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August 17, 2014

Grieving


Sermon for Year A, Proper 15
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
August 17, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Grieving”

Well, ... ...

It's been a hard week, hasn’t it?
A hard week.
A week that feels like, ... like some terrible regression, I suppose.
Like going backwards in time.

Are we really going back into Iraq and Afghanistan? I wonder.
I wonder that, I guess, in light of the fact that in some ways we never really left.
After a decade and all those beautiful lives we lost,
 And people who got hurt -- who were left with nothing?
Are we ready to spend another trillion dollars?
Are we ready to lose another 16,000 American lives in Iraq; another 2,300 in Afghanistan?
Another hundred thousand civilian lives?
Are we really going to do that again? Our leaders need to come to their senses.
Meanwhile, thinking about it is like getting in an emotional time machine --
 The memory we feel in our bones from 1991 and 2003. Lord, have mercy.

And, what in the world is going on with Gaza, and Palestine, and Israel? Again?
Today there’s a cease-fire in effect, but all that has allowed anyone to do
 Is to pop up long enough to say that there can be no long-term truce.
The UN says close to 2,000 Palestinians (mostly civilians) have been killed so far,
 Ten thousand wounded, in the conflict there since early July.
Sixty-seven Iraelis killed, 64 of them being soldiers.
I distinctly recall being about four years old, sitting on the floor of the living room, playing horses,
 And hearing on the TV about the conflict between Palestine and Israel.
Indeed it stretches back much, much further.
You could even look at the exchange in today’s Gospel lesson
 Between Canaanite woman and the Jewish man Jesus to get a little background.
Today’s headlines are like the millionth and so far the most intense verse
 Of a hideous impossible forever-long song
 That no one wants to hear. God, have mercy on us.

Yesterday was calling out to us this week in a big way.
The pages of a calendar that was thrown away
 Years before we even had paper recycling.
Yesterday, trying to get its hooks into us. Fifty years back.

It’s 2014, right? Or is it? Is it 1964? Are we starting over again?

Those photographs out of Ferguson, Missouri --
 The television coverage,
 Of police going up against citizens.
Tear gas and curfews and arrests and red-laser dots indicating you’ve been targeted;
 Looting and rioting; no one with any time to stop and understand each other.
People saying on social media, “Well, it couldn’t happen where I live.”
Oh, really? It never could? Given a simple sequence of events?
Are race relations better in your town? Do you have a perfect and fair socioeconomic system?
Seeing, this week, people who were far weaker
 Compared to the heavy armaments and armor of the authorities.
Seeing, this week, the fear in the eyes of the police officers on the lines.
(You had to really look, but it was there.)
A crowd standing up against a crowd. Confusion, chaos.
Power against power against power. With no end in sight.
Will it wind down? How much more violence will we see?
God, have mercy.

I didn’t live in the late- and mid-sixties --
 I wasn’t alive when race riots happened in Watts and Milwaukee and Chicago
 And all over the South.
I have had to learn how to integrate that history into my personal understanding.
But I can see how it would be traumatic
 To turn on the news and to feel like you’re falling back into the past;
 Or to be there, in the heart-stopping terror out in the streets,
   And to be wondering: Didn’t we already fight this fight?
Wasn’t something already accomplished?
God, have mercy.

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to be hung up by a red light.
If there’s a traffic slowdown, I’ll go out of my way to avoid it
 Because I have reached a point in my life where I like to know I’m moving forward.
Call it the impatience of being a newly middle-aged man.
Unless I’m just stuck in traffic already; then I sit and ask for the strength to deal with it.
Point is, I like to know I’m moving ahead.
So in 2014, to hear publicly elected officials making segregationist rhetoric
 That sounds like it might have come from Alabama Governor George Wallace, in 1963?
Lord, have mercy ...

Well, we all needed a good laugh, didn't we?
So why did the jester have to die? This week, of all weeks?
And why did it have to turn out that the jester was suicidally depressed?
I was in a meeting Monday night when the news hit about Robin Williams.
Six or seven cell phones in the room buzzed with texts. People reaching out to tell news.
Just a sense of shock. Like losing your brother.
A pretty bright light, a one-of-a-kind, just gone.
So then what? God have mercy.

It’s a lot. It’s quite a load.
No amount of cat videos on Facebook is going to change that.

You know what the church isn’t very good at?
The church isn’t good at being able to hold this space of questioning and despair and grief.
The church isn’t good at containing grief;
 It wants to turn mourning into dancing, and ultimately that makes sense;
 Ultimately, as the song goes, “my hope is built on nothing less”
   Than the grace, mercy, peace, and love of God;
   But oftentimes the church tends to go there
     Before people have really had a chance to grieve,
       And just be quiet, and let the tears fall as they may,
         And hold each other.
The church sits there, with one eye on the newly widowed wife and one eye on the clock,
 And it says, There, there; I know, I know, when it doesn’t know; it can’t know.
It thinks like a middle-aged man honking at a traffic jam -- C’mon, let’s get this thing moving.

The church wants to run on to solutions;
 The preacher wants to get everything tied up in a bow,
   Because he or she mistakenly believes that that’s how it is --
   That that’s what people always need and secretly want.
Also, the preacher is usually an inveterate people-pleaser with a need to be liked,
 And dwelling on what’s wrong in the world does not present us with clear ways to do that.
So we make the world all shiny. Shiny, happy Jesus, Deacon Pat likes to say, and she’s right.

It’s hard sometimes to just sit with What Is, with the reality and the weight of all this --
 That we live in a world that, to state the obvious, is far from perfect.
That our sins are plainly before us, and Lord have mercy.

You ever just sit on the edge of your bed and come into deep and real contact with your sorrow?
If you belong to a church that has taught you that that is somehow wrong, somehow unholy,
 Then you have been done a massive disservice.

You ever dragged that sorrow with you to church and dumped it on the altar
 And gave it up to God (or, I guess more honestly, at least a piece of it)
   Because quite frankly you didn’t know what else to do with it?
Or do you feel that somehow normal human grief has no place in the church?
That it’s only appropriate to cry in church when there’s a funeral --
 To be sad about the loss of one specific person but not the state of the world in general
   Or at any rate the state of radical imperfection in which we find ourselves every day?

If you grew up thinking that church was a place to be perfect --
 That God doesn’t have a lot of patience for whiners or flaws --
   Then you, brother -- you, sister -- you, like me, were sold a bill of goods,
     And Lord have mercy.

A fairly large group of Episcopalians all sat in the same room yesterday,
   Here in Sioux City with Bishop Scarfe,
 And we talked quite a bit, speculating about why the church isn’t relevant anymore.
I walked away thinking, Well, for one thing -- for one thing --
 We don’t hold the space of grief very well. We don’t acknowledge What Is.
We tend to refer to things as we think they should be --
 Or as we think God thinks they should be --
   Way more than we refer the way things really are.
And somehow this doesn’t add up, but no wonder church feels irrelevant;
 I don’t need a study to show that to me.
Somehow it isn’t enough, just to shame and point fingers
 And say, The Bible says it oughta be like this, but it isn’t, so what’s wrong with us?
Even if you frame it in the positive.

Perhaps we don’t believe that God is stronger than our problems,
 And that’s why we don’t think we can afford to be realistic about our problems.
No wonder prayer dries up over time,
 If we think we can’t be less than 100% percent honest before God.
So God lives in this little corner in our minds, far away from everything else.
God represents a human standard of ultimate perfection attained in some pie-in-the-sky scenario
 After we’re dead and gone and left this dirty old planet.

That’s not an indictment, by the way.
It’s not meant to make us feel guilty.
It’s just a question.
Do we believe that our problems are bigger and stronger than God?
It’s a simplistic question, to be sure;
 But sometimes the simplest questions are the best.

What is it inside of me that refuses to trust?
Why is it that I can’t open up an honest channel of grief before one stronger than me?
Why am I honking at the traffic tie-up when I could be honestly admitting to God
 That I don’t have any control over it?

Now, that’s not an indictment. It’s a holy question.
And it’s where I want to leave things this morning.
No, the world is not perfect. That’s just the way it is. It can be a sad place sometimes.
But somehow in the face of it all, we can still tell the truth.
We can pray prayers that are 100% real and true,
 And we can tell God how we really feel about it.
And there you have it. No bow. No Band-Aid. No rainbow at the end.
A hard week has been placed in our path.

What shall we do? How shall we act? What shall we say?

August 9, 2014

Unboxed


Sermon for Year A, Proper 14
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap and Sue Errickson
August 10, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Unboxed”

Following is the manuscript of a dialogical sermon.

TOREY

Let us pray.
Holy One, work through the clutter and confusion of our lives;
 Push through seemingly impossible storms;
   Come to us, in your wild and improbable ways, and still the seas.
Amen.    Please be seated.

Good morning!
Some of you know Sue Errickson; some may not.
If you don’t, you should!
Because Sue is someone with a passion for God’s people -- serving the people.
Sue, could I please prevail upon you to tell us a little bit about yourself,
 And tell us a little about spiritual direction and how it works,
   And what you’ve done so far in that work.

SUE

I’ve lived in or near Sioux City for 24 years, and I started attending St. Thomas just a couple of years ago.  I work as an accounting assistant for a regional group of Peterbilt truck dealerships, but I’ve also been a massage therapist for the past 18 years and a spiritual director for 7 years.

Like Father Torey, I grew up Baptist, but as a young adult, I got tired of being offered answers to questions that I wasn’t even asking, while my real questions were ignored. I think that’s why I’ve always looked for experiences of God and of the Church that allow for wrestling and exploring and thinking broadly about our spiritual lives.

When I was in my late thirties and a brand new massage therapist, I had the opportunity to enroll in a seminary degree program that focused on Faith and Health. I wasn’t sure at the time if I was trying to equip myself for a different job (maybe even in the Church?) or if I was equipping myself to be a different person in the job I already had; but what happened, I think, wasn’t about becoming “different” at all but about going deeper into the person I already was.

I was encouraged in seminary to find a spiritual director, and as soon as I did, I knew it was something I wanted to learn to do. Although the term “spiritual director” sounds kind of … well, like someone who tells you what to do, what really happens in spiritual direction is the wrestling and exploring and broad thinking that I’ve always craved. A spiritual director is someone who’s willing to come alongside you in those explorations, listening and caring and providing a safe place to be completely honest about your spiritual experience. You don’t need to be in crisis or needing to fix something in your life – that’s what we have counselors for.  You just have to be willing to go a little deeper as you pay attention to the ways you experience God (or not) in the normal flow of your daily life.

TOREY

I’m really glad folks are getting to hear this!
I can see how this might all seem like new information.
But there’s no reason we can’t do this here -- offer spiritual direction.
For myself, I’ve been in spiritual direction, as a person receiving the benefit of it --
 Off and on, but pretty much on, for the last seventeen years.
My spiritual director’s name is Kathy Mordeaux.
Kathy is the head of music at Christ’s Church in Castle Rock, Colorado, which is where I met her.
She’s just this really grounded, listening, prayerful person.

So, Sue, what you’re describing has also been my experience --
 The experience of sitting down with someone, and just honestly talking about spiritual things.
And then being the beneficiary of Kathy’s insights and questions --
 And they’re hardly ever big, fancy, universal questions -- What is the meaning of life?
Just more things like How is God active in that situation?,
 Or What is your prayer life telling you here?
Or she’ll offer a little nugget based on how she feels nudged to speak.
Sometimes she just holds the silence with me. It’s kind of holy.

The interesting thing --
 And I guess this is the reason this practice hasn’t caught on like it should’ve by now --
 The interesting thing is that people tend to think, for whatever reason,
   That Oh, that’s for ordained people, or at any rate for people who do work like that,
     And so what do I need with such things?
I guess I’d say that after all this time, I’ve realized I really need good spiritual direction in my life,
 And that has nothing to do with whether or not I’m ordained. I mean, I’m a person, first, right?
What would you say about that?

SUE

I’m afraid our culture tends to put spirituality up on a special plane, disconnected from ordinary life, and then we assume that you have to be clergy or at least a super religious person to feel at home in that disconnected place. But that’s exactly one of the things I love about spiritual direction -- it helps us become more aware of our spirituality in the very guts of our life -- the ordinary life that every one of us leads, whether or not we’re ordained. That’s the kind of lives that are played out in the Bible, after all. Jesus didn’t call ordained priests to be his disciples; he called fishermen, tax collectors, political activists, and all kinds of non-clergy people. And he didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the meaning of life, he talked about how to react if someone hits you or how to spend your money wisely or what to do if your prayers aren’t being answered. Those aren’t clergy issues, they’re ordinary life issues. EVERYone is a person first, and so yes, everyone can benefit from spiritual direction.

TOREY

You know, listening to that gospel reading just now --
 Peter needed a spiritual director after he got back in the boat!
He really did; he needed someone to help him unpack everything that had just happened.
He had some truly extraordinary, high-and-mighty things happening to him,
 But it was all happening, real-time, in his own ordinary life.
(A teacher of mine likes to say that “God comes to you disguised as your life.”)
So ya gotta love Peter. He’s so impulsive.
He wants to do the right thing, the faithful thing, and he wants to do it all right away;
 But this is shockingly new and different;
   He’s just doing what he can to make it work and blunder his way through it,
   Which is also kind of like everyday life.
With him, every day with Jesus -- every day after he drops his net --
 Every blessed day is bringing things that are unlike anything else he’s ever seen.
He has no reference point for 99% of what’s happening.
I imagine at this point in Matthew’s gospel,
 After rowing all night against that cruel wind,
   Peter is just exhausted mentally and spiritually and physically, and really disheartened.
Again, like life...

Peter is a person first, before he’s a disciple, like you said, and he’s wrung out.
And now, here, on the water coming towards him in the morning light, is Jesus!

Now comes the first test: Is he willing to accept this gift?
Can he work past the shock of this moment? Past the shock of thinking it’s a ghost?
And Jesus says, Yes, it’s me, and Go on ahead and come to me.
Peter looks at Jesus. His mental focus is locked in on him. (This is some amazing stuff, isn’t it?)
It’s only after he gets out of the boat, and starts walking, and gets some distance from the boat,
 That his eyes drift away from Jesus and down onto the waves.
His eyes drift down and he sees himself sinking; panic sets in; his mind is distracted.
It’s worth asking again, Isn’t this like our life? Our whole life? Our life in God?

SUE

I love when people come to spiritual direction with these kind of experiences -- not that I’ve ever met anyone who walked on water, or even tried to -- but it IS common to experience God in a completely unexpected way and then to feel unsure of how to respond -- or to bungle our response like Peter. We may feel like we’re sinking, we may get angry at God, we may become cynical or fearful or just confused. Yet, when I look across the flow of scripture, one thing that stands out for me is just how unpredictable and off-the-wall God can be. God rarely shows up twice in the same way, you know? So maybe that’s why Peter’s bungled response seems so like our own lives in God, because it’s probably normal to get thrown for a loop when God surprises us and normal to thrash around in our response. Maybe, in fact, our thrashing and panicking is evidence that we’re really encountering a holy God and not just some safe, church-shaped God that we’ve manufactured.  Does that make sense?

TOREY

Tons. Makes tons of sense.

In the “Chronicles of Narnia,” CS Lewis uses the character of a great Lion named Aslan
 In order to talk about Jesus as CS Lewis has come to understand Jesus.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, two girls, Susan and Lucy,
 Ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to tell them about Aslan.
They ask if Aslan is a man, and Mr. Beaver says,
 “Aslan a man? Certainly not.
   I tell you he is the King of the woods and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea.
   Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion -- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man.
   Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver,
   “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking,
     They’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?
   Who said anything about ‘safe’? ‘Course he isn’t safe.
   But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Christ is not safe, but good. The King.
And never contained and boxed in, but coming to us in the strangest ways.

Twenty years ago, on the day that Jacquie and I graduated from college,
 Our families were all out on the lawn, picnicking and celebrating.
My brother Tony was there, and he had been somewhat excited
 To meet Jacquie’s brother Wayne because Wayne was a newly minted “Reverend Doctor.” (Meeting Rev. Drs. is sort of a cause for excitement
 Quite a lot of the time in Oklahoma if you’re Baptist.)
Anyway, upon meeting Wayne, almost the first thing Tony said was, “So, what do you think?”

“Think about what?” Wayne said.

“You know -- God and stuff, I guess. Or I guess that’s like asking you to write a novel, right?”

So Wayne paused and he looked around for a minute, and he said,
 “I think the main issue is that we like to put God in a box.
   And we like to think that God is safely in the box.
 And maybe there’s a little bit of God in the box, but mostly God is everywhere else.
Meanwhile we're just walking around with this little box of self-delusion tucked under our arm.”

I think about that story a lot --
 What Wayne said and just how much he communicated that day,
 Out on the lawn of a picnic space back in ‘94.
I don’t know how it played with anyone else,
 But I remember sitting there with my lemonade and my fried chicken
 And feeling that somehow the universe was getting bigger, right then and there --
   I tell you I could feel the universe expanding, I could feel it in my bones --
   And I knew that I, too, had been carrying around one of those metaphorical God-boxes,
   Tucked under my arm for as long as I had been aware of the whole concept of God.
That it was easier to delude myself that God could be contained,
 Than to face the reality of Christ loose in the world.
And I knew then that it was time to just put the box down and walk away
 And let God come to me in whatever way God would come to me,
   And to start my own path to God.
And sometimes I still pick up that stupid box, because it’s comfortable,
 And I have a space already made for it, right here in the crook of my arm,
 But I’m learning -- slowly, I’m learning to let go of that box.

On a clear day, on a clear morning, Jesus comes near, out on the water.
And he asks me why I’m back in the boat again, and if I’ve still got that box.
And I don’t have a good answer. I have all the same, usual, disappointing answers I always have.
BUT I get out of the boat, and I try to come to him and follow him.
All the time I’m distracted, angry, prideful, forgetful, disconnected, lazy, full of doubt ...
 And still he wants me to come to him.

Even in this old body of sin he still wants to see me.

SUE

That may be one of the biggest surprises of all, that this unpredictable, off-the-wall, unsafe God so relentlessly wants to see us and keeps saying, “Come,” even when it’s obvious that our responses aren’t going to be anything out of the ordinary and may even sink us. I hear that in Peter’s story, and in yours, and in the stories of the people who come to me for spiritual direction. And in almost every direction session I’ve experienced, there has come a moment when I’m overwhelmed with an awareness of how much courage it has taken for the person with me to respond at all and of how affectionately God is reaching out to keep him or her from going under. Because even though spiritual direction takes us into our own depths, it’s finally the depths of God that the story is all about.

Here’s a poem by Watler Brueggemann. It’s called “Not at our beck and call.” Let’s let it be our prayer.

We call out your name in as many ways as we can.
We fix your role towards us in the ways we need.
We approach you from the particular angle of our life.
We do all that, not because you need to be identified,
but because of our deep need,
our deep wound, our deep hope.
And then, we are astonished that while our names for you
serve for a moment,
you break beyond them in your freedom,
you show yourself yet fresh beyond utterance,
you retreat into your splendor beyond our grasp.
We are -- by your freedom and your hiddenness --
made sure yet again that you are God ...
beyond us, for us, but beyond us,
not at our beck and call,
but always in your own way.
We stammer about your identify,
only to learn that it is our own unsettling
before you that wants naming.
Beyond all our explaining and capturing and fixing you ...
we give you praise,
we thank you for your fleshed presence in suffering love,

and for our names that you give us.  Amen.