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September 26, 2014

Hangout


Sermon for Year A, Proper 21
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 28, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Hangout”

There seem to be two distinct moving parts to this morning’s Gospel lesson.
The first is this argument about authority --
 Who has authority, who gets to speak with authority, and what it all means.
Jesus doesn’t need to engage in an argument about power, but for some reason others do.
So they have that argument.
And then the other moving part is embedded within the first.
It’s a direct statement that Jesus slips in to the conversation.

He says to the local authorities, the ruling religious elite, the local know-it-alls --
 He says, When it comes to any sort of reward from God,
 You can expect to be placed in the back of the line,
   After the tax collectors and the prostitutes,
   Because here I’ve been this whole time,
     And you didn’t see me for what I was, but this other crowd did, and they get it.

And this is typical behavior of him, isn’t it?

I wonder what it did to their brains
 To see Jesus hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Hanging out, in other words, with those society deemed least worthy of his attention.
When having his attention was probably the best feeling in the world --
 Like having a spotlight on you, like being the only other person in the world with him.
I wonder what it did to them to see him acting that way,
 Cavorting with hoodlums and drunks and assorted heels.

“How can a guy who knows so much and is so wise
 And has all these miracles attributed to him --
   How can this guy waste his time with such lowlifes?”

It goes straight into the heart of the question that we heard last week;
 Remember that question?
The master hires all these folks throughout the day to come and work,
 And at the end of the day he pays them all the same,
   And the ones who started work at the crack of dawn are mad at the ones who came later.
They’re mad because they thought they were going to get bonuses. Remember?
And the master says to them, What’s your problem?
It’s my money. Let me do what I want with it.
Then he says, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Maybe Jesus would have been considered ritually “unclean” by the authorities
 For hanging around with ritually unclean people;
 But the real sullying, the real dirt that was hard to clean off, was the jealousy they felt
   When they saw him being with people they’d never be caught dead talking to.
Envious, jealous, in the face of his generosity.

I think it can be said that God, in Jesus Christ, shows a clear preference
 For those who have suffered a little in this life, or suffered a lot, maybe.
I think God is conferring authority -- I mean real authority -- on those who have suffered.

Now, I don’t think God wants anyone to suffer.
But if there’s one thing that’s clear from Scripture, it’s this:
 That God redeems whatever pain we can offer up out of our deep flaws,
   And turns it into something usable for God’s purposes in the long run.
And sometimes we get to bear witness to that, and sometimes we don’t.
But just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Again, I don’t think God means for us to suffer.
I don’t think God causes suffering or puts us to a test to see how much we can handle.
I don’t think God wants you to have to suffer one minute more whatever it is that’s stifling you.
But once the chips are already down and the experiences have already been had, ...
 Well, what are you going to do with them,
   But give them to God, who’s strong enough to transform them?
I mean, really, if we could transform all the pain in our lives on our own strength,
 Wouldn’t we have done that already?

And so in real solidarity, Jesus hangs out with those who are suffering.
Not complicated. He just hangs out.
He actively transforms their pain into something better.
And later on, he pays for it, doesn’t he? He hangs, and he himself suffers.
Those with human power and authority have enough of it, and they make him pay.
As if to say, You can only subvert the natural order for so long, and then you must pay a price.
But even his suffering, at our jealous hands, -- even that, God redeems for good.
How -- wha -- Isn’t that “a wonderful and sacred mystery”?
Think of what you would want to do to anyone who hurt your son or daughter.

You know, years ago, Richard Pryor did this little set at a comedy club.
He did this bit about God coming to pick up his boy -- you know, like, after school?
He said God showed up and was looking around for Jesus.
“Where’s Jesus? Where’s my kid?”
And they all just kind of looked down at the dirt.
“Um. Well. Okay. See, the thing is, we kind of killed him.”
And God said, “You killed my boy? And you worship me?”
He said, “I tell you what. I’m going to give you LOVE.
 And if you mess that up, ...”
Now, I know that’s Richard Pryor, and I know he isn’t on our calendar of saints,
 But who cares?
Because he has it right.
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ
 Is the story of the love of God overcoming every attempt by jealous people
 To define failure in a spot outside of their own circle by imposing suffering on it.

“The way up is the way down.”
Lots of folks have picked up on this pattern over the years.
One of the brightest lights of the 20th Century, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote,
 “I talk with the authority of failure.”
“I talk with the authority of failure” is a good line, and it’s true, as we’ve seen,
 But the world doesn’t want to read it on your business card.
It’s punchy and we might chuckle at it with recognition,
 But unless you’re paid by the word as a copywriter, it won’t trade in the marketplace.
What trades is not failure, not suffering, but tangible power and knowledge-based authority
 That is valuable because it can be quickly deployed.
What trades and what has power is steel and guns and flashy infotainment.
Whoever has power and authority is whoever holds the badge or the office.

So I ask: Isn’t it just crazy that All-Mighty God
 Comes into this life as a dirt-dwelling day-laborer
 From a cheap little town and a powerless, oppressed people
 Toiling on the margins of the most powerful empire in human history?
Isn’t it supposed to say something to us
 That This Is The Christ -- “a man acquainted with sorrows” --
   A misfit man spurned and misunderstood and disowned by his own? --
   A man without a country or a place to lay his head?

Doesn’t that mean something?

Doesn’t it mean something that our fair town just brims with suffering of all kinds?
Doesn’t it mean we need to open our eyes and look at the worst suffering around us
 If we want to have any chance at all of seeing Jesus?

Because he’s already shown us -- that’s where we’re going to find him.

September 25, 2014

Church better hear this:

"From a business standpoint, no other organization (short of a monopoly) has the luxury of indifference to the effectiveness (ineffectiveness) of its practices. When churches plead for exemption from this accountability, they not only sentence themselves to stagnation and mailaise but they also separate themselves from the daily experiences of their parishioners, who must live in a world where impact matters. When leaders object with statements like, 'I won't have my church turned into a Walmart,' they are missing the fact that the church should be at least as good as any commercial enterprise in fulfilling its mission. In fact, it should be better. No organization in the world should outperform the church in offering to its people a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning. This is a call to our birthright."

J. Russell Crabtree, Owl Sight

September 12, 2014

Reprieved


Sermon for Year A, Proper 19
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 14, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Reprieved”

Jesus says we that know God is in the house
 When we feel deep down that we have been forgiven --
   All that forgiveness, just raining down.
It’s simply that we come to know what was already true before we even knew it!
The fact that went before us now announces itself.
The grace of God floods the house, and we are forgiven, and we know it.
Our hearts brim over.
Heaven has been tugged down to earth.
Saints and angels sing among us.
The God of peace has returned.

You know what it’s like, right? Sort of?
That feeling that you have received forgiveness from God?
What about from someone else?
For some crazy thing you did? or didn’t do?
Man, it’s like being released from jail!

It’s a two-edged sword, though, isn’t it?
Because it can be so hard to forgive others.
Even when someone has just up and canceled every last penny of our own debt.
And I wonder about that. Why in the world it’s so hard.

Take Jesus’ story about this.
Here’s a guy who owes his king a bundle of money.
When you do the math, he owes the king about 53,000,000 days’ worth of back pay!
Now I ask you, how is he ever going to pay that back? He can’t! That’s the point.
Yet it’s all canceled! Gone -- pfft! -- like it never happened, in an instant.
And all because, the story says, the king had pity on him.

So when this enormous, unpayable debt is canceled,
 And he puts his hands in his pockets and goes off whistling down the street,
 And then he sees his compadre, who owes him a hundred days’ back pay --
   That is, this second man’s debt is equal to one-ten-thousandth of one percent of of his own --
 Why is it that when the first man meets the second man out on the street --
 Why can’t he extend one little pittance of the amazing and enormous charity
   He has just received, to another fellow human being?
This man who just a second ago was the recipient of the greatest act of compassion --
 Why in the world does he fail so miserably at returning the favor?

We could speculate about that.
We could speculate about his greed and his failure and his low nature.
Just as we could speculate about the love and grace and goodness of the king.
The fact is, he fails. Badly.
He fails to forgive even one-ten-thousandth of one percent
 Of the debt that was just written off for him.
He can’t do it; his immediate reaction is to be selfish and harsh and unforgiving.

This doesn’t seem like a long-ago-and-far-away story to me.
It feels like something that’s happening all the time. In people and in institutions.
We receive, mercy upon mercy, yet we are too often selfish in giving mercies back.
Clearly, that’s the pattern and the economy intended here:
 Receive mercy, give mercy; receive grace, give grace.

I’ve been reading this book called Owl Sight, by Russell Crabtree.
He talks about this church where some research revealed
 That there were “unusually high levels of conflict.”
He says that the priest there, a guy named Bill, changed the Passing of the Peace.
Instead of saying, “Peace be with you,” the first person would say,
 “I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
And then instead of responding “And also with you,” the second person would say,
 “Yes, I forgive you.”

“I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you.”
And then they’d do it the other way round, too.
“I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you.”

The response was immediate and electric.
I suppose in part because it wasn’t just some intellectual exercise.
I can imagine that there were some very specific histories being passed between people
 In this very general way.
Old hurts and conflicts.
Places where people had withdrawn to lick their wounds.
Thought the past was over done, yet here it was,
 A living history of strife and contention, just under the surface, still there, simmering away.
Who knew?

Between any two people who have known each other for any good length of time,
 Probably -- no, I’m going to say definitely -- there is something there between them
 That actually requires some apology. Or are we not human?

Would you try this with me, please, right now?
First person says, “I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
Second person says, “Yes, I forgive you.”
Then switch ....
Do this with a couple of different people at least.
Go ahead.

... How was it? ...

Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar,
 And there remember that your brother has something against you,
 Leave your gift there before the altar and go;
   First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Even if you’re the type who tries to live a life of total integrity,
 Offenses requiring the forgiveness of other people will have slipped past your radar.
Things done or left undone. Things said or left unsaid.
You’ll say or do something thoughtless, but it will be too late.

Conflict is impossible to avoid. We surely mess up all the time.
Put away the childish standard of perfection.
But when our life has a constant pattern of giving and receiving forgiveness,
 Then we have gained a hallmark of spiritual maturity in Christian community.

“I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you.”
Both equally important halves of the same discipline.
Forgiveness is for everyone.

Even just who you are, on the outside -- surface characteristics that can’t be changed.

Just so.
In our house, we have a cat named Oliver.
(He came to us as a stray;
 We didn’t know where from, so we named him after the world’s most famous orphan.)
For the first five years we had him, every time I went to pet Oliver,
 He would turn away from me, slink away.
I raised my hand, he ducked; memories of hurt flashed across his eyes.
The veterinarian said that Oliver had probably been knocked around by a man,
 And every time I raised my hand it was a signal to him to run away. Poor kitty!

It took about five years for him to unlearn that;
 Now he sits on the stairs and demands that I pet him whenever he sees me.
The point is, I couldn’t help who I was; and I had never been a cruel pet owner.
But Oliver saw me, and he saw a man, and that was, as they say, a trigger warning.
All I could do was keep offering a hand of kindness. For half a decade.
It was my own bumbling way of saying,
 “Oliver, I apologize on behalf of all men. We were wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
And Oliver crept closer, and one day he finally let me pet him,
 And he said, “Yes, I forgive you.”

See, you never know -- even with a perfect stranger -- just what it is about you
 That might turn someone’s memory or gut or heart into a blazing fury of chaos.
(If you don’t believe me, let me lend you some priestly clothes for an afternoon.)
But if you stand and ask for forgiveness anyway -- “Would you please forgive me?” --
 Whether or not that forgiveness is even given you by the other person, ...
 If it is sincere,
   You make the world better.
In the same way, ... if you forgive,
 You can sweep away, with one kind word, the damage of years.
“Yes, I forgive you.”

So it’s on us. It’s up to us.

Or is forgiveness only God’s business?
No, I can’t think so.
Not when we live in a world where we are taught to be ready to hurt each other
 If that’s what it means to get ahead or survive,
 And to hell with the consequences.
Forgiveness is recognizing that there are consequences for each and every one of my actions
 And the actions of my fellow human beings.

And how do we know when it’s working?
How do we know that we really are forgiving someone?
Lewis Smedes said that “You will know that forgiveness has begun
 When you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”
The Power To Wish Them Well. That seems as good a yardstick as any.

And so we continually ask God to forgive us our sins,
 And then we turn to one another and ask for it and offer it.
And I ask you, Will you forgive me?
For all I’ve done or not done? said or not said?
For all the things for which I know and am sorry,
 And for the equal amount about which I am unaware or too cold of heart to be moved.

I think, somehow, the key to our life together is bound up in this simple discipline.
Even though it is an often difficult business, ... well, it’s how we learned Christ.

And for this, we give thanks.