Monday, January 27, 2014

January 26 Sermon


Matthew 4:12-23
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
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There is a book I love by the southern author Daniel Wallace called Big Fish. Tim Burton made it into a really good movie in 2003 and I must confess that it is the only movie I have ever seen that can make me cry. I mean, it just happens every time. I am not a terribly emotional person, but this movie and this book make me cry, because they tell the story of a son and his estranged father, who even on his deathbed keeps telling outlandish stories that could not possibly be true: fantastic stories about his life with the most unbelievable, colorful cast of characters you could possibly imagine.
Do you know anybody like that, somebody who just seems to breathe story? You know, the reason I so love that book and that movie is that I know a whole lot of people like that. They’re almost all fisherman, which tells you something, I think, and I hope I am not giving away too much about the end of Big Fish the movie, but the last thing that happens is that the son tells the father a story just as he is dying, and the story is that the son carries the father down to the river, where he turns into a big fish and swims away. And it sounds weird, but it works, because it is the case that we always, always turn into the stories we tell. We turn into the stories we tell, so we ought to tell good ones.
I bring this up because the business of fishing for people has been abused I think, and it is easy to see how. All you need to do is to read this story without placing it in the proper context of the loving way that Jesus treats others, and it is easy to imagine that Jesus is saying that we ought to hook people, to lure them in with the promise of something shiny and good, like bait, and hook them, reel them in and throw them in the cooler with a little water so they don’t start to stink.
We’ve abused what it means to fish for people, and so I especially appreciated this week when I got an email from Anna Cole, who is a student at the Candler School of Theology who will be interning with us starting in the fall. She sent me a poem about this particular scripture from the pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes, and one stanza of the poem goes like this:
I'll be your fly, dancing on the water of this day,
willing to be flung and returned,
letting all of life be catch and release,
knowing that whether or not we catch anything,
you have had delight on this fine afternoon.
This is what it means to fish for people. Not to pierce their cheeks or trick them into something, as if people really were that gullible. Fishing for people, just like fishing for fish, is about stories, about delight, about sharing life.
When Peter and Andrew left their net, when James and John got out of the boat, they did not go to take what they were doing to the fish and translate it exactly to people. That’s manipulative. It doesn’t do justice to the image of God that we believe is in all people. What they went to do is to share their stories, to gather people together and share the things they had seen and the life transformation they had experienced.
When you throw stories at people without being willing to listen to what they are bringing, well, that’s an obvious hook. It is sharp, and people, being smarter than fish, will stay far away. But if you are willing to open yourself up to hearing the voice of another, the story of somebody else, that’s not a hook at all. That’s a net, and it’s stronger than one line, anyway, because all of our lines are bound up in it.
So share your story. Accept somebody else’s. Use a net, not a hook, and you’ll find yourself more fulfilled, and you’ll cast a wider . . . net. You may just find yourself surrounded by all sorts of interesting folks.
Now, in order to fish, you’ve got to have bait, and so if you plan to be successful, you’ve got to have a story. If I asked you how God has impacted your life, what would you tell me? And—here’s the kicker—would you tell me just because I am the preacher? What is it about our social norms that keep us from being real with one another, that keep us from talking about things that actually matter? I had a professor in seminary who used to say that we have no problem recommending our favorite coffee shop to anybody we pass on the street, but my goodness, we sure do have a problem talking about our faith!
In Big Fish, the book and the movie, the first outlandish story that the father tells his son is of the day of his son’s birth. It turns out, the father says, that he missed his son’s birth because he was being dragged about by a big fish he’d caught by putting his wedding ring on the end of the fishing line. That’s an image I love, because factual or not, it is true, for the kind of story that the ring symbolizes is the thing that draws people in, not in a manipulative way, but in a way that helps me understand just what the church is supposed to be: a place where we gather, and share in one another’s stories, and in the story of God. We fish for people by tying our stories to the end of a string.
You’ve got to have a story, or there’s nothing on the end of your line. I want to take just a few seconds and let you think for a minute. I just want you to think about the ways God has impacted your life: how your faith has made you who you are.
All right. How was that? Was it hard? It can be hard to remember those moments sometimes, but let me say something just a little blunt. I hope that’s ok. If you had trouble thinking about the story of how God has impacted your life, that’s all right, but it means you have work to do.
I mean, I know that you are here for a reason. Maybe you’ve been coming here for so long you’ve forgotten, but there is a reason. Take some time this week to remember just what it is about your life with God that keeps you coming back. If you need a conversation partner, give me a call. There’s nothing I love more than hearing stories about how God has changed your life, for if you are going to fish for people—if you are going to share the good news of Jesus Christ, if you are going to follow Jesus—you have to have a story. I know you have one. You wouldn’t waste your time and money on something that doesn’t pierce your soul. But what is it? What is it?
Let me add something here, if I may, from my perspective as a member of my generation. I hope you spend a lot of time inviting people to church. I hope you tell everybody you know that they should spend Sunday mornings at North Decatur United Methodist Church. But inviting them to church, or telling them they will hear a good sermon, or letting them know we have pretty stained glass isn’t going to do it. I can hear a good sermon on the internet—better than you’ll hear from me in this place, I guarantee. I can see pretty stained glass all over the city of Atlanta.
I hope you invite people to church, but that’s not enough. You’ve got to invite people into a relationship with God, and the way you do that is by letting them know how God has touched YOUR life, how the Holy Spirit has filled THIS place and changed your life for the better, changed the community for the better. And if you don’t have a story that comes to mind right away, think harder, and then get to work! For we become our stories. We might as well tell good ones.
All right, I am almost done, but let me say one more thing. If you are going to fish for people, you have to get out of the boat. It is important to note that when Peter and Andrew and James and John hear the call to fish for people, they didn’t stay put. They left what they knew and who they loved and they got moving. Peter and Andrew left their nets, which was bad enough, but I’m even more impressed with James and John, who didn’t just leave their nets, but they got out of the boat and left their father behind! They knew, of course, that if you are going to fish for people, you have to get out of the boat. The fish aren’t just going to jump in on their own, after all.
And you know what the boat is, right? It’s the church. It is this place, during this hour. Sharing your story is not about putting something pithy on the church sign and waiting for people to wander in. Sharing your story is about finding people in your life—and we all have them—who need to hear a word of hope, who need the good news and the healthy theology God has given us. Fishing for people is much, much bigger than inviting people to church, although I hope that’s part of it, because we’ve got something pretty great going here. But being the church is not only about Sunday morning; I would argue that it is not primarily about Sunday morning. Being the church and fishing for people is about what happens when you leave this place and go out into the water, into the world.
So, I guess I would just say this. When the time comes, and you leave campus, you’re not leaving church. You’re stepping out into the adventure of faith, a fantastic fishing expedition, a chance to share with others the incredible promise of a God who loves us no matter what. That’s the kind of story I could spend my whole life telling. Godspeed. And amen.

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