Sunday, January 22, 2017

Following & Fishing

Preached at Ascension January 2, 2017.

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Really? No questions asked?

Well, I have a few questions… Like, are we sure Jesus didn’t already know these guys before that day? After all, he was living in the same town with them. Or wouldn’t it have been irresponsible for them to leave their family business, to drop everything and follow some wandering rabbi? Wouldn’t that have been leaving their families in the lurch?

From the text itself, all we have to go on are the simple words, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Immediately is one of Matthew’s favorite words. Nothing happens in its good old sweet time. Everything happens immediately. There is an urgency to the gospel message that can’t wait. “Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus says. Not someday in the future. It’s here, now.

So, the crucial question for us to answer is this one: Does Jesus also call us to follow him? And, a follow-up question: does following him mean fishing for people?

The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, Jesus also calls us to follow him. But the second question is a little more complicated. If following Jesus involves fishing for people, what does that look like in Towson, Maryland in the year 2017?

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember that I talked about evangelism, sharing the good news, and how it’s not coercion or manipulation. It’s an invitation to come and see Jesus. When we invite in love at Ascension—which is the first part of our stated mission—when we invite in love, it’s not so we can get more people in the pews and more dollars in the offering plate. It’s so they can come and see Jesus. So they can see Jesus in us.

We all have opportunities to share our faith with others. This is something that’s not best done by accosting strangers on the street. It’s done in the context of relationships.

When I read today’s gospel lesson, I imagine Jesus already had a relationship with Peter and Andrew/James and John before he called them. He may have had a conversation with them about becoming his disciples. They may have even known he was coming that day. They may have discussed it with their families before walking away from the family business. Then, Jesus arrives on the scene to tell them it’s time to go. That makes sense to me, because sharing the good news happens within the context of relationships.

It may be a coworker, a family member, a spouse, a grandchild, a friend at school. When we share our faith with them, we don’t come at them with canned answers and tell them how it is.

First, we listen. We try hard to understand what it’s like to be the other person. And then we share our faith with them like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And then, we accompany them in their journey.

You’re here today because you recognize, as people of faith, that it’s important for you to be a part of a Christian community. That was important to Jesus, too. He didn’t do individualized instruction on how to live into the Kingdom of God. He gathered people around him so that they could live into God’s Kingdom together.

The Kingdom of God was so radically different than the world around them that they had to band together or they were dead meat. Of course, this is just as true for us today. 

And so, we invite people to come and see what it looks like for a community to strive to follow the Jesus Way in the world.

There is a difference between inviting people to see Jesus and marketing our product to consumers. But here’s the thing about that. We also want to make it as easy as possible for people to enter into a relationship with Jesus. That means we don’t throw roadblocks in their way. So there are things we do. We wear nametags to let new people know they’re welcome, we use social media effectively, we do the best we can to offer a worship experience that reflects what the relationship we have with Jesus means to us.

Church leaders have been expending a lot of energy lately trying to reach young adults, who are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers. Yeah, I know, it’s typical for young adults to wander away for a while, explore alternative religions, whatever. But that’s not what’s going on with today’s millennials, people who are under 30ish. There is a generational difference.

Research says that among people who are 18 to 29 and were raised in the church, 59% have dropped out. Those are church kids.

They have serious complaints about church, based on their experience. When naming some of the reasons why they don’t go to church, 87% say they see Christians as judgmental. 85% say Christians are hypocritical. 70% say Christians are insensitive to others. 91% say Christians are anti-homosexual. And they don’t want to be associated with people who are judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive, anti-homosexual.

That’s a good thing. It means we raised them right. But church people need to seriously look at the Jesus they are embodying to the world. Is it actually Jesus?

The author Rachel Held Evans has a lot to say about her experience with the church, as a millennial herself. She writes about how many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cool bands, hip worship, edgy programs, impressive technology. And while these aren’t bad ideas, they aren’t the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. She says, “Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making it worse.”

This is reflected in recent research from the Barna Group, where they found that 67 percent of millennials prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.” The researcher David Kinnaman notes that millennials “are not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion.”

Rachel Held Evans says it so eloquently: “If young people are looking for congregations that authentically practice the teachings of Jesus in an open and inclusive way, then the good news is the church already knows how to do that. The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird.

“You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality. You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water.

“You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God.

“In other words, a church can have a sleek logo and Web site, but if it’s judgmental and exclusive, if it fails to show the love of Jesus to all, millennials will sniff it out. Our reasons for leaving have less to do with style and image and more to do with substantive questions about life, faith and community.”

Millenials are a gift to the church because they are forcing us to be the people Jesus calls us to be. What they’re looking for is what we’re all looking for in a faith community… authenticity. Are these people the real deal or not?

As followers of Jesus who are called to share our faith with others, we can’t ignore this. How will we, as individuals and as a faith community, embody the Jesus the world needs to see?

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