September 1, 2013



Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 17
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 1, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

That’s the shape of the world once Jesus gets through with it.
It’s in just about every word of Luke.
And not just from the perspective of pie in the sky, either,
 But real-live, on-the-ground, honest-to-goodness, tangible, measurable --
   Who’da thunk it / Didn’t see that comin’ / Wholesale / Large-scale Change --
   Everything is tipped hard and flipped over
   And everyone’s jaw is hanging open
   And all of God’s creation is left to sort it out.
In Christ, and under Christly reign, all the tables are completely reversed.
The shock of such turning is palpable:
 The humble are lifted up, the poor are made rich, the sick made well, the blind to see;
 The prisoners’ chains are loosed; debts are released;
 The outcasts not just restored to society,
   But finding themselves in a better place than they’ve ever known.

You can never really tell where you’ll wind up when the world turns like that.
It’s a tectonic shifting, a seismic change,
 When Jesus gets to working through his Church
 And society does this massive, awkward half-somersault, lands on its face.
It calls for the deepest humility from among all people,
 But especially the proudest, the most selfish,
   Those who stand on the backs of others to get what they want,
   Those at the top who may shortly find themselves on bottom.

A young girl named Mary from a slum of a town is visited by an angel of the Lord.
The angel declares a Son will be born to her -- a child, Immanuel, offspring of the Most High.
The angel departs.
Mary makes up a song about it on the spot:
 The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
 He knows how low I am, and he voted for me anyway.
 He has flexed in his power, but it was only to be merciful.
 The mighty have been torn out of their seats,
   But meanwhile, the small ones, the forgotten ones, have been put in their places instead,
   And it turns out those chairs are pretty comfortable,
   And -- hoo boy -- now here comes the feast!
 Oh, the hungry are eating well tonight, but the rich are wondering the streets, starving.
That’s Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

This massive flipping-over of society --
 Where everything gets tossed and everything goes crazy --
 It’s an idea meant to unsettle those of us who live comfortably
   (And I know I qualify to fall into that category!).
The losers will rule the day. The winners will sit and sulk.
It’s almost too much to stand.

And then -- as if to multiply the Magnificat a thousandfold: Can you imagine it?
God becomes a man, Immanuel, per the promise -- Jesus -- the lowest servant of all:
 He humbles himself over and over, until finally he becomes the executed and expelled one --
   Strung up on a hard, wooden instrument of torture that is also, indisputably, a throne.
For a moment, death enshrouds him.
Then he walks out of a tomb and shows his friends his scars,
 And in showing them his scars, he seems to be saying to them
   That they should expect the same sort of treatment from the authorities as he’s gotten
   If they are truly to be his followers.

... Upside-down:
God’s world is a world of consistently subverted expectations, tables turned.
God’s mission for us is to live this bizarre paradox in the world, give it voice and presence.

In God’s eyes, we are all equal. We are all loved. God made us, each and all.
Made us to love each other, and to love God back, and to take care of what we have.
That’s the plan.
Now, if we choose to superimpose a different point of view over that, we are free to do so,
 But that doesn’t make God’s reality any less true.
And from time to time we will hear the voices of those who willingly step up
 And explain what it’s like to spend so much energy coping with the false reality
   When the real one is always right there.

Ever seen the film The Breakfast Club?
I was a child of the 1970s and 80s, so of course I have seen it many times.
It was written and directed by John Hughes,
 Who many said had a very deep understanding
   Of what kids of my generation were going through
 As we were going through it.
They said he spoke for us; and in that, I do not disagree.

In The Breakfast Club, Mr. Hughes imagines what it would be like
 If a nerd, a jock, a beauty queen, a weirdo, and a tough guy
 All had to spend the same Saturday together in detention.
Let’s be aware that these titles have changed over the years,
 But that what they imply basically has not changed:
 Greasers, hoods, socs, sports, cheerleaders, goths, AV guys, FFA people, science types,
   Band people, skaters, tomboys, dudes who work on cars, preps, smokers, whatever.
Each of these words has a power --
 Has the power to offend us or make us defensive,
   Even after many so many years away from school.
And all of these words really mean the same thing --
 That it’s easier to put people into categories than it is to get to know them separately,
 And that high school is an unfortunate time of learning to sell people short by stereotyping them.
So this film may have been set in the 1980s, but anyone can relate:
 School is a caste system, a stratified system where people are assigned, like it or not,
   To live inside the reality of these various definitions and stereotypes,
   With cool people on top and uncool people on bottom;
     And that when you’re done with school,
     You can still pretty much count on the rest of your life to be the same way.
But what Mr. Hughes does, brilliantly, through the course of the film,
 Is to say that all of this is just baloney, and so he flips it, turns it upside-down, Jesus-like:
 He insists that if you just bother to look, you’ll realize that these are only labels --
   Beauty queen or tough guy or nerd --
   Just lazily applied labels --
     And that labeling is a poor substitute for reality.

If this isn’t connecting yet, I invite you to imagine the following:
 You’re back in school, and you just got your lunch tray from the cafeteria,
   Or you’re climbing on the bus,
   And you’re trying to figure out where to sit.
Do you remember that feeling of panic?
The dread of being trapped in a crazy system you couldn’t do anything about?
The hope of knowing that your closest friends were close by and saving you a seat;
 The hope that no one would know how much torture it was to make that walk;
 To hope you were still accepted;
 And that even if this system was crazy,
   Even if it was just a gross lie, at least you knew your place in it?
Do you remember that feeling of being in or out, cool or uncool?

In The Breakfast Club, these five strangers --
 These five individuals, all seemingly very different from one another --
 Are forced to get to know each other because of a system that put them together,
   But then they realize through the course of their conversations
   That each person, in his or her own way,
   Is tough, and beautiful, and protective, and creative, and smart.
That no one person or group gets to wear that label, but that everyone should.
For a brief moment they transcend the system that turned them into what they are.
You might say it feels like the Kingdom of God.

Then one of the five asks the question of how they will relate to each other on Monday.
In school. Two days after today -- Saturday -- when no one was around to see them interact.
How their friends might react when they see each other talking, groups mixing.
The moment in the film is quite real.
They have to admit -- it wouldn’t be good to be seen mixing.
The system would naturally realign them back into their proper places, top to bottom,
 The deck painfully reshuffled back into the natural order.
Their friends would pressure them back into the spaces that had already been fitted for them.
So they do what they can to make the moment last.

I was 13 when The Breakfast Club came out, and when I saw it, it scared me to death.
Because even then I knew that I was going to get pigeon-holed -- in school and in life.
And I wanted to resist it; I looked for a way out of it --
 A way to get out of the inevitable stereotyping and people whispering behind my back,
 No matter where I fit in or didn’t --
   All the energy we would expend justifying ourselves,
   And sometimes transcending it, but only to be put back in our boxes.

For me, there is only one hope.
In the end, all I had, and have still, is Jesus Christ.
He was, and is, one of the few truly sane voices in my life.
He sees how we have arrayed ourselves and divided ourselves,
 And made attempt after attempt to just Fit In to that system.
He accurately reads the situation for what it is,
 And he deconstructs it for us so that we can understand it ourselves;
   He takes it apart and names it so can see how untrue and unjust it is.
He describes the better alternative he has in mind.
And then in his own way and time, he graciously flips everything over,
 So we can start again.

Even if we had nothing else to go on, we should follow this man to the end of the world.

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