Monday, January 28, 2013

Net Results

Net Results
© Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Luke 5:1-11
January 27, 2013

...they caught so many fish
that their nets were beginning to break...

With one pull of the fishing net, Peter and his fishing friends went from having nothing to having more than they could handle. Living as we do in the era of get-rich TV programs and lottery jackpot amounts dangled tantalizingly at the counter of every convenience store, we spend lots more of our time as a culture considering what we don’t have and how much more we might like to have, than we do thinking on the downside of what it would be like to have more than we can handle.
I remember speaking once with a friend of mine who is an accountant. He said that he had never seen an instance when a young person – someone under 30 years of age – had inherited a large estate in which that money was then wisely used. Sometimes an overwhelming bit of good luck can turn out to be just that: overwhelming. Witness the many stories of lottery jackpot winners who have considered that time following their lucky day to have been the most overwhelming portion of their lives. Many emerge bankrupt or worse. Fights, both legal and physical, break out among those who have joined forces to buy a winning lottery ticket. Sometimes gaining a windfall means that other things must fall as well, unaccustomed things, perhaps even cherished things.
It was Peter who first recognized the enormity of what they had experienced. It wasn’t just their nets that were beginning to break as they pulled them into the boat, it was that their view of the world and their accustomed place in it was being broken and re-made right before their eyes, and they were powerless to stop it. “Go away from me, Lord,” he said, “for I am a sinful man!” Yet he did not go away, and within the space of a few verses, we find the fishing nets draped, neglected, on an old worn piling of a lakeside dock. Through the webbing of the nets you can see that immense pile of fish, steaming in the sun, but no people. The scene looks like an abandoned town, and all you hear is an occasional slap of the tail fin of a dying fish, and the gentle lapping of waves alongside the dock. They’ve all gone off to be with Jesus. It is a magnetic story, it just draws me in every time I read it. The loads of fish, a first century version of a small fortune for the fishermen, just left there along with the unrepaired and discarded nets.
Jesus made them “fishers of men” as the old versions have translated it, people catchers. They would no longer need nets, they would be the net.
Here is a truth we can remember, and which should carry us all forward in our discipleship, whether we are officers in the church, pastors, musicians, members: We do not manipulate the net, we don’t own it, it is not ours, we do not mend it, tend it, or haul it in; rather, by the grace of Christ, we become the net.[1] It is we who are heaved over the side of the boat called the church, out into the waters of our world, and it is we who can return with the sort of catch that defies description if only we will remember to be the net.
I have had conversations with other pastors, and among us we know something is going on which pastors are generally loath to admit. Attendance, participation levels in our churches, are off in the past few years. Over time, we have seen a gradual decline in attendance at worship and in other activities around our churches. What do you suppose is going on?
One preacher[2] once declared flatly that it would make life easier for us all if the reading for today had stopped with verse 6. By the end of verse 6 we have the sort of lesson we may have come to expect in church: If at first you don’t succeed, try again. But this is not a lesson about trying harder. It is a lesson about being caught up in something bigger than we are, it is about becoming catchers ourselves. Sometimes we forget the disciples’ central task, to become fishers.
Anyone who has spent much time in the church knows that lots of fishing nets turn up empty. Walk around these halls, you might well catch bits of conversation like these:
“Pastor, I once taught Sunday School for six years here and not one person ever said ‘thank you.’”
“Pastor, I worked as a mentor for an elementary school student, met with him every week, but he still flunked!”
“Pastor, We worked for six weeks to get that study group started, and in the end, only two people showed up, two people!
We all know about discouragement, about the frustrations of working in volunteer organizations and developing simple church programs in a world that has sold its soul to the high energy, big budget entertainment industry. We all know how frustrating it is to throw that net in the same pool of people time after time and come up with little or nothing. But perhaps it’s that pool of people that is part of our problem. With a look at membership statistics in many churches, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in math to discover that many people don’t leave their congregation to go elsewhere, they simply stop going to any church. It is not just their own participation that is missed when they are gone, but their willingness to reach out to others in their schools, neighborhoods, and at their workplaces with the simple invitation to come and see what goes on at church. As they have gone, the disciples’ net has developed a hole. We can only repair that hole by taking their place, by being that part of the net, and then casting it into a larger body of water than we’d thought we could.
Typical Presbyterian thinking about outreach by the church into the community often goes this way: We know that the fish are out there; yet, often we think we have done our job if we carry an aquarium to the edge of the sea and wait for the fish to jump in.
Here is a phrase which can be easily memorized and used in about any circumstance when we find ourselves talking with someone about our church. If they express interest, we can just say, “Well, could I come by and pick you up for the service next week?” Practice it. Say it with me now: “Can I come by and pick you up for the service next week?” Don’t say, “Let me draw you a map to the church,” or write down the address, or give them the web page, or express a hope that they will find their way here sometime. That is to act as if we were the owners of the net. That is carrying that aquarium to the sea and waiting for fish to jump in. Outreach requires invitation. “May I come pick you up at 9:00 next Sunday?” is the statement of someone who has recognized Jesus’ call to be the net.
Now this may be a bit frightening. If you've ever been recruited from doing something you’re already satisfied with, into a position you don’t feel qualified for, then you probably know how Peter and the others felt. All of us may be a bit afraid of words like “evangelism,” or “witness.” But Jesus made a promise, and he started his promise in a most interesting way: “Do not be afraid;” he said. I like it that when Jesus is coming at us with something we don’t expect, something completely out of our frame of reference, he so often begins by telling us that no matter how it appears, there is no reason to fear. “From now on,” he said, “you will be catching people.” You will be the net.
Now we may actually want to be afraid of that charge, we may want to be people who hope other folks will be the net and we can be maybe net managers, or net number criticizers, or net observers in the outreach movement of the church. But that is not the call that Jesus gives to disciples from the start. He says, “from now on you will be catching people.” Often we emphasize a different word in the sentence, We say, “from now on you will be catching people.” But I think it also needs to be read, “from now on you will be catching people.” That’s right. You. And you and you and you. And don’t bother being afraid about it, because it is the most natural thing in the world for someone who has received good news to want to share it, so that is what you will be doing. On that score, C.S. Lewis once reminded his readers that “the work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’”[3]
With today’s scripture, we remember that Jesus’ call by the sea to be the net is not made to pastors, or elders, or deacons only, though certainly it does come to them. It comes to us all. It is part and parcel of discipleship, not an   alternate choice from a menu of ways to serve.
So, go this day and be the net. Your net results will surprise you, I promise!

[1] “Amateurs and Rookies,” by Frederick Niedner, Christian Century, 1/24/01, p. 9.
[2] “The Dangers of Fishing with Jesus,” by William Willimon, preached at the Duke University Chapel, February 5, 1995
[3] The Weight of Glory.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Comings and Goings

Comings and Goings
Sunday, January 6, 2013
Isaiah 60:1-6                   
Ephesians 3:1-6
Matthew 2:1-6                                      

 I know where you’re coming from.
It’s a common, homely phrase, and it is a bit handier than the more grammatically correct, “I know the place from which you come.” It’s an affirmation that we might use to let others know that we appreciate their position, that we are listening, that we are trying to see how things look on their side of their own eyeballs.
“I know where you’re coming from.” But do we? Where are we coming from, and knowing that, will it help us get wherever it is we are headed? One task of our religious faith is to move us, to get us along on our way. All three Bible readings today refer us to comings and goings, each in its own way. And each brings alive a new perspective on the fact that no matter where we’ve been or where we are headed, God comes to us.
God Comes
If we think on Advent-themed readings in Isaiah, we ought at least to know where Isaiah was “coming from.” A pretty good five letter word for it would be gloom. After years of captivity by their enemies, far from Palestine, in exile in Babylon, the people of the promises had just about become the people kept on the premises. Many Israelites were entirely ready to sink down roots in Babylon and just get on with whatever life was to be had there. Two generations of Israel’s children had been bom never having seen the promised land.
Then comes this enchanting word of Isaiah: “Arise! Shine! for your light has come!” Eight times in chapter 60, Isaiah uses the word “glory.”[1] Now, that’s a much misunderstood Bible word. Ask an average person what “glory” means, and you are likely to see head scratching before you hear an answer. It’s a floor wax; it’s something a football star gets; it’s the name of an old movie about the War Between the States.
But the Old Testament most commonly uses the word “glory” to refer to times when people sensed God’s presence in a special way. Now the dead last place anyone expected to find even a hint of God, let alone a shred of the glory of his presence, was in the midst of their exile in Babylon. Yet, there it was. No need to set out in search of the enlightenment of God. It has come to us. It was an early sense of what believers have come to know over the generations: no matter where we may be, or be coming from, God comes to us as redeemer, as savior, as one who can make even the most hopeless situation new all over again.
How does God come to us? Often, not as we might expect. Tucked away in the 3rd and 6th verses of Isaiah’s prophecy are these words,
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
It is one of many clues in the Old Testament that the glory of God is not reserved only for chosen people, but that chosen people are the vehicles by which the glory of God might come to all people everywhere. It is because of this Isaiah text that we sing “We three kings...” Matthew  doesn’t mention kings at all. God comes, we know that. Isaiah affirms it. But where are we going once he has touched our lives? For that, we can turn to Ephesians.
God Comes to All
Paul’s word in Ephesians confirms emphatically what Isaiah’s prophecy had only  suggested. The coming of Christ was such an important event, it couldn’t be reserved for the people of Israel alone, but was destined to be the means by which all people, Jews and Gentiles, might come to know the glory of God’s redeeming presence. While the New Testament problem in Paul’s time was to get Jewish Christians to make room for Gentile Christians in their gatherings, it is certainly not our problem. In our time the problem is getting Gentile Christians to make room for other Gentiles!
Am I right about this? Just consider that the old mainline Christian denominations have been dwindling away rather pathetically during the last thirty-five years. We can be thankful that some churches have found ways to maintain their membership over the last decade, but these churches have been the exception. And some of the denominations which have grown dramatically have not been without a host of their own troubles and strife. What has been lost in the shuffle? People. People have been lost when churches and denominations place institutional survival above serving the people God places around them. Does God need lots more Presbyterians? Well, I believe God could use lots more Presbyterians, but not half as desperately as God seeks out more people who have felt the tug of the gospel good news to bring that news to others from deeply convicted hearts.
There is an old story about a king named Ebrahim ibn Adam. Ebrahim was wealthy according to every earthly measure. At the same time, however, he strove sincerely and restlessly to be wealthy spiritually as well.
One night the king was roused from sleep by a fearful stomping on the roof above his bed. Alarmed, he shouted: “Who’s there?” “A friend,” came the reply from the roof. “I’ve lost my camel.” Perturbed by such stupidity, Ebrahim screamed: “You fool! Are you looking for a camel on the roof?” “You fool” the voice from the roof replied. “Are you looking for God in silk clothing, and lying on a golden bed?"[2]
Where are we going to go once God has found us? Where are we coming from? From the comfort of the pews of this beautiful church, of an unstudied religious faith that we may not have bothered to probe for a quarter of a century (this is a subtle boost for adult Christian education!)? From the comfortable point of view of people who are safely “in the kingdom” while thousands in our own community haven’t yet found the front door of a church?
From a prison cell where he was sent for the crime of proclaiming his faith, Paul suggested in the letter to the Ephesians that we might find God more readily if we accepted that our calling as Christians includes a responsibility to tell others about the Word of Life with conviction.
In Coming, God Prepares Us To Be Sent
One last story, then I’ll stop. Our third passage, from Matthew, reminds me of one old legend about the three Magi who came seeking Jesus. In it the three of them are drawn together by their common vision of the beautiful star that bids them to seek a newborn king. They follow this star across deserts, mountains, and plains, until it stands over a grotto in Bethlehem. But when they look into the grotto they see only a young peasant woman and her husband with a newborn child. They turn away in disappointment. After they have gone some distance, however, they discover they have lost the star and with it the memory of where they have been. They are lost between a forgotten homeland and a vanished destination.
Overwhelmed by a sense of despair, they realize they have allowed their earthbound  judgment to lead them astray from finding the new thing God would bring to pass. Despondent,  they come upon an old well. It is a well known to the local people by the brilliant reflections it  produces. They collapse in despair at the side of the well until one of the three, hoping to quench his thirst, looks into the depths of the well and there finds the reflection of the lost star! Looking back into the sky, they see the star again. They are led back to the grotto where they pay homage to the hidden king, born where the standards of the world would least expect to find him.[3]
This is the king we serve. No matter the land, the culture, the life experiences from which we come, this is the king who joins us on our journey to wherever we are going. He comes. He comes to all. And he opens in us a new possibility for fuller life through ministry in his name.

[1] Walter Burghardt, "From Gloom to Glory", Interpretation, October 1990, p. 396.
[2] Walter Burghardt, Still Proclaiming your Wonders: Homilies for the Eighties.
[3] From Presbynet, 12/17/90