The fishing industry was an industry controlled by the Roman empire. As the Roman poet Juvenal, known for his satirical poems that critiqued the empire, said, “Every rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean belongs to the imperial treasury.”[i] Fish had been claimed as revenue for the empire. The fishermen that we encounter in our text for today would have purchased a lease or contract with Rome’s agents that would have allowed them to fish and obligated them to supply a certain amount of fish. They would have had to pay taxes on their catch, taxes to transport their supply, and taxes to market their bounty. Like all colonized people, the way of life that they had been able to forge under occupation was embedded in the imperial economy. They were controlled with a heavy hand at every turn.
When hearing the stories of Jesus calling the first disciples, I’ve always wondered why in the world these fishermen would follow after a man who abruptly interrupted them as they were simply going about their work. It was just another ordinary day of trying to make a living when Jesus calls out to them and says, “Follow me!” And they do it immediately without even asking him where he is going! But they clearly see that Jesus has good news for them. Perhaps, they have heard him proclaim that the reign of heaven has come near, and they know that reign is a very different reign than the empire of Rome. They are willing to leave behind their economically and socially precarious situation for the promise of a better life. By quoting the prophet Isaiah, Matthew is hinting at what is going on. The quote from Isaiah is a word spoken to those who were under the occupation of the Assyrian empire and were victims of its control and aggression. They had sat in darkness and a great light had dawned on them. In similar fashion, those who were suffering under the darkness of the Roman empire were experiencing the light of dawn. John had fallen at the hands of the empire, but now Jesus has taken up his message of repentance and is proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John all realize what amazing good news this is, and they leave their nets behind and follow Jesus.
We’ve been talking about how we don’t ever arrive at a final destination in our work of becoming disciples. We are always becoming, always trying to learn from being in relationship with Jesus, always stretching to be who Christ called us to be, always trying to let our identity as God’s beloved child have the most say in our lives and in the lives of others. Our text for this morning testifies that becoming a disciple is not about believing certain things or becoming a member of a club; it is about walking in the way that Jesus is walking as Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God and as Jesus cures every disease and every sickness among the people. It is about walking away from the death-dealing empires of this world and walking towards the light of God. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John have all been spending their lives fishing for the emperor, but Jesus commands them to come with him so he can show them how to fish for people. Fishing for people will mean bringing sustenance and life and healing to others by allowing them live under the reign of God. Our calling to become disciples is a calling to fish for people. It is a calling to make a world possible where no beloved child of God has to live under the darkness of the empires of this world. Fishing for people is creating a world where the good news is proclaimed and where every sickness among the people is cured.
During our visioning sessions held over the last year, we examined the darkness that many of God’s children live under. We talked about how the systems and structures of our society strap people from living fully as God intended them to live. We identified the three primary stressors for people in our community to be financial stress, loneliness or social isolation, and the need for sanctuary or safe places. Financial stresses included housing – as prices have consistently risen faster than inflation and wages; debt – as medical, student, and consumer debt has risen as wages have stagnated; and emergencies – as we learned that most people cannot cover a $400 dollar emergency expense. We talked about the experience of loneliness and social isolation among the elderly, young families, and workers. We learned that 54% of Americans feel like no one knows them well. We also talked about how our community lacks significant sanctuaries for everyone from LGBTQ people to immigrants to parents with young children. As we continued in conversation, it became clear that Greenwood Forest has a heart for providing safe spaces for children, young families, immigrants, and LGBTQ persons. Greenwood Forest has a heart for fostering community and combating loneliness. Greenwood Forest has a heart for helping people in our community achieve financial liberation. While we are engaged in this work already in many ways and have been since our inception, we want to be able to have a bigger impact on our community. We want to guarantee that our church is here for many years to come because it is a sacred place where all are welcome, included, and celebrated. We decided that we wanted to commit to paying off our debt so that together we can build a future where there is sanctuary, belonging, and liberation for all of God’s children!
We have already gotten off to an amazing start! We have already raised 27% of our goal because of the sacrifice and commitment of our leaders. And yet, if you haven’t heard me say this, hear me now: paying off our debt is not some magical pill that will ensure that all will be well. It doesn’t mean that we can just pay off this debt and keep on doing business as usual and shutting off our imaginations about how to be the body of Christ here in Cary in 2020. But paying off our debt will free us to have the capacity and creativity to live into the future that God is calling us toward. It will give us agency to make needed decisions about how to be the best stewards of our resources and the best neighbors that we can be. It will free us from living under the empires of this world so that we can fully live in God’s kingdom. Bill Wilson, the director for the Center for Healthy Churches and the consultant who led our visioning process, recently wrote an article about how he doesn’t believe most churches and their leaders are ready for the 2020’s. He shares that some experts on church trends say that by 2030, at the turn of the next decade, up to one-third of congregations will no longer exist. Congregations will be forced to close, to sell their property, and/or to radically transform themselves. It’s a known reality that most congregations find their greatest financial support from people over the age of 75. He shares that it is going to be hard for churches to fill the void that’s going to be left when these people pass on. He warns that the inevitable decline of churches and the resulting changes will embolden some to scapegoat staff and leadership in a way that will sidetrack congregations from moving forward. He cautions that some churches will not be able to faithfully navigate the issues of our day; he points out that most churches are getting caught in polarizing conflict instead of stepping out into prophetic actions on behalf of the marginalized among us.
Bill Wilson then asks, so what are the churches that are going to survive going to do? He says that those who survive will have to have the gift of clarity, a realignment with Jesus’ mission, a growth of diversity, and leaders with skills of spiritual discernment and willingness to proactively seek a way forward. He suggests that instead of churches assuming that they have a right to exist, they will have to re-examine why they exist. He says, “The resulting clarity will energize and invigorate those who have survived the great contraction, and give them a message that resonates with a culture in search of real meaning.” Bill believes that for some congregations this is going to mean they will be smaller but will have a more authentic expression of faith; for others it may result in substantial growth. But either way he says our metrics will change. He says, “The new metric for thriving churches…will be faithfulness to the gospel mission rather than cultural or corporate metrics that violate gospel tenants.”[ii]
Greenwood Forest, I believe that you are ready for the 2020’s. I believe that you have clarified why you exist and that the message you preach does resonate with a culture in search of real meaning. I believe that your values are gospel values, not cultural or corporate metrics that violate gospel tenants. I believe that you know the calling to become disciples in a world covered by the darkness of empires is a call to fish for people and not for emperors. I believe you know that it’s a call to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ that heals those who are suffering. I believe that you are a church that has always taken a stand for the marginalized. In a world where black and white children were not going to school together, you created one of the first racially integrated kindergartens in Cary. You were a part of the founding of Christian Community in Action, now known as Dorcas Ministries, as you sought to offer relief to low-income families in our town. You offered assistance to a family of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970’s who had barely escaped their country alive. You made a stand for women in ministry by speaking truth to the SBC many years ago, losing relationships with people and institutions that you loved. You’ve drawn upon your past to be advocates for the marginalized today. You’ve advocated for affordable housing in Cary. You’ve stood with LGBTQ folks as you’ve made clear to CBF that you will not quietly ignore their discrimination practices. You walked alongside your brother Gilles as he sought to avoid deportation, and you continue to support him from afar with your resources. You show up week after week to pack backpacks during the school year and serve food during the summer for children who are food insecure in our neighborhoods. And you haven’t stopped there, because over this last year, you’ve dreamed bigger dreams about how we can make an even bigger impact as a church. You are committed to being a place in Cary where all are welcome and treated as beloved. You are committed to bringing the light of God into the darkness of the world’s empires. You are committed to ensuring that we are at the corner of Kildaire Farm and Maynard for many years to come, offering sanctuary, belonging, and liberation for all of God’s children!
So, this morning, I invite you into a time of response. Just like Jesus came to those fisherman and told them to stop fishing for the emperor so that he could teach them how to fish for people, Jesus comes to you and says, “Follow me. I will help you as you resist fishing for the empires of this world and instead fish for people to have sanctuary, belonging, and liberation.” I invite you to hold the rock that you were given as you came into worship this morning and to pray over it. If you want to write on it or draw on it, there are markers available, you can pass them down the aisles. Ask yourself some questions: What are you committed to building? After this debt is paid off, what do you most want to see? What do you yearn for? How will you help us to get there? What is standing in the way for you? What do you need to let go of in order to be committed to the future God has for us? We are going to give you a few minutes to pray over your rock, and when you are ready, you can come forward and place your rock in the glass vase on the altar. We invite you to place your rock as a symbol of what you most hope for in the future we are building together.