Savior God, we need your good news. We need the challenge of your Holy Spirit. We need this time of Word and worship. Help us to tune our hearts and minds to your will and your way as we approach the Scriptures today. Amen.
Family reunions are an interesting thing, right? You gather with family that you may—or may not like and whom you may not see on a regular basis. Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was go to our family reunions. I couldn’t wait! I’ve always loved to travel and this was a guaranteed “vacation.” There was no shortage of family in attendance, including numerous cousins and friends of cousins. This momentous event was often held around my birthday and a few of my cousin’s birthdays, so we could celebrate and cut up with each other…And boy did we cut up!
This was the only time we would see each other outside of the occasional wedding or somber funeral. You have to realize young people that this was well before the days of Facebook, Twitter, IG, and all the different social media platforms, so we became masters at maximizing our time together. Each summer, they would often be held in the host relative’s city. Many of the reunions were held in Chester, SC which was the birthplace of my paternal grandfather’s family. Now Chester was not the only location. Other locations included Rocky Mount, High Point, Winston-Salem, Shelby (my hometown), Alabama, Detroit, and Atlanta—we even took a cruise one year.
They all pretty much followed the same format with activities and food galore! Now I won’t go into great detail about the recreations. However, I would like to highlight one activity in particular that still haunts me to this day: fishing. At that time, fishing was a big deal with my cousins. They would stand on the edge of the pond or lake, or they would hop into the rowboat and paddle out to the other end. I remember thinking, “they must be professionals.” Not only did they always come back with something, but they also knew the ins and outs of their equipment and which lures to use when and where. They seemed to always know where the fish were bitin’ too. But the one thing that I could not get past family—was piercing that poor little worm with the hook!
So me being the inquisitive and daring person that I am decided to tag along this time. After loading up the rowboat, we pushed off and found a suitable spot. FINALLY! IT WAS TIME TO SEE WHAT ALL THE FUSS WAS ABOUT. My older cousin proceeded to ask me if he wanted him to set up my line. “I got it cuzzo,” I replied, trying to be cool. “I’ve done this before.” (facial expression) That was the lie of lies. As I fumbled with “Willie the Worm,”
It was what my cousin said next that is still with me today and helps set the scene for our talk for today: “You can have the biggest boat and all the fancy fishing ‘dodads,’ but if you don’t know the fish, then how will you know where they are biting?”
MOVE—THE PROBLEM & FALSE RESPONSES
Now, I have been wrestling with something family, other than putting worms on hooks. We have had a big problem brewing from within the Presbyterian church. Not only the Presbyterian church but the church universal as well. Many churches are in steep decline as numbers continue to decrease rapidly. I have deduced that memberships continue to dwindle for various reasons and I am convinced that people, both young and seasoned, are looking to be heard. For something traditional but in a non-traditional form. They seek not to worship and engage in the ministries of the church like their parents or adults they looked up to but to be involved in the creation of something new.
Rethinking the often asked question of “WHAT IS A CHURCH,” becomes even more challenging with each day. Unfortunately, many churches have and will close their doors because of an unwillingness to address this question and other causes. The image and appeal of the church are tarnished, marred by scandal, controversy, bad press, good press, no press, and false interpretations that ultimately lead to false teachings. I’ll give you an example: Just the other day, my beautiful, intelligent, and patient wife of ten years, showed me a YouTube video of a youth leader using the social media application TikTok to explain their interpretation of a biblical verse and the theological context associated with the verse.
Now, I’m not one to judge someone’s interpretation without some initial discernment, but this individual was so far out in left-field that I had to question it immediately. I couldn’t figure out if I was more upset at that wretched interpretation or the fact that people were actually agreeing with this nonsense and “liking” the post. Although this was bad enough, believe it or not, there was an upside. My wife says that I’m a “glass half full” type. I was enamored with the fact that this individual was, in what seemed like, a different location each time. Now, I know what you may be thinking, “Duh! Of course! That’s the whole point!” And it is. You’re right. But what I’m getting at is that I started thinking, and asked myself, “Are we, the church, as effective as we could be in our embodiment of the Good News?” Now I’m not talking about getting into competition for likes and retweets or any foolishness like that, no. But are we practicing what we preach?
Now this problem has existed for a while, Amen. Well before COVID or any other pandemic. The “COVID break,” which I date from the early phases of lockdown to when Zoom became mainstream, provided the time for many people who were typically engaged “at church” or in church activities, to explore different things to do with their time, myself included. On the surface, this is not so bad, right? Explore nature, catch up with family and friends, stop and smell the roses, etc. However, I can remember thinking in the beginning that this was just a momentary “break” and that we would be back at it shortly and pick up where we left off, right? So, like many of you, I made plans to rest, get caught up, and possibly even get ahead. Well, family, I am not afraid to admit that I got that one wrong along with so much more. So I don’t have to tell you what came next. As this “momentary break” devolved into a full-blown pandemic accompanied by the trimmings of a forced lockdown, we all went through the stages of grief multiple times and they were not always in order. Sometimes they even meshed to form a new emotion such as “cry-ling,” crying and laughing at the same time and not necessarily in that order.
We have to make changes! We cannot afford to continue along this path family.
Now, Lord knows that I am eternally grateful and a firm believer in respecting, appreciating, and applying the knowledge of those who have gone before us and those that are still with us. I believe that harnessing the wisdom from the past life experiences of others is invaluable. However, I’m learning family that things don’t stay the same. They rarely do. We’ve seen that with COVID. EVEN THE PROPHET ISAIAH KNEW THAT. ISAIAH 43:18 AND 19 TELL US NOT TO REMEMBER THE FORMER THINGS. THAT GOD IS ABOUT TO SPRING FORTH A NEW THING! IF WE KEEP LOOKING IN THE PAST, WE’LL MISS THE BLESSING THAT GOD HAS FOR US IN THE FUTURE! THE TRIED AND TRUE METHOD OF EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP THAT USUALLY CENTERED AROUND TAKING THE GOSPEL OUT TO THE COMMUNITY WITH THE END GAME, SOME WOULD SAY THE SOLE FOCUS, OF BRINGING PEOPLE BACK TO THE CHURCH OR HOPING THAT THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT WOULD COMPEL THEM TO VISIT AND JOIN THE CHURCH, WORKED FOR A TIME, BUT THINGS—I’M FINDING OUT—THEY DON’T STAY THE SAME. Now don’t get me wrong family. There is absolutely nothing wrong with fully relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit! We do it every minute of every day! But I believe that God is calling us to look a little bit deeper and adjust our vision of what the church is and the role it plays in evangelism and encouraging discipleship.
So many have thought that a church didn’t exist if a building was not present and that that community would not be as effective in the life of a community. The building was the nucleus, the central location where God dwells, and perhaps the only place where we would meet the Almighty, as though this beautiful phenomenon couldn’t or wouldn’t happen anywhere else in life. On your commute and stuck in that parking lot we call “77,” at the store, while experiencing your highest high and lowest low. It can and does happen everywhere. So you see, our focus shifted more to the “house” and away from its inhabitants and their neighbors.
We also thought, and some of us perhaps still feel that Zoom and other various technologies ALONE would save and evangelize for us. Now I’m not knocking technology and its glorious uses. It’s a remarkable thing to have, and when used correctly, it can be a potent tool to reinforce and extend the Gospel to the far reaches of the galaxy, making disciples of all who are willing. However, when deployed as the sole vehicle, we paint ourselves into that proverbial corner and enslave ourselves to the flow of electrons.
So if these ways perhaps no longer fully reflect the reformed faith mindset then what? Let’s first do something that our ancestors have done and that we should continue to do and see what the Word has to say:
MOVE—THE GOSPEL WEIGHS IN
This is quite a compelling pericope that we have today. This pericope is present in all four Gospels. It includes the same central characters with the addition of the “hired men” in the boat present in both Mark and Luke. Also, Luke and John’s accounts vary pretty significantly from the Matthean narrative. Luke’s account adds characters that alter the structure, and John’s take portrays Jesus as a bit colder than we’d like to think of him. It is also essential to note that Matthew places this account after three life-changing events in Jesus’ life: his baptismal (3:13-17), being tempted in the wilderness by the impostor (4:1-11), and his cousin John the Baptist was arrested, thus launching Jesus’ Ministry. This revelation is what some commentators have deemed the backbone of the central message of this Gospel. Now, as we look closer at today’s scripture, we meet Jesus doing something that he was known for doing. Taking a stroll. Innocent enough. However, there is more here than just him walking, and if we’re not careful, we’ll miss it. Jesus is OUTSIDE the temple walking amongst the people of Capernaum. Sharing space with them. Breathing the same air.
Now, Capernaum was a busy fishing town, he had plenty of opportunities to “people watch” and share space with them. Amongst the people that day, he noticed two sets of brothers and Zebedee, the father of James and John. Now one thing I continue to wrestle with is what made them so special? I’m sure there were other fishermen in the vicinity as fishing was an imperial industry as it provided the vast Roman Empire with an in-demand resource. Could it have been the level of skill they possessed? Matthew makes it a point to let us know that THEY know where the fishing spots are and how to cast and make repairs and modifications to their nets. Or could it have been the way the brothers interacted with each other both physically and verbally?
Jesus is the only one speaking in this pericope, and siblings do tend to interact with each other in interesting ways, personal experience, so that could be a possibility. Perhaps they were both “salty” and “bright” as Jesus highlights in chapters 5:13 and 14. If we take a quick look at Mark chapter 2 and throughout the Gospels for that matter, we see that Jesus could perceive what people were thinking. Perhaps this was all that Jesus needed to make his decision. However, one thing to remember here is that Jesus NOTICED the skillset and the demeanor of the brothers and how they could potentially further the Kingdom.
After this decision, one would think that salutations, introductions, and friendly exchanges of pleasantries would ensue. A plausible assumption. However, that is not quite Jesus’ style. It is here that Jesus keeps it real, and issues an open-ended imperative:
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Can you imagine our dear Peter saying something to the tune of “follow you where—and fish for what?” Now that is a normal human response, and I believe we all would probably respond in a similar fashion. But I think what Jesus is getting at here is not the “where to” but the “how to.” At this moment, as Jesus is TAKING THE INITIATIVE AND REACHING OUT TO THESE BROTHERS WHERE THEY ARE IN THEIR LIVES, HIS CONCERN IS NOT SO MUCH THAT THEY FOLLOW HIM PHYSICALLY, AS THAT IS A GIVEN. BUT MORE SO TO FOLLOW HIM WITH THEIR HEARTS. FOLLOW HIM WITH THEIR MINDS. FOLLOW HIM IN THEIR DEEDS.
After hearing this request, both sets of brothers did something that continues to perplex biblical scholars and me. They immediately—and without question—left their jobs and families and followed Jesus. The Scriptures do not give us any indication about their thought process or their emotional state at hearing the call of the Lord. The Scriptures just say they obeyed Jesus’ call.
Let’s think about this for a minute. This is a tall order family. Jesus gave no reassurance of financial supplication or compensation, no guarantee of health benefits, no stock options, or perks, including the key to the executive washroom. No job meant no income, no status, and possibly no future. Either they really didn’t like their job and were ready to quit, or Jesus was just that good. I’m going with the latter here.
The profession of fisherman during this era and at this location was beyond grueling and yielded a relatively small reward. And not to pile on too much, but the Sea of Galilee was the only reliable body of fresh water in the region. The water became increasingly saline as it flowed south, eliminating the fish habitat. Stay with me I’m going somewhere with this. Teams of roughly five men, sometimes family members, faced sailing out each morning or evening to cast their linen nets. Their labors did not always result in a catch. They would usually share their bounty with family members when they could, those who provided them with loans, and begrudgingly, the tax collector. Then there were also the ongoing tasks of repairing, cleaning and weaving their nets, maintaining their boats, and sorting and processing their catch. So you see, fishing could be a brutal, thankless, and rewardless job…much akin to fishing for people.
So what does all this mean for us this day and in the days to come? I mean that is why we’re here today, right?
MOVE—THE GOSPEL FOR US
There are dozens of starting points that one could take, and we’d drive ourselves crazy trying to understand them all. However, there are a few that I believe we can grasp and it would benefit the Kingdom greatly. The Presbyterian faith is referred to as a REFORMING FAITH. This means that we are constantly open to change as the world changes.
It’s why it is the Book of Confessions and not the Book of Confession. We have to REFORM our mindset of what the church is and envision what it could be. THE CHURCH IS NOT JUST WALLS, STAINED GLASS, AND A STEEPLE. THE CHURCH IS THE SPIRIT THAT DWELLS INSIDE EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. IT LIVES AND BREATHES INSIDE OF US AND WE CARRY IT WHEREVER WE GO! IN PSALM 139, WE SEE THAT GOD IS WITH US AT ALL TIMES! THERE IS NOWHERE IN EXISTENCE THAT WE CAN GO, EITHER HIGH OR LOW OR EVEN OUT TO PLUTO, AND ESCAPE THE VERY PRESENCE OF THE ALMIGHTY, SO WHY NOT ACCEPT THE INEVITABLE, EMBRACE IT, EMBODY IT, AND SHARE IT WITH THE WORLD! AND BROTHER PAUL TELLS US IN ROMANS 8 THAT THERE IS NOTHING WE CAN DO TO STOP GOD FROM LOVING US SO WHY NOT SHARE THAT LOVE WITH EVERYONE? WE ARE BLESSED TO BE A BLESSING TO OTHERS! WE HAVE TO TAKE THE INITIATIVE AND OPENLY MEET PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE IN THIS LIFE, WHEREVER THAT MAY BE. WE HAVE TO KEEP OURSELVES OPEN TO RECOGNIZE AND APPRECIATE THE VARIOUS SKILLS AND TALENTS THAT THE SURROUNDING COMMUNITY CAN OFFER TO FURTHER THE KINGDOM.
One last thing that is a tough pill for most to swallow—myself included—is to see that we can’t continue to keep church confined to these hallowed walls. IT IS TOO DYNAMIC, TOO IMPACTFUL, AND TOO LIFE-CHANGING TO BE HELD HOSTAGE. Mark Adams said it best when he said, “The church is not an end in itself but a MEANS through which God works to fulfill divine purposes. The church is NOT THE DESTINATION OF EVANGELISM but rather the vehicle through which a community of faith is joined together to fulfill God’s purposes in the world.” Amen! Speaking of Mark Adams, who is a well-respected contemporary theologian, recounts a child’s interpretation of the church via their artwork. He writes:
“When I was ministering with the children in a summer camp, I led a study on the church. To begin the lesson, I asked the children to draw a picture of the church. My assumption was that the children would draw a picture of the church building (fair enough). One eight-year-old girl did not “go along with the program” and stole my lesson (there’s always one). She had five pictures drawn on her paper. In the upper left corner, she drew a picture of a woman in bed with people surrounding her. She explained that that was her grandmother in a hospital bed and the people around her were the pastor and members from the church praying for her healing. In the upper right corner, she drew a picture of a can. She said that there were hungry people in the world and God does not want people to be hungry so the church shares its food. In the bottom right corner, she drew a picture of a group of children playing. In the bottom left corner, she drew music notes with people of different sizes and of different colors. She said that God loves all people, and the church gathers to sing thank-you to God. In the middle of the paper, big enough to invade the space of each picture’s space and to unite them, she drew a big heart—God is love, and we are called to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. What does your picture of the church look like?”
I know that this is a lot to take in family. BUT I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT THERE IS HOPE GOOD PEOPLE!
Know that it won’t happen overnight. There isn’t a magic pill or cure-all, and there isn’t one answer to this. It’s gonna take a lot of hard work and determination. It’s gonna take everybody supporting and working together to determine to be determined to right this problem. And with the help of Jesus Christ, we will!
So I would like to leave you with a few words of comfort family.
Don’t give up, and don’t give in! Hang on, and don’t let go! When you feel yourself slipping, just tie another knot in your rope! Know that as a community of faith, we are in this earthly boat together with other communities of people. We can call on the one true God as many times as we need to at any time of the day. We must not forget that God calls us every hour of every day. God is in the details, inviting us to be friends with one another, practice kindness, and pray for our daily bread. And remember that God has an interesting sense of humor, and we have to be ok with being the butt of the joke sometimes.
So as my cousin said—that one time I went fishing—grab an ore and get to paddlin’. There are fish that need catchin’.
In the name of the One True God who is able to move All mountains. Amen and may God forever bless you!