December 1, 2013


IOWA SNAP Recipients as Percentage of County Population

Sermon for Year A, Advent 1
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
December 1, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

We have arrived, again, at the season of Advent.
We tend to think of it as the run-up to Christmas,
 But that’s giving it pretty short shrift.
Here’s another way to think about it:
 Instead of being the on-ramp to Christmas,
 Maybe Advent is a kind of speed-bump for your heart and your mind and your soul.

A speed-bump, of course, is something no motorist wants.
If you drive over one without seeing it,
 It’ll shake your suspension and send you to the chiropractor.
By the time you get home, there’ll be a weird noise coming from your front axle.
But speed-bumps don’t exist for convenience;
 They’re put in to create order and to slow you down and to open your eyes --
   To increase safety and awareness.

It’s not that Advent buffers or shields us from Christmas; quite the contrary;
 If anything, it makes us all the readier for it.
It opens our eyes; it slows us down; it wakes us up.
It asks us whether we’re too comfortable to open our eyes,
 The implication being: If our eyes are shut, then how will we ever see Jesus when he comes?
If we aren’t prepared to see Jesus when he comes, then how will we ever receive him?
And if we do not receive him and make a place for him, how does he dwell among us?

That’s the chief work of Advent: to make a space for God to come and dwell among us,
 Who, we must say, will come and dwell among us whether or not we’re ready.
It’s easy to think, though, that it is by our own prerogative and our own doing that this occurs.
Tell me, how do you think that we can do that?
What’s the magic formula to make God come and be closer? Wouldn’t we all do it if we knew?

In our reading this morning from Matthew, Jesus talks about just this.
He tells the folks around him,
 “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Well, or at least that’s the translation we’ve been given today.
It’s actually written in Greek in the passive voice: “You are becoming prepared.”
Literally translated like this:
 “On account of this, you are becoming prepared,
   Because by means of a ‘you do not know’ hour,
   The Son of Man is coming.”
It is not by our own doing that Jesus comes; it’s God’s doing.
Ah, but perhaps you heard the first part of that sentence as well:
 “On account of this, you are becoming prepared.”
What’s the “this”? Why is God preparing us for Jesus’ coming?

As my colleague John pointed out in this past week’s pastors’ Text Study,
 The issue of God’s preparing us appears many times throughout the Gospel of Matthew.
John showed us how Matthew uses language to get us to think
 About how God readies us to receive Jesus when he comes.
He said of this translation of the “you do not know hour,”
 That “[i]t is an act of God to which we can only respond.”
That God is the One Who Acts; we are the Ones Who Receive and Respond.
What John wrote about this was so fine that I couldn’t say it better.
He wrote that
 “Matthew’s Jesus prepares disciples for staying awake and being ‘at work when he arrives.’”
He said, “Food is an important part of the focus of this work.
   Food, daily bread, would be a relevant concern for the vast majority of people...
   Providing food would be one example of showing compassion and mercy,
     The example of the ‘greater righteousness’ to which Jesus calls his followers.
   Food is one of the ways we do it to the least and, therefore, to Christ in the [famous] parable....
   We are being prepared by the call to a greater righteousness
     And the work of taking care of each other, especially the least.
   This is our Advent work.”

Those words -- “This is our Advent work” -- getting ready for Jesus through food --
 Have really rung in my ears.
All day Tuesday, and throughout my family’s little Thanksgiving vacation the past few days.

Each year, in the thick of Advent, we at St. Thomas have an all-hands event
 That reaches out into the streets of our town and gathers in hundreds of individuals --
   Men, women, children who would probably meet Jesus description in Matthew 25
   Of being “the least of these.”
Most of us all know about this event, called the Agape Dinner --
 Agape being one of the biblical words for love,
 The one that describes how Christ particularly loved humanity,
   And the one that places special emphasis on how human beings love and treat one another
   As a reflection of that same love.
I hope you’ll have a chance to come and lend a hand again this year, too, and ...
 When you’re in the thick of the event, as it’s unfolding,
 If you stop for just a minute and look around and really take in what’s happening,
   You may find your heart going ka-thump over a massive speed-bump.
It leaves me with only one conclusion:
 That when we reach out in love and compassion and feed our neighbors,
 It’s preparing us to see and receive Jesus when he comes, and to make a space for him.

The St. Thomas Community Garden hauled in half a ton of produce this summer.
It is a good and joyful thing.
When that produce came up the hill to feed the hungry,
 It was not merely “to help” others.
Lilla Watson is credited with saying that
 “If you have to come help, you’re wasting your time.
   But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine,
     Then let us work together.”
That food being cultivated and watered and tended and coming up the hill --
 Those doing it weren’t just helping; they were being prepared for Jesus by feeding others.
It prepared them to greet Jesus with a loud and happy voice when he comes.

The St. Thomas Food Pantry has consistently resourced individuals with food
 For more than a decade now.
In that time it has become an indispensible part of the food economy of Siouxland.
Yet it is not merely “helping” others.
Rather, those who work in it --
 Stocking, shopping, shelving, slicing bread or meat, or working on Pantry distribution days --
 Those who work in it are being prepared to see and make a space for Jesus when he comes.
Even just seeing the line of people waiting on Mondays and Wednesdays
 Is a speed-bump for the heart of the first order.

We feed just about everyone, don’t we, in our way?
Even our big fundraiser is our coveted English toffee!
I told folks listening to KWIT on Friday that it was clear that our toffee is made with care and love.
And I have witnessed that care and love many times!
People stooped over hot pots reading thermometers and spreading chocolate
 Or breaking it all up into pieces to be placed in those delightful and now-iconic red boxes,
   Or shopping for the best deal on pecans,
     Or standing in line at the Post Office to ship the stuff all over the country,
       And why?
“To help out,” yes. Certainly. To aid the bottom line, sure.
But also, you must know -- it must be said -- feeding people with love and care
 Readies us to receive Jesus when he comes.

Last year I advanced an idea about a simple mission statement for St. Thomas --
 You know, just a quick statement about who we are at heart.
It didn’t really take off, and I didn’t push it very hard
 Because I wanted to avoid just imposing my personal vision on it.
But after I took down all those proposed statements, and as I looked around,
 I began to notice this pattern:
   “We feed hungry people.”
It’s sort of catchy in its own way, but more than that, it’s true. That “We feed hungry people.”
It may be something to think on,
 And to remember than when we do our mission, we’re being prepared for Jesus.

Two other quick examples, then: one about a potential success, and one about a big failure.
As a way of thinking, it opens us up to lots of other conversations as well.
This past week St. Thomas hosted two showings of the film A Place at the Table
 With the support of The Micah Project.
The film brings basic issues of hunger in America to the level of attention,
 And not just attention -- but righteous indignance at a system that’s way past broken.
Meanwhile, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, stands to be drastically cut.
SNAP is the biggest government program nationwide for managing domestic hunger,
 And it includes the food stamps initiative and WIC, the Women, Infants, and Children program,
 Which “provides Federal grants to States for supplemental foods, health care referrals,
   And nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding,
   And non-breastfeeding postpartum women,
     And to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.”
In other words, some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Congress is considering some $4-8 billion in SNAP cuts,
 Which would stress many families -- many families in Siouxland --
   Beyond the breaking point.
If we see things like this come to pass, it may mean that families’ food choices
 Will become even more limited, certain options cut off altogether.
So rather than wait to deal with this as the congregation of St. Thomas once it hits the streets,
 We need to act now.
I urge you, whatever your political affiliation, to contact your members of Congress
 And tell them to stop and really consider the cost of their actions in this regard.
Ask them which of the constituents in their districts should go hungry this holiday season.
It may not be literally handing a can of food to an individual now,
 But it may make the difference in our ability to do so later.
As people of faith, we need to ask our elected leaders to consider why it would ever be okay
 That one of the most resourceful nations in the world could also be one of the hungriest.
We need to help not just ourselves, but the world around us prepare for Jesus.
Because sometimes on the road of government,
 People of faith need to go out and build a speed-bump.

Finally, this vignette. A story of personal failure.
A few weeks ago a woman came to see me.
She mentioned right up front that “I read postscripts,”
 Which for people who read the church web site, is a cute way of saying,
 “Hey, you owe me a cup of coffee.”
I found it startingly easy to forget that she said that, however, as our conversation went on.
Usually people come in to me, tell me a story that takes about two or three minutes,
 And then come around to asking for assistance for this or that.
She was at pains to describe her situation and her need.
I couldn’t tell if she wanted financial assistance or just to talk about spiritual matters.
We spoke for maybe twenty minutes.
Finally she asked for enough money to eat on for a few days.
I had nothing, or so I thought, and I gently told her so.
I couldn’t break the rules about the hours of operation at the Food Pantry.
She was too nice to remind me that even before we sat down,
 I already owed her a cup of coffee!
In my very selfish and guarded imagination, I pictured her in some restaurant
 With plates of eggs and bacon, burgers and fries around her.
In truth, I really could have made it happen; but I chose not to.
We parted company in peace, but she seemed to be reminding me of my obligations as she went.
And that has been gnawing at me ever since.

I did nothing that afternoon when I could have done something.
An opportunity arose and I failed to rise and meet it.
Jesus came in the form of one of “the least of these” and a bureaucrat churchman turned him away.
The act of reflecting on this has been a major speed-bump for me the past few weeks.

We all need this time of Advent.
We all need a chance to start all over again, in sackcloth and ashes,
 And then to move with joyous and patient expectation to the birth of the Christ-child.
We all need to find a way, together and individually, to make a space for Jesus --
 To be prepared for him when he comes.
Much as we want to, we can’t just rush on to Bethlehem.
We are bound by our calendar to pause in prayer at the threshold,
 And to ask ourselves what about our lives is or isn’t working.

Then may we greet him when he comes.

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