The Very Near-By Word

Older Homilies (2009-2013)

Preached for the feast of St. Andrew with the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church.


“The word is very near to you.”

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Andrew believed. Andrew confessed. Andrew was a man on a mission from the Lord, an intimate evangelist burning with the good news that God had come near. He worked several street corners in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, and one of those corners was right next to the bus stop that I waited at each afternoon when my teaching day was done. I watched Andrew, out of the corner of my eye, as he shifted from soul to soul, passing in-between the passers-by with bible tracks sticking up from his back-pocket and a wide-embracing grin that he would flash two seconds before asking the man or woman in his path, “Sir, ma’am, have you been saved?” Most of them had been, of course, being in the heart of the Christian South, and the polite Christians would tip their hat and smile and maybe even thank him before scooting anxiously along to the rest of their business. Some of the men and women that Andrew called after had no interest in being saved, especially if the saving had anything to with a man of Andrew’s obviously diminished stature, and some of them were rude. But every once in a while, some troubled soul would cross Andrew’s path, some soul for whom the saving likely seemed to be one of the best and last options on the shelf, and I would watch, from the corner of my eye, as someone new bowed her head with Andrew’s hand upon her shoulder to welcome Jesus Christ into her heart. Every once in a while I would see there, in the periphery, a tear fall and a spark light up inside some human soul from the embers Andrew tended in his own, the smoldering drive he carried to get out of bed each morning and go out fishing souls for Jesus. I bristled every time I saw it happen. I’d mutter something under my breath about cheap grace or having been saved 2,000 years ago and stick my nose in a book so he wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to save me next, but secretly, I was burning too. I envied him his clarity, his urgency and verve. I wanted desperately to be as certain of my faith as he seemed to be, and to give it all away with such abandon.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. The tiny church I belonged to at the time fished in subtler ways than Andrew employed. We fancied ourselves above confronting strangers on the street and posted hip fliers about the newest weeknight bible study instead. We hosted a gallery and a potluck and a preschool. We wrote editorials in the local paper and dressed up in funny clothes to march the sidewalks once a year chanting funny things pretending it was normal, waiting to see who might notice. We cast our nets off to the side of our tiny operation and waited for the passers-by to be caught up in the midst of a holy curiosity. And every once in a while, it happened. Every once in a while some troubled soul came across our open door to find communion waiting there, and we watched from the corner of our pews as he stumbled through the kneeling and responses and the hymns enough times to start looking much like we did in the same. Every once in a while we saw there in our periphery a spark light up in some human soul that resembled what we’d tended in our own. We thanked God secretly in our hearts that we were ever there at all to catch him, and our ranks would increase a single member more. In the end, we were about as good at fishing souls as Andrew was. One soul won over at a time, one for every once in a while. If either Andrew or our little church had been fishing for our livelihood, we would have each starved to death a long, long time ago.

Evangelism does not happen in an empty room, as much as we seem determined at times to clear one out in our habits and routines. God does not write her holy Word upon a blank and static slate, but upon the particularities of the human flesh and blood which she knit together in the womb. Evangelism without particularity, a message told without the peculiarities and flaws of its tellers, is as good as dead upon the water it would seek to reach beneath. It was a lack of context that made me bristle at the great effort Andrew made. He used the same words that I did to talk about faith, but neither of us was very certain what the other one was actually saying. We, of course, run no less risk of being just as static and empty and blank in the invitations we extend for our God. We keep the sacraments that God has found us with and feeds us in, but we struggle at times not to keep the lives that God enters there as a specially-coded secret to ourselves. It is easy for us to become so used to the worship which we offer that we cease to notice whether God is doing anything else besides. The teeming crowds still swarm to Jesus, they are still caught up in his healing when it comes, they still gather every time his wisdom is cast wide across the world, but they often do so now somewhere else without us.

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says to a group of men who fish for a living. It makes sense for him to ask Andrew and Peter and James and John to fish for people because fishing was their daily bread, Jesus was speaking to them in the particularity of their vocation, their life and food. It might even make sense for Jesus to ask Brad Jones or John Kellogg to fish for people, because he probably knows that they’d jump at the chance to fish anywhere, even all the way to Central Park in the middle of someone else’s wedding. But the Lord Jesus knows that the last fish I caught was a meager little thing on a dock in Punta Gorda, Florida with my grandpa at the age of five. I turned my nose up at the smell and the only fishing I’ve done since then has been on internet dating sites. I was never a fisherman. I was a preschool teacher. I was a professional cut and paster, I played with dress-up and sock puppets for a living. I spent my days breaking up fights and cleaning puke off other people’s children and I spent my nights going to the gym and out to bars with my friends. I sometimes wish I was still there. Not only because I actually thought I knew what I was doing then, but because somewhere between the macaroni art and the Tuesday night spin class and the poor choices and the wealth of friendship the Lord Jesus Christ rushed my heart at full force and claimed the whole thing as his own. “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you cut and paste and bike and drink and break up fights and clean up puke for God! Follow me,” he says now, “and I will infuse your whole life with my grace, I will make all things holy, I will take the tasks which are most familiar to you and use them for breaking out a kingdom of peace and justice for all God’s children on the earth. Not upon a clean and blank and static slate but on the very flesh and blood already made by God, the very things already close to our touch and taste and sight and heart, the very life you’re living even now, transformed.”

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” I have heard more than one mention from this pulpit about the lives we left behind, and I have teared up on more than one occasion at the thought of sacrifices made for the sake of coming here to follow some kind of call: friends lost, security forfeited, bridges burned. But I am interested, this evening, less in the things which you had to leave behind to follow Jesus, and more in the parts of you made and claimed by God that you refuse to let go of. In the Gospel stories, Saint Andrew is always bringing folk along to meet the Lord that found him, he brings his brother Simon Peter along, he brings Greeks along, he brings a boy along to Jesus carrying a meager catch of two fish and some loaves, and when we pray in thanksgiving for his life and witness we ask that we too might bring those near to us into his gracious presence. But we do not stop there. We bring whole lives touched by God to the evangelistic task before us. It can be so easy, in this of all places, to forget ourselves. It can be so easy to wipe our slate clean in the name of formation, in the effort to be made again within the shape of our tradition, easy to forget the whole lives that God has redeemed for her holy work, easy to pretend that we are anything other than whole histories of hurt and joy transfigured in the Lord each time we eat his flesh and serve his need in the world. And if we forget the life that God has saved in us, if we pretend to be something we are not, we risk nothing less than rendering the invitation we extend on God’s behalf as static as we become at times behind these iron gates.

This is not to be your fate.

I know this for a fact, because I know you, and because you have taken me along to see Jesus more times than I have time to name. You are a trumpeter, a diva, a producer, and a therapist for God. You are a discerning financier, a centering chaplain, and a raucous hostess for the kingdom of heaven. An optometrist’s assistant for the vision of faith, a sous-chef of holy food and drink, a fisherfolk of people for the Lord. Your lives are teeming with God’s bounteous catch, and that abundance may break and broaden the doors of any church you try to enter with it, because Jesus will not stop using your whole life to spread the good news of his saving presence. You are a man, a woman, a child on a mission from the Lord, evangelists every one, burning with the good news that God has come near, and comes even closer still. You will go forth from this place burning with Jesus in your heart and at your side in everything you do, and together you will set this world on fire.

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