Lives change here

Lives change here

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at St. Andrew’s, worshiping in the Good Shepherd Chapel at University Christian Church, on Sunday, November 24, 2019.

Watch the sermon below or on YouTube.

Read the text of the sermon below the video.

St Andrew’s FW 2019                         Patron Saint                               November 24

On March 17, 1875, the Bishop of Northern Texas, the Rt. Rev. Alexander C Garrett established a mission church in Fort Worth.   St Andrew’s Day is typically celebrated on November 30th,  but we are jumping ahead a little (which is permitted in the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer),  and today we are celebrating our patron saint  and 144 years as a congregation.

I know that every member here can reflect upon the difference this congregation has made in our lives.  And while we need to be honest and acknowledge there is much we grieve, there, also, is much for which we give thanks.  I know that I’ve been around you enough to know that you give thanks for one another – that there is bond here,  and you care deeply for this church.

The Collect appointed for St Andrew’s Day reads like this:  “Almighty God, who didst give such grace to thine apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of thy Son Jesus Christ,  and brought his brother with him:  Give unto us, who are called by thy Word,  grace to follow him without delay,  and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence;  who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,  one God,  now and forever.”

I would suggest that as a congregation  you are shaped by your patron saint and this prayer.  I remember from childhood well that we were an evangelical island in a diocesan-wide sea of Anglo-Catholics.   The proclamation of the Gospel has been a strong part of your identity and sense of mission – I suspect from the day you were named Andrew.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel,  Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew,  “Follow me,  and I will make you fish for people.”  Immediately they leave their nets and follow Jesus.  NOW they will fish for people.

I’m mindful that “fishing for people” is a metaphor,  and as a metaphor it can be pushed too far.  Fishing,  after all,  is a deceptive activity.  You use something false,  a lure,  to trick the fish.   Or maybe you use a net to trap the fish.   And obviously,  you catch the fish for your benefit.  It’s good for you – not so good for the fish.   I think it’s safe to say,  that’s not what Jesus meant when he called his disciples to fish for people (although I’m not sure everyone got the same memo).

I would suggest that people don’t like being tricked,  and they can smell it a mile off when churches try to lure them in the doors to preserve the institution.  It’s why some people don’t trust the institution.

Our presiding bishop,  Michael Curry,  has been reminding us that in the early days of the church  we saw ourselves as a “movement” – not so much an institution as a movement.   I think he’s right to make this distinction,  as these days Americans trust institutions less and less.  He says institutions can be good,  as long as the institution serves the movement,  but if – or when – the institution does not serve the movement it becomes a “golden calf.”   And we’ve seen that in history.   But in the early days,  the Church was a movement.

And we know by now that he calls this  the Jesus Movement – called to make disciples who will change this world by the power of God’s love.  Bishop Curry is leading us and calling us to “fish for people” – that’s true – but not simply for the sake of the institution.

There is a writer on religion and spirituality named Diana Butler-Bass;  she has authored numerous books on religion in our current American context.  She makes the claim that she has seen a revival within mainline traditions such as ours,  and names “ten signposts for renewal.”  She sees ten Christian practices among vital congregations:  Hospitality,  Discernment,  Healing,  Contemplation,  Testimony, Diversity,  Justice,  Worship,  Reflection,  and Beauty.   Given today’s “fishing metaphor”  I would like to begin by looking at what she discovered regarding hospitality.

She says:  “Occasionally,  I have attended churches with ‘hospitality programs’ or ‘welcome committees’ … which typically follow a secular model – such as the neighborhood Welcome Wagon of the 1960s,  which,  for all its friendliness,  was essentially a way to promote certain stores and products.  In some churches ‘hospitality’ appears to be a code word for promotion,  with the church as the primary product.  Hospitality is an instrument used for another end:  to sign up people as pledging members.”

“True Christian hospitality,”  she says, “is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership.   Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith – something Christians are called to do for the sake of the thing itself.”  She says,  “Christians welcome strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God  through the love of Jesus Christ.  Christians imitate God’s welcome.”   And it’s at the heart of our way of life.

In today’s Gospel  we hear the story of Jesus’ call to Simon Peter,  Andrew,  James,  and John.   In each case,  immediately they left their work  and followed Jesus.  We don’t know,  we can only speculate why they were compelled to follow Jesus immediately.  The Gospels don’t try to describe their conversion experience, I suspect,  because such conversions are left to the realm of mystery.

We only know that they dropped what they were doing,  and followed Jesus.  They left behind their jobs, their families,  their futures.  And that’s how it all started.   Something about Jesus changed them,  and compelled them to follow him,  and not only that,  but also compelled them to tell others.

So Jesus picks up a following which grows,  even though he warns them that it will cost them.  No deception here.  No prosperity gospel.   And yet, the following grows  until it has the attention of the political and religious authorities who are threatened.   If I read the story right,  the following shrinks in both numbers and in faith  by the time of the crucifixion,  but it gains new life  with the resurrection.

The following – the community – is raised to new life – changed – and on the Day of Pentecost it grows by the thousands.   From that day forward,  people encountered the Risen Christ,  their lives were changed,  they were compelled to follow Jesus,  and they were compelled to tell others.   They gathered around bread and wine,  and told the story of the liberating power of Christ,  and the Living Christ was made known,  and lives were changed.

And as that newly formed community told the story over and over,  they began to write it down.  And in time  they determined that their writings were sacred,  holy scriptures – out of that community came the scriptures.  Their testimonies became a part of the New Testament.  And as the community grew  it struggled with what it believed about Christ,  and the God revealed in Christ.   So,  out of the community came the creeds and councils.

And as the community grew in numbers  it took on a structure with a hierarchy of sorts. By the third century it looked different from the first century church,  as it looks different now.  All along,  lives were changed,  and all along the church changed.  To grow means to change.

It all started,  according to Matthew, with four disciples – Simon Peter,  Andrew,  James,  and John.   Four people dropped what they were doing – good things,  like family and work – to follow Jesus,  to tell others the Good News of the liberating work of Christ,  and how He changed their lives.

It’s not part of our tradition,  as Episcopalians,  to give testimonies – not in any formal sense.  (Of course,  that’s why some of us ARE Episcopalians.)  Diana Butler-Bass includes “testimony” as one of the ten signposts of renewal in a congregation,  but the “share or die” climate of testimonies is not likely to be our way of sharing.  We prefer the words of St Francis:  “Preach the Gospel;  if necessary, use words.”

Having said that,  a testimony is the story of a life changed.  It’s a great privilege to hear such stories, or to witness lives changed:  to see lifelong Episcopalians have dramatic conversion experiences like the Apostle Paul,  maybe at a Cursillo or a Walk to Emmaus;   and to see others grow deeply,  like the beloved disciple John,  through prayer and contemplation.

We see Christians from other traditions  find new life here  for different reasons,  through a variety of means:  the transcendent worship,  the sense of the mystical, the liberating theology,  our broad interpretation of scripture,  the freedom to question, the thirst for justice.  They say,  “Home at last.  I’ve always been an Episcopalian;  I just didn’t know it.”

And, on the other hand,  we’ve seen Episcopalians to whom our tradition did not speak,  who moved to a tradition which does speak to them.  If we are honest, that feels like failure,  and we miss them.  I’m mindful however, the Gospel is for everyone;  every congregation is not for everyone.

Peter Drucker,  a consultant to organizations from businesses to non-profits to churches, says it’s hard to measure the success of a non-profit.  A business measures its success primarily by its profit.  It might also include its reputation, its service, its contribution to society,  but at the end of the day the stockholders want to know the bottom line:  size,  volume,  profit.

A non-profit, by definition,  cannot be measured that way.  According to Drucker,  the bottom line for a non-profit (and I would suggest, for the Church)  is a changed life.  That’s our enterprise,  so to speak:  changed lives.

Jesus says to some fishermen,  “Follow me,  and I will make you fish for people.”  Immediately,  they left their nets and followed him.  We could say that “church growth” begins there.  But it’s not by means of a trick or deception.  And Jesus is not building an institution for HIS sake.

Rather,  these early followers are called by Jesus to testify – to tell their experience of the Good News of God’s love as made known in Christ;   the Good News of the liberating power of Christ;  the Good News that God loves you and everyone – no exceptions;   the Good News that God raises the dead to new life.

Simon Peter, and Andrew, and the rest of them are like the proverbial hungry man telling another hungry man where to find bread.   And that bread can be found right here.  We have a story to tell and a way of life to offer  which leads to an encounter with the Risen Christ  and changes lives.

Lives change here.  Within this community of faith,  this branch of the Jesus Movement called St Andrew’s,  gathered for God’s sacred meal,  telling our story of God’s love  in the Name of the Holy Trinity,  one God,  in Whom we live,  and move,  and have our being.  Amen.