March 6, 2015


Sermon for Year B, The Third Sunday in Lent
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
March 8, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

The Bible is the story of God,
 Who makes all of creation, and blesses it,
   And who then makes a deal, or a “covenant” with certain peoples of the earth:
   You will be my people, and I shall be your God.
To this deal, God adds some rather delicious promises:
 With Adam and Eve, Have dominion over the earth;
 With Noah and his kin, Never again shall I flood the world;
 With Abraham and Sarah, You will be the father of many nations;
 With Moses, My people will be set free;
 With David, You will be the king and show forth my glory.
Always, the bottom line of the deal is,
 Abide by the terms of this covenant, and you will be a great light;
   And kings and nations will come and worship,
   And things will be put right.

But there’s a cost. The covenant isn’t exactly free. Some behaviors are expected.
People enter into the covenant being asked to do certain things,
 Or to let go of certain things, or to re-learn old ways of being,
 Or to renounce the ways of the past and learn new ways of being.
The covenant requires us to do some things, and so we get laws, for our own good –
 Don’t eat of the fruit of that tree;
 Bring me a sacrifice;
 Walk in the ways that I have prescribed;
 Don’t build me a temple just yet; or, Go ahead and build me a temple; and on and on.

So, then, living with the reality of God in our lives – living in a covenant –
 Is a lot like living with the reality of any relationship at all.
We hope and expect to get certain things out of that relationship,
 And in turn we know we will have to give and sacrifice and amend our lives.
But the relationship, and enjoying one another, makes it worth the effort.

Also, as in any relationship, there are moments when things can get really intense.
What happens when someone fails to uphold his or her end of the bargain?
What happens when someone goes off the deep end or gets flaky?
What happens when people are subject to human failings?
What happens when people are subject to outbursts of emotion?
What happens when someone becomes hard to deal with?
Well, if the relationship is worth it, you do the work, right?

Now, I suppose that I say all that, simply in order to say this:
 In the Bible, God gets mad.
It happens a lot.
And if you need to worship and love a god who is so perfect
 As to be beyond showing emotion,
 Then your money, brothers and sisters, has been laid on the wrong pony.
Because the divine heart is worn on the divine sleeve.
God gets mad.

If you want to, you can rationalize Jesus cleansing the temple,
 And in your mind at least, you can sanitize him and clean him up
   And make him be beyond reproach.
If you wanted to, you could say
 That Jesus was merely informing those in the temple
 That the old sacrificial system was coming to an end –
   That in him and because of him, their services would no longer be required.
No more vendors are necessary now, thank you.
But I suppose that if that’s all Jesus is doing,
 There are probably more polite ways of lowering that boom
   Than whipping them and knocking over their tables and driving them out.
He could sit them all down one by one and explain that they’ve had a good run,
 But it’s time to pack it in.
He could send pink slips to each of their homes.
He could at least stop long enough to see that these booths
 Offering money-changing services and animal-selling services
 Have been a serviceable, reliable part of the system for a long time,
   And now it’s time to find another line of work.
He could spell all that out with cold calculation.

Clearly, that’s not the story we have. Instead, God gets angry.
In Psalm 7 God “displays his wrath every day.”
In Exodus, God tells Moses to leave him alone because he’s so mad about Israel
 That he wants to destroy them.
And Sodom and Gomorrah. And Nineveh.
And Lot’s wife. And the guy who reached up to touch the ark only in order to steady it.
Revelation depicts God’s wrath as taking the form of seven bowls of righteous anger:
 Rivers and seas turn to blood before they dry up;
 Mankind is scorched by the sun; the earth is utterly shaken.
I read where someone thought of this as “rationally retributive” –
 That is, God’s “anger is his direct, calculated response to sin.”
In other words, that God doesn’t get mad, he gets even.
There’s yet another sunny apology for the truth that God really does get angry.
A truth that doesn’t need an apology or an explanation. The relationship is worth the work.

Disney. Hallmark. Mainline Christianity in American culture.
At our peril, we take an iron to Jesus’ wrinkled edges and we domesticate him.
We run him through the “Iowa Nice” filter and place him among lambs and children.

You know what I mean when I say Iowa Nice, right?
Folks here are nice. They’re kind. They wouldn’t say an uncharitable word.
Ron Wiggins wrote that “Iowans won’t consult the Whitman’s chocolates diagram
 Because if you know what you’re getting,
 That would mean that Forrest Gump’s mother was wrong,
   That life is not like a box of chocolates.
In fact, the meanest thing Iowans ever do is switch the chocolates around
 So that only they know where the caramels are.
Then they switch them back because they can’t handle the guilt.”

How can the Jesus whose anger cleanses the temple and drives out the commercial vendors
 Possibly stand a chance against the antiseptic Jesus of our halcyon Sunday School days?
We don’t know how to be angry except in secret; it just isn’t acceptable.
So we shove it down until we get so full of it that it comes out sideways.

But not Jesus.
He is clear and direct with what he’s feeling about this situation.

Truth is, God alone is sovereign, righteous, all-holy, and just.
How and why this is, is a mystery. But it puts me on my knees.
The pattern in the Bible seems to be that when God is angry,
 a) it isn’t forever, and
 b) stuff gets done. In short order.

Our bodies and our minds are a temple of the Holy Spirit.
We have accrued ways of being over the years that allow us to forget that.
Wherever we have compromised those systems, cheated those systems,
 Not offered the right kinds of sacrifices of our lives,
 Not truly learned to write the laws of God on our hearts –
   Wherever we have trespassed the law compassion and charity
     And the law of the love of God, self, and others –
       Wherever we have become sleepy, selfish, or cold-hearted,
   Wherever the law has been forgotten, ... we need a temple cleansing.
We need the favor of divine power, and the blast of a kind of a whip,
 To get it together and drive out whatever it is that keeps us from loving God completely.
We can’t do this alone; we need the one who has been with us and walked and lived among us.
The holy living impression of the one true God.

We need Christ as our guide.

February 22, 2015


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.


February 18, 2015


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.