For giving us Your Son
Sending Him into the world
To be given up for all
Knowing we would bruise Him
And smite Him from the earth
Hallelujah, my Father
In His death is my birth
Hallelujah, my Father
In His life is my life
A hundred years ago there were no trees on the beach down front, only white Florida sand. That was still true half a century later, fifty-odd years ago, in a picture I found of my little son and my father playing on the beach together down in front of our family home. It would have been summer 1963, just before the Navy moved us to Japan. Because my house by the sea is for sale, we’ve taken most everything out, so I no longer have a table and chair on the upstairs front screen porch, and I miss that view, and that spot. I miss sitting there musing, thinking and being grateful -- for life and death, for the lives and love that circle round me.
But I’m sitting on the downstairs front porch now, looking across beyond Davis Point to Shell Island and the scene my family would have loved when they lived here a hundred years ago after building this house. My father’s brother, my uncle Alfred was written up on the front page of the local newspaper, St. Andrews Bay News St. Andrews, Florida, June 22, 1916.
“Delightful Gulf Party” the article reports. “Monday evening a party of young people with large baskets well filled boarded a launch and sped across the bay to the Gulf where several hours were spent very pleasantly bathing, emptying those baskets and enjoying themselves only as young people can.
“Those constituting the party were --” and it names, besides the chaperone so obligatory in that day and age, ten girls and nine boys including Alfred Weller, my father’s older brother, my uncle Alfred.
“They returned to St. Andrews,” says the article, “in the wee small hours of the night, feeling that time had passed only too soon.”
My father missed it, he was only four years old at the time, four nearly five! But Alfred was sixteen when that front page party happened. I’ll bet he was in love with one of those cute girls. I certainly was in love with a cute girl when I was sixteen!
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The sea seems eternal, doesn’t it, nothing changing, the same waves washing up, lapping ashore on my beach now as then.
My grandparents and their son Alfred and two daughters, Evalyn and Ruth, had moved here to St. Andrews from Pensacola in 1908 or 1909. My grandfather owned Bay Fisheries, located where Landmark Condominiums is today, at Beach Drive and Frankford Avenue. Bay Fisheries was part of the fishing industry that was St. Andrews before Panama City even existed. Bay Fisheries with half a dozen or so 70-foot twin-masted schooners called “fishing smacks” that brought in enormous catches of red snapper and grouper from far out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some of you know the story, my story, the center of my gospel testimony this morning. One of the schooners, Annie & Jennie was caught in a storm in the Gulf, her rudder was damaged and she had to be taken to Carrabelle for repairs. Imagine having to take anything to Carrabelle for anything, have you been to Carrabelle? I have, many times, it’s the end of the earth. But the world was very different then.
About two o’clock the bitter cold morning of Monday, January 7, 1918, the fishing schooner Annie & Jennie sailed for Carrabelle with Captain Caton and his crew of five including my uncle Alfred, aboard as the owner’s son, because he wanted to go and my grandfather over-ruled my grandmother and let him. A worrier, my grandmother asked Alfred to go to Carrabelle by train the next day: but teenage boys are immortal and all parents’ fears and worries are silly nonsense. A teenager knows everything and Alfred scoffed and laughed. Mothers are supposed to worry about sons growing up into the world. If you are a mother, or a son, you know that.
So, the Annie & Jennie left the wharf in St. Andrews after midnight, I suppose to catch the tide, I don’t know, my father never told me why the dark night hour of sailing. I do know, because my grandmother told me the story many times, that the night was bitter cold.
1918 was before the Pass was cut across the peninsula, creating Shell Island; so, boats went between the Bay and the Gulf by what we call the “Old Pass,” it’s closed now. Rounding Davis Point and heading out the Pass that night, at least one of the channel navigation lights was not operating, making for dead reckoning, risky navigation at night. In the Pass the vessel hit a heavy squall, a storm creating high waves and huge breakers. An account of it is on the front page of the January 8, 1918 St. Andrews Bay News, available online. In the Pass, before entering the Gulf, the schooner was lifted high by a wave and smashed down on a sandbar, breaking her keel, and causing her to start breaking up. Within a few minutes she was gone. Of six men aboard, two men survived; in the heavy seas, everyone else was swept away and drowned, including my uncle Alfred.
When the news got back to St. Andrews the next day, my grandparents were crushed. Devastated beyond anything I could say to you. It was written up as the worst tragedy in the history of St. Andrews. 1918, Alfred was eighteen; my father six and a half years old. +
Five years later, 1923, the desolation, my grandparents’ grief, and my grandfather’s guilt, had not even begun to heal. They sold the house, Mom & Pop’s house, Alfred’s house, my house, packed up and moved to Georgia to get far away from the sea.
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But there’s something about the sea that draws a man and you cannot escape. The family stayed a few years in Georgia, then moved to Central Florida; then eventually to Valparaiso and then to Pensacola where this journey of life and death had begun. And there in Pensacola, my father and mother met as neighbors in East Hill, and as students at Pensacola High School, and fell in love -- before my grandparents finally moved back to St. Andrews to stay.
My mother and father married June 11, 1934 and fifteen months later I was born. +++
This is the Sunday of the Cross. We got a hint in today’s Gospel of how Jesus is going to die for us. We’ll hear the story in its horrifying entirety next week, Palm Sunday, and again on Good Friday, and I hope you will be here; but today Jesus tells how he’s going to die for us, that we might live.
This is the Episcopal Church: we preach Christ crucified because Jesus gave his life a ransom for many. Because he died, you have your birth, and life, and eternal salvation. Jesus died that you might live. That I might live. In his death is my birth. As an EfM mentor and student off and on for the past nearly thirty years, I have learned and done Theological Reflection and learned to reflect theologically on the events of my own life. Theological Reflection lays on me a humbling gospel, not easy to grasp until I reflect on how personal it is: I have my life solely because another man died; in his death is my birth. If Alfred had not died that night, I would never have been born. My life is born in death and tears, because of love.
The story I tell you this morning, is not to make you sad or tear up and weep. My story helps me realize and deeply understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, that I owe my birth to the death of another. Don’t get me wrong: I do not accept the shibboleth that “everything happens for a reason,” I do not believe that. I do believe that God can and does bring victory and glory and a blessing out of life’s worst nightmare, even death.
I tell my story this morning so that you can look into your own life: someone died for you.
My uncle Alfred never knew me that night he died. God did not cause that storm and the Annie & Jennie shipwreck so that I might be born.
Jesus on the Cross suffered terribly at the hands of men. Jesus never knew you as he died on Calvary. But if the gospel is true, and my testimony this morning is that the gospel is true -- then you are here today, you were born, you have your life and eternal salvation, because He died. It’s that simple.
It’s that simple.
Hallelujah, my Father, for giving us your Son. In his death is my birth. Alleluia! Alleluia.