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The Reverend John Leedy
February 10, 2019
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I do not fish with Leedy women. Let me be clear. I love fishing – always have, always will. I love the contemplation that comes from the repetitive casting and reeling. I love the strategy of thinking through tackle, line, and location. I love the stillness of the sunrise over a misty lake and the fireflies that dance in the river grasses at dusk. I love the thrill of hooking a fighter on the line. I love fishing – but I do not fish with Leedy women. It does not matter how much I’ve thought through baiting or timing or where I choose to throw the lure or spawning patters or weather conditions – if a Leedy woman is in the boat, she will out fish me every time. And not by a fish or two. I’m talking my mom Stephanie landing her limit of reds and sea trout in the gulf while I’m pulling seaweed out of an old boot. I’m talking about my sister Kim catching five large mouth bass in the time it takes me to land my first bluegill. And this one – I tell you – we were fishing on my grandfather’s farm up in Missouri years ago. I hadn’t caught a thing all afternoon, and believe me, I’m working it – because, you know, gotta impress the wife with my fishing prowess and toxic masculinity. This one – sitting there on the dock in a lawn chair reading Martha Stewart Living with her Zebco rod sitting next to her chai tea – and boom, guess who caught the fish that day. By myself – catch fish. With my dad – catch fish. With a Leedy women – skunked.
I can’t help but think that old Zebedee had a similar motto. Here he is with his two sons, James and John, and their buddy Simon, livin’ life, catching fish, plying the family trade, making money… and along comes Jesus and in the blink of an eye, Zebedee’s two sons are up and gone on some hippy dippy walk about with an itinerant Jewish rabbi. I do not fish with Nazarenes.
What a great story this is. I love this story – it’s a Sunday school favorite. This classic call story – ordinary day, ordinary person, along comes Jesus, and away we go. Unlike the Cirque du Soleil call story of Isaiah, with the fiery angels and fog machines, this call story from the Gospel of Luke meets us where we are, in our everyday stuff. This is Jesus walking into your office at work or pulling up next to you at a stoplight. This is Jesus picking up the bunch of bananas next to you at H-E-B or taking the desk next to yours in class. Jesus walks into our ordinary and invites us into his extraordinary. It’s a classic Jesus move. I have yet to meet a pastor with a call story that looked anything like Isaiah’s. Most pastors I’ve met describe a call that came in the midst of the ordinary stuff of life, the ordinary conversations, the ordinary people, hearing the voice of God inviting them into this extraordinary life of ministry. But here’s the thing, Jesus isn’t inviting James, John, and Simon to become pastors. My mind leaps to that conclusion because it’s always easy to read our yourself into the biblical text. Jesus isn’t calling these fishermen to become pastors. Jesus is calling these fishermen to be fishermen. A few weeks ago I walked around the sanctuary during our time with the younger church and I talked to the kids about how each of us brings our gifts to this place and uses them in the service of Christ. God moves within the people God made us to be and connects our passions and skills to the needs of our neighbors. Last week, you nominated new classes of elders and deacons, a beautiful diversity of people, with gifts and talents that God is calling into the service of the church. There is no one right way to serve the church. There is no one right way to serve the church. There is no one right way to follow Jesus.
It was at this point in the sermon writing process that I caught myself again. How easy it is to read our selves into the biblical text. In the same way Jesus isn’t calling James, John, and Simon to be pastors, Jesus also isn’t calling them to serve the church. There is no church at this point in the Bible. Christianity isn’t a thing yet. Simon, James, and John are not being invited to show up to a religion about Jesus, they’re being invited to practice the religion of Jesus. And what is this religion of Jesus? Let’s go back to the words in the Gospel story: Put out into deep water – trust me on this. I know it’s deep, I know it’s scary – but trust me. Let down your nets – go all in, do what you do best, be who I made you to be. Do not be afraid – leave behind your sin, leave behind your shame, you are my chosen and beloved. From now on, you will catch people –I want your help, I want you to be a part of this with me.
The true miracle of this story isn’t when Jesus showed up like a Leedy woman on a boat and showed the fishermen a thing or two about catching fish. The true miracle is the invitation of Jesus to these ordinary people to follow and share in his work of bringing good news to the world. The gospel story opens with Jesus standing at the water’s edge, his ankles sinking into the mud as the crowd presses in on him. Overwhelmed and out of space, Jesus hops in a boat just so he can keep preaching. I imagine Jesus wrapping up his sermon, grateful that his head is still above water, and taking a deep breath. His shoulders slumping a bit, thinking, “I could really use some help.” He turns to the man sitting next to him in the boat and says, “Hey, wanna do some fishing?”
This past week, there was an article on KVUE talking about church growth in Austin – maybe you’ve seen it floating around. With the housing boom and thousands of people moving into the city every month, churches all over Austin are experiencing a rare season of active church growth. People are looking for connection, they are looking for community in this big and growing city, they are looking for the familiar traditions that feel like home. The article interviews a number of pastors who talk about how their churches are growing all over the city, all over the city – except for churches in the university area. As the article lays out, as the city of Austin grows and the populations on the outskirts of Austin swell, churches around West Campus and Downtown are feeling boxed in and held back by traffic or construction or changing neighborhoods. And it’s easy for university area churches to fall into the line of thinking that we are not a neighborhood church. I hate to break it to you, but we are a neighborhood church, in one of the fastest growing and most diverse neighborhoods in the city – may even the state. The question then isn’t whether we’re a neighborhood church or not, the question is how are we being neighbors in the midst of this neighborhood? If you’re interested in exploring that question in greater depth, be sure to sign up for our All Church Retreat, where our guest speaker Erin Counihan will be exploring the theme of neighborhood with us.
But beyond our local neighborhood challenges, the church as an institution is suffering in this country. You’ve heard the statistics and seen the Pew reports. Every year church attendance in the United States gets just a little bit smaller. Every year, the number of people who identify as Christians get a little bit smaller. Numbers don’t always tell the whole truth, but numbers don’t lie.
Our church is at the waters edge, standing in the place between the deep water and the throngs of people searching for meaning in this world.
Francis was praying in a small chapel one day, many years ago, in the Italian village of Assisi. Kneeling before the cross of San Damiano, he heard the voice of Christ calling out to him. “Francis,” the voice said. “Go and repair my church, which you can see has fallen into disrepair.” Francis accepted the call and began a movement of poor brothers that went out into their community and shared a gospel of peace, simplicity, and charity – a movement which sent shock waves through the halls of wealth and power of the Renaissance church. Over time, more and more men and women were captivated by Francis’ simple invitation to share this gospel message of kindness and peace. So powerful was this invitation that people gave all of their possessions to the poor, literally owning no property themselves, in order to be a part of this movement. Francis, for his part, took Christ’s call literally, and worked to repair the old and crumbling churches in the towns around Perugia. One such church, the Porziuncola, was a tiny, abandoned, one room church which stood crumbling in the middle of a field. Francis and his brothers repaired the little church, breathing new life into its old stone walls and making it a central part of the community’s life. Years later, Francis died in that field, not far from that little church he had helped resurrect. Then in the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church, in honor of Francis, built a massive basilica over that little Porziuncola church, enshrining it with all the Baroque fussiness and filigree that the period had to offer. The basilica is a vast and unwieldy space, adorned with chubby angels and golden doodads that seem completely out of step with the simplicity and poverty around which the saint oriented his ministry. When you stand in the vaulted nave of the basilica and look toward the center, you can still see that little Porziuncola church standing there, a relic dwarfed by its gilded tomb.
I visited that basilica a number of years ago, and as I stood there, looking at that little church Francis had helped repair, a travelling colleague of mine tapped me on the shoulder. He pointed up at the frescoed walls and cathedral ceilings of the basilica and said, “This is Christendom.” Then he pointed to that little stone church in the middle and said, “But that’s the church.” He said, that for centuries, the church has benefited from the structures of Christendom to protect and support the beating heart of the gospel alive and well in the church, but Christendom should never be confused with Christ and his church. The numbers and statistics supporting the decline of Christendom don’t lie, but the gospel is the truth.
In a recent letter to the denomination, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), J. Herbert Nelson, wrote, “As Presbyterians, we can no longer sit back and not have a faith that speaks of Jesus and speaks to the power of Jesus in our own lives. We can’t sit back and refuse to tell our stories of what our faith has done for us because somehow, we’ve framed that as private. Our faith is not private – it is very public. And Jesus had a public ministry not a private ministry. If we’re modeling the behavior of the one we follow, we too have to be about the business of publicly expressing who we are in Jesus Christ.”
What Rev. Dr. Nelson is talking about here is evangelism. When we hear the word evangelism or evangelical, we often think of crazies on the street corners shouting into megaphones. We think of hell fire and damnation preachers handing out tracts to sinners on 6th Street. We often think of capital E – Evangelicals – which are identified as much by their political influence as they are by their doctrine. What I’m talking about, and what Dr. Nelson is talking about, is not capital E – Evangelism. What we’re talking about is lower case E – evangelism, old school evangelism – actually, ancient school evangelism. It’s the gentle, everyday evangelism of St. Francis, talking about the goodness of God and the peace of Christ with his neighbors. It’s the evangelism of the repairing the Porziuncola, and investing in the vitality and connections of a local neighborhood. It’s the evangelism of Simon, James, and John, who shared the stories of what Jesus’ message of hope and love and freedom meant in their lives and inviting strangers and friends to come along the way with them. And it’s Jesus, standing at the waters edge, making the leap into the boat, setting out for the deep waters, and turning to the person next to him and saying, “let’s do some fishing.” It’s the church, standing at the water’s edge, making the leap into our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, setting out for the deep, scary, uncertain waters of sharing our spiritual lives with others, turning to the person next to us and saying, “Hey, I was wondering, do you go to church anywhere?”
I’ll be the first to admit that talking to strangers about coming to church is deep water stuff. It can be awkward and weird at first to talk about your spiritual life out in your every day world. Believe me, it’s also awkward and weird for pastors. When people find out I’m a pastor, they usually shift gears into one of three preset conversational settings:
- they get super quiet, polite, and stop cussing.
- Two, they open the flood gates and ask all of the unanswerable spiritual questions I’m supposed to be an expert in, or
- they tell me their stories about how the church has hurt them and that they will never go back.
It’s even harder sometimes as a pastor to invite someone to church because you start coming across as an insurance salesman. Churchgrowth.org recently published the following statistics on how people start attending a church. When asked why they started attending a church, two percent of people said it was because of a church’s advertising, six percent of people said it was because they were invited by a pastor, another six percent said it was because of some kind of organized visitation or program, and a whopping 86 percent of people said that they started attending a church because they were invited by a friend. Let that number sink in for a moment. Eighty-six percent of people start attending a church because a friend invited them. Not a pastor, not a website, not a sign on campus, not an ad in the paper, not a snazzy new program or a class. But a friend.
Take a moment and think of your best friends that live here in town. Think of a co-worker or neighbor you enjoy being around. Think about another mom or dad at your kid’s school that doesn’t make judgey faces at you in the carpool lane. Imagine them sitting next to you on the pew. Imagine them sharing the adventure of this place with you. If you want to try inviting someone to church but, like me, get nervous about rowing out into those deep waters, I’ve got something that might help. In this week’s UPC Update email, I will be posting a super easy, step-by-step, Evangelism for Dummies guide to inviting someone to church. It will be the easiest, three-minute read of your week. But beyond the invitation to come to church, imagine how much richer your relationship with that friend would be if you were to start a conversation about spirituality with them. Not a conversation about doctrine or theology – but about your real life search for meaning and purpose in this world. A conversation about making a difference and being a part of something bigger than yourself. A conversation about the everyday miracles of joy and gratitude that make up the heartbeat of your faith. Remember, Jesus didn’t invite James and John to church on the boat that day. He invited them come and be a part of the conversation, to be a part of a bigger story.
So friends, let’s row out into those deep waters of evangelism together. Let’s share the good news of God’s love in our lives and in this church with our neighbors. And,who knows? Maybe one day we just might need a bigger boat.