Fishing Together

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Detail from “The Calling of the Apostles,” north wall, All Souls Parish, Willet Studios, 1938.

A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, and Matthew 4:12-23.

There’s an old preacher’s story about the devil and his generals trying to mount a new offensive on Christianity, to try to make Christians ineffective in the world.  The generals all gather together and the first suggests an idea.  “What if we try to convince Christians that there really is no God?”  “No,” says the devil. “That will never work. Too many Christians already have a strong sense of God.”  The next general stands up and says, “I have it.  Let’s convince them that there really is no difference between good and evil, between right and wrong.”  But the devil shakes his head again.  “No,” he says, “too many already know the difference and think it’s important.  We’ll have to think of something else.”  Finally, the third general steps forward. “Sir,” he says, “my idea is a little subtle, but I wonder if we might encourage them to continue believing in God, encourage them to distinguish between good and evil, but we simply suggest to them that there’s no hurry in any of this.  There’s no need to rush, no need to worry, no sense of urgency.”

I think there is some hurry, and there is a certain urgency– because too many people are being lost.  I’m not talking about church statistics, nor am I worried about denominational statistics.  I’m talking about something much larger—about losing more and more people to violence— violence in the streets, violence in the home.  We lose too many people to addictions, addictions of habit or need.  We lose people to lives lived in compulsion, those who are never happy no matter how many things they may buy; happy no matter how many places they have traveled; happy no matter how many people they have used.  There are just too many people living lives that seem to have no purpose, lives lived in a hopeless circle of meeting immediate needs but never making space to recall why it is we might work, in the first place. 

Evangelism has to do with sharing our faith.  It has to do with sharing good news.  It has to do with sharing a bit of ourselves with other people, whether it involves saying something about Jesus Christ through words, through prayer, or through actions.  Evangelism, at least as I see it, is a matter of winning and losing.  It’s not about church growth or meeting the goals of the budget or putting people on committees—it’s often life and death.  It’s about life lived as fully as possible.

In today’s Gospel, the urgency shines through.  Jesus calls Simon Peter and the Andrew.  These two brothers are busy fishing, casting their nets, making their livelihood.  But Jesus makes another offer.  He raises the stakes.  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Jesus calls James and John and invites them to drop what they’re doing, but even so, to use the skills they already have and apply them to a larger purpose.  This new purpose will carry them into dangerous waters, indeed, as they are led into messy, untidy, uncontrollable and unpredictable places of faith.

We, too are called to “fish for people” or rather, we’re called upon to use whatever skills, abilities, or gifts we might have in order to help others know the love of God through Jesus Christ.  We may be called to teach for people, to cook for people, to build for people, or to listen for people.  Whatever it is we may do, in meeting Christ, we have the potential for our everyday work to become ministry and mission.  In our teaching, in our cooking, in our building, in our talking and praying and listening, we offer Christ; we fish for people. 

At All Souls, we’re pretty good fishers, fishermen and fisherwomen.  Some of our members, as individual fishers, are outrageously successful.  But as I’ve suggested before, it seems that, as a church, our style has not been so much to go out on the high seas or the deep water, but rather to be a little like a lobster trap.  If one should wander our way and come inside, then one finds we have quite a lot to offer.

We’re working to change some of that.  Few of us want to be a thousand-member parish, but we could do with a few more people around—to share in the fun, to share in the faith, and because there are too many people near us who really are lost.  We’re working on a design for a new sign out front and we’ll have additional signs once the construction is over.  The construction, itself, is an effort to be less of a lobster trap and be able to open our doors more.  We have teams of communications and outreach folks who are thinking up new ways and places for All Souls to be.  But there’s so much more we could be doing.

In our mission statement we say that “the mission of All Souls Church is to be a Christ-centered sanctuary, where a diverse community worships and serves.”  That’s a great mission and a holy mission.  But wonder, also, if God might be calling us to be a sanctuary on the move, a sanctuary that extends its holiness to other parts, a sanctuary that shares the holy, good, and true God in other places?

Lobster traps work.  But I wonder if, at some point, we aren’t called to respond to that sense of urgency, the urgency of the gospel and the urgency of our own world.  What would it look like if we were to fish for people in new ways?

For some, if might look like inviting a neighbor to church some time.  It might look like getting involved in a new mission project and bringing people from church with you.  It might look like our forming new mission relationships with people in a another part of our country, or in Haiti, or Central America, or deepening our relationships with South Africa.  Fishing for people might look like our sitting at our All Souls tent on Connecticut or meeting people as they go meet the new panda at the Zoo.  Fishing for people involve mission and hospitality, evangelism and publicity, music and ministry in all shapes and forms.

Jesus has promised to be with us always.  He has told us we should never fear.  With hope, and faith and joy, let’s go fishing.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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