Pages

November 22, 2014

Fulfilled


Sermon for Year A, Christ the King
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 23, 2014
St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral


Good morning to you!
I’m glad to be able to have returned to be with you once again today.
I’m Torey Lightcap, the diocesan transitions officer.
That’s a fancy name for the person charged with helping congregations that have clergy openings
 To find the ordained folks they need to come alongside and serve with you and help to lead.
You are now closing in on the last few, may I say very exciting details
 Of your search for a new Dean.
I’m going to leave the reporting-out of that to the Chapter and the search team.
Let me just say that it has been a privilege to have worked with you on this so far,
 And that when you’re done with this task,
   You’ll be beginning with someone uniquely positioned
     To help you go forward into the future that God has planned for all of you.
It has been so cheering to have seen the Holy Spirit
 At work all throughout this process and even into today.
You’re doing great work; keep it up!


Now, with respect to this reading,
 There is something so difficult, isn’t there?, yet so poetic and lovely about this logic of Jesus
 As it has been recorded in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew:
 If you love “the least of these” --
   That is, if you love the ones despised and discarded by the world,
     The ones accounted as unaccountable, as no-accounts ...
   If you welcome strangers into your land and feed the hungry ...
     If you put clothing on the backs of the rejected, naked ones ...
     If you tend the sick and go into the prisons
       Just to see who’s there, and be with them --
   If you hold onto all these in their dark hours -- if you kiss the leper, as it were --
   If you love them, then you love Jesus himself.
It is lovely. It is poetic. And it is difficult -- a hard teaching.
And it is precisely why, for all its difficulties, I want to follow Jesus:
 Because he has left not the imprint or the mere idea of himself, ghostlike, in the rejected,
   But his very self.
He is the living Lord, and his broken and resurrected body
 Is the living flesh of those dismissed by the world.
He has drawn for us not just some poetic simile, but an absolute equivalence:
 If we serve them, we serve him; we do not serve him if we do not serve them.
Does this give us pause? ... I think it should ... We really cannot run past it ...


And, it’s not only the logic of Jesus. It’s the charge of Jesus.
The way of Jesus. The “go and do this” of Jesus. The thing that lives way beyond lip-service.
“Serve them, serve me,” he says. Or to say it in a slightly different way, “Serve them. Serve me.”


And not for the first time is he making this instruction known. It is no private secret.
Many chapters before, in Matthew, Jesus backs the mucky-mucks against a wall
 And levels an ultimatum:
   As he sits at dinner in the house [of Matthew the tax-collector],
   Many tax-collectors and sinners come and are sitting with him and his disciples.
   When the Pharisees see this, they say to the disciples,
     “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?”
   But when Jesus hears this, he says,
     “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [do].
       Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
       For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”


“Mercy, not sacrifice.” Quoting the prophet Hosea,
 In saying that God “desire[s] steadfast love and not sacrifice,
   The knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Love, not in some generalized way, but specific loving-kindness and compassion and mercy.
Mercy for the sick, the prisoner, the hungry, the stranger. Mercy for those judged as less-than.
It’s Jesus’ opinion about what constitutes a performance of the law as he reads it.
No matter how erudite or learnéd his rhetorical competitors may be,
 There’s no denying the power of this argument:
   In effect, saying, If you want to follow me, serve me in those society has thrown away.
And as with many of the great teachers, there is no further qualification or need for clarification.


There’s an oft-quoted story that has emerged from the century prior to the time of Jesus’ life.
There were two rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. And as they say, opposites attract.
Hillel and Shammai were like Sven and Ole, or Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.


Hillel was a “loose constructionist” who read the Torah in a liberal way.
Shammai was a “strict constructionist” who read the Torah as immovable and unyielding.
A Gentile came to them and made an annoying and unusual request:
 “I’ll convert to your way of thinking,” he said,
   “If you can you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.”
(In other words, in only a few seconds.)


Shammai was so provoked and incensed that he struck the Gentile with his measuring rod.
Hillel (I’m imagining with a big sigh) -- Hillel just simply said the following:
 “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah.
   The rest is commentary -- [and now] go study.”


“That which is hateful to you, do not unto another.”


I guess Hillel phrased it in the negative
 Because he’d just watched Shammai reach out and hit the poor man,
 And he was offering Shammai some teaching about gentleness
   In addition to teaching to the Gentile. A two-for-one. Pretty sage.


Even so, the point holds, doesn’t it?
If you despise it, don’t do it.
The so-called Golden Rule.
And I will venture to say Jesus was well aware of this tale of these rabbis
 And the existence of the Golden Rule
 When he brought it into his conversation with the Pharisees at the tax-collector’s house
   Or to his disciples, in Luke, when he told them,
     “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.”
Or as Tobit says, “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”


So. If you dislike receiving injustice or a bad break in life;
 If you dislike the effects hunger and poverty would have on you;
 If you dislike the alienating sensation
   Of being a stranger in need of welcome and assistance in a foreign land,
     Or even in your own homeland that has been annexed by occupiers, as Jesus’ was;
 Then fulfill the law: Welcome and feed and visit and clothe the rejected, the sick, the prisoner --
     The ones who have been spurned and cast aside;
   And in them you will find Jesus Christ himself.
This, it seems to me, is the law, resting firmly on one foot.


Ah, but why? -- why is the most important law also the hardest one to fulfill?
There’s the rub.
We’ve all had various opportunities to serve the poor at one time or another, haven’t we?
And what do we find?
We find, and not to anyone’s great astonishment -- we find that it can be incredibly difficult;
 That we tend not to last very long at it before we burn out;
   That what the poor lack in basic services or food or clothing
     They make up for in abundant stories of tough luck that are anything but pleasing to hear.
We find that whatever good intentions we may posses for wanting to serve “the least of these”
 Often cannot withstand the pain of hearing people’s horror stories
   Or abiding any other aspect about them we don’t like.
Poverty and pain, sickness and prison, naked rejection --
 They don’t play easy or nice with us, with our conventions about what should be --
   They bump into our assumptions and play around with our expectations;
   And they remind us, starkly,
     That sometimes we’re only a few missing paychecks away
     From being right there in the same spot as “they” are;
       And we turn away, because it’s hard to think about,
       How paper-thin that line is, between quote-unquote us and quote-unquote them.
Sometimes the lens rotates a little, and we see that those distinctions can really be dangerous.


That it’s easier to imagine a concrete wall of distinction between “classes” of people
 Than it is to imagine that all people, quite simply, are much the same in so many respects.


 Serving “the least of these” is not only serving Christ himself who lives in others --
 It is a chance, in a weird way, in a hard way,
 To see myself, to see your self reflected in another --
   To be confronted by the truth of a thing --
   Not out of some narcissism,
     But only in acknowledgement that the differences between us are never so great
   As to permanently tear us apart from one another.


And so, hard as it is, we perform the law that Christ has handed us.


So.
If you have been waiting for a reason to get in the game,
 Here it is:
   God, in Jesus Christ, so loved the creation
     That he gave us one another to witness to his presence.
Not only these things, but it is the commandmend of Jesus to do this.
He tells us how to be, and then he lives his life,
 And with his life he backs up everything he said about how we should be.
We have the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit to accompany us in this work,
 And we have one another.
God will be our guide.

What more do we need?

November 14, 2014

Builders


Sermon for Year A, Proper 28
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 16, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

What-all has God given you to look after in your life?
And don’t say “nothing”!
If you say “nothing,” you’re not participating and it’s a cop-out.
Stay with me, okay?
Not a rhetorical question: What-all has God given you to look after and take care of?
Take a minute to think of everything that has been entrusted to you to take care of.
My gosh, the list is as long as your arm.

There are things, like cars and coats and houses and books and buildings and brooms:
 Some of them, to keep; some of them, ironically,
   That can only be appropriately cared for by giving them away.
Same goes with money -- stocks and securities, whatever’s in your checkbook or your wallet.
There are animals: beloved family pets, or farm animals, service animals, nature’s glory.
There are ideas, if that’s not too abstract: ideas that are ours to look after --
 You know, the various notions about life that really are so precious
 That they must be passed on to the next generations:
   Ideas, like the importance of God, or Faith, or Home, or Work,
     Or Country, or Freedom, or Health, or Art.
There’s the church and all of its various components and parts and people -- striving, striving.
There’s your body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, 1 Corinthians says.
 (How we doing there, by the way? Looking after the temple of the Spirit?) ...
There are people: kids and grandkids and family and friends and neighbors and work associates,
 Or maybe just people you meet over the Internet or down at the coffee shop
   Or volunteering at the Pantry, or folks who walk up out of the blue and need something.
People, given to us by God to look after.
There’s also this very planet we’re sitting on at the moment, and all that that implies.
We’re in space now, too, so we have to look after that --
 Even the top of that comet we landed a space probe on this week, 317 million miles from here.
There really is a lot that has been given to us to look after
 For as long as it falls to us. We don’t get to say, “Not my problem.” We can’t check out.
And even when it does come time for someone else to look after all this,
 You don’t just chuck it over the fence, do you?
You look after it for as long as you can, and hand it off with great care.
Like the last truffula seed in that Dr. Seuss story, The Lorax.
You hand it off with the deepest care to the one person who might understand the most.

Are you taking care of what has been entrusted to you by God?

Jesus says that the Kingdom of God turns a profit, which I suppose could sound sort of crass,
 But tune your ears a little here.
He says that you know you’re in the Kingdom
 When the things you’re looking after and taking care of are thriving and growing.
The metaphor he uses is,
 When a ten-dollar bill gets turned into two ten-dollar bills, that’s the Kingdom showing up.
Somehow a five-dollar bill becomes a ten; that’s the Kingdom.
You could’ve sworn it wasn’t there a minute ago,
 But you were taking care of it, giving the growth, looking after it, and boom -- it’s there now. And it’s doubled. It’s increasing.

Money isn’t the only place that thought like this comes to rest,
 Though money is certainly not excluded either.
Ever help a plant reach double its size? or triple? or just grow out way beyond the seed?
Ever watch a child or a grandchild turn ten, blowing out the candles on the cake,
 And think to yourself, Say -- wasn’t it just yesterday she was five?
 And now she’s turning out to be such a fine person.
That’s not by accident or magic or mistake, is it?
It takes blood, sweat, tears, and a certain amount of heavenly ferocity
 To help a five-year-old become a ten-year-old.
That’s the Kingdom showing up.
A thing receives the love and kindness and compassion and mercy and direction it deserves,
 By the one (or the ones) who are responsible for it,
 And good growth inevitably occurs.
Even when growth looks like trimming and pruning, which it often does.

I said this already, but let’s avoid magical thinking here, okay?
The Kingdom of Heaven is not your vending machine.
We live in a time in which the book “The Secret” is still being passed from person to person
 Like it’s holding all the answers to life’s mysteries.
My personal feeling is that probably it’s done more damage than good.
Good intentions are fine, but you can hardly grow the Kingdom of God on the back of a whim.
Several years ago in Colorado, at a pretty new-agey church, I visited with an occasional attendee
 Who thought that if he was grateful enough,
   And visualized it enough, and prayed for it enough (ready for this?)
   He could make an actual motorcycle appear in his garage.
I scrunched up my nose, and I said, “Jack” -- his name was Jack --
 I said, “Jack, you could get a job and have a motorcycle in a couple of months.”
And he gave me a weird look, like I’d suddenly broken out into Chinese while tap-dancing.
The Kingdom is not made of penny whistles and seashells and balloons and moon pies.
It isn’t a dreamt-of future of perfection or a passive theater bench
 Or some hi-def IMAX entertainment screen with screaming surround sound.
It isn’t a theme park that exists strictly for amusement purposes.
It certainly isn’t wishes piled up like so many motorcycles.
It isn’t wearing God down until you finally hit the Powerball. That’s all just magic.

The Kingdom?
It’s a lot of hard, wonderful work, carried on the shoulders of a group of committed creatures
 Whose lives have been totally and completely changed for ever,
 Not because they’ve been coming to church for ever
   And have worn grooves in the pew so deep they could have them named after their thighs,
   But because they have been absolutely flea-dipped in God to within an inch of their lives,
   Dunked down hard into the living waters of baptism into Christ,
     Come convincingly face-to-face with a fearsome living God,
       Been converted by the evidence of prayer and discernment in community,
     Been picked up and blindfolded and spun around more than once by the Holy Spirit,
   And somehow lived to tell the tale.

And almost none of it is glimpsed in the past, up in the rear-view mirror. It’s lived in the now.
The Kingdom is built brick by brick
 By folk who got away from this amazing experience of God long enough to take a breath,
 And who wondered about it for a while, and then they came back for more,
 And then they just decided it’d be easier if they stayed in this crucible
   And they made a home directly in the cold shade of the cross
     (A home that, by the way, has very little to do with where their membership letter lives);
   And they kept one foot firmly rooted in the needs of a dying, crying-out world
 And another firmly rooted in the prophetic imagination of the church
   Where their indispensible -- their indispensible brothers and sisters could be found.
These co-builders of the Kingdom.
They became convinced by this cloud of witnesses that their lives would never be the same,
 And they settled down out of the abstractions of the ethereal theoretical cloud,
   And into the unclouded concreteness of getting up and walking with God every day
   Right into the dark and the sick, and it would be okay, it really would, no matter what,
     Because God’s Kingdom needs builders and expanders,
       And if not them, then who?
The Kingdom needs them to put down their resources and then double the result.
The Kingdom needs them --
 God needs them, and you can bet your bottom dollar they know how much they need God.
“Every hour, every minute, I need thee,” they say in their prayers,
 And it’s simply put, and they mean every word of it,
   And they pray it with urgency like the saints they are.
And they say, Well, here I am. I shall not be moved. Count me as Christ’s own for ever.
To use an overworked word, they fell in love with God once,
 But that wasn’t nearly the end of it.
They kept falling. They keep falling.

You and I, we keep falling. Do we? Don’t we? Let’s do if we don’t!
I’m not just talking about other people. I’m talking about us.
Let’s get gobsmacked by the Creator, and let’s never want to walk apart from that.
Never.

In fact, upon reflection, let’s admit that we have no idea what it was about us
 That God found so attractive in the first place --
   We’re just so grateful to have been found and saved despite ourselves.

Grace really is amazing, sisters and brothers,
 And it makes a sweet saving sound in the ear of us wretches as it continually pours forth,
 “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, pouring into our laps.”
Much have we received, much are we given to look after --
 Run with, risk with, build with, not bury in the ground fearfully awaiting judgment.

What builds the Kingdom, my friends, isn’t fear and hoarding and withholding, a cramped fist.
It isn’t shovels and dirt and X marks the spot and midnight extractions of treasure
 When we find out that master is coming to punish.
It isn’t magical wishing.
It isn’t the long, dumb odds on the Lotto.

What builds the Kingdom is Kingdom-Builders, Kingdom-Doers,
 Kingdom-Expanders, Kingdom-Doublers.
People with skin in the game. People who obviously, visibly care.
People for whom talk is often far too cheap,
 And cheap grace is no grace at all.
Folks who take what they are given by God
 And who shrewdly expand it to at least twice its size
 Before handing it back, even as they are ushered into the joy of their master
   Again and again and again.

What are you going to do with what you’ve got? For as long as you’ve got it?
Hide it away, or make something wonderful out of it?
What are you building?

It’s a question for your soul.