Sermon for Year A, Proper 16
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
August 26, 2012
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,
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.
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
is there to catch
and hold me.
And it would occur to me, every time, as if hearing it for the first time
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.