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February 22, 2015

Trying

Sermon for Year B, The First Sunday in Lent
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
February 22, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church


Jesus is driven out into the wilderness -- that is, the desert.
He has “the wild beasts” on one side of him and angels on the other. Bad news and good news.
He is animated by “The Advocate” (the Spirit) but is tried by “The Accuser” (Satan).
He is tempted -- Mark doesn’t say by what -- but he prevails.


And then John is arrested, and Jesus suddenly finds himself
 With his heels gunning out of the starting blocks.
What’s the very first thing he says or does?
He shows up back at home, proclaiming the good news, and saying,
 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
   Repent, and believe in the good news.”
Jesus always seems to be on point;
 He always seems to know precisely who and what he is to one degree or another;
   But here we see someone who is fresh from the benefit of his own experience,
   And who clearly has something important to say.


I grew up on the plains, in a small town, nowhere near any desert.
I have never lived in any desert for forty days, much less a week.
In fact, I’ve always tried to get out of whatever desert I was in by sundown.
I have just had to rely on what others have written.
(If you have had an interesting desert experience,
 You should tell someone about it at coffee hour.)
But what I do know is that the desert makes you focus down
 On only those things that matter the very most;
 It sweeps away anything trivial.
The desert is a fine place for one to be at war with oneself.


“Tempted,” to me, means to be confronted by one’s own worst impulses.


So we’re given this assurance this First Sunday of Lent:
 That as we move through this season, and are tested beyond what we think is possible,
 So too has Christ been besought by similar trials: deprivation, hunger, thirst, and pain.
And all our various addictions coming up, and us not just thoughtlessly feeding them --
 Or instead, giving in to them and feeling bad about it --
   Life becomes quite basic when we strip away some of what we think we need.
In Jesus, God becomes solidarity with the human condition and all things created.
Where we struggle, we can take comfort that God has been there, too.


It would be tempting to say,
 “If Jesus was tempted in every way but didn’t give in, then what’s wrong with me?
   Why can’t I get my act together? Ah, but he was without sin, so why should I even try?”


Actually, life is “try.”


We live in a Western culture and we have a Western mindset.
We tend to think in discrete, binary categories of good and bad, black and white.
We like to put things in silos and piles -- “this is this,” “that is that.”
We’re either behaving or not behaving, performing or not performing.
And we assign moral character to this or that,
 So that if we happen to not be performing, we think we’re bad people overall.
It’s hard to move past this kind of dualistic thinking.
What can I tell you? We don’t have to be slaves to it, and that is very good news indeed.
We can just follow God by chasing after the path that Jesus has established.
We can stay at it, and when we stray off of it, get back on it.


Life is really about trying.
Not about always being good, or never being good enough.
Or other people never measuring up, and can’t you see, that’s what’s wrong wih the world.
A lot of religion will take you down that road before you discover it leads nowhere.
In fact, it’s about trying.
If we stay stuck in these other simplistic categories, then we miss the whole journey.


So, too, the journey to God is about trying,
 And that’s what moves us out of our stuckness.
Not, “Oh, well, I tried once today when I got up and it didn’t work so I give up,”
 But just constantly resetting ourselves and throwing out expectations
   About perfection and performance,
   And loving ourselves and the world and embracing God anyway.
Because there isn’t anything you can do in this old world to make God love you more.
God loves you totally; God already knows you aren’t perfect
 And in Jesus has decided to bet the house on you anyway.
And that might seem foolish, right? -- why go all-in on a pair of twos? --
 But then we realize and remember that God is God,
   And if in God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and compassion God wants to bet on us,
   Then that’s God’s business and God’s good news for us.
But it helps us to stay oriented, to remain focused and grounded in what we’re doing.
In other words, it helps us to keep trying. To maintain energy and effort.
And to want to be in loving and eternal relationship with God.


Much of conventional religion wants to make it harder than it is.
Wants for this to become some kind of contest.
Lent is not about how you measure up, or don’t.
It’s about naming and stepping past the obstacles that keep us from God.
And it’s about holding the whole thing lightly
 When time after time, we keep getting in the way of ourselves.
For in a sense, failure is assured.
What can we do but ask for forgiveness, get up off our knees, and keep at it?


For who among us isn’t sitting in some kind of a desert of the soul this morning?
Who among us isn’t tested and tempted?
And who among us, when we stop and add it up,
 Isn’t being ministered to by angels at this very moment?


That’s how much God loves us in spite of ourselves.
You are each and all God’s most deeply beloved and cherished.
And that’s good news for today,
 For which I am so glad.


Take heart. Be of good cheer.

Amen.

February 18, 2015

Boat


Sermon for Year B, Ash Wednesday
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
February 19, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Today, of course, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
Lent is six-and-a-half weeks, forty days of penitence, fasting, amendment of life,
 Prayer, and even closer study of God’s holy Word
 For those who follow Christ.
On our end of the bargain,
 It’s about the four disciplines of love:
   Forgiving, letting go, moving on, and loving the world anyway.
On God’s end of the bargain, it’s about enjoying closer relationship with us.


I take this time seriously; I pray you do as well;
 I’ve shared with you some of the disciplines I personally wish to follow this Lent,
   By God’s grace may actually be able to maintain,
   And not merely maintain, but draw strength from, pray over, learn from,
     And change my ways accordingly.
Again, by God’s grace and with God’s help.
I hope and pray I can do this not only because I am visible among you as a leader,
 (And leaders are examples in community)
   But because -- well, to be perfectly blunt,
     If you’re going to sell soap, you have to take showers.


The point of all this is not self-improvement, although self-improvement is a nice side-benefit.
There are lots of solutions for how to do better in life,
 And the church doesn’t have to be responsible for all of them.
The point of Lent is to name and overcome every obstacle that keeps us from loving God.
As hard as that sounds, it nevertheless remains our goal.
To name and overcome every obstacle that keeps us from loving God.
We won’t do this perfectly; in fact, we are practically doomed to fail miserably;
 And it won’t take us to some magical land of happiness and personal fulfillment;
 The Gospel -- the good news about God in Christ --
   The Gospel is not about endless victory, delight, and exuberance.
It’s about transformation, love, honesty, compassion, and service.
So, we will end up where we always end up when we take the Lenten journey --
 At the foot of the cross.


In all this, there is no bargaining out. There is no squirming away.
Lent takes us where it takes us, teaches us what it teaches us:
 Life shaped by the cross, not by glory.


The ashes you will receive and wear for a time are the perfect symbol of all this.
Applied directly to the body, they cannot be simply removed like you would remove clothing;
 They cling tight, and some work is required to wash them.
They are dark and cross-shaped; they reflect the reality
 Of living as sinful creatures on a life-journey towards God.
They are made from the same palms we waved on Palm Sunday of last year
 To greet Jesus as he entered Jerusalem a hero,
 Only to be betrayed and handed over to become a state-sponsored execution.
Those palms are a symbol of our complicity in violent systems
 And the ease with which we look away when it is easier to pretend to ignore slaughter
 Than it is to point it out, step in, or stop it.


Ash, too, is the product of a complete burning.
It means the end of the natural life of a thing.
Your life is worth everything in God’s eyes and in God’s economy,
 But that doesn’t mean your human life will be without end.
Shakespeare wrote that all flesh inherits a “thousand natural shocks.”
 We wither and die, all of us, someday, and pass on into whatever it is God has for us next.
For now, you, and I, these bodies of ours -- we are finite creatures.
We come from dust and so one day shall we be dust again.
This is to be embraced from a faith perspective:
 I’m not God; I am simply one of the beloved of God;
  What awaits me when I die is God’s business and judgment.
So. We continually place ourselves into God’s gracious care and keeping.
What more can we do?


Finally, sisters and brothers, this image from Syncletica, one of the mothers of the church
 And a real source of deep wisdom for anyone serious about walking that path to God.
She lived in the fourth century; was the child of parents who had great wealth;
 Was reputed to have been a great beauty;
   But finally she spurned all available definitions of success and gave everything away
   In order to go and live in the desert, and there she found the heart of God.


She said,
 “When you have to fast, do not pretend illness.
   For those who do not fast often fall into real sickness.
   If you have begun to act well, do not turn back through constraint of the enemy,
     For through your endurance, the enemy is destroyed.
   Those who put out to sea at first sail with a favorable wind;
     Then the sails spread, but later the winds become adverse.
   Then the ship is tossed by the waves and is no longer controlled by the rudder.
   But when in a little while there is a calm, and the tempest dies down,
     Then the ship sails on again.
   So it is with us, when we are driven by the spirits who are against us;
     We hold to the cross and so we can set a safe course.”


Let this grace be a sign for Lent:
 Not only do we steer inevitably towards the cross during this season,
   But in fact we lash ourselves to it the entire time, each and every day,
     And steer ourselves by it accordingly.
The cross is the goal -- the object on the far horizon --
  And it is the mast we tie ourselves to
  In order to keep from getting tossed over while navigating stormy seas.
And it is the rudder by which we steer.
And is the north star that guides us in the night.
The cross of Christ is everything.


May we find strength and sustenance from these words this Lent, this Ash Wednesday;
 And may God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be our constant companion. Amen.

February 14, 2015

Candy


Sermon for Year B, the Last Sunday After Epiphany
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
February 15, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

We just had Valentine’s Day,
 When cards and hearts and candy and flowers are transfigured
 From simple, everyday objects into symbols meant to radiate a powerful love.
I’d like, for a minute, to focus down on the candy part, if I may --
 Quite honestly, my favorite part of just about every holiday --
   And how one candy in particular has transfigured me.

I think I have said to many of you, over the years,
 “Remind me to tell you my candy story.”
This is my candy story.

See, in Saint Joseph, Missouri, there is a modern-day confectioner to rival Willy Wonka.
The Chase Candy Company is headquartered in Saint Joseph.
Chase makes many candies you’ve probably never heard of,
 Including the Hawaiian Haystack, the Coconut Bon-Bon, and something called Peanut Squares.
But for almost a century now, Chase’s has also been making the most mouthwatering concoction
 Known to these Midwestern United States.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Cherry Mash.

The Cherry Mash at heart is a nougat of crushed cherries about half the size of a closed fist.
This nougat center is covered with a double layer of thinly chopped peanuts and chocolate.
The final product -- not so much a bar as a lump -- is packaged in a red and white bag
 Featuring a little Keystone Cop who somehow helps to extol the virtues of the product.

My taste buds and I can assure you that this product requires no such assistance.

Now, as a kid, I worked my way through a litany of candies,
 From Zero bars to Chick-O-Sticks, from grape Bubblelicious gum to Smarties.
(Children understand that different kinds of occasions call for different sorts of sweets.)
But always at the end of my roaming, beckoning me home,
 There was the constancy and the ecstasy of the Cherry Mash:
 … At the end of a long afternoon of summertime swimming;
     … Just before fishing trips, if possible being paired with Big Red soda;
       … During halftime at the concession stand during sporting events;
         … And after -- and, I’m ashamed to say, sometimes even during! -- Church.

Those times were many dental visits ago,
 And yet I continue my affair with the Cherry Mash to this day.
Except that, like a lover who has left nothing but a toothbrush and a vague note,
 In the last two decades, since leaving Oklahoma, the Cherry Mash has mostly managed
   To elude my wandering eye and my sweet tooth.

‘Round here, of course, the Bing is King. Recognize and pay homage.
“Cherry nougat covered in a hash of roasted peanuts and chocolate.”
(By the way, is your mouth watering yet?)
Since nineteen-hundred-and-twenty-three.
Sioux City, I’m glad for you. I’m happy this is working out.
Just like Blue Bunny in Le Mars or Jolly Time here in town,
 What would we do around here without the beloved institution called Palmer Candy?
But I didn’t grow up here.
I grew up in Mash Land, and you have to poke around if you want to find a Cherry Mash.
It’s not in every little store here, like the Bing.
The Mash is more of a regional treat for destinations south of us.

In many of the places where we have lived, in Texas and Colorado and now in Iowa,
 Well-meaning convenience-store merchants have seemed to lack the refined palate --
 Or, perhaps, the genetic predisposition --
 Necessary to recognize the simple genius of this candy.
Alas, I have come, desperately, to know this better than I should have to,
 And Jacquie can testify to the alarming frequency
   With which I have visited gas station candy aisles over the years
 In the hopes of finding a supplier, some fellow traveler, someone who gets it.

What, you well ask, has any of this to do with Jesus and the Transfiguration?
All in good time. I promise I won’t forget.

BUT; like any spurned ex,
 When denied the Cherry Mash over the years,
   I have since turned to a life of creative fulfillment, adapting to whatever’s handiest.
In seminary, it was a seductively simple process,
 Hearing all those sacred texts day after day in chapel,
 To gradually allow the Cherry Mash into the theater of my religious imagination.
The concept of manna, for one, took on new meaning;
 These days I can be clear that it fell to earth in little red-and-white parcels,
 And that the camp of the Israelites smelled of maraschino and cocoa powder.
It wasn’t such a stretch to envision --
   Well, not fruit hanging from a certain tree in a certain Garden,
 But rather clusters of miniature Mashes.
And on and on I go.

Well, what in the world happened?
Whoever said that something I loved as a child
 Had to run my life as an adult, even in a small way?
When --
 Other than for all those years it was denied me --
   When did the One Thing from kid days become the Only Thing to rule the rest of days?

I’m frustrated to say I don’t know the answers to those questions.
And chasing after reliable answers might be just as useless
 As stopping at gas stations late at night, for years and years and years,
   Looking around for a lump of candy that nobody sells.

The more mature response to the problems of idolatry and objectification
 Is to simply start asking, “When did I stop paying attention to what actually matters?”

When I say ‘attention,”
 I mean the very simple act of giving quiet awareness to What Is.
I mean the commitment to simply remain open to Sacred Mystery.
To the open and attentive heart, God’s presence is automatically palpable,
   God’s presence is always and forever available and tangible,
 And the truth of Jesus’ teaching is accessible and inexplicable, all at the same time.

Jesus’ true nature is revealed upon the mountaintop
 And he is shown to be part of the chain of salvation history.
He stands with Moses and Elijah,
 And they have a little talk.
The important thing is to see them together --
  Salvation History --
     The Law, the Prophets, and the Cross.
Jesus is revealed for who and what he is; for a minute the sleep falls out of the disciples’ eyes.

Perhaps the disciples in today’s Gospel could have used
 A story Eckhart Tolle tells about himself and his own lack of awareness:
 “A beggar had been sitting by the side of the road for over thirty years.
    One day a stranger walked by.
    ‘Spare some change?’ mumbled the beggar, mechanically holding out his old baseball cap.
    ‘I have nothing to give you,’ said the stranger.
    Then he asked, ‘What’s that you are sitting on?’
    ‘Nothing,’ replied the beggar. ‘Just an old box.
       ‘I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.’
    ‘Ever looked inside?’ asked the stranger.
    ‘No,’ said the beggar. ‘What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.’
    ‘Have a look inside,’ insisted the stranger.
    The beggar managed to pry open the lid.
    With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.”

Wake up out of your fog, Mark seems to say, and see that the master of your life --
 Jesus, whom we acclaim as the Christ -- is always, self-givingly, right in front of us.

We won’t know it unless we open our eyes to it.
And we’re so stuffed with candy that it’s hard to stay awake.
But God is there on the mountain,
 And God is in you and me right now,
   And God is in the air between us, and in the little massive spaces between the air,
     And God is in the bread and the wine,
       And in the breath we make to proclaim Jesus as Lord,
         And in the hands we shake and the honesty we give and receive from one another.
It’s hard to see sometimes, and even easier to forget, but God really is there.
But maybe for a few minutes I can cast my eyes away from all my idols --
 My need for security and affirmation and selfish love --
   In other words, all the little lumps of candy in my life
     That I used to cherish but am now just addicted to --
   If I can get my eyes off of those things,
     Or even just look at them in a new and different way,
     Maybe even they too could show me Jesus transfigured as Christ.

Maybe that’s it. The simple, abiding awareness of holy presence.
That bracing attentiveness to God’s presence
 When God finally breaks through and heaven comes tumbling to earth.
If the church were about the teaching of all this,
 I wonder how we, too, and the world around might be transfigured in the name of Jesus.

Several years ago, as we were finishing up our time in Austin, in seminary,
 And Jacquie was pregnant with Gabriel,
 Jacquie and I went to see the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
   (A film if ever there was about having one’s mind expanded).
On the way to the theater I developed a craving for something sweet.
Perhaps, I thought, some peanut butter cups or ice cream,
 But I held back at the concession stand and instead dutifully ordered a small bag of popcorn.
And I somehow convinced myself that this was not simply nutritionally smart,
 This was not merely a nod to Jacquie’s low-sugar pregnancy –
 No, I convinced myself that I had done something downright Heroic.
And I settled into my seat, quite unsatisfied with my popcorn.

The inner litany began:
 Why must I be the victim of someone else’s requirements for living?
 Why should I not get the things I want when I’ve done my share of sacrificing already?

This absurd and selfish monologue reached a fever pitch after about ninety seconds,
 When Jacquie came into the theater from the restroom, ...
 A small, red-and-white polypropylene package in her hand.
Unopened, of course, and pristine in every way.
It bore the likeness of a Keystone Cop.

She said, “Here, I thought you might want this.”
“It was sitting on the fire extinguisher when I went into the bathroom,
 And it was still there when I came out.”

The spurned lover, ever on the lookout for some sign of life from the old flame,
 Had walked right by his ultimate sweet prize.

For just a minute, I woke up
 And I thought about not complaining so much about my life.
One more tiny section of Ego was chipped away,
 And Something Else, something more than all that, took its place.
I found myself in awe of Sacred Mystery, desiring deeply to remain aware of its Presence.
And in the end,
   Even though I wanted to take it home and build a little shrine to it,
   I ate the manna from St. Joseph, Missouri.

It was whole and delicious, and I lived to tell.