Sermon for Year A, The Feast of the Presentation
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
February 2, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
All goes well for Jesus and his family today.
How many times can we say that that’s the case?
Usually there’s some intrigue, some larger problem, some major source of conflict,
Some big agenda on Jesus’ mind,
And an awful lot riding on the outcome.
Today, on the Feast of the Presentation, we have this simple thing:
The family goes up to the Temple in Jerusalem and performs the necessary sacrifices.
They ascend to the place of power, remain there for a bit, and then descend.
Before they go home, Jesus is recognized as being special in God’s eyes --
As being the one who might somehow ease the pain of his people.
Then they go back home to Nazareth, the little town out on the edge of the world.
This week I had a chance to walk in the hallways of the powerful,
And to go up to the closest thing we have to a Temple in this country --
I was given a tour of Washington, D.C.
I had some informal meetings with folks from the White House and Congress,
And a Washington think-tank, and then a government body that works for peace initiatives.
These meetings were set up by a very thoughtful friend of mine who’s a pastor,
Who was kind enough to take my group -- all of us dear friends -- to take us to these places.
As it turns out, unlike almost everyone who comes to D.C.,
I had no agenda, no reason for calling; I wasn’t there to advocate or to agitate;
I was there to soak it in.
Because sometimes you just have to go up to the Temple and look around.
It was even colder there than it was here, and that’s saying something;
The temperatures were about the same, but the wind cut into us and came out the other side;
I had decided there wasn’t room in my suitcase for a scarf, and that was a mistake.
The sky was a heavy, ponderous gray, except when it wasn’t, and then it was glorious.
We wandered around monuments to Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. and FDR.
We listened intently to people whose expertise --
At things like refugee resettlement, for example --
Would be considered unparalleled.
I followed the schedule; I strolled where I was asked to stroll and held my place in line;
I went through many post-9/11 metal detectors
And showed many armed personnel my Iowa driver’s license.
It felt a little alien;
I was out of place, perhaps too far upstream, too close to raw power,
Being from the northwest corner of Iowa.
More than once people would address our group according to the places we said we were from;
Seattle and Chicago and Nashville and D.C.; and --
And. The person would look at me and struggle to recall -- Iowa.
It’s odd to hear city, city, city, city, ... State.
Whenever this happened I would sort of whisper the name of “Sioux City” to myself,
Bring you all into the room with me.
So easy to feel small, out of place --
Just holding a cup of coffee,
Not holding a briefcase or a sheaf of papers with the latest stats,
Or a check for someone’s campaign fund
So as to really be able to hold their attention for a few minutes.
When Jesus’ parents presented him in the Temple,
They brought birds for sacrifice -- turtledoves or pigeons.
I went up to the Temple empty-handed.
It took me back in time, to an old source of discomfort.
In eighth grade, I did a project on What I Want To Be When I Grow Up.
I thought it would be great to be a poet.
There were large notebooks in the library about all kinds of jobs you could do in life.
Under the entry for “Poet” there was a black-and-white photo
Of a bespectacled man in a turtleneck who looked profoundly depressed.
It said he made about $2,000 a year, tops.
It was then that I realized the jobs were organized according to pay, lowest to highest.
I put that notebook down and went to the other end of the row.
Under the entry for “Congressional Lobbyist,” there was a toothy guy in a smart suit and a red tie.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building sparkled behind him.
The entry said he made $150,000 per year.
The tension of that moment from almost thirty years ago has never completely resolved for me.
Perhaps, if I had no other responsibility in this life,
I think I would just rather be broke and write poems.
Today, the U.S. Poet Laureate receives a stipend of $35,000 annually
And has a small travel account,
And U.S. Poet Laureate is about as far as you can go in a career in poetry.
But a man in a smart suit and a red tie can really provide for his family.
These odd memories came back into play, after almost three decades, as we drove around town.
They were with me in the car on Tuesday, when we pulled up to Washington National Cathedral.
The Cathedral is a massive building --
... the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, the second-largest in the U.S.,
... number ten on the list of the longest churches in the world,
... an Average Sunday Attendance of around 1,200,
... folks serenaded by an organ that has more than 10,000 pipes.
A triumph in the world of holy architecture.
Filled with priceless and amazing works of sacred art,
Including a stained-glass representation of the moon that has an actual fragment of moon rock.
Famous works of fiction in film and books have revolved around the Cathedral.
Countless state funerals and memorial services have taken place in it,
Including ones for eight presidents.
Woodrow Wilson is entombed there; Helen Keller’s ashes are inurned there.
I walked up the street to the Cathedral, holding the poet in me close to my bosom.
The building is gigantic.
The massive structure looming in front of me had nothing to teach me about a life in Christ --
I was deeply suspicious.
Since there were two Episcopal priests in our little cohort,
And because as I say my friend was eager to make us feel at home in D.C.,
He had arranged for us to have lunch with the Dean (i.e., head priest) of the Cathedral,
A man named Gary Hall,
Along with two other members of the Cathedral staff.
The skeptic in me, the poet in me, was on high alert.
In Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary and Jesus meet Simeon, “righteous and devout.”
They also come into contact with Anna, an 84-year-old Force To Be Reckoned With.
We’re told that like any good matriarch in any congregation,
Anna “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.”
Simeon and Anna mark the way and give witness to the coming of the Messiah.
I honestly was not expecting to find Simeon or Anna knocking around in that massive Cathedral.
Though it is a breath-taking and beautiful place,
And I left with nothing but the highest regard for it.
Being in it lifted my soul in a way I could not have anticipated.
But by and large it has seemed to me over the past few years
That The Episcopal Church suffers from an edifice complex.
We just really, really like our buildings.
There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in such things,
So long as they don’t override the much larger need
To genuinely evangelize and share Good News
And be in service to Jesus Christ at the margins of society
And be a voice for justice and reconciliation in our community.
At any rate, at lunch, as the poet inside of me was dining on skepticism and self-doubt,
Dean Hall said something simple and profound.
He said that he was fully vested in his pension, which gave him a certain feeling of freedom.
He’s only been the Dean since October of 2012,
But he was easily able to list a number of occasions
Where people thought that the Cathedral was more of a national landmark than it is a church.
Stories about people who must have been surprised
When the Cathedral stayed open during the recent government shutdown.
People thought it did not do for such a large and important institution to advocate for things:
Things like standing up against gun violence, or standing up for the rights of people in poverty.
People who thought the job of a Cathedral was to be big and pretty,
And not to mouth off about current events.
Not to have an agenda, or to agitate -- but to have our little services and be done with it.
In fact, he said, Dean Hall and the staff and Vestry and congregation
Had their hands on a very potent and quite large symbol of the principles of the Kingdom of God,
And they intended to use it.
Not to do so, he said, would be sinful.
My trip up to the Temple this week was as wonderful as it was chilly.
I reconnected with friends and saw my country in a new and different way.
Mostly, though, if I hadn’t done anything else, that one remark would have made it worth the trip:
The Cathedral people had a big and beautiful symbol of God’s reign close at hand,
And they were going to employ it come hell or high water.
Et tu, St. Thomas?
When my plane landed Wednesday night back in this part of the world,
I had the feeling of being no longer near those halls of power.
Frankly the Midwest felt a lot more comfortable.
But that teaching came with me.
We are a church. The people of God united around common causes.
We have a big and beautiful symbol of the principles of the Kingdom of God,
And we should intend to use it.
Not to do so would be sinful.
This may not be D.C., but here in Sioux City,
We should be thankful we are sitting in a Temple that is also worthy of the name.
A landmark building that defines the skyline of this town.
All well and good, of course. But.
Primarily, people should think of St. Thomas and say, They are the brave ones.
They’re the ones who are proactive and stand up and take action and make statements
And advocate and agitate for the right thing to be done.
They’re the ones who show up, and who keep showing up, bringing their Bibles with them.
They’re the ones holding the people in power accountable to their promises.
They’re the ones who feed hungry people.
They’re the ones who do it all in the name of Jesus Christ.
They’re the ones who are not ashamed to be the people of God.
That is the essence of the teaching.
No person of faith is ever off the hook.
We must use the power and authority God has given us.
We must use it wisely, and in service of all, to the advancement of God’s Kingdom.
God grant us the peace of mind to hear and receive these things,
And the power to make them true. In the name of Christ. Amen.