Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Like a Net

Preached for the 50th Anniversary Celebration with Advent, Charlotte - February 10, 2019.

They were in the fish business and Jesus called them to the people business. Apparently, fishing was a transferrable skill. If you could catch fish, you could catch people. It was all about the catching. 

Now, through the centuries, this has been a classic text for evangelism. Christians point to Luke 5 and say, “Just like Peter, James and John, we’re all called to fish for people.”

But that’s meant different things in different contexts. We live in a very different culture today than the twelve who followed Jesus or the first Christians who heard these words. In the United States we Christians are not in the minority, and we’re not being persecuted for our faith. We also have a global awareness that tells us there are other paths to God that make as much sense to their adherents as Christianity does to us. We have an awareness that, for the most part, religion is a product of our birth. So, within our context, what does it mean for us to catch people? 

For a long time, the whole idea of fishing for people got my hackles up. I thought of those who evangelized and kept track of the souls they saved like people who were competing for first prize in a fishing derby. I found this so offensive that I couldn’t bring myself to participate. If that’s what it means to catch people, count me out. But, as I’ve gone back to this text, I’ve been energized by one word in particular: net

Fishermen like Peter, James and John didn’t fish with a pole. They didn’t lure fish with bait, one at a time, until each fish got caught on a hook and they reeled it in. It would have been hard to make a living like that. They fished with a net. They put the net down into the water and waited for the fish. They didn’t really catch the fish with the net so much as the fish got caught in the net. 

That kind of catching people makes sense to me because that’s the way it worked for me. Some of you may recall that I didn’t grow up in a church family. It just wasn’t a part of my life. But there was always this net in my life. It was made up of the neighbors who took me to Sunday school with them when I was little, the girlfriends who invited me to tag along to confirmation classes at the Lutheran Church, the high school friend who talked about Jesus all the time as if he were her best friend, the roommate in college who said her prayers every night, went to church on Sundays, and was gentle and loving with everyone she encountered. The group gathered at the pond, baptizing a young woman, just outside my room at the dorm. The Christians singing hymns under a shelter at the park while I was taking a walk. The students engaged in a discussion about the Bible at the table next to mine while I was trying to study at the student union. (They had no idea I was eavesdropping.) The young man I came to care for deeply, before I learned that he was a Pentecostal Christian. The net was wide and I got caught in it. 

That’s the way it worked for me, and I suspect that that’s the way it works for most people. There’s a net in our lives. It may include our parents or grandparents, our Sunday school teachers, our friends, the stranger who offers a random act of kindness, an author who speaks to your soul, the person who stands on the corner asking for help with a cardboard sign in his hand that reads, “God bless.” 

The net may be invisible to you, but when you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere, telling you that God is here, that God loves you, and that life in the net is life in all its fullness. And the net calls you to become a part of the net yourself, so that you too are a part of telling others that God is here, that God loves you, and that life in the net is life in all its fullness. 

That means that it matters how we live in the world. In our day, it seems that those of us who call ourselves Christians often do more to repel people than catch them. 

Once a day I skim through my twitter feed to see what folks are saying, and with each passing day I’m more and more troubled by the things Christians are releasing into the universe that are not at all Christ-like. In our super-charged political atmosphere, it’s a challenge to disagree while still loving one another. Instead, I see Christians attacking one another, cursing, and pronouncing eternal damnation upon anyone who disagrees with them. That’s not how to catch people. It’s not what the Reign of God is about. The Reign of God is like a net. 

And then, once you become a part of God’s people, the church, you learn something deeper about becoming a part of the net. Its purpose is for catching, to be sure. But catching is not about trapping someone or holding them captive. This net operates much like the net you see under a tightrope act at the circus. The net is here to catch us when we fall. 

I’ve experienced that many times in my life, but at no time more clearly than when I came to be your pastor at Advent over 20 years ago. When I arrived, I was a mess. 

I had been married for 20 years to another pastor who, it turned out, slept with other women who happened to be members of the church we pastored together. Although the last thing I wanted to ever be was divorced, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. 

And then, while I was an emotional disaster, and in no position to make major life decisions, I became involved with an old high school flame, and I married him, only to discover that he was already married to someone else. 

You only knew an inkling of what I was going through when I came to you, but I really was in no condition to be your pastor. I wanted to start my life over, but that didn’t happen automatically when I left Ohio and moved to North Carolina. I left behind a church I loved, my dearest friends in the world, my entire support system, even my son, who had one more year of high school. I left it all behind and moved to a place where I was absolutely alone. 

For the first couple of years that I served you, at the end of every day when I got in the car, I cried the whole way home it continued through the night. You had no way of knowing, and I was too ashamed to tell you.

What I experienced at Advent was a net that was waiting to catch me. Every day and at every turn, I heard God telling me, “I’m here. You’ll be okay, You’ll get past this, You are loved, Nancy.” I heard it through you. In your words, in your actions, in faithful lives that taught me that the Reign of God is like a net. Thank you for being my net at a time when I needed it the most. I can say with all certainty that I would not be here without you. 

I know I’m not the only one. Through the years, Advent has caught many people in their net through your ministries in the community and world, through the people who have passed through your doors, through those who have gone on from this place to be a part of other nets on other shores. 

I’m honored to have been among you for a short time, and I’m deeply honored to be with you as you celebrate 50 years of ministry here at Advent. Your net has been strong. 

May you continue to catch people and show them that the Reign of God is like a net. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

Speaking of Circumcision, or How Garrison Keillor Stole My Joke

This week during confirmation class we got into the topic of circumcision. It’s always fun to break this news to a room filled with unsuspecting 7th and 8th graders. This year’s class did not disappoint me. Their faces revealed shock, disgust, disbelief, and, of course, embarrassment to hear their pastor speaking so matter-of-factly about something so grizzly happening the male penis. Yes, it’s always a special moment.

And it took me back to an episode from my life that I had forgotten about. I may not be getting all the details correct, because it was so long ago, but this is the way I remember it…

In one of my previous lives I was quite involved in Christian Education events for my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We were having a regional conference of some sort for educators. I was involved in the planning and all the educator-types from Chicago and Minneapolis were on the scene, as well. For some reason, I either offered or was offered up, I had responsibility for our entertainment one evening and ended up moderating a “Hollywood Squares” game with silly questions that only Christian Educators would appreciate.

One of the better questions I asked was, “What is the one question confirmation instructors are asked that they fear the most?” The answer, of course, was, “What is circumcision?”

It was a cute moment and I might have moved on to the next question, but I saw an opening for a big moment and I went for it.

“You know, I've been reading a lot about whales lately, and do you know how long the male appendage of a blue whale is?” This was before smart-phones, so no one knew the answer.

“Ten feet!" I announced with all the amazement in my voice I could muster. "The male appendage on a blue whale is ten feet long!” Reading the faces of my audience, I could tell that they were more puzzled than impressed. Why is this woman talking about whale penises at a big church event? I suspect they were a little worried about what I was going to say next.

“…so do you know how they circumcise a blue whale?” And now no one in the audience seemed to be breathing… “Well, it takes four skin-divers.”

The room expoded in laughter. They went nuts. Yes, it was a BIG moment.

Fast-forward about a year. I’m driving in my car listening to Garrison Keillor’s annual joke show on “A Prairie Home Companion.” It’s nothing but non-stop, rapid-fire jokes.

And then I heard it. Garrison Keillor says, “Do you know how they circumcise a blue whale?” and the punch line follows, “It takes four skin-divers.”

I nearly drove off the road. “He stole my joke! He stole my joke!” I’m yelling and pounding on the steering wheel.

Obviously, someone from that conference retold my joke and it made its way to “The Prairie Home Companion.” Garrison Keillor may not have known it was my joke, but he stole my joke. Without the lead-in, it wasn’t nearly as funny, but he most definitely stole my freaking joke!

I guess when you release a circumcision joke into the universe, it belongs to the universe.