|July 29, 1974|
Sermon for Year A, Proper 12
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 27, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
The Kingdom of Heaven is like this, it’s like that.
It’s like a seed that grows into a big tree;
Like someone who spends a lifetime in search of one fine pearl, then spots it;
It’s like a net that catches every fish in the sea;
Like a little bit of yeast that makes a lot of yummy bread;
Like one tiny treasure, hidden in a field, ... found, at just the right moment.
And Jesus said to his friends, “Are you getting all this?”
And they lied, probably, don’t you think,
When they said, Oh yes yes, sure sure, absolutely. Please go on.
Because if they got it then, but the rest of us don’t -- still, after all this time --
Then what’s wrong with us?
But of course it isn’t like that. Not at all.
We get these parables to play around with.
It seems they almost mean something different every time we return to them.
Quite elastic. They stretch and grow with us; they stretch us, and grow us up.
Everything is like something else in a parable.
The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, “may be compared to” X or Y or Z.
The Kingdom of God. Jesus’ project among us. You could also translate that,
The Day of God. The Time, the Place of God.
How God wants to see the world ordered, and will -- how God will one day make it so.
Which doesn’t let us off the hook in the meantime.
“Kingdom” is not pie in the sky. It’s not even just one given area you’d locate on a map.
It’s an all-encompassing, geopolitical, social and spiritual reality,
If you can imagine those two things not opposed, but side-by-side, in fact, one and the same:
The spiritual, and the real.
We’ve talked about this some over the past weeks and years --
How these parables are about two different and competing kinds of empires.
The first empire uses people like cheap cattle for its own ends,
And it exploits differences and it wields power however it wants.
The other empire -- the Kingdom of Heaven -- this thing for which Jesus helps us to thirst --
It takes people for the bruised and broken, yet glorious things they are --
Beautifully created by God for a purpose.
It uses power effectively for the betterment of things.
It’s a playing-field-leveler.
It is a time and a place and a reality in which all things are honored in their season,
Because God is their King, and God loves.
God -- king of small things -- Lord of the Kingdom of the Small and Unnoticed.
God of pitiful pearls and shrimpy little seeds,
God of narrow, clearly inadequte fishing nets and sad pinches of yeast.
God, the king of the hardly noticeable thing
That itself becomes the prize --
The insignificant little nothing that becomes everything.
The Lord God Almighty and Merciful,
Fashioner of the one-hundred trillion cells in each of our bodies,
Fashioner of atoms and quarks,
Designer of what lies “beneath the crust of the visible world,”
As Steven Milhauser says in one of his works of fiction.
The world of the small that lives beneath the veil of sight.
“Even the very hairs of your head are counted.” Now that’s a bold claim!
Biggest case in point: a peasant day-laborer from Galilee, who comes from nothing,
Who lives under the thumb of the longest-standing empire we have yet measured in history,
And who only speaks the truth;
Jesus, acclaimed eventually as the Christ: the ultimate everything-out-of-nothing.
I’m grateful that we heard this morning of part of the story of Leah and Jacob and Laban.
But you know what seems just as appropriate to hear,
Given all this talk from Jesus about giving smallness its due?
What I would have programmed in, if you’d been reckless enough to let me do it?
I’d have had lectors from all over stand and read something like the following --
“And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath,
Whose height was six cubits and a span.
He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armoured with a coat of mail;
The weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze.
He had [armor] of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders.
The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam,
And his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron;
And his shield-bearer went before him.
He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel,
‘Why have you come out to draw up for battle?
Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul?
Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.
If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants;
But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.’
And the Philistine said, ‘Today I defy the ranks of Israel!
Give me a man, that we may fight together.’
When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine,
They were dismayed and greatly afraid.”
I suspect you probably know how it goes, don’t you? The story?
You could take it from a certain point and run with it, but don’t get too far ahead.
“The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle;
The names of his three sons who went to the battle
Were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah.
David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul,
But David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.
For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.”
For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.”
“David rose early in the morning, left someone in charge of the sheep,
Took the provisions, and went as Jesse had commanded him.
He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry.
Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army.
David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage,
Ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers.
As he talked with them, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name,
Came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before.
And David heard him.”
And “David said to the men who stood by him,
‘What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine,
And takes away the reproach from Israel?
For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’”
One of David’s brothers said, Why did you come today?
What’s happening right now to the sheep you’re supposed to be looking after?
Or did you just come down here to see us all slaughtered?
David said, What did I do? All I did was ask a question!
King Saul heard all this and asked David -- this little runt -- just who he thought he was, anyway.
David said, I may be young and willowy, King Saul,
My body not yet given the strength afforded to you men of iron;
But I’m a shepherd, and I’ve had to kill a few bears and lions in my time to protect the flock.
And I can turn this Goliath into one of my bear-skin rugs or a lion’s head on the wall.
“This ... Philistine shall be like one of them,
Since he has defied the armies of the living God.”
And Saul said, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”
Ah, now we know the rest for sure, don’t we?
They tried to arm the boy, but with men’s armor, where he could not move.
So he sloughed off the bigness of it all, and took five little smooth rocks from a pool --
That and his sling, and faced off against the brute.
Goliath said, You must think I’m a dog, if you’re throwing me sticks!
And he looked at David and he cursed his God, and he said,
“Come to me, and I will give your flesh
To the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.”
And David who was not yet king, but still just a child said,
The Lord does not win battles with swords and spears.
This battle, like everything, O great Philistine, is the Lord’s, and our victory today is assured.
And so it went.
The giant was easily felled;
The Philistines saw it, and they lost heart and turned and ran, and deserted their camp.
The day was won by the God of small things.
Triumph known in the least likely way at the hands of the unlikeliest hero.
A little child led them.
Was that only long ago and far away, a tale from a book of tales?
Or is it something we should still be watching for? --
A smidgen of God’s yeast filling the house of the world with the scent of freshly baked bread;
A pearl of great value found, miracle of miracles?
Is it only long ago, this David and Goliath, or is it also here, and now?
What, I ask you, would Christians of the modern era be,
If we could not occasionally be toppled in our own ignorance and complacence
By something judged as insignificant
That nevertheless had a divine mandate to come into being and flourish?
What would perfectly well-meaning Christians be if they weren’t made to see
How very often they were standing in the ill-fated shoes of Goliath
And not in the terribly small but also terribly powerful sandals of David?
Tuesday of this week marks the fortieth anniversary of something amazing and profound,
When a little yeast was finally let into the world,
And the world has been feasting ever since.
There were eleven of them. Eleven different kinds of yeast.
Their names were Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt,
Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Schiess,
Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig.
Eleven women who, like many before them, had been denied ordination to the priesthood
For no other reason than by virtue of their gender, for in every other way they were judged fit.
Eleven women who became the recipients of the trails blazed on their behalf
By people agitating for women to become priests in the contentious years running up.
They were called the Philadelphia Eleven,
Because on July 29, 1974, in a three-hour service of ordination
At the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia,
They became the first female priests ordained in The Episcopal Church.
There was a crowd of some two-thousand worshippers present on that hot Monday morning.
Can you imagine a service at St. Thomas that lasts from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 29th
That’s so full people are hanging off the rafters?
Well, you must -- you must, if you want to be in this story, which you already are!
If you have ever attended an ordination, you know that people are given the opportunity to object,
Just as at a wedding. That the bishop makes this opportunity part of the service.
And that’s just the way it is.
So there were three bishops present, and they asked the question,
And some in the crowd responded, reading from prepared statements about why this can’t be.
Then the bishops said, “[H]earing God's command, we can heed no other.
The time for our obedience is now.”
And in the sermon, Dr. Charles Willie of Harvard University
Compared what was happening in that church at that very moment
To other significant moments in the struggle for civil rights.
He said, “This shouldn't be seen as an act of arrogant disobedience, but an act of tender defiance.”
And they laid hands on these eleven, and so it goes to this day.
It may not be something you think about every day of your life,
But in the life of our denomination, this has all loomed large for us.
The crucifer at that service forty years ago was a woman named Barbara Harris.
She was serving at the time as the Senior Warden of that parish,
And she went on to become the first female bishop of The Episcopal Church,
Consecrated February 11, 1989.
In fact, almost all of us have been the beneficiaries of the ministries of women in our midst.
Some of us refused, in our ignorance, in our complacence,
But the yeast got out anyway; the pearl was found; the seed became a mighty tree.
David stepped up and felled Goliath.
Someone -- some ones -- some yeast had to be willing to be leavened forty years ago
For us to receive it so easily now.
Even if it was a little dangerous at the time.
Even, and especially, if it turned over every set expectation the church had of itself
About how “things are supposed to go.” “What’s done or not done around here.”
The small thing had to be willing to be something more, if God’s commission truly be fulfilled.
In 1976, these women priests were fully recognized as priests,
And General Convention explicitly allowed them to function as priests without penalty.
All of this, if you’ve studied it, or if you remember going through it,
Happened at the same time that women deacons
Were fighting to achieve equality with male deacons,
Fighting to be “deacons” and not labeled with the lesser term “deaconesses.”
From here maybe these things seem like little minor receding struggles,
But that’s not what it felt like in the moment.
We are here, at some distance, now almost unconsciously benefitting
From person after person after person being willing to step up and to say,
This call is real; I am yeast; I can do no other. Let the chips fall where they may.
Now let me ask you.
Are you willing to be David?
Are you willing to be yeast for God?
A treasure in a field? A fishing net in the water?
A little mustard seed waiting to grow up?
Because honestly: it can’t be any other way.