Saturday, April 13, 2013
A New Thing Means A New Way
And so the fishermen, led by Simon Peter, get in their boat and head out into the water to return to what they knew and understood. They cast their net off the left side of the boat, and hoped they'd pull in a good haul of fish. But they catch nothing. Undaunted, they do it again. And again. And again. This was fishing. This is what they did, and casting the net off the left side of the boat had always worked before. Why isn't it working any more?
Standing on the beach observing all of this is Jesus. They don't know it's him, but he says to them, "What? No fish?" They mutter and grumble, "No!" And then Jesus simply offers that if they cast their net off to the right side, the "wrong" side if you will, they might find it to be better fishing. Instead of arguing with him, they head back out to sea, and do as he had said. And--whaddya know--their net is teeming with 153 fish! These creatures are squiggling, wriggling, jumping against the ropes of the net and the fishermen are blown away with this amazing catch they've made.
As I heard this story, all I could think was, "What a wonderful metaphor for the church!" I periodically see the articles or hear the rumblings of church leaders about the almighty "numbers." How many people are in the pews matters. It can speak to the health of a congregation, and it is often part of that bottom line that the diocesan office will look at in determining the future of a parish. Sometimes, this "numbers obsession" can obscure the real reason a church exists. Sometimes, getting worked up over the "numbers" can lead people to doubt about whether we're doing enough to get new people, or the all-important demographic of "new young family."
What I see this story saying to the church is that if you want to address the "numbers", then stop throwing the net off the same side of the boat and expecting a different result. If the church continues to fish in the same waters using the same approaches and going after the same people of a certain socio-economic class and profile, the net will remain empty because most of those people are the ones already sitting in the pews. Time to cast the net off the other side of the boat and catch the people who are swimming in the under fished waters. That requires putting the message of the church out there in communities that are not the "usual suspects" in the same social circles. Y'know, the ones who don't look, sound or dress like us.
Here enter the Pride Week Interfaith Service in Tallahassee coming up this Tuesday. This service is the perfect opportunity for anyone, LGBT or an ally or friend of gay people, to enter a space of worship where there are many denominations and faith groups gathered to celebrate the Divine's desire to to see the net teeming with fish. For some, this may be the only worship experience they'll have all year because it is the one time they have enough trust that they won't be cast out or attacked from the pulpit. Religion has been cruel to the gay community; religious people have been like the false prophets who have preached a false gospel that God does not love LGBT people. Today, these same false prophets are backing away from outright condemnation and instead peddling the line that they LOVE LGBT people; they just don't think they should have sex. Ever. Is it any wonder that the LGBT community has deserted the churches?
At the interfaith service in Tallahassee, Christians, Jews, Pagans, Hindus will come together to offer the welcome that God has laid out to humanity from the beginning. It is a welcome that doesn't have a litmus test or a special code to unlock the door into the party of eternal life. For some, this may be the most love they've ever felt from people of faith. I have spoken with folks who feel alienated from their churches who then have come to this service and felt uplifted. That's powerful.
They may share with others about the service and what they experienced. And regardless of whether it results in 153 people showing up in any given congregation's sanctuary, the message of acceptance and inclusion that comes across when churches and other faith groups participate in this service is priceless.
So much of what John's gospel stories of the post-resurrection time are teaching us is the importance of going beyond ourselves to spread the message of Love to those who are seeking a spiritual home. This is the set up for those stories of the Apostles in the Book of Acts: the Ethiopian eunuch, the Roman Centurion, even Saul, breathing threats against the followers of the Way, and his conversion. Christ represents a new thing. And a new thing requires a new way of approaching the mission of growing and building up the church. It means moving away from the comfortable and doing things a little differently. It's not enough to wait for people to come in the door. The church must move outside of the sanctuary to cast the net wider in search of the those who are seeking a faith home no matter who they are. This is the way, the truth, the life that we are expected to follow. Break out of the comfort zone and welcome the unusual suspects into the great love of Love.