Leader: The God of boundless compassion waits for us with patient expectancy.
All: The God of our ancestors stands in the doorway and continually calls us home.
Leader: God’s unconditional love cannot be earned, only accepted.
All: May our worship reflect God’s infinite embrace.
Gathering Prayer (Unison)
God of our aimless wandering, God of our longing for home, with a broken heart you patiently await our return. Teach us to see ourselves and each other as you see us: your children, made in your image deserving of unconditional love. We don’t always show each other the same love you show us. We have a tendency to sort people into categories of those who deserve love and those who don’t. Shake us out of our limited perspectives. Give us the courage and the skills to listen deeply, to speak the truth in love, and to embrace our brothers and sisters even when it’s difficult to do so. Amen.
Prayer of Dedication
We offer our lives in service as we offer our gifts to you, Holy God, in gratitude for the gift of your child, Jesus, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life now and eternal life in the world to come. Amen.
This week’s gospel text, Luke 5:1-11, is Luke’s version of the “miraculous catch” story. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee when he notices two boats. By this time Jesus’ fame has spread throughout the countryside. Crowds follow him from place to place and press in around him so that he has difficulty addressing them. The boats happen to belong to some of Jesus’ fishermen friends, so he gets into one of them and they push away from the shore to give Jesus a little breathing room. While they’re out there Jesus tells one of the fishermen, Simon, a.k.a. Peter, to let down his nets for a catch. Peter hesitates–saying he and his crew have fished all night and caught nothing–but agrees to give it one more try. They let down their nets and to their surprise find them filled to bursting with fish. Peter realizes he’s in the presence of the divine and responds with appropriate awe and wonder. Then Jesus makes what has become a famous pronouncement, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (vs. 10).
Christians throughout history have rightly understood this story as a metaphor for Christian evangelism–that is, sharing good news of God’s love in Jesus. Evangelism is a sensitive subject for many people–Christians and non-Christians alike. A lot of harm has been done for the cause of evangelism. For example the colonial project on this continent which resulted in the genocide of indigenous people was done under the sanctifying aegis of evangelism. Nevertheless, the Bible continues to confront us with this call from Jesus to “catch people.”
A couple of points: one theological, one Biblical. The theological point has to do with “exclusive” versus “inclusive” religion. (See my previous essay.) Even though historically Christianity has claimed to be the “one true” religion (an exclusive claim to truth) I don’t think it’s necessary to believe this to be a Christian. I am an inclusive Christian, that is, I believe Christian truth is universal–potentially helpful and healing to anyone and everyone regardless of culture, race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability, politics, etc. And I don’t believe it necessary or even desirable for everyone to become Christian in order to be saved. It isn’t my job to make everyone Christian. It’s my job to love everyone as God loves us: in all of our diversity religious and otherwise. I love my Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, seeker, New Age friends and wouldn’t want them to change–unless in their heart of hearts they are called to, which brings me to my Biblical point.
The Greek for “catch people” in verse 10 could also be translated “captivate.” I can think of a number of examples from my life of the kind of captivation hinted at here. I remember when my daughters were born. Each one in her own unique way captivated–even captured–my heart the moment I laid eyes on her. I remember a particularly moving moment singing in gospel choir for a church service when the clear thought arose within me, “I will follow you anywhere.” I remember a moment on silent retreat when I heard a bird call and for a split second or maybe it was many minutes or more–who knows, time gets strange when you’re truly captivated–the universe opened and I knew for myself a peace that passes understanding.
Just like many Christians believe Jesus will return one day, many Buddhists believe that the Buddha will return in the form of a fat, jolly Santa Claus, who will enter our everyday world with “bliss bestowing hands.” This vision for religious mission is not so different from Jesus’, who himself was captivated and invites us all into the captivating presence of God’s boundless love.
Many of you likely saw the announcement earlier this week that I’ve accepted a call to First Church of Christ in Saybrook (Congregational). My last Sunday with First Church will be March 6. Between now and then we will consolidating the gains we’ve made during our time together and preparing for the bridge to what’s next.
My role at FCC Saybrook will be, once again, transitional. The church is interested in doing revitalization work before it considers its next move. I look forward to helping them in that effort. What revitalization looks like during what we hope is the tail end of a global pandemic is a question foremost in a lot of minds and will likely be a key question for FCC Granby regardless of the decision on consolidation. A consolidated church is not necessarily a growing church unless intentional efforts are made to reach new people.
What will church vitality mean moving forward? No one really knows. For some decades now the world has been shifting from the linear “progress” change model to a “disruptive” change model, which makes it very difficult to infer the future from the past. Nevertheless, Carey Nieuwhoff’s latest blog post entitled “Five Faulty Assumptions About the Future Church” rings true for me. Number 2: “The Building Will Be the Center of Ministry,” and number 3: “You Don’t Need to Take Online Ministry that Seriously” seem particularly relevant. Already expectations around online engagement have changed at First Church. We expect that there will be a Zoom option for meetings. We expect a livestream option for worship. What we have yet to develop is how to turn “views” into vital spiritual connections. My guess is that this will be a piece of future vitality.
Interestingly, another piece of vitality in a time of disruptive change came up at my annual physical exam this morning. In my conversation with my primary care physician the very popular topic of the pandemic and mental health came up. She talked about the importance of staying “grounded” and her personal daily practice of grounding, which sounded like simply finding a moment during the day to still her body and quiet her mind. It reminded me of my childhood church, which emphasized personal “quiet time.” During this pandemic time my meditation group shifted to Zoom and has grown exponentially because of it. Pre-pandemic we would get 6-7 people on a weekday morning. Now we average 20-30, sometimes more. We have folks joining us from places as far away as Columbia, Denmark, the UK, Germany, and Iran. How can First Church, South Church, FCC Saybrook, all our congregations stay grounded in a time of ongoing disruption? If we’re waiting for an extended time of “smooth sailing” to engage in vitality work, we could be waiting a long while. If my meditation group is any indication, leaning into the disruption can actually produce vitality.
All of this is easier said than done. I am not a person who naturally welcomes disruption. I prefer smooth sailing. Psalm 23 says, “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” I have found that in stormy times the still waters are still accessible. Deep below the surface there are hidden aquifers of spiritual refreshment that will sustain our vitality if we stay grounded, like a tree that reaches with its roots down to the living water.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, you call us to leave behind the familiar and venture into the unknown. You called our ancestor Abraham to leave his home and family in Ur and follow your call to a land that his descendants would inherit. Generations later one of those descendants named Jesus would leave the safety of his father’s carpenter shop to lead a movement that would challenge the authority of Rome. Like his ancestor Abraham, Jesus dreamed God’s dream of peace and justice for all. Give us a new dream for a new day. Amen.
Scripture tells us that when the great Israelite king Solomon, son of David, was a boy, God appeared to him in a dream and offered him his heart’s desire. Rejecting power and wealth Solomon instead asked for wisdom. One of Solomon’s wise sayings is, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18, King James Version). The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “perish” literally means “let go, neglect, uncover.” The NRSV translates, “Where there is no prophecy, the people ‘cast off restraint.’”
Here’s how I put it together in my mind: Prophecy and vision refer to God’s dream for us as people. We find this dream in many forms in the Bible.
Isaiah 25:6-7, for example:
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.”
Or Luke 4:18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Without this prophecy or vision of God’s dream for us as God’s people we lose our identity as a community set apart for God’s service. Without a sacred calling, what’s the point of being a church? Without a purpose, the people “perish.” Without a vision, the people “cast off restraint.” If God’s dream doesn’t hold us together, we are “uncovered, neglected, let go” to find our own way in the world without any guiding principle.
It was no surprise that God communicated to Solomon in a dream. In the Bible dreams are one of the primary ways God talks to people. That’s why our fall worship theme for First Church and South Church is “Dreaming Together.” Together we are opening our hearts and minds to God’s vision–God’s “dream,” if you will–for us as a united UCC presence in Granby. Without this vision, without this dream, without a divine word (another name for “prophecy”), we risk losing our way in a confusing world of competing claims on our lives.
I’m encouraged by what I’m hearing from our working groups. It sounds like the coaching is going well and a vision is emerging. The opposite of “perish” is “flourish.” With patience God will bless us with a vision in which our uniting congregations flourish.
God, we’re grateful for your call, and we’re grateful to those you’ve sent. We’re grateful for the prophets of old. We’re grateful for their words of warning and comfort. We’re grateful for healers and teachers, care-givers and protectors, warriors for justice, makers of peace. We’re grateful for all who gave the full measure of their devotion in service to this country and our world. Make us worthy of their sacrifice. Amen.