My first year in seminary, I took an elective course that scared the bejesus out of me. It wasn’t a class on the deep questions of theology, debating the nature of God. The course was called “Evangelism: Practicum.” The word “evangelism” makes many Episcopalians nervous. We are the polite, civilized Christians. We would never do something so vulgar as to tell our neighbors about Jesus. Christians like us tend to treat Jesus as if the name is a dirty word. We don’t use the name in public. The class was Evangelism practicum, so it wasn’t even theoretical. We weren’t there to talk about the whether or why of evangelism, we were there to do it, to practice.
We were sent out into the city of Washington DC to have conversations. Our assignment was simple: talk to people, about Jesus, random strangers, people we didn’t know. We were to take notes on the conversations, and then come back to class to report our progress. Not only did we have to talk with strangers about faith, about God, about Jesus. We had to let our classmates critique our conversations.
The assignment made me uncomfortable, but not quite as uncomfortable as some of my fellow seminarians. Despite the professor’s repeated reminders that our conversations were to happen outside the seminary community, every week someone submitted a report of a chat they had with another future priest. “How is that evangelism?” the professor would ask.
I decided to lean into my discomfort, and to try and chat with strangers on the Metro (DC’s subway), at a bar, and waiting in line for a coffeeshop downtown. I knew my discomfort was a problem. If priests-to-be were so uncomfortable talking about faith that they could only do so on the safe grounds of the seminary or inside the walls of the church, our denomination didn’t have a prayer for reaching the unchurched. How could we inspire our congregations to speak about Jesus, if we were so uncomfortable?
I did not walk away from the class a master evangelist. I still get uncomfortable talking about faith, especially we I do not know the convictions of the person with whom I am speaking. But, that semester of leaning in, taking the assignment seriously, talking to people, random people, about faith reshaped my own sense Jesus the teacher, and what he expected of his disciples.
Today’s Gospel is a story of call,
perhaps one of the most famous, and a story that might make you nervous. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Some of you may still hear the old words of the King James translation “I will make you become fishers of men.” Let’s pause for a second with Jesus’ well-known image. “Fishers for people.” Jesus proposes to thoroughly change the life of these young men. He wants them to leave what they know, to leave behind their family, and an honest living, to come an follow him, and to help him grow a movement.
Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, speaks of our church using that language “movement: We are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” he likes to say. Bishop Curry is our first black Presiding Bishop, and his way of talking about Jesus challenges some Episcopalians. As much as he is an Episcopalian, he is also a product of the black church. His sermons sometimes go on for 20-30 minutes. But more than the length, it is the content that challenges. If we are part of a movement, like Andrew, like Simon, like James and John, the movement’s growth depends on us. We are invited to be fishers for people.
I confess to you all, that I still have a hard time identifying with those early followers of Jesus, those early women and men that built a movement that continues to our day. Evangelism to strangers, gathering in crowds of new Christians, that makes me a little skittish. But today’s lessons also give us a counter example. If I am a little nervous about trying to be like Andrew or John, maybe I can be motivated, maybe I can motivate you simply:
“Don’t be like Jonah.”
Jonah is a whole different kind of fish story. God wants to get word to the city of Nineveh, and he calls Jonah, but Jonah does not want to go there. He tries to run away, even to escape across the sea to Tarshish. God intervenes with a storm. Jonah is thrown overboard, and he’s swallowed by the whale, all because he does not want to talk to the people of the city about God. There in the belly of the whale, Jonah resolves to do what God commands, so the whale spits Jonah out, and the preacher heads to Nineveh, to proclaim the message of the Lord.
Don’t be like Jonah. Don’t avoid talking about God, especially if you have a sense that you might be called to do so. If you have a hunch that a friend, a neighbor, a family member might be struggling with faith, with doubt, with loneliness, don’t run away. God relies on human beings to speak with one another, to talk about the hard things. God does not want us to leave one another alone. God sometimes speaks through faithful, loving, listening friends. You may have a word of hope your neighbor needs.
Don’t be like Jonah. Jonah isn’t just a bad example for his attempt to run away. Once in Nineveh, Jonah enjoys the work he had been avoiding. He likes telling people that they are doomed by God. But God’s word does not have the effect that Jonah hopes. Jonah sets up a little stand to watch as God’s wrath comes down on Nineveh, but the fire and brimstone never come. As we read in today’s lesson, it turns out that God is not as strict a judge as the preacher. The people in the city repent. They are saved.
Now Jonah is a farce, intentionally so, and like all farces Jonah is an exaggeration of human nature. Sometimes it takes a caricature to point out a problem. I wonder how often God’s people silently judge their neighbors. I know that I sometimes do. Judgement comes in all of the old forms: my neighbor is too worldly to become a person of faith. My cousin isn’t smart enough to really understand my advanced version of Christianity. My colleague is just too bigoted to embrace the diversity my church values. I confess that I have privately thought versions of every one of those pronouncements. I’ve often also made a more subtle judgement: my friends don’t need an active relationship with God. Who does these days?
In my judgements I often behave like Jonah. Don’t behave like Jonah. What Jonah misses is how ready the people of the city are for God’s word. They are eager. They are hungry. They are even ready to repent. When we choose to hide our faith. When we don’t talk about our relationship with God, we ignore the possibility that someone near to us is hungry for God’s love, hungry for Jesus, hungry for redemption and good news.
A letter from a priest
This week I read a moving letter written by a friend from seminary, someone who wasn’t in that Evangelism class. If he had been, I’m sure I would have learned from him. The Rev. Sandy Webb wrote to the college students from his congregation, also called the Church of the Holy Communion, in Memphis, after the tragic death of one of their former youth group members, a college freshmen, in a motorcycle accident this week. He wrote to comfort the young man’s friends. Among other words of advice he said this:
[we] all need to stay connected with a community of faith. When I arrived at Jackson’s house on Saturday morning, the driveway was filled with friends scraping ice and the kitchen was filled with people bringing food; many were from church. In death, Jesus promises us that he will prepare a place for us in his father’s own house. In life, he promises us that we will never have to be alone. Many young people take a break from their church experience during their college years, and then come back to it when they are ready to settle down or establish their families. I encourage you to chart another course. By stitching yourselves into a community of faith when times are good, you make an investment in having a community to support you when times are bad.
How many of the people around us could use a good and faithful community? How many people could use the love, the support, the prayers? For how many people has the community of faith ceased to be a support? I wrote in our weekly email about a strange paradox we face in American society. Sociologists point to two strangely contradictory trends. As a people we are more committed than ever. We have more appointments, more hours of work, more social engagements than ever. Simultaneously people report feeling alone more than at any point before in history. We are over busy, and we lack real human connection.
Sartre said famously “hell is other people,” and it can feel that way when you are surrounded by people who do not know you, do not help you know that you are loved, cared for, that you matter. I believe Jesus’ movement offers a different relationship with “other people.” Follow me. I will make you fishers of people. The Jesus movement needs “people persons.” The Jesus movement needs leaders who will reach out, build community, help to stitch people into the kind of relationships where they can hear the words: “you are valued, you matter, you are loved.” That message is truly the good news God has.
The word “evangelism,” makes some of us refined Episcopalians nervous. For the sake of our neighbors, can we dare to set aside our nerves? There are people in this city who are lonely, who feel unloved. There are so many people in this city who have never heard a word of good news from the church. There are so many who have been told by religion that they are less than, sinful, and broken. Where is the good news?
In those weeks on assignment talking with strangers, I was surprised again and again. I was most surprised when I stopped trying to stumble on my words and I asked questions about the faith of the people I met. When I asked about a stranger’s experience, about their life, about their faith and doubts, I was often amazed. Almost no one I spoke with was offended when I mentioned my faith. In the moments when I was able to say something articulate about how I believed God loves people, all people, how my church was trying its best to push back against injustice, to heal hurt, people didn’t resist. I was surprised again and again by how eager folks were to talk about a faith that was humble, generous, and loving, a faith that included queer people and worked for racial reconciliation, valued women’s leadership and so on. I was surprised by the hunger our world has for our kind of faith, our branch of the Jesus’ movement.
Evangelism is risky.
When we choose to listen, to really listen to the stories of our neighbors, and when choose to speak about how we’ve known God’s love in our own lives, we we risk opening ourselves up. We risk vulnerability. We risk holding out words of hope and of faith. Those risks are worth taking. We might stumble upon the Good News God has for us, and for our neighbor. We might even end up together in a movement, a movement that has the power to change our world, a movement that has the power to change our lives.
Jesus said to them, “Follow me.”