Sunday, January 29, 2012

Local Heroes

[Sermon preached Jan. 29, 2012.]

Our reading this morning from First Corinthians is one of those moments in Paul’s letters when you know you’re hearing just one side of a conversation, as if he were sitting next to you, talking on the phone. You know there’s got to be a backstory to this discourse on eating food that’s been sacrificed to idols. So let me try to fill it in a little.

As you know, in the Roman world, people worshipped many gods. The Roman religious system itself was polytheistic; plus, the Romans didn’t insist that conquered peoples convert, as long as their local religions didn’t threaten Rome’s power. So in a city like Corinth, there were temples everywhere, and much of temple worship included sacrificing animals. After the sacrifices, some of the meat was eaten in common meals, where lots of people from the local community would attend; and some of the meat was sold in city markets.(1)

So the new Christians, in Corinth and elsewhere, had to sort out how to relate to all this. Was it OK for them to join in a civic meal where meat sacrificed to idols was being eaten? Was it OK for them to go to the market and buy meat that might have been offered in the worship of a rival god? Apparently, the Corinthians had written to Paul, asking for a judge’s ruling. And in today’s reading, Paul basically says: You have the right to do it, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Sure, those who understand that idols are meaningless are free to eat any food that God has provided. But what happens when those who aren’t as sophisticated as you are see you at a temple feast and think you buy into what they’re preaching? What if people who aren’t secure in their faith see you eating in the shrine of an idol and think you’re hedging your bets on which god is the real one? Is it worth it to shake someone else’s faith in order to get a great steak? If your example doesn’t build the church community, Paul says, change your example.

Today, we don’t worry much about eating meat sacrificed to idols. So what does all this have to do with us, 2,000 years later? I think it has a lot to do with something most of us treasure deeply, one of our fundamental values as Americans. That value is freedom, in all aspects of our lives –- political, economic, social, religious. One of our primary self-definitions is that we’re free to do what we want to do, as long as no one gets hurt in the process.

But sometimes our values bump up against each other in uncomfortable ways. In this case, of course, freedom isn’t our only value. Right up there with it are the values of family and community. Sure, we’re free to do whatever we want as long as no one gets hurt; but we also know that we’re part of things bigger than ourselves -– our nuclear families, our extended families, our church family, even the neighborhoods and cities where we live. We know we’re responsible to those around us, even though those responsibilities aren’t cut and dried. Especially as Christians, we know we’re bound together with the people in this room, the people of the Episcopal Church, and all the believers who comprise the Body of Christ in the world.

There’s a great movie from about 20 years ago that’s all about this tension between individual freedom and the well-being of the communities we’re part of. The movie is Local Hero. It’s the story of Mac, a high-powered deal-maker with a Texas oil company, who’s sent to this incredibly beautiful, picturesque village on the coast of northern Scotland named Ferness. Mac’s mission is to buy the entire village so his oil company can level everything, dredge out the bay, and put in a massive refinery. So Mac comes to Ferness looking for someone who can act as the community’s representative in this delicate deal. He finds Gordon, the unofficial community leader who ends up being the real deal-maker. Mac’s trying to account for the people’s feelings, the destruction of the beautiful village, the end of the community’s lifestyle. But Gordon is working behind the scenes with the residents to maximize the cash they’ll each get out of the deal. As the story moves along, Mac ends up being the one who wants to preserve the village with its quaint lifestyle, and Gordon and the villagers can barely keep a lid on their excitement about becoming “filthy rich.”

The crux of the story comes with the one hold-out in the deal, the one villager who doesn’t want to take the money and run. He’s Ben, a deeply eccentric old man who literally owns the beach and lives there in a shack whose only entrance is a window. As Mac says at one point, “How do you do business with someone who doesn’t have a door?” Ben’s job is to “work the beach,” as he puts it –- gathering up all the bizarre stuff from around the world that the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift bring to the Scottish shore. Mac and Gordon try to explain to Ben that with his new millions, he could buy any beach he wants, and they show him pictures from Hawaii and Australia and the South Seas. Ben says he doesn’t want any of those beaches. He explains, “This beach has been in the family for 400 years.… The thing is, I’m still working the place myself. It’s my living.… [The beach] has to be worked; think of the state the place would get into.”

What Ben sees is that he’s there not just for himself but for the good of the community. In fact, what he sees, which the other residents don’t, is that each individual in Ferness is there for the good of the community. And, ironically, that’s precisely what gives each individual his or her own well-being, too. If they all pursue their own self-interest, the community ceases to exist -– and then what would they have? I won’t spoil the movie’s ending, but just know that things work out, and the community endures.

Running throughout Local Hero is this question: Who is the local hero? Is it Mac, who changes from a self-centered deal-maker to someone who wants to save the village? Is it Gordon, who’s leading his people to get the most they can from a heartless oil company? Is it Ben, who reminds the community that they are a community, dependent on each other for the life they’ve known for centuries?

Like the villagers of Ferness, we have the freedom to get what we want out of our lives and our communities. Like the people of Corinth, we can choose to take what we want because we know we have the right to take it. That was certainly my temptation related to church, at a different time in my life. As a young adult, I went to church completely on my own terms. I liked to sing in the choir, so I went to church in order to sing there. Later, when I moved out on my own, I didn’t join a church at all because I didn’t want to get sucked into relationships or connection or commitment. But I did show up every now and then, when I wanted to get my time with God, and receive my Communion, and scoot out before I had to talk to anybody at coffee hour. It left me recharged until the next time I felt my battery running low. I was completely within my rights to go to church, enjoy the community they had built, and slip out again without upsetting anything. I had every freedom to do that -– but I wasn’t being a good steward of that freedom. I was looking for what was in it for me. It didn’t occur to me that my being there might have had the potential to benefit someone else.

The truth is, we need each other. Whether we’re talking about families, or parishes, or neighborhoods, or any circle of relationship, communities don’t work as collections of autonomous individuals working to ensure they each get their needs met. We have every right to do that. But the family bleeds a little with the loss of each potential contribution we could have made.

Last week, down in the undercroft, we honored some of our own local heroes by giving them the Priest-in-Charge’s Cross. These four parishioners share a commitment to be more than individuals in this church family. One hero is Randy Bredar, who’s helped guide some of the most expensive elements of the building’s restoration and helped save us hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. Another hero is Howard Williams, who’s been one of the stalwarts of the BackSnack program and who singlehandedly created a ministry of ushers to serve people at funerals. Another hero is Pete Vogt, who mentors kids at Southwest High, manages funerals for us, serves on more committees than he doesn’t serve on, and offers his photographers’ eye for free. And another hero is Connie Smart, who’s been the St. Andrew’s “Church Lady” for decades, a presence of servant ministry, historical memory, and holy encouragement for everyone she meets.

Who are our local heroes? Not just these four parishioners; not just the 20 other people who could have received crosses last week; but also many, many, many of you. Our local heroes are all those who’ve learned the blessedness of putting the well-being of this faith family ahead of individual liberty. They use their freedom as Jesus used his: Though he was in the form of God -– though he had every right to do it -– he did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. (Philippians 2:6-7) That is the ministry -– that is the glory -– of our local heroes.

1. For more information, see Garland, David E. “The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed to Idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1).” Available at: Accesed Jan. 26, 2012.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Are You Talking to Me?

[Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012]

Over the last few weeks at St. Andrew's, you may have noticed a theme emerging from the sermons you’ve heard –- a theme of discipleship, or following where you’re led. Two weeks ago, I talked about following the star of Bethlehem, with the magi, so that we, too, might follow Jesus and draw the world to him. Last week, Mtr. Anne preached about following Jesus into the waters of baptism and out into the world, as bearers of justice and peace. This morning, I want to tell you three stories about people who heard the voice of God and chose to follow where it led them -– and in so doing, helped change the world.

The first is about the prophet Samuel. As we meet him in the first reading today, Samuel is a boy who serves with the chief priest, Eli. One night, he’s awakened by a voice calling out, “Samuel, Samuel!” The boy runs into Eli’s room and says, “Here I am. What do you want?” And Eli, like many a tired parent, squints at the boy through the haze of sleep and says, “I didn’t call you; go back to bed.” Samuel obeys, but the voice returns; and Samuel and Eli go through this scene another time, with Eli (no doubt more than a little annoyed) firmly sending Samuel back to bed. When it happens a third time, Eli is awake enough to realize God’s up to something here, and he tells Samuel to stay in bed and pay attention if the voice comes again. It does, and Samuel dutifully offers the response God was looking for all along: “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

I can only imagine what must have been going through Samuel’s mind. Who am I, that I hear the voice of the Almighty calling in the night? I’m just a boy, just an assistant at the altar. I’m not important enough to get a personal call from God. Why would the Lord of the universe waste precious, divine time on me?

Well, Samuel didn’t get just one personal call. This was the start of a career. Samuel became the last of the judges of Israel and the nation’s first major prophet, which means someone who speaks for God. As God’s spokesperson, Samuel was also God’s conduit for choosing Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. From a boy who simply to listened to God calling in the night, Samuel became the political and spiritual leader of his people. Samuel listened, and he followed. And through him, God changed history.

The second story of people heeding God’s voice is the Gospel reading we just heard. Jesus has just begun calling his first disciples; and among them he finds Philip -– a normal, local guy. Philip then runs and finds his friend Nathanael, which is where the story gets interesting. Nathanael isn’t exactly one of the stars of the Gospels. In fact, he’s mentioned only in the Gospel of John, and he’s mentioned only twice in that book. But Nathanael makes a comment here that suddenly brings life to the story. Philip tells Nathanael that they’ve found the one “about whom Moses … and also the prophets wrote” (1:45), Jesus of Nazareth, who would bring to fulfillment the story of God’s relationship with humanity. But Nathanael isn’t impressed. Nazareth? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46). Nathanael sees himself as experienced and sophisticated; his fishing village of Bethsaida is much more impressive than Nazareth, that hill-country dump. But Philip isn’t taking the bait. “Come and see,” he says (1:46).

And then Nathanael finds himself face to face with the supposed hick from Nazareth. Jesus smiles and says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (1:47) –- which is a nice way to say Nathanael’s been caught. Somehow, the country bumpkin overheard Nathanael’s wisecrack about Jesus’ home town. But wait -– Nathanael has never met Jesus before. “Where did you get to know me?” he asks (1:48). And Jesus captures him with a single sentence: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (1:48). With that, Nathanael is hooked. “Rabbi,” he says, suddenly deferential, “you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” (1:49). Nathanael must be thinking, “Who am I, that the Son of God has been watching me? I’m just a guy from a fishing village. I’m not important enough to be on his mind. Why would God’s anointed king waste precious, divine time on me?

And Jesus’ answer is, basically, “Just wait -– you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Nathanael and Philip and Peter and Andrew and the rest will follow Jesus as disciples for the next three years. And in the process, they’ll see him turn water into wine, and make blind people see, and heal the sick, and feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and offer himself up to death, and destroy death with an empty tomb. Filled with the wonder of that story, even a wise guy like Nathanael will take the Good News out to the world and help create a movement. Nathanael listened, and he followed. And through him, God changed history.

The third person I want to tell you about is the one whose birthday we’ll remember tomorrow, Martin Luther King Jr. You know King’s story. You know about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. You know about the Nobel Peace Prize and his refusal to embrace the violence that would eventually kill him. But like Samuel and Nathanael, Martin Luther King also had a moment of encounter with God when the Almighty spoke -– and the man of words listened.

It happened during the difficult days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. It had been almost two months since Rosa Parks broke the law and sparked a movement by refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Her act of defiance galvanized local black leaders to organize a boycott. They came together in the basement of King’s church in Montgomery, and the young man found himself elected leader. The boycott dragged on; and in mid-January, King and the other leaders extended it indefinitely, refusing to be bullied back into the city’s racist policies.

Two weeks later, King was at home with his wife and two-month-old daughter.1 It was late, near midnight, when the phone rang. Late-night phone calls were nothing unusual, but this one put a chill in his heart. An evil voice on the other line called him the “N” word and said, “We’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”

It was more than he could take. Two months into the boycott, and two months into life with a new baby up at all hours of the night, King felt his resolve slipping away. Looking for a little extra strength, he made some coffee to get him through the long night, but he was at the end of his rope. He sat at his kitchen table, held his head in his hands, and offered the prayer of desperation. The gist of it was this: Lord, I’m trying to do what I know is right. I’m trying to lead these people. But now, I’m afraid. I’ve got nothing left, and I can’t do this on my own.

And in that moment, Martin Luther King experienced the presence and power of the living God. He felt a voice speaking within him, bearing him up and saying, “Martin: Stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. And I will be at your side.” King later described it as the most real and palpable experience of God’s presence he’d ever known -– enough to keep him following God through the boycott and throughout the next 12 years of the movement.

Now, Martin Luther King was not perfect, as history has clearly shown. Neither was Samuel or Nathanael; neither is any one of us. King was a broken man called to heal a broken situation; and he knew better than anyone else the poverty of his own power. I imagine him, in his kitchen that night, amazed that God had come to him so vividly. Who am I, that I hear the voice of the Almighty calling in the night? I’m just a young preacher at a small church in a small city. Why would the Lord of the universe waste precious, divine time on me?

Of course, filled with the power of that encounter, the broken young preacher would confront the racist powers of Montgomery, and the South, and the nation -– and defeat them without raising a hand in his own defense. God asked him to lead others to overcome evil through nonviolence –- and he created a movement. King listened, and he followed. And through him, God changed history.

So, who’s next? It could be any of us. It could be all of us. Jesus calls every last one of us to the path of discipleship. It’s sometimes a difficult path, hard to see, twisting in discomforting directions, full of stumbling blocks to trip us up. But the call is always to take a step and then trust that the next one will be revealed in God’s good time. For this path of discipleship, God doesn’t seek flawless people who have all the answers. Instead, God calls us -– even me, even you. We’ve all been given ears to hear that voice calling our names in the night. So, may we breathe deep and muster up the courage to say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” And then, may we receive the strength to follow God’s path where it leads and change the world God gives us to change.

1. This account of King’s epiphany during the Montgomery Bus Boycott is told in his memoir Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958). The book apparently is out of print, and I couldn’t obtain a copy in time for use with this sermon. Two blog posts recall the story of King’s midnight encounter with God: “Civil Rights Family Trip: Montgomery” ( and “Martin Luther King’s Defining Moment: A Kitchen, in Montgomery, Alabama, Past Midnight” (