heard.

Elijah’s angel says, “Get up and eat.”

That’s the entirety of the message.

Elijah, worn out, downtrodden, and ready to give up, lies down to die. To be fair, he is being slightly melodramatic.

But the angel of the Lord is having none of it. “Suddenly an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’”

Part of why I love this text is that neither Elijah nor we want God to communicate with us like this. We want the lights and the fireworks, or at least something poetic and beautiful.

Give us a gorgeous sunset and the words of the 23rd psalm at least.

Give us an overwhelming sense of eternal love and “Behold, I am with you to the end of the age.”

“Get up and eat?”

That’s hardly reassuring, or even encouraging. It’s so…normal. So basic.

God might as well remind us to quit losing our car keys and take out the trash while God’s at it.

It reminds me of a parishioner who once told me she wished God would quit hinting that she mop her floors more often. Continue reading

Eat Dirt and Live

The theme of my spiritual life lately, and thusly of my preaching, seems to be: “God will give you good things, but not in the way you want God to.”

And the Israelites in our Exodus text are examples par excellence of that phenomenon.

In the grand tradition of internet culture somehow describing ancient dynamics in more vivid ways than ever before, it often appears as though God is “trolling” the Israelites.

And I’m sure I’m not the only who feels that God has trolled me—in a loving, humorous, and exceedingly frustrating way.

We’re in the midst of “Bread of Heaven Summer” as the gospel texts for these propers in Year B is are known.

Jesus wants to make really clear to us that he is the Bread of Heaven, and if we want A. everlasting life, and B. a decent quality of life here and now, we need to turn to him for sustenance. This is a theme that rarely can be overdone.

But where things get interesting is in the contrast between how straightforwardly Jesus offers sustenance, and how roundabout and backdoor of a path God the Father seems to take in our Hebrew Scripture texts.

In the gospel lessons, Jesus does clear, concrete things, like literally feed 5000 people with actual bread and fish.

And when it comes to spirituality, he offers forthright teaching like, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” That’s pretty clear.

But the Lord is much sneakier in Exodus. Continue reading

Holy Communion Gritty Reboot

I learned several new things this week that I really probably should have known before now.

This is not an unusual experience for me, to be honest.

I was talking in my sermon planning group with my friends Suzanne and Jeff, and we were thinking about different routes we could take with our text from John this week, the Feeding of the 5000.

And Suzanne said, “Well, you could use this gospel to give an open communion sermon.”

That caught me off-guard. Really? How?

It turns out that there are several interesting facts about the Gospel of John that frankly I should have known before now.

There is no scene in John of what we would call “The Last Supper.”

In John, as the end of his life approaches, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and continues to teach them. He says to the disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”

They want to know who it is, and Jesus says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish,” and then he gives it to Judas.

He tells Judas to do quickly what he plans to do, and then Judas leaves.

That’s it.

No blessing and breaking of bread.

No, “Take, eat, this is my Body.”

No giving thanks for the cup of wine, declaring it his blood of the New Covenant, and passing it around.

None of that. We can’t trace our idea of Eucharist today to a Last Supper scene in the Gospel of John, because there isn’t one. Continue reading

Celebrity Jesus

One of the reasons the gospels have endured as scriptures that give shape and meaning to our lives is that they consistently speak directly to our cultural moment.

In every era since they were written, the gathered faithful have found signposts of wisdom that speak to the controversies and struggles of their time. The same is true for us.

Today we read in our gospel about Jesus and fame.

Celebrity is the currency of choice in our culture. Even money and power fade before the respect given to the famous.

There are a number of rungs on the celebrity ladder of status.

It starts with metrics as small and simple as Facebook likes or Instagram and Twitter followers.

Then it progresses to a ratio: how minute of a level of trivia about your life can you get multiple news outlets to cover?

Amateur celebrities can only get network news to cover them when they win Nobel prizes or maybe die.

Professional celebrities can get wall-to-wall 24-hour cable news and online coverage for which tie they wear or bag they carry to an event.

There is the special class of celebrity that has attained the right to go by only one name, like Beyonce, Madonna, Bono, or Pele.

And then you have the absolute monarchy of celebrity culture: people who have not actually done anything noteworthy, they are simply famous for being famous.

But what’s the real harm in celebrity culture? It’s just fun, right?

It gives us a break from our problems to leaf through a magazine or sit for an hour in front of the TV keeping up with the Kardashians.

Well, it turns out that our culture’s glorification of celebrity has a dark side. Continue reading

Anxiety Procrastination: Ending Up With Your Head on a Platter

This is not a pulpit sermon, this is a blog post, which means I can be irresponsibly personal and say whatever I want.

And that is good, because I really have something on my heart right now.

It’s something small and insignificant in the scope of the issues facing society, but I know you understand how a small, niggling worry can undermine your outlook until it colors your whole world.

So let me go ahead and admit up front: this piece is not some great theological treatise and you may not take anything away from it that deepens your own spiritual journey.

This is just me telling you that I’m stuck.

Here’s the deal: I thought I had written a whole book, but it turns out I’ve only written half a book, and now I’m not sure I can finish it.

It’s called The Darker Blessings: Finding God in Doubt and Depression, and I’m really proud of the work I’ve done so far on it.

So is my editor—he says all the writing I’ve submitted to him is really solid.

His feedback said that I’ve really delved into the darkness and mined it for its treasures. The problem is that there’s not enough light, and I have to admit he’s right.

The basic structure of the book is to explore what we would normally call “dark” emotions or experiences, like anger, fear, or regret, and explore how each of them was a way to God for someone in the Bible.

So I talk about Mary of Bethany’s journey with grief, for example, and Nicodemus’ experience of uncertainty, and Pilate’s relationship with fear.

And with each of these chapters, I tell a bit of my own story.

The problem for the reader, my editor says, is that while they can see clearly how depression and darkness created the crucible for my spiritual journey and held me underwater for my entire young adulthood, they can’t see how I came to the other side of it.

The reader doesn’t magically understand how blessed and fulfilled I am now. I have to tell how I got from there to here, from suicidal to (most days) really happy.

I think there are a couple of things going on here.

First of all, I very much did not want to write a book with a happy ending all tied up in a bow.

Real life is not like that, and real life with God is especially not like that. Continue reading

Stop Offering Hospitality (Yes, I’m Serious)

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus comes to his hometown, and far from welcoming him with open arms and proclaiming him their rightful king, his neighbors scoff at him, imply he’s crazy or deluded, and flatly refuse to believe that he is a prophet and a miracle worker.

Jesus is a big flop in Nazareth.

And he’s not expecting it. “He was amazed at their unbelief,” Mark says.

Poor Jesus. He must have been crushed.

Everyone wants to look good at their high school reunion, to show up twenty pounds lighter and a thousand dollars richer than everyone else.

But Jesus’ friends, the people he grew up with, the people who watched him play in the streets as a little boy and bought benches and tables from his carpentry shop as a young man, turn their back on him.

He wants to show them all the amazing things God is doing through him, but he cannot access his power and he has to leave in disgrace.

Anyone after this humiliating experience would feel vulnerable.

Anyone after this failure might consider approaching things a little more carefully, with a little more thought and planning, would want to ensure success before taking any more risks.

Not Jesus. Continue reading

Crackpot Jesus

No doubt all of you have heard the story of the water pot that has an existential crisis. No? Let me share it with you.

“A water-bearer in India had two large pots. Each hung on opposite ends of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other was perfect. The latter always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house. The cracked pot arrived only half-full. Every day for a full two years, the water-bearer delivered only one and a half pots of water.

The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, because it fulfilled magnificently the purpose for which it had been made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After the second year of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the unhappy pot spoke to the water-bearer one day by the stream.

“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you,” the pot said.

“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” Continue reading

We Are All Separated Children

I haven’t preached or written on the new phase of the migrant crisis, the separation of children from families, mostly because there are so many people who are expressing their moral outrage so eloquently.

People are arguing from Biblical texts, from religious tradition, from American values, from simple human decency, from the very fact that the Holy Family were refugees and immigrants, to express the deep sin and shame of the United States of America taking children from their parents and warehousing and imprisoning them.

It doesn’t seem as though I could add much to the discussion.

But there comes a point in time where silence is taken as consent, and failure to speak is collusion with sin.

And so I asked myself, as so many have, “How did we get here? How did America, a nation I was raised to believe in and be proud to belong to, stoop to this level of racism, xenophobia, and toxic militarism?”

And for me, the answer comes back as it almost always does, to a deep and debilitating lack of spiritual groundedness.

Values and ethics cannot survive on the thin sustenance of stirring emotions or even cultural traditions.

To be effective, to withstand controversy and trial, to guide people to actions that are just and altruistic, values and ethics must be based on something deeper.

And that something deeper is the spiritual life.

It doesn’t matter what tradition that spiritual life comes out of—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or any other.

It simply matters that there is a worldview greater than the paltry ends of the individual self, that calls us to something higher than selfish and short-sighted tribalism, and that awakens the soul, that dwelling place of God within us that lies deeper than mind or even heart.

But as I continued to reflect on our spiritually starving people, I realized that the most damaging part of the lack of soul life in America is unspoken and unrealized.

Americans cannot deal with death. Continue reading

When People Underestimate You, Are They Right?

Getting more than you bargained for. That’s what all of our scriptures are about today.

And it’s not a concept that is very familiar in our capitalist society. We are used to paying an agreed upon price, and receiving exactly what we’ve paid for, no more and no less.

I sometimes wonder if we carry that consumer mentality into our relationships as well.

If I make dinner x number of times this week, my partner will mow the lawn without having to be reminded.

If I attend x number of recitals or soccer games of my grandchildren, my daughter will pick up the phone when I call her.

If I read x chapters of the Bible this week, God will answer my prayers.

That’s not how God’s economy works.

The Greek root from which we get the word economy means household and refers to how people manage the day to day finances and organization of their homes and families.

And God’s economy has a very strange balance sheet.

Things are simply not predictable with God.

Two plus two does not always equal four.

It often equals five, or a hundred and five, or a purple elephant. Continue reading

Translating Tradition

The first half of our worship service today has no doubt seemed very familiar to you. It’s regular 1979 Book of Common Prayer Liturgy of the Word. Comforting, customary, accessible to those of us who have been Episcopalians for awhile.

But the second half of our service, the Liturgy of the Table, will be according to the first Book of Common Prayer, the 1549 edition.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Book of Common Prayer, and it seemed worthwhile to bring back the 1549 liturgy that we used back during our historic liturgies project last fall.

And no doubt the second half of the Eucharist, the 1549 version, will not seem familiar and comfortable.

We’ll have to concentrate. We’ll have to read carefully. We’ll squint at the page and struggle to translate the Elizabethan language into something that is meaningful for us today.

This is such a worthy exercise because it helps us understand Thomas Cranmer’s goal in writing and compiling the Book of Common Prayer.

During our historic liturgies project last fall, as we made our way backward in time from 1928 to 1789 to 1662 to 1549, did you ever feel totally lost in our worship service?

Did you struggle to understand what was going on?

Did you ever wonder what was the point of coming to church at all if everything was so confusing?

That is exactly the situation that faced the people of England in 1548 and for generations before when they went to church. Continue reading