Sermon January 23, 2011
“Ends and Beginnings – Beginnings and Ends”
1 Corinthians 1:10-18 and Matthew 4:12-23
It’s Annual Meeting Sunday – a time of ballots, budgets and reports. We formally put 2010 to bed; rightly thanking those who have served their terms, yet we also have an eye to the future – electing new leadership and adopting a new financial budget for the coming year. In doing this we are following a long established pattern in this church and in our denomination. Indeed, endings and beginnings are at the heart of our world. Time itself is divided into endings and beginnings. We think of time as linear -- broken into discreet parts: the past (what was), the present (what is) and the future (what will be).
There is a risk, however, when we see life in such terms – namely, that we long for and want to go back to the “good old days”. It’s human nature. Memory has a way of sifting out the things that were not so good, leaving us with memories of only the good things. But in truth the good old days were often more “old” than good. Moreover, it simply isn’t possible to go back or to duplicate the past in the now. Time has moved on. I remember returning to the Maine house outside of Portland that I grew up in from the time I as 5 years of age to 14. I fondly remembered the view of the ocean, the climbing trees and my Little League Field. But when I went back it wasn’t the same. A new house blocked the view. The huge maple tree out front wasn’t so high or spectacular as I remembered. The distance to the Little League Field wasn’t so long in a car as it had been on a bike. And the field was not quite the exquisite field of dreams I recalled. To be sure it was a special place. But I know I can’t really go back and certainly couldn’t duplicate it in the present.
The same is true for churches. Some of us are nostalgic for the way this church was. I suspect the particular time we might want to emulate depends on whom you ask. For some it might be 1952 with the enthusiasm of building a new church sanctuary. For others maybe it’s the late 60s when FCC had double services here every Sunday. For others it might be the 90’s when a son or daughter was married here. But truth be told we can’t return to those days. The world around us and the people in the pews are different and the church is and must be different. We certainly don’t worship the way they did in the catacombs in 200 AD or even the way they did in the 1950s. And in 2030 worship will not look or sound the way it does today.
And yet the past is present here. Bob Luccock, a wise minister, once wrote, that the “Church is where the past and the future is now”. While FCC cannot be the same as it was in 1954 or 1984 or even 2004, the past is here. It is part and parcel of what it means to be the church – to be a community of faith. Our sacred texts come from the past and report on events that occurred thousands of years ago. Many of our hymns have been around for hundreds of years. But we read the bible and sing these hymns not out of nostalgia, but because they have become part of our story in worship today. The parable of the Prodigal Son is not simply a riveting story, but at its best it becomes real to us. It has become our story. It animates our thoughts and actions when we deal with a child, a friend or a spouse who has done something thoughtless and hurtful. The parable of the Good Samaritan is not just an old-fashioned story about a guy who gets beat up and is then helped by an unlikely foreigner. It reminds us of who our neighbors really are.
The past is also present through the people who lived before us but whose stories are still real today. Many of you know that we have something called the Helen Havilland Fund, which covers the cost of flowers for the altar when a family or individual has not supplied flowers. That fund in its own way makes this sanctuary more beautiful and more worshipful. Who was Helen Havilland? In reading a brief history of the church prepared for FCC’s 75th anniversary, I came across her name – she was the first head of the woman’s fellowship here in 1913. She loved flowers and made sure that there were some here every Sunday and so Helen Havilland continues to live in the present. And there are countless others in the life of FCC who live on. And there are others in our denomination and even further back -- Paul and Peter and most assured Jesus who live on as more than just memory.
X X X
Recently, at a meeting here someone said, “For years we’ve talked about growth – but what can we really do about? It was a heartfelt question from one of the many who truly love this church and who long to see us be as we were in 60s, 70s and 80s. To be sure we can’t be that church again nor can we go back in time -- the world has changed too much. Yet, I think the answer is that the past must be made present here. Our gospel text today is about the founding of the church and about church growth. It is Matthew’s account of the calling Peter and Andrew to join him. I marvel at what must have been the mysterious power of this figure who caused these two and countless others to leave their settled lives to follow him. But what were they called to do? That’s the thing that is worthy of our attention. The answer is to be “fishers of men.” That calling has fueled the growth of Christianity for two millennia. It is as apt today as then. The challenge for FCC, as for many churches, is for us to be fisher’s of men and women -- for this story from the past to become our story today.
There are, of course, different ways to fish. Most of us use a rod and reel. Some few use a hand line, while commercial fisherman use nets and long lines that stretch for miles. And my favorite method is what Howell Raines, the former editor of the New York Times, described as “red neck fishing”, which involves tossing a stick of dynamite in a lake and then skimming the stunned fish off the top. Now, I am not recommending that the Membership and Fellowship Board buy dynamite for us. But, of course, all these fishing techniques seek the same goal a big and memorable catch. So let’s not forget that the techniques used for fishing for men and women will vary with the circumstances, too.
In the 50’s and 60s if you built it, new members would come. Churches didn’t have to publicize who they were. Church membership and attendance were part of the culture and often a non-negotiable part of a family’s week. Today it’s a different world. Sunday is not set aside for church – every kind of activity is now scheduled for Sunday on what used to be a “day of rest”. In the wider culture, church is viewed as practically irrelevant to the real issues facing people.
The lures and bait churches must use today need to be different. And the whole effort to fish must be more intentional also. Sitting lazily by the stream -- eyes closed -- waiting for a bite probably isn’t going to work. We must be more active and, I think, we are becoming so.
We also need to think critically about why we are fishing and what we are saying to those we seek to attract. Probably, it is not the most effective lure to say to newcomers that we want them to join us so that we can continue to do the great things we do. Rather we want people to join us because we believe worship, fellowship and faith will transform their lives for the better as it has ours. Don’t we also want them to join us because of what they offer us? Not only do we think they will be transformed but also we will be fuller and richer as a church if they become part of our faith community. When we fish for those reasons – fishing is more likely to be successful. The other benefits of growth -- having an ample supply of lay leaders and more financial resources -- will, I submit, take care of themselves, if we are effective fishers of men and women.
Just as in Jesus’ day there is a role in this for each of us. Some of us will be fly fishermen casting the line out to people as they visit us. Others will gather the bait or tie the flies by making this church vibrant in all that it does. And others here will welcome the fish to our pond insuring that they become a real part of our fellowship. Our faith says being fishers of men and women never goes out of date; it’s just the gear that changes not the fishing itself. Amen
 Robert E. Luccock, On Becoming the Best We Can Be (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1991) pp. 63-72