Sunday, June 21, 2015
Western North Carolina Annual Conference
As you are able, please stand for the reading of the Gospel for today:
As I begin this morning, I ask your indulgence for a few moments of personal privilege. On this Father’s Day, I want to remember and honor my dad. This is a picture of him as he began his service in the Army at the start of the Second World War. He was stationed first in the Aleutian Islands, although he talked very little about his time there to us. Following that assignment, he was transferred to the medical corps and spent most of the rest of war as a “medical escort” traveling with wounded soldiers upon their arrival back in the United States to one of the Veteran’s Hospitals.
It was on one of those trips to the hospital in Memphis, Tennessee that he met a young woman from Marshall County, Mississippi, who was working in Memphis during the war. Here they are on their wedding day, in the middle of the war. Both were raised in large families and both were well acquainted with living in poverty. Dad quit school after the eighth grade and mom graduated from high school at age 15, and that was the extent of their formal education. Three years after the war ended, I came along. One last picture: that’s me and my dad when I was seven months old.
I am remembering all of this with you today not only because it is Father’s Day, but also because it was exactly thirty years ago today that I had my last conversation with dad. The church I had been serving for four years was hosting a farewell picnic for us that Sunday afternoon, because the bishop was moving us to a new appointment. Dad and mom were happily present. Two days after that picnic we moved to Oxford, Mississippi where I was to serve as pastor of the Oxford-University UMC for the next seven years. Ten days after that picnic, dad had a massive heart attack, followed by a stroke. He stayed in the hospital for the next five weeks, unable to communicate with us in any way. He died on August 7, 1985.
I am remembering him today also because he was, in my book, one of the best fisherman in all of north Mississippi. He and I fished ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, and even a few creeks. What puzzled me was how he always seemed to catch a large mess of fish while I, standing only a few yards away from him, seemed to do nothing except drown worms and keep the hook wet.
Our text today is one of several fishing stories recorded in the Gospels. Jesus has shifted his home base from Nazareth to Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee less than three miles from the mouth of the Jordan River. In those first days of his ministry, Jesus is surrounded by people who, until they met him, made their living by fishing the waters of that Sea.
It is not surprising that one of the lasting images in the church became the symbol of the fish. You know, of course, that the Greek word for “fish” is ichtus whose letters became a statement of faith: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” It is a sign of our identity: this is who we are; this is what we believe; this is what we are called to be and do.
When I went fishing with my dad, we used either a cane pole or rod and reel depending on what kind of fish we were after. In fact this picture looks pretty much like one of our tackle boxes with tangled lines and artificial lures. After Deborah and I married, I enjoyed many trips with my father-in-law out into the Gulf of Mexico to fish for mackerel or some other deep water fish, but always, one fish at a time.
In our Gospel story and in the first century, such fishing practices were unknown. What Simon and his partners knew was net fishing which involved throwing the net and then dragging it through the waters. It was hard work: from the preparations … to the fishing … to the end of the day … to cleaning the nets … to preserving of the fish. As I reflect on this story, I find a few key imperatives that should guide us (the church) in our missional and evangelical task, the net results of which will be amazing.
That must have been quite a scene along the shore of the Lake, with people from the surrounding area crowding around to hear Jesus teach “the word of God.” Jesus uses one of the boats as a platform, which is pushed out a little from the shore in order to take advantage of the natural sound system. We can only guess at the content of his teaching that day (Luke does not tell us), but it had a profound impact on the lives of those listening, particularly Simon, James, and John. The first words that Luke quotes Jesus as saying on this occasion (the first ‘red letter words’ if you will) are directed to Simon: “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (v. 4)
Obviously there is not going to be much of a catch sitting there in the shallow water, but Simon and the others know that going out again may also be a futile effort. They have just spent an entire night fishing those waters and caught nothing. They go deep anyway. Pushing out into the deep water is risky, for these experienced fishermen know that storms can blow up at any moment while they are away from the safety of the shore. They go deep anyway. Pushing out into the deep is an act of faith, an act of a trusting response to the instruction of Jesus. In the words of Simon: If you say so.
If we are going to continue the mission Jesus has commanded, we are going to have to go into the deep water. We are going to have to move out of the relative safety of the shallow water. Staying in the shallow water means merely accepting Jesus and memorizing a few of his sayings. Going into the deep water means obeying him and living like him on a daily basis. Staying in the shallow water means sitting in the pews of a near-empty sanctuary, hoping someone shows up. Going into the deep water means moving outside the walls of our buildings and into our neighborhoods. Staying in the shallow water is comfortable and safe among people who are just like us. Going into the deep water pushes us out of those comfort zones in order to connect with people who are longing for some good news.
Going deep also means that we will have to learn and to practice what Simon voices, “If you say so.” Of course, just practicing that will get us into deep water among those who prefer the calmer waters of a convenient Jesus who does not demand anything of us. “Love and pray for your enemies.” If you say so. “Turn the other cheek and practice forgiveness.” If you say so. “Feed the hungry and welcome the stranger.” If you say so. “Go; make disciples; baptize them; teach them to obey.” If you say so. Being a disciple is about going deep in relationship with and obedience to Jesus.
One of the hooks of this story is this large catch of fish. After he obeys, goes deep and lets down his net, Simon is so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity that he has to call for help. He goes from having nothing to having more than he can handle. Abundance follows obedience! Simon, along with everyone else, is amazed. And then Jesus turns their amazement into an assignment that radically alters the direction of their lives.
Both Matthew and Mark tell similar stories about how Simon Peter and the others are called into service as disciples and apostles. I am drawn to Luke’s account because of what I believe is a significant word change. Matthew and Mark have Jesus say that they are to follow him and “fish” for people. Luke changes that to “catch” people. The actual Greek word that Luke uses literally means “capture people alive.” As I learned from standing next to my dad, there is a major difference between fishing and catching!
I am continually inspired and excited by stories I hear from across our conference in our churches and missional networks where so many of you are actually going out into the deep water in service. I celebrate that more and more United Methodist Christians across our area (and many of you in this auditorium right now) are taking Matthew 25 seriously by going into schools and into jails and prisons. You are feeding and clothing people in need and you are creating safe spaces for people to sleep and rest. In other words, you are going deep. But do not neglect the next step: tell them why you are doing this; tell them about Jesus; build a relationship with them so that you can then invite them into a living relationship with Christ.
A vital church catches people for Jesus and for the Kingdom; a vital church is evangelical. Too many of our churches have invested a large amount of time and resources in mending the nets, cleaning the nets, storing the nets (you know: taking care of church stuff at the building); but they have neglected to let the nets down for a catch. In other words, we have too many committees on evangelism, and too few evangelists.
When asked what his role as CEO of Starbucks is, Howard Shultz responded simply: “I am a coffee evangelist.” What kind of evangelist are you? What story does your life tell? What witness do you make? If we are going to become vital churches, we must become evangelists who share in deed and word the Good News of Jesus Christ. Evangelism, Elaine Heath writes, is the “initiation of people into the reign of God as revealed in Jesus Christ … it is at the heart of everything we believe and practice.” (The Mystic Way of Evangelism) Is it? Is it for you and your church? Yesterday in the Laity Address, Jane Boatwright Wood said that evangelism is “sharing the truth of God’s transforming love in Jesus Christ.” What are you sharing? This is not a time, Jane reminded us, “to be silent for fear of offending others.” Remember why!
LET GO AND GET GOING
It had been quite a day. Luke tells us that it started with that powerful teaching of the word of God by Jesus. Then everyone saw God’s power demonstrated in abundance with that catch of fish that almost sank two boats. And just when they thought it was finished and they could go home, returning to the safety of their familiar lives, Jesus challenges them to change vocations. Luke’s closing statement: “they left everything and followed him.” (v. 11)
Can you imagine that? Everything that had been defining their lives is left behind: boats, nets, homes, friends and co-workers. Even, that amazing catch of fish is left, presumably to rot on the beach. They left everything, willing to cut ties with their past and venture into a new life, with new priorities, new values, and a holy destination.
Both the letting go and the going are essential for us to become vital, missional, evangelical churches. We cannot simply continue doing what we have always done (or in some cases, what we have never done) because if we are honest, our catch has not overwhelmed anyone. It’s time to start casting our nets, broadly and widely, and expecting a large catch. It’s time to let go and get going.
- It is time to let go of the “we’ve never done it that way before” attitude, and get going with the movements of God’s Spirit in the twenty-first century and with the new things God is already doing in our midst.
- It is time to let go of holding on to those artifacts that granddaddy gave and get going with the assurance of presence of Jesus today and into the future.
- It is time to let go of our hatred and prejudices; our bigotry and racism and get going with the ministry of reconciliation, of tearing down walls that divide us.
- As Rob Blackburn said yesterday, it is time to let go of the old ways, take them to a garage sale, to the curb, and get going with confidence and boldness in the One in whom we believe.
I invite all of you – all of our churches – to enter this new conference year with this passage echoing in the back of our minds and moving us toward vitality. In the coming weeks and months, as all of us get back into familiar patterns and activities (late summer and fall, start of school, football season, charge conferences, homecomings and Christmas), ask yourself these two questions: Are we doing this event, hosting this activity because we have always done it, or because it will help us catch people for Jesus? Are we inviting people to see Jesus, or asking them to come enjoy a program or a hot dog or some bar-b-que?
Perhaps one of our problems today is that if we go fishing for people at all, it is with a pole, fishing for one person at a time, and then only if that person fits into our club membership by looking and acting just like us. What if we started net fishing and caught a wide variety of fish. When Simon and the others drug their nets through the waters they caught them all: tilapia, carp, and catfish, the three main varieties in the Sea of Galilee; all mixed together in the net. O, my, there is carp sitting next to catfish! Is that possible? And tilapia is over in the corner writing rules so that it does not happen again! I challenge all of us, lay and clergy, to cast our nets in the deep water, where the people are, regardless of who they are, because we know and believe the truth of the Gospel that every person is someone for whom Christ died.
The net result will be that next year when gather back here at Lake Junaluska and we look at those statistical pages, we will be amazed at the increases membership, worship attendance, mission teams, generosity, and in lives transformed by the grace and power of God – new baptized believers. The net result will be that the whole world hears the good news, sees the good news in and through us, and experiences the good news by our testimony in word and deed. In the words of our theme song at this conference:
“Lord, I want to feel your heart
And see the world through your eyes
I want to be your hands and feet
I want to live a life that leads.
Ready yourselves, ready yourselves
Let us shine the light of Jesus in the darkest night
Ready yourselves, ready yourselves
May the powers of darkness tremble as our praises rise.
Until the whole world hears, Lord, we are calling out
Lifting up your name for all to hear the sound
And pray that they will see
More of you and less of me
Like voices in the wilderness, we’re crying out
And as the day draws near
We’ll sing until the whole world hears.”
United Methodists of the Western North Carolina Conference: go deep, remember why, let go and get going … until the whole world hears!