The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Jesus returns from the wilderness of temptation. John’s in jail now, so his traveling revival’s shut down. Today Jesus goes fishing. He nets two ordinary people, fishermen in fact. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That must have been a great line. Simon and Andrew immediately drop their nets and livelihood to follow. Jesus spots two more brothers, James and John, mending nets in a boat with their dad. Jesus calls them – and suddenly the old man sits alone in his boat wondering what just happened. Three becomes five. They follow and watch as Jesus preaches and teaches the good news of God, healing people and curing diseases – signs something new is a foot.
Even God’s beloved, begotten Son wants help. He invites us to share his mission. Sometimes parents or friends point us, bring us, and even drag us to Jesus. Other times it seems like Jesus comes calling on us. How we get there isn’t as important as getting there. We receive and accept news Jesus announces– God is here. What makes the news so good: all are invited and welcomed into Gods reign– just accept the invitation. When we do, our spiritual center of gravity shifts. Self-concern now shifts to concern for others. That creates an inner passion to share God’s love and good news to all. Sitting on a pew, giving time or money, going through church motions won’t shift a spiritual center. Only an authentic encounter with Jesus will. For the brothers today the center shifts so dramatically, they leave behind the world they know. With time and persistence, they’ll understand what’s happened, what’s left behind and lies ahead. Yet on the journey, we will falter, become confused, have doubts, and even abandon Jesus. We are likely to camp out in doubt and darkness from time to time. We’ll get our bearings and find our way back safely from dark times, because as Jesus quotes Isaiah – God keeps the light on for us.
Be careful. If you get close to Jesus, he’ll send you to fish for people. Think of the church as an assembly of anglers – or a training school for fishing. I know this sounds scary – sort of like raging “evangelicals” who try to hook people with fear, shame and threats of damnation if you won’t “accept Jesus.” They say accepting Jesus is the only way to get into heaven. We understand that Jesus comes and invites us to help bring heaven to earth, not get people to heaven. God’ll worry about that. And he uses nets of wonder, love, and grace to catch us, not fear.
Today at St. Paul’s Church we celebrate 173 years of mission and ministry. In these years our life ebbs, flows; we grow, decline; people come and go. From year one and as long as we are here, our purpose remains the same: bringing heaven to earth. Jesus keeps inviting us to fish for people catching them with God’s love. Our mission is not to get more church members, increase our financial giving base, or even hire a rector or have a bishop. Our mission and purpose is to go fish for people. All the other happens as we stay focused on the mission – to let others know they’ve been found, as we are, and what this good news means.
We continually repent and return to this good news since the church has a history of losing sight of the mission. We become timid. What if we are laughed at? What if we are rejected or people think we’re religious nuts? So we focus on lesser, easier things.
At this time of annual reflection, maybe we need an audit. How are we doing with Jesus calls us to do and be? Do we understand where the fish are, and what they hunger for? A friend took me out fishing on his boat some years ago. As we headed came to the Chesapeake Bay, he was monitoring conversations of other boat captains sharing where the fish were that morning, what they were biting. That’s where we went. We caught fish. Amazingly, none swam up and jumped into our boat. We had to go get them. Yet the church too often sits and waits, wondering why others don’t come find us, why they don’t think we are as wonderful as we think we are. Besides, it’s not about us – but the good news of God in Jesus – and we must go fishing.
We catch people. The next step is to form them, and help them grow in the knowledge and love of God. The story of God’s love for us – exploring and understanding all the means is critical. We must make sure we have a robust Christian formation program that feeds hungry and searching people. How are we doing these days? Are we offering all we could? This is not just for kids. Formation with Jesus is a lifetime process. Many who come to us will want to hear our stories and experiences of faith, what Jesus means to us, why he matters and makes a difference for us, and why “fishing” is our passion. Are we prepared to tell them – to talk about the difference Jesus makes for us – and can for them?
Another question – are we more focused on ourselves, or others? The Episcopal Church is blessed with worship and liturgy that connects people deeply into God – if they understand what we do. It’s hard for guests and even some of us to understand the meaning of the liturgy, let alone words we use. And we leave people in the cold when we don’t help them understand the strange language we use in church. Does everyone know you’re sitting in a nave? Do you understand what a collect is, why we sing or say a Sanctus, what a ciborium is? To guests, we may sound like we’re speaking in tongues. We need to offer more educational opportunities to help others learn why we worship as we do and what it means. Battling and balancing these books is daunting enough. Who wants to stay around if no one makes an effort to help you understand? We are basically telling people, “Figure it out on your own.”
When we welcome all, we include all. From newcomers, ne leadership will emerge. They will walk away if we don’t joyfully receive their gifts and ideas, and incorporate. We must be willing to let go of the deadly attitude, “That’s the way we always do it here.” We haven’t always. Besides the world has changed, and we need new life and ideas that newcomers bring us. Otherwise we’ll grow stale, become irrelevant, and fade away. How are we doing at welcoming and incorporating new people?
In the 173rd year of St. Paul’s Church, and in the year of our Lord 2011, let’s start with repenting. That’s what Jesus first asks – repent so we’ll be ready for God’s reign of love. Jesus calls us to receive God’s love, celebrate it and share it with everyone. Our mission is to cast nets of wonder, love and grace for everyone. God’s in charge of what happens next. We are just asked to be faithful – go fishing. With God’s promises and our prayers, we’ll learn to fish – Jesus’ way – and let’s be ready. I’ll bet we’ll net a few – by inviting others to the good news of God’s love.