April 7, 2012

Church is for losers

Sermon for Year B, Easter Vigil
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
April 7, 2012

There has been a rthythm to these last days:
  Coming together, worshiping, going out,
  Coming back together, worshiping again, going back out …
    Now coming back together again.

On Sunday we remembered the “triumphant” entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
On Thursday, two nights ago, we recalled his institution
  Of the Eucharist and the washing of feet – symbols of togetherness and service.
In the Eucharist, we heard the promise that he is with us,
  And in the washing of feet, we heard the promise
    That to follow the way of selflessness is to follow Jesus himself.
Yesterday we walked the way of sorrow and death,
  As Jesus was laid in the tomb.
Now, we gather again to hear ancient stories that reconnect us to one another and to him.

We begin in the symbolic dark and usher the light of God into the midst of it.
We hear a hymn extolling the substance of our faith in the Resurrection.
We recite the remembrance of the salvation of our forebears at the Red Sea.
We baptize the newest members into the risen life of Christ our Savior,
  Even as we exult in his own risenness.
And again we partake in the Eucharist.

This is a night thick with the delicious promises of God never to abandon us,
  And a glimpse – a little glimpse – of a glory as yet unknown.

This night has its own gravity, its own meaning,
  Even though it is continuous with the others,
  And I don’t want to tempt us to reach too far beyond where we currently are,
  But I do want to say this as plainly as I can –
  About where we have been this week, and about where we are shortly to be tomorrow.

For me, it has become too much of an easy thing
  To get jaded about this whole process, in terms of who’s here and who isn’t.
In my darker moments, I get a little discouraged,
  Get to thinking that it seems unfair to get to show up on Sunday,
    Out of cultural or family obligation,
  Just for the Resurrection of Jesus,
    And not have to be exposed to what got him in such a state
    That he would have required resurrection in the first place.

I can get a little discouraged, and I know you can, too,
  In thinking that really no one would want to sensibly do this;
  That if you think about it, what’s the point?
Why claim belief in something that’s supposed to change your view about everything,
  But then just be here for the part of it you like that’s emotionally convenient?
To put it another way,
  I ask you: Would you pay eight dollars to see just the last five minutes of a movie?

As I look around me, survey the landscape of religious life in America,
  It seems that the vast majority of those who claim Jesus
    Are in actuality claiming the empty tomb, just the victorious part, the winning.
We read history backwards, of course, so it’s natural to see it that way.
But if we keep going backwards from the empty tomb,
  We find, and often to our astonishment, an occupied tomb.
We find real human flesh laid there that has been put to death
  By the agents of a government that occupies the land
  In collusion with a religious establishment;
    And nobody needs rabble-rousers and troublemakers
    Tramping around town on the high holy days
      Claiming that they’re bigger and better than the Temple.

We find, in that occupied tomb, someone killed for turning over tables in protest.
We find a man dead by the desires of the mob:
  A mob that chose the life of a violent man, Barrabas, over the life of a peaceful man.

And if we keep going backwards,
  We find a living man, Jesus, who taught that in God’s time and in God’s way,
    Just about everything would be turned upside-down
    So that the least would receive the greatest privilege.
And if we keep going backwards,
  A long way back,
  We find the story of a God relating to a people always as his own –
    Loving them because they were small, novel, and estranged from their homes,
    This God, referring to those same people as “my people,”
      And telling Moses to go on down to Egypt to set them free.

And if we keep going backwards,
  Almost until we run out of pages,
  We find the story of a God who forms his people from the dust of the earth,
    And from the rib of a man, and breathes life into them,
    And in great benevolence, sets them to work the earth and to be fruitful.

We find very little about winning; very little about victory.

Yet we do find, always to our great astonishment, a tremendous amount about losing:
  About how to lose your life so you can find it;
    About dealing with the loss of everything
    And only after losing it all, … realizing it wasn’t worth much in the first place.

We don’t find a lot about being winners, but rather we do find a lot about being losers.

And that should explain with some force and clarity
  Just why it is so few show up for the part that precedes the winning,
  Why Easter Sunday sure beats Good Friday.
Everybody loves a champion and an underdog – “Way to go, God!”
No one wants to be taught how to lose,
  But in the end, sisters and brothers, which of these realities looks more like our life?

It’s something of a trite expression, but it’s true:
  You never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul.
Life is just one divesting, one loss after another:
  Money, career, stuff, friends, family;
    And in the end we all walk the lonely road of death
      Without a single thing to help us,
      Without a name even.
Losing is the name of the game.

So I want to say tonight, to Earl and Jacob and Joe and Laura –
  And to all those who love and care for them,
    Hold promises for them until they are able to answer in faith for themselves:
  Those about to be baptized –
    I want to say, and mean it: Welcome to the Losers Club.

The church is not a collective for winners; it is specifically for losers.
It’s a hospital for broken souls, an island of misfit toys.
A God who has died – has known losing and brokenness and nakedness –
  A God who has died has no time for the lie of perfection.
Anyone who now or evermore
  Will not have a single flaw or problem in life may pass on by;
  All others are welcome here.
Need we add: “All” means “All” without a single equivocation.

I know it sounds odd,
  Since we’re sitting in this gorgeous building dressed in our good clothes,
  But the church is a home for the sick and suffering, the tired and oppressed.
It is a place of honesty where we are seen for what we really are before God,
  Where we bring everything we have, the good and the bad together,
  And just let it be, in the presence of Almighty Mercy.
Failures, ne’er-do-wells, underachievers, washouts, lemons, flops, and freaks
  Are all welcome and needed.

Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Collossus,”
  From the base of the Statue of Liberty, comes to mind:
    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

   “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I love that line, “Keep … your storied pomp!”
In other words, she says, life is too urgent a thing for us to traffic in lies.
We’re just dealing with the truth, and that’s enough for a lifetime’s work.

So welcome, again, my brothers and sisters, to the Losers Club.
You’re not better than anyone else, and you’re not worse.
You just need love, like me and everyone else, and so you have come.

Come for mercy, healing, restoration, and I’ll bet in a very real sense, resurrection.
So let it be.

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