New Community

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 16, 2020
Matthew 5:21-37

We would rather eat french fries than broccoli. We would rather have a hamburger than a salad. We would rather sleep in than go to the gym. And we would definitely, definitely rather skip this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Too bad that the things that are good for us are just so hard to do.

Let’s just get this out of the way. This is not our favorite passage from the gospels. We would prefer Jesus to talk about love rather than judgment; about mercy rather than sin; about anything rather than adultery and divorce. Too bad that Jesus can’t just stay in the little box we made for him.

Of course, we could explain our out of this with fancy theological footwork. I could conveniently choose to preach on another passage. We could concoct some sort of scheme in which Jesus didn’t actual say this stuff but some of this later, more corrupted, followers did. I could wrap it up quickly and move on to communion. But where’s the fun in that?

Look at the four topics Jesus is talking about – anger, adultery, divorce, and lying. Things not discussed in polite company. On face value, as we sit here in church on Sunday morning, it sounds as if Jesus is spouting out new restrictive rules. New laws. Being products of Enlightenment thinking, we find all of this too prohibitive. “We are free in Christ! We are not bound to the law!” Or like Roy Rogers sang, “Don’t fence me in.” Except that if we say that, we have missed the whole point entirely. The point is that this whole passage, even the tough parts, are about love and peace. Stay with me here.

See, I think that what is going on here is that Jesus is casting the vision for a new community. This new community would be the remade people of God. Yes, it would include the Jews, but it would also include Gentiles. And that new family is what we call the church.  These words about love and peace because Jesus is creating a community of love and peace.

So, rather than reading these words from Jesus as prohibitions, read them as instructions for living together in a loving community. Read them in the positive sense. Take anger. Jesus is forming a new community which is so bound together by love and mutual affection, that anger will have no place. Imagine that. Imagine living with people who are so committed to loving each other, that anger isn’t even a possibility. Of course, people will disagree with each other, that’s just part of humanity. But imagine how beautiful, how lovely that would be if we could disagree with each other without becoming angry. That’s what Jesus has in mind for us.

The same goes for adultery and divorce. Imagine a community, imagine living together in such a way, that people would not be treated as objects. Imagine living together in such a way that mutual love and commitment undergird every relationship, not just married couples. That’s what Jesus has in mind.

And take oaths and vows. The reason they make you swear on a Bible before you testify in court is because everybody assumes that you will be lying. But Jesus has in mind here a community in which taking that vow, that oath, would not be necessary because everything you say would be truthful. Jesus imagines a community in which you don’t have to make people swear to tell the truth because they will tell the truth because they love each other. 

That’s why I love the Sermon on the Mount. We might find it unpalatable, but this is the stuff my soul is thirsting for. That’s why I love this, granted, difficult passage. Because I desperately want to live in that kind of community with those kinds of people that Jesus is describing. I want to live with a people who love each other. I want to live with people who can disagree without getting angry; who won’t use me; and who won’t lie to me. Doesn’t that sound great? Of course it does, because that is the Kingdom of God.

The good news of the gospel is that we are called into community with people for no other reason than the simple fact that Jesus Christ loves us and we share that love with each other.

So before you cast away these words of Jesus because they are too hard, consider the alternative. Consider what it would be like to live in a community in which anger, violence, and hatred was the norm. Consider what it would be like to live with other people who only used you for their own purposes. Consider what it would be like to live knowing that everybody is lying to you. Oh wait. We already know what that is like. That’s the world. Living in a culture like that – a culture of anger, materialism, and lying – well, that’s a hell all of its own.

Compared to the vision that Jesus has for his new community, even though it’s some hard stuff, I’ll take what Jesus has in mind over what the world has to offer. Put simply, this is God’s vision for the church; a new community of love and peace. And it takes time, and prayer, and diligent discipleship, to let go of our anger, our desires, our lying. 

Which brings us to that one part of the Prayer Book that is not discussed in polite company – the Confession of Sin. For those who come to the Episcopal Church from other churches, the Confession can feel off-putting or coercive, depending upon your past experiences. I get it. We prefer ice cream over vegetables. We prefer Communion over Confession. But from my own experience and from my own life of faith, confessing my sins to God here in the Church is life-giving and liberating. I rejoice that God, who knows that I am given to anger, opportunism, and lying is always willing to hear me, to forgive me, and to welcome me back home. 

As we approach that penitential season of Lent, a time in which the Church calls us back home to God; we begin a season of prayer, fasting, and confession. In the Episcopal Church, we don’t have set rules for Lent. We don’t require fasting or abstaining from certain foods. We don’t mandate certain prayers to be said. And honestly, I could care less if you give up chocolate. What we ask for instead, is a penitent heart. And a desire to turn your back on the ways of the world and recommit to the life of Jesus, to recommit to this new community. Because the things you need to confess, the things you need to work on to grow closer to Jesus, are probably different from the things I need to work on. What unites us, then, is not what we’re doing for Lent, but that we’re doing Lent together. That is good, old fashioned, Anglican theology. That we all bend the knees of our hearts together, asking God to blot out our anger, our materialism, and our lying.

So these words from Jesus are probably not our favorite lines from the gospel. Saying the Confession of Sin is probably not our favorite part of the Prayer Book. Sure, it is far easier to order another round of onion rings than to get the fruit salad. And yes, it would be much easier to keep on with our anger, our objectification, and our lies.But is that the kind of life you want to live? Is that the kind of community you want to live in? Because if so, the world would be more than happy to have you. And like Jesus says, living that way is a hell of its own making. 

Finally, I have to say one more thing. As we are called to live in this new way together, we are not called to be self-righteous about it. Rather, we are called to live in this new way because this is the very way that Jesus lived and loved. And in his example upon the cross, we do not see self-righteousness but humility. By bending our knees, by opening our hearts we are following Jesus in the way of perfect love.

"Right is Right"

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 9, 2020
Matthew 5:13-20

On this Scout Sunday, we are delighted to worship with Boy Scout Troops 1401 and 401, and Cub Scout Pack 401 here at Holy Comforter. I began as a Tiger Cub, became an Eagle Scout, and now I’ve graduated to Girl Scout Troop Leader.

As we’ve gotten more involved with Girl Scouts, it has all seemed so familiar. Not that it’s like Boy Scouts, because it’s different. Girl Scouts seems familiar from something else in my life. It all sounded as if I’d heard it before. Girl Scouts is about empowering young women to be leaders in church and society. It’s about being united as sisters, not by geography or race or ethnicity, but by common adherence to shared values; you know, “make new friends, but keep the old.” Girl Scouts may seem that it’s about the cookie, but it’s through the cookie that we teach young women about goal setting, leadership, finances. In Girl Scouts, we don’t pay annual dues. We bring our dues to every meeting as signs of our ongoing commitment. Even the Girl Scout Promise and the Girl Scout Law felt familiar, like I knew the rhythm of the words. Why did all this feel so familiar?

Well, I did a little digging. The founder of Girl Scouts was Juliette Gordon Low of Savannah, Georgia. Lo and behold, she was an Episcopalian. Figures. Girl Scouts feels just like us Episcopalians. Raising up women for leadership roles. Creating bonds of kinship that transcend barriers. Singing songs that create community. Even the Girl Scout Promise and Law sound like they came right out of the Prayer Book. I mean, we might as well pass the offering plate at Girl Scout meetings because that’s exactly what it feels like. As a Girl Scout leader, sometimes I wonder if I’m raising up little scouts or little Episcopalians.

Born in 1860, Juliette Gordon Low did not live an easy life. After a series of injuries as a child, she experienced nearly complete hearing loss. She had a rocky marriage that ended with her husband’s untimely death. She fought multiple recurrences of breast cancer, undergoing dangerous and experimental treatments. We think she probably had dyslexia. Starting in 1912, she threw herself into the Girl Scout movement, keeping an arduous travel schedule, even in the midst of her painful treatments, speaking, organizing, and raising money for her new organization. Undaunted by threats from her male counterparts who didn’t want young girls learning leadership skills, she forged ahead with a vision for a movement that would shape the lives of millions of young women. When she finally succumbed to cancer in 1927, she was buried in Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia. Juliette Gordon Low had a vision for young women around the world to live with character, serving their communities, in unity with others; even when it was tough, even when many opposed her. Sounds familiar right? Salt of the earth, light of the world.

But something she said really struck me. Through all the difficulties of her life and her work she said, “Right is right, even if no one else does it.” It sounds so familiar, just like the prophet Isaiah. He sees the people saying all the right words but doing all the wrong things. Isaiah denounces the people for exploiting the poor and oppressing their workers while worshiping the God who cares for the poor and oppressed. “Is not this the fast that I choose:” says the Lord, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed to free, and to break every yoke?” Isaiah had a vision for the people of God. His vision was that the poor would not be ripped off by the rich. His vision of true worship was caring for the needy and the beaten down. Isaiah sees a world in which debts are forgiven so that people can live again. A world in which people are treated as people and not as objects off which to make money. Isaiah is banging his head against the wall because even though the people know the right thing, they do not do it. It has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?

Centuries after Isaiah, Jesus climbs a mountain to give the sermon of sermons. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” Jesus goes on, “you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill that cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Jesus has a vision, a vision of the Kingdom of God, in which all manner of people commit themselves to each other. And through that commitment they will be preservative to a rotting world, light to a darkened world. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? 

With the life and death of Jesus Christ that was given for us, we feel right at home with Isaiah, the prophets, Juliette Gordon Low and all those who have a vision for something better. Indeed, that is our solemn duty and call as Christians. To do right, even if no one else does it. It is our calling, our duty to break the yokes of injustice, to forgive the impoverished, the loosen the bonds of oppression; even if it would be much more convenient, and profitable, to keep up the old systems of the world. It is our calling, our duty to be salt and light. To live differently, even when the world is set against us. To live to a higher standard so that others may look on us and have hope. We are called to live to a higher standard, to not give in to the coarse, brutal discourse of this world. We must shine light into the dark places so that the world may know mercy in place of vindictiveness. We, the Church, are not to fall into the old traps, the old, cheap, distinctions the world would put us in. We, Christian brothers and sisters, are not united by which primary we vote in, or by what cable news channel we watch, or by where we were born. We will not be divided by petty differences of opinion. No, we are united by Jesus Christ himself, and we commit to living together so that the world may see and know that something better is possible. And that, I believe, is the right thing. Even if no on else does it.

My brothers and sisters, my fellow Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, we are united by one common purpose. To be salt and light. Do not be daunted by the overwhelming cares and concerns of the world. Do not be intimidated by the bluster, the threats, the insults hurled by those who would prefer hate and enmity. Do not back down from those who would choose darkness. When Isaiah was threatened, he kept on preaching. When Juliette Gordon Low was told to stop, she kept going. When Jesus was crucified, he got up from the dead. 

So I’ll end today with another line from Juliette Gordon Low. “The work of today is the history of tomorrow, and we are its makers.” Today, this very day, whether you are a Scout or not, make the decision of what kind of work you will do today for the history of tomorrow. And in the name of Jesus, I ask of you, choose to be salt, choose to be light, choose to be love. Today, choose to make the world a better place. Today, choose to make the world a more sustainable place. Today, choose to be united rather than divided. Today, choose to empower rather than enslave. Choose to forgive rather than to retaliate. 

And centuries from now, when they look back on us, maybe some priest will give a sermon about you, and about your vision. A vision that was given to you by Jesus Christ to create a lovelier, a lighter, a more beautiful world. For Jesus calls you, even you to be salt, and light, and love.

Piercing the Soul

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott

Feast of the Presentation

February 2, 2020

Luke 2:22-40

This evening, 100 million Americans will settle into their sofas with their bowls of potato chips. Super Bowl Sunday. It holds a mythic place in the American psyche, right up there with Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. The Feast of Super Bowl Sunday conjures images of football, questionable half time shows, overpriced commercials, and mountains of guacamole. 

Of course, being good church people, we are choosing to first celebrate another feast; the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. Also known as Candlemas. Forty days after Christmas we remember and celebrate that Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple as their firstborn son, dedicating him to God. We have all the same elements as the Super Bowl. Music. Drama. Food. If only we could get a flyover.

As the Gospel of Luke says, Mary and Joseph come to the temple with the baby Jesus. This isn’t just about Jesus, though. This visit is for Mary’s ritual of purification after childbirth. After having made the appointed sacrifices of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus run into a man named Simeon. The scriptures say Simeon was a righteous and devout man, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms and starts thanking and praising God. Simeon breaks out into song, a song how he can now die in peace because he lived long enough to see this child. A song about this child who is the light for all people. Look, the Super Bowl got J. Lo. to sing, we got Simeon.

Then the song takes a darker turn. Simeon turns to Mary and says, “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And a sword will pierce your own soul too.

A sword will pierce your own soul too. This is often read as a preparation for the anguish Mary will face when she sees Jesus dying upon the cross. Don’t get me wrong. That is rightfully, tragically, Mary’s anguish. But I do not think that’s what Simeon is talking about when he says that a sword will pierce her own soul too. 

The New Testament commentator Joseph Fitzmeyer puts it this way: “In these difficult verses the child’s destiny is set forth: he will be a source of division in Israel. He will cause many in it to fall (by rejecting him); he will cause many in it to rise (by accepting him)…Mary will also be caught up in this critical aspect of her child’s mission, for a discriminating sword will pierce her soul” (“Luke the Theologian,” 70). So, this is not a sword that inflicts pain. This is a sword of judgment, a symbol of the decisions that Mary will have to make. We see this throughout the New Testament. In some places, Mary is portrayed with the rest of her family, wondering why Jesus is off preaching and teaching and doing such strange things. In other places, Mary is portrayed as a follower of Jesus, even standing at the foot of the cross. That sword cleaves Mary’s soul in two and she has a decision to make. Is she simply the mother of Jesus, or will she be a follower of Jesus? Because they are not exactly the same thing.

And so the question is turned to us – are we admirers of Jesus or as we followers of Jesus? Because we can admire Jesus. How he was such a nice guy who helped and said nice things. Or we can be a follower, by picking up the cross. The sword is piercing our souls, demanding an answer. Jesus’ very presence in the world sets up this inflection point – causing some of us to fall and some of us to rise. 

Even think back on last week – I am sure there were moments in which that sword pierced your soul, and sometimes you made the decision for Jesus and sometimes you didn’t. I am not here to judge, to condemn, or to criticize. But only to point out that sometimes we accept the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and sometimes we reject him. I am here to confess that the sword has pierced my soul too. And that sometimes I make the decision for Jesus, and sometimes I don’t. In my life, at my core, I know that Simeon is holding the baby Jesus and is speaking to me – “Jimmy, this sword will pierce your own soul too. Will you admire Jesus or will you follow him?”

The sword that is Jesus Christ is piercing our souls, asking questions of our motives, our desires, our intentions. Our very souls are at stake. Because today is not just about the baby Jesus being presented in the Temple. Today is about our presentation before the Lord God Almighty. Our whole lives – what we do, what we say, how we spend our money – that is what we are presenting to the Lord God. We cannot hide anything from God, because that sword will pierce our souls and lay bare all that we have done and left undone. This is not Luke’s version of a halftime show between Jesus’ birth and his adult ministry. This is a story that cuts to the heart of who we are and how we follow Jesus. 

I’m telling you, Candlemas is a doozy. 

As time has gone on, the Church has venerated Mary for her role in this grand story. But I think it actually diminishes her status, her faithfulness, if all we say about her is that she carried the baby Jesus in her womb. That is a sort of warped utilitarianism. Like, because she was a woman, her only usefulness to God was to bear this child. Mary is more than that. We venerate Mary because that sword pierced her soul and she followed Jesus. She followed him, even to the cross. Not as a mother only, but as a disciple. Even after the death and resurrection she is numbered along with the other apostles, not only as the Lord’s mother, but as a follower. Yes, she presented the baby Jesus in the temple, but more importantly, she presented herself. Her soul, her body, her life was an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Later tonight, if you make it to the end of the Super Bowl, you will see another presentation. The presentation of the trophy to the winning team. There will be a lot of hoopla, and confetti, and champagne shower in the locker room. In a sense, that discriminating sword will have pierced through the Chiefs and the 49ers. At the end of the night, that trophy will be the marker, the sign, of who rose to the occasion and who fell flat.

So I pray, that at the end of your days, you look back on your life, praising God for how the Spirit helped you rise to the occasion; that you receive more than a trophy. In your last moments in this life and in your first moments in the life to come, I pray you accept and rejoice in “the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:4).” I pray that every day, in every moment, that sword pierces your heart, cutting open your soul, creating that inflection point in which you choose Jesus. And like Mary, I hope that you see that you are more than a teacher, an accountant, an engineer, a student, a school bus driver, a doctor, a lawyer, a veteran, a priest, a father, a mother. I hope you see that you are disciple. And that your whole life is an offering and a sacrifice to God.

My Light and My Salvation

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 26, 2020
Psalm 27:1, 5-13

Note: This sermon focuses on the new Genesis Window that was installed in the nave. The artist is Steve Wilson of Baton Rouge.

I will take no offense if you don’t look at me during this sermon. I understand you all have something else to look at. So as you are gazing up there at our new Genesis window, I will start with a portion of our psalm for the day. “One thing have I asked of the LORD; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:5-6).

So let’s begin to describe that, the “Genesis Window.” Even if you don’t know the bible very well, you’ve probably heard this bit before. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Those are the very first words of the bible in Genesis and they form the artistic jumping off point for the window. The words of Genesis continue, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “let there be light”’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:2-3). 

One of the first things I notice in the window is bursting and bustling blues, greens, and reds. They are designed that way to represent the chaos, the formless void and the darkness over the face of the deep. This is an important point – the book of Genesis describes how God goes about bringing order out of chaos. Think of it as if you dropped a box of toothpicks on the ground. They are scattered in chaos all across the kitchen floor. Genesis describes this wind, this breath, this Spirit of God sweeping over that chaos and putting them all back into order. 

Which is the first spiritual lesson I take from our Genesis Window. There is chaos in the world. No doubt about it. Those frenetic blues, greens, and reds remind me of Hurricane Harvey, the chaotic waters that kept rising and bringing ruin. Being human, living in this world, comes with randomness, chance, luck, whatever you want to call it. Death itself is a type of chaos, as even our bodies decompose our very cells and molecules lose their order. Physicists call this phenomenon, “entropy.” It’s the idea that everything, eventually, collapses into disorder rather than order. The Christian message is that God, and God alone, can move things from disorder into order. Death is transformed into new life through resurrection. Broken relationships are transformed into life-giving relationships through reconciliation. Sin is overcome and transformed into virtue through forgiveness. As you look at that window, think of the chaos in your own lives and take heart. I mean, I’m not the only one with chaos in my life. Right? Look at this window and remember, rejoice that the creator God is always desiring and moving and drawing you into order. Because God reigns even over the chaos. 

The next thing that catches my eye up there is the light. That beautiful glorious light that God called into being. And that light came into being just by God’s voice. As you will read in the Gospel of John this spring, God’s voice is always creating. Jesus yells, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man Lazarus comes out of his tomb. Jesus says to the centurion that his son will be made well, and guess what, the centurion’s son is made well. Jesus says to the paralytic to stand up, take his mat, and walk. Lo and behold the paralytic does just that. In the beginning, God says, “let there be light,” and there is light. God’s voice alone creates and calls into being. Indeed, “the Lord is my light and my salvation.”

God has given us the gift of speech. Use it wisely. With our mouths, with our tongues, with our speech, with the things we write on the internet, we can create for good or for ill. We can create pain by using derogatory words, by gossiping, by slandering. We can create joy by speaking words of praise, thanksgiving, delight. Remember that your words, your speech, can build up for the Kingdom of God just as easily as your words can tear it down. I pray that after any word you speak God may hear it and say, “it is good.” 

The third facet of this window that I want to describe is the dove. The text from Genesis says that it was the spirit of God, or a wind from God. We should note that the word there for “spirit” or “wind,” is a feminine word. Yes, indeed, humans have attributed both masculine and feminine characteristics to God since the beginning. We Christians have depicted the Spirit of God as a dove, taken from that memorable scene of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan in which the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove. Obviously, since we are Holy Comforter parish, Holy Comforter or Holy Spirit, it just had to be a dove.

Now, this is just my eye, but I see that dove as a powerful dove. A dove of strength and power, not a meek and mild dove that you go hunting for. This dove means business, the business of bringing order out of chaos. I think that is a good thing – Christianity in my estimation has become too sanitized, too milquetoast. The Holy Spirit is coming into our world, coming into your life, not to pat your hand and tell you that everything is okay. Oh no. Like we heard in that gospel text, the Holy Spirit is coming into our lives and we will have to drop our nets, leave behind our old way of life, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. There’s a great old hymn that says Peter, Andrew, James, and John were simple, happy fisherfolk, until the Lord came down. It says, “contented peaceful, fishermen, before they ever knew the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.” Young John dies homeless. James is killed with a sword. Andrew is crucified. Peter is crucified upside down. The peace of God, the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus Christ is coming into your life and it will mean that your old way of life must die. The peace we receive is not peace as the world gives but as God gives. But then again, that just means that God is creating a new order out of your old chaos.

Finally, the artist who designed and fabricated this window told us that the individual pieces of glass you see all came from different parts of the world. This means that each piece of glass will bend the light differently because it was manufactured differently. So as the seasons change and the angle of the light changes, the window will take on different qualities. That’s awesome on an artistic level, but think about it this way. This text from Genesis describes how God created the entire world, the entire cosmos. It is fitting, then, that the window depicting the creation of the world comes from all over the world. It is a silent, beautiful reminder, that God cares for and created the whole world, not just our little corner of it. 

Well, by now I’m sure your neck is sore. Allow me to conclude by saying this. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing lasts forever. And as Bishop Fisher tells us, we can hold on to our buildings, our things, our stained glass windows, but we need to hold on to them lightly.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:5-6). For we do not worship the fair beauty of our things. We must not worship the created rather than the creator. We must not fall into that old trap of idol worship, of turning the church into a museum, of making our rituals into lifeless ceremonies, of always wanting the past and never embracing the future. We must not hang on to our things too tightly. For if we do, not only will we lose those things, we will lose our souls. 

2020 – Year of Digging Deeper

Second Sunday after Epiphany – Parish Annual Meeting
January 19, 2020
John 1:29-42

Today as I begin my annual address to the parish, I want to start with a parable. A parable written by an Episcopal priest in the 1950s. It goes like this.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for those who were lost. Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area wanted to become associated with the station and gave of their time, money, and effort to support its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club’s initiations were held. 

About this time a large ship wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station. So they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.*

As our parish family prepares for this next year, 2020, we know this parable all too well. We stand here facing a question of identity. Who are we? What have we been? How have we changed? And what comes next for our little lifesaving station? 

Perched on this dangerous seacoast called Spring, Texas, we see the shipwrecks and the drownings all around us. Addictions. Homelessness. Violence. Hunger. Trafficking. Debt. Loneliness. Name a problem and we’ve got it, we’ve got people drowning in some sort of human pain. We live along a dangerous seacoast and there is not much help out there. Except for the Church, our little lifesaving station.

But I suppose the real danger is if our church stops acting like a church. If we fall into that old trap of being a club suited for members rather than a lifesaving station. Now that we have a nicer lifesaving station we might just get too fond of our nice things. 

This is something I thought a lot about over my sabbatical last summer. As I read and wrote, as I worshipped in different congregations, one question kept nagging me: “what is the point of the church?” I saw lots of congregations doing lots of things – some more focused on their communities, some more focused on themselves. Coming back in the fall, I re-engaged my ministry here with a renewed focus to keep doing what the church is called to do – “sharing Christ’s message of hope, peace, and grace with all.” 

As the church, our singular purpose is to follow Jesus and to bring others along with us. Everything we do must be organized and oriented around that mission. In the gospel lesson we just read, Jesus calls Andrew to follow him. And the first thing Andrew does is to go and get his brother, Peter, to come along with him. This is the purpose of the church. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we act as God’s agents to bring others into the saving knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are not here to build up the membership of a cozy little club. No, we must be those brave men and women willing to face the stormy waters of the world around us to save and serve others. We must be willing to welcome in half-drowned, bedraggled, human shipwrecks.

That is precisely what I am asking this parish to do in 2020, our Year of Digging Deeper. I am calling up each of us to reawaken that adventurous spirit in us – to go out past the rocky shoals, to boldly leave our comfy little club, and to serve and save others for the sake of Jesus.

1So first, we need to praise the Lord God who saved us from drowning. That is Worship. And that is our first priority in this Year of Digging Deeper. Worship is what we do to thank the living God for all that we have and all that we are. We sing, we pray, we receive Holy Communion, we hear the holy scriptures. This is the most basic function of the church. And you know, we don’t just have two worship services on a weekend. No, we have seven worship services on a weekend. Our worshipping community includes our partnered assisted living facilities and you can worship there, too, some on Saturday and some on Sunday. Because I do expect you all to be in worship week by week. I believe it is imperative for us, as Christians, to thank God week by week for the innumerable blessings of this life and for the life to come. We gather in worship to thank Jesus for saving us from the dangerous waters. First, we worship.

Next, we grow. Through prayer and study of holy scripture we grow closer to the Lord 2Jesus. To continue the metaphor, we learn how to be lifesavers. As we have been rescued, we then learn how to rescue others. And the only way we can do that is by intentionally learning, engaging, and growing in our own faith. Plus, the most meaningful relationships you make in this church will be through prayer and the study of holy scripture. Coffee hour is great. Parish fellowship events are great. But to really know someone in the name of Jesus Christ, to grow with someone, it must be intentional week by week through prayer and study. Our big “grow” initiative this spring is our Gospel of John study. We are inviting the whole parish to read the Gospel of John and to join a discussion group so that you can grow stronger in your own faith and grow closer to your parish family. It’s really not much. One chapter of the gospel a week. And then commit to be in a group to share, to reflect, and to grow together. We thank God in worship for saving us. We grow closer to God in order to learn how to save others.

3Next, is just that, saving others. Or what we are calling this year, “serve.” After being rescued ourselves, after learning to rescue others, we then go about the business of rescuing. Like I said, Jesus calls Andrew and the first thing Andrew does is to get his brother, Peter. We are called to do the same. Everybody in this church can find a way to serve the church and the community, to go out into the lifeboat and rescue those poor souls drowning out there. You can mentor a student over at the elementary school or you can be a prayer partner. You can serve the homeless at the Hope Center. You can help lead worship in our assisted living facilities. You can serve here at church. You can help us out at Drive-Thru Ashes. By serving others we remind ourselves that, in fact, we are a lifesaving station and not a club. See, there are no benefits to being a member of the church. Rather, membership is a burden because we are called to pick up the cross, follow Jesus, and serve the world in his name. In 2020, we will Worship, Grow, Serve.

And finally we come to our last category in our Year of Digging Deeper. And that is “Connect.” Connect is all the stuff we do at the church for ourselves. Notice, that connect4 comes last. Connecting with each other is important, but it’s a byproduct of what we are doing in worship, growing, and serving. Jesus calls those first disciples not to simply hang out with each other. Jesus calls those disciples because he is on a mission to serve and to save. Now, when we do want to get together, we have to reimagine the ways by which we connect. We have to acknowledge the realities of the world in which we live. For instance, we learned through our Holy Cow survey last summer that our congregation drives farther to get to church than 91% of all other congregations. Holy Comforter is not your neighborhood church. But we also learned that you do want to get together. So when you are here on Sundays for worship, we need to make the most of it. For instance, in order to better connect with each other, our Shrove Tuesday pancake supper is becoming a Shrove Sunday parish lunch. After the 10am service on Sunday, February 23, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we’ll have pancakes and a Mardi Gras celebration. All our kids will bury the Alleluia banner and burn the palms. We’ll have pancake races. And all the proceeds will go to the outreach ministries of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew. That’s money for kids to go to Camp Allen, for scholarships for Episcopalians going to college, and for the Hope Center for the homeless. Even by connecting with each other we will be serving the world, because after all, we are a lifesaving station and not a club.

Worship. Grow. Serve. Connect. For seven years now, our parish has been focused on building this, our church. Well, we did it. This is my first annual address since 2014 that I have not talked about the future of the building project. So now we have to reorient ourselves, recommit ourselves to the true mission of our parish family. Not to build buildings. Not to raise money. But to follow Jesus. And what Jesus said to those first disciples, I now say to you, “come and see.” Come and see the fruitful life you can live when you are worshiping, growing, serving, and connecting. Come and see that the measure you give is the measure you get back. Come and see the beauty, the wisdom, and the power of the holy scriptures and prayer. Come and see that a life in the church, a life in a parish family, is a beautiful thing. Come and see that this is not a club, but a lifesaving station. Come and see what it means to go out there beyond the rocky and dangerous coast. Come and see what it means to dig deeper.

*Dr. Theodore O. Wedel, a former Canon of the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, wrote this parable. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1931, he served for a time as president of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies. He penned this parable in 1953.

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