May 19, 2013


Life Saving Station & Crew

Sermon for Year C, Sunday of the Pentecost
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
May 19, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Today is Pentecost; you can’t get around that.
It’s the day everything changed.
The day the Holy Spirit blew in, wild and free, and forever altered
  The way we think about God and describe God.
It’s the day when the disciples and the other followers of Jesus
  Became the ekklesia, the Church.
The day when a little organization was added to a loose set of ideas and principles.
It’s the day when spiritual children were forced to make a choice
  Between staying children and growing up.
So: if we just hold on to Pentecost as the memorial celebration
  Of something that occurred long ago and far away, then our goose is cooked.
What if instead of doing that we had our own very real Pentecost?
What if rather than simply hearing a story and saying, Oh, that’s nice –
  What if instead we started praying for Pentecost
    And anticipating the Holy Spirit to come at any minute?
I would like to ask you a direct and honest question today.
I’m aware that asking it may put me in an unpopular place,
  And I am prepared to deal with that; in fact, I’d welcome the energy.
But as much as I prayed around it this week,
  There wasn’t anything else for me to do today
   But to ask this one honest and direct question.

Have you ever heard of the word “inertia,”
  And, in your honest opinion, would you ever use it to describe our parish?

You may be familiar with the idea of inertia,
  But please let me unpack it just very briefly.
It’s a term from the world of physics.
It’s defined as “the resistance of any … object to a change in a state of motion or rest.”
An object that has come to a state of rest can only have that rest overcome
  By the force of an external object.
A six-ounce billiard ball comes to rest on the flat green felt of a pool table.
It is then struck by a white “cue” ball, sending it along a new trajectory.
It can’t get moving again until something other than itself bumps it to get it moving.
Otherwise it will remain in a state of rest forever.
But when it is struck, and when it moves, then its inertia is overcome.

What happens if something at rest isn’t acted upon by an outside force?

It doesn’t move, it doesn’t go anywhere,
  And it has an increasingly smaller impact beyond the space it occupies
  The longer it sits without moving.
Eventually, decay sets in.
So again: very respectfully and with great love –
  Do you ever feel inertia at St. Thomas?

There’s a parable about all this, often repeated, by a man named Tom Brackett.
Please, listen very closely to this.

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur,
There was once a crude little life-saving station.
The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat,
  But the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea,
  And with no thought for themselves went out day and night
  Tirelessly searching for those who were lost.
Some of those who were saved and various others in the surrounding area
  Wanted to become associated with the station
  And gave of their time, money, and eort to support its work.
New boats were bought and new crews trained.
The little life-saving station grew. 

Some of the members of the life-saving station were unhappy
  That the building was so crude and poorly equipped.
They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided
  As the first refuge of those saved from the sea.
They replaced the emergency cots with beds
  And put better furniture in the enlarged building.

Now the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members,
  And they decorated it beautifully because they used it as a sort of club.
Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions,
  So they hired lifeboat crews to do this work.
The life-saving motif still prevailed in the club’s decorations,
  And there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where club initiations were held.

About this time a large ship wrecked o the coast,
  And the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people.
They were dirty and sick. The beautiful new club was in chaos.
So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club
  Where victims of shipwrecks could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split among the club membership.
Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities
  As being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club.
Some members insisted upon life-saving as their primary purpose
  And pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station.

But they were finally voted down
  And told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people
      Who were shipwrecked in those waters,
    They could begin their own life-saving station. So they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes
  That had occurred in the old.
It evolved into a club, and yet another life-saving station was founded.

History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that seacoast today,
  You will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore.
Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown…

I will tell you how I see it.
In some ways, St. Thomas is not a club,
  And in some ways it is.
In some ways, St. Thomas has not farmed out its conscience to paid professionals,
  And in other ways it has.
In some ways, St. Thomas is most definitely not suffering from decay,
  And in other ways, it is.
Some of St. Thomas is suffering from intertia, and some isn’t.
Some is of it is stagnating and decaying, and some of it is most decidedly alive and well.
Some things about St. Thomas are just like that crude little life-saving station,
  And some things about it have become overgrown and an encumbrance
    And cannot be maintained forever according to the current plan.
Furthermore, some of those things may be your favorite things,
  But I think I can safely say that we have reached the point
  Where we can no longer have everything as a parish that all of us always wanted.
That it’s time to deal with what remains.

We’re the beautiful building on the top of the hill.
That used to matter more than it does now.
To many, we are the living image of the now-defunct model of The Church Victorious,
  The proud jewel of Christendom – But those days are long past.
Yet we are also serving Christ in what we do.
In some ways, we are a crude little station that pulls people out of the ocean,
  And in other ways – equally basic ways – we’re also an inert little club.
How can these things be true at the same time? I dunno. They just are.
It’s like driving with three tires but insisting you have all four;
  If you insist long enough, sooner or later, all evidence to the contrary,
    You might even start to believe it yourself,
  Even though you know deep down you only have three tires
    And you’re not kidding anyone.
But what matters is the story you tell yourself –
  What matters is whatever you may choose to believe!

And if you believe it long enough, in spite of whatever evidence may be offered,
  Sooner or later you start compensating for it, rather than actually addressing it.

When I said for several Sundays in a row that I was looking for anyone
  Who would be willing to think and visit with me about reaffirming his or her faith
    Or being received or confirmed in The Episcopal Church,
  And when only a few new folks came forward,
    I began to wonder if perhaps that might be a sign of inertia.
When the endowment of this parish
  An endowment built to fund mission and capital investment –
  When that endowment began to be used for everyday household bills –
    And we’re talking about a non-renewing resource here –
  When I realized that money saved to fund mission and build buildings
    Was being drained off into things like utility bills, …
  I began to wonder if that wasn’t inertia rearing its head.
When this great big beautiful room,
  Which in years past has been fuller than usual on Mother’s Day –
    When this great big beautiful room just engulfed us with empty pews last week,
    I’m sorry to have to be the one to bring this up, but it felt like inertia.

On the other hand, there are all the elements of the crude little life-saving station –
  The things we do together that feel right and make sense and give us energy –
  The things that people want to be a part of, and if they can’t be a part,
    At least they want to give money to.
The things that attract people.
The things we do that make people say,
  Boy, that felt good – why don’t we do that more often?
The question is, Will we allow ourselves to be enlived by those things
  To the point that we would allow ourselves to be be struck by them
    And sent in a new trajectory
  From out of the place of inertia and along a new and exciting path?

This week we picked up a check for $10,000 because someone believed in our vision
  That we would like to construct a greenhouse someday.
That’s $10,000 added to the $5,000 we found out about last month,
  Added to almost $12,000 already deposited in that fund for that purpose.
Last month we received a letter from Iowa State Extension
  Saying how badly this part of Sioux City needs a greenhouse,
  And they pledged to support it with Master Gardeners in perpetuity.
On Friday, just to restate their support and interest, they repledged their support.
On Tuesday, we will proceed as a Vestry to vote on it.

That’s one example of something that’s working –
  Something that has its own momentum.
There are others.
A lot of them have to do with feeding hungry people.

There are still other moments, though,
  That have to do with taking the general temperature of this church
  And finding it lukewarm.

To some, these words will feel like a shocking accusation.
Others will nod their heads and quietly agree.
Some may say, “Well, Father Torey finally said it.”
Still others might maintain
  That life is a mixed bag and you have to take the good with the bad.
I’m not sure I disagree in any event.
Here’s all I’m really saying:
  That if God, through the might of the Holy Spirit, can turn a loose collective
    Into a Church of Jesus-followers,
    Then I believe in precisely the same way
      That God can reform our inertia. Turn it to momentum.
That God is strong enough to receive our honest confession
  That we don’t have time or the money or maybe even that we just don’t care.
Even that is a prayer.
Because if we pray it long enough, follow it to its logical end,
  It’ll take us right back to asking for the Spirit to bring Pentecost.

I’m saying this now because over the next few years and decades,
  In the life of just about every church in America,
  You’re going to see a radical shift.
You’ll see fewer and fewer full-time, seminary-trained clergy
  Out in front of congregations
  And more and more lay people leading.
Where will those people come from?
Will it be you? Or will we individually and collectively succumb to inertia?
It is a hard choice you either make now,
  Or else have your choices dictated to you later by someone else,
  After you’ve run out of options and spent down your endowment.

What does a good future look like?
The path to the future is being cleared out right now for you,
  But you have to be the ones to take it once it’s shown itself.
Some decisions will be reached in the near term about some of this,
  But your input will be asked for first,
  And we’ll need to talk together about what we think is important.
I advise you to begin praying now for a sense of guidance:
  To ask questions, get involved, read up.

At the bottom of everything, there is this is this one simple truth:
  That as long as there is need in the world, God is not done with St. Thomas.
If you believe that, it's time to live it.

You have a lot to do. You can’t let this slip away on your watch.
You’re that beautiful, crude little life-saving station, and you have work to do.
So let’s let these words be more than words. May the Spirit be our guide along the way.


Ann said...

But once you get the ball rolling - it can't stop either - not without something acting to stop it - like gravity or a wall or ...

Reverend Thomas Brackett said...


You made me recommit myself to that Covenant of ours, after reading this sermon. Thank you! Your ministries to all of us bless me.

Tom Brackett

Kevin said...

As I've said to many people in several denominations, if a congregation isn't growing and doing the mission that it was put on earth to do then it is dying. No excuses. Even in rural Iowa, there is a high percentage of unchurched people that need ministry of word and sacrament.

I'm thankful that you are in Sioux City. I believe that you are the type of pastor that St. Thomas needs right now.