Learning to fish for people

Someone was bemoaning the lack of growth in their congregation. One listener responded sympathetically, remarking that "A lot of congregations struggle with that issue." To which the complainer replied, "Yeah, but how many churches do you know that have an unlisted phone number?"[1]

When I look at this congregation, I mostly see familiar faces. What is it that brings you back here to St. Clement’s, Sunday after Sunday?

While reflecting on today’s gospel reading,[2] I identified four factors that collectively explain why I personally return to St. Clement’s Sunday after Sunday. They fit the mnemonic ABC and F, like the familiar grades, except that the goal is to journey from A, B, and Cs to F.

A stands for acceptance. Here, I feel welcomed as who I am, without a need for pretense. In our liturgy, acceptance connotes God’s affirming love and embrace. Over time, I’m becoming part of the parish community. I hope, and pray, that your experience at St. Clement’s is similar. Incidentally, new attendees participating in today’s newcomer’s brunch offers an opportunity to experience that acceptance, community, and affirmation.

Nobody screened the crowd that gathered on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus. Not only was there no security screening, people were not excluded because of education, wealth, gender, ethnicity or religion. The gospels depict Jesus interacting with illiterate peasants and affluent lawyers, both women and men, Samaritans, Syrians, and others, Gentiles as well as Jews. We are called to follow Jesus’ example in genuinely welcoming all, even if we do it imperfectly.

B connotes beauty, pointing also to the joy, hope and sense of wonder that beauty evokes. The Sea of Galilee and the surrounding countryside, even today with the land browner, more barren and drier than in Jesus’ day, is beautiful. I cherish vivid memories of eating fresh, grilled St. Peter’s fish lakeside, watching boats on the lake and people fishing. At least some in the crowd who gathered to hear Jesus teach would have noticed the setting’s natural beauty.

The Episcopal Church generally values beauty, preferring to have beautiful buildings, liturgy, music, vestments, altar vessels, etc. I’ve conducted worship in unusual settings such as a WW2 Quonset hut, aboard a ship, and out in the field using a Humvee’s hood for an altar. But when I conduct worship in a magnificent Christopher Wren chapel, such as the one at Greenwich Royal Naval College in London – even with its elevated, rickety wooden pulpit, or here at St. Clement’s, the setting helps greatly. Our aesthetic sense is one dimension of the human spirit. Enhancing the beauty of the setting, the liturgy, the music, and so forth, helps to create a “thin place” where discerning God’s presence is easier.

C stands for compassion, broadly defined to include both mercy and justice. Jesus attracted people partially because he healed the sick, embraced the outcast, saw beauty in persons society regarded as ugly, and fed the physically and spiritually hungry. Vibrant, growing congregations consistently seek to respond to the needs of the people in their neighborhoods with the love that gives life, promotes justice, liberates, and heals.

Years ago, the captain of a Greenland whaling vessel had a strange experience. One evening, icebergs trapped his ship near the Arctic Circle, and he decided to cast anchor until morning. As the day dawned, he sighted another ship dimly visible through the morning mist. The captain and some of his men in a small boat rowed around icebergs to the mysterious vessel. Boarding, they discovered every crew member dead and frozen stiff. Some lay in their hammocks, others on the deck where they had fallen. The captain was sitting at a table as if writing in the logbook. The log’s last entry, on which the captain's lifeless finger rested, indicated that the ship had been drifting around the Arctic Ocean for 13 years.[3]

Although there are Episcopal churches frozen in time, with no meaningful effort to love anyone, thankfully this parish has numerous initiatives designed to love our neighbors locally and globally. These include programs to feed our hungry neighbors and actively campaigning for Palestinian rights, prison reform, and ecological justice.

Acceptance, beauty, and compassion can be found in the Lion’s Club, social groups, or even a political party. Those are good organizations, but insufficient. I return to St. Clement’s week after week because here I meet, converse, and journey with people on a faith journey toward that mystery we call God. British theologian and philosopher John Cottingham argues that what brings “people to God is not intellectual debates about the transcendent, but the immanent aspects of religion--the transformative power of religious ideas and practice in our human lives and experience."[4]

In the gospel reading, when Jesus finishes teaching, he directs the boatmen to put own to sea again and cast their nets one last time. In spite of unfavorable circumstances – no catch all night, too late in the morning for good fishing – the crews haul in nets full of fish. Astounded, they recognize God’s presence in that moment and in their morning experiences. Repeatedly experiencing God’s presence and activity in their midst attracted the disciples and the crowd to Jesus. Neither acceptance, beauty, nor compassion keeps me, and maybe you, returning to St. Clement’s Sunday after Sunday. Instead, its discerning, even if only occasionally, the light of God’s loving, transformative activity in our midst.

Jesus instructs his disciples that from now on they are to cast their nets for people, not fish. We are the successors, the spiritual descendants, of those disciples. Yet, according to one study, the average Episcopalian invites somebody to church only once every 27 years.[5] We may as well have an unlisted phone number, given that nationally 75-80% of new church members begin attending because someone invited them.[6]

May whatever brings and keeps you returning here – whether the acceptance, beauty, compassion, and shared faith journey that drew me to St. Clement’s or other reasons – also become a catalyst used by the Holy Spirit to move us to reach out to the spiritually hungry, the broken, and victims of injustice who surround us. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019, in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] The Lutheran, Aug. 1993, p. 63.
[2] Luke 5:1-11.
[3] George E Knowles., A World to Love (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1990), p. 265.
[4] John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 112.
[5] The Rev. Christopher C. Moore, “10 Operating Principles of the Church,” The Living Church.
[6] David Kalvelage, “Pretty Nice Folks,” The Living Church, 12 March 2000, 11.


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