SENDING, NOT MENDING
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 22, 2016; Non-lectionary sermon
Genesis 12:1-4; Matthew 4:17-22

“[Jesus] saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John,
in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.”
Matthew 4:21b

Last week, we heard a splendid Pentecost sermon by Linda. If you weren’t here, you missed a good one.

Linda spoke to us about the word “spirit” — which, in both biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew), is the same as the word for “breath” or “wind.”

Remember how, on that Day of Pentecost, the disciples felt a stirring, a movement among them “like the rush of a violent wind?” They couldn’t see it, but they sure could feel it. Early Christians used the wind as a metaphor for the Spirit of God.

But there’s another great image that arises out of the Pentecost story. It’s the image of fire. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.”

Now, fire has some properties that are different from wind. You can feel the presence of wind on your face all day, and suffer no ill effects. You can’t last long in close proximity to fire. Fire will burn you. Fire will kill you.

Fire has beneficial effects, to be sure. Fire cooks our food and warms our houses. But you can’t cozy up to it. You can’t embrace it. You’ve got to keep your distance. Fire is inherently dangerous.

There’s one other thing fire will do, that wind can never do. Fire can grow. Touch a candle to some flammable material, and suddenly the fire is much bigger than it was before. Just ask those people from Western Canada, who lost their whole town to a raging wildfire. They of all people know how rapidly fire can spread.

So, too, with the early church. That fire of Pentecost burst forth into a tinder-dry world. In just a few generations, the Roman Emperor himself was bowing the knee to Jesus Christ.

*****

The theologian Emil Brunner once said, “The church exists for mission as a fire exists for burning.” Mission is not some program of the church. It’s not one activity we do, among many. Mission is the church — and the church is mission!

Nowhere do we see the truth of this more clearly than in the Gospel lesson we read this morning: the calling of Jesus’ first disciples, from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s a story we’ve all heard many times before: how Jesus is walking along the seashore and comes upon two sets of brothers, who happen to be fishermen. There’s Simon and his brother Andrew, and there’s James and John, the sons of Zebedee. To all of them them he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Astonishingly, both sets of brothers get up and follow him — just on the basis of that mysterious invitation.

When Jesus comes upon James and John, they’re not engaged in the act of casting their nets, as Peter and Andrew are. They’re sitting on the shore, mending those nets.

Net-mending was just as much a part of the work of fishing as casting those nets into the water. It wouldn’t do to cast a net that had gaping holes and tears in it. On a regular basis, therefore, fishermen had to pull their boats up on the shore and retie the dozens of knots that had loosened or come undone. It was slow, tedious work. It didn’t bring in any fish. But it had to be done, for the fishing to continue.

*****

There’s an image, here, for the church — if we’re ready to see it. Much of what goes on inside the walls of this church can be considered a form of net-mending. Once a week, we gather in as many members of Christ’s body as we can find, and bring them together in this room. We bring people in here, whatever state they’re in. No matter how bruised or battered or bleeding their spirits may be from the struggles of life, we bring them in here for mending. There’s something about the whole worship experience: scripture, sermon, music, prayers — and from time to time the wordless power of the sacraments — that offers healing and restoration.

But that, my friends, is only the half of it. There’s also the journey back outward after the mending is finished, to cast the net into the sea. As there is the mending, there is also the sending.

Now, that sending doesn’t come so easily to us, does it?

It doesn’t come easily to most churches I know. Most churches — including our own — pursue an attractional method of evangelism. We create the most welcoming worship space possible. We offer high-quality music and educational programs. We keep the building in good repair. We hope the word gets out there in the community that there are some pretty good things happening here. We hope neighbors who are “looking for a church” will find their way through these doors, and will like what they see.

Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it?

There’s only one problem with that plan. It’s not what Jesus tells his disciples to do.

Remember how he approaches James and John, as they’re mending their nets? He comes up to them and says, “Follow me.”

Jesus doesn’t say, “Practice your net-mending until it’s a fine art, then stretch those beautiful, perfect nets out upon the beach. Then, just sit back and wait till the fish see them. They’ll want so badly to get into those nets, they’ll jump right out of the water!”

Not exactly how it happens, is it?

So why is it, then, that we put so much of our energy and resources, as a congregation, into the mending — and so little into the sending?

*****

It’s always been the case that the way most people make their way into a congregation is not by going out shopping for a church — though there are always a few who are doing that. The problem is, these days, there are fewer and fewer people in our culture who are seeking a worshiping community at all.

That may be hard for some of you to really grasp. I’m speaking especially to those of you who’ve been members of this church, or another one like it, for 20 or 30 years or more. When you first sought out membership in a church — whether it happened through Christian nurture, or through some conversion experience as an adult — it was during a time when American culture generally smiled on church membership.

Those days are long gone. Reggie McNeal, who writes books about the future of the church, put it bluntly: “The culture around us does not wake up each morning thinking they would go to church if only there were a good one to attend.” That may have been true at some time in the distant past, but it hasn’t been true, here in America, for a very long time now.

Why, then, are we — along with so many other churches like our own — still pursuing our evangelistic work using Field of Dreams methods?

Wanna know what I mean by Field of Dreams evangelism?

Remember the movie of that title, starring Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan? It was about an Iowa farmer — a fanatical baseball fan — who had a mystical experience. In that experience, a disembodied voice told him, “If you build it, they will come.” So, he plowed over a portion of his cornfield and built a baseball field. Sure enough, people started coming.

“If you build it, they will come” may make for an engaging movie premise, but it’s a terrible way of growing the church in this present culture. It doesn’t matter what you build, or how well you build it: they won’t come (or at least, very few will).

In that respect, the cultural situation in which we now find ourselves is a lot more similar to the days of the apostles than it’s been for a very long time.

So, how do people find their way into the life of the church in this present culture?

They come because somebody invites them. And not a stranger, either — someone handing out tracts on a street corner. It’s someone they know and respect. Someone who knows them well enough to listen to their tale of personal struggle: and, at the right moment, to say “I know a place where your heart will find rest and healing. It’s my church community. Why don’t you come with me next Sunday?”

It’s hard to turn down a kindly, well-meant invitation like that, if it comes from a trusted friend — a trusted friend who’s been sent by the Spirit to do the work of an apostle.

*****

Jan Edmiston is a Presbyterian minister who’s running for Moderator of the General Assembly this year. She once wrote something in an article that’s stuck with me. Jan said, “A congregation should be more like a slingshot than a magnet.”

You can see the truth of that observation in the very name, “church.” Well, not that English word, that has origins in the Old English tongue, but the word the Greek New Testament uses. That word in the Greek language is ekklesia. You may recognize a descendant in the English word “ecclesiastical.”

The literal meaning of ekklesia is “those who are called out.” That’s what Jesus is doing with those fishermen, beside the Sea of Galilee. He’s calling them out: out from their homes, out from their villages, out from their daily labor of mending the nets. He’s calling them out of all those familiar places, and right into a hurting world.

*****

There’s a scene from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, when the Hobbit, Frodo Baggins recalls something his cousin Bilbo once told him. Frodo is gazing off down the road that leads to the east — the place where his mission to destroy the Ring of Power is leading him. Tolkien writes:

Frodo was silent. He too was gazing eastward along the road, as if he had never seen it before. Suddenly he spoke, aloud but as if to himself, saying slowly:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
“That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo’s rhyming,” said Pippin. “Or is it one of your imitations? It doesn’t sound at all encouraging.”
“I don’t know,” said Frodo. “It came to me then, as if I was making it up, but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo, in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.’” [(HarperCollins, 2009), p. 74.]

In a similar fashion, it can seem like a dangerous business for you or me to reach out to another person and share something of our faith. Yet, it’s clear — from this story of Jesus’ call to those fishermen to leave their nets and follow him — that this is precisely the mission he intends for us.

*****

I invite you to become a part of that mission. Not just because you love this church and want it to thrive — as I know a great many of you do — but because you love Jesus Christ even more.

We have a marvelous hymn to sing, now: a hymn written by John Bell and Graham Maule of Scotland’s Iona Community. It’s set to an old Scottish folk-tune: “Will You Come and Follow Me?”

In this hymn, you just may hear the voice of our Lord, speaking to you.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.