You’ll remember that we talked about two call stories last week, one of the boy Samuel and another of Philip and Nathanael. This week, the momentum builds and Jesus calls four new followers to share in his mission: Simon and Andrew first, and then James and John. A perfect Gospel for annual meeting Sunday, because it tells us what we are to be about as Jesus’ followers, and hints at what can get in the way of our central purpose.
I usually give my rector’s address on annual meeting Sunday in the form of a sermon: first because we all know not everyone stays for the meeting, and second because it reminds both you and me to listen to the Bible first as we think about our parish life, which is better than acting as if your role is just to listen to me, especially since part of my role is actually to listen to you – and, of course, to the Bible at the same time. I’m not here as a chaplain to a club or as a CEO of a nonprofit organization, and I don’t think many of you want me to pretend as if those kinds of things were what you called me to Emmanuel to be. I think you wanted to call a priest, and that’s what I am, so here we are.
We’ll have some chance for conversation at the meeting, but I also want to emphasize that I welcome conversation all week long: email me, call me, make an appointment, meet me for coffee. I have valued very much the feedback and comments I’ve received since coming here last June, and if I were to wish for anything, it would be to get far more of that input from a far wider group of Emmanuelites. The more of you let me in person hear what you really think, the better I will be equipped to serve this whole church as your rector.
I said this was a great Gospel for an annual meeting Sunday, and one reason I said that is that the proclamation that Jesus makes as he begins his work is a touchstone to which every church, ours included, needs to return over and over: “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News.” This is Jesus’ first announcement of what he is all about; he refines it and expands it other places, and later New Testament writers unpack it even more.
But this baseline proclamation would be enough for a church to base several years of ministry on: demonstrate and give people access to the nearness and availability of the kingdom in every possible context, help people learn how to turn away from shaping our lives around other things in every possible context, and trust the Good News so fully that it is free to do all its work in us as individuals and as a church. “The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News”: a church that pulled that off even half the time would be so far ahead of the game I can barely imagine it.
So that is the proclamation, and this morning Jesus calls two sets of brothers to join him in embodying it. All four are fishermen by trade. The first two, Simon and Andrew, are in the act of fishing, and the second two, James and John, are in the act of cleaning their nets. All four he invites, seizing on their job as a metaphor, to embark with him on a different kind of fishing, seeking those who will receive the proclamation of the nearness of the Kingdom and trust it enough to start acting based on it. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.”
What are they doing instead of that, at the moment he calls? The second group aren’t fishing at all; they’re maintaining the infrastructure that is needed in order to fish. The first group are fishing; they’re doing a similar kind of thing to what Jesus is calling them to, but what they’re aiming at is, if you will, not the ultimate goal that Jesus has for them.
Now I think almost every church has had the experience of sinking too much energy and time into the kind of things these two groups are doing when Jesus calls them – either over-focusing on maintenance of one or another apparatus of institutional life, or over-focusing on activities that aren’t really aiming at a clear and God-given goal. I didn’t say those are things you shouldn’t do at all – you’ve got to mend the nets, you’ve got to have activities -- but that those are things most churches expend more energy on than is optimal. Most churches do that, and it would be very surprising if we were an exception.
Emmanuel has a great heritage, a beautiful building which you have kept in extraordinarily good shape, a rich and elegant liturgical tradition, and lots of powerful experiences of ministry in the past. The past few years, I know, have been a tougher time, and one of the things many of you have told me since I arrived is that it took a lot out of you just to keep everything going. Some of you I have said this to, and some I haven’t had the chance to, but the efforts many Emmanuelites (and especially the staff) made during those times are testimony to a deep love for this church and a deep desire to see it flourish. Thank you for doing what you did during that season when maintaining an even keel and just keeping the boat moving were genuinely the tasks at hand.
I think, though, that we – frankly “we,” the church as a whole, but even more specifically “we” here at Emmanuel – are in a time when it is becoming increasingly important to hear Jesus inviting us to more than that. Not more in the sense of quantity – the quantity may even be less – but more depth, more intentionality, more focus on the main things God is calling us to. And this is one reason I’m not going to spend time on delivering a bunch of numbers or listing church activities today; they’re all in the printed report and I’m happy to talk about them later if people want to. But that kind of stuff isn’t what generates a vibrant Christian community.
What generates a vibrant Christian community is more like “The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News. Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” You can have average Sunday attendance of 400 and not be responding to that proclamation in any meaningful way, and you can have average Sunday attendance of 40 and be showing astonishing evidences of the Kingdom’s presence. Whether your annual report lists 50 parish organizations or 5 doesn’t tell you how your church is doing; you find that out by seeing if you’re actually running the parish as if you believed in the Good News.
So you will hear me – you already have – seeking to return us over and over to drinking from the deep wells of the Christian tradition, particularly now in this window of opportunity as we begin building something fresh together. Remembering over and over the main thing, the primary truths, the divine call, the heart of the matter. That is where the power for our future is, and it’s also where the healing for our past is, and it’s, frankly, your birthright as Baptized Christians. After all the work you have done to keep this parish going, you deserve that from your priest.
You also deserve intentional leadership from your priest, and I want to say a word about that before we stop. Part of the role of a Rector, in partnership with laity, is to oversee and integrate all aspects of the life of the parish, so that everything is working together on a coherent path in responsiveness to the leading of God and so that energy is not being frittered away on things that don’t serve that goal. I can do that only when all aspects of the life of the parish have noticed that the Rector is available to oversee and integrate them, and the vestry and I have figured out, over the past couple months, that this represents a change of habits that is going to take awhile.
That change will require that both I and you pay attention to collaborating and making room for each other in love; it will require that both I and you pay attention to communicating in ways that are open, public and clear; it will require that both I and you pay attention to big questions like where Jesus wants Emmanuel to follow him, and what the proclamation that the Kingdom of God has come near means, right now right here, about how we do business and what goes on the schedule. We can’t make that happen unless we are constantly checking in with each other. My door is always open and my phone is (nearly) always on.
When enough prayerful attention is getting paid by a high enough percentage of Emmanuelites to these kinds of things, eventually we will together discover that we are being given, by God, a good shared sense of what we’re supposed to be doing, why we’re doing it, how we hope to do it, and how we plug all kinds of people into that call. That time is a ways out yet, but I am very grateful to have been called to journey towards it with you. This is a wonderful parish. Mark and I count it a privilege to be here, I count it a privilege to be your Rector, and I think there are some fascinating chapters ahead as we jointly discover what God is going to do with us all next.
“The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News. Follow me,” says Jesus, “and I will make you fish for people.” Now there is an annual meeting agenda worth really getting behind. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.