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October 19, 2014

Energy


Sermon for Year A, Proper 24
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 19, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Energy”

Jesus tells those gathered to give to God those things that are God’s,
 And to give to the Emporer those things that are the Emporer’s.
Another way to say it is that everything is God’s anyway,
 And by comparison the coin of the realm is for all intents and purposes nothing.
“Love God with everything you have, and Caesar can have his face back.”

That probably sounds good from a pulpit, but think about how it preaches out in the world.
“Show me the coin,” Jesus says. It’s like “Show me the money!”
 Except it comes from a completely different set of intentions,
 And it produces a completely different set of results.

When Cuba Gooding Junior’s character says “Show me the money!” in Jerry Maguire,
 He’s saying that if you pay him well, then and only then will he be a star for you.
Give up the coin, he dances.
When Jesus asks to Show him the coin, and then he casually hands it back, he means to say
 That any one little thing you can point to is pretty insignificant next to, say, everything else.

He looks at the coin. Whose image is on it? Caesar’s.
It is a small thing. Caesar was terribly important to the time,
 But in the larger scheme all he ever was, was just one little person.
A miniscule image on a tiny coin.
In the context of the size of the entire created order, to borrow from Neil deGrasse Tyson,
 Caesar’s head on a coin is a speck ... on a speck ... on a speck ... on a speck ... on a speck.
A picture on a coin in the hand of one person ... standing on the crust of the whole round earth ...
 Which is itself a lonely thing in a solar system out on the edge of a massive galaxy ...
   That is separated by immeasurable cold vaccuous space from 100 billion other galaxies
     That themselves make up only just a tiny fraction of the total universe ...
     Which, we’re learning, in all likelihood is not even the only universe there is ...
     But may be perhaps one out of -- what? billions, maybe.

With just a few carefully chosen words, Jesus puts the Emporer in his place.
He’s nothing special, and neither is his picture.

So that’s the first point. Everything is God’s.
Go ahead and Render unto Caesar; that’s nothing;
 Because God is everything, the all-in-all.

That’s point one. Here’s point two.

Nothing as we know it could possibly exist without energy;
 Nothing would hold together;
 Certainly we and everything we know would cease to be.
Everywhere that is anywhere, energy is being held and expended and created and recycled.
Our bodies; this building; these words I speak, and you taking them in.

Every little expenditure of energy is a vote for something.
The heart in your chest votes its energy to keep the blood pumping.
The liver that’s below it votes for regulating the composition of blood and processing nutrients.
The brain up top votes its energy to a whole host of tasks,
 Including a lot of the things that make humans human.
So there is involuntary energy-voting, and then there is voluntary energy-voting.
When you’re looking at a cookbook and doing menu planning,
 You vote for Salisbury Steak instead of Chicken Kiev,
 And your energy goes that way.
Actually, we voluntarily vote with our energy all day long:
 Standing instead of sitting; Pepsi One instead of Coke Zero; Target rather than Walmart;
   Exercise instead of cookies (!), cookies instead of exercise (!);
   Cruelty-free makeup instead of whatever was on sale;
   A pet hamster instead of a pet gerbil. See? This, not that.
You’re voting where your energy’s going to go. And there it goes. Sure as it comes back.
Not to put too much pressure on us,
 But with every decision we make, every time we vote about how to expend our energy --
   No matter how seemingly insignificant those decisions  --
   We also make moral and ethical statements about our priorities.
Sometimes the smallest decisions have the greatest impact.

In the end, nothing less than our whole lives end up
 As the demonstrated accumulation of a lifetime of votes
 About where we wish to place our energy.

Now, you heard a lot of talk in the Gospel reading about money.
Money is also a form of energy, a unit of energy.

It’s a very symbolic form of your energy, in a neat little package.
And just as we vote our energy into this cause or that cause,
 We dollar-vote as well.
I’ve already mentioned a few instances. Here are a few more.

You may choose to vote all your dollars, expend all your energy,
 On a car that’s beautiful and loaded with features;
 But if you don’t save a little money back for insurance and gas,
   As a car -- well, I guess you can admire it while it sits in the garage.


You might vote your dollars and energy into an all-caramel diet.
Why not? Might be fun. It’s that time of year. It could happen, right?
How long could you keep up that charade?
Probably until your family doctor looks at your chart and says,
 “Hey, buddy, it’s me or the caramels.”

You may choose to invest all your dollars and energy
 Into making yourself the most beautiful or handsome person in the world.
A real swan, or a real hunk.
Of course there’s an industry already hard at work for this
 That would gladly take every last cent.
And you could get temporary results and temporary satisfaction.
But it wouldn’t last forever, would it, and we all know it.

Dollar-voting, energy-voting: Not only must it honor the fact that everything belongs to God;
 It must also strive to be sustainable, create balance, and maintain health.

Now, let me bring this home.

Praying over this for the past month or so, I have had this question beginning to form up.
I bring it forth now for wider consideration.

When a body expends more energy than it takes in,
 There’s usually some small moment of crisis that puts that body in front of a doctor,
 And the doctor runs down the list of what-all can give that body the energy it needs:
   Are you eating right? exercising? meditating? getting enough sleep? etc.
In other words, Are you doing all the things that give you life?

Many members of St. Thomas are generous to a fault with their energy-voting and dollar-voting.
We have a number of very good ways to help take care of people, usually perfect strangers,
 Mostly involving feeding them.
“We feed people,” I have liked to say,
 Realizing there are a hundred ways you can do that,
   And that we’re probably good at 99 of them.
This is commendable to a point.

What happens in a body when all the energy is moving in an outward direction --
 In 99 outward directions? And there isn’t enough happening to properly power that energy?
It gets run down; it gets tired and cranky;
 If it fails to heed the warnings of its doctor,
 Eventually it gets so tired and cranky that it powers down.
I’m wondering if our church, like many churches,
 Isn’t suffering a bit from the chronic tiresome chaos of doing too much
 And not taking enough sustenance in to counterbalance the exchange of energy.

I would like for us to somehow begin to talk about this --
 To have holy conversations and to seek out the many right answers that exist
   As together we continue to explore the question
   Of whom God has given us to serve,
     And what great service looks like.

We are very good at serving the world;
 But are we looking after ourselves and each other?
Notice, please -- Not, Are we navel-gazing enough? Are we pulling in and ignoring the world?
 But --
 Are we taking in the things that bring us spiritual sustenance each day?
 Are we being built up as disciples of Jesus Christ?
 Are we fed so that we can be fearless,
   As he was fearless
   When he looked at that coin and told the Emporer to take a flying leap?

Is there enough good energy coming in to keep powering all that amazing ministry?
Is the Body of Christ at St. Thomas sustained, balanced, and healthy?
It’s a question worth exploring.
The answers we find together in our conversation
 Should bring us to a clearer path of action and more effective work in the world.

I want to maximize every dollar and every ounce of energy that is voted to St. Thomas.
I want to see us energized by renewable resources that don’t run dry.

In the end, I want to see each of us and St. Thomas together
 Working and living and praying and loving
 As part of that cosmic reality:
   Everything belongs to God already, and we are simply doing our part.
Enough energy going out; enough energy coming in; balanced, healthy, sustainable.
Jesus reminds us, when he hands that coin back,
 That that’s how it is;

 And he invites us to live our lives as a reflection of that truth.

October 17, 2014

Enjoying divine relationship for its own sake


This week I traveled to Mustang Island, Texas, a 4,000-acre state park just east of Corpus Christi. I was there for diocesan work and put in three 12-hour days, but on Wednesday afternoon I had the chance to run down to the beach for about an hour. I doffed my shoes and stared out at the Gulf of Mexico and looked down at the water at my feet, and I walked my 5K up and down the beach. (Also, got a blister.)

I realize that this space is usually reserved for the priest to say something wise, but I tell you: as I strolled around and listened to the breeze and felt the warmth of the gulf waters, not much of anything was happening in my head. And that in itself seemed worth noting. I was tired and empty from all the work I’d been doing. (Work that is, paradoxically, equally invigorating and interesting. Go figure.) And I thought a bit more about everything else I’ve got going on, and I thought a lot about whether I pray, and how I pray, and how often, and so on. I thought about prayer because I find that whenever I’m tired or angry or tempted or too far out of my element, prayer is sometimes the only thing that really brings me back to center. To sit; to breathe; to be inwardly quiet; to petition or intercede or give thanks; to open up to the clarity of Christ-consciousness.

I don’t like to push these things too far, so I just kept going down the beach, going on my way. But a bit further down, a clear voice piped up inside of me in response. It said, “Torey, are you thinking that prayer is work?” That was it. No further explanation or illumination. Just a question. Was I thinking that prayer was work?

Since then I’ve turned it over a few more times. That question was not an indictment, as I first heard it, but a genuine wondering. A kind invitation to ponder something.

When you sit across the table from your spouse or loved one, and you talk, are you working at your relationship, or are you enjoying it? I suppose one acceptable answer is simply “Yes,” and I can see the need, but I also like the dichotomy. Work or enjoyment? Because for all intents and purposes that’s what prayer is: just sitting across the breakfast table from God, musing over whatever it is that has your heart and mind captivated at the moment, and enjoying God. Sometimes it’s soul-crushingly real stuff you’re going over (someone’s in jail, someone has cancer, Ebola is in Dallas, or the world is otherwise burning), and sometimes it’s pretty mundane (it’s a nice day, I don’t want to take that test, etc.). But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a vital conversation. In fact, any conversation with God is vital in ways we can’t possibly comprehend. I mean, really -- who can say how these things actually work?

When you love folks, you’ll work hard at your relationship with them. You’ll naturally forgive them. You’ll want to seek out their attention and enjoy it. You’ll give your attention to them as easily as you breathe or walk or sit or stand. You’ll take the long way around every time just to be seen and to see, and you can bet that you’ll pull up a chair and talk whenever the opportunity presents itself. Your enjoyment of the relationship essentially IS the work of the relationship. It only means you want to be with someone; you want more of someone; you’ll do what it takes to have as much enjoyment as possible. Even if it really is work, it sure doesn’t feel like it -- at least not “work” in the sense that we’ve come to understand the term.

So the clear little voice in my head was asking me a fairly crucial, brass-tacks kind of question: Is God a job, or is God a relational source of life and enjoyment? It’s a humbling and kind of thrilling question to ponder, but one that brings me back to root memories and root causes. I followed the call in my life out of a sense of wanting to follow who I was all the way back to my source, to God -- to love God more, to say Yes to God.

So. Perhaps this should come with a Heresy Alert, but here is my only advice: Don’t love God because the Bible said so or the priest said so or the Catechism listed it, or even because “it’s the right thing to do.” Love God -- with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind -- because God loves you madly and deeply, and is your very source, and wants to sit down and talk with you all the time, just you, across the breakfast table.

Now that’s a conversation I really don’t want to miss out on.

October 10, 2014

Plain-Speaking

There is so much noise and distraction in our eyes and ears these days. It is very easy to get overwhelmed, lose focus, and to be sidetracked by this or that shiny thing. There has never been a time when it was more necessary to speak the Gospel with love, intention, and clarity to our neighbors than right now. So resist the temptation to hedge your words, water your ideas down, or make them pretty. Speak to how God is active in your life at this moment. Be specific and forthright. If you don't feel the passion, the energy, the motion, take time out from your life long enough to find out why. Pray and ask. Don't just let church be some rote thing. Our call is to be faithful to God who through Jesus Christ spoke the truth in love. Lukewarm was never his deal, and it shouldn't be ours.

October 5, 2014

Skubala


Sermon for Year A, Proper 22
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
October 5, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Skubala”


Saint Paul. Paul the Saint.
Paul the perfectionist. The guy in control. The Type-A personality. The overachiever.


Well, actually, when he speaks about himself in the past tense,
 As he does in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians, it’s with the knowledge
 That back then he was not yet Paul, but rather for a long time he was Saul, remember?
Something else had to happen first. Then the name-change.


A man with no time for slackers, Saul was tested and certified.
His DNA and his family history made him the perfect guy for the job he did.
And he had diplomas from the best schools.
His “permanent record” from preschool through his postdoctoral studies
 Was a long, invariable, spotless column of A’s.
No moving violations on his record -- no points ever deducted from his driver’s license.
Never had a cavity or failed a drug test. Never forgot to call his mom.


He was impervious to criticism, too -- a bulletproof student of the law and of logic.
If you went up against him in a debate, he would slice you in half without breaking a sweat.
Because he knew it all. Inside and out. His ego made it plain.


No one touched Saul.
His sight was firmly fixed on preserving the purity of the faith.
He was a feared agent of religion -- a flawless persecutor, a rabid zealot with a badge.
Like a foxhound he sniffed out heresy and pointed it up for his masters,
 And as everyone pounced on the offenders,
   No matter how minor their offenses,
 He held their suit jackets and whistled to himself while the boulders fell on the guilty.
Before the blood had even coagulated, he was off to the next town.
He worked a job that required precision, not conscience.


If he was sharp, or intractable, or a hard man to bear up under,
 It was because he genuinely believed in his heart that he was doing the right thing,
 And who else was going to stand up and protect what needed protecting?


What an incredible shock, then, to be knocked off his horse
 On his way to Damascus one sunny afternoon, and a bright sudden light in his eyes,
 And the voice of the one called Christ asking WHY? Saul persecuted his church.
The unlikeliest question imaginable to him, I’m sure.


Knocked off, right into the grime on the path --
 Couldn’t see, could barely move, or breathe.
I wonder what that would be like.
To clutch at rocks and dust, and to squirm like a rabbit in a snare.
To have your perfect world shattered into a thousand inconvenient shards
 While you writhed blindly on the ground
   And heaven itself persecuted the very same choices
   That you thought you were making on heaven’s behalf.
To go from the top of your game to the bottom of everything,
 In less time than it takes for the light to reach from here to here.
Everything, all of it -- gone.
The credentials, the authority, the standing within society.  *poof*  Saul himself, gone.


And Jesus said, today, and we heard it, didn’t we? --
 He said to all the mucky mucks, the high-and-mighty assembled in their ranks, he said,
 “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
     And given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
     The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces;
       And it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”


Didn’t Saul know? Hadn’t he heard? -- that “pride comes before the fall”?


Begs the question.
Have you lost it all yet?
Have you been knocked off your horse?
Because there’s the mildest hint of a suggestion here
 That the most usable people in all of God’s Kingdom
 Are the ones who have already been knocked off their horses
 And who regard the past as just that -- the past. (The “passed”?)
That past no longer posseses a dictating power over them.
They are instead pulled into the future by a larger vision.
So. Have you been knocked off your horse?


The Buddhists call it shakabuku --
 The swift kick to the head that permanently alters reality and makes us see
 That all our attachments and everything we thought was worth something
 In fact is pretty much worthless.
Support-group folks call it a moment of clarity,
 When a new path opens up because the old one is just too death-dealing,
   And they take the new path against all odds.


At a certain moment, something that is beyond us, yet also is us --
 And I want to call that something God --
 Something knocks us out of our certitude and our sleepiness and our search for security.
The diplomas fall off the wall, as it were, as the ground shakes below us.
And when that happens we look at what we were before,
 Just as Paul does when he considers what life was like when he was Saul,
 And we come to the same conclusion Paul comes to:
   All those credentials in his past, he says, are skubala.
Junk, that is. Without value. It’s a common Greek slang term meaning -- well, excrement.
You fill in the details.
He says it’s all garbage.
He says, “It counted for nothing.”


Let me read a bit of this section from the Contemporary Language version of the Bible.
Paul says, “The very credentials these [mucky mucks] are waving around as something special,
 I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash --
 Along with everything else I used to take credit for.
And why? Because of Christ.
Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life.
Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand,
 Everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant dog dung.
I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.
I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness
 That comes from keeping a list of rules
 When I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ -- God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally,
 Experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering,
 And go all the way with him to death itself.
If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.”


I believe this is a strong and straightforward and capable word to the church today.
A church -- ours and many others -- many times far too fixated on past models
 To admit that it remains anxious about the future, and its survival.
A church -- ours and many others -- many times operating from fear rather than out of love.
A church -- ours and many, many others --
 Burdened by what-all we’re trying to drag with us into the future,
   When it’s too heavy; it won’t do.
If there is any forward movement to be had, any sharing in Christ, it is in traveling light,
 And that means evaluating everything we’re currently holding onto
 That may be hindering us in our ministry in any way;
   And that means looking at them, one by one or in whole,
   And sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, labeling them skubala.
“Thank you for everything you did, and now it’s time to let you go.”


What concessions are you willing to make for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be propagated?
How much of the past are you willing to disregard for the sake of the future?


Now there are probably many ways you could do this, by way of demonstration.
We made a list in Bible Study last Sunday; it was sort of fun.
You could burn a hundred-dollar bill, or you could throw your diploma into a shredder.
You could hear a story about my dad’s sudden change in heart
 About the music he was listening to, and the wild purge that resulted from that.
It would all be provocative speech that lands a punch and makes a point.


But I think, instead, I want to relate this small story to you about St. Francis.


Saint Francis’ feast day on our calendar was celebrated yesterday.
We will commemorate him tonight by blessing any pets you want to bring here at 6 p.m.
We do that because the stories about him that we have received
 Tell of a man who had a special connection to nature and animals.
He did and said many remarkable things in his life,
 And we owe so much of our good spirituality to his influence.


But just as Saint Paul was once Saul,
 Before Saint Francis was Saint Francis, he was Francesco di Bernardone, born in the year 1181.
He was the son of Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy silk merchant.
Francesco went to school for a few years, but you didn’t really need school back then
 If you were a person with his family’s money who stood to inherit the business.
So instead he mostly bummed around with a gang of friends.
They got drunk and they got into trouble, and Francesco was their leader,
 As well as the person who paid for all their fun out of his family’s fortune.


In the year 1202, at about 21 years of age, Francesco went to fight in a war.
His side lost, and he ended up in prison for more than a year
 Before his father could spring him.
He came home, but his friends remarked that he didn’t seem to be the same person anymore.
He wasn’t going to sports or to feasts.
The guy with a zest and a knack for getting in trouble
 Just didn’t seem to have the desire for any of his previous life.


Instead, outside the walls of his town, he discovered an abandoned church,
 And he started going there to pray. Pretty soon, he had even taken to sleeping there.
He became an advocate for the destitute, particularly lepers.
His father, who had been planning to give him the family business up until then,
 Took Francis to court in order to effectively disown him.
He argued: how could Francis be responsible for anything important in the shape he was in?
Did Francis fight him? Not for a second.
In fact, he agreed most heartily with his father.
He immediately disowned any claims to the family.
Then, in the court, he took off all his clothes and lay them at his father’s feet,
 And standing in the court wearing nothing more than what God had given him,
 He said that God would be his father from now on.
He weighed a lot of things in his life and pronounced them skubala. Junk. Excrement.


As Paul wrote of himself after looking in the mirror,
 Francis “consider[ed] everything a loss
   Because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [as] Lord,
   For whose sake [he] have lost all things.
   [He] consider[ed] them garbage, that [he] may [have] gain[ed] Christ” instead.


Francis walked away from a life of “dissolute living.”
Paul walked away from being an all-star and a know-it-all.
Each of them came clean into a whole new way of seeing everything:
 “[T]he surpassing worth” of Christ.
Both of them had to leave a lot of baggage behind.


And now this is a mirror to us today.
The call of God is ever forward, unhindered by the weight of the past.
That’s the direction I want to walk in, and by God’s grace I may.
And that’s the direction I invite you to join me in.
We will get knocked off our horse; that’s just how it goes.
It means we’re finally getting somewhere!


Keep with me, then, and let’s stay on that narrow, upward path --

 “[T]he surpassing worth” of Christ.