September 14, 2019

Lostness and other illusions

Sermon for Year C, Proper 19
By The Rev. Canon Torey Lightcap
September 15, 2019

We probably hear these words of Jesus and equate these simple stories of lost objects
  With something that is not us – something outside of us.
A coin. A sheep. Elsewhere, over in Matthew, a crumb of bread that falls from a table.
That’s a mistake.
It’s a common mistake, and we aren’t alone in making it.
Sitting inside the church,
  We like to think that it’s the world that needs finding and saving and fixing –
    Something, someone other than me, at any rate –
      Any acceptable scapegoat outside myself I can name –
    But Jesus says, No, it’s those of us here today – whoever’s in the crowd,
      Within the sound of his voice.

You and I, we are the lost things.
The coin. The sheep. The crust of bread.
We are lost, and we are apart from the other things that we need to make us whole:
  The rest of the flock, the remainder of the money, the loaf of bread.
He briefly describes that lost-ness,
  But then he mostly talks about the joy and the party that follow on
  After a thing has been found.
Prodigal objects.

I find this a perfect and inescapable metaphor for the spiritual journey.

On some long, warm afternoon in the middle of our life,
  We wake up, and we shake ourselves,
  And we discover that when it comes to God, or a sense of God, or a presence,
    Or a connection to the universe, or to source, the divine, whatever we want to call it –
      Whatever name we give it ... when it comes to that, we feel, quite simply, lonely and apart.

The initial burst of energy and enthusiasm
  That fueled the early days of our spiritual journey has now waned,
    And what we are left with is some mixture of ritual, and community, and tradition ...
      And a vague sense that those things somehow matter, even if we can’t quite say why.
But mainly, the tank is empty.
So we seek solace, perhaps in the mysteries of the church.
We get on our knees in confession, and we can’t think of why exactly we’re down there;
  What, exactly, we did or did not do to merit this.

We know that we are people who try to be good and do good, so why this, really?

Perhaps we suppose that the words we say feel good to say,
  Or that the meal we share feels good when we share it,
    Partly because we’ve done it before and now we’re doing it again.
The words of the prayers and the readings and the sermon seem ... about right.
It’s all somewhat resonant.
And so we may understand, at a head level, that for some reason we need to be here.
That’s all fine,
  But it doesn’t answer the far more primal need we feel
  On that long, warm afternoon when we awake and realize that somehow ...
    We’re just gonna need more than that.
And that somehow, in a vague way we can’t quite name or materialize,
  Some small part of us is willing to go and do whatever it takes
    To  get that  connection  b a c k.
We find, to our great dismay, that we have lost the taste, the trail, the scent of God –
  The dazzling sweet light, the sure knowledge of a universal presence
  That at times in our lives had been so intense.
By contrast, life may seem flat and tasteless.

Without a doubt, religion can afford us some, but not all, in the way of answers and comfort.
Sometimes it helps; sometimes it gets in the way.
Sometimes it accelerates; sometimes it puts on the brakes.

Jesus says you can sit in a pew and still be a lost coin;
  He says you can partake in the holy meal and still be a solitary crust of bread;
  You can follow all the religious laws and still be a sheep that wanders off the ranch.

In fact, from a certain point of view, that’s about all Jesus talks about –
    The dangers of just showing up and going through the motions,
      The dangers of being perfectly law-abiding, acceptable, religious, and upright,
        Knowing all the words and hymn tunes and page numbers ... in short, being in the club ...
          But still missing something vital at the center of it all – the reason for it.

Jesus’ very existence is God’s way of recognizing all this.
That we do get lost. We get tired. We get disconnected.
That we get so uncertain of what to do next, perhaps it’s better just to be inert and do nothing.
Play the game ... keep the rules ... speak the lingo ... stay in the club.

The religion I grew up with would say, “Well then, there’s something wrong with you –
  Go and get yourself all fired up again – get on up to the mountaintop for another recharge,
    Or else just stop coming. We don’t need another Eeyore having a midlife crisis.”

I do not believe this is where God wants us to stop. I do not believe God wants us to stop, period.
On the contrary: this is where God says, Aha! Finally, some progress!
About the best we can do, as coins or sheep or a crust of bread, is to admit that we’re lost.
Disconnected. Strayed away from purpose and presence.
The Prodigal Son wandered far from home, lost everything,
  And got down into the mud to compete with pigs for his dinner,
    Before he finally “came to himself.”

That is, he came to his senses. Understood. At a gut level. What he was doing. As if in a mirror.

What, then, do we do?
When we finally wake up and find ourselves like this?
What can you do?
Other than be honest about it? ...

I say: Fear not. Fear not.
God is in the retrieval business. The finding business. The joy-at-finding business.
God brings us into the place of love and openness and and never-separatedness,
  Gladly enfolded in.

And are you ready for this? We were in it the whole time! We never left!
Only in our imaginations did we think we could get so far away from God.
Yes, our parents sinned in the Garden of Eden; yes, we fell away.
But we never left our protection. Indeed, we could not.
So the thing that we woke up to, wanting to have happen, it was always happening.

God is still in the garden, walking in the cool of the evening, asking, “Where are you?”
Yet God knows the answer to that question.
You are already in God – you cannot not be in God!
Only, your joy is awaited, as if to close the circle.

Your joy. You don’t need special prayers or books or music.
You don’t need some formulary or a member of the clergy.
You don’t need the branding of the Episcopal identity.
There are no magic words to say.
These things may turn out to facilitate the process, as tools and guides,
  Fingers pointing in the right direction;
    But they are not the goal. The goal is union and transformation and service.

The truth is, we were never hopelessly lost; “hopeless” isn’t in God’s economy.
And lost-ness is our construct; it’s our idea, our language, our approximation.
To “put on the mind of Christ” is to see that we were never lost in the first place.
And all that joy over the “finding” of the coin, or the sheep, or the bread crumb –
  All that joy is over our joy that we now consciously return to our Creator.
You see, how simple, how vital –
  Awaking, admitting lost-ness, being found.
And the amazing party that follows.

It really begins in earnest when we start to stir, as if arising from a great slumber.

August 1, 2019

An answer to 'We just want to bring in young families and grow the church'

[Please note: I originally wrote the following to appear in the Summer 2019 edition of The Harvest, a publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. After receiving a number of positive comments on it, I'm running it here as well, with light editing.  -tl]

Everywhere I go, I hear the same thing: “We just want to bring in young families and grow the church.” Since I’ve been on the diocesan side of things (here and in Iowa) for the last six years, you can bet I’ve heard that expression a lot – a thousand times, maybe. I’ve had years to ponder it.
The sincerity of “bringing in young families and growing the church” cannot be questioned. It comes from a real place of concern. I don’t doubt that people really believe it. But since we’re here already,  I hope you’ll let me ask a few leading questions.
1.  Who is it for – Jesus or me?

Is it based on the idea that “We’d better find someone to replace ourselves”? That “If we don’t do this the church won’t carry on any further”? Because if it comes from that place, any plan for simple self-replacement isn’t furthering the mission of God’s church. Replication should not be confused with transformation; real evangelism comes from a much deeper joy, and churches grow in response to the truth of the Gospel across their various generations. By contrast, fear and survivalism are nothing to hang a plan for growth on.

2.  Are you willing to change? You say you are, yes, of course, but are you, really?

For most congregations, truly growing the church will require some fundamental shifting in structure, practice, thought, and culture. Congregations may find that they are precisely built to resist any kind of change. So this process extracts something of a price, which means learning to do things in a decidedly different way, yet without sacrificing who we are at our core, as Episcopalians, in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean changing everything wholesale, throwing out the Prayer Book, or being dishonest about our worship style; in fact, it means something arguably deeper, which is a sincere and continuous look at ourselves in the mirror, and the willingness to make any change deemed truly necessary.

3.  How long is your commitment for?

There is a sector of the church-industrial complex dedicated to finding fast solutions, including pied-piper clergy who bill themselves as the quick-fix solution to rapidly-scaled youth programming. Do not be seduced! Take your time, build real coalitions, measure the cost, pray over ideas, study your community, read books on the subject, talk to the diocesan youth team, collaborate with partners, get sticky commitments, listen to all voices, and be sincerely invested for the long haul. As Jesus the permaculture expert warns us, rocky soil does not yield good fruit, but nutritient-rich soil built over time eventually makes for a bumper crop.

4.  How deep is your leadership bench?

People say that we should “bring in young families and grow the church,” at least in part, because it’s what they’ve been taught to say. The phrase is Episcopal lip-service. However, there’s a world of difference between verbally assenting to this idea and actually taking it on. Good leaders (lay and clergy, official and unofficial, matriarchs and patriarchs, those on Vestry and those in various committee assignments) will help the entire congregation own the idea by keeping everyone oriented to purpose and being willing to work across various factions.

5. What will you do when you encounter push-back?
While it is easy to argue for positive change in the abstract, once a new initiative has started, the opposition to it can get pretty vocal, and those who were supposed to stand up and remind people about original purpose can grow suspiciously quiet. Very few people really love or thrive on conflict, and the obstacles to church/youth growth these days are significant. More than one initative for church growth has been stopped at the first sign of trouble, and all that remains is a cautionary tale (“We tried that once and it didn’t work”).
At the heart of “bringing in young families and growing the church” is a commitment to share the amazing richness of being a part of God’s family with others. We can’t be intimidated by it; in fact, it should energize us. It has virtually nothing to do with securing the comfort-level of our institutions and almost everything to do with our willingness to be the church of Jesus across many generations.

Now, that’s a vision I can get behind.

July 26, 2019

Sermon for Year C, Proper 9

Sermon for Year C, Proper 9
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 9, 2019
St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, Olathe, Kansas

Jesus gathers a crowd up and he says, Got a job for you.
He says, I’d like to get out to a lot of different places, but time’s running short.
So I’m asking God to help me find some people to go in my stead,
    Spread the word that the Kingdom of Heaven is close by,
  And folks, I think I’ve found those people. It’s you all!

Let the reader understand. This message is for us. It’s about us.

You’ll notice, first, that he doesn’t give them an opportunity to back out.

And he says, Pack light, everybody. No suitcase, no extra clothes, and move fast.
Don’t stop by the ATM on your way out of town.
He says, Hurry on your way. Don’t yak with people. Be about your business.
He says, Be nice. Bless the house you enter. But if they’re not interested, move on.

And in the same breath, he says, Stay on if you can. Stay put if it’s possible.
Take advantage of whatever situation you find yourself in.

And what are they to do while they’re out?
He says, Cure the sick ones you find, and tell them that the Kingdom of God
  Has come so close they can touch it.
If you can’t do any work in those towns or if you get rejected,
  Well, that’s not on you: just shake off the dust and keep moving.

And then the kicker: “Whoever listens to you listens to me,
  And whoever rejects you rejects me,
    And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

So they go, as he tells them; and they do just fine.
In fact, more than fine: they come back busting their buttons.
They report getting into scrapes with demons and living to tell the tale.
And this is what Jesus says when he hears the reports of their success:
  He says, Satan himself has been torn from his throne this very day.

Wouldn’t you love for that to be the performance review of your life by Jesus?
“Satan himself cannot stand to be near you.”

The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles were written together:
  Same time, same place, same author, same intent: same book.

Chapter One and Chapter Two of the same saga:
  People trying to figure out what this Jesus Event was,
    Make sense of it for the lives they were living, when and where they were living them.
So when you read these books of the Bible, know that Luke has designs on Acts.

The Acts of the Apostles, of course, is the Acts of the Apostles:
  Stories of what they did, where they went, who they talked with –
  In other words, how God acted through people to accomplish God’s good ends.
It’s about how the early Jesus Movement turned the world upside-down
  Wherever it happened to be, wherever it was blown by the Spirit.
And any successes we see here by those in the camp of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke,
  We are meant to read forward as a foreshadowing for the church as reported in Acts.
It brings to mind what Jesus said to his disciples in John:
  “Very truly I tell you,
    The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do,
      And in fact will do greater works than these.”

Acts has some memorable stories of numeric success, adding people to the church:
  Chapter two: “Those who believed what Peter said were baptized
    And added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all ....
      And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Or again, in chapter four: “Many of those who heard the word believed;
  And they numbered about five thousand.”

And so I wonder about something.
In an age in which church attendance is siphoning itself off to other things –
  (And it would be easy to despair, but we aren’t going to; we aren’t going to submit to despair) –
  But in our time and place, what does it mean to be successful today for Christ?
What does it mean, now, to “win souls for Christ” as people commonly say?
What if we took the success of the disciples seriously
  Without getting fixated on the numeric outcome?

This is a harder task than it sounds because we are so used to measuring everything,
  And for a long time now the church has only been thought to have been successful
    When it was increasing in attendance and giving. We don’t live in that world anymore.
The earth has turned under our feet,
  And as powerful a force in society as the church has been in years past,
    I can’t keep soccer from being played on Sundays.
We can’t shut down the farmer’s markets or Starbucks.
Yet I can assure you that wherever I go, people’s number one goal is always the same:
  “Bring in young families and grow the church.”

There’s a strong, and may I say far too literal shadow being cast from the Acts of the Apostles
  Right up on to the church today.

(I would only add that when I point out what might be happening inside the organization
  That could keep that growth from happening, people tend to get cold
    And don’t want to talk about it anymore. We can save that for another time.)

For now, it’s enough to say this:
  That it is time to redefine success as we have imagined it up to this point.
Every organization has to have a gut-check moment every five hundred years or so,
  And this is the time for that moment in the life of the church.
Why in the world would we believe that St. Aidan’s is any kind of exception to that need?
It’s going to involve a certain amount of discomfort, risk, loss, and failure;
  It’s going to require people willing to think and act experimentally;
    And it’s going to force us to be very clear about our purpose.
It may not always feel like it in the moment, but such change is for the good.

When Christians need to see the world afresh, they go to prayer, and they go back to Scripture.
If you read those stories of early Christian success again,
  And really pray over them,
  You’ll start to see something interesting:
    The big numbers of people joining the Jesus Movement are not the point of the exercise.
I know that’s hard to say, because counting more noses on Sunday is such a wonderful thing.
Everyone wants a bigger number on the Parochial Report, or more baptisms, or more giving.
But truthfully, the big numbers seem to be a side effect of something much more important,
  Which is the ability to clearly speak and to clearly act
  In public witness as to how God is moving in our life right now.
That’s what people are responding to in these readings.

And that doesn’t come out of a can or a bottle or a box. It’s always home-grown.
It requires a certain kind of vulnerability, and trust in Jesus, and closeness with God.
Friendship and union with God. Trust in the Spirit. “Leaning not on our own understanding.”
It is public and it is powerful, and it can’t be faked or bought.
Not even a new Rector is the cure-all.

It simply starts right here, in the heart, us and God,
  With the saints assembled to support and lift up each other.
I believe God is about to do something new and powerful at St. Aidan’s,
  And I wouldn’t want you to miss it.
From that thing, whatever it is, God will bring the harvest.
It’s rarely what we expect, but it’s what God needs.

Thank you for having John and me here these months.
We are both thrilled to be here,
  But more than this we are grateful to God
    That we might get to see something extraordinary and new start to unfold here,
      From the close-up perch we will have over the next several months together.