January 5, 2020
Father O’Malley had a dream one night that he had died and was standing at the Pearly Gates facing St. Peter. Momentarily speechless, he quickly regained his composure and in a loud voice announced, “I am Father James O’Malley, and I have preached at parishes and missions all over the world for nearly 50 years; and I’m now ready to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Ah, yes,” replied St. Peter. “We’ve been expecting you. But I’m afraid that you can’t enter the Kingdom just yet. First, you’re going to have to spend some time in Purgatory.” “Purgatory!” he sputtered. “Surely there’s been some mistake. I’ve devoted nearly 50 years of my life to serving parishes and to preaching sermons to congregations all over the world!” “Oh,” said Peter. “We’re quite aware of your preaching. In fact, on our DVR—that would be our ‘Divine Video Recorder’—we have recorded every single one of your sermons over those nearly 50 years. We have a very comfortable chair and an excellent set of headphones. All you need do to escape Purgatory is to listen to all of your sermons. All two thousand four hundred.” Father O’Malley awoke in a cold sweat! Sounds a lot more like Hell to me than purgatory! Of course I’ll never have to worry about that particular nightmare since we Anglicans rejected the doctrine of Purgatory in 1563, following our break with Rome, as having no basis whatsoever in Scripture. We pretty much go either straight to Hell or straight to Heaven with no stops in between. “Going up, or going down?”
While Purgatory may lack any Scriptural foundation, the idea of people encountering God or one of God’s Angels in dreams or in person is well-documented throughout the Bible, including in this morning’s Gospel. God uses such divine encounters to convey prophesies, instructions, warnings, and other information to those who’ve been singled out for a particular reason. We’ve heard several over the four weeks of our just-concluded season of Advent: to Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, “God will bless you with a son, and here’s why.” To Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, “You are to name your son, John.” To Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, “Do not divorce Mary, for the child she will deliver is Holy.” In today’s Gospel, in three separate dreams, Joseph is told, “Flee to Egypt,’ “Return to Israel,’ and finally, “Go to Galilee and settle your family in the town of Nazareth.” Have you ever found yourself thinking how much easier it might be to actually live a God-centered life and to follow God’s plan for your life if, just once-in-a-while, God would send one of His Angels to you in a dream or a vision? I know I have—at least when I was a lot younger. Of course, if I’d known exactly what that vision in my life was going to end up being, I may have thought twice! Just kidding of course; our lives have been very richly blessed ever since I was called to the Priesthood.
But really, wouldn’t it be nice just to wake up one morning having received a clear message from God? One that may be told you what to do about something you’d been struggling with? Or even something you weren’t expecting; but, knowing it came from God, were willing, even excited, to pursue? I mean, really, God, how hard would it be just once in a while to give us the same kind of clarity that Joseph received? It kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?—at least it does me. Were our Biblical ancestors more faithful than we because of God’s frequent appearances in their lives? Or was it the faith they already had that made them better equipped than we both to receive and perceive these visions and angelic visitations? Because if that’s what it is—faith preceding the messenger, then it raises the possibility that God wants to be just as involved in our lives as He was in Biblical times; but, unlike our ancestors back then, God’s attempts to get through to us are facing a lot more competition these days. I mean, unless God is willing to message us or maybe post on Facebook, His chances of getting through the barrage of data assaulting our senses daily are pretty slim. Think about it, or compare for just a minute, a day in the life of people in the Bible with our lives today. To be honest, we could probably go back just a hundred years or so in America and discover that a “day in the life” comparison would be shocking. Of course we would also discover that 100, or even 70, years ago in America, our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives were much simpler. The 8th commandment was pretty strictly honored all across this great country. All stores closed, at least until the afternoon; and absolutely no youth activities on the Sabbath. That comparison doesn’t even begin to assess the impact of the quantum leaps in mass communication—internet, cell phones, 24/7 sports. In other words—God is facing some stiff competition these days in trying to communicate with us—be it through visions, dreams, or even visitations. The point being that God hasn’t stopped trying; it’s just that the world we live in today makes it much, much harder for us to really open those “eyes of our hearts” that Paul spoke of in his letter to the church in Ephesus, that we heard a few moments ago.
The point I want to impress upon you and to leave you with to think and to pray about in the coming week is simply this: While it may call upon us today to invest a little more effort than was required of our Biblical predecessors and of our own ancestors of 60 or 70 years ago, God is still trying to speak to us today! And the stakes are as high as they have ever been! In case you haven’t noticed—God, Christianity, Judaism—are all under attack today in America! We are on the front lines of a battle that’s been going on for some time now, and--guess what?—we are losing that battle while, to borrow a line from that iconic American ballad by Don McLean’s American Pie’s “Satan is laughing with delight!”
Far too many Christians today seem to be focused solely on their own personal salvation, saying their prayers, going to church—most Sundays at least; supporting their church—if not sacrificially, at least with a modest pledge; occasionally talking about their faith at coffee hour or, if outside the church, to other Christians or other church members. It comes down to leaving some quiet, listening time in their day which might allow God to break through with some critical messages, such as, “You must be more like Paul and make it your mission to do what is necessary to bring others to my house on the Sabbath before it ceases to be my house anymore.” I will never in my life forget visiting five cities in Russia in 1983 and seeing so many beautiful churches—actually many beautiful buildings that had once been churches. While that was due to the Kremlin’s outlawing religion; the result may well be the same one day in America—in Dixon if we don’t all start restructuring our lives and opening ourselves to God’s messengers: angels, dreams, visions carrying God’s warnings that the religion His Son died for 2,000 years ago is in very bad shape today in 21st century America! There is work to do! God’s work! And the danger has never been so real, or the need more urgent for embracing that word so dreaded by Episcopalians and other so-called “mainline” religions: Evangelism.
Paul was an Evangelist, chosen by God to bring Christianity beyond Judaism to the Gentiles. Paul received a vision from Jesus on the road to Damascus. He acted on it and succeeded, beyond all expectations. But the religion Paul jump-started is fast losing ground today in America, and we are allowing it to happen in being so insular with our faith. You may not like what I have to say; but I am only the messenger, acting on a vision I received from God on another road, 34 years ago this month—a road to San Diego, not Damascus. That vision has taken me to seven churches—a good Biblical number--over these past years; and I have consistently emphasized Evangelism in every parish I have served—and I will continue to do so here.
We must all tap into our inner Evangelist and do whatever is required to, in Paul’s words from today’s second lesson, help others to “open the eyes of their hearts” to see not only why God in Christ must become a part of their lives, but also to nurture that process at St. Luke’s.
I realize, more than you could possibly know, that talking about your faith, encouraging others to come to church, and even going that extra mile by offering to take them, is--or can be--painful and intimidating. But the stakes have never been higher to ensure that future Episcopalians will have a place to worship in Dixon long after all of us here have met God face-to-face and are, hopefully, going up in that divine escalator and looking down upon this beautiful place of worship. When it comes to pain, like the emotional pain of actually talking about your faith to others, hear these words from the famous Anglican author and Oxford Don, C.S. Lewis. He felt that God most often speaks to us through our pain—be it physical or, in the case of being an Evangelist, emotional. Lewis described the role of suffering in the life of a Christian as “soul-making.” “It is,” said Lewis, “the shaping of the Christian with the hammer and the chisel of adversity. God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.”
And yet, whether God is whispering, speaking, or shouting, we are unlikely to recognize His voice or to see His hand at work in our lives unless our hearts, ears, and eyes are in a state of spiritual readiness. To me, the most helpful Biblical image of how to be prepared comes to us from Jesus’ parable of the sower. Each day, as you may recall, the sower, representing God in the parable, scatters seed, which represents God’s attempts to be a part of our lives. Some seeds fall on thin and rocky soil; some fall among weeds; while others fall on good, rich soil. Jesus explains that God’s word, falling on thin, rocky, or weed-infested soil withers and dies because of no foundation, or is choked out by weeds, representing the worries, cares, and concerns of the world. Only those seeds falling in good soil—representing a life and a soul prepared to recognize and to act upon God’s word, despite being afraid or uncertain--only those seeds will produce the kind of soil that will inherit the life yet to come in God’s Kingdom.
Just as John the Baptizer prepared the way for the world to receive Jesus, so too are we called by God to ready the soil of our lives to receive His messages today--a time in which the thin, rocky soil is represented by the ever-increasing intolerance of and disregard for the religion founded by Jesus Christ. The weeds are represented by the 24/7 barrage of secular messages and activities for adults and children, which are choking the mandate of the 8th Commandment not only to remember the Sabbath, but also to keep it Holy.
I am keenly aware that Evangelism—taking our religion beyond the walls of our church--is a recurring subject in my sermons; and it will continue to be so because if this message is only heard but not acted upon, in another half-century or less, this wonderful, historic church may no longer be here on the corner of 3rd Street and Peoria Avenue. Oh, the building will no doubt be here; but, like Moscow in the 80s, by then it may be serving as a museum, a site for weddings and concerts only, or maybe even a lovely restaurant, like a historic church in downtown San Diego, which now packs them in on weekend nights as the “Abbey Restaurant.”
And so it is that on this first Sunday of 2020 and the first Sunday of a new decade, I invite us all to either forego or to move way down the list, any trivial or cleverly framed New Year’s resolutions and to make instead just one “New Life” resolution—a resolution to become more open to God’s attempts to break into our lives by preparing the spiritual soil of our lives so that God’s messages, however delivered, will find each of us with the eyes of our hearts wide open, leaving an uncluttered path to the door of our hearts. This will lead us into the world and into the lives of those who have no one but us to open the doors of their hearts to receive God’s life-giving word and lead them to eternal salvation!
January 12, 2020
Please don’t ask me why, but as I read Matthew’s brief account of the Baptism of Jesus last week, specifically when the dove came down as the Spirit of God, alighting on the head of Jesus—an image flashed into my head of something I used to do with my friends, growing up in San Diego. I’ve come now to accept such things happening in the process of preparing sermons and to simply thank God for the assist.
Anyway the neighborhood I grew up in was called Redwood Village. It was about fifteen miles east of the city, and I must say that Dixon often brings back memories of my childhood there. About a block from our house was the Village Market, next to Kips Variety store which had an actual soda fountain. My summers consisted of riding my bike to the baseball field with my friends and playing a game called Workup all day with a break for lunch. The memory that came to me last week involved something we discovered on one of those summer lunch breaks while sitting on the sidewalk in front of Village Market. I can’t tell you exactly where the idea came from, but as we were sitting there with our cokes—real ones in glass bottles, loaded with sugar and caffeine—one of us said that if we went back in the market and bought a pack of M&Ms, he’d show us something really cool that he’d heard about. So we got the M&Ms and a new bottle of coke; and my friend who was the ringleader of this little experiment—I think it was Ernie Dronenburg—proceeded to open the bottle and drop several M&Ms into the coke, as the rest of us looked on expectantly. Nothing happened for a few seconds; and then suddenly the coke started to churn, fizz, and bubble before basically erupting. Ernie quickly got his mouth over it while the rest of us rushed into the market to buy some new cokes. I think that this little experiment fascinated us for at least a week. Get the coke and M&Ms; then, “plop plop, fizz fizz”—and when all the coke was gone, we would eat the cold, hard remnants of the little M&M corpses, stripped of their shiny, colorful exteriors.
Back then, we had no idea why this eruption happened; and we really could have cared less. It happened—and that’s all that mattered. To us 10-year-old boys, it was all about the eruption! While today I do know that technical term for what function those doomed M&Ms served in the eruption process, I couldn’t come close to explaining it. They were the catalysts—defined as a person or a thing that precipitates an event or a change; something which acts as a stimulus. So when we introduce a catalyst into a situation, things may very well start to happen. While catalyst wasn’t even a word or a concept in the time of Jesus, He certainly knew the function of a catalyst. Who knows, maybe as a child he would watch Mary baking bread; and years later tell His disciples that the growth of God’s Kingdom was like a tiny bit of yeast that, when it was mixed with three measures of flour, would raise up the entire loaf. A catalyst brings about change. A catalyst brings about growth. Something is still, inert, or placid; then something is added, and suddenly there is a stirring new activity, new growth, sometimes even an explosion; and things are no longer the same!
Behold, the catalyst!
The church founded by Jesus today has its own catalysts—we call them sacraments—those “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” I choose to refer to the two great sacraments instituted by Jesus—Baptism and Eucharist—as catalysts because they are, or at least should be, agents of change or growth in our lives. It all starts with Baptism, as it did for Jesus, whose Baptism we are celebrating this morning. Speaking of which, many people have wondered why it was even necessary for Jesus to be baptized. It’s a good question, and while only God knows the full answer, I would suggest that it was to emphasize for us that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine—one of us, in other words, during His time on earth. And so it is that, just as when Jesus came up out of the water and God said, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” so too when a child or adult is baptized in the church’s font, that person is likewise accepted by God as His own child, with the sanctified water in the font representing the Rive Jordan. In fact, when we do Baptisms here--I think that Ruth’s great-grandson, Ian, was the last--I add a few drops of this Holy Water that actually came from the River Jordan—blessed, I believe, by the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem. While the change effected by one’s Baptism may not be immediately apparent, as in the case of an infant Baptism, we believe that something in that person has been changed. We believe that at some point in that person’s life, it will be activated—hopefully more than once—when one of life’s M&Ms is dropped into that person’s inner reservoir of baptismal water to serve as a catalyst.
I like to think of Baptism in that way. God starts something within us which may lie dormant for a while, like one of those sleeper agents planted in another country—a Manchurian Candidate for those who remember that classic movie—dormant, waiting for some catalyst to start it to fizzing and then erupting in the form of some act of ministry in the church, in the world, wherever, whatever.
And yet, Baptism alone is no guarantee of a changed life, one that serves not only God, but also one’s fellow human beings, making a difference in the world. Baptism alone is also no guarantee of our Salvation and life after death in God’s Kingdom in Heaven. Because as surely as a Coca Cola left too long on the shelf will lose its fizz, becoming flat and producing no eruption, no matter how many M&Ms are added, so too any Christian who takes his or her Baptism for granted will be in for an unwelcome surprise when their life here is over. Anyone who neglects his or her spiritual gifts, who refuses to place Jesus Christ at the center of their life with everything else orbiting around Him, will then discover that there could have been oh, so much more to life; and that it has never been God’s intention that His children linger safely on those shelves of life while others are allowing the catalyst placed in their path by God to change their lives.
In His encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria, described in John’s Gospel, Jesus vividly described the intended effect of the living water of Baptism in our lives, compared to ordinary water. Referring to the water in the well, Jesus said to the Samaritan women, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty! The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water, gushing up to eternal life.” Except, there will be no gushing unless we, the baptized, using our “eyes of faith,” recognize the catalysts God places in our path and then add them to that living water of Baptism already within us. But here’s the thing, and it’s important. God has done all in His power, setting the stage, if you will, for our Salvation and life eternal in His Kingdom. While God did give humanity the gift of free will at creation, the reality is that most of us, most Christians, were not baptized of their own free will. Our parents, probably 90% of the time, made that choice for us. At some point in our lives, when we realize that we were baptized as Christians, we are given a choice, whether to actually live our lives as Christians, believing in faith with no proof available, all that is in the Bible, including salvation and eternal life.
Many, to be honest, and that number is growing every year, choose not to believe, not to attend church regularly or at all, and to live lives indistinguishable from those who were never baptized. That of course is their free choice, and there is no available proof that they have made the wrong choice! It’s all about faith; it’s all about our believing in something that is impossible to prove. If you believe that your Baptism created within you that reservoir of living water, a reservoir that can either be allowed to go flat or to be activated and stirred up throughout your life by those catalysts I’ve referred to as God’s M&Ms, then you must not only be involved in a community of faith, you must be actively involved. By that I mean you must willingly embrace those catalysts God places in your path, allowing God to stir up your faith—again and again.
Mary had to agree to become the bearer of the Christ Child when Gabriel visited her that night. Joseph had to agree not to divorce Mary. Even the human Jesus had to agree to be nailed to a cross. Each of us who has been baptized must now make choices throughout our lives to allow God not only to place those catalysts in our paths, but also to embrace them and to allow the life-changing power of Jesus Christ to become in us that spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
All of you here today, including any visitors, I must assume have already said yes to God at some point in your lives and therefore must now be willing to embrace not only those catalysts He puts in our paths, but also to accept the sometimes radical changes in our lives that they bring. While change can be unsettling, even frightening, a wise man once said, ”Nothing in the world that is alive remains unchanging.” Only the dead stop growing. Fresh water runs on; and if you stop it, it becomes stagnant. So it is with the water of Baptism; so it is with our lives in Christ.
Friends, do not allow the sacred waters of Baptism to become still and stagnant in your lives, leaving others to carry on with God’s ongoing work you were also called to do. While there is still time, use your eyes of faith to recognize God’s M&Ms popping up in your life; drop them into those living waters of Baptism already within you; and then brace yourself for the ride of your life—a ride that ends with Salvation, not stagnation!
January 19, 2020
A fire alarm in a large office building went off at 4 p.m. on a Friday when nearly all of the company’s nearly 500 employees were at work. Within minutes the entire office was evacuated with every employee gathered in the parking lot. Nothing happened for nearly ten minutes; and there was no evidence of any fire when suddenly the firm’s security officer appeared in front of the building to make an announcement: “Dear employees, it’s with a heavy heart that I must tell you that for many of you, this will be your last fire drill. The company is laying off nearly 50% of staff; and when you move back into the building’s lobby, some of you will find that your swipe-pass card will no longer allow you access to the office area. If you are among this group, please go home; and all of your personal belongings will be delivered to you tomorrow by courier. The management elected to take this approach in order to prevent overloading our internal email system with layoff and goodbye messages and also to avoid any violent outbursts inside the office. We hope those of you who no longer have access will have a nice career ahead of you. Now, please move into the building’s lobby and attempt to swipe your pass-card.”
I must admit to laughing when I first came across this story, assuming it was someone’s idea of a bad joke and was then horrified to discover that it was actually a true story! I probably shouldn’t have been all that surprised, as it took place at a time when our economy was struggling even worse than it is now; and I am sure there will soon be more stories like this one where new doors—literal and figurative—will be closed on jobs and programs while those ubiquitous swipe-pass cards will suddenly deny access to things once taken for granted.
Such things are the inevitable by-product of the times we wake up to each morning these days in America. While certainly not everyone is suffering, as history teaches us that many fortunes were made during the Great Depression; history also reveals that during bleak economic times in practically every country, in every age, there is one group that can always count on being hit the hardest. I suspect that if we think about it, the answer will come quickly: Churches, synagogues, mosques, and—to a lesser extent—charities and other institutions where giving is voluntary are the first to feel the effects of a struggling economy . . . and the last to reap the benefits of its eventual recovery.
This pattern is, of course, a supreme irony in that churches and institutions like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, that are among the first to suffer the impact of a struggling economy, at the same time experience an almost immediate demand for the services they provide, even though their own resources have been diminished and stretched. There’s actually a bizarre kind of logic to this pattern, as people who are suddenly being turned away by locked doors and swipe-cards which no longer swipe, end up turning to churches whose doors are always open to those in need, despite their own struggles.
And you know what? This is exactly as God would have it. Because at churches, God’s outposts on earth, no one in true need should ever have to deal with a closed door or a swipe card that no longer swipes. Whether one’s need is for food, shelter, or clothing or simply for friendship and a sense of connection—at churches, certainly at this church, they will never be turned away. Why? Because here we seek not only to say, but to put into practice the words of Jesus who once said, “Come unto me all of you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
While it should go without saying, I’ll say it anyway. At this outpost of God’s presence on earth, at St. Luke’s, we could care less about one’s race, creed, national origin, sexual orientation, who they voted for in the last election, even whether they currently believe in God. Here, we seek to put into practice in our lives and in our ministries, the words of Psalm 40 that we said just a few moments ago:
“I waited patiently upon the Lord; he stooped to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.”
I quote from this Psalm just to remind us all that God was in the business of lifting His children from the desolate pits of life long before that most holy night in the little town of Bethlehem, when God sent His Son to earth. Ever since God placed Adam and Eve in that garden with their mixed blessing gift of free will, God has known that we human beings would sometimes exercise it in ways that would plunge us into those desolate pits on the roads of life, looking up with our feet stuck firmly in the mire of economic hardship; health problems traceable to poor choices; or in the clay of despair, injury, or depression.
Into those dark places, bearing the true light of the Spirit comes Jesus Christ. Why? Because our God—in all three personas—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—just in case you didn’t know it, happens to be in the “salvage” business—a word that derives from the same root as its more famous cousin, “Salvation.” I kind of like using salvage here because while salvation is certainly where we all want to be headed some day when our journey here is over, salvage is rooted more in the present; salvage is all about the here and the now. Salvage is all about those times when we find ourselves stuck in one of those desolate pits. I get the image of a tow truck, patrolling the roads of life—lights flashing, extra gas cans, jumper cables, and a huge winch to pull to safety those who have fallen over cliffs or taken the wrong exit on one of life’s roads to pull them up, dust them off, and get them back on the only road that will lead them to salvage’s more famous relative . . . Salvation!
That brings me, finally, to another image that I like very much because while the idea of God’s being in the salvage business with the fleet of life-saving and soul-saving trucks patrolling the roads of life is very comforting, one thing is missing—drivers! Actually, they’re not really missing because, as we know, God thinks of everything. We are the drivers—you and me. The first step in bringing someone to God, in bringing them to God’s house, is often not inviting them to a worship service, but instead noticing when someone is broken down or in one of those desolate pits. We can then stop to lend a hand—maybe even, in extreme cases, to fire up that winch to pull them out; and in very extreme situations, to climb right down there with them to offer them that milk of human kindness which cannot be given from a safe distance.
The point being that bringing someone to God—Father, Son, or Holy Spirit—does not have to involve first inviting them to worship. This brings us full circle back to that false fire drill followed by a mass firing. Most of those fired were faced suddenly with a crisis in their lives. Those belonging to a church family and active within it had somewhere to turn for support. Those who did not might soon find themselves suddenly off the grid, standing mired in one of those desolate pits, crying for help. While they might not have been part of any faith community; may not have known God—God has always known them and was already taking steps to get them to a place of safety with a little help from His salvage crew—that’s us, by the way, in case I didn’t make that clear. While I did mention that salvage and salvation come from the same roots, if you’re like me, you might be tempted at first to link it with junk yards, littered with wrecked cars and other ruined pieces of machinery—and that would be a mistake. Because scattered along life’s highways are those who were never given the chance to be salvaged—those who were somehow overlooked or missed by God’s salvage team. To salvage something, be it a car or a human being, is to try to save it before it’s too late—look it up.
That, my friends, is the business we all chose when we were baptized—to, among other things—join with God in the business of saving stranded, down on their luck and wounded human beings beside the roads of life—before it’s too late. We don’t know anything about Andrew’s unnamed friend in today’s Gospel. He may have been a fine, well-adjusted person with no problems whatsoever. But I have a special place in my heart for Andrew because he is the Bible’s poster child for working, unobtrusively, behind the scenes to bring people to Jesus. It was Andrew, if you recall, who found the small boy who shared his meager lunch to help Jesus feed the 5,000 with loaves and fishes. But, back to Andrew’s unnamed friend in our Gospel today. He didn’t invite his friend to a service at the synagogue; he invited him and his own brother Peter to spend time with Jesus. Andrew might never have invited a friend, co-worker, or relative to a worship service to be confused by strange customs, prayers, and rituals. Today an “Andrew” might either help someone in need, as part of God’s salvage team, or maybe ask someone who is just lonely to help pack Buddy Bags, to volunteer at the food pantry, or drop by after church for some coffee hour fellowship. You get the idea. I suspect that there are some of us here this morning who have encountered at difficult times in our lives an Andrew, one of God’s salvage teams, or maybe both.
So please, dear friends, always remember who you are, whose you are, and try to be sensitive each day to those you come across; those who may appear normal, but who may in fact be already in, or sliding toward one of those desolate pits, just waiting to be salvaged; or someone who simply has no network of support in their lives should a crisis occur.
Churches are not just about worship; in fact, the hour or so we send here on Sundays is but the tip of the iceberg. Besides great fellowship and a support system, there are activities, ministries, and other opportunities here which don’t involve that often intimidating first worship experience. Seek not only to be part of one of God’s salvage teams, but also to be an “Andrew’ in someone’s life. It takes only those three words of invitation that Jesus extended to Andrew and to his unnamed friend in today’s Gospel:
“Come and see.”
January 26, 2020
This year in October, Terri and I will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary. We’ve been talking about spending a week at the place where we spent the first week of our honeymoon in 1985—in Cape Cod on Nantucket Island. I have a feeling that our recent talks about this second honeymoon in October explain why, as I read through today’s lessons--especially Isaiah and Matthew’s Gospel, talking about “the people who sat in dark ness seeing a great light” and “the people who walked in darkness and who lived in a land of deep darkness, seeing a great light,”-- my mind flashed back to Terri and me riding our bicycles to visit each of Nantucket’s three lighthouses which were still functioning: Great Point, Brant Point, and Sankaty Head. Terri has always loved lighthouses, and it was a great experience for us to begin our honeymoon.
I then remembered hearing some years ago, a modern parable concerning a lighthouse. Thanks to the internet and to Google—as this would have been next to impossible on short notice in those pre-internet days of yesteryear—I was able to locate the parable which I believe will help us not only to shed some light on at least two of today’s lessons, but also to have that same light guide us in applying these lessons to our lives. Since this modern lighthouse parable is fairly well-known, it’s quite possible some of you may have heard it before in another context. If that’s the case, I sincerely hope my effort today might cause you to see it in--well yes, I’m going to say it—to see it in a new light.
The lighthouse of the parable sits on a very dangerous coastline—not unlike the waters around Nantucket or the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was a very simple lighthouse and had only one boat. The people who kept watch were very dedicated, keeping a constant watch looking for ships in distress. When they spotted one, they immediately launched their single boat. Over the years many lives were saved, and the lighthouse became quite famous. So famous in fact that soon many people wanted to be a part of it and gave generously of their time, talent, and money to support its life-saving work. As a result, new boats were bought, new crews recruited, and formal training sessions were instituted. However, as time passed, and the membership grew, some members felt that the old building was just too simple; and the equipment was showing its age as well. They felt they needed a nicer place only, of course, to welcome the survivors of the shipwrecks. And so they raised money to give the old lighthouse a facelift and also replaced the emergency cots with soft beds, put in new furniture, and enlarged and decorated the place. Soon the new lighthouse became a popular gathering place for the expanded membership. They would meet regularly, swap stories, share meals, and give one another parting hugs. Anyone could see how much they all loved one another.
But then something strange started to happen: fewer and fewer members found themselves interested in actually going out to sea on life-saving missions; so they hired lifeboat crews to do it for them. One day a large ship went down, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned survivors. They were also dirty and seasick. Some had different colored skin than the club members and spoke in strange languages. Soon the beautiful new meeting place became a place of chaos. The plush carpets were tracked with mud, and the new furniture got scratched. At an emergency meeting of the property committee, it was agreed that new showers must be installed outside the newly refurbished lighthouse station so that victims of future shipwrecks could, you know, be cleaned up before coming inside. And so it was done. But at the next full meeting of the lighthouse station there was a serious disagreement. A majority of the members wanted simply to stop the club’s life-saving activities, as they had become unpleasant, time-consuming, expensive, and a hindrance to the normal life-pattern of the club. A minority, however, insisted that saving lives should still be the club’s primary purpose, feeling that they were still called to be a lighthouse and a life-saving station. However, they were voted down and told that if they really wanted to continue saving the lives of all those various types of people who might be shipwrecked—they should just begin their own life-saving station—down the coast. And so they did. While at first they did return to the old ways of saving lives, eventually the same pattern repeated itself; and soon after that, a third life-saving station was started even farther down the coast . . . and before long, history repeated itself again. If you were to visit this coast today, you would find any number of adequate meeting places with ample parking, outdoor showers, and wonderfully appointed facilities. While shipwrecks still happen in those waters, nowadays most people drown.
This parable was written over 65 years ago; and while today we have modern radios, satellites, and Zoran for ships to communicate, I’m guessing that this parable is about so much more than lighthouses. One day Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee when He saw Andrew and Peter casting nets—for they were fishermen. “Follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fishers of men.” Or people, although the King James version, while not “PC” these days, is a much better play on words. They couldn’t resist and immediately dropped their nets and abandoned their former lives, as well as the family business. Maybe it was curiosity, or perhaps they were just young and impetuous—or both. Maybe. But my take is that there was just something about Jesus. Something edgy. Something risky. Something these two young men just couldn’t resist. Jesus said, “You like to fish? Come, fish for people.”
In a different setting, Jesus might have said, “You like to garden? Come and harvest people—because while the harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few.” Or perhaps in Texas, “ You like to rope, come and I’ll teach you to lasso a few lost souls.” Or today: “You like to shop? I’ll teach you how to shop for souls.” But Jesus isn’t really talking about fishing, gardening, roping, or shopping, anymore than the parable was really talking about lighthouses and shipwrecks. What He was really saying--is really saying today--is, “Come, follow me and I will not only change your life . . . but soon, you’ll be saving lives.” Notice please, what Jesus didn’t say to Andrew, Peter, James, and John: He didn’t say, “Come, follow me and maybe you will fish for people.” No. What He said to them and what Jesus still says to every baptized disciple is, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
In other words, once we say yes to Jesus, fishing--or, if we look to the lighthouse story, saving or rescuing people--just comes with being a Christian. We are simply not allowed to cloister ourselves, like the lighthouse members ended up doing, surrounded by creature comforts as people drown outside our walls. Because when the parable ends with, “Shipwrecks still happen,” it means that out there, in the stormy waters of the world, there are many souls who are drowning, needing only a lifeboat or a lifeline—needing us—you and me who have been washed in the waters of Baptism and are forever partnered with our Lord Jesus Christ in the business of saving the lives of those drowning in the seas of life—needing only that great light of Christ to shine on them; needing us to man or woman the boats and rescue them.
Our lighthouse today is St. Luke’s, and we can either choose to spread the good news, bringing others to this life-saving station; or we can simply abandon this sacred duty, leaving it to others. Many churches have taken that route. Today they occupy the coastlines of life—serving now as museums, libraries, or,--as I pointed out in a recent sermon—restaurants with catchy names like “The Abbey” in San Diego or “The Refectory” in Northern California. Some are even still disguised as churches—but they are turned inward, deaf to the cries of the lost souls surrounding them—people drowning in the stormy and lonely seas of these trying times. We must be ever vigilant and on guard, because those churches whose lights are now extinguished—didn’t start out that way. You’ve all probably heard the expression, “Preaching to the choir”—meaning those who really need to hear the sermon aren’t here! But not today. To paraphrase an old Budweiser beer commercial, ”This one’s for you!” You Peters, Andrews, James and Johns who are typically here most every Sunday. You are the ones Jesus is counting on to take the lifeboats and to rescue those who are out there, drowning. Most are blissfully unaware of the danger they’re in, while others are desperately treading water, knowing either that something is missing in their life or that something is pulling them under—often both! But the identity of that something remains in darkness, needing only the light of Christ to unmask it.
Another group out there consists of those who once were a part of the lighthouse crew, but for various reasons have drifted away—needing only an invitation, a friendly gesture, a word, an email, or a phone call—needing, in other words for someone to hop into a lifeboat, to row out, and to bring them back to safety, back to the fold. Try looking around on Sundays, testing your memories. Who isn’t here that used to be here—maybe not all that long ago? I do this every few months by going through the directory. While I’m still a relative newcomer, I do know the names of those who are regulars. When I come across a name I don’t recognize, I call them or send them an email. Jest week I texted about seven or eight people I did not know, asking if they still wanted to be carried on our membership rolls. I had two positives within an hour, including a commitment to come back.
People need to know they’ve been missed and not left to feel that they might drown out there in those seas of life and that we here could care less, because we apparently either didn’t notice their absence or did notice and did nothing. What’s important and critical is that you do something and not just leave this lighthouse today, go home, and forget about those souls floating out there just waiting for the light of Christ to shine on them so that they might be rescued. So please, think seriously on this, go through our directory—we’ll give you one—and then seek out the lost, cast out your nets or your internets. When you’re out there in the world between Sundays, if this church, this lighthouse, feeds your spirit, lights your lamp, floats your boat, let that excitement show to others.
We may not be drawing thousands like those megachurches, and while I haven’t written a book or appeared on Ellen DeGeneres or Dr. Phil yet, we are nurturing souls, doing good in the community—supporting PADS for example—reaching out and making a difference. That’s all well and good, but we must all do a much better job at search and rescue, spreading the word, fishing for people, and rescuing those who are out there treading water, waiting only for the light of Christ to shine on them and to be rescued. Even now, Jesus is walking by your Sea of Galilee, by your boat and calling your name, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people!” Because while shipwrecks still happen on this coast, let it not be said that any souls have drowned on our watch!