The Third Sunday after Epiphany 1-24-21

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers Peter and Andrew. They were fishermen throwing a net into the sea. Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Peter and Andrew dropped their net and followed him. Apparently there was no debate, no pondering of the decision. Their response was so immediate that one suspects that they had long wanted to be found. Have you ever played “Hide and Seek” with a kid? The kid runs away and hides. What is so fun about that? It’s all about being lost and then found. Kids get very upset if you play the game and then don’t go looking for them. They want to be found. Peter and Andrew wanted to be found. We want to be found.

From there, Jesus saw two other brothers, James and John, who were mending their fishing nets. He called them, too. Immediately they left the boat and joined Jesus. Jesus never stopped doing that. He kept inviting people to join him. Jesus used to say, when a shepherd with a 100 sheep loses one, he leaves the 99 to go find the one lost (Mt. 18:12, Lk 15:4). Being a Christian is fundamentally about being found and then saying “yes” to join Jesus in his ministry of finding the lost. Of course, over the years, we’ve made it many other things about right belief, or morals, or citizenship, but I hope none of that causes us to lose sight of what has always been the case: it’s about saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation when he finds you and says, “Come and do this with me!”

We are in the business of Christ’s call to follow him and to fish for people. This is something that somehow is more important than ever. A number of years ago, Robert Putnum wrote a much discussed book called “Bowling Alone” about something of a recent collapse of the very institutions that used to form community life and connect people to one another. He didn’t just chart the decline of weekly bowling leagues in America, but of nearly every other kind of voluntary social group like Rotary or any number of local churches. The disruptive forces he identified in that book have continued year after year. If he would write that book today he probably have to call it, “Even More Alone: And what is Bowling?” The global pandemic has only accelerated feelings of isolation that were already there. It is remarkable to me when I spend time with young adults how they are both more connected than any generation has been in human history through their phones and web apps, but are also more lonely than any generation has ever been at their age. And it is probably not just young adults, it may well be all of us. During the pandemic we all brush up against the limits of technology. As much as what we are doing right now is something of a minor miracle as technology overcomes to an extent the miles of physical distance that separates us from one another, the vast majority of us feel like this is something we do in order to be more connected when we can’t be physically together. Our hearts still want something more than these sounds and images.

Our smart phones can with remarkable efficiency bring us a person for a particular moment to do something for us, whether it is a ride from here to there, or bring us a product we buy, or deliver food, even go out on a date. But if what you want is more than that particular transaction in that moment, there is nearly nothing there. It is as if the parts never really add up to much of a whole. That impressive transactional richness and power stands so awkwardly next to a kind of unexpected experience of social lack, a poverty of real social connection that it is hard to talk about. But I suggest that if you raise the topic of loneliness with people of almost any age in America, you’ll find that people are aware of what you are saying and know what it is to feel alone.

Another thing that surprises me is that if you suggest that going to a nearby church could be part of the solution here, that often has not crossed anyone’s mind, even those of us who are here in church. What do churches do anyway? All sorts of possibilities open up for us when Jesus comes to us and says, “Come with me and let’s fish for people!” It’s what we need and it is right here. And it’s what a lot of people need who are not here this morning, but live in Chelmsford or nearby towns (you might be thinking of someone right now). People who want something more out of human relationships than this transaction or that one. To join Jesus is to find that something more. As Jesus said famously, “I have come that you might have life and have it to the fullest” (John 10:10).

It seems that this last year all of our efforts have gone into just surviving, but with the vaccinations beginning, we are also just starting to lift our vision to the future of All Saints’. What ambitious, what wonderful thing, is there awaiting us as we follow Jesus into his future? That is really fun to think about, but all that begins first with joining Jesus in fishing for people. Fishing for people means sharing your faith with other people. The Episcopal Church declared the 1990s to be our decade of evangelism. We committed to having 20/20 vision, which was our stated goal to double the membership of the Episcopal Church by 2020. None of that ever happened or even got started.

What we learned was this: that we are really bad at talking about our faith with people we know, even when it comes to sharing our own stories with those we worship with in church. I used to think that it was kind of charming that we were so not good at that and treat our faith as a private matter. But what has become increasingly clear is that this failure is really unfortunate for many reasons. Not talking about our faith widely and broadly, though, hurts us, because we always win by addition and inclusion and are so enriched by our newest members. It harms the people we know whose lives would be better with us than without us. What we do here matters and we keep it too much to ourselves.

Lastly, to not talk about our faith impoverishes our nation and the broader world because the exceedingly generous, kind, and spacious brand of Christianity that we Episcopalians practice are the very virtues lacking in these partisan, us and them, times, where we have so much trouble finding what “we” means. At coffee hour last week someone expressed how sad it was to see Jesus signs where they do not belong and worried how many people have the impression that Christianity is a hateful, divisive force, rather than what we know it to be at All Saints’.

One of our old well-worn slogans is “all may, none must, some should.” “All may, none must, some should.” We Episcopalians can say this sort of thing because we, with our long history, know that there are more than one right answer to most questions. And we know that we are held together by ties deeper than just what we agree on in this moment or that. We know that when you are fishing for people, it is all about the people and less about the thing you are doing. Here is a place where everyone gives something and everybody does something and the whole amounts to so much more than the parts. It’s time for us to get better at sharing what we love about our church with one another and with other people we know.

We just read a small passage from the book of Jonah. It’s a familiar and funny story that is a good place to conclude. Basically Jonah is invited by God to fish for people and runs from God only to find himself being fished for. It’s more hide and seek. He’s told to find others when what he really wants is to be found himself. Alone in the sea, he is swallowed by a whale and is quite literally caught up into something stronger and larger than his individual self. At the end of the book he finds a togetherness with strangers that he never imagined, but only because the whale found him and brought him to them. When Jesus finds Peter and Andrew, or any of us, we may feel a bit like Jonah. If so, there is a grace the size of a whale out there looking for you.

Say yes to Jesus. Let yourself be found and to find others. Join the adventure. And fish for people with us, one by one. Think about who is in your life that may want to hear about All Saints’ and the generous Christianity present here, and then tell them about what you love about your church. Jesus in Nazareth didn’t just make his home in Nazareth a welcoming place. He found his Peter, his Andrew, his James and John where they were. And then invited us to do the same.

May the God who finds us give us the courage to be found and to find others, to try new things, and to discover joys that far outweigh their costs so that we are free to follow Jesus Christ whose ministry has always been larger and more powerful than whatever may oppose it. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet