July 29, 2018

Staying with Bathsheba's Grief

Sermon for Year B, Proper 12
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 29, 2018
St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Lawrence, Kansas

From now through the end of August,
 With the exception of one Sunday, you’re going to get your fill of bread. Bread, bread, bread.
Gospel lesson after Gospel lesson about bread.
By the time you get to September,
 Father Charles will have run out of things to say about bread.
There won’t be any more words. No more metaphors.
Instead, he’ll just lift the host in the Eucharist, and it’ll be plain enough, what Jesus intended.
Jesus is the Bread of Life; come to him, and don’t hunger.

So I’m going to let that one be. Let Father Charles have more words for later on.
Jesus has a lot of interesting things to say about the bread,
 And him being the bread, and us being the bread, and what a scandal it is,
   But we’re going to let it go this time.

Instead, what I’d like to point out is this first lesson, from Second Samuel.
If you aren’t familiar with the story of David and Bathsheba, here it is in broad strokes.

David is Israel’s great king.
Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah.
Uriah fights in David’s army,
 And in fact he’s out fighting the day that David first sees Bathsheba.
He’s napping out on the rooftop of his palace, and he wakes up and he sees her.
She’s taking a bath.
He’s enraptured, and so he breaks the Tenth Commandment,
 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
He immediately starts to plot out how he can have her,
 And eventually he does so, breaking the Seventh Commandment,
 “You shall not commit adultery.”
Then she turns up pregnant,
 And the writer takes pains to show that no one but David could be the father.
Yet David tries to get Uriah to take responsibility for Bathsheba’s pregnancy,
 Thereby breaking – you may have already guessed – the Ninth Commandment,
 “You shall not lie.”

It gets worse.
Uriah is too righteous and honorable to fall for David’s trickery.
So David directs that in the next battle
 Uriah should be placed “in the forefront of the hardest fighting,”
 And that all the troops around him should withdraw, leaving him headed for certain death.
That’s exactly what happens.
So David has now effectively broken the Sixth Commandment,
 “You shall not kill.”

Bathsheba laments and bewails the loss of Uriah.
Then David sends for her, and he takes her as his wife .... Takes.

Does the story of David and Bathsheba bother you?
I hope so!
Israel’s greatest king exploits every privilege he can muster
 In order to have dominance over another human being,
   All because he likes what he sees?
Looks, covets, lies, kills, covers up – all to get what he wants?
Abuses the divine power that has been entrusted to him?
That had better bother us.

So far, it’s a very human drama.
A predictable story about seeing and wanting and having,
 And doing whatever it takes to get what we want.
So far? With David? Human drama, with a sickening payoff:
 Desire leading to lies and murder, and to what we today might call human trafficking.
And at the head of it all: the great king, the inspired leader of his people,
 The crafter of psalms; the anointed, righteous David,
   Who brought the ark to Jerusalem and committed the enemies of God to the dust.

How, then, can this be?
Where, then, is the justice of God?

And this must be a careful moment for us.
Because right about here it would be too easy to run on into those aspects of the story
 Where we actually can see God’s justice let loose upon the world, a bit later on.
It would be too easy, and too fast.
Let me then give you these two haunting verses that finish out the first half of the story:
 “When [Bathsheba] heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him.
   When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house,
     And she became his wife, and bore him a son.”

Be careful with those words. Don’t run on to supposed happy endings.
Hear the weeping and wailing of Bathsheba;
 Hear the notes of a bottomless darkness and lamentation and grief;
   Don’t run on to good feelings or leave this moment prematurely
   Simply because it’s emotionally painful to remain here.
Rather, stay and watch and cry with Bathsheba at this incalculable human selfishness
 That has rendered her a widow, and another man’s property.
Do not turn away; remain in the grief of the moment, if you can. This is a good and holy work.
I recently served as a deputy from this diocese to the General Convention in Austin, Texas.
It was two grueling and wonderful weeks of deliberation and discussion and decision.
We pondered and prayed over things that took a lot of work to come together
 And that required much in the way of personal and corporate sacrifice,
   When “doing the right thing” comes at a cost.

Along the way I heard the voices of lots of different folk.
I heard from women who’d been sexually abused within the walls of the church.
I heard from Native Americans who saw the planet despoiled.
I heard from people of color who’d been victims of violence.
And I learned something from each one of these contacts:
 I learned, over and over, that you can’t have justice until you tell the truth,
 And you can’t tell the truth until you’ve been given an opportunity to properly mourn.

Our Bible is no stranger to such concepts.
After all, we have a Book of Lamentations.
If you’ve not read it lately, I can assure you:
 The author understands what it means to stand absolutely desolated before God:
 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
   Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me,
     Which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.
   From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones;
     He spread a net for my feet; he turned me back;
       He has left me stunned, faint all day long.
   My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by his hand they were fastened together;
     They weigh on my neck, sapping my strength;
       The Lord handed me over to those whom I cannot withstand.”
It goes on like that.
The end of the book isn’t a happy tying-together of theologies; it’s a gut-punch:
 “You, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations.
   Why have you forgotten us completely?
   Why have you forsaken us these many days?
   Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
     Renew our days as of old –
       Unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.”
And that, in our own holy writ.

What I mean to say is,
 In the face of terrible suffering, it is not wrong or unfaithful to God –
   It is not unchristian, if we cry or mourn or shake our fists at God and ask Why?
It is not wrong to ask God where our portion of justice has gone.
It is not wrong to ask whether we are forsaken forever.
Just because God’s “throne endures to all generations”
 Does not mean that human beings don’t get to wonder about what that is supposed to look like.
God won’t punish you for asking questions or crying-out.
We need to stay with Bathsheba, if we are to do the work that God is calling us to do,
 To exercise the ministry of reconciliation through Christ that we have been given.

It may be the strangest thing, not tied up in a bow,
 But it will be real -- staying up with people in great pain,
   Listening to people in great pain --
     And it will make us stronger and more capable.
This deep watching and listening, in the hardest moments, it’s the right thing to do,
 In a world unaccustomed to slowing down or paying attention to the other.

Amen. May it be so.

November 30, 2017

How I finally ended up in Kansas

The following essay was judged a Finalist entry in the Poetry Unites Kansas contest held earlier this year for essays on poetry. Of about eighty entries received, this was selected in the top six by the jury. Four Finalists were selected to become short subjects for the remarkable filmmaker Ewa Zadrynska, and this documentary had its premiere on November 28 as part of the Uhlig LLC Distinguished Speaker Series. The film demonstrates the resilience and depth of faith possessed by these Kansans as they move through their daily routines, and the impact that poetic verses have had on their imaginations and hearts.

Being a part of this contest has shown me once again that you don't have to be a poet to love poetry – or at the very least, to interact with it enough to be moved by it every now and again. When it's good, it speaks down into the heart of the human condition.

I am grateful for editorial assistance from Julie Goldberg Springer, Michael McFarland, and Lorienne Schwenk; and for the presence of mind of Mark Uhlig to bring this movement to Kansas.


           In my mother’s hometown of Waldron, Kansas (population 11), Main Street terminates at the Oklahoma state line. My father’s people were from Offerle (population 199) and later Dodge City, whose population was simply too much for my child’s mind to count or imagine.
            Neither here nor there, I came into the world a landlocked Oklahoman by birth and rearing, but willed myself to one day become an official Kansan.
            On maps, my ten-year-old fingers traced the road veins north and west, Oklahoma to Waldron to Offerle to Dodge, willing these places to coagulate into some sense of origin out of which a calling for life might arise. I pored over these slight geographies until they poured themselves into me – and determined that what my parents had lacked in foresight and planning by moving us south, I would one day recapture by design.
            Much of early adult life was lived in places that made mocking circles around Kansas: Oklahoma, with its beckoning north border; Colorado, its eastern plains sloping home; Texas and Iowa, at a pronounced distance. Even in my niche work as an Episcopal priest, I tried to come to the place I wanted to call home, sending letters of application to altars in Newton and Lawrence and Edwardsville, always being turned back for some good reason, some slice of incomprehensible providence.
            In the spring, from adulthood on, as I danced around Kansas, there was Robert Bly. Every March, his poem “Waking from Sleep” expressed its need to be re-read. I went and unearthed it, and still do, and always will. Perhaps this ritual is an attempt to recapture the time I first read it, when I was 25 and working on my life, and the work deeply spoke into my need for purpose on a day I happened to have been prepared to receive such a homily.
            In the poem, Bly conjures a microcosmic world that lives in human blood – a harbor in spring, shaking off frost and chill, of “navies setting forth” every morning. He shows us bodies putting down books, emerging from winter’s cocoon, compelled by natural forces into the morning sun and deeper possibility, to exploits and jeopardies out beyond the sea line. He implicates us (“Now we sing”) and liberates us (“our master has left us”). With beautiful economy, he begs us to gamble on something like adventure, something like forgetfulness about the past.
            Through years of ministry, in prayer, in leading, in study, in preparing and delivering messages, I have been exhorted to attain to the status of the beginner’s mind – that emptied place of relative innocence in the heart out of which all new growth might flow. Ministry, like reconciliation, like forgiveness, is the act of consistently re-beginning, having almost forgotten something critical. The life of faith is the daily acquisition of a fresh heart – in St. Paul’s words, becoming “a new creature.”
            Bly tacks that same course. He offers both absolute absolution and fiery sermonics. I read “Waking from Sleep” and I know two things: all is well, and it’s time to get up and do something. He pushes me out the door for my own good. It’s fine ministry by an old soul – renewed, aging again, but still ever renewing.
            Now that I live and serve at last in Kansas, this poem calls me to work in another way: as the consecration of midlife, house-holding, wisdom-building. This too is adventure even if it looks like inertia from the outside. For in every transition is a hallowing and a pulsation of the new, and a letting-go of old winter things.

June 22, 2017

Living the long obedience – an ordination sermon

Sermon for Ordinations
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
June 17, 2017
Grace Episcopal Cathedral, Topeka, Kansas

In the name of God and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd,
 Our just and true North Star,
 The Standard-Bearer and Perfecter of Our Faith: Amen.

To Clay, Bianca, Diane, Katie, Mike, Mark, and Greg; and to their spouses and families;
 To Bishop Smith, graciously serving this day;
 To Dean Lipscomb and Grace Cathedral, our hosts;
 To all the Clergy and all the People, whatever your age, whatever your station;
 To the good people of this diocese and beyond;
 To our friends and partners in ministry
 Showing forth all the wild manifestations
   Of the deep and abiding love of God:
     Welcome, and Greetings, and Peace, in Christ’s holy name and through his work.

This day and this time have been set aside
 For unapologetic and unabashed ordinations to the diaconate and to the priesthood –
 Set aside, because these people have been set aside –
 Set aside for particular and curious forms of ministry
   That have come to be defined and shaped by centuries
     Of contemplation, prayer, and sweat;
   By martyrs’ blood and workers’ toil, by the councils of the church, and by Holy Scripture.
For the mission of God, for the compelling call of Christ, and for you,
 These have worked and studied and written and prayed and wrestled with angels.
All of them, for a period of years.

They have submitted to the hammer and chisel of the ordination process, the endless God-talk,
 The councils and committees and paperwork,
 Relentless testing by examiners of all kinds.
And it comes to this: a warm Saturday morning in June,
 And all that stands between you and the hands of Bishop Smith on your heads
 ... Is a preacher from Oklahoma with a Southern Baptist background ...

We have heard just now the words of Christ as he has enjoined his friends
 To follow these simple-but-almost-impossible instructions:
 The greatest among you is the one who has the greatest humility, he says;
   The one who serves the table is greater than the one who sits at the table.
 And I, Jesus says – I am one such servant.
 And so, he seems to say; the implication seems to be – If we would be like him, ...

For as much as we try to follow him, Jesus will flummox us
 By consistently turning the world upside-down
   And reversing every expectation people have about what it means to be fulfilled.
And this is what awaits these blessed followers of Jesus:
 Bitter disappointment – a blow to the ego every day –
 The dismantling of the false-self system,
   And – and! – the joy of following Our Lord to the cross, and the grave, and beyond.

For proof, I beg you to consult the prophet Isaiah.
I don’t know why we don’t keep on reading from chapter 6 at these Ordinations: it’s a disservice.
Well, I do know why, but I think it’d be instructive this morning to do it anyway.
“In the year that King Uzziah died,” et cetera, et cetera;
   One, two, skip a few;
     “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
       ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
We heard that part. We always hear that part. Beautiful. All set. Done and done.
No? No. There are clarifying instructions, Isaiah:
It contines: And [Isaiah] said, “Here am I; send me!”
 And [the Lord] said, “Go and say to this people:
 ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’
 ‘Make the mind of this people dull, [Isaiah], and stop their ears, and shut their eyes,
     So that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears,
       And comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Then [Isaiah] said, “How long, O Lord?” [Good question!] And [the Lord] said:
 “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people,
     And the land is utterly desolate;
   Until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
 “Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a [tree]
     Whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.”

Isaiah has just been caught up in the majesty of the moment.
He has volunteered to bring the glorious word of the Lord
 About a nation in need of righteous judgment and restoration.
Sounds great! His tongue is cleansed; he’s ready to go.
But, as it turns out, his full commission is –
 Go and speak this word, and keep on speaking it until the people can’t hear it anymore;
   And keep on, keep on, Isaiah, ‘til you’re blue in the face, until there’s nothing left to speak to,
     Until the whole thing is as dead as a tree stump;
        And from that dead thing, Isaiah, the seed of something beautiful will be born.

You could think Isaiah’s mission is to facilitate futility – to hasten nothingness into being.
It’s dark, right? But don’t miss the image: the stump is also the seed.

Still, for Isaiah ... what a bummer. It’s a huge let-down!
It’s the old bait-and-switch! He signed up for A and has to do B.
He’s just accepted a lifetime appointment to the lowest place,
 Delivering very good news to those who need to hear it, yes,
   But also, very bad news to those about to be weighed out on the cosmic scales of justice.
He will effectively be waiting tables from now on, and serving – not being served.
And for what?
Only, it seems, to help carve out a little space where the Word of the Lord can take root.
He probably won’t live long enough to even see it happen.
But that just has to be enough ...

At some critical, inevitable moment, expectations will undergo reversal.
Dissatisfaction will come creeping in.
Dissatisfaction with your call can only be tempered by humility –
 Serving from the lowest place, steeped in daily prayer and wide-eyed experience.
Isaiah’s anger and frustration about his place in life
 Will only be leavened by the knowledge that he has been placed on earth to do this work,
   And that just has to be sufficient.
The sacrifice is just part of the deal.
His ministry, and all our ministries, are uniquely cruciform in nature.

So naturally enough, here’s where the ego steps in,
 And gets deeply reactive and anxious, and panics!
This is not what I signed up for! I’ve made a terrible misake! Surely there’s some way out of this!
And Christ-followers will scratch about, searching frantically for a loophole.
Temptations to buck the call will come.

In 2017 especially, there are at least four kinds of temptations or varieties or ways
 To buck the call when the ego rises up – whether or not we do church work.
Let’s remember that when Satan left Jesus at the end of his period of temptation,
 It was “until a more opportune time.”
Perhaps, as fellow followers of Christ, 2017 is our “more opportune time.”
So let’s be bold Episcopalians and call these temptations, Devils.

The first is the Devil of Constant Busyness.
All-time companion of clergy.
Grotesque, looong checklists; emails to respond to; ideas to develop. A never-finished-ness.
Creeping dissatisfaction with whatever place we happen to occupy at the moment:
 Belief that whatever the next place is, surely it’s better than this one.
The lie is that my worth is measured by my output.
To use an ancient theological term, this is baloney.
That’s the Devil of Constant Busyness.

The second devil is the Devil of Instant Competence.
“Yes, I do remember that conversation, and I have an immediate reaction to it!”
“Yes, I have Google in my pocket,
   And no, there’s no excuse for not having all the facts right away,
   As well as all the interpretations of those facts.
   To hell with letting it simmer to make it better;
     To hell with admitting if there’s something we don’t know.”
The lie is that my worth is derived by what I know, with my head –
   What I can recite standing before you right now, all the facts, all at once, all in one place.
This lie is that my worth is not derived
 By who I am, already, simply created, in the sight and in the hands of the Living Lord Jesus.
The Devil of Instant Competence.

The third devil is a Contentment with a Lack of Joy.
God made us, God loves us, God made us to delight in God and for God to delight in us –
 We forget this at our peril, at our own cost.
Life is meant to be lived, not merely trudged through.
When we clergy forget these facts, it turns our ministries colorless.
Banish the lie! Be joyful in the Lord, and not merely a survivor.
The Devil of the Lack of Joy.

The fourth devil, in 2017, is the hardest to name and the slipperiest to conquer.
It is what I’ll call the Devil of Believing Only In My Narrative.
We may preach the evils of the fragmentation and alienation of our society;
 We may believe we are deeply connected to one another in certain ways;
 But in other ways we are all susceptible; we all know this one, only too well.
We may be listening to each other, nodding our heads,
 Trying to get out of God’s way, but it’s hard.
In the end, I’m sorry, but I just know I’m right.
This lie is straightforward, and seductive: I stand to gain nothing from ever being wrong:
 So I’m right because I’m right.
My views are correct because someone backed me up on Twitter;
 I’m right because that magazine article said so; I know I’m on the right side of history;
   My story beats yours, my opinions are better than yours,
     And very soon I’ll set everything straight,
       Or, better yet, just keep it to my self – my unassailable, airtight self,
         Where it can stay clean.
The Devil of Believing Only In My Own Narrative.

O Isaiah, O Prophet of the Most High, are we in the ballpark today?
Were you ever tempted like this?
What, if anything, can be done about it –
 Other than to say: this is our time.
 We fight the temptations we fight. We remain steadfast.
And this is our responsibility until it passes to someone else.
Meanwhile, God gives us what we need to be faithful.

Ordinands, would you stand please? ...

Greg, Mark, Mike, Katie, Diane, Bianca, and Clay:
 Each of you is on the crust of a grand adventure.
My strongest prayer is that you trust daily
 That what God has given you to meet this task will be sufficient;
 That what Christ died to give to each of you, and us, his Church, will not be forgotten.
Banish these devils, these temptations, as the Spirit has given ability;
 Lean on one another and all of us for support;
   Show us something new and wonderful;
     Lead us to new and important understandings of where and why we do this work.
And do all these things with joy, with lightness, with purpose.

God give you strength. Amen.