Sermon, Epiphany 3A - Preached at Grace Episcopal Church on Annual Meeting Sunday
Text: Matthew 4:12-23
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the story of the call of Andrew, Peter, James and John. They are preparing to go fishing in the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus calls them to follow him. Matthew tells us that they immediately drop their nets, leave their jobs, and follow Jesus.
This reading seems a particularly appropriate one for reflection as we worship together in advance of our Annual Meeting. It’s a reading that tells us our common destination as a congregation: The Kingdom of Heaven. And it’s a reading that tells us our common call: Fishers of People.
When Jesus begins preaching after John’s arrest, he uses John’s own words: Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Sometimes as Christians, we get confused about what Jesus means. Theologian N.T. Wright says that this Kingdom of Heaven isn’t about “our escape from this world to another one, but to God’s own rule ‘coming on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
At the end of this passage, Matthew describes how Jesus went about they work of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven near. He says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Teaching. Proclaiming. Healing. Those are the relational actions that help to bring near the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s the common destination of this and every congregation.
Jesus tells Andrew, Peter, James and John that he will make them fish for people. That’s our common call. Often, when people think about this verse, they think about Evangelism. And that’s certainly one key way to “fish.” But, it’s not the only way. Whenever we reach out to love and serve others in Jesus’ name we are, in fact, fishing for people. That's the common call of this and every congregation.
The Sunday of our annual meeting is a perfect day to reflect on how we have been open to the call to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by teaching, proclaiming, and healing in 2016. And, how doing these things led us to fish for people. It is also a perfect time to begin to talk together about how we see ourselves continuing that journey in 2017.
Here are just a few ways that I’ve seen our congregation respond to the call to Teach, Proclaim, and Heal in 2016, thereby fishing for people:
WATTS - We've just finished up our time of service at WATTS - the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter. Members of Grace and St. Mary's helped set up the shelter, cooked dinner on Wednesday and breakfast on Thursday, worked at the shelter on Wednesday night, helped out again on Thursday morning, and finally worked to break down the shelter. Those actions were ways to proclaim and heal, thereby fishing for people.
Sunday School - I'm impressed with our Sunday School. We have 30 to forty children and teens participating in our program. They are guided and mentored by a number of adults who love and care for them. And they are supported in their learning by so many in this congregation who show up for activities and fundraisers. It's how we teach around here, thereby fishing for people.
Backpack Program - Every week, our church provides meals for 37 children in the Clarke County Schools whose homes are food insecure. On Fridays, they are sent home from school with enough food to feed them all weekend. This ministry originated here and has now spread to many of the churches in Berryville. All told, 97 children receive food every weekend. It's another way we proclaim and heal, thereby fishing for people.
As we look forward to 2017, here are two things we’ll talk about during the Annual Meeting. Our question will be, "How do we hear God’s voice calling us in for 2017?"
Shrine Mont Retreat - Clarke Parish has held an annual retreat at Shrine Mont for man years. This year, we will focus on our liturgy. We'll learn about the different parts of our liturgy, working in intergenerational groups. It will be one way we proclaim and teach together.
Mission Trip - I've heard from many of you that you miss the regular mission trips that have been part of Clarke Parish's history. This year, we will bring that tradition back! Plans are in the works to go to West Virginia to help rebuild communities devastated by last spring's flood. That mission will proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, and heal those whose lives have been devastated.
We are called to follow Jesus. To listen and discern his voice calling us to follow him. We are called to be his hands and feet in the world today to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven through our teaching, proclaiming and healing, thereby fishing for people. Will you continue to join together and respond to that call?
In today's Gospel reading from the Gospel of John, we hear the story of Jesus' first encounter with two of the men who will become his disciples. At the time he meets them, they are disciples of John the Baptist. John tells them about Jesus. Then, they decide to find out more, so they follow him. When they ask Jesus where he is staying, Jesus says, "Come and see."
This morning, I want to talk about these words: come and see. And, I want to talk with them particularly in the context of Evangelism. In the Episcopal Church, we have a lot of anxiety about Evangelism. The practice of Evangelism has been misused in some Christian churches, so we have tended to give it a pretty wide berth. In fact, there's a statistic that says that average Episcopalian invites someone to come to church with them once every thirty-two years!
So, this morning, I want to talk about what we mean by Evangelism in the Episcopal Church, and how these words come and see might inform our actions.
My guess is that many of us have had a negative experience with evangelism. Perhaps someone has knocked on your door to give you materials that tell you that you are not saved - and that unless you align yourself with this person's particular beliefs about God, your eternal salvation is in jeopardy. Or perhaps you've seen someone on a street corner, shouting about hell and damnation. While it's possible that those behaviors could fall into the loosest definitions of Evangelism, they are NOT what I am talking about here.
When Jesus says to Andrew and his friend that they should come and see, he's not using coercion. He’s not using power. He doesn't threaten them. He doesn't tell them that they will go to hell if they don't come. Rather he issues an invitation. And after they accept the invitation, they stay and talk and begin to develop a relationship. What Andrew hears is so compelling that he goes off to find his brother Simon (whom we'll come to know by his nickname Peter) and issues the same invitation: come and see.
Perhaps my thoughts turned readily to Evangelism this week because we've been working on the Annual Report for our annual meeting next weekend. As Robin and I made our way through all of the topics to be included in the Annual Report, I asked, "What did we do about Evangelism in 2016?" After several long minutes of silence, we both said, "Huh. Nothing." Later, when I was telling this story to another parishioner, she replied, "Do you mean like standing on street corners and talking to strangers?" Friends, the good news is NO! That's not at all what I mean.
But, during this year 2017, I am going to invite us to consider some simple things that we can do around Evangelism. And those simple things will be related to our words for this morning: come and see.
I have a colleague from my days of ministry in New Hampshire who created a whole process for Evangelism around these words. Charles described it like this: if you have a child who is in a school play, you might well invite your friends to come and see your child in the play. You aren't inviting your friends to join the drama group, or to take a part in the play, or to join the pit band, or even to sell treats at intermission. You're inviting them to come and see your child in the play. And you do so because you love your child and want to share your child's accomplishments with your friends.
To my mind, that's how the best evangelism works. You have found something that gives your life meaning here at Grace/St. Mary's.
Y'all come to church week after week - and it's NOT because you're bored and have nothing better to do on Sunday mornings! Perhaps you have a friend or neighbor or colleague who might also benefit from being a part of this community. Some Sunday, you might invite them to come and see.
There are two key things that distinguish a come and see invitation from other types of evangelism - and they are crucial. The first is that it's not about power. Your invitation doesn't come with some kind of threat or fear. And the second is related. Your invitation comes out of your own interest. If you invite someone to come and see, you do so from a place of sharing your joy - just like the school play analogy.
It was a little horrifying to realize that we had done nothing Evangelism related in 2016. One of my hopes for this year is to have a particular Sunday where we focus on and encourage one another to invite a friend to come and see. Stay tuned.
I want to end with a personal testimony. As some of you know, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. I was active in that tradition until after I graduated from college. In my new town, I visited the five Roman Catholic churches, and not one of them felt particularly welcoming. A work colleague expressed interest in how it was going - and when I was feeling pretty dejected, she invited me to come to church with her. I felt immediately welcomed in her UCC church, and quickly made their community my new church home. In fact, I joined three different churches as an adult before eventually going to seminary. In each case, I found the church I joined because someone in the congregation that I knew said something like come and see.
As we think about building a strong future for Grace Church, increasing our membership and strengthening our particular branch of the Body of Christ will be one important step. Maybe you'll invite a friend to come and see our backpack ministry. Maybe you'll invite them to come and see the Christmas Pageant. Maybe you'll invite them to come and see a bible study. Whatever it is that brings you joy and fulfillment through being part of this community – invite someone else to come and see.
Text: Acts 10:34-43
Professor James Thompson says that the conversion of Cornelius, the story we hear a small portion of this morning, is the pivotal text in the pair of books written by Luke – the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In the story, a Roman leader receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is baptized along with his household. It’s safe to say that this story changed the course of the early Christian movement, opening the practice of faith in Jesus to those who were not Jewish.
There are two related concepts that are important for us as we strive to understand this story and what it means for us. The first is that God shows no partiality because people from every nation who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. The second is that this good news about who is welcome came through Jesus, who preached peace.
This morning, we’ll start by looking at the whole story of Cornelius, since we pick it up in the middle! Then, after know the whole story, we’ll explore these two phrases and what they mean for us today.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, responsible for a group of 100 Roman soldiers. We are told at the start of his story that he feared God, gave alms, and prayed constantly. One afternoon, while praying, he had a vision and was told to send for Peter, who was in Joppa. The following day, while he was praying, Peter also had a vision. In it, he saw a sheet filled with animals considered to be unclean, being lowered from heaven. A voice told him to take and eat. After he protested, the voice repeated itself. After a repeated protestation, Peter head the voice of God say, "Nothing I make is unclean."
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. The Cornelius' servants were there to bring him to Cornelius. When they arrived in Caesarea, at Cornelius' home, Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision. Peter responded with the passage that we heard this morning. At the conclusion of his speech, the Holy Spirit entered the room and landed on Cornelius and his household. Peter then called for the Gentiles to be baptized.
This is a remarkable story. In the first century, Jews and Gentiles did not associate with one another at all. It was illegal, according to Jewish law, for a Jewish person to visit the home of a Gentile or to share a meal with them. And, Cornelius is part of the Roman occupying army – he wasn’t just any Gentile, he was literally an enemy to Peter. Imagine, then, what it would have been like to hear Peter say, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” and then go on to say that in EVERY NATION those who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. These words would have been shocking to both Jews and Gentiles.
It was an important and pivotal teaching then – and remains one today. What makes us acceptable to God has nothing to do with externals and everything to do with who we are inside. It’s not about race or class or culture. What makes us acceptable to God is reverence (that’s a better translation of the word fear) which leads to our acting accordance with God’s will because of that reverence. At the very start of Cornelius’s story, we hear three things that Cornelius does: he fears God, he gives alms, and he prays constantly. Cornelius’ almsgiving and prayer follow from his “fear” or reverence.
Secondly, Peter says that this teaching came through Jesus, who was “preaching peace.” We tend to think of the word peace as the absence of war. The Hebrew word shalom has a much fuller definition. It can mean: completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, and safety. When Jesus came preaching peace, he wasn’t talking about an absence of war. In Luke’s Gospel, He begins his earthly ministry with these words from the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the kind of peace or shalom that Jesus preached consistently in his Gospel.
It’s not a surprise then that Professor Thompson sees this story as so pivotal. Cornelius and his family are acceptable to God because of their faith, which informs their actions. Peter, going against all that he had been taught, recognized God and the Holy Spirit at work, and welcomed them into the Way of Jesus. The early church saw God at work, and opened the way of the Gospel to all people. Without Cornelius and Peter, the work of Paul in spreading the Gospel might not have happened. Without Cornelius and Peter, we might not be here!
What does this story mean for us? It seems to me that we are very good at dividing the world up into us vs. them. We are black or white. We are gay or straight. We are Republicans or Democrats, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, legal or illegal, from here or away…. You name it, and we can place ourselves in one category or another and then take sides against those who differ from us. It does seem to a part of human nature. Maybe at some point divisions served an evolutionary purpose, but they don’t serve us now.
God shows no partiality. Those who fear God and do what is right, as shown by Jesus who came preaching peace, are acceptable to God. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to see God at work in the lives of people who are like us and people who are very different from us. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to recognize that worshipping God and doing God’s will are the two things that God requires of us and of all people. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to step out beyond our comfort to embrace those whom God finds acceptable.
Thinking about my Mama
My Mama, Barbara, would be 91 today if she were still alive. This picture of her makes me smile. She's got a kind of mysterious, Mona Lisa-like smile. I wish I knew what she was thinking. And that bow! I've got a box of them in my closet. She apparently loved big bows when she was a girl - and saved them her whole life.
It's hard for me to put the disparate pieces of my mother's life together: the girl who loved big bows doesn't quite fit alongside the woman who wore her hair in the same wash and set for the entire 48 years that I knew her (and goodness knows how many years before that). And that Mona Lisa smile doesn't quite match the woman who learned to see life as a series of disappointments.
When I look at pictures from Barbara's childhood, she seems carefree - and free to be herself. Somehwere along the line, someone or a series of somethings taught her that life was NOT carefree and that her self wasn't good enough. I'm grateful that a week before she died, I was able to say to her, "I wish you could see yourself the way that others see you." Her response was our family's typical response to a conversation we didn't want to have, "How 'bout them Red Sox?" At least we both laughed.
I thought about all this conversation again tonight after reading Facebook. Each year on her birthday, I post a few pictures along with a remembrance. My feed began to fill with other remebrances - from Grafton, from Western Mass, from Berlin, NH, from California. People who knew my mother, primarily through me, reflecting on what they appreciated about her. A class act. A beauty. A card shark. A firecracker. I loved her. I miss her. All true and all things I loved about her, as well!
I think if Barbara were alive today, she'd be astonished to read these words. Somewhere along the line, that confident girl lost some of herself and never was able to find it again.
It's a cautionary tale really. And one I often need to remember myself. We're only here for a short time. Don't waste this beautiful life worried about not living up to others' expectations or standards. Be your beautiful self with whatever big-bow equivlaent you need to shine. Be a class act. Be a firecracker. Be yourself. Take your inspiration from the girl with the Mona Lisa smile.
I'm Fran Gardner-Smith. I'm an Episcopal priest, a wife, a grandmother, a feminist, a writer, and an artist.