Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 15, 2000

Opening Yourself to an Encounter With God
The Rev. Dr. Douglass M. Bailey
Rector, Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee

I'm often asked about my style of preaching where I talk and walk around at the top of the chancel steps. It reminds me of a cartoon.

The cartoon I have in mind is from the series Kudzu.
It's central character is an outrageous preacher by
the name of the Reverend Will B. Dunn. He's sort of a takeoff in my mind of The Rev. Will D. Campbell, that outrageous and wonderful Baptist preacher who is sometimes here at Calvary's Lenten Series.

The cartoon is in two frames. In the first frame, the Rev. Will B. Dunn is down at his mailbox getting his morning mail. He's dressed all in black, and he's wearing his usual broad-brimmed, black, Amish-like hat. He's opened the mailbox and pulled out a letter which reads, "Dear Preacher, why don't you please stand still when you preach?" The preacher looks up, and then he looks back again at the letter. The second frame continues, "Because when I wake up, I don't know where to find you."

If any of you have any thoughts about dozing today, just know that I'll be walking around and watching you--and I just might call on you to do what I'm doing, and I'll catch a little sleep.

Okay, if you're awake, let's pay to attention to a Jesus story in the fifth chapter of Luke's Gospel. It reads like this:

Once while Jesus was standing beside the sea of Gallilee, the crowd was pressing on Him to hear the word of God. He saw two boats there at the shore of the lake. The fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Jesus got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon Peter, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. And then He sat down, and He taught the crowd from the boat.

When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let your nets down for a catch." Simon Peter answered him, "Master, we have worked all night long, but we have caught nothing. Yet if You say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came, and they filled both boats so that the boats began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees in fear, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man" He was amazed at the catch of fish, as were all who were with him, including Simon's partners, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. But Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Do not be afraid. Follow Me. From now on, you will fish for people." When they had brought their boats to the shore, they left everything, and they followed Him.

Prompted by this Lenten Preaching Series, I've had numerous conversations with people who have asked me how they can become more open to an encounter with God. Their question has shaped this homily today, that question from others and that question inside of me. My life so often is hallowed and haunted with the question, How can I be more open to an encounter with God?

Father David Knight, the pastor of nearby Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, is sometimes a spiritual director of mine. In a conversation I was having with him some years back, he was telling me about his experiences serving the Church in West Africa. He said that there is a wonderful expression that is often used when somebody meets or passes somebody else on a dusty African road.

This expression is based on the native tribal language. It is used in somewhat the same way that you and I would say hello or good morning to one another. What happens is that the first person says, "No doi," and the other person responds, "Me dien." In its English translation, "No doi" most closely means "I see your face." "Me dien" is translated most closely in English as "That pleases my face." I see your face. That brings joy to my face. Isn't that a delicious way to think about connecting with one another.

I wonder about that in terms of God. If in those little, even marginal moments in your life when you see something of the face of God and can dare to say, "God, I just caught a glimpse of your face." God must reply, sometimes through a child's smile, sometimes through a gift of abundance, sometimes through painful tears, "That pleases my face, that you see my face."

In the Scripture lesson, which we have just heard read, there is this miraculous catch of fish. Afterwards there is a series of things that have to do with close encounters with God. I'm convinced that in these kinds of close encounters, we see God's face. The first thing that Peter does is to be overcome with fear. He falls down on his knees and probably mumbles out, "God, I see God's face in this Jesus; I'm scared, because I know who I am. I'm a person of sin. I'm incomplete. I'm inadequate. I'm unworthy. How could I be in the presence of God?"

But, Jesus sees in Peter something that he doesn't see in himself. Jesus sees him as God's kid, God's beloved kid. And He says, "You're my beloved. Follow me, and I will help you fish for others.

That is where we are headed today. Close encounters with God often happen in fear moments, in following moments and in fishing moments.

Moments of great fear - you have them, I have them, all of humanity has them. Moments when we are aware that something larger than life is happening to us, and somehow there just might be the trace and face of something larger than I can even dare speak of: God! Often we're fearful of God: that God will get too close to us. That God will ask of us our very life, which, of course, is what God asks.

Over and over again, it seems to be that an encounter with God brings a first, maybe immediate reaction of fear. In the creation story there is Adam, Adam who represents all of humanity, all of mankind. And there is Eve, who is every woman. They're in the garden, and they're naked. They hear God coming in the cool of the evening, and they hide themselves out of fear. God says to them "Be not afraid, but why are you hiding?" And they say, "Because we are afraid." Fear. That's your story and mine.

Fear often comes for the right reasons, but many times it's there for the wrong reasons. It's rampant in your life and mine.In the lives of cities, like Memphis, God has to somehow overcome that fear.

There is that moment in Moses' experience with the burning bush. Moses hides himself. He hides his face out of fear, and God's first words to Moses are, "Moses, don't be so afraid. I've got plans for you."

There is that experience with Isaiah in the temple. All of a sudden, there is that encounter with God, and Isaiah is in deep fear. God has to overcome the fear in order for the message to be heard. Fear is there; it's there in you and me.

When Mary, the mother of our Lord, encounters the Voice that tells her what God is going to do with her life, she is in great fear. Then the Voice says, "Mary, be not afraid. I'm going to make of you glory, glory."

In the Christmas story, the first words to the shepherds are, "Be not afraid." And, the first words in the Easter garden are, "Be not afraid." But we do live in fear so much of the time, don't we? What I'm suggesting is that you pay attention to your moments of fear, because they may be a preparation for an encounter with God. God overcomes fears.

Hold on to that feeling of fear just for a moment. Now, out of Peter's fear, and out of your own fear, hear an invitation to follow.

Some of you have heard me say this before, but I think it's fascinating how much the word "follow" is used in Scripture. In the New Testament alone, it is used 87 times. "Follow Me, follow Me," says Jesus. Apparently Jesus only uses the words "Believe in Me" three times. It's the "following" process that draws us close to Jesus, much more than the "believing" process.

It's in the doing of it. Just like that Nike commercial, just do it, get up and do it. Show up for prayer even when you don't feel like it. Act out in faith even though you may not believe it, just do it. You're following. It's in the following process that magnificent things happen.

Let me try to give you an illustration. I was going through a very, very difficult time here some years back. There were lots of disagreements about the direction in which I was trying to lead our parish. And, quite frankly, I was disappointed in our parish. And, in our city of Memphis. I received a call in early September of that year from Dr. Herenton, the Mayor of Memphis, informing me that the leaders of the Civil Rights Museum were bringing Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Memphis to be the recipient of the museum's Freedom Award. Dr. Herenton was asking me and two of my African-American clergy colleagues to go and represent the city at the International Airport, to greet Archbishop Tutu and his wife, in the name of Memphis.

I was honored to do that, inadequate but honored to do it, and so I met Dr. Billy Kyles and Dr. Fred Lofton at the airport to greet Archbishop Tutu. They were in separate cars because they had a Baptist Ministers Association meeting immediately afterwards. So, my fellow clergy asked if I would take the Archbishop and his wife down to the Peabody Hotel. There was a huge press conference at the airport. The Archbishop and Mrs. Tutu had flown overnight from Johannesburg to New York, and then from New York to Memphis, arriving here about ten o'clock in the morning. Leah, his wife, was just exhausted. But the archbishop was alive and vibrant, his eyes shining bright and brilliant.

We got into the car, and before we even closed the back door, Leah was asleep. He wanted her to rest, and so he put her in the back seat. The Archbishop got in the front seat, and we headed downtown. He was a bundle of energy and conversation. As we neared downtown, he began to ask questions about the Lorraine Motel and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This was his first visit to the city of Memphis, and he said, "Would you mind if we went to the Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel before we go to the hotel?" I was touched, and responded with a "Would I mind? No, I would be honored."

I pulled off Riverside Drive and turned onto Beale, and then headed back to the Civil Rights Museum. I paused just above it so he could see it. He wanted to look at the balcony, at the place where Martin was standing when he was shot. Then the Archbishop asked where the bullet had come from? So I pointed to the warehouse, and he said, "And where is the church? Where is that church where they had those rally meetings?" I pointed over the horizon in the direction of the church. Then he said, "And where did they march? What was the route? Where were the streets?" I took him down and showed him the alley. And he said, "Doug, would you walk with me? " I still get choked when I tell this. And I said, "Why, certainly I would."

We locked the car, with Leah still sound asleep. And we began walking. He reached out, and he took my hand, and he said, "Oh, what a blessed man I am" as we walked the streets of our city. He said, "All over Africa people know the streets of Memphis. This is Holy ground, the streets of Memphis. This is where the greatest martyr of this century last walked the streets. This is Holy ground." He was weeping. And I was weeping. Never before had I ever had this vision of our city. Holy ground.

I was so mired in my own disappointments about the parish and the city. I was kind of playing pity Doug. Then along comes this visionary from South Africa who gave me a vision for my city and a vision for my ministry that I had lost. I just needed to walk with him and follow with him and hold his hand and hear God's voice through his voice. It changed me forever. It's one of those epiphany moments that truly changed me.

So I'd suggest that yes, hold on and know your fears. They may be telling you about the nearness of a close encounter with God. Hold onto your following and do it, continue doing it. Do the acts of faith and be a person of faith. And, epiphanies might come.

Fish-- that's what Jesus said to Peter, and that's what our Lord is saying to you and me today. Are you fishing? Are you serving? Are you extending yourself like a fishing pole to the lives of others? How are you doing it? Are you doing it in your work? Are you confining it to an hour in a church service? Are you doing it with your family? Are you doing it around the breakfast table and the dinner table and the homework table? Are you doing it with grandparents? Are you doing it with grandchildren? Are you fishing?

You see, that's what we're supposed to be. We're supposed to follow and follow and follow until we become Jesus. I know that sounds arrogant, but it's really anything but arrogant. It's what we are called to become. To follow Jesus, till we become Jesus. I'm so committed to that. I believe that when we're baptized, we become Christians, little Christs. That's what you and I are to be, little Christs to others. We do it by fishing, by
fishing for other people in the name of Christ.

I read a statement in the Yale Review some years back that just galvanized me. It was by the president of Yale Divinity School, who was asked the question, what is it that you're looking for in clergy today. I think this applies to laypeople as well. I think it applies to all Christians, all people of faith. He said, "We want people who are unashamed to be religious and unafraid to be secular." That is a most powerful definition of the way you and I are to fish in our lives and extend ourselves to others. We're to be unashamed to be religious and unafraid to be secular.

I've been aware of so many moments when I've been ashamed to be religious. Several years back I was making a hospital call on a friend of mine who I knew was not a believer. He was head of a major corporate structure, and we were working on a project together in the city. He was admitted to the hospital for surgery. So in the middle of my other rounds, I went into his hospital room. We chatted for a while and had a very good conversation about the projects we were working on together, and how he was recovering physically.

Then because I felt I needed to be sensitive to the reality that he was not a person of faith, I decided I probably shouldn't even invite him to pray. So I didn't. I said goodbye, left the hospital room, and walked down several flights of stairs. Then on the second landing, I came to myself. I heard a voice inside me saying, "Doug, you big fish. You're ashamed to be religious. You're ashamed to be who you are, a Christian and a priest." I put my spiritual tail between my legs and walked back up those two flights of stairs and went into his room and said, "I want to apologize to you. I'm here as your friend, but I'm also here as a Christian and as a priest. And I did not even invite us to pray together." He looked at me, and he said, "Doug, I really wondered why you were here."

We had a prayer together, and then he began to show up in the pews in this church. Later on, he was confirmed, and I presided at his burial and resurrection service some years back. I've never forgotten that. I don't want to be ashamed to be a person of faith. I can't extend myself, you can't extend yourself, you can't fish if you're really not authentic.

What about the moments when we're unafraid to be secular? Are you unafraid to be involved in the social issues of the day? Are you really encouraging your congregation in becoming involved in the deep, thorny social issues? We prayed about capital punishment today. I want you to know something, friends. Ever since Christ's capital punishment, God has been against capital punishment. Why is the church not proclaiming that? Why? Are we afraid to be secular? We want to be so spiritual that we don't become involved in the deep issues that are absolutely crushing people.

Why are we not involved in the violence that's going on in our cities, in this city in particular? Why? Why the absence of the church's voice in this? We must, friends, if we're going to fish. That's the way we fish, by being unashamed to be religious, but also unafraid to be involved in the social issues of the day.

Several years ago, one of my deepest friends in this parish came to me and said, "Doug, I need to sit down and talk with you." We had just made the decision that Calvary Church would be the home base for Integrity-- the gay and lesbian ministry in the city of Memphis. I had also made the internal commitment that I would become a greater advocate for the rights, r-i-g-h-t, and the rites, r-i-t-e-s, for gay and lesbian persons. This friend of mine said, "Doug, that did it for me. I must tell you I have to leave Calvary Church." So we talked for a while together, and we prayed together. We embraced each other, and we're still very good friends, but he's now in another congregation in the city.

As he was leaving my office, he turned to me, and he said, "Why do you do it? Why are you always out there? Why are you always advocating this and advocating that and doing this and being involved in that? Why are you always doing it?" I said, well - and before I had a chance, he said, "Do you think you're going to change the world?" I said, "No, but I'll tell you a story."

And with that, I told him the story of a Catholic nun who joined a vigil at the state capitol on the night in which they were executing a person in that city. On that night they all had candles. It was a cold winter night, and the TV cameraman and a news reporter came around and began to interview the people who were there making their witness. The news reporter may have been a little bit cynical. With kind of a cynical voice he said, "Sister, why are you lighting that candle? You think you're going to save that man's life who's being executed in just an hour? Do you think you're going to change the world?" She looked back at him, and she said, "Oh, no, I don't light this candle to change the world. I light this candle in order that the world will not change me."

Isn't that the God's truth? We need to be lighting candles. Friends, we need to be lighting candles and lighting candles and lighting candles on behalf of God's people who are being oppressed or even killed.

We come together in a noon hour, and we hear something about our fears. Yes, our fears may be the very way in which we get in touch with the face of God. Then we follow. And in the common, ordinary, daily following, things happen. Epiphanies happen. And then we fish. We fish by being unashamed to be religious and unafraid to be secular.All in the name of Christ.

I'll close with a one-liner prayer that I pray every day of my life:

"Save us, God, for heaven's sake. And for earth's sake, make us worth saving. Amen"

Copyright 2000 Calvary Episcopal Church

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