Fishing for People — An Annual Meeting Sermon

A previously unpublished letter from the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Mahatma Gandhi was unearthed and released this week. Bonhoeffer is a noted 20th century theologian who arose to prominence as a member of the “Confessing Church” in Germany that took a vocal stand against Nazi principles, and the subjugation of the national church and many German Christians by Hitler’s movement. Bonhoeffer’s writings include The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together both centered on how to fully live into Christian community, something he felt the Church was not doing at that time. He believed the Church had not embraced the call of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as exemplified by the way they lived their lives. This newly published letter to Gandhi includes those sentiments. 

Bonhoeffer—28 years old at the time—wrote in 1934 with a request to come and visit Gandhi and to experience firsthand his use of non-violence as a way to achieve peace. Bonhoeffer lays out the issue in this way: “The great need of Europe and of Germany in particular is not the economic and political confusion, but it is a deep spiritual need.” He then goes on to describe how many churches and Christians are missing the mark due to their actions. He continues, “There are of course here and there Christian individuals who are doing their utmost to move organized Christianity toward a fundamental regeneration, but most of the organized bodies of the Christian Churches would not recognize the real issue. Being myself a Christian pastor I find this experience most distressing and depressing. I have no doubt that only true Christianity can help our Western peoples to a new and spiritually sound life. But Christianity must be something very different from what it has become in these days.”  

Bonhoeffer then writes this: “What we need therefore in our countries is a truly spiritual living Christian peace movement. Western Christianity must be reborn on the Sermon on the Mount and here is the crucial point why I am writing to you. From all I know about you and your work after having studied your books and your movement for a few years, I feel we Western Christians should try to learn from you what realization of faith means, what a life devoted to political and racial peace can attain. If there is anywhere a visible outline towards such attainments, then I see it in your movement.”  He continues with these astounding words, “ I know, of course, you are not a baptized Christian, but the people whose faith Jesus praised mostly did not belong to the official Church at that time either.”  In his closing he describes how he traveled to the US looking for just such an example of the Christian faith being lived out, “but he did not find it.” 

So a Christian pastor and theologian sought out a Hindu statesman who had willfully taken up a simple life in solidarity with the poor in order to see Jesus’ teachings faithfully lived out.

We heard this morning Matthew’s account of Jesus’ calling his first disciples to follow him.  After John the Baptist’s arrest by Herod, Jesus heads back from the area around Jerusalem to the northern territory of Galilee where he grew up. However, he moves from his hometown of Nazareth to the nearby village of Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee. His ministry begins with this proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”  “Change your mind! Turn around! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” And then he sees Andrew and his brother Simon working their nets on the water and Jesus simply says, “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of people.” Walking a little further down the lake, he comes across two more brothers—James and John—and he calls them, and they follow him.

A simple call to follow him and to build relationships—to become fishers of people—and these four men change the course of their lives.  

Sixteen months ago—as part of our discernment process leading us toward our capital campaign this past year—the desire for deeper community emerged as a top priority for our congregation. People hunger for connection, to be known authentically, to have a difference made in their own lives while also doing the same for other people.  When I was asked a couple weeks ago by our outgoing Sr. Warden Peter Poulin what my goal is for 2020 I replied, “Building our community more intentionally, doing in-reach, taking care of the souls of the people here.” Peter immediately replied that he had been thinking the same thing himself as a desire for our parish—and I will let him speak more about this himself at our meeting this morning.

This Fall a group of us watched a video about Dinner Church as part of the Way of Love series put out by the Episcopal Church. The video focused on a start-up congregation in Brooklyn, NY. Parishioners there longed for connection at a table, sharing a meal and deep conversation with others, but unable to do so given the tiny apartments many lived in. So their priest built their worship around a meal each week.  They came to share in the cooking at their store-front location, lighting candles around tables, having the sermon be primarily conversation that went further than many of the interactions we have with others.  These conversations focused around things like depression and addiction, the crush of debt, the desire to build authentic relationships and the way of Jesus in our everyday lives.  During our own conversation that morning I heard from a number of our folks, “I want that too.”  I want to be in a place where I can engage with people who come to know me, and talk about my fears and desires, and the joys of my life as they connect to my faith in a more real way. I want to go deeper.

In November, our Outreach team presented an update to our vestry. They shared their joys—our continued strong support of our open plate program, the involvement in some activities throughout the year, especially the engagement with “Raising a Reader”—but also their concerns.  That the difficulties with schedules or a lack of engagement meant that the Second Service Saturday program came to usually rely on just a few individuals. They felt discouraged and asked our leadership to both give attention to and engage more fully themselves in that work.  Additionally, they noted the desire many have to help out parishioners within our congregation.  

Over the past month, a few men have reached out to me separately about the desire they have to connect with other men.  Reports have emerged over the past few years that men in particular feel isolated and disconnected, especially as they balance work and life, and many do not have any close friendships.  This has a significant strain on their lives.  A recent article noted that feelings of loneliness are on the rise among many Americans, with over 63% of men surveyed acknowledging this, and also there seems to be a connection between social media use with increased levels of feeling isolated.

Friends, there is a deep need out there for connection and love.  Of feeling known and finding meaning.  Of experiencing the way of Jesus.

Our Diocese adopted a mission strategy three years ago that I had the privilege of crafting with a dozen others over the course of many months.  The document as a whole centers on our desire to faithfully embrace brave change.  To recognize that God is always doing something new among us, and that the Spirit calls us to perceive the things bubbling up as God moves to draw us closer to God.  I am currently serving as a co-chair for the implementation of mission strategy in my work on Diocesan Council, so I’ve come to know and experience its profound call.  We as the people of the diocese have committed to Reimagine our Congregations, Build our Relationships, and Engage our World.  

It is clear to me that the Spirit has been leading our congregation to more fully build our connections to one another and to experience a greater intensity of a life lived in faith to the way of Jesus.  And I also believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s incriminating statement about the Church in the US—that he went looking for an example of the true church and did not find it here—likely remains true today.  He wrote to Gandhi, “ I have no doubt that only true Christianity can help our Western peoples to a new and spiritually sound life. But Christianity must be something very different from what it has become in these days…. What we need therefore in our countries is a truly spiritual living Christian peace movement. Western Christianity must be reborn on the Sermon on the Mount.”

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers… and he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.’”

Later this morning we will turn our attention to the state of our buildings and our budget, about the numbers of members and whatnot, but they are not the true measure of a parish.  While very important to a community—we cannot disregard the upkeep of our spaces, or our call of supporting the work of this place—we cannot fall into thinking that this is the reason for our church.  That we are only here for those things.  We are not.  We are called to be disciples of Jesus the Christ and to live into—to become fully—the body of Christ in this place.  Many among us are yearning for a deeper connection to that body and to one another, and if they do not find it here—if they do not experience all that the church can be as fully living out the call of Jesus—then they will look elsewhere for that connection.  Later this morning, I’ll propose a few ways that we can address what has been bubbling up, and encourage us to move closer to the vision of Christ’s way of love.

People of St. Mark’s, let us become more fully a beacon of hope for our community and for ourselves as we once more repent and return to the Lord. He has ushered in the kingdom of heaven, and that kingdom brings joy and wholeness, abundance of life and healing.  Forgiveness and redemption.  May we commit more faithfully this year to following Jesus along the way, even as it means leaving our old way of life behind. Let us follow him with dedication and purpose as committed disciples on the way of love and may we become the church of Christ that we yearn for. Amen.

Photo Credit: Rod Waddington Flickr via Compfight cc

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