A sermon preached on January 22, 2017, at Church of the Incarnation in Highlands, NC
This is a Sunday filled with temptation for a preacher. It is tempting to make this Sunday about our new president. It is tempting especially in light of the readings for today.
It would be easy enough to use the readings for today to such an end. The reading from Isaiah is about the end of a political catastrophe and the coming of a great light. The only problem is that it depends on where one stands as to whether the catastrophe has just ended and the light arrived, or whether the light has just ended and the catastrophe arrived. It would be easy enough to use Paul’s words to the Corinthians to address the realities of our present division, for the division is undeniable from whatever perspective one observes it. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (I Cor. 1:10) I can even imagine how one might use the reading from Matthew to address the current political climate in our country. (Mt. 4:12-23)
I instead want to concentrate on Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. “[H]e said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
And that is why I want to introduce you to a modern-day apostle, a woman from my former diocese named Mrs. Smallwood. Mrs. Smallwood, who has now entered into larger life, was in her early 80’s when I first met her, which was during the time when candidates to be the sixth Bishop of Lexington visited the diocese prior to the election, a process you have just gone through here, typically called the “walkabouts.” Mrs. Smallwood was a pillar of St. Andrew’s Church, our historically African-American congregation. She was a wise woman who had seen a lot, having graduated with a degree in nursing from Tuskegee Institute in the 1930s. She was also feisty and quick. Once she told my wife she had just returned from her 75th Tuskegee reunion. Ginger remarked that must have been fun. Mrs. Smallwood replied, “Hell, no! There are only three of us left and one of them is in a wheelchair and the other is deaf. How much fun do you think that was?”
But I knew none of that when I first met her in the basement of St. Andrew’s along with seven or eight other members of the church to answer their questions about why I wanted to be the Bishop of Lexington. It was a depressing conversation. The youngest person there was 70, which made him the president of the youth group. The talk was all about how bad things were. There weren’t many of them left. They were all old. There wouldn’t be any more children. Would the last person to die, please turn out the lights? Mrs. Smallwood was the ringleader.
Finally, I had had enough of this. “Mrs. Smallwood,” I said, “don’t you know the story of Sarah?” That stopped her. For a minute. She thought about it, and then started to laugh. “Yes, I know about Sarah, but you’re not Abraham.”
But here’s the rest of the story. A few years later, I went back to St. Andrew’s as their bishop. Now the place was full of children. Full of children! The vestry gave me two framed pictures of all the children (they wouldn’t all fit in one reasonably sized photograph) to remind me that what they did not think possible had come to pass.
And this is how it came to pass. It wasn’t exactly Sarah and Abraham. What happened is that St. Andrew’s had taken on a mission - the resettlement of Congolese refugees. I wasn’t there when they made the decision to do that, but I bet there were a number of voices who pointed out that there just weren’t enough of them to do the ministry, that they didn’t have the money to do the ministry, and that they were just too old to take on the ministry. But the 70-year-old youth leader prevailed.
They began welcoming refugee families from the Congo. They furnished apartments. They picked them up at the airport. They got them settled in Lexington and helped them find jobs. They organized to drive them to church, especially since many of them were Anglicans already. And they brought their children with them. People in Lexington, both from the immediate neighborhood and beyond, began to see the presence of Jesus in their mission, which is inherently attractive (“Immediately they left their nets and their father and they followed him.”). They wanted to be part of it. Black families and white families and mixed families. St. Andrew’s became a notable exception to 11:00 on Sunday morning being “the most segregated hour in America.”
Here’s my point. Salvation is in the mission. Salvation is in the mission. Salvation is in the mission. St. Andrew’s not only survived but thrived precisely because it stopped worrying about survival and focused its energy instead on turning outward and meeting Jesus in those who were in the greatest need, whose lives were literally at stake. Congregations that turn inward will die. Congregations that turn outward will live and live abundantly. My primary point here is not that the Congolese refugees found a new life, as good and important as that is. My point is that St. Andrew’s and the people of St. Andrew’s found new life.
And they did it by taking seriously something Jesus said, which is this: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Mt. 16:25-26) St. Andrew’s took the risk of losing their lives and they found life because of it. That is called mission – transformation – discipleship.
Isn’t that what Jesus offered Peter, Andrew, James, and John? Leave your livelihoods and your families and your support systems and your homes behind and come, find life in healing disease and curing sickness and living the good news. And they did. They left everything behind to help Jesus change the world. And they did it by allowing themselves to be changed. Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John not primarily for the benefit of the sick and the blind and the oppressed. He called them for their own benefit. He called them to save them. Paul addressed the same thing. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Cor. 1:18) The mission Jesus offers to welcome the refugee, to heal the sick, to restore sight to the blind is a costly mission. It is the message about the cross. Is it not the way of the cross that Jesus has made the way of life? Is not St. Andrew’s proof of that? Was not Mrs. Smallwood an apostle – a disciple – like Peter and the others?
My ministry now is about an organization called Love Must Act. One way to understand it is that it is about building schools where they are most needed. But really, it is about inviting people such as us to change the world by changing themselves. It is about creating an opportunity to turn around and turn outward when the pressure of the world we live in, especially now, is to turn inward, to put ourselves first, to keep others out. Jesus said that those who turn inward will die. Those who turn outward will find life. Love Must Act, with gratitude to Mrs. Smallwood, is about helping us all turn out to face others, rather than inward so that our back is to them. Amen.