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July 26, 2014

Little

July 29, 1974

Sermon for Year A, Proper 12
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 27, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Little”

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this, it’s like that.
It’s like a seed that grows into a big tree;
 Like someone who spends a lifetime in search of one fine pearl, then spots it;
 It’s like a net that catches every fish in the sea;
   Like a little bit of yeast that makes a lot of yummy bread;
     Like one tiny treasure, hidden in a field, ... found, at just the right moment.
And Jesus said to his friends, “Are you getting all this?”
And they lied, probably, don’t you think,
 When they said, Oh yes yes, sure sure, absolutely. Please go on.
Because if they got it then, but the rest of us don’t -- still, after all this time --
 Then what’s wrong with us?
But of course it isn’t like that. Not at all.
We get these parables to play around with.
It seems they almost mean something different every time we return to them.
Quite elastic. They stretch and grow with us; they stretch us, and grow us up.
Everything is like something else in a parable.
The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, “may be compared to” X or Y or Z.

The Kingdom of God. Jesus’ project among us. You could also translate that,
 The Day of God. The Time, the Place of God.
How God wants to see the world ordered, and will -- how God will one day make it so.
Which doesn’t let us off the hook in the meantime.

“Kingdom” is not pie in the sky. It’s not even just one given area you’d locate on a map.
It’s an all-encompassing, geopolitical, social and spiritual reality,
 If you can imagine those two things not opposed, but side-by-side, in fact, one and the same:
     The spiritual, and the real.
We’ve talked about this some over the past weeks and years --
 How these parables are about two different and competing kinds of empires.
The first empire uses people like cheap cattle for its own ends,
 And it exploits differences and it wields power however it wants.
The other empire -- the Kingdom of Heaven -- this thing for which Jesus helps us to thirst --
 It takes people for the bruised and broken, yet glorious things they are --
   Beautifully created by God for a purpose.
It uses power effectively for the betterment of things.
It’s a playing-field-leveler.
It is a time and a place and a reality in which all things are honored in their season,
 Because God is their King, and God loves.

God -- king of small things -- Lord of the Kingdom of the Small and Unnoticed.
God of pitiful pearls and shrimpy little seeds,
 God of narrow, clearly inadequte fishing nets and sad pinches of yeast.
God, the king of the hardly noticeable thing
 That itself becomes the prize --
   The insignificant little nothing that becomes everything.

The Lord God Almighty and Merciful,
 Fashioner of the one-hundred trillion cells in each of our bodies,
   Fashioner of atoms and quarks,
 Designer of what lies “beneath the crust of the visible world,”
 As Steven Milhauser says in one of his works of fiction.

The world of the small that lives beneath the veil of sight.

“Even the very hairs of your head are counted.” Now that’s a bold claim!

Biggest case in point: a peasant day-laborer from Galilee, who comes from nothing,
 Who lives under the thumb of the longest-standing empire we have yet measured in history,
 And who only speaks the truth;
   Jesus, acclaimed eventually as the Christ: the ultimate everything-out-of-nothing.

I’m grateful that we heard this morning of part of the story of Leah and Jacob and Laban.
But you know what seems just as appropriate to hear,
 Given all this talk from Jesus about giving smallness its due?
What I would have programmed in, if you’d been reckless enough to let me do it?
I’d have had lectors from all over stand and read something like the following --

“And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath,
 Whose height was six cubits and a span.
He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armoured with a coat of mail;
 The weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze.
He had [armor] of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders.
The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam,
 And his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron;
 And his shield-bearer went before him.
He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel,
 ‘Why have you come out to draw up for battle?
 Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul?
 Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.
 If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants;
   But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.’
And the Philistine said, ‘Today I defy the ranks of Israel!
 Give me a man, that we may fight together.’
When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine,
 They were dismayed and greatly afraid.”

I suspect you probably know how it goes, don’t you? The story?
You could take it from a certain point and run with it, but don’t get too far ahead.

“The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle;
 The names of his three sons who went to the battle
 Were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah.
David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul,
 But David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.
For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.”
“David rose early in the morning, left someone in charge of the sheep,
 Took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him.
He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry.
Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army.
David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage,
 Ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers.
As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name,
 Came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before.
And David heard him.”

And “David said to the men who stood by him,
 ‘What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine,
   And takes away the reproach from Israel?
For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’”
One of David’s brothers said, Why did you come today?
What’s happening right now to the sheep you’re supposed to be looking after?
Or did you just come down here to see us all slaughtered?
David said, What did I do? All I did was ask a question!

King Saul heard all this and asked David -- this little runt -- just who he thought he was, anyway.
David said, I may be young and willowy, King Saul,
 My body not yet given the strength afforded to you men of iron;
 But I’m a shepherd, and I’ve had to kill a few bears and lions in my time to protect the flock.
And I can turn this Goliath into one of my bear-skin rugs or a lion’s head on the wall.
“This ... Philistine shall be like one of them,
 Since he has defied the armies of the living God.”
And Saul said, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”

Ah, now we know the rest for sure, don’t we?
They tried to arm the boy, but with men’s armor, where he could not move.
So he sloughed off the bigness of it all, and took five little smooth rocks from a pool --
 That and his sling, and faced off against the brute.

Goliath said, You must think I’m a dog, if you’re throwing me sticks!
And he looked at David and he cursed his God, and he said,
 “Come to me, and I will give your flesh
   To the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.”
And David who was not yet king, but still just a child said,
 The Lord does not win battles with swords and spears.
 This battle, like everything, O great Philistine, is the Lord’s, and our victory today is assured.
And so it went.
The giant was easily felled;
 The Philistines saw it, and they lost heart and turned and ran, and deserted their camp.
The day was won by the God of small things.
Triumph known in the least likely way at the hands of the unlikeliest hero.
A little child led them.

Now.
Was that only long ago and far away, a tale from a book of tales?
Or is it something we should still be watching for? --
 A smidgen of God’s yeast filling the house of the world with the scent of freshly baked bread;
 A pearl of great value found, miracle of miracles?
Is it only long ago, this David and Goliath, or is it also here, and now?

What, I ask you, would Christians of the modern era be,
 If we could not occasionally be toppled in our own ignorance and complacence
   By something judged as insignificant
     That nevertheless had a divine mandate to come into being and flourish?
What would perfectly well-meaning Christians be if they weren’t made to see
 How very often they were standing in the ill-fated shoes of Goliath
   And not in the terribly small but also terribly powerful sandals of David?

Tuesday of this week marks the fortieth anniversary of something amazing and profound,
 When a little yeast was finally let into the world,
   And the world has been feasting ever since.

There were eleven of them. Eleven different kinds of yeast.
Their names were Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt,
 Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Schiess,
 Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig.
Eleven women who, like many before them, had been denied ordination to the priesthood
 For no other reason than by virtue of their gender, for in every other way they were judged fit.
Eleven women who became the recipients of the trails blazed on their behalf
 By people agitating for women to become priests in the contentious years running up.
They were called the Philadelphia Eleven,
 Because on July 29, 1974, in a three-hour service of ordination
   At the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia,
   They became the first female priests ordained in The Episcopal Church.
There was a crowd of some two-thousand worshippers present on that hot Monday morning.
Can you imagine a service at St. Thomas that lasts from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 29th
 That’s so full people are hanging off the rafters?
Well, you must -- you must, if you want to be in this story, which you already are!

If you have ever attended an ordination, you know that people are given the opportunity to object,
 Just as at a wedding. That the bishop makes this opportunity part of the service.
And that’s just the way it is.
So there were three bishops present, and they asked the question,
 And some in the crowd responded, reading from prepared statements about why this can’t be.
Then the bishops said, “[H]earing God's command, we can heed no other.
 The time for our obedience is now.”
And in the sermon, Dr. Charles Willie of Harvard University
 Compared what was happening in that church at that very moment
 To other significant moments in the struggle for civil rights.
He said, “This shouldn't be seen as an act of arrogant disobedience, but an act of tender defiance.”
And they laid hands on these eleven, and so it goes to this day.

It may not be something you think about every day of your life,
 But in the life of our denomination, this has all loomed large for us.
The crucifer at that service forty years ago was a woman named Barbara Harris.
She was serving at the time as the Senior Warden of that parish,
 And she went on to become the first female bishop of The Episcopal Church,
   Consecrated February 11, 1989.

In fact, almost all of us have been the beneficiaries of the ministries of women in our midst.
Some of us refused, in our ignorance, in our complacence,
 But the yeast got out anyway; the pearl was found; the seed became a mighty tree.
David stepped up and felled Goliath.
Someone -- some ones -- some yeast had to be willing to be leavened forty years ago
 For us to receive it so easily now.
Even if it was a little dangerous at the time.
Even, and especially, if it turned over every set expectation the church had of itself
 About how “things are supposed to go.” “What’s done or not done around here.”
The small thing had to be willing to be something more, if God’s commission truly be fulfilled.

In 1976, these women priests were fully recognized as priests,
 And General Convention explicitly allowed them to function as priests without penalty.
All of this, if you’ve studied it, or if you remember going through it,
 Happened at the same time that women deacons
   Were fighting to achieve equality with male deacons,
     Fighting to be “deacons” and not labeled with the lesser term “deaconesses.”
From here maybe these things seem like little minor receding struggles,
 But that’s not what it felt like in the moment.

We are here, at some distance, now almost unconsciously benefitting
 From person after person after person being willing to step up and to say,
   This call is real; I am yeast; I can do no other. Let the chips fall where they may.

Now let me ask you.
Are you willing to be David?
Are you willing to be yeast for God?
A treasure in a field? A fishing net in the water?
A little mustard seed waiting to grow up?

Because honestly: it can’t be any other way.

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.