Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
I preach on this text every four or five years, and each time it gets harder. Since I began preaching in 1989, the national demographics have moved away from us, as more people adopt “none of the above” as their faith. I regularly hear people being dismissive of religion. In a recent op-ed in the Gazette about New Years’ resolutions, the author said, “nobody talk to me about their religion.” A neighbor recently posted on Facebook that it is essential to end tax exempt status for churches, and churches should never talk about politics. I was surprised because the person was a frequent renter here are First Churches, and had invited me to speak at a political rally for health care.
One big issue our strategic team wrestles with is how to reach out to a community where the prevailing view of Christianity is seen as judgmental, anti-gay, racist and believe in fairy tales. It is not enough to say, “We are not that kind of Christian.” Many people are done with religion because they have been disappointed, hurt, shamed and diminished by the church.
I don’t want to fish for people. Its getting the hook out of their mouths that bothers me. The problem with the fishing metaphor is that the fish don’t have a choice in the matter. They are swept up in the nets and caught on hooks and plucked from their home into a deadly environment where they can’t even breath. I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind. Building a spiritual community is not about the right bait on the hook or high pressure tactics to coerce people into our boat.
We would understand better if he said, “I’m going to train you to be leaders of a growing spiritual movement for peace, compassion and justice. I will teach you how to help people find a deeper grounding in God.” I think that is closer to what Jesus meant. He talked of fishing because he was with fisherman. If they had been nurses he would have said, “I will make you the healers of souls.” If they were truck drivers, “You will haul the good news of the coming change across the highways of the nation.”
Jesus wanted to create a movement, to lead more people into a healthy, faithful relationship with God, break down the barriers between us, and transform society into a just and compassionate community. Evangelism really means spreading this good news. Jesus gives two great challenges to the church in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “If someone is hungry, feed them. If they are sick or in prison, go visit them. If they are homeless, house them. Love your neighbor.” In Matthew 28, he gives us the Great Commission, “Go unto all nations and make disciples, baptizing them in my name.” That is the complete mission of Christ. In general, mainline moderate to liberal church have tried to feed the hungry, but not make new disciples, while more conservative churches make disciples without feeding the hungry. Its time to restore the balance and be the good news of Christ in both word and deed.
Let’s talk about how we might fish. Here’s how many mainline churches have fished the last few decades. The boat sits near the water and if the fish want to jump in the boat, that’s OK with us. We spend most of our time making the boat as comfortable and enticing as possible. Research by the Alban Institute concluded that 90 percent of the people who join a church do so because they knew someone in the church who told them about it and invited them. They also found that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church every 27 years. That’s why mainline Protestant Church have lost more than 1 percent per year for the last 30 years.
When I was learning about fishing as a boy, I was fascinated with the activity of fishing. I thought it was about getting the best bait, or the most enticing lures. I asked to go to the sporting goods store and looked at the vast array of bright lures. I practiced my casting in the back yard. I was so excited when I first went fishing, but after a day of sitting around, nothing happened. I didn’t understand what fishing was all about. People who catch fish understand fish. Fishing isn’t as much technique as knowing what fish eat, when they feed and the nature of the environment where they live. You have to get below the surface of the water and see the world from a different perspective.
A similar process is at work in the church. The old thinking is that we just need to get our message clear and theology correct and then go out and tell people. The goal was getting people to believe what we believe. This wrongly assumes it is all about the bait and lures and techniques. Borg told the story in “Speaking Christian” that we have long been baiting the hook with “Join us and you will be forgiven and get to heaven.” But that isn’t working anymore, because human spiritual needs are changing. One student was alarmed, “If we don’t have heaven, what’s our product?” Borg responded, “It is transformation-spiritual and social transformation.”
In the progressive church, we have focused on social justice and material well-being. We are an Open and Affirming, and we continue to navigate the changing waters of sexual orientation and identity, race and previous religious backgrounds. We have been active in refugee resettlement with our circle of care, take meals to the cot shelter, and support a school in Haiti. But I’m noticing a shift the last few years. We are more than a clearing house for community volunteerism. I see more people going to centering prayer, bible study and book discussion groups. We are moving to a greater balance between seeking both personal and social transformation.
Its important to engage in both realms of transformation because we feel both the brokeness of the world, and our own brokenness. The two are often inner-related. Many people turn to the church in a time of need. When asked why people decide to attend a church for the first time, 2/3 reported that they were going through some kind of life crisis. They were struggling with parenting, grieving a death of someone close to them, lost their job, or were feeling threatened by events happening in the world. They came hoping to find some answers and support. Too often churches are not set up to deal with this. Church growth research shows that an average church gets a second visit from people less than 10 percent of the time.
In churches that grow, about 30 percent of visitors stay and get involved. That may sound low, but Jesus never said we had to be all things to all people. People often rejected his message too, or feared making changes in their lives, or just couldn’t get through the brokeness. The point is we have to keep welcoming, inviting, nurturing, loving, doing justice and scattering seeds, and let go of the results. Recently a man wanted to come into the sanctuary and pray. He went up to the chancel steps and got down on his knees and wept. He was in so much emotional pain he wanted to die. He was homeless for the first time in his life and felt that everything that mattered had been stripped away. He was grateful for the shelter, but what he really wanted was to pray with someone. He wanted to know if life was still worth it. If not, the shelter alone didn’t really matter. Evangelism needs to deal with what is keeping people from knowing God. Can we create a safe place where people can ask questions, heal and put their lives back together?
Every Sunday we welcome believers, questioners and questioning believers. If we are only ready to receive other believers, those waters are well fished. It is the questioners that are really interesting. Are we living the great questions? Are we ready for the inquiries that will come? How will we live into new questions? The hard questions? The questions that can lead to new insight, adventure, mission? When we get past the easy answers and into the tough questions, then we are really fishing.
Maybe it is not so much about catching fish as being with the fish. This passage isn’t calling us to be like Amway salespeople, but to have a living faith which invites and supports people on a path to spiritual and social transformation. It is more than saying the words, or entertaining people, or trying to convince people that we have the truth. We need to be the truth, live the truth, sharing God’s love first through our love. Sharing our material resources through our mission giving is great, using our building well is important. What really matters is removing the barriers so people can connect to God’s love. Jesus message is that this is not about saints and preachers and great leaders to build the church, but the common believer, the ordinary person-fisherman, nurse, teacher and truck driver-spreading the good news in word and deed. You are all ministers. You all have a calling. This is our seminary. And the only Bible many people are going to read, is your life.