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August 26, 2012

'Italian'


Sermon for Year A, Proper 16
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
August 26, 2012
“Italian”

Until fairly recently, I thought I was Italian.
I guess I had bad information.

My father was born in January 1946 –
  Was adopted into the home of a Dodge City couple with the last name of Lightcap.
Lightcap, I was told, was a Dutch name, from “Liebkap,” 17th-Century immigrants;
  But, it was inferred, I was not to think of myself as being Dutch.
(Though in retrospect, perhaps knowing that I was to end up in northwest Iowa,
  I should have tried a little harder.)
No, I was to think of myself as Italian.

Why? I asked.
The following answer was supplied.
In mid 1945, a very kind but quiet young woman from the Deep South, possibly Georgia,
  Had learned that she was pregnant,
  Apparently having been charmed by an Italian soldier stationed at a base near her home.
Her family’s pastor got to calling around,
  And through the grapevine he learned that Mr. and Mrs. Lightcap, in Kansas,
    Were desperate to adopt a child,
    And thus the young woman had been whisked away to “visit her aunt,”
      As was the common excuse given at the time.
She went and lived for a little while in their home, gave birth to the child,
  And returned to her family, never to be seen or heard from again.
Her name was only a fuzzy memory, and the birth certificate had offered no further clues.

By the time I was old enough to have gotten my bearings
  And ask questions such as what an Italian solider was doing in this country in 1945
  Apart from not being welcome to even come in to this country,
  Or why no one involved could remember the name of the young girl
    From the exotic Deep South
    Who was in fact my grandmother (and shouldn’t they have written that down?)
  … I began to realize it was simply considered impolite to push any question too far.
(I really think this is probably why I took up journalism later.)

Many years later, my father gave this young girl’s name to me in a conversation,
  And I was also given a photograph of her, and some various pieces of foreign currency
  That she had left behind – the currency having been signed on the back
   By the name of a corporal in the US Army –
    A man with a pretty English sounding name, though common enough in this country.

The difference between my childhood and my adulthood
  Was that there was now this thing called the Internet,
  And using various web sites,
    Sitting in the kitchen of our new home in Conroe, Texas,
  I pieced a lot of the story together pretty fast.
A few months ago I returned to that story and added in some more details.

She’d been a Kansas farm girl the whole time,
  Not from Georgia or wherever,
  And she had gone on to have other children and, I guess, a good life.
She had in fact been very young when it had all happened,
  And the cost of dealing with it would have been tragic to her family
  If not for the common practice at that time and place
  Of strangers letting pregnant young women stay with them
    Before paying for the hospital costs of childbirth
    And a ticket home for the mother. And that was an adoption back then.
I have no way of knowing whether these persons who are aunts and uncles to me
  Themselves have any way of knowing about my father, or about his boys,
  Or if their mother simply viewed it as an embarassing story not worth relating.
In the end, she’d lived as she’d grown up – a farm girl,
  And died as the wife of a farmer out in Colorado,
  Where she lived thirty or more years,
    Including the years Jacquie and I lived in Colorado,
    Actually not far at all from where we lived.
She had died about six weeks prior to the time I learned this.

And I know, it’s weird and sad and not a little tragic;
  It unsettles more questions than it’s prepared to answer;
  But it’s also a story of grace about people who help each other out.
It’s a quintessentially American story about mixed ethnicities stirred by God’s finger,
  And about not really knowing who you are despite thinking you do.

But it is also very deeply funny to me.
Funny because if you think you’re Italian, even if you’re not,
  You’ll act like it!
Even if you’re in Oklahoma and all you have to go on is television commercials.
My brother and I used to puff ourselves up
  When my mom made us spaghetti and meatballs.
We’d prance around in our socks
  And say, Hey, whattsamattayou; That’saspicymeataball!
I distinctly recall getting into an argument in the dorm my first week of college,
  Getting pretty hot under the collar,
  Getting up and storming out of the room,
    Saying to people, I can’t help it – it’s my Italian temper – I’m supposed to be feisty.

Everyone is something, but for some of us, whatever that is, is less clear.
Everyone wants to be able to point to something and say, That’s me, that explains me:
  A piece of land or a photo or an old Ford tractor in a barn,
  Or better yet a headstone with the cold facts cut into it – dates, names. “Loving Father.”

In all likelihood, I’m not Italian any more than the moon is made of green cheese.
But I needed a narrative growing up.
There’s no shame in that.
I needed something to supply some kind of an answer to that question we all ask:
  “Who am I?”
We all look up at the stars and we say, Who am I?
  And we don’t mean it in a very philosophical way.
We mean we want answers. Real ones, about the real people we descend from.
We want to know whose blood and DNA we carry –
  Who dug the soil and built the sod homes
  And sharecropped and went to war and handled the family’s one camera.
We want a precise photo in our minds of who it was that birthed us –
  Real mothers and real fathers,
  Real grandmothers and real grandfathers,
    Not the fictional background supplied by TV commercials,
    But the real deal.
Who took the hogs to market and who dressed the kids for school.
Who trapped the fur and worked the river.
Who worked too hard or got sick and died young, leaving a big family.
We want to know what the faces of the people looked like, whether there was any fear,
  When they stepped onto boats that took them to this continent
      Hundreds of years ago,
    Or what was on the mind of the person who crossed the Bering Strait
    Into what we now call North America thousands of years ago.

And in this country – well, we do the best we can.
“Who am I?” For some, it’s a straight shot:
  Turn around, aim all the way back to the Old Country,
  Slingshotting past carefully tracked information, datesandnames, namesanddates.
For others of us, it just has to be enough
  To say, “Who am I? I guess I’m Heinz 57 and God don’t make no junk.”

In 1996, Jacquie and I moved to Castle Rock, Colorado –
  The first real, major decision we would make together as a couple –
We worked and shopped and slept and bought a house and had friends
  And we went to this goofy but amazing little Episcopal church
  At which we were encouraged to navel-gaze and “find ourselves.”
We didn’t have kids; our time was pretty much our own;
  I’d go in on Wednesday nights and listen
    To this enigmatic, hippie, super-tall, wonderful priest named Rick say the mass.

He’d do it like this:
  He’d pick out a simple little tune on the guitar and play it over and over,
    And he’d say an abstracted version of the Eucharist,
      Stripping it down to its verbal bare bones, rubrics be damned.
You could feel the energy of God, rooting you into the earth
  And pushing you upwards at the same time,
  But also pushing you out of yourself a little bit,
    To form up a real community with these other people around you.

We’d all cut the lights and light up two candles on a cheap round table
  And sit and have quite a lot of silence together,
  A little bread loaf, baked brown, on a paten
    And a little wine in a cup – you know, that sticky-sweet tawny port;
  And all the pieces of the mass were there, in a row, if you knew the order,
    But kind of jumbled up, too, forming the most beautiful mess you ever saw.
Rick could, and does, sing – like a sparrow, this guy.

Sometimes for a sermon we’d all just sit there. It was nice to have so much quiet.
You’d leave feeling wiser for having been silent.
Sometimes he’d pull out a poem.

One evening, sitting there in the fine blue light of the approaching night,
  He read this poem by Alla Renée Bozarth.

Bakerwoman God, 

I am your living bread.

Strong, brown Bakerwoman God, 

I am your low, soft, and being-shaped loaf.



I am your rising bread, 

well-kneaded by some divine 

and knotty pair of knuckles, 

by your warm earth hands. 

I am bread well-kneaded.



Put me in fire, Bakerwoman God, 

put me in your own bright fire.

I am warm, warm as you from fire.

I am white and gold, soft and hard, 

brown and round.

I am so warm from fire.



Break me, Bakerwoman God.

I am broken under your caring Word.

Drop me in your special juice in pieces.

Drop me in your blood.

Drunken me in the great red flood.

Self-giving chalice swallow me.

My skin shines in the divine wine.

My face is cup-covered and I drown.



I fall up

in a red pool

in a gold world

where your warm

sunskin hand

is there to catch

and hold me.

Bakerwoman God,

remake me.


And it would occur to me, every time, as if hearing it for the first time
  (Even now),
  That the answer to the question “Who Am I?” was right there in that poem.

I didn’t need the false security-blanket of the made-up stories of childhood.
I didn’t need photos or charts or headstones or genealogy web sites –
  All those things are nice, and they help –
  But really, what am I, at the very bottom of it all,
    But whatever it is that God has made me,
    Whatever I have done with the choices I have made after God has chosen me.

It’s like a bell that sounds, strong and plain, in an otherwise quiet room,
  And clears out the clutter.

You don’t have to be what you’re not, and you can’t anyway, not really.
You can only be what you are.
You’ve put on your garment and been washed clean in it,
  Made whole community.
You’ve said you are Jesus’ follower now –
  Jesus, who is Mary’s child and child of God.
You’ve eaten the bread and tasted the wine,
  Chewed the body and quaffed the blood,
    Done it over and over and over and over …
  And as you consume, so shall you be.

Some of us will spend our lives searching and searching to know who we are.
And some of us will finally be dissatisfied with every answer.
Meanwhile, at the table, waiting, there is always an answer. At the table.

August 12, 2012

Consumed


Sermon for Year A, Proper 14
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
August 12, 2012
“Consumed”

Father Eamon Kelly is the vice chargé
  Of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center (isn’t that a mouthful).
He is therefore also a regular fixture at the Hotel Notre Dame
  Which is attached to the Pontifical Institute,
  This whole thing being a stone’s throw from one of the gates of the wall of Jerusalem,
  And the hotel where my group of pastors stayed when we visited Israel back in 2009.

Father Kelly walks into your consciousness as if straight out of some 1950s movie,
  Where he has just rescued an entire orphanage of boys and girls from the streets
    And is now preparing them all for a life of virtue.
He’s tall and handsome, quick on his feet.
A shock of unkempt black hair, a sharp nose, bright eyes.
Always covered neck to ankle in a long black cassock, hands in his cassock pockets.
Shoes shined like mirrors.
Terribly knowledgeable. Highly verbal. Capable of being pretty influential.
Very Roman Catholic, too, and Why not?, he might say.
Speaks with a hard accent of some kind – Welsh maybe? I didn’t think to ask.
Imagine The Thornbirds without Rachel Ward, you’re halfway there.
Father Kelly loves his job.

He thought our group might enjoy a tour of the Jerusalem skyline at night
  From the top of the hotel.
We did.
It’s a place and a view that feels electric –
  That makes you wonder how so many religions can coexist at all in one place
    And the whole thing not go up like a powder-keg in an instant –
  And he’s there, up on the roof, able to answer any questions you may have,
    But also ready to cover the several points he has prepared.

Father Kelly’s timeline of human history seems to be at variance
  With some of how I’d come to think I knew it,
  But he’s interesting to listen to.
One thing Father Kelly does say, though, up on that roof on that night,
  Is memorable whether or not it’s true, and mostly because it isn’t.

He says historically speaking, the beginning of monotheism is the end of cannibalism.
That is, the advent of religions that purport that there is one god rather than many
  Is the end of the practice of people eating each other.

I want to raise my hand and note for Father Kelly
  That incidents of cannibalism have persisted
    From before and throughout recorded history right down to today.
That while these things are perhaps rarer, they aren’t over with.
So no, monotheism didn’t put an end to cannibalism.
That in some cultures, at least I think, they exist still side by side –
  Sometimes the one a mandate of the other –
    Without anyone giving much thought to it.
That perhaps what it’s really time do do away with
  Is this thought of “taming the noble savage”
    That gave the Christian European princes of the Crusades and Enlightenment
      A cadre of cheap excuses
      To burn, plunder, and murder their way through half the planet.

… But by the time I formulate these words sufficiently –
  Because I’m a guest here and I don’t want it to sound like I’m picking a fight –
    The point is lost and we are busily looking at something else.
Oh well; move on. See the next sight. Israel is like that.

And yet.
Ever since I made that trip and heard those words,
  I can’t seem to hear this section of John without thinking of Father Kelly.

Here’s the substance of the issue.
Thousands of people come to Jesus to be healed,
  And while they’re all together, they get hungry.
He feeds them – first with metaphorical soul food, and then with actual bread and fish.
They eat until they’re satisfied in their bellies.
Then they get hungry and come back.
This time he tells them he isn’t some vending machine –
  That if they ate him – if they treated him as food,
  Meditated on his words, took on his teaching …
    In short, if they consumed him and lived like it –
      Because it’s still true what your mother said: that You Are What You Eat –
    Then they’d never go hungry in their spirits. God would be known and loved.
Because, he tells them, he is the Bread of Life.
I’m the bread, he says. Eat me.
Well, what would Father Kelly say?

This is deeply shocking to the crowd around Jesus – an insult, even.
First Jesus claims he has been sent by God, that he’s in close kinship with the Father,
  That he doesn’t do anything without first checking in with the Father.
And that’s blasphemous enough:
  A Jew turning himself into a graven image of Yahweh?
(And that’s just the first commandment; what’ll he do with the other nine?)

THEN he has the audacity to build further on this image, to tie this image in together
  With the image of the bread, saying,
    Eat my flesh and you will know what it is
    To serve the Father and be one with the Father in spirit and in truth.

“Eat my flesh”?!
They’re scandalized!
A first-century Palestianian Jew talking this way! Unheard of!
Strict rules about what you could eat or not eat if you were a Jew
  Were a massive part of the cultural identity.
Eating something you weren’t allowed to eat,
  When you weren’t allowed to eat it,
  Was a great way to become ritually impure for long enough
    That it would seriously impact your life for the worse.
Eventually, there’d be a good chance of your being banished from society altogether.

Eat flesh? And what is more, eat the flesh of God? The one true God?
Even the Romans listening in would have been a little gobsmacked.
They worshiped a pantheon of gods they’d appropriated from the Greeks before them,
  And often sacrified offerings of food to those gods,
  But had not been asked to partake in the consumption of the flesh of those gods,
    At least so far as I know.

This is a metaphor practically begging for misinterpretation
  So as to separate the casual seeker from those who would be undaunted to find its end.
A hundred years after Jesus had come and gone,
  After the first few generations of Jesus-believers had come and gone
  And Christ had still not returned and things were at their highest pitch of desperation,
  Persecutions arose and Christians, as they were called, began to suffer hard.
Their faith was maligned and misunderstood, and the words of Jesus were twisted.
All his talk of eating himself became fodder for those who kept their distance,
  And households of churches stood accused of engaging in human sacrifice.

Here’s the thing, though.
People aren’t stupid. A lot of people are perfectly capable of understanding a metaphor.
After the initial shock wore off, as soon as he’d said these things to the crowd,
  I’ll bet a number of them grasped perfectly well
  Just what it is that Jesus had meant.
Only it must have sounded terribly inconvenient:
  If he gives himself for the life of the world and I end up following him,
  Then what am I going to be asked to do?
  Give myself up, too?
  Sure, he has a neat philosophy and is doing good work,
    But I have all these real-world obligations, and now there’s no food coming.
  Hard to believe we wanted him as our king just last week.

  Not only that: is Jesus going to be this scandalous and insulting everywhere he goes?
  A guy could get into a lot of trouble for hanging out with him.

Brothers and sisters, when religion plays it safe –
  When religion refuses to tweak the conventions of the day
  Or to muck about with whatever we think is most sacred –
    Then oddly enough, that is no true religion, and God is mocked.
To encounter the expelled and crucified and risen Christ in this place
  Means to put him inside our bodies,
  Where we must digest him so that we may become him. A wonderful mystery.

Is that a little scandalous? Absolutely!
But it’s how God calls to us – it’s how God beckons us to come.
It may not be what we would want; it’s just the way it is.

The failing of so much of our contemporary theology
  Is in believing that if we do this one time, at the level of thought, it’s all taken care of.
That comes from a Enlightenment mindset
  Which suggests that you have a problem and then you solve it.

The gift of the sacrament of the Eucharist, however,
  Is that we are reminded each and every time we come to the table
  That this is a journey we’re on, a daily and lifetime journey, not a once-for-all moment;
    A grace-filled, daily journey;
  That somehow completing that journey, in this life, is an illusion until this life be done.

Compared to the needs of our society to have everything solved and put away
  As soon as we discern that anything is the matter,
  This is a revelation.
But it’s also the sort of thing that brings comfort
  To all who place themselves under Christ’s banner – you, me, Father Kelly.

So we must come back, and we must come back, and we must come back.
We must consume Christ that we become him,
  And so increase in him, and as John the Baptist said, decrease in ourselves.
God is never through with us; there is always much more to be done.

Finally, this image.
In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes the following:
  “A contemplative priest will have a deep and absorbing sense of union with Christ
    As priest and as offering in the Eucharistic sacrifice –
    So much so that his Mass will be going on within him not only when he is at the altar
    But when he is away from it, and at many different moments during the day.”
He says, “I write this without being a priest, because I have known it to some degree
    Merely by kneeling by the altar as server.
    The broken Host lies on the paten.
  But the fact that you are in possession of the secret,
    Identifies you with the Savior and with what is going on.
  And without words or explicit acts of thought,
    You make assent to this within yourself
    Simply by staying where you are and looking on.”
He says that at that moment,
  “Christ develops your life into Himself like a photograph.
    Then a continual Mass, a deep and urgent sense of identification
    With an act of incomprehensible scope and magnitude
    That somehow has its focus in the center of your own soul,
      Pursues you wherever you go;
    And in all situations of your daily life it makes upon you
      Secret and insistent demands for agreement and consent.”

Brothers and sisters, from the taking of the bread to its blessing,
  From the breaking of the bread to its giving,
  This secret is for all of us, not just for the priest:
    That when we consume Christ, he develops our life into himself like a photograph.

…That’s why it matters that we be so scandalous as to eat his flesh and drink his blood,
  Be willing to be misunderstood, bearing the cross with him,
  Walking in the mysteries he teaches us,
  And then walking away from this place sufficiently transformed
    That we must go forth and serve him a little more
    Until we can come back together and receive him again.

… And again, and again, like breathing, this rhythmic, pulsating cycle of life.