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July 18, 2014

Whole Wheat


Sermon for Year A, Proper 11
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 20, 2014
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
“Whole Grain”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, may grace and peace abound in each of us as sacred vessels,
 And in this holy house.
May we be filled with the Spirit this day, and speak and listen and build one another up
 With all truth and all gentleness.
And may the name of God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- be praised.
Amen. Please, be seated.

Good morning, again. My name is Torey Lightcap.
I am the part-time rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City
 Where I have served for five years now;
 And since January I have also served as the Diocesan Transitions Minister.
In that capacity, I work with Bishop Scarfe and his staff.
I’m the person who helps congregations that are in search to locate suitable clergy
 To come alongside, walk with them, and work with them.
That’s why I’m here today. Likely you already knew this if you read your weekly email!

You have Georgia’s impending retirement on your calendar for early next year, in March.
The days between now and then will no doubt pass more quickly than any of us are prepared for.
And in moving into a place and a space where a new rector’s leadership can take hold,
 There’s quite a lot for all of us to do and think about and pray over.
Quite enough for us all, and so much more than any one person can do alone.
It’s a big job. An often exhausting job.
And even if you’re not on the selection team or the Vestry,
 The emotional weight alone of a process like this can sometimes feel overwhelming,
 Because a lot seems to be riding on the outcome.

But now let me ask you this.
What if the process of locating a priest was not just about locating a priest?
(Because it isn’t just that. Or at any rate, it’s an important outcome, but isn’t everything.)
What if the process of locating a priest was also about clarity, and faith?
Clarity about “where we’ve been”? “Where we’re headed”? “What we’re about”?
Faith in the promises of Jesus that God does not leave us comfortless?
What if the process of locating a priest was about learning to rest and to trust,
   Amidst all the chaos,
 In the sanctified space of the Holy Spirit, stirring us up and leading us down the next path?
To put it another way,
 What do you think would happen if the actions of St. Andrew’s in this or any process
   Were only and always about God’s life working itself out in you?

Right action. Your life, God’s life. Steered along by the Spirit.
We’ve just now heard the most interesting parable about weeds and wheat.
Last week, of course, you may remember if you heard Mike preach on it,
 “A sower went out to sow,”
 And the Word was implanted in many soils, but only took hold in some.
The sower was indiscriminate to the point of being outright wasteful --
 The seeds went everywhere, if you recall!
That’s how the real love of God works.

Today we get almost the reverse.
The good seeds are already in the ground and growing.
There’s wheat on the way.
But some knucklehead has stolen onto the field and sown in all these weeds.
The way Matthew frames it, at least in this part, Jesus doesn’t want us to spend a lot of time
 Guessing about motivations as to why this has happened. It just has.
So after the speculation, what we’re left with is a simple question:
 What is a good and just and loving master of the field supposed to do
 When presented with this situation?

Weeds and wheat, wheat and weeds.
I grew up in Oklahoma. My family lived in Kansas. My wife grew up in Nebraska and Kansas.
Believe me when I say, at our house we know what good wheat is supposed to look like.
(Iowa corn has always been startling to me. When I look out at a field, I still expect wheat!)
You hear “wheat,” “weeds,” and you think, No big deal.
A weed is a nuisance plant clearly distinguished from wheat;
 The field hands will make two piles, burn one off, and bring the other in.

But this Enemy -- he’s subtle, clever, sneaky.
He’s sown in not just any weed, but what Matthew calls zizania --
 Or darnel -- also called tares -- known by scientists as Lolium temulentum.
Have you ever seen it? It’s very easy to confuse it with real wheat.
It grows in the same places as wheat, and it looks almost exactly like the genuine article.
But rather than nourish you, as good wheat does, --
 Well, darnel is poison. It contains a poisonous fungus, called ergot.
Ingesting it has been known to cause hallucinations, gangrene, and miscarriages,
 And it has most certainly killed many people over the years.
So here it is: one of the worst things in the world,
 Cloaked in a very convincing package that resembles one of the best things in the world.
Death disguised as nourishment.

Well, thank God for discernment.
Discernment is about the knowing the difference, eh?
Living with contradiction, but choosing the better path.
Knowing the difference between a good meal and a stomach-pumping.
Discernment is knowing one’s left from one’s right,
 The good stuff from the bad stuff -- especially when the stakes are high.
Discernment is about seeing clearly so as to be able to distinguish
 What is needed and helpful from whatever is not needed, whatever is not helpful.

I like this parable because it’s such a clear picture of the human condition.
It’s a confession!
On our own, we fundamentally lack the tools and the insight
 To be able to correctly make the right decision in a highly critical situation 100% of the time.
We don’t have what it takes. That skill, that art, is beyond us.
We are, in one sense, just powerless over our imperfection.
Yet we live lives in which we make critical decisions every day, don’t we?
 And many others make critical decisions on our behalf,
   Many of which we have no idea are even happening.
What a paradox is this life! -- we can’t make it on our own;
 We just do what we can, and daily throw ourselves on the mercy of God,
   And commend all things to the gracious care and keeping of God.
And we await instruction and discernment, the gift of the Spirit.

So, then. The master of the field instructs the farm hands
 As to how to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff, and to keep it separated.
The master can’t afford to assume they understand and have it all well in hand.
After all, this is about the well-being of anyone who will eat of the bread from his fields.
So instruction must come. They must be formed up for this task and armed with knowledge.

We don’t have to imagine we already have all the answers.
God teaches us, along the way, and as needed; and life in the community teaches us, too.
Psalm 51 has that one beautiful line:
 For behold, you[, God,] look for truth deep within me,
   and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
God knows already what is true and beautiful and wise and permanent within you,
 Both individually and as St. Andrew’s;
   And God will elicit that from you and and teach that to you;
     God will use you to the best possible end;
       Indeed, it’s already happened, time after time.

I know this to be true. About you.
I know it’s already happened because I saw it with my own eyes.
I’ve seen it happening, in You.

St. Andrew’s came into consciousness for me more than three years ago,
 When we all stepped into the Recasting program together.
I was coming in to help represent St. Thomas,
 And we were all coming at it from different angles and with different goals,
 But in a much wider sense we were all in the same boat.
None of us really had any idea of what the Spirit had thrown us into;
 I just knew that for myself, it sure seemed as though we were spending time
 Weeding out the poisonous plants with every harvest we went through,
   Or worse yet, just bringing it all in and milling it all together for the people’s bread.
And I don’t mean simple moralistic categories that are easy to discern;
 I mean weeds that looked for all the world like our very lifeblood.
Weeds! There was the zizania of believing that we could go infinitely forward
 On existing resources without ever having to truly change course.
The darnel of constantly reinvesting in the physical plant rather than in people.
The tares of fear created by the specter of a shrinking endowment with a fixed timeline.
The Lolium temulentum of people who were paid generously,
 But too generously, way beyond budgetary sustainability.
We were the kind of farmhands you look for a reason to give a pink slip to;
 We weren’t good stewards of what we’d been given.

When find yourself sinking
 Your money and your time and your energy and your people and your buildings
 Out of a deep and immobilizing fear
   That keeps you from evolving the way God needs you to evolve,
   You know it’s time to talk. Past time.
That’s what Recasting did for us. It put us nose to nose. It removed excuses and distractions.
And as surely as I saw those hard, positive conversations start to come up at St. Thomas,
 So too did I see them come up at St. Andrew’s, and at St. Anne’s in Ankeny.
Your weeds may have looked a little different from our weeds if you were close up,
 But from a distance, a weed is a weed is a weed!

We found out, over time, that Psalm 51 is true -- it’s truer than true:
 That God looks for truth deep within us, and will make us understand wisdom secretly.
That what we needed was for our intuition to be formed
 So we could talk about the things we all saw -- all those 800-pound gorillas.
We were shaped by a line of thinking -- a series of set-your-hair-on-fire moments --
 Where we were given the tools to be able to tell weeds from wheat,
 And people came alongside us, put their hands on top of ours, and said,
 For your own good, St. Thomas, St. Andrew’s, St. Anne’s, weed your field and divide the harvest.

I’ve seen that happen. That, and a whole host of other things.
Your kitchen. Your whole physical plant. Your engagement with the community.
Your longstanding witness to tolerance of three distinct worshipping homes under one roof.
Your energy levels. Your formation of many people for ministry.
I’ve seen that, and I can tell you, all the other folks at the Office of the Bishop have, too.
I know of a church -- it’s in Houston -- where the Rector said,
 “The only way to fail at something is not to try.”
When I think of St. Andrew’s, I think of precisely that language, precisely that attitude.
An attitude of adventure and exploration and try try try.
Forget what Yoda said -- almost all of life is “try.” And you’re in the thick of it. I’m proud!

You need to know that people are watching you --
 That in the best sense possible, people are starting to take notice of St. Andrew’s.
You might think, Who: little old us? But it’s true.
Wherever I go, I often tell your story -- at least as I have come to understand and appreciate it.
I told your story to people in Baltimore and Albuquerque and Cincinnati and South Sudan
 And to others on the Internet logging in from lots of places.
You’ve done a lot; but you aren’t nearly finished.

Repeating: God isn’t nearly finished with you yet!
God has a mission in the world; and in St. Andrew’s, God has a church to accomplish that mission.

So we have every reason to be confident in what the next few years will bring you here.
Continued discernment. Continued formation. Continued truth-telling.
A new chapter in your life together, with new adventures and an amazing story to tell.
You want a priest who will see this for what it is, and know that it’s good, and resource it,
 And in Christ’s name you need to know that we are with you in this search.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

July 13, 2014

Empires

Vela Zanetti, The Sower

Sermon for Year A, Proper 10
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 13, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Empires”


[SEED IS POURED INTO A CLEAR CONTAINER HOLDING JUST A BRICK.]


  1. The seed on the path
    1. Teaching: “some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.”
    2. Interpretation: “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.”
    3. Further Interpretation
      1. Nothing can be done; odds are against the seed; but the seed falls anyway;
         The sower is lovingly indiscriminate and wasteful;
         Who knows what might happen down in between the cracks?
      2. Even so, we are the hardness of the path;
         The hardness of the path mirrors the hardness of our hearts;
           We have this impulse to sweep away the seed
           So we don’t have to deal with it
           So that it should never have a chance to choose to come up.
      3. But what if it comes up anyway?


[SEED IS POURED INTO ROCKS AND DRY SOIL.]


  1. The seed on rocky soil
    1. Teaching: “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.”
    2. Interpretation: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.”
    3. Further Interpretation
      1. Again, seemingly nothing can be done to make this soil any better;
         But the gracious sower continues to throw out seeds --
         Indiscriminate, wasteful.
      2. Early enthusiasm in the life of a patch of soil is useful;
         It helps things move along in the beginning;
         But then it must get on about the patient business of being soil,
           Growing things.
        Maya Angelou said, “Seek patience and passion in equal amounts.
         Patience alone will not build the temple.
         Passion alone will destroy its walls.”
      3. A rooted thing is a grounded thing;
         But a rootless thing, an ungrounded thing,
         Cannot reach too far out beyond itself.
        It just doesn’t last very long;
         The idea of a complete, abundant life seems too odd and inconvenient.
        The soil becomes convinced that no one needs it to produce anything --
         That nothing is really lost by its being rocky and loose.
        At some point, the early enthusiasm and romance
         Of being a host to a seed fades away.
        What’s left to take its place had better be a sense
         Of wisdom and rootedness and patient submission
         That the soil can cooperate with the seed
           To willingly produce something useful.
        But if it does not have this kind of disposition --
         And quite a lot of the time it does not, for whatever reason --
         If it lacks the disposition or the preparation,
           The soil will shirk its duties to the seed.
      4. Soil without purpose or preparation
         Or you might even say willpower may as well give up its seed.
        But there it is, anyway, waiting, patiently, in the ground.

[SEED IS POURED INTO A CONTAINER HOLDING VARIOUS WEEDS.]


  1. The seed in the weeds/thorns
    1. Teaching: “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”
    2. Interpretation: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.”
    3. Further Interpretation
      1. There are just too many other things growing in this soil
         And only so many places that the soil can allocate its resources.
        It appears that there is not enough go around;
         That there are too many things to choose from;
         That there are already existing commitments to be honored.
      2. It’s easy to decide against nurturing one little newcomer seed.
      3. Material concerns prevent the soil from doing its job of raising the seed:
        1. The soil wants Power, so it grows thick briars, stickers, thorns.
        2. The soil wants Esteem, to be seen, so it grows tall weeds.
        3. The soil wants Privilege, so it grows expansive empires of weeds.
        4. The soil wants Pleasure, so it grows noxious things that keep out the birds and other critters.


[SEED IS POURED INTO A CONTAINER WITH BLACK SOIL.]


  1. The seed in the good soil
    1. Teaching: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
    2. Interpretation: “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
    3. Further Interpretation
      1. The place of reception is open, prepared, and appropriately amended.
        It is free from distraction.
      2. It is not that it will yield thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold only once --
         Good soil will yield many phases of crops,
         Sometimes more abundantly than others,
           But always producing, always helping, even in its fallow seasons.


I hope that this description of the four kinds of soils Jesus talks about
 Does not necessarily have you asking yourself what kind of soil you are.
I’m afraid that’s a losing game -- to sit and imagine we are one or the other.
The truth is,
 We are all a hard, paved path picked over by birds;
 And we are all rootless, forgetful, unenthusiastic ground for the Word of God;
 And we are all a weed-choked field eaten up by the concerns of everyday life;
   And we are all a well-tended, receptive, open ground ready to produce a bumper crop.
About all we can say with any measure of truth
 Is that when it comes to nurturing the indiscriminate love of God,
 We’re all pretty much just a bag of mid-grade potting soil
   With some okay fertilizer but also some rocks and sticks and a cut in the bottom of the bag.
We run the gamut; we are all forms of soil.


And yet -- at the very same time -- in an even bigger way --
 And I don’t know how you might take this --
 Perhaps it’s even truer that what we’re really talking about here is nothing less than life itself.
Perhaps it is that these first three kinds of soils are just three different ways
 Of Jesus describing the world he saw going on around him every day,
 And then setting up a contrast with the fourth soil.
He lived at an insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire, far from Rome.
He was a tiny cog in a massive system, and he knew it.
It was a system that dehumanized people at will,
 And forced them into unfair situations for their whole lives,
 And made them pay the price with great violence if they did not obey and toe the mark;
   And it often subjugated its subjects and made them feel pain, anyway,
     Simply because it could and it had the power to spare, and ironically that’s how it kept power.
Perhaps when you break it down, our world still looks too much like Rome.


The hardness of the path was the indifference of Rome in that moment,
 But even to say “Rome” is to miss the point.
Anywhere people are mistreated and told, “Sorry, but that’s just how it is,” is Rome!
This loose, rocky soil was a metaphor for the empire’s crushing of the spirits
 Of those trying to go and do good in this world in the name of God,
   And again, not just Rome, but true in all times and places.
The weedy ground was Jesus’ critique
 Of how people chased after material things and advancement,
 And in the process stepped on the necks of the needy.
And what can we say but that these are universal conditions that transcend time?
Whenever people get a raw deal,
 -- Whenever people are forced into situations against their will or their health,
 -- Whenever people are chained down to whatever is not of God,
     You can bet there’s bad soil around.
But that doesn’t mean that the Sower is not out sowing. Thanks be to God, there’s hope.
Remember, the seed goes on everything: the Word is still out there, on the wind:
 James 1:21 says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,
   And welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”


And so what is this fourth soil?
This fertile, well-prepared, open, weed-free soil?
Well, if the first three soils are about the world operating at its worst,
 Then last soil is a metaphor about the world operating at its best.
The last soil is a tiny little story
 About what happens when we actively choose an alternative way to live.
That alternative way is modeled by Christ in his life, his teaching. That way is God’s Empire!
The seed is the Word of God, scattered indiscriminately in all quarters,
 Without regard for who will hear it or what will happen to it.


[A SMALL GREEN PLANT IN A TERRARIUM IS PLACED BEHIND GOOD SOIL.]


This last soil is about what happens
 When the Word finds a suitable place in which to find purchase:
 ... People start noticing each other,
       Even the ones who are different --
         Very different even, or just a little bit different.
 ... They start connecting around the truth, and their differences matter a little less each day.
 ... The hungry are fed, in all ways, and literally.
 ... The blind are helped to see, in all ways, and literally.
 ... The wounded are healed, in all ways, and literally.
 ... The least are lifted up, in all ways, and literally.
 ... People start standing up for each other, seeing one another increasingly as equals.
 ... The earth is knit together in prayer and fellowship and formation.


In a world like this, God can be seen clearly, deep in the soil, and growing out;
 ... Everyone is recognized as a fellow-traveler, and has dignity and worth.
 ... Everyone has enough. Everyone gets to come and eat.


I want you to soak in this good, fertile soil over the coming days.
And the next time someone asks you if you have accepted Jesus, you tell them,
 Yes, absolutely, I have.
 I have decided that I will spend my life
   Going the way of the alternate empire that Jesus taught us about.
That though we be seemingly stripped of our humanity and dragged through hell itself,
 Our foundation as a field for growing the Word of God shall never be shaken.


Because we are a people who have hope, we can believe these things.
Because we believe them, we have hope.


We shall indeed be a strong and fruitful expanse of open ground
 And Jesus the seed will come up a hundredfold inside of us and out.

Thanks be to God! Amen!