January 09, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
I am apprehensive about preaching this sermon. It’s the start of a vision series looking at our future. The last time I did this was January 2020. You might remember we called that series 2020 Vision. Then less than a month after the series the world was shut down by Covid. So you might understand my apprehension at not wanting to cause another global pandemic.
But the time is now to talk about what the future may hold. Last year our Governing Board appointed a team (scroll pictures of team members) made up of equal parts staff and lay leaders to develop a strategic plan for St. Luke’s future. You can see their pictures scrolling on the screen. We used a company called Auxano that works with some of the largest churches in America to guide us. Their CEO, Jim Randall, was our lead consultant. This group spent 5 6-hr sessions together not including time reading, preparing, and meeting in smaller groups to do assignments. I will share the conclusion of this group’s work at the end of this series on January 30.
For these three Sundays between now and then I want to prime the pump and invite us to spend a few weeks thinking about the purpose of the church, not just St. Luke’s, but THE church. What is the mission of the church today? Do we even need the church? Given the increasing numbers of people disconnecting from organized religion that seems a relevant question. With the shifts in popular attitudes about church and questions about how our world will be different because of this pandemic, what does this mean for the future of the Church?
As a metaphor for this series I want to tell you the story of a church in Normandy, France, (pic) a story I will refer to each week. I believe it’s a very appropriate metaphor for the church now. This church is located in a remote, tiny village. It is so remote, the church has been decommissioned for nearly a century. It holds just one worship service a year now, on one very important day…June 6…D-Day.
Why would I use as a metaphor for our future, a church that no longer has an active congregation? That doesn’t have a priest serving it? That lies in a remote village few people, except local residents, even know it exists? Why is such a church a good metaphor for us? Because of what happened there June 6, 1944.
I am telling this story because of my visit there back in October when I traveled with our former senior pastor, Dr. Carver McGriff, and his wife Marianne, for their 10th tour retracing Carver’s steps in the Normandy Invasion. Before the trip Marianne asked if I would lead the morning devotion on the bus one day. Not long after that I read an (pic) article by a United Methodist pastor titled “Being the Church in a War Zone.” I saved it to use as my devotion.
At the end of the second day of our trip we were riding on the bus back to the hotel and Marianne asked if I would do my devotion the next morning. I read over the article to refresh myself of the story it told of a church in a village called Angoville-au-Plain. I had forgotten the power of the story and descriptions of events surrounding this church. I wondered how close we might actually be to this village asked Marianne. She knew the story of the church and said she had always wanted to visit it. She called the owner of the hotel where we were staying. They had become good friends over the years. The woman said, “That’s my family’s church. We continue to be affiliated with it and in fact that’s probably where my husband and I will be buried one day.” So now I am taking this as a sign from God that we need to visit this place. Thanks to the flexibility of our tour host, Bob Zehr, plans were made for us to go there the next morning. The mayor of the village even brought greetings. The story behind this church and what brought us there that day goes back to the wee hours of the morning of the first day of the Normandy Invasion in World War II.
Airborne paratroopers were the first wave of the attack whose codename was Operation Overlord. They landed in the wee hours of June 6 in pitch dark conditions made especially worse because the Germans had flooded much of the region of Normandy making it easy for paratroopers to drown. In fact, in a nearby village (pic) a replica on a church steeple recalls the episode of a paratrooper who got hung up there. How would you like to go to church every Sunday seeing this? It speaks to the way Normandy has preserved the stories of sacrifice that led to their liberation.
So back to the story, two of the paratroopers who were dropped that early morning, (pics both side by side pp 48,62) Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, were doctors. Their job was to set up a medic station for when the fighting began. They flew on separate planes and both had harrowing flights, barely surviving the landing. Wright came to the village of Angoville-au-Plain and decided to set up a medic station in the church. Soon after, Moore found his way there and shortly after that the wounded began arriving. The sanctuary was turned into a triage unit and pews became operating tables. (pic) There are still blood stains on some of the pews.
Remarkably, at one point a German officer came asking if they would treat the German wounded. The doctors agreed on one condition, that they leave their guns at the door. So they did. You don’t know if the blood on the pews is American or German.
Outside the church fighting raged. There are bullet and shrapnel marks on the walls today. The windows were shot out. The town swung back and forth between Allied and German control while inside the church, the focus was on saving lives. After three days German snipers, who had been hiding in the steeple, came down and surrendered. The doctors simply took their guns and then put them to work. Enemies were included in the rescue mission.
The Normandy Invasion lasted 3 months and its estimated that over 400,000 soldiers died from all sides. But 80 lives were saved because of what happened in that little church. And that town has preserved that story. They replaced windows and paid tribute to the heroism of the paratroopers.(pic) On that second window you might even notice the statue of Liberty at the bottom and the names of Kenneth Moore and Robert Wright.
When our group stopped there that morning for a devotion (pics), the owner of the hotel and her husband joined us. She has been battling cancer and I asked her beforehand if she would like us to pray for her and she did. (pic?) So we all gathered around her in prayer for healing, blessing and hope. In that church that has such a powerful story of healing and hope, we in our own little way continued that story.
And that is one of the reasons this little church is a metaphor for the church today. We still have a mission to heal the wounds of people. There are lots of ways people need healing. There are physical wounds for sure, but there are also emotional wounds, psychological wounds, spiritual wounds. And for all the ways our world has been changed by this near 2-year pandemic, and for all the handwringing over the growing disinterest in church, this much we know, people still seek care, and support, and a place to heal.
As Bob Kaylor said in his article about the story of this little church in Normandy:
It occurred to me that Wright and Moore were doing the ultimate form of pastoral ministry in that holy place. They had been baptized by fire and ordained by duty to continue their work. They were priests officiating over a sacrament of broken bodies and shed blood. Their tireless work revealed a much deeper truth about what the church is about-a hospital for broken people, no matter their “side” or whether they are combatants or innocent civilians. These priestly medics seemed to understand this instinctively to the point at which even their enemies recognized the importance of the mission. They were being the church, not just using one for an aid station.
With this story echoing in my soul, I began to have a deeper awareness of the wounded people I saw around me. I noticed them walking around places like London and Paris, standing in doorways puffing a cigarette, or crammed into a pub looking for some solace or community. I saw it in the hollow eyes of business people walking quietly to a job they might have hated and in the immigrant trying to find his way in a strange new land. Casualties are stacking up in a culture where people have become commodities and pawns in a consumeristic war for their bodies and souls. What sort of ministry will reach them? It will be the kind of ministry that will risk everything to save the people around us, no matter who they are.
Acts 16 tells the story of Paul on his second missionary journey. He has returned to places he and Barnabas visited on their first journey to encourage the churches they started, but now Paul wants to venture further out. Apparently he wanted to go to the Roman region of Asia. That’s not the Far East as we would think of Asia today. It was western Turkey, where the city of Ephesus was located. No wonder Paul wanted to go there. Ephesus was a happening place. Its where Marc Anthony and Cleopatra used to hook up. Ephesus was where the It people hung out. Paul figured he could have great success there. But notice what the story says: “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” (Acts 16:6)
Why would the Holy Spirit forbid them? Wouldn’t God want Paul to take the Gospel to a place where lots of influential people might be influenced by the love of Jesus? Nonetheless, it says next that “they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (v.7) So now a second obstacle. Who knows just how Paul was forbidden and not allowed, but its clear Paul felt this was not what God wanted.
So Paul ends up in a city on the far western coast called Troas, a place upon which the mythical city of Troy was based. Now thin about this for a moment. Paul felt called by God to pursue a vision of taking the Gospel out to the world, but in pursuing that vision he is blocked. And now ends up in a place where he can’t tell what the future holds and what is next.
Could that describe us today? Are we in Troas?
Two years ago I preach a whole series about 2020 vision. We mentioned numerous goals like Mobile food pantries and pop-up food pantries; 2020 first time guests in 2020; a new location of St. Luke’s; starting a building program that took up the long range plan developed back in 2013. One month after this series the world shut down. We were prevented and not allowed. Who knows why? Now we are in a place wanting to go forward but with a lot of apprehension. We’re uncertain about what the future holds and just where God wants us to go. What should we do?
What Paul did.
He waited to receive a new vision. And it came in Troas. “During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (v.9) Paul found a new vision for his life not because something was given to him, but because he was called to give to another. He experienced God’s vision for the future in simply request, “Come help us.”
By the way, do you know where Macedonia is? It is modern day Greece. It is a part of Europe. When Paul pursued this vision he crossed the Aegean Sea and came to Neaoplis, the modern day city of Kavala. This coming September Susan and I are leading a group that will go to Kavala. We will be in this city and travel the steps of Paul and we’d love to have you join us. Just contact me at the church office.
So think about this, all of the cathedrals of Europe, the Roman Empire becoming Christian, the popes of Rome and the Protestant churches that formed and came to America, were all a result of Paul following a vision to go and help people.
That will always be the future of the church. For a church that seeks to help people in need regardless of the side they are on, but because they are people just like us and we are in a position to help them, then that will be a church that has a future.
Yes, there are a lot of unknowns about our future. How is our world going to be permanently different? I don’t know. How will our job market be affected? I don’t know. Will all the things we once did return the way they were? I don’t know. But this I know. People in some form or fashion will always need healing, and God will provide that through people willing to sacrifice and risk in order to come help them.
So I want you to pull out your prayer card we used earlier in the service. There is a third question there: How can I offer healing? Now that should come with a warning. You pray that prayer daily, regularly, be ready, because God will answer it. And God may answer it before you’re ready, but God will use you to be a healing resource to someone. God cares about the hurts of people, and God constantly scans the globe looking and listening for people who pray that simple prayer, “Here am I Lord, send me.” Use me. Put to me to work helping others.
One way you may be interested in helping is with a $100,000 grant we received from the Department of Education to distribute to families for rental and utility assistance. There are hundreds of families in the Washington Township experiencing housing insecurity and living with deep uncertainty and fear. And often in these households are unhealed family challenges that the financial strains are a symptom of. So our benevolence team is looking for volunteers to help, especially people who may be bilingual Spanish speakers. But most importantly we need compassionate volunteers who are great listeners, can share resources to support families and who are willing to offer prayers of healing and hope.
Asking How can I offer healing may take us in a direction like that. But it will also make us attentive to the ordinary, everyday way we can be healing agents. And you typically don’t pay too much attention to those situations unless you are praying that way.
Some years ago I was in a church where the Lay Leadership Committee nominated a man for Lay Leader. He was a leader in the community and had been in the church several years. He got very active and involved and was supporting the church in every way. It was a clearly a good choice, so I went to talk with him and ask him to serve.
In our conversation I said, “You know, I don’t I’ve ever heard how you started coming to this church.” He said, “That’s easy. As you know I have a history of cancer, and several years ago at my check-up I got real bad news. I found my cancer returned and it was Stage 4. It was serious. One the way home I stopped at grocery to pick up something. I was still in shock and ran into a couple I recognized. They go to this church. They asked how I was doing and I gave the superficial, “Fine,” and started to walk off when one of them said, “You know, forgive me if I’m intruding, but you don’t seem fine. Is everything okay?”
He said, “My guard was down, and I opened up and told them what was going on.” Then the wife said, “Can we pray for you?” I said, “Sure, thanks,” and started to walk away.” She said, “I mean right now.” He said, “We were standing in the produce section, what would people think.” But then he thought, “I could be dead in a year, who gives a rip about what people think!” So he said, “Okay.”
They laid their hands on him and started praying and he said, “Something came over me. I don’t know what it is, but I felt God touching me. I realized I was missing something in my life. Sure I wanted physical healing but I needed more. I wanted the peace I was feeling in that moment. And the next Sunday was my first here.”
He finished by saying, “Of course I’ve gotten better, but just a portion of that is my physical condition. I realized that a church where people are willing to pray for someone they don’t even know that well in the produce section of a grocery store might be a church worth trying.”
I don’t think he’s alone.
Rima and Francois Herbert
Wright and Moore saved more than 80 lives over 3 days.