As you will read (or hear, if you listen to the sermon) below, Jesus calls some disciples saying "I will teach you how to fish for people." Which is kind of a scary image, given the danger of nets and that they are rarely used for helpful purposes. Entrapment, coercion, offering bait with hooks in it - these are not healthy forms of evangelism (I refer to this as "weaponized evangelism"). I prefer the idea of evangelism as invitation. Inviting people into something - God's realm of love and fellowship - as opposed to scaring them away from something - God's eternal wrath and punishment.
How have your experiences in the church, or with a church, been invitational, and how have they felt more like weaponized evangelism? Please share below in the comments if you are willing.
You may read the sermon below or listen to it.
“Nets Are Not Good Hospitality”
Sermon, Year B, Epiphany 3, January 25, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark1:14-20
“Follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.”
As I thought about that this week, I’ve had another thought: “Nets are dangerous!” Nets are not particularly safe. I don’t know if you have ever used one, but other than say a net underneath a trapeze artist, nets are generally use to capture. Not to help.
And if you have ever used one, fished with a net, even if it’s a simple fishing boat net that’s at the end of a stick like a tennis racket, it’s really easy to get tangled up in them. For you to get tangled, or your tackle, or someone else, or something else. Very easy to get tangled up in a net. That’s why they are so effective for fishing, hunting, and trapping. They are almost impossible to escape unless you’re really clever.
So this phrase “fishing for people” is actually kind of a horrific idea if you take it at face value. Fishing for people, whether with a net or with bait that has a hook in it, if you seek people like you seek fish. Nets are not invitational. “Come to my party! [and throw a net over them]”. Or baits with hooks in them. That’s not good hospitality.
It is an interesting image. I don’t want to fish for people, Jesus. That sounds really harsh/. I don’t want to trick them with the literal bait and switch or just trap them against their will. I don’t want to do that. That’s not being the church., to coerce or to trap, or capture. Not that Christianity hasn’t tried it in the past, and sometimes continues to do so. To use this fishing metaphor a little too literally, capturing and entrapment.
Sadly, that word “evangelism” has a ring of coercion to it, of being forced, trapped, or simply abused into a certain way of thinking. I think that these men that Jesus was calling to knew that he wasn’t talking quite so literally as that. He was using language that they knew. They were fishermen, they understood that language. “I will teach you how to fish for men.” I think they knew that he wasn’t saying, “Come with me and I’ll teach you how to treat your neighbor the same way that you treat these fish.” That does not sound like the kind of thing that would be said by the guy who said to love your neighbor.
He’s talking about bringing people along on a journey of experiencing God. Of coming into God’s fellowship. Coming into the community of love. Of experiencing hope, love, dignity. A gathering of people. Think of the way that a net might gather people, but not in a coercive or forced. To gather people into that kind of a community. A net of safety, a net of love. Fellowship. Mutual help. It’s a gentle net. And the bait does not have a hook in it, nor does it come with any strings attached.
I think that’s the kind of fishing that Jesus is calling these men to. And calling us to. To be fishers of people.
But do we listen?
Do we listen to that call to be fishers?
Perhaps we hear the wrong thing when we hear that call to be fishers. We who are good and sensitive people, who want to love our neighbors, who like to be kind, who don’t want to be rude or overbearing, we who think that we should not force our religion on others, or ensnare others. Maybe when we hear Jesus’ call to be fishers of people we think of the more entrapment kind of fishing, instead of the invitational.
I used to think that evangelism was pretty obnoxious, because the evangelists I saw and experienced were obnoxious. They were the very forceful, loud type of people. I saw in their methods that shouty-screamy judgmental method. I saw it on TV, or occasionally would literally see the guys on the street corner doing their evangelism, shouting declaratives, trying to convince people to believe in their way in order to avoid eternal punishment. “Believe and be saved!” they would shout. That never caught with me, because I had always thought (and still do!) that we don’t need to believe to be saved. We are already saved, already loved by God. God’s love doesn’t depend on whether we believe in some certain way or do some certain thing. So that wasn’t attractive to me at all.
Or the methods of “Come to my church and get the proper truth.” No church has all the truth, or the proper truth. God is too big for any of us to speak for God entirely. Or that old, “Repent, for the end is near!” kind of evangelism. Also a big turn off.
It seems that in these methods I saw that there was nothing of value in the evangelism except the selfish gain of the evangelist. Either more money in the offering plate (which probably did not go to mission of helping people, other than to do more of the shouty-screamy evangelism), or something that they can brag to their friends about how many people they saved this week. Or just more fish simply to consume and leave on the beach, or sell to the next person who comes along. There is an abusive side to that.
But that’s not evangelism, trying to convince them why they should believe, or telling them that they have to believe in order to avoid something (God’s wrath and anger).
I don’t think that was Jesus’ way of evangelism, either.
This past year, especailly, as I’ve been working with the coach and reading about church growth, evangelism (that scary word!), church vitality – I’ve learned that have a couple options here. We can reclaim the word “evangelism” for ourselves. Because it just means to “tell the Good News”, to bear the Good News. That’s all it is. To be the speaker of Good News, and we are called to be evangelists. But, it’s also such a loaded word because of the baggage with it, so maybe not worth reclaiming. Or not yet, anyway. And in the meantime to use another word, which is a way I think is much better to think about it: to be invitational. Not to be evangelistic, but to be invitationalistic. Or however you want to spin that word.
That’s what Jesus did. He invited people. He didn’t force or coerce. He invited. He said, “Follow me.” It’s just an invitation. “Follow me.” There is no coercion, no abuse, no threats. He doesn’t say “Follow me or die” or “Follow me or....” some other punishment. Just “Follow me”. And he calls us to say the same. To invite people into this new world, this new way of being. Follow me and experience God’s realm of love. Follow me and experience God’s compassion, mercy. Follow me and know that God loves you. It’s not about avoiding God’s wrath, but inviting in to God’s community of love.
Jonah, in the passage we read, is off on an evangelistic tear of the non-invitational kind. He goes to Nineveh and says, “Repent, or God will destroy you!” I don’t think that’s good evangelism. It’s not a good method. “Repent to avoid God’s wrath” is a weaponized form of evangelism. But Jesus’ evangelism calls his disciples to go fish for people. To call them not to avoid God’s wrath, but to invite them into the love that is already there. To invite them into a community of love, and to stop living in fear of losing that love. To stop living in fear of God’s wrath, or God’s punishment, by understanding that God loves them and wants us all to be whole and to have dignity and to live without guilt or shame. To be the whole people that God made us to be. That’s being invitational. Spreading the Good News by inviting people to experience it. Telling people about it.
And being invitational requires no skill or talents. All Jesus did was say, “Follow me.” Or as he encountered people, he healed them, fed them, listened to their stories. That’s being invitational as well. “Tell me your story: I’ll listen”. That’s a lot of what we do in our street ministry. Listening to stories. Inviting people into a relationship. That’s the Good News. Nd it doesn’t take any particular skill or talent. We invite people to things all the time. Birthday parties, dinner parties, invite someone to a movie or to an afternoon of watching TV, out to dinner or to a play... we invite people all the time. And sometimes people say “No”. But we don’t stop inviting.
But it does seem that when it comes to church things, sometimes we get the first “no” and we stop. Or we’re so afraid of the “no” that we don’t invite at all. Or so afraid of appearing obnoxious that we don’t want to invite. But if it’s just an invitation, just an invitation, “Come and experience.” That’s not so bad.
We’ve been growing this congregation, inviting people in, and we want to continue to grow it more. We have a wonderful fellowship here. We’re doing good things in the community of Eau Claire. It takes invitation, and that’s all it takes, is to invite people. That’s you and me extending them. Also our website, our Facebook page, ads in the newspaper, twitter, emails, the sign at the end our driveway. Those are all invitations that say “Here we are – come in!” But that personal invitation is so important.
So in 2015, sitting here at the beginning of the year and looking forward to the rest of the year, let us be fishers of people, inviting them into this community of fellowship and love. We have a game day in two weeks: that’s a great entry point for people. Invite them to come play some games. That’s pretty normal, and not scary to people. We will also be having our Wednesday soup and scripture at lunch and in the evening during Lent. Those are easy things to invite people: “Come and have a meal with us!” Hard to say “no” to that. Just be invitational. I’ve said that a lot in the next few months, and will keep saying it. Just be invitational. Be fishers of people, inviting people to experience our fellowship of feeding one another, and trying to make the world a more loving place.
I think that’s a pretty easy sell, so to speak, to invite people into that. Come into our community where you will be cared for, as we care for one another. You will be prayed for, like we pray for one another. You will be fed, like we feed one another and like we feed people on the street and care for them there. Or care through our St. Francis Food Pantry and our quilting. Everything that we do is about listening to Jesus’ call to follow.
To do what Jesus asks us to do, which is simply to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to take care of the poor, and to love one another. To let that be what we are about, and to invite people into it. In 2015, be fishers of people and invite them. Be welcoming. Be open to all those who are around us, so that all may know and come into understanding that God loves and that we are all valued, all important to God, all matter to God. And we are all loved by God.