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December 15, 2014

Known


Sermon for Year B, Advent 3
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
December 14, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

In and among the crowd there are those who seek to sniff out what’s going on with John.
They come with the backing of the intellectual and religious elite. They’ve been sent by the best.
They want to know who John thinks he is. They don’t pay any mind to who might have sent him.
“Are you the Messiah?” “No.”
“Elijah?” “No.”
“The prophet?” “No.”
Well, look, who are you, anyway?
Because we can’t have come all the way out here and then go back emptyhanded.
Our per diem for this trip will not be justified if we can’t offer a straight answer to our handlers.
That’s not how things work.
His reply: “I’m the voice in the wilderness.
 I’m the guy who’s telling you to straighten things out --
   That something big is about to happen.”
Charles Spurgeon pointed out that “John does not say ‘I am the Word,’ but ‘I am the voice.’
 Christ is the essential Word;
 We are but the voice to make that word sound across the desert of human life.”
John the voice, not the word.
But. They said, Look, that’s way too vague;
 If you don’t have any credentials, then why are you baptizing people, anyway?
And John said, Look around, folks.
 For among you stands someone who is the entire reason I came out here to do all this,
   To say all these things.
All my work simply exists to draw attention to him. And he’s among us.
Let the reader and listener understand.
In the crowd is Jesus:
 Who, for whatever reason, is unprepared to come forward at this point,
 Either to receive the sacrament of baptism
 Or to come right out and say who he is.
Someone who’s holding back at this moment.

I don’t think most people just wake up one bright morning
 And decide to to into the prophecy business.
For John at least, the pay is nonexistent, the hours are bad, the food is weird,
 The uniform is terrible, and the job sites are hard to get to and hazardous to work in.
What in the world would make him do what he did?
Perhaps it was because he had seen traits of Messiah
 In someone who had been close to hand for some time, and he needed to tell.

In the great run-up to Christmas, we seem to forget this one fact:
 That Jesus and John were cousins;
 That John’s mother Elizabeth was a cousin to Jesus’ mother Mary.
That in fact, when Elizabeth’s pregnant belly got close to Mary’s pregnant belly,
 The as-yet unborn John “leaped for joy” in the womb.
The baby kicked, in other words.

They were about the same age, in the same family, in the same relative neck of the woods.
The prophet of the Messiah and the Messiah himself.
It’s not a conspiracy. It’s not dumb luck.
It’s divine timing and divine location. It’s a God thing. It’s the power of incarnation.

Have you ever had the privilege of seeing the potential in someone very early on,
 A special kind of light or ability or charisma,
 And as the years went on, you began to see others recognizing it as well,
   And after a while, it wasn’t a secret at all anymore,
   And you had the satisfaction of having been there all along?
There’s the feeling of perhaps pushing that someone in the right direction,
 Maybe helping to shape him or her in some way,
   Knowing that whatever it was about that person would made the world a better place
   Once it had been called forth and brought to bear.
Perhaps there’s tremendous relief when others finally know what you’ve known all along.

John saw that light in Jesus, and he wanted the rest of the world to know it was there.
So he went out and he did his strange work in the desert,
 And one day he saw his cousin standing on the bank of the river.
After thirty years of watching Jesus, John must have been thinking
 Of how close things were to really changing at that point. Finally.
What a relief.

In fact, in John’s story, for the next two days, John will see Jesus standing at the river
 And will point him out clearly,
 Saying, “Look, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
And it will be that pointing and that pronouncement that cause two of John’s followers
 To take a much closer look at Jesus, and to start following him instead.
One of those men will be Andrew, brother of Simon.
And as soon as Andrew gets the picture, he’ll run and go get his brother.
And Jesus will take one look at Simon, and he will say,
 “You’re Simon, but I’m going to call you Peter.”
The next day they’ll all go to Galilee and add Philip and Nathanael to their ranks,
 And it’ll start to snowball from there.
We know it very well indeed. Jesus will become a movement in itself.
The movement of God across the face of the earth,
 And the movement of people who must continually stream to him for healing.

John, of course, keeps on with his work.
Once enough people have seized upon his pronouncement about Jesus,
 He goes on to criticize Herod for divorcing his wife,
 And he ends up in prison,
   And in a moment of greed, wanting to be a big man in front of his friends,
   Herod makes good on a promise to behead John.
And that’s enough to send Jesus into a tailspin for a while.
An end that doesn’t seem fair somehow for John,
 But at any rate that’s how we have received it.

So they do go on, each to his own work, each on his own trajectory.
But this one small moment must be both delicious and frightening for John:
 “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
The most important words he will ever say.

I don’t think you can blame people for not being able to recognize what’s in front of them
 If they don’t have the ability to see it.
Sometimes it takes a catalyst -- an agitator -- a person who can name something clearly --
 A person or a thing or an event that kicks it off
   And gets everyone to see the situation a little differently.
Someone who pulls back the sheet.

The question, which we visit every year about this time, is simply this:
 Once the proclaimer has done his work
 And we have some understanding of what’s happening,
   And just who it is who has come among us --
   Once all that has happened,
     Do we have it within ourselves to really and truly be shocked by the news?
Or have we heard the news so many times that we have become immune?

Because this isn’t just some news.
This is the news.

God has tried to make every kind of covenant with humanity,
 And humanity has broken every kind of covenant with God.
It seems like an impossible situation.
But this man standing on the bank of the river --
 This man who John calls the Lamb of God --
   Is going to lead the way so that we can see and live that covenant in a new and exciting way.
In him we will be restored to new life,
 And in following him from ministry to persecution to death and back to life again,
 We will have all our assumptions tested and will see everything change.

So come quickly, Lord Christ.


December 6, 2014

Honey


Sermon for Year B, Advent 2
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
December 7, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

The prophet, of course, has a message about something that’s going to happen.
A message, it’s claimed, that has come from God. Which is a mighty big claim.

It may be a warning, an exhortation, or a word of comfort to an afflicted people.
It may come with a specific set of recommended actions.
These words are either heeded, or they are not --
 Either taken seriously, or not.
In the Bible, you may either listen to the words of the prophet,
   And take appropriate actions and be saved,
 Or else, out of self-interest, you may choose to ignore the prophet,
   And go down to your doom.
The old dichotomy is you’re blessed if you do and you’re cursed if you don’t.

The prophet, it seems, is usually somehow inserted or embedded into a situation,
 Parachuting in from outside the centermost circles of power,
   Sent by God to infuse the situation with a little common-sense and, in this case, holy fire-talk.
Because it is difficult to call people to account,
 Or to beg them to come to their senses,
   If you live right in the middle of all the action and you’re already a known quantity.
“Oh, that’s just Crazy Old Joe again, going on in his usual way.
 You don’t have to listen to anything he says.”
You know what they say about familiarity.

Now: John the baptizer, or John the Baptist --
 He hits all those points.
He lives well outside the mainstream, out in ugly barren wastes,
 With a rock for a pillow and a sky full of stars for a blanket, and he talks to the river.
He is subject to misunderstanding, but he is also exceedingly clear about what he wants to say:
 That Messiah is on the way,
   And it’s time to straighten up,
     And for some, to be baptized as a sign of that desire to turn their lives around.
With Messiah, the unjust structures in the world are going to be flattened;
 The crooked will be made straight, bulldozer style;
 The powers-that-be who deal unfairly, or powermongeringly, will be pushed off their seats;
   The uneven ground will be leveled out.
Repentance is turning around so as to be able to witness all this, in action, as it unfolds.
Messiah is about to break in to the world and turn everything over.
So get the place ready. Some big change is on the way. That’s John.

John -- he doesn’t need Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem or Weight Watchers,
 Because he lives on honey and bugs. Straight sugar and protein.
Wild honey.” In other words, honey from wild bees.
I suppose the operative word here is “wild.”
Winnie the Pooh will tell you
 That whatever you scoop out of the hollow of a tree, buzzing with bees,
 You probably must eat “on the run,” lest you be stung.
There is no technology at hand to make the task any easier for John.
He’s always ordering out of the drive-through as it were.
Same with locusts, only it’s the getting to them, not the running from them,
 That I should think might cause so much frustration.
Ever try to catch enough grasshoppers to make a meal out of
 When you haven’t the strength to stand up?

It’s all wild. All his food is wild. There is no harvest; there is only the urgency of the moment.

My father has kept bees for years and years.
He used to come in from the field when I was a kid,
 Still smelling of the charcoal smoke he used to keep his bees calm,
 And he would throw down a fresh-cut section of honey comb
   In a small, uncovered, clear plastic container --
   Sweet fragrance of lilac or watermelon or lavender cutting up against the scent of smoke.
But mostly just assorted wildflowers.
Just some pollen that started as a wildflower seed picked up by the wind and put back down,
 That some bees set up camp close enough to
   To make their heavenly food out of.
You could see it in the morning sunlight, amber nectar, suspended in hexagonal wax cells.
The cells that had been cut away were oozing this honey.
Dad would throw this down onto his breakfast table in his little trailer house,
 His house being in a holler in an untamed part of Oklahoma called The Cross Timbers.
This particular part of The Cross Timbers was a naked piece of red-soiled land
 Grown over by nasty briars and thistles and brambles.
Unfarmable hardscrabble, so far as I could tell, though he grew his orchard and kept his bees.

He’d throw down the honey, and he’d snap an English muffin into the toaster,
 And he’d say, “Watch out for them bee parts, son.”
Which is dad-talk for any part of a bee that gets snagged in the production of honey --
 Any part that there is not time to strain away.
A wing, a thorax, a stinger. A stinger on your tongue! No time to check, to strain, to skim.
Perhaps he thought that raw honey lost something essential and good
 If you filtered too much out
   Rather than just brought it in from the field and ate it.
Perhaps the unpredictability of it was what made it special to him. I know it kept me on my toes.

All these years later and my father the beekeeper
 Is still a miracle worker as far as I’m concerned.
He sends us jars of honey once or twice a year. It always tastes like magic.
But these days it comes strained clear, and there’s something small about that
 That makes it slightly less interesting. It’s a step or two removed from wild. No stingers.

I might say I thought of a way not to bring this business about my dad into the sermon this week,
 Because from a certain angle it doesn’t have much to do with John the Baptist.
So I got to fighting the Holy Spirit about it.
You know what happens when you do that, right?
I went to pay for a parking meter downtown and I got into my change
 And the first thing I pulled out was an Oklahoma quarter.
It features the state bird, the Scissortail Flycatcher, in flight,
 Coming in low over a bunch of wildflowers,
   Including Indian Blanket, which is the state wildflower.
And then I ran my errand and I got back in the car,
 And when I started it up, the radio was playing that U2 song, “Wild Honey.”
And there was Bono, singing,
 Wild, wild
 I’m still standing
   I’m still standing where you left me
   Are you still growing wild
   With everything same around you?
I send you flowers
 Good flowers for your heart
 I know your garden is full
 But is there sweetness at all?
And I drove past the Tyson, and the sign said the Steve Miller Band is coming in May 2015,
 And instantly I recalled that song, “Wild Mountain Honey.”
I’m cursed with a very good memory for song lyrics. Or at least I was in my twenties.
 Come on mama
   Heal this lonesome man
   Grow the tree of wholeness
   In this desert land
 Come on children
   Now learn how to run
   By heaven, the stars, the moon and the sun
 Come on papa
   Your end is the means
   Don’t trade your love and goodness
   For the golden machine
You run for the money
You don’t even know about wild mountain honey

So. I thought, Why fight it?

Now, that’s just a story about losing a fight with the Holy Spirit.
It happens a lot, but usually it’s a little more subtle, and mundane.
I don’t know what it has to do with anything.
Maybe you have a connecting piece yourself that would tie it all up in a bow.

As for me, I’m left with John the Baptist, standing in the Jordan,
 Asking us to come on in and be baptized
 As a symbol of our intent to be present for the coming revolution
   Of God let loose in the world in the form of Jesus Christ.
I’m left waiting for Jesus to show up and be baptized,
 And for the heavens to be torn open and the wild energy of God
 To be poured out over all flesh as a libation and an offering.
I’m left with the distinct impression
 That the things that have failed us
   Are shortly to be torn away from us,
     And that a wider vision of holy justice is coming, is even now at the gate.

It’s a wider vision that must encompass and come right in to every last
 Disparity, division, and source of desperation.
It’s a justice that must enfold and guide us in every step of every holy conversation
 We are having at this moment,
   In conversations ranging from race to gender; in conversations about power and inequality;
       Justice and brutality; sexuality and economics; peace and terrorism;
     From issues of class to issues of privilege; from money to politics; from ethnicity to family;
     From issues faith and religion and spirituality.

Heed the prophet, my friends. Heed the prophet.
Even now the world heaves in a great birthing change we can’t begin to comprehend,
 Yet the Spirit intercedes with words too deep for sighing.

For now, this word from the prophet must suffice:
 “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
     Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
  Every valley shall be lifted up,
     And every mountain and hill be made low;
     The uneven ground shall become level,
       And the rough places a plain.
 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
     And all people shall see it together,
     For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

All those wild, crooked, desolate places --
 The deserts, the valleys, the mountains, the hills, the plains, the ground itself --

   All of it is the territory of our heart.