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.

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