Since I’ve been working Fridays recently, I decided to take Monday off and make another bonsai trip to Erie.This time I found someone addled enough to go with me:Tom.
We left about eight o’ clock on Sunday night, arriving in Cranberry, PA at about 1 AM.We got a hotel room there (instead of sleeping in the car at the WalMart parking lot as is my usual practice) to sleep until 4AM when we would get up and drive the rest of the way up to Erie .
Unfortunately, no sooner did we get to sleep than the smoke alarm went off.I knew we should have slept in the car!
We started fishing before sunrise on Monday morning and fished all day.Tom caught on quick, landed quite a few fish, and played a whole bunch more.It was fun to see.I managed to catch a few fish myself as well.
Then it was time for the long drive home.We left Erie about 6PM and got home just before midnight (we had to stop a couple times to keep ourselves awake.)
Sermons work best, I think, when they tackle relatively complicated subjects.For instance, a sermon might address the question, “How can I be happy?”This is an exceedingly difficult question—as is evidenced by the number of unhappy people out there.It’s a question people have been asking and writing about for thousands of years, with a wide array of views on the subject.
But a sermon can’t leave the issue as a host of possible options or a confusing morass of opinions.To work well, it will have to simplify things by drawing some conclusions in light of a given perspective (which for me is my understanding of how God has revealed Himself in Scripture.)I’ve never thought that this means that people have to agree with me.But hopefully, even when they don’t, the sermon will still be worthwhile as they think about why they disagree and what that means for them.
Finally, I think a sermon has to be thought out thoroughly enough to have discovered ways to make it interesting enough that people will actually want to listen to it.That can be a pretty big and time consuming component in and of itself, but it can also be a lot of fun.
I like using Fridays to write my sermon because Friday is technically my day off.That means I can sit at home in a comfortable chair looking out the window as I leisurely but prayerfully turn the things I want to say over and over in my head.
It also means sermons can be elusive, because they have a way of going places I didn’t anticipate when I started putting them together.This week’s sermon is a perfect example.I thought I had it pretty much written and ready to go and was even excited about preaching it.But now I realize I hadn’t quite thought through the issues as deeply as I might have, and that doing so will yield a very different but hopefully much better sermon.
When we offered to do last night’s funeral at St. Matthew’s, I thought we were talking about a service that might run 200 or 300 people.Then we were given estimates that given the nature of the tragedy and the effect on the larger community, the service could have anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 people present.
This made me very anxious, because our church would be overwhelmed by that many people all at once.Our goal in doing this funeral was to provide the grieving family a genuine service that would be an expression of God’s love for them.I was afraid that due to the sheer numbers of people that might be present, we would not be able to accomplish this goal as well as we would wish to do.
The logical thing would have been to move the location.The problem was that flyers had already been printed and distributed identifying St. Matthew’s as the place where the service was being held.
I shared what I knew with people in my parish, and then with everyone on Sunday morning.And then they just went to work preparing to receive as many people as possible, and praying that God would do the rest.People went to work on parking and traffic control.Others went to work on doing a live video broadcast of the service to our parish hall where we could accommodate another couple hundred people or more.Others looked at how we could set up our various rooms to accommodate the largest number of people possible, moving every extraneous bit of furniture and setting up every chair we have.Others worked out the reception, a potentially huge undertaking.Others worked out service dynamics, greeting, ushering, administering communion, translating (the family spoke only very limited English). The congregation took up an impromptu offering of almost $4,000 to help the family with whatever ongoing needs they might have.
It was an incredible outpouring of love for people they didn’t even know, but it is what I have come to expect from St.Matthew’s. Busy, busy people who already have full plates dropped pretty much everything else to reach out to our community.
In the end, because of the hard work and ingenuity and huge investment of time by the congregation of St. Matthews, I think we could have handled a thousand people or more and done so well.As it turned out, however, we didn’t have to; 162 people came.We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Even then, however, some might have complained.“Look at all this work we did for nothing,” someone might have said.But they didn’t, because they knew it wasn’t for nothing.It was for love, pure and simple, and nothing done in love is ever wasted.
I could not have been more proud of my people.I thought once again what a privilege it is to pastor this place, of how blessed I am to by these dear people who really do put their faith into practice.
This Sunday we will be doing the funeral for a 7 year old girl who was run over by a truck a week ago today.She is the family’s only child.
If I understand correctly, this family came to our country to make a better life for themselves, which I expect really means they came to make a better life for their only daughter.They do not speak English (we’ll be using a translator) and have no money (the better life, I think, was giving their daughter an education).To ship the body back to their home country for burial is going to be $2500, which they do not have.
I can’t even begin to imagine what such loss must be like.
I’m 49 years old, with 50 not far on the horizon.These days I know that is still considered young, but it is old enough that at least some times I start to feel my age.One of the ways I know I am feeling my age is when I also feel the need to defy it.
I’ve also been a priest for 21 years; long enough that it is hard to remember what it was like not to be a priest.But I’ve never wanted to be a priest that was too “priestly”; I’ve never wanted to be so defined by my vocation that I forgot what it means to be an ordinary guy.
I think those are a couple of reasons I made my bonsai fishing trip.Partof it was just to see if I could.Could I drive 5 hours, fish 14 hours straight without even taking a break for food or water (and thus not need to take, uh, other breaks, if you get my drift), and then drive 5 more hours back home?Do I still have that physical capability?
The answer seems to be yes and no.I did it.But I also paid a price—I sure was sore the next day!There was no getting up and doing it all over again, which I well may have done were I a younger man.
Another part of it was simply to spend a day far differently than how I normally spend them.I fished all night long, when I would normally be sound asleep next to the warm and inviting body of my lovely wife.I waded streams and slogged through mud and scrabbled over rocks instead of sitting prim and proper at my desk.Instead of baptizing babies or distributing communion or writing a sermon, I caught fish.My whole world was reduced to a primal pursuit, elegant only in its simplicity, and in the freedom that comes from not having to by anything for anyone.
Somewhere in there I found the assurance that Rob Merola, the little boy who before he was ever anyone else, was just a kid who loved to cast a line into the water, is still alive and well.