September 6, 2015

A simple and good thing

Sermon for Year B, Proper 18
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 1, 2015
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Mission, Kansas

In the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good morning!
My name is Torey Lightcap.
I serve on Bishop Wolfe’s staff as the Canon to the Ordinary,
 And I am just so pleased to join you today.

There’s a radio show that has a segment called
 “Things You Would Have Learned In School (Had You Been Paying Attention).”
And I have to confess that when it comes to reading the Bible
 And trying to live out of this particular section of Mark,
 I always feel like I’m playing this game –
   That I still haven’t quite paid sufficient attention, and am still having to go back
     And study and re-learn the life and the teaching of Jesus,
     Only to forget it,
       Before picking it back up again,
         And on and on and on.

But there’s another lesson, too, that comes along with Jesus,
 And that is this: that it’s hard;
   That what Jesus does and what he then turns around and demands of us to do as well
     Is incredibly difficult work.
His yoke may be light, his burden may be easy,
 But sometimes it seems God is busily asking us to do the impossible.
No wonder we don’t want to learn, and therefore do not really pay attention.

And so just what is it that Jesus is teaching us and asking us to do today?
This impossible thing?
I believe it is something that’s just so stunningly simple and pure
 That it would be easy for us to corrupt and misunderstand it;
   But by God’s grace we still have it before us anyway.
By Jesus’ behavior, and with his words, he is giving us a mandate.

It’s a mandate well expressed in the words of the American poet Edwin Markham:
 He drew a circle that shut me out –
   Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
 But Love and I had the wit to win:
   We drew a circle that took him in!

Jesus is keenly aware of the differences of his day
 With respect to Who’s In and Who’s Out,
But he just keeps expanding the circle
 So that no one is out.
The Scripture teaches us that this is just infuriating behavior to his enemies
 As well as some of his closest people, his disciples,
   That have been following him around from the beginning.

He steps over every boundary that his society, his family, his religion have placed upon him.
Boundaries, walls, dividing lines, fences and borders –
 Control Mechanisms erected in order to keep clear track of who is in and who is out,
   By virtue of race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, and so on –
 Boundaries meant to carve order out of chaos and to make sense of a senseless world –
 Walls gone up, about who is qualified to receive God’s favor and who is not,
   About who gets the royal treatment, and who gets passed over.
And Jesus very deliberately, very systematically reaches through and past those boundaries
 In ways that are labeled as suppressive, dangerous, and theologically suspect.
And – can we say this enough? – he doesn’t seem to give even a moment’s pause
 To what his detractors think about his behavior.
He is the key leader of a transformative reform movement.
He has an incredible work ahead of him.
Yes, he will stop and teach you what he thinks,
 And he will show you his logic about how he got there.
But in the main, he just doesn’t really have time to care how others see his behavior.

 He drew a circle that shut me out –
   Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
 But Love and I had the wit to win:
   We drew a circle that took him in!

In Christ Jesus, thanks be to God, the circle that determines Who’s In just grows and grows.
Surely it gums up all our machinery, befuddles our systems and our working definitions,
 Blinds us in our capacity to be what we think is discerning.
That doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Jesus heals a Greek man, supposedly an outsider to him –
 “Outsider,” meaning Do Not Touch or Talk To This Person Under Any Circumstances –
 An outsider, deaf, with a speech impediment.
Puts his spit into his mouth – spit! that great defiler, according to Leviticus.
The thing that spreads impurity.
Jesus touches his tonuge in the process – more spit! more defilement!
Lord knows what this man just ate: Defilement, out running loose in the world.
The result? Not disease, but cure.
And the man walks away, speaking plainly. The circle easily expanded.

Jesus heals a pagan child.
Lets her mother argue him into doing it;
 She wins the fight, and he supposedly loses his honor, shamefully,
   All for the sake of including her and her child
   In the rapdily advancing, all-consuming Kingdom of God
   In which everything, down to the smallest assumptio, gets turned upside-down.
How many smashed societal barriers and religious barriers and family and purity barriers –
 How many barriers lie around in pieces on the back side of these two small stories from Mark?
Too many to tally.
The circle expands faster than our ability to name and control it.

Jesus does all these things while making a big tour of all the places around his homeland,
 Near and far,
   Where foreigners live and work, where impurity lurks.
He goes out to them, a deliberate, unhalting movement foward;
 He steps over the clear boundaries that are supposedly kept for his own good
   And he risks and spurns every kind of defilement.

And anyway.
Last week we heard what he thinks on the whole subject of purity, didn’t we? Remember?
From earlier in Mark chapter seven:
 Then Jesus called the crowd again and said to them,
   “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:
     There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,
     But the things that come out are what defile.
   For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come:
     Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness,
     Deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Who and what is impure in Jesus’ world?
It’s much simpler than a series of tests about who you touched or talked to,
 Or where you traveled or what you ate, or how you ate it.
What is impure to Jesus
 Is simply the human heart, impure when it’s an instrument of evil.
But even that – even our propensity to do and to think terrible things –
 Even that is within the reaching of God’s saving embrace.
The circle just keeps getting wider and wider.
And that’s really good news for an old sinner like me.
It’s good news because I’m in that circle,
 And it’s good news because you’re in it, too.
No distinction we try to create about Who’s In and Who’s Out
 Is really ever going to cut it.
This man Jesus has taught us as much. Taught us with his life, in this wonderful story.

It means we can say something amazing,
 And we can mean it with every last little bit of our being:
 That God is love, and God loves you, no exceptions.
If there were some kind of little asterisk or hesitation next to that,
 Then I’d put down the plow and walk away,
   Because life’s too short to play games about who God loves or doesn’t love.

But there are no asterisks; there is no hesitation.

Just a fine, true statement.

God loves you; anything else is just a fiction, and false religion.

So we have much to celebrate this day.
May our hearts and minds be glad with this news.


April 16, 2015


Salvador Dali, Ascension (1958)

Sermon for Year B, the Third Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 19, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

“...[T]hat repentance and forgiveness of sins
 Is to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name to all nations.”
This was the mission Jesus gave to his disciples
 When he showed up among them following the miracle of his resurrection.
Repentance and forgiveness proclaimed in Jesus’ name to everyone.
That mission has not changed.

What Luke gives us a taste of here is also known as The Great Commission,
 And it finds its fullest expression at the end of the Gospel According to Matthew.
“The eleven followers went to Galilee,
   To the mountain where Jesus told them to meet him;
   And when they saw him, they bowed to the ground before him; although some hesitated.
 Then Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying,
   ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
    Therefore go and make followers of all the nations,
    Baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
     And teaching them to lay to heart all the commands that I have given you;
     And remember, I myself am with you everyday until the close of the age.’”

Let’s slow that down for just a minute. Here’s the breakdown of the logic.
Jesus is the authority, and we do what he says;
 So: what does he say?
He’s telling us, first of all, to GO, that is, to leave the place of proclamation,
 And to MAKE disciples,
   Which consists of BAPTIZING them into the household of God
     And then INSTRUCTING them as to the faith.

Go ... make ... baptize ... instruct.

And what is the content of the faith in which they must be instructed?
Luke makes it clear: repentance and forgiveness proclaimed in Jesus’ name to everyone.

Now, I don’t think this could be any more plain.
And the whole thing seems to hinge on the notion
 That the base of Jesus-followers will grow itself,
   Because all of us disciples will be busily commending the faith that is in us,
   As in 1 Peter 3:15: “Worship Christ as Lord of your life.
     And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it.”

I look around me, therefore, and I am deeply conflicted.
Because I do not see a self-replicating and growing base of Jesus-followers.
I see very dedicated people who seem to have been commissioned
 To serve individual congregations, or this or that cause,
   But I have lost sight of any sort of growing, replicating base of followers.
At least, not in the numeric sense.

Why aren’t the followers of Jesus speaking up?
Why aren’t we following this most basic element of the Great Commission?

I see four causes.
One, Episcopalians (and there are many other Christians besides just Episcopalians!) –
 Episcopalians have tended to let the following speak for the faith that is in them:
 Buildings, organs, priests, choirs, food pantries, pews, bishops, prayer books.
Two, we live in a culture now in which all opinions are so equally valid
 To the point where civil discourse is basically impossible;
 “Conversation” is just people trying not to offend each other,
   And the prevailing cultural stance is “Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.”
Gotta look cool at all times; no one can afford to be shocked by anything new.
So there’s no shocking us anymore; there is seemingly no new information,
 Even though, of course, we say all the time that God is speaking Right Now.
Three, the rank behavior of some who call themselves Christians
 But whose behavior is completely unchristian
   Is enough to make us want to say, “Lord, save us from your followers!”
And four, despite hearing so much Scripture Sunday by Sunday,
 And supposedly running to encounter it every day in our prayer lives,
 We mostly defer to people who misuse the Bible’s every word in order to be annoying bullies.

This is quite a pickle!
That in an annoying, loud, and benumbed world where learning is no longer expected,
 The only thing we have to use as a bullhorn is basically a couple of books.
Just when we remember that we do actually possess the prophetic voice
 And the gift of proclamation of Christ,
 We very often find we’re too afraid to use it.
Jesus as the incarnation of God is absolutely central to who we are as a people,
 Yet his name is so besmirched by those who claim to follow him
 That we don’t want to be confused for them.
By and large, all of this together has somehow taught us exactly the wrong message –
 That it’s just too risky nowadays to risk for Christ;
 And we have come to live off of the sacraments as a baby at the breast,
   Who expects to be fed without ever having to rise in defense of his mother.

Go ... make disciples ... baptize ... instruct.
There is a massive, vastly distressing gap between belief and practice.
What Jesus instructed us to do and what we have done are miles apart,
 And most days it’s about all we can do to haul ourselves up to confess it.

If Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life, proclaim it.
It’s right there, black and white, in his commissioning of us.

When you go from this place of proclamation, you go into the mission field.
It’s right out that door.
Make disciples.

Bring them back here to be baptized. Then go back out again.

And memorize your points so you can make them plain, and instruct.
Saving knowledge: restoration, freedom, forgiveness.
What an amazing gift of God!

It is the job of each and every baptized person to do this.
No one skates away. No one walks between the raindrops.
We have the enormous privilege of being able to stand in this room and say,
 “Praise to you, Lord Christ,” as we just did.
And so it is absolutely incumbent upon us all to follow through.

Each and every one.

April 12, 2015


The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Bernardo Strozzi

Sermon for Year B, the Second Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 12, 2015
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Here we are, sitting in a church building named after Thomas the saint,
 And I’m not sure I’ve ever really gotten what Thomas is about.
The further away I go from this reading,
 The more apt I am to say things like “Doubting Thomas.”
This, of course, is the label famously applied to anyone
 Who cannot be trusted because he himself cannot trust anyone,
   And so it puts him on the outs, socially.

Well, sisters and brothers, the issue isn’t trust.
It isn’t that “some of just have to be shown.”
It’s presence versus absence.
Thomas isn’t present when the first round of folks is witness to the resurrected Jesus.
Thomas isn’t there; he shows up later; he misses the scene the first time around.
BUT once he has shown up,
 He requires no greater burden of proof than any of the rest of them do.
He’s not some special hard case.
And of course he has that one beautiful line,
 “My Lord and my God!” –
 Which seems like a terrific summation of the entire Gospels to me:
   It slowly dawns on us that God is trying to save us from the worst of ourselves,
     And we finally have enough vision to be able to see that and be thankful for it.

So it isn’t about Thomas’ doubt.
It’s simply about whether he was there to behold the truth.
At first he wasn’t. Then he was.
We should cut him some slack.

I think, sometimes, that this little moment with Thomas
 Is not only a good summarization of the Gospels –
 It is also a lovely metaphor for the human condition of a life lived in Christ.
Because I, like you, am both here and not here at the same time.
My brain is drifting in and out of this space and this sermon.
I can be thinking about any one of a hundred different things right now.
I can check out and check back in again,
 And everyone will think I’ve been here the whole time,
   But the truth is, I haven’t, and you haven’t, and if we’re all honest, none of us has been:
     We’ve been with to-do lists and shopping lists and old memories and relationships;
     We’ve been with the boss we’re going to have to deal with tomorrow;
     We’ve been with spouses and children and grandchildren and mom and dad;
     We’ve been with something we read or saw or heard that we’re trying to remember now;
       We’ve been with exercising, or castigating ourselves for not exercising;
       We’ve been with whatever we’ve eaten, or what we should have eaten,
         Or someone we would like to be with or not be with,
         Or whatever has us anxious or worried or hopeful.

And, as long as we’re in church, we’ve been with the need to pray more,
 Or with the earnest desire to give more money or time,
   Or Why don’t I read my Bible more?
   Or When did I sign up for coffee hour?
     Or anything – ANY thing.
The brain is a very clever distraction device,
 And it will take us into a thousand different guilt-inducing self-improvement schemes,
 Or down some well-worn path of worry and insecurity,
   And yes, some of them will be related to church,
     But a worry is a worry is a worry.

And when at last we let the resurrected Jesus into our mental headspace, ...
 Well, it’s a lot to take in.
Meanwhile, then, because we work like this,
 It’s as though God is forced to play an unplanned game of Hide & Seek with us,
   Only the stakes aren’t child’s play; they’re much higher than we might imagine.

After the sin of Adam and Eve,
 They do what? Go and hide.
And God has to play peekaboo with them.
God comes to enjoy them in the refreshment of the Garden, the cool of the evening.
Can’t find them.
Finally, there they are.
Where were you? God says. I’ve been looking all over for you!
Well, they answer, ... we’ve been hiding.

The most fundamental question in the whole of the Bible:
 God is asking, Where are you? ....

When we do this – when we check out and get distracted and end up hiding –
 When we are content with being absent from whatever God is doing in our midst –
   Our name is Thomas.
“Sorry, can you repeat that?
 I didn’t hear what you said just now. I was Thomas for a minute.”
I checked out. I was gone.
Yes, I was standing here. No, I didn’t physically remove myself.
I just mentally pulled away and took a little vacation. Sorry. Can you repeat that?

The brain will put up a mighty fight to keep us away
 From wherever we are, whomever we are with, whatever it is we are supposed to be doing.
It will check out and refuse to check back in again.

Fortunately, for Thomas and for us,
 The brain is in conversation with the heart.
Now this is a metaphor, of course, and not a very scientifically accurate one, but –
 In other words, our logistical and rational faculties
   Are competing with our emotional and nonrational faculties
   For the right to sit on center stage and get all the attention.
And the brain likes to win; it’s used to winning; so it sets up camp on the stage –
 Says, I’m not going anywhere. I have important things for us to spend our energy on.

You know that feeling, though, when you’ve just been sitting and staring off into space,
 Completely lost in a world of vague worry and fear and insecurity,
   And then something happens – click – and you’re back?
And it feels like snapping out of something unreal and back into something very real?
Know that feeling?
All of a sudden, you hear or see or smell things
 That have been in your environment the whole time – a clock ticking, a small gust of wind –
 Things that have been in your environment the whole time,
   Only just now they snap into focus.
It’s a sharp moment. It can feel shocking, forceful.
That’s what happens when you tear away the veil.
It’s the force of the revelation of the truth.
It’s the force and the shock of reality.
Sounds strange, but that moment is a gift.
Because then we get to see – really see –
 Whatever it is that has been in front of us the whole time.

We live so much of our lives just sleepwalking from appointment to appointment,
 One urgency to another,
 Tending one source of worry, then another.
Largely unconscious about what we’re doing.
Meanwhile, the resurrected Jesus stands before us, waiting to receive our acknowledgement.
Imagine – can we imagine? – what it would be like to see him in every circumstance.
To go about our lives, awake as it were, and finding him wherever we went?
Can we imagine being here now, doing what we’re doing when we’re doing it,
 And seeing Christ before us –
   Not being absent to the reality of his Easter, which, after all, is our Easter, too.

Can we just ... imagine?