“I’ll show you how to fish for people.”
Are there any words from Jesus that make most Episcopalians nervous? “I will show you how to fish, for people.” Maybe you remember the old King James, “I will make you fishers of men.” Same idea, more antique more gendered language. Still made Episcopalians nervous.
Why? Why, was it because Episcopalians, historically, were the kind of folks who cared about polite conversation? and there are rules about polite conversation? You don’t talk about sex. You don’t talk about politics. And you don’t talk about religion. My grandmother was this kind of Episcopalian. You had to be very very close to her for her to share any opinion about faith. She had a deep faith, but she did not speak of it.
In recent years, some Episcopalians have gotten less worried about being polite. But there’s still some nervousness around Jesus’ invitation. Dare I say the E word? In this church? I know folks really don’t like it, but I’ll say it, “Evangelism.” Evangelism. I only have to say the word and I can watch folks start to fidget in their seats.
Many of us don’t like the word, because Evangelism is often associated with a very different vision of Christianity. And I know some of us don’t like that word because churches that have called themselves “evangelical,” churches that say they focus on “evangelism” have hurt folks in this church, or hurt people we love. And so I understand why that word makes folks nervous.
But this morning, I want to make a case that Jesus’ invitation still stands. Jesus still wants us to be evangelists. Jesus wants to teach us how to fish for people. And folks, I believe Jesus needs us, God needs churches like Holy Communion to be serious about the fishing.
You see, at its root, evangelism is good news. That is what the word literally means in Greek. Eu-good, angelion (like angel, messenger), angelion means news. Evangelism is just telling folks good news. Part of why the word has gotten such a bad reputation in this country is that folks have been telling bad news and calling it evangelism.
Don’t tell me that my husband and I are going to hell and call it good news. Dont tell me you want to make drag queen story time illegal, that you want to prosecute librarians, and call it good news. Don’t tell me that the foreign policy being pursued in this country is what God wants, the God who gave prophets visions of swords being beaten into plowshares. Don’t tell me your faith compels you to save defenseless lives and then in the same breath tell me that your faith community also endorses taking away health insurance from poor folks. That’s not good news. That’s not evangelism. That’s not what Jesus had in mind.
So much of so-called evangelism in this country is bad news.
God needs churches willing to share good news in a world that so desperately needs good news.
Take another look at the verses Chester read from Luke’s Gospel. Notice how many times good news is mentioned. “The people who lived in dark have seen a great light…Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” Then, after fisherfolk joyfully run from their nets to follow Jesus, Luke tells us, “He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness.” This picture Luke paints of Jesus’ ministry is joyful. Jesus is magnetic. Jesus draws followers because he brings relief, he brings community, he brings healing. Jesus brings hope.
Friends, how many of how many of you walk in places that could use some hope? Our neighborhoods, our offices, our homes, our nation, our global community, couldn’t they use some good news?
So here is where I pivot a bit in the sermon to talk about our congregation. This morning, I want to tell you a bit out how this congregation gives me hope. I want to tell you a little bit about the ways in which you are already spreading hope.
This congregation continues to grow, and as rector I have the privilege of sitting with new folks over coffee, or at breakfast between the services, or in our Inquirer’s class “Pilgrimage.” Time and again, I hear stories of folks who were looking for a faith community that shared their values. I hear stories from folks who wanted to be part of a people of faith who identified as anti-racist, who were willing to do the work of dismantling homophobia and gender bias. I hear stories of folks who were looking for a faith community that was willing to show up in the streets.
In the past year, I’ve had the privilege again of sharing conversations while standing next to washing machines, or on cold nights like last Tuesday next to the warm gas-fired dryers, down at Laundry love. I’ve been blessed to get to know folks who live just blocks from our church, and who really appreciate the help making it to the end of the month financially. But often just as much, our neighbors are thankful for some company as they get their laundry done. I know there are people who come to laundry love because they’re lonely, and once a month a group shows up that has no agenda but to help, and laugh, and love. Friends, that’s hope.
But this year, especially, I have to talk not just about the people who are new to us. I have seen a great deal of hope in this congregation this year, from folks who have been here a little while. Congregants who have worshipped here two years, four years, 30 years, even one member who joined just after he got back from the Second World War (I’m looking at you Burt Mayfield). I have taken so much hope from the way you have stepped up this last year.
We have finished the first and biggest phase of the Next 150 renovations. And folks showed up. You showed up in your generosity, raising more money in 4 months than this church has ever raised before, and more important that the dollar figure we had near 100% participation. Gifts large and small counted. Your Next 150 campaign committee deserve a great deal of thanks for the hard work of setting up conversations, calling folks, and making sure everyone felt a part of this investment.
But it wasn’t just the dollars that marked generosity. Through construction, you showed up. I was amazed how many people came and participated in our work day to prepare Mitchell Hall for services while the church was renovated. I was amazed how many folks came to worship in that cramped space. We had two of the highest attendance Sundays we have ever seen outside of Christmas and Easter in this church. On St Francis Day and at the Baptism service on All Saints folks were standing in the hallway or leaning on the wall of the lounge because there weren’t seats left in Mitchell. I am so grateful you kept showing up.
You all have given me hope the way you have stepped out on a limb this year. You have heard, and you are going to hear more, I am sure, about the deficit budget that we are facing this year. While no vestry loves a deficit budget, this vestry listened to the congregation and planned for a deficit. We have checked our reserves, we have made some tough decisions, and we planned to invest.
This gives me hope, because I know that this church understands that our hopes will require more of us. Sometimes living into hope can be uncomfortable. If we want to see a new service grow in this newly renovated space, if we want to serve folks who are not currently well served by church, if we want to see a community that worships and celebrates differences in abilities, it will take some discomfort. It takes investment. We will have to stretch ourselves.
It gives me hope to see our treasurer, members of the vestry, and other leaders in the congregation come up with the idea for a grant committee to dream of ways to fund ministry around here we can’t currently fund on our own. It gives me hope to see this congregation say again and again, “we will find a way.”
I take great hope from the leadership of this congregation, the folks like your vestry and my fellow clergy who are official leaders, and the humans who step up week in and week out around here.
I began this sermon with a perhaps uncomfortable sentence. I want to finish with a confession. When Jesus said to his disciples, “I will make you fish for people,” he wasn’t telling them to grow a church. He wasn’t telling them to go out and round up some big donors. He wasn’t.
In Galilee, the land of Zebulan, the land of Naphtali, Jesus found a people who were downtrodden. He found folks who needed light, who needed welcome,
who needed community, who were willing to embrace the crazy diversity of his band of followers. Jesus went and found folks who needed to hear a word of hope. And he told people again and again, get ready. Injustice will not have the last word. Evil will not have the last word. Exclusion will not have the last word. Sickness will not have the last word. God will have the last word. Have hope.
I know it’s scary. I know Jesus makes nice Episcopalians nervous, but I hope we’re still in the business of evangelism. We still have good news to tell, in a world that so desperately needs good news.
This year, I pray God will continue to give us courage, to help us to stretch our resources, to stretch our sense of comfort. I have faith that God has done great things in and through this Church. I have faith that God is not done with us. We have done our homework, our investments are wise investments. We have a great team, and we will continue to proclaim a message of welcome, to embrace diversity, to build community inside and outside our walls.
I know so many folks out there could use some good news. And I have a sense that God is still at work in the lives of so many in this church. I know you know this Jesús to be a leader of deep compassion. The God we proclaim here is a God who will not rest until injustice is rooted out. The God we know is a God who cares about every human life. The God we know is a God who shows up when it hurts, sometimes in the face of a friend with a cup of coffee. We know a God whose best name is love.
So, what do you say church, shall we continue in this effort of fishing for people? With our lips and with our lives, will we stretch ourselves and tell the good news?