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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.

September 7, 2014

Sword


Sermon for Year A, Proper 18
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 7, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Sword”

It falls to you, and to me, to give holy heed to these holy lessons:
 From Exodus, how a people escaped violence;
 From Romans, how love is the highest Christian virtue,
   Put to use in communities of believers to avoid the kind of violence we do to each other;
 And from Matthew, this meditation on how to repair the community of Jesus’ split followers
   After violence has been done between individuals and groups.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about human violence -- the capacity to be violent.
It has been unfortunate and inescapable, especially if you’ve been tuned in to the news.
There has been no way to avoid it -- thinking about how we treat each other,
 Praying for a cessation to our mutual hostility.

I suppose it would be easy to sit in a pew on a Sunday morning in September,
 And to imagine that we are here in part because we somehow have our act together.
You have known me long enough now to know that I harbor no such delusions;
 That I believe that such thoughts are bad religion at best, dangerous at worst.
You and I are here precisely because we are so dreadfully, incredibly far from perfect.
This is a house for saints and a house for sinners, and we play both roles.
We get nowhere in imagining that we aren’t divided within ourselves.

It was always thus.
“The Odyssey,” by Homer, discusses events that occurred around 1200 years before Jesus’ time.
In one small point, the main character, Odysseus, is talking about
 The necessity of hiding the weapons of war from a bloodthirsty crowd.
Talking about a sword, he says, “Tempered iron can magnetize a man.”
Can you imagine, being “magnetized” by a sword?
Another good translation is this: “Iron itself can draw men’s hands.”

One more translation is even better, and to the point: “The blade itself incites to violence.”
He means to say that the act of just holding a sword
 Can cause a weak-minded person to want to use it against someone.
After all, why not allow the sword to do precisely what it was forged to do?
It reminds me of Shakespeare’s famous character Macbeth, who has a vision of a bloody dagger,
 And takes it as confirmation that it’s time to go and do murder.

Yet as the people of God, there must be more than just being enticed to violence.
More than just a derelict and low vision of human nature.
How easily do we forget the vision of the prophet Isaiah, seeing the righteous judgments of God
 Making the people to beat their swords until they become plowshares?

Yet. I am afraid that even this is too simple.
The fact is that we don’t need an actual, physical sword;
 Just as Macbeth only needed to see the idea of a dagger
   To feel that he should do murder.
The fact is that we have internalized the blade.
We have internalized the cycle of violence.
The fight for justice and freedom and peace goes on inside us!
We have eaten the bread of discontent and bloodlust, and it has become us.

In our beginnings, in Genesis,
 We can read that humans eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
We buy the lie of Satan that we will become like God,
 And we take the fruit and eat it, and we fly too close to the sun.
Or is that simply something that happened long ago and far away? I can’t think so.

Then our eyes are opened and we see and understand that we are naked,
 And we are suddenly afraid because we are vulnerable -- cast out ...
And so we sew leaves against our bodies to protect ourselves,
 And we long for unattainable perfect Security at any cost.
The next rational move -- the next salient moment in our faith narrative --
 The next thing you know in the Bible, Cain is standing over the dead body of his brother,
 Because his sacrifice is less pleasing in God’s sight than Abel’s.
Violence is hard-wired.

We live now, of course. But things haven’t changed. Nothing has changed at all.
We are still prone to violence.
When we ate the fruit, we ate the blade to go with it, to cut it down,
 To cut down the search for security into little civil, bite-sized chunks.
But we are deeply vulnerable, and we’ll do just about anything to protect ourselves.
A case in point.
It was a little too easy for me to stand back and to judge what was happening in Ferguson.
I’m supposed to be an enlightened, progressive Christian pastor, or at least I play one on TV.
But sisters and brothers, when I saw the conflict in Missouri, it triggered an old, old reflex.
Because unfortunately for me to be fully known to you --
 For my whole story to get out there --
 Sooner or later you’re going to have to hear that I was brought up in a time and a place
   That was marked by deep, cutting racism.
The threat of violence was always just under the surface.
People used, and I would even say cherished, deeply racist language and ideas.
You see, the Great Plains of the United States are home to long horizons and open vistas,
 And above us in the sky we could watch as late-afternoon cloud anvils
 Slowly cooked themselves into a pale-green frenzy --
 Until just before sundown, violent storms took our towns by force and shook them down.
We lived in fear that something new was going to slowly come and strangle us off
 And violate our peaceful existence.
(Conveniently forgetting that existence is rarely peaceful.)
I am ashamed to say that I was conversant in the language of racism, and I am sorry for it;
 Even as I understood, even then, at some fundamental level, that it was not healthy.
Racist attitudes (whether being nursed in secret or worn out in the open)
  Were what was being modeled to me.
Everything I learned and later tried to unlearn
 Could be summed up by any half-hour visit to the corner cafĂ©.
Powerful people in my life -- men and women --
 Civic leaders, school administrators, church people, parents of friends --
 They said, This is how it is. And they didn’t equivocate, and they didn’t say, It depends.
 They said, This is how it is.
They said, X is coming to take away our way of life, you bank on it. The writing’s on the wall.
And X was whatever they wanted it to be.

And I was a child. I didn’t understand about “X.”
I didn’t know about how people search for security at all costs.
I didn’t know about how people scapegoat each other and make enemies.
I didn’t have any comprehension that people tend to make friends the fastest
 With those who look and act and talk like they themselves already look and act and talk.
I didn’t see in shades of gray -- I saw white, and I saw black.
I saw myself and my group, and then I saw X.
Mostly X was African-Americans and gays and lesbians.
Later on, after I learned how the game was played, I watched with some distance and disgust
 As X became Communist-sympathizers and Mexicans and “political-correctors”
 And cityfolk and abortionists and Muslims and radical feminists.
Sometimes, weirdly enough, X was credit-card companies, or whatever or whoever.
More than once I heard the name Ronald Reagan listed --
 That Reagan was sending his lackeys down to take away all our guns and Bibles,
 And pretty soon it was going to be so bad we wouldn’t even be allowed to pray anymore.
Moralistic judgments heaped up like coals
 About What X Wants, or What X Is Going To Do, or What X Is Doing Even Now.

As I say, in the beginning I was a child. I thought and reasoned like a child.
I believed that the fruit the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
 Was a literal story about where I came from that told me why I was so bad
 And why I had come into the world doomed for Hell if not for the blood of Christ.

Somewhere along the way, I got a soft spot -- I got a God-shaped soft spot!
I sat on my bed and read in the Gospel of Matthew
 About how Jesus hung out with every kind of reprobate and loser,
 And I began to think that maybe I was a reprobate and a loser;
   And maybe that wasn’t the worst thing in the world,
   So long as I could get closer to Jesus in the process.
I knew those attitudes and those things I heard about X were wrong.
That they came out of fear.

The more accountably closer I got to Jesus, the more fear I let go.

The more violence I saw in the world, the more willing I became to be vulnerable about it.
My search for security took a radical turn,
 And I found myself one day like Peter, after Jesus has asked if they’re going to desert him.
I found myself saying, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I found my security in Jesus Christ and his life and death and resurrection,
 And all my hope was founded on nothing less, just as the hymn said.
It was a season of pure joy and bliss and contentment,
 Because I knew that no one could ever take that away from me.
No sword. No agenda. No hate. No prejudice. No violence.

Nietzsche said, "When we are tired, we are attacked By ideas we conquered long ago."

And then I got swallowed up in my life again.
The old cycles and the old inner dialogues about race.
Racism and violence weren’t something that could be simply thrown out with the trash,
 Even when there was a holy mission involved.
These things were deeply sewn into the marrow of my bones.
All I could do was to bring an awareness of them into the present,
 Just as a man who has not had a drop of whisky in twenty years
 Will turn to his friends and say, “My name is John, and I am an alcoholic.”
Because some diseases like racism don’t ever fall away; don’t go into remission;
 They can only be watched over, kept vigil over, prayed over.

So when Ferguson lit up like a powder keg, it all came rushing back:
 The chaos and the fear and the X and the violence
 And my own jumbled story of racism and Jesus and the search for security.
And the sense-memory of being taught very patiently to hate and be suspicious and fearful,
 And the long journey to lay it down, let it go, start over again. Every day.

How, dear God, I ask, can we listen to the words of Christ about healing violence in community,
 And not seek to put them all into play immediately?
How could we just hear this and pause for a moment and then go on to the next thing?
When it is so much of who and what we are?
When it speaks to so much of us?
Jesus says, above all, to Listen and to seek to be Listened To. Did you catch that part?
He says, “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him -- work it out between the two of you.
 If he listens, you’ve made a friend.
 If he won’t listen, take one or two others along
   So that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again.
 If he still won’t listen, tell the church.
 If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch,
   Confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”

There is no real reconciliation, no revealing of the truth, without listening.
No healing in community.
Until there is listening, there are only cuts and bruises and broken bones
 And Band-Aids and shortcuts and impatient people.
And listening takes time and energy, and it challenges our worldview.
It can take all the courage we have to say,
 “You know what -- I’m not sure I really understand that. Can we talk about this?”
But listening, done patiently, lovingly, after the style of Jesus,
 Begins to eat away at the crust of violence that lives inside of us.
It shows us that there’s another way to be -- a less violent way to be.

To listen, to seek reconciliation in community by listening.
It does not rewrite the past.
It does not undo years of hatred and violence.
It does not mean that Cain has not killed Abel.
It does not mean that our eyes are not filled with insecurity,
 Or that we are suddenly no longer dressed in the leaves of vulnerability.
It does not mean that we pretend we’re all exactly the same,
 Because thanks be to God, we’re not.
And that’s what makes life so interesting as well as so hard.

To seek reconciliation by listening only means this:
 That we have opened up a little.
That we don’t have to live in violence and in fear.
That we don’t have to judge one another based on what we see on the surface.
That we really can live just a little bit freer.

And by God’s grace, we might open up even a little bit more tomorrow.
And after that, ... and after that, ... and after that.
For this is the way we learned Christ.