I grew up on the coast of California with some exposure to commercial fishing enterprises. The Dory Fleet would pull into Newport Beach every night and drop their catch of fresh fish right on the beach. If you got there around 4pm, you could buy your fish right there on the beach. That was pretty much the story in any coastal town. These commercial operations would fish with large drag nets and their fishing enterprise was really made up of two parts. The first was catching the fish and hauling them in and the second was sorting the fish and throwing some of them back. Fishing, sorting, accepting and rejecting. Now there were lots of reasons for fish being thrown back – too small, malformed, not the kind you were looking for, couldn’t sell it in the market.
What has been sticking with me this week with the little I know about fishing has as much to do with what Jesus doesn’t say as with what he does say to Simon, Andrew, James and John. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” is what he says. What he doesn’t say is, “And you’ll sort out the catch and throw the ones back we don’t want.” (#thingsjesusdidnotsay) This made me think about how the Church (writ large) has listened and responded to Jesus’ call to fish for people and resisted the urge to sort out the catch and throw some people back. Since the Church is made up of people who are human and therefore sinners, I’m afraid we have a mixed record on this. Our human nature seems inclined towards sorting and throwing back – accepting and rejecting.
When I was in seminary, I had a conversation with Vic Lawson+. Vic+ is an Episcopal priest who led the Nelson Cluster of churches just across the river in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Vic+ is also African-American. He told me about going to an Episcopal Church in Washington DC back in the days of segregation and being met at the door by two ushers – white men – who told him “his kind” would be more welcomed at the Episcopal Church on the next block … the “black church.” Talk about being sorted and thrown back!
I know some of you have experienced being sorted and thrown back – often in life (that’s the way of the world) but sadly also in the Church. Maybe it was over who you love, or you are told your Biblical interpretation isn’t “right with the Lord” (which means it doesn’t match ours), or that your gender identity isn’t quite as neat and binary as others want to see, or maybe you are remarried after divorce and have been turned away from receiving the sacraments, or you are divorced and have been told you cannot be a leader in your church, or maybe you’re a woman who has been told to sit down and shut up because women are not to speak in the Church. There are an infinite number of ways the Church has put itself in the sorting and throwing back business instead of fishing for people.
Jesus called his disciples to fish for people. To go and tell and bring them into the fellowship of the Church … and get out of the sorting and throwing back business. This is our call and it isn’t easy – it is not without risk. Remember two weeks ago, I told you the font should have the sign “Hazardous waters! Enter at your own risk!” When we plunge into the waters of baptism we accept our call to fish for people and not throw them back … and that is risky business!
One of the risks we take involves what happens after we bring people to encounter Christ here at Grace. We can fish for people and invite them to journey with us but some of them will not stay here. Some may find that our way of worship and common life doesn’t resonate with them. It may seem odd but there are people who do not find the dulcet tones of organ music and the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer stirring for their souls. We are different and what moves me isn’t what moves everyone and so people may leave seeking another kind of church community. Some may come and find that the invitation to transformation the Gospel brings isn’t what they bargained for … it is too unsettling. Now I have to tell you that I’ve been in many churches over the years and Grace has a particular charism of the Spirit when it comes to inviting people to be transformed by Christ. We are a loving, gentle and forgiving community. We do screw ups. We hold the messiness of life gently in prayer. We do “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and that’s reconciliation. We do second chances … and thirds … and fourths … and fifths … because it is how we do love. This makes Grace a pretty safe place to experience change, healing and transformation into Christ’s likeness. But even as loving and gentle as we make it, some will find this still too frightening to bear and may choose to leave. There are still others who come into this community and behave in abusive or menacing ways. The way of Christ is not a way of abuse or exploitation. As your priest, when I see or hear about abusive behavior, whether it is within these walls, in the community or on social media, you can be assured I will address it because abuse is not of God. And if that person, after being rebuked seeks reconciliation and genuinely seeks an amendment of life, then … we do second chances, right? But if they persist and are not intent on reconciliation, the one perpetrating the abuse will walk apart – not because we have thrown them back, but because they choose by their actions to excuse themselves from the Body of Christ.
Now these are some of the risks with people we fish for not staying here … but we also will encounter risks with those who stay. The risk is that of great love. In living into this love, we create a community where lives are changed and people go from death into life. I have watched in wonder as many of you who have come have found joy, grace, and healing. I have witnessed miracles and I know some of you have too. But within the joy that this transformative love brings, there is another side to love – it sometimes breaks our hearts.
I am keenly aware of where I was one year ago today. After a sleepless night, I was awaiting word on the whereabouts of our sister Sophia Schmidt. Sophia came to us in the end stages of bipolar disorder – a disease which had not responded well to the therapies we have available for it. Sophia had suffered horribly from depressive episodes and had constant thoughts of ending her life for over 15 years. We had reason to believe she had gone through with her plan and I was waiting for a call which came late that night. Sophia was only with us for six months, but she had joined our confirmation class and came to Grace as often as her illness would allow. Even when she felt unlovable, we continued to show her Christ’s love. And even though our hearts broke, we continued to express our love through our grieving together, in planting a prayer garden, and welcoming her family here to dedicate that sacred space to Sophia’s memory. God brought her here by way of two fishers of people … throwing her back was never an option.
Just two weeks later, another woman came to us in the final months of her life. We met Jenny Cabbiness at Ashes to Go at the MARC station. She had end stage breast cancer and began attending Grace. She was convinced God had led her to us and how it was no coincidence that the priest was a former hospice chaplain and a current hospice chaplain was also in residence here. We cheered her on when she was feeling good and prayed and cried with her when she was struggling. And when she died, our hearts broke and God’s love poured out on her family and friends as we celebrated her life with a burial Eucharist for over 250 people here. God brought her here … and throwing her back was not an option either.
You and I are called by Christ through the hazardous waters of baptism to take great risks for the sake of God’s love. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” He is still teaching us to fish for people … to fish and not throw back.