Sermon for Year C, Fifth Sunday of Easter
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 28, 2013 // April 26, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church // Diocese of Iowa Clergy Retreat
It’s human nature to overthink things,
But this is simple; I really don’t want to complicate it.
In our first lesson of the day, Peter is led to understand
That he is “not to make a distinction between them and us” –
“Them” being Gentiles, and “Us” meaning Jews.
The way this is depicted visually for Peter
Is by a feast of animals he’d have normally thought of as off-limits
Being prepared and let down for him to eat.
(If you want to make a point, you can usually get people’s attention using food.)
But however it’s done, the meaning holds:
“Make no distinction between them and us.”
This Gospel of Jesus is for everyone.
In the Psalm for today, the heavy repetition of the word “all”
Answers the question of just who and what it is that gets to offer praise to God:
“All” angels, all hosts, all shining stars and all deep places;
All hills and all cattle, all peoples and all rulers of the world.
Not wanting to put too fine a point on it, the psalmist says,
Hey, everyone … hey, everything: give praise to your Creator!
In the reading from Revelation,
God comes down to earth in a heavenly vision,
And the home of mortals becomes the dwelling-place of God.
Using the language of Peter’s experience, there’s no distinction anymore.
The promise is given of God’s eternal, loving presence.
God comes to us; we don’t go to God.
And the voice of God announces a mind-bending new deal
With the whole of the creation:
“See, I am making all things new;
… I am the Alpha and the Omega [meaning A through Z],
The beginning and the end.”
Or in other words, if I may be so bold, to borrow from 1 Corinthians,
God is “the all-in-all.”
Everything that is or will ever be will find its origins and meanings in the Holy One.
Finally, the giving of a new commandment in the Gospel of John by Jesus,
That we, his followers, should love one another,
Just as he has loved us.
Love one another.
Make no distinction.
All the earth, give praise.
And know that all that is, is God’s.
These four lessons should give us pause …
Who, or what, makes you want to make a distinction or to draw a line?
Who, or what, makes you so uncomfortable that you just have to say:
I’m not 100% sure who or what that is, but I know it’s not me?
We all have a list like that, shameful as it may cause us to feel if we admit it.
The real sin, though, is in not writing it down,
In order that we can keep refining it, honing it, lengthening it, sharpening it.
Keep holding our grudges and adding to accounts.
Richard Nixon, they say, kept an enemies list.
Mostly people no one remembers,
Except the actor Paul Newman and the journalist Daniel Schorr.
Schorr read the list live on-air
And he was genuinely surprised when he came to his own name.
Newman always said being on Nixon’s list was his greatest accomplishment!
To be perfectly honest I have a list just like you (it’s vague, unwritten)
Although I fear that if I told you who and what might be on it,
It would become a chance for me to preach against those things and people,
And that would be profoundly opposed
To the points God would have us hear today.
Rather, I should have written down the list only to burn it.
To watch, helpless, the vanities of my ego consumed by holy purging fire.
Last Sunday, in the sermon, reflecting on events in Boston,
I mentioned how hard it is to pray for people who want to do you harm.
It reminded me of a couple that frequented a church I served.
It was on the west slope of Colorado, where trout-fishing is revered and taught.
This couple lived in an RV:
Pulled in to Colorado, summer 2007,
In order to teach young people the art of trout-fishing.
You may know: it’s a beautiful thing to behold, requiring much patience.
You can learn a lot about yourself standing in the river.
These folks were friendly and fine, regular old Episcopalians.
At the Prayers of the People, at the appropriate moment in the Prayers,
She would always say,
“I pray for all terrorists worldwide: that all may come to know the love of God.”
And at the time I thought, I’m glad she can say that because honestly I cannot.
I was honestly glad she said it, and I was honestly troubled
That I could not bring myself to say it along with her.
And I wondered for how many of us she spoke when she spoke those words.
And I wondered how many were agitated beyond words by her words,
And I wondered how many were unsettled but in a hazy and undefined sort of way.
And I wondered how much of one mind we all were.
I was reminded of Arthur Paul Boers’ book on church conflict,
The beautifully titled Never Call Them Jerks,
In which he says that trouble,
Or at the very least being troubled,
Is the church’s basic business model.
We had, after all, law enforcement in that congregation,
And a strong lineage of firefighters, and a retired Navy doctor,
And a retired Captain, and a retired Major General.
And was it a finger in their eyes, or was I being too sensitive?
No one ever said; Western Colorado is taciturn cowboy country.
This Small Thing was, and it remains, the most quintessential example I can think of
Of what you might the revolutionary nature of intercessory prayer.
I think if I’d thought about it, I, too, might have come to the conclusion
That I’d rather pray for people bent on my destruction –
And ask, again and again, as this woman did with such conviction, on bended knee –
That their hearts be turned to good because they could know the love of God – …
I think, if I’d thought about it, I might have found myself in agreement
That all always means all.
I guess, if I’d thought about it, and not regarded her prayer as just being silly or naïve,
That I might have found myself
Not drawing a line between myself and a terrorist
But rather drawing an ever widening circle of inclusion.
I will tell you that several years on, this is still very, very hard work for me.
Suzanne Guthrie tells us one of those gut-punch stories of a similar nature. She says,
“A friend of mine who served in the military during World War II
(And is now a nun)
Was once at a conference with two men, a German and an American.
As they wiped dishes one evening after dinner they exchanged stories about the war.
The American told of the horror he felt as a young pilot
During a particularly savage bombing of a city in Germany.
He had orders to bomb the hospital,
Which he would know by the huge red cross painted on the roof.
The second man – after regaining his compusure – revealed
That his wife had been giving birth to their baby in that very hospital
When it was being bombed.
My friend tiptoed out of the room
As the two men fell into each other’s arms weeping.”
How hard must it have been for these two men
To forgive one another after all those years?
According to the story, they had been more than ready for a long time.
Indeed, it was precisely because of the passage of time
That they no longer perceived each other as enemies.
“All” could really mean “all” in that space and time.
And now it’s 2013. Our technology is amazing.
A simple DNA test can show you that you’re related to the person
You’d always thought was your enemy.
In our holy quest to eradicate diseases by discovering who we are,
Some of our most bedrock presuppositions might have to be dismissed as childish.
Those who have always thought of themselves as, say, Portuguese
Are discovering themselves to be Russian and Polish and Italian and Celtic.
Folks from Tibet are turning out to have roots in China, yes,
But also in Japan and North and South India and Australia.
A lot of Christian folks from the Horn of Africa have Muslim Arabian blood.
My own people fished Nova Scotia and farmed The Netherlands
And settled themselves, willy-nilly, over what is today Philadelphia and Kansas.
You never know. Trace yourself upline.
Your family and mine might not be so very different:
In point of fact, they may be precisely the one and the same family.
“Love one another” might just be the only advice that’s going to save us,
Unless we’re willing to destroy ourselves by destroying each other,
In effect spilling our own blood. And how silly is that.
Unless “all” doesn’t mean “all.” But it does.
From my youth, I have a distinct memory of a sticky-note applied to a bathroom mirror.
Whatever it was that had actually been written on the note itself,
I can’t recall in the least.
Around the outer edges, though, was something that has seared itself onto my heart.
It was very simple.
It said, “GOD IS LOVE … LOVE ONE ANOTHER”
“GOD IS LOVE … LOVE ONE ANOTHER”
Going all the way around the border.
I had a vague notion, as I looked at it,
That these two verses came from two different parts of the Bible,
As indeed they do: The First Letter of John and the Gospel of John.
But I also put together that although they came from two roughly different sources,
They seemed to be constructing a very important and simple concept.
When we love one another, then we present God to one another.
When we love one another in the name of Christ, we bring Christ to each other,
And there, sometimes in the breaking of bread, Christ is realized in our midst.
When we fulfill Jesus’ commandment, we turn the world upside-down
And we subvert every expectation about how we think the world is supposed to work.
This is a hard teaching, but it’s very good news.
It’s good news because if we can live it, even just a little more,
We can make the world a little bit safer and saner.
And if we can’t love all – and when can we? – thank God we can confess it.
I suspect for most of us, myself included, we need both
The glory of God and the confession of our shortcomings –
Even these being two sides of the same coin.
So we can say, in all our blunt limited naked honesty before our Creator,
I want to do better loving all from now going forward,
And thanks for everything so far, and all that’s to come.