August 17, 2014


Sermon for Year A, Proper 15
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
August 17, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Well, ... ...

It's been a hard week, hasn’t it?
A hard week.
A week that feels like, ... like some terrible regression, I suppose.
Like going backwards in time.

Are we really going back into Iraq and Afghanistan? I wonder.
I wonder that, I guess, in light of the fact that in some ways we never really left.
After a decade and all those beautiful lives we lost,
 And people who got hurt -- who were left with nothing?
Are we ready to spend another trillion dollars?
Are we ready to lose another 16,000 American lives in Iraq; another 2,300 in Afghanistan?
Another hundred thousand civilian lives?
Are we really going to do that again? Our leaders need to come to their senses.
Meanwhile, thinking about it is like getting in an emotional time machine --
 The memory we feel in our bones from 1991 and 2003. Lord, have mercy.

And, what in the world is going on with Gaza, and Palestine, and Israel? Again?
Today there’s a cease-fire in effect, but all that has allowed anyone to do
 Is to pop up long enough to say that there can be no long-term truce.
The UN says close to 2,000 Palestinians (mostly civilians) have been killed so far,
 Ten thousand wounded, in the conflict there since early July.
Sixty-seven Iraelis killed, 64 of them being soldiers.
I distinctly recall being about four years old, sitting on the floor of the living room, playing horses,
 And hearing on the TV about the conflict between Palestine and Israel.
Indeed it stretches back much, much further.
You could even look at the exchange in today’s Gospel lesson
 Between Canaanite woman and the Jewish man Jesus to get a little background.
Today’s headlines are like the millionth and so far the most intense verse
 Of a hideous impossible forever-long song
 That no one wants to hear. God, have mercy on us.

Yesterday was calling out to us this week in a big way.
The pages of a calendar that was thrown away
 Years before we even had paper recycling.
Yesterday, trying to get its hooks into us. Fifty years back.

It’s 2014, right? Or is it? Is it 1964? Are we starting over again?

Those photographs out of Ferguson, Missouri --
 The television coverage,
 Of police going up against citizens.
Tear gas and curfews and arrests and red-laser dots indicating you’ve been targeted;
 Looting and rioting; no one with any time to stop and understand each other.
People saying on social media, “Well, it couldn’t happen where I live.”
Oh, really? It never could? Given a simple sequence of events?
Are race relations better in your town? Do you have a perfect and fair socioeconomic system?
Seeing, this week, people who were far weaker
 Compared to the heavy armaments and armor of the authorities.
Seeing, this week, the fear in the eyes of the police officers on the lines.
(You had to really look, but it was there.)
A crowd standing up against a crowd. Confusion, chaos.
Power against power against power. With no end in sight.
Will it wind down? How much more violence will we see?
God, have mercy.

I didn’t live in the late- and mid-sixties --
 I wasn’t alive when race riots happened in Watts and Milwaukee and Chicago
 And all over the South.
I have had to learn how to integrate that history into my personal understanding.
But I can see how it would be traumatic
 To turn on the news and to feel like you’re falling back into the past;
 Or to be there, in the heart-stopping terror out in the streets,
   And to be wondering: Didn’t we already fight this fight?
Wasn’t something already accomplished?
God, have mercy.

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to be hung up by a red light.
If there’s a traffic slowdown, I’ll go out of my way to avoid it
 Because I have reached a point in my life where I like to know I’m moving forward.
Call it the impatience of being a newly middle-aged man.
Unless I’m just stuck in traffic already; then I sit and ask for the strength to deal with it.
Point is, I like to know I’m moving ahead.
So in 2014, to hear publicly elected officials making segregationist rhetoric
 That sounds like it might have come from Alabama Governor George Wallace, in 1963?
Lord, have mercy ...

Well, we all needed a good laugh, didn't we?
So why did the jester have to die? This week, of all weeks?
And why did it have to turn out that the jester was suicidally depressed?
I was in a meeting Monday night when the news hit about Robin Williams.
Six or seven cell phones in the room buzzed with texts. People reaching out to tell news.
Just a sense of shock. Like losing your brother.
A pretty bright light, a one-of-a-kind, just gone.
So then what? God have mercy.

It’s a lot. It’s quite a load.
No amount of cat videos on Facebook is going to change that.

You know what the church isn’t very good at?
The church isn’t good at being able to hold this space of questioning and despair and grief.
The church isn’t good at containing grief;
 It wants to turn mourning into dancing, and ultimately that makes sense;
 Ultimately, as the song goes, “my hope is built on nothing less”
   Than the grace, mercy, peace, and love of God;
   But oftentimes the church tends to go there
     Before people have really had a chance to grieve,
       And just be quiet, and let the tears fall as they may,
         And hold each other.
The church sits there, with one eye on the newly widowed wife and one eye on the clock,
 And it says, There, there; I know, I know, when it doesn’t know; it can’t know.
It thinks like a middle-aged man honking at a traffic jam -- C’mon, let’s get this thing moving.

The church wants to run on to solutions;
 The preacher wants to get everything tied up in a bow,
   Because he or she mistakenly believes that that’s how it is --
   That that’s what people always need and secretly want.
Also, the preacher is usually an inveterate people-pleaser with a need to be liked,
 And dwelling on what’s wrong in the world does not present us with clear ways to do that.
So we make the world all shiny. Shiny, happy Jesus, Deacon Pat likes to say, and she’s right.

It’s hard sometimes to just sit with What Is, with the reality and the weight of all this --
 That we live in a world that, to state the obvious, is far from perfect.
That our sins are plainly before us, and Lord have mercy.

You ever just sit on the edge of your bed and come into deep and real contact with your sorrow?
If you belong to a church that has taught you that that is somehow wrong, somehow unholy,
 Then you have been done a massive disservice.

You ever dragged that sorrow with you to church and dumped it on the altar
 And gave it up to God (or, I guess more honestly, at least a piece of it)
   Because quite frankly you didn’t know what else to do with it?
Or do you feel that somehow normal human grief has no place in the church?
That it’s only appropriate to cry in church when there’s a funeral --
 To be sad about the loss of one specific person but not the state of the world in general
   Or at any rate the state of radical imperfection in which we find ourselves every day?

If you grew up thinking that church was a place to be perfect --
 That God doesn’t have a lot of patience for whiners or flaws --
   Then you, brother -- you, sister -- you, like me, were sold a bill of goods,
     And Lord have mercy.

A fairly large group of Episcopalians all sat in the same room yesterday,
   Here in Sioux City with Bishop Scarfe,
 And we talked quite a bit, speculating about why the church isn’t relevant anymore.
I walked away thinking, Well, for one thing -- for one thing --
 We don’t hold the space of grief very well. We don’t acknowledge What Is.
We tend to refer to things as we think they should be --
 Or as we think God thinks they should be --
   Way more than we refer the way things really are.
And somehow this doesn’t add up, but no wonder church feels irrelevant;
 I don’t need a study to show that to me.
Somehow it isn’t enough, just to shame and point fingers
 And say, The Bible says it oughta be like this, but it isn’t, so what’s wrong with us?
Even if you frame it in the positive.

Perhaps we don’t believe that God is stronger than our problems,
 And that’s why we don’t think we can afford to be realistic about our problems.
No wonder prayer dries up over time,
 If we think we can’t be less than 100% percent honest before God.
So God lives in this little corner in our minds, far away from everything else.
God represents a human standard of ultimate perfection attained in some pie-in-the-sky scenario
 After we’re dead and gone and left this dirty old planet.

That’s not an indictment, by the way.
It’s not meant to make us feel guilty.
It’s just a question.
Do we believe that our problems are bigger and stronger than God?
It’s a simplistic question, to be sure;
 But sometimes the simplest questions are the best.

What is it inside of me that refuses to trust?
Why is it that I can’t open up an honest channel of grief before one stronger than me?
Why am I honking at the traffic tie-up when I could be honestly admitting to God
 That I don’t have any control over it?

Now, that’s not an indictment. It’s a holy question.
And it’s where I want to leave things this morning.
No, the world is not perfect. That’s just the way it is. It can be a sad place sometimes.
But somehow in the face of it all, we can still tell the truth.
We can pray prayers that are 100% real and true,
 And we can tell God how we really feel about it.
And there you have it. No bow. No Band-Aid. No rainbow at the end.
A hard week has been placed in our path.

What shall we do? How shall we act? What shall we say?


Ann Fleming said...

Thank you for your honest wondering and insight. It has been a very hard week. And it is hard to talk honestly to my 16 year old daughter about it. And yet I know that it is my holy duty and ministry to talk to her, and to her friends, about it all. Not to give answers, but space to question and decide what to do. And the more we can do that in and out of church, the better the chance that we can, indeed, move forward.

Scoop said...

Speaking from the St. Louis area, I have to say that there are far, far more peaceful protesters than looters. But there are also far more good people who would like to see peace restored without having to confront the question of why this happened and why people in Ferguson "can't just get over it." I am also still confounded by people who are far more outraged by the looting than by the death of an unarmed teenager. Both are wrong. But death is absolutely final, while things can be replaced.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Scoop. You're absolutely right about what's more important here.

Fun and Thoughts said...

Rev. Torey,
I haven't felt as sad as I did and and frustrated with the "establishment" since the 60s. Good thing that God has control even though I am more than a bit edgy. His patience with us is so infinite. Blessings!

The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...

Ann, I was rereading comments left here just now, and I found myself wondering how that conversation with your 16-year-old went, and how life has been since then. Thanks for writing.