December 11, 2011

 

       ON WHO WE ARE

Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
  at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 11 December 2011

 

Who are you?  That is the question that John the Baptist was asked by those religious folk who could not believe their eyes.  Here was a man, a son of the tribe of Levi, a man who was entitled to eat of the finest food offered in the Temple, but who it seemed chose not to live in Jerusalem or any other of the cities where priests and Levites were supposed to live, but who lived out in the wilderness, dressed in the hair of camels, hair that he had presumably taken from the thorn bushes where it had been caught and that he had woven into a rough garment to cover what had to be covered, and who ate locust beans, considered by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures as the poorest of food, and honey, and who drank only water.  Who are you? 

On another occasion Jesus asked a similar question of people.  Who was John the Baptist? What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  And later on he was to ask of his disciples: Who do people say that I am?  Who do you say that I am?  Who?  Who are these unconventional people who say unconventional things and do unconventional things?  Who are you?  I wonder how we might answer that question if it were to be put to us!  Who are we?  Are we that voice crying out in the urban wilderness of our day, “Prepare the Way of the Lord”?  Are we that voice that cries out to our contemporaries, “Repent and be baptized”?  Just who are we?  That is a question that any Search Committee looking for a new Rector has to ask and to answer: Who are we?  What is it that makes us different, so different that people come to find out who we are? 

John the Baptist knew who he was and what made him different.  His parents had told him that from the day he was eight days old!  Jesus knew who he was and there are sufficient hints in the narratives of the Gospels to tell us that his mother told him who he was and was to be.  Who are we?  Has anyone ever told you who we were and where we have come from to be who we are today, and who we are meant to be tomorrow?

John the Baptist and Jesus were probably both in their early thirties when they went about carrying out their ministries.  The Parish of Holy Faith is a bit older than that, coming up to our fiftieth anniversary in the next three years.  But we can still work out who we were, and from that we might be able to work out who we are meant to be? 

Holy Faith began back in 1964.  Port St Lucie was nothing much of a place in those days, little more than a collection of new homes located close along the North Fork of the St Lucie River, just west of a two-lane highway, which was the sole connection with the outside world.  It was little more than a place beyond the back of the back of beyond, beyond the limits of Fort Pierce to the north and of Stuart to the south, and very different from all the other small communities in St Lucie County. 

Have you ever stopped to think what St Lucie County might have been like in those days?  In the western part of the County there were cattle ranches, as there still are today.  South of Fort Pierce, the two-lane US 1 passed through citrus groves and largely scrubland.  There were no street lights and no need for traffic lights.  It was rough and it was tough.  There was no I-95.  There was no Florida’s Turnpike.  But more than that it was the South and it was the 1960s.  Those were the days of strict segregation.  Fort Pierce was really two distinct communities – some would say it still is.  And the same could be said of Stuart – and some would say it still is.  And in the South of those days, if you were of the South, you knew just where you fitted in.  And there are reminders of those times still today. 

Say you were an Episcopalian in those days.  Where did you go to church?  If you were White and living in Fort Pierce you went to St Andrew’s, nestling alongside the Indian River lagoon.  And if you were White and living in Stuart you would go to St Mary’s, set serenely along Ocean Boulevard.  But if you were not White, well the chances were that you were of Bahamian extract and most of your family members worked in the canefields or the citrus groves. You lived in the north-west part of Fort Pierce where the streets were identified by numbers and the avenues by letters because the city fathers thought you were illiterate!  If you lived in Stuart then you were forced to live in East Stuart.  In Fort Pierce you worshipped at St Simon the Cyrenian, and if you lived in East Stuart you worshipped at St Monnica’s, two churches named for saints of Africa who were thought to have been black.  And if we want to be honest, that is still the way things are today, by and large. 

And in case you think all this is an exaggeration, let us remember that it was in 1964 that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young came to St Augustine after leaders of the Black community there had been kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan,.  Andrew Young writes about what happened back then in his 1996 history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, “An Easy Burden”, spelling it all out over a 12-page section.  It was into this sort of environment that a small group of Episcopalians from Up North came, and it was they who, having known less than a warm welcome by the existing congregations, set up Holy Faith as a Voice Crying in the Wilderness. 

Holy Faith started life as a congregation of outsiders, and if you look around at yourselves that is still who we are, and that is still our real mission, to be a congregation of outsiders that continues to welcome outsiders.  And we are at our very best when we grasp that this is our Mission.  We are a bunch of oddities, if you will, outsiders from all over the United States, the American continents, North, Central and South, from countries and continents across the seas.  Some of us even come from Florida!  And we have grown as a congregation and as members of that congregation whenever we have recognized that each of us is different, each with a valuable contribution to make to the life of the Parish.  We have shrunk back when some of our number have tried to impose a measure of uniformity on the way we do things.  

Uniformity might allow some of us to be comfortable, but being comfortable is not part of the Christian way of life, at least when we look at the New Testament and when we consider the lives of the saints and martyrs.  We have all come from elsewhere, and many of us from several elsewheres!  And the experiences we have had, which have led to our own personal spiritual growth, are all valid and valuable.  But our growth did not end during our time in our very first parish and it did not end during our time in our most recent parish, and it will not end while we are part of Holy Faith.  Somehow, we know that we need to share each other’s talents, but we also need to grasp that by accepting what anybody has to offer we shall continue to grow in the spirit, personally and as a congregation.  

Being a member of Holy Faith is tough, and being the Minister at Holy Faith is especially tough!  It is tough to lay aside pet ideas and to move on from the way things were done back there wherever back there happened to be.  Back there in the days of John the Baptist, the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Priests and the Levites clung tenaciously to their past practices and customs.  And I confess that I still hanker for the way in which things were done in that centuries old parish church that I knew as a boy seventy years ago.  But John urged Repentance, a turning back to the Lord God whose vision is New Every Morning, to quote Lamentations. 

We are called to be different, to be different every day of our lives, for we are a people on the march, a pilgrim people, not weighed down by what has gone before, but using the experience of all our pasts to move forward toward that Vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth about which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes.  We are right to look back with thankfulness at our earlier experiences, but now we are being challenged to accept the new vision of a Universe won for Christ.  That is a Universe in which all outsiders are welcome and the contribution that they are called upon to make is valued for its validity if it is based in what Christ has shown to be filled with his Spirit. 

We are Holy Faith, a company of outsiders who, in God’s providence, have come together, and we are moving forward together under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ to become the heralds of his Kingdom.  That is who we were in 1964, and that is who we are called to be tomorrow.