I remember when I was in the third grade that my devotional life took a sudden and irreversible turn. Until then, my prayers had been uncomplicated. They mostly took the form of wanting something to play with or for a particular type of food.
About once every two weeks, Bridgewater Elementary School would make these tall, yeast bread buns—cut in half—and they came with a generous pat of salted butter and a thick slice of cheddar cheese. And the first thing we would do when we sat down with our trays was to put that cheese and butter inside the bun and eat it. It was heaven. An almost sinfully addictive blending of carbs, protein, and fat that, frankly, even to this day still makes my mouth water.
There were a lot of prayers offered for those little bread buns. There were prayers for desserts, and toys, and prayers for help with little things. But somewhere along the way in the third grade…I began to notice a little girl by the name of Marissa Garber. She had blonde hair in ringlets that bounced when she walked. She was pretty.
And my prayers were very simple, but very different. I just wanted her to like me. I wanted her to think I was funny, smart, nice. I wanted her to like me. And the reason I had to pray for that is because I had no idea how or why she would.
Obviously, I had wanted to make people feel and behave in ways of my own choosing before then, but there is something about the first yearnings of wanting a girl to like you—especially when it really is just as innocent as wanting her to smile at you, or laugh at a joke, or sit down beside you.
And thus we awaken to one of the great unspoken areas of satisfaction and discontentment: the continuum of our ability and disability to influence people.
Some people make a living out of it. Lobbyists, politicians, pundits, celebrities. It would be easy to throw stones at them, but they're really just doing on a larger scale what we all do consciously and unconsciously—try to move people in a certain direction.
On our best days, we try to do it even-handedly, carefully—trying to steer someone gently in the right direction, not too invested in the outcome to be a real threat to someone's autonomy. And on our worst days, we can be manipulative, single-minded, calculating, and even willing to skirt the truth. Thankfully, usually, we fall somewhere in the middle.
Don't look now…but I'm trying to influence you, right now! A good sermon tries to bridge the divide between the Bible and life—the holy and the common. Every good preacher is usually trying to persuade their listeners that God wants to be in relationship with us.
Some of my happiest moments are when a prayer or sermon or conversation that I have with someone else can help to make the aching distance between us and God seem to vanish. Or when the Faith can be explained in a way that reveals the beauty and grandeur of our tradition.
So, yes…I want to influence you—like the prophets of old who believed that they had seen God's holy angel descend from heaven, or who had caught sight of the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven, adorned as a bride for her bridegroom. I don't know any effective pastor or priest who hasn't wanted to convey the divine eternal Majesty such that anyone within earshot would want to fall in love with God.
To me, the church is never just a large building with nice people: it is the gate of heaven; it is the threshold of eternity. Wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are faithfully celebrated, the Spirit of Jesus is present—sparkling in the flicker of candles, wafting like wind among the flowers, pushing deeper into the hearts of the confused and sorrowful.
Many's the time that I have wandered through the church in the long shadows of the afternoon, seeing the sunlight filtered through the stained-glass play on the pews, and known in my soul that terrifyingly wonderful sensation that God was in the air around me.
My children and I have made a pilgrimage to St. Andrew's in the late afternoon to refill the oil in the sanctuary lamp. And as we entered this (that) holy space where the only light came from that single flame that represents the presence of Christ in the Sacrament, my children and I have knelt in the physical darkness and been surrounded by a spiritual light.
I watched them in absolute astonishment as they moved with ease and comfort throughout this (that) holy space. There was almost no light, and yet they were never scared, as I once was, of a darkened church. Because they know that when you are in church, you are never… truly… alone. And because we are never alone in here, we are never alone out there. And I can't tell you how much I wish more people knew that.
I don't mean that to sound sanctimonious, or overly pious. But I'm talking about wanting to influence, wanting to compel, wanting to implant the desire for more people to fall in love with God. Like wanting Marissa Garber to smile at me for who I am, I want more people to love God for who he is.
"Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." And as he passed along the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." And immediately they left their nets and followed him." (Mark 1:14, etc.)
How did he do that? That's the question. How did he influence them, compel them, move them in his direction?
I was surprised to remember, as I was working on this text, that this is the first lesson I ever preached on. The sermon was about Simon and Andrew saying yes, even though they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. The sermon was okay, but it seems to me that the real mystery in this text is how Jesus got them to follow him.
Wouldn't you love to know? Well, let me put it this way… If you also want this beautiful faith to continue beyond just you and me and the lamppost, don't you really want to know? (Pause.)
I read over these stories of call—the story of Jonah from today's Old Testament lesson. God tells Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. Tell them that if they don't repent, something bad is going to happen. And Jonah proceeds to run the opposite direction. He gets on a boat for Tarshish, and by his actions he says, "Forget it, God. I'm not doing it. I'm not going. You can't make me."
And the waves kick at the boat, until the sailors believe that Jonah is causing the storm. So they throw Jonah overboard. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish that spewed him out on the beach. And again God says, "Go to Nineveh." Jonah says, "God, I'm not going to Nineveh..they are not going to listen to me." God says, "Go to Nineveh."
Jonah goes to Nineveh. "God, they're not going to listen, but, whatever…" And Jonah says to the people, "Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown." (Pause.)
That's all he says. Not a word about God. Not a word about repentance. "Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown."
And bing, bang, boom. The people proclaimed a fast. Everyone great and small put on sackcloth, as a sign of repentance. When the news reached the King of Nineveh, the King! Are you listening? The King took off his robes and put on sackcloth and proclaimed a fast. Jonah stood there dumbfounded. How did it work?
It's a different story, of course. We're talking about two very different persuasions: repentance and the call of disciples. But they both require a move of the heart, don't they? They both require a change.
I would love to know the difference between the man or woman who hears the deep call of God's love and moves toward it, and the man or woman who thinks it's just a pile of nonsense. Because it would be so great to figure out how to talk with people who have simply never experienced Christianity in all it's glory. I think about this all the time.
Sometimes it seems it's not Christianity that's the problem, it's the Church. There are so many expressions of Christianity throughout the world, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. In every denomination you have people who are unbelievably good representatives of the mission and ministry of Christ, and in every one of them you have some clunky clergy and laity. Weeds and wheat. Why? I don't know. But Jesus said it would be that way.
But I can't stop thinking about how nice it would be if every church in this town ran out of bulletins every Sunday. Imagine that. And if every Church had so many people coming that the baptismal fonts never had time to dry.
Imagine if the churches fed more people bread and wine than McDonald's served breakfast. Or if every church in every town had to think about how they were going to build a large enough facility to handle the Sunday attendance. I don't know why it isn't that way.
Do you realize that even our own little church here could never really handle that kind of widespread devotion? If just one new person came here every week, and stayed, there would be 52 new people a year. That's enough to need another service to handle them—in just one year!
Yet the Church has always been relatively small compared with the general population. Why? I don't know. But I keep thinking something is going to change that. That some wind of the Holy Spirit will come from heaven and the pews will start to fill up.
Jesus walks beside the Sea of Galilee and he sees these fishermen, and he says, "Follow me." They say yes. Jesus walked through the Town of Bridgewater, when I was a boy, and he said, "Follow me." And I said yes.
Jesus walked though your life and said, "Follow me." And you said yes.
Why? I don't know. But we did. And now it's our turn to fish for people.
Can I just ask you to think about wetting a line at some point? Sometime when you are around people who seem like they might benefit from an invitation to something more... And then from the riches of your heart, you can begin to share that beautiful wonderful truth that is your relationship with God.
It's how the Church has always grown—one person passing the holy flame to the next, spreading the light and warmth and hope that is Jesus Christ.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.