November 30, 2014


Sermon for Year B, Advent 1
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
November 30, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

When I hear that opening line from today’s reading from Isaiah,
 Everything else drops away and I listen with fresh new ears and I can’t hardly breathe:
 The prophet’s plea to God --
   “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
       So that the mountains would quake at your presence --
     As when fire kindles brushwood
      And the fire causes water to boil --
      To make your name known to your adversaries,
      So that the nations might tremble at your presence!” --

God: Get down here, now!

Have you ever made that your prayer?
I mean, it’s one thing for us to see some big disaster,
 And then after the fact, to say, “Where was God?” Right? We do that a lot.
“Where was God when the planes hit the towers?”
“Where was God when the Wall Street fat cats bet on my home mortgage to fail,
 And we were upside-down on our loan for all those years,
 And so much for the American Dream?”
“Where was God in Columbine or Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech or Oklahoma City?”
“Where in the world is God in Ferguson, Missouri?” (Not an invalid question, by the way.)

It’s one thing to show up in church with this question: “God, where are you? Where were you?”
Sometimes it’s the only prayer we can muster, so it’s honest.

But it is quite another thing -- quite another and often far more remarkable and urgent thing --
 To pray the prayer, “God, get down here now! We need you! This is not a drill.”
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
“Show your face! If ever you were faithful to your promise, SHOW UP. Now. Please. Thanks.”

It’s not phrased as a mild request. It’s a rude and insistent demand! Wishful and fanciful.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” is not politely asking for a favor.
It’s an imperative command for immediate action.
And it runs counter to how we think we’re “supposed to” be allowed to pray.
Can you imagine talking to God like that?
Or does that just seem beyond-the-pale, disrespectful, outside the bounds of prayer?
Does it seem terribly impolite and impolitic? un-Episcopal? Un-Anglican?

Consider this: the “Prayer for Rain” from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
 “O GOD, heavenly Father, who by thy Son Jesus Christ hast promised
   To all those who seek thy kingdom, and the righteousness thereof,
   All things necessary to their bodily sustenance;
     Send us, we beseech thee, in this our necessity, such moderate rain and showers,
   That we may receive the fruits of the earth to our comfort, and to thy honour;
   Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Did you hear it? Could you hear the practised restraint?
“Send us ... such moderate rain and showers.”
In a desperate drought, this is how we muster and make our request known.
Moderate showers. Not so much that we flood out. Just the right amount, in other words.
Please, God, we don’t need the dams to burst. We know you’ll figure it out.
You’re God, after all. Just not so much rain, please, that it’s a problem.
Just ... we need some rain, but not a ton. Thanks.

It seems that we are dangerously close to having lost any sense of urgency in our prayers.
We have tamed and domesticated prayer. It serves us now, and our aims and ends.
Our publicly spoken prayers don’t always disclose the deep emotional texture of what it means
 To have any kind of actual, here-and-now relationship with God,
 Where by “actual relationship” I mean give-and-take, back-and-forth, conversation.
Instead, our prayers can be triumphantly, fatally formulaic.
They don’t really lay everything on the line.
They spend a lot of time safely telling God who to be,
   Safely describing God to God --
 And they ask God safely and politely for what we want, without pushing too hard.

Another angle on the same problem: prayer has become the province of professionals.

Ask just about any member of the clergy to pray.
We can do it, with earnest voice, at the drop of a hat. We know how to sound snappy.
“Holy and loving God, you teach us in Jesus to love each other and be good.
 So help us to love each other and be good. Amen.”
What did I just do?
Mostly I gave God a nice little Hallmark description of God!

I can imagine God laughing out loud, and saying,
 Thanks for the pep-talk, but come back here so we can really talk.
   Gotta know what’s on your mind.

This metaphor is far from perfect,
 But what if every time I talked to my wife I said,
 “Jacquie, you are awesome. You grew up in Kansas, and you have two children.
   I’m hoping to get some of your ideas about something, but later is fine.”
And then I turned around and walked away before she could respond?

Look, I’m not disparaging our written prayers.
The Book of Common Prayer came into my life precisely when I needed it,
 Just when I was looking for -- well, frankly a lot more order and regularization in my prayers,
 And for me it would not be a stretch to say that it saved my life.
Staying with it for the past 20 years has been immeasurably deepening.
But the point of prayer is not just to use great-sounding words,
 And it is certainly not meant to tame our wild impulse and need to love God through prayer.
It is, rather, a means of addressing common concerns before God through Christ.
It’s meant to get us off the dime and to learn how to talk to God.
So talk to God already!
If the situation is urgent, speak urgently.
But sisters and brothers: always, always, always spill your guts.
Because God wants to know what you really think. How you really feel.
You should feel free to name those deep deep things,
 And you should feel liberated after you have done so,
   Even as you’re moved to take up some specific course of action.

And so it is that Isaiah brings us all the way forward to the urgency of this moment,
 And to Jesus telling people to keep their eyes peeled for signs of things ending.
Oddly enough, Isaiah and Jesus can even bring us to Ferguson, Missouri --
 The same place I referenced a little while ago,
   A place of escalating tension, violence, and disunion.
A place and an argument that without a doubt is happening as a stand-in for all of us.
An argument that isn’t going too well, by the way --
 An argument that’s producing winners and losers, not conversation.
Ferguson is absolutely every town in America. Be not deceived.

Today is the First Sunday of Advent.
We began this service in an act of contrition and penitence
 As is customary for Advent and Lent around here.
To begin with confession is first to approach God in great humility
 (Even when a part of us is saying Get down here now!);
 To confess is to be reminded that we are finite, mortal and subject to all manner of failings;
 And to be reminded in no uncertain terms that God’s forgiveness is total and for all time.

We said, in that confession, those words that we have used a thousand times before:
 “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
And here is where the urgency of Isaiah needs to be claimed:
 “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

My problem -- and I wonder if it is yours as well --
 My problem is that I suffer under a terrible delusion
 That as long as things like what’s happening in Ferguson stay in Ferguson,
   And as long as I don’t go too near Ferguson,
     Then I get to keep my safe distance from the issues it raises.
I don’t have to poke that particular sleeping dragon.
My prayers for the folks and the situation in Ferguson can remain sanitized and distant.

Yet I know there are deep issues of race and class at play in Ferguson right now,
 And there are churches in Missouri and St. Louis that at this hour
   Are sweating and praying right along with Isaiah
     For God to show up immediately, to bend the hearts of men
   So as to do something about a system that is deeply broken
   Where on all sides, violence breeds violence breeds violence
     And the still small voice of peace and reconciliation is drowned out.
They’re praying this morning in Ferguson for nothing less than a sea change.

And I also know that what it takes for a Ferguson to become a Sioux City
 Is practically nothing at all --
   That we, and any town in this incredibly divided country,
   Are never more than one small incident away from melting down.
And it’s never over some academic issue; it’s over real flesh and blood --
 Real people, with real names like Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.
A powder magazine on one side of the door, a lit match on the other.
The social contract is fragile indeed,
 And it is currently unjustly balanced.
We all have a desperate need to be in on this conversation,
 But we don’t want to pay the price to have it,
   So we keep pushing it off, pushing it back.
It raises questions and holds up mirrors we’d just as soon not entertain.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
 So that the mountains would quake at your presence --
   ... So that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

So what does it mean for us to pray to God
 That “we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves”
   When we live in a society that is so precarious? so delicate, so brittle?
What might it mean for us if we prayed that same confession with the urgency of Isaiah
 As we look south to Missouri?

Well, just for starters, “we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves”
 Heard and spoken with urgency
 Means that we need to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The correction for our behavior is right there in the confession!
And it means that we now understand we are effectively set free
To do something totally crazy,
  And --
 To love all our neighbors as ourselves --
   Regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they believe.
(This is hard, and it sounds impossible and na├»ve, but it’s not impossible.
 It’s just difficult to imagine.)

If we have confessed a lack of love for our neighbors,
 And we have been told that our sins are forgiven,
   That gives us only one course of action going forward,
   And that is to love our neighbors
     Just as boldly as Jesus himself loved those he came in contact with.
“Love” is a powerful shorthand term.
It means to see, to engage, to converse, to help, to serve;
 And it means to be seen, to be engaged, to be conversed with, to be helped, and to be served.

That is the only right course of action.
To open up, to love the neighbor, and to be transformed
 Into something beautiful for the Kingdom of God.

Once we learn to live this way,
 We’ll find ourselves praying the urgent and truthful prayer
   Of right relationship with God,
 Right beside Isaiah:
 “Come down, God. Come down, and dwell among us.”

And the still, small voice replies:

 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great sermon. I got down to the last few sentences and I felt like the movie ended without putting closure to the story. What an amazing set up to close the sermon with a focus on Jesus Christ.

We’ll find ourselves praying the urgent and truthful prayer

Of right relationship with God,

Right beside Isaiah:

“Come down, God. Come down, and dwell among us.”

And the still, small voice replies:

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”

I got here and I got excited. I was grabbing hold of my seat, I was looking for a page 2 button to see what was next! A word of redemption, a word of Grace, a word of Love, and a word of Forgiveness.

The Good News of our Savior is always a refreshing and exciting ending.

with love.......