Second Sunday after Epiphany - Parish Annual Meeting
January 19, 2020
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.
So 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 Jesus. 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.
Next, 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 connect 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.