Row Out With Jesus, and Fill the Boat – January 26, 2020

John Spicer
January 29, 2020

Row Out With Jesus, and Fill the Boat – January 26, 2020

State-of-the-Parish Address
Luke 5:1-11

Welcome to annual-meeting Sunday – a time of celebration and hope.  In fact, our annual meeting’s already begun because this sermon is the state-of-the-parish address.  You can thank me for that downstairs, when the meeting ends 18 minutes earlier than it would have otherwise.

I want to begin with the Gospel reading we just heard – Luke’s version of Jesus calling his first disciples.  Now, this story should sound familiar because, just a few months ago, it gave us the theme for our fall stewardship season, which was about discovering joy in the journey with Jesus and one another.  That season included our pledge campaign for 2020, as well as the chance to take our temperature by assessing the congregation’s spiritual vitality.  Today, we’ll hear about results from both; we’ll look at some other important indicators from 2019; and we’ll see what God has in mind for us in the months to come.  But before we do – let’s look at the story.

In addition to Jesus, the main character here is Simon, also known as Peter.  Now, this is not the first time Jesus meets Simon.  In Luke’s Gospel, Simon comes into the picture just before this reading, when Jesus comes to his house and heals his mother-in-law.  It’s a good start for a relationship, at least enough to bring us to today’s reading.

Now, you could forgive Simon for being frustrated.  He’s just finished his fishing for the night, sitting on the bank with other guys, washing their nets, when Jesus asks him to put out into the water a little way so he can speak to the crowd on the shore.  Simon goes along, but he still has clean-up work to do before he can head home to rest after his night shift.  But then Jesus asks Simon to go out into deeper water and let down his “nets for a catch” (5:4).  Simon complains that he’s already spent hours doing just that and hasn’t caught a thing.  Trust me, Jesus says.  Well, this time, the catch of fish is so great that the nets almost break, and Simon’s partners – James and John – have to come help haul it in.

When Simon sees this, he kneels before Jesus saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (5:8).  I could see myself saying something like that.  Maybe that’s what many of us think when we hear someone stand up and talk about how much God loves us, and wants to be with us, and wants to come alongside us on our journey:  “Yeah, right.  If you really knew me, you’d know God would never spend time on my boat.”  That’s what Simon Peter is thinking, but Jesus tells him otherwise.  I don’t just want a ride in your boat, Simon.  I want your heart and your head and your hands.  I want you.  In fact, Jesus tells him, upping the ante, “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people” (5:10).  And Simon, James, and John leave everything to follow him.

What’s the key here?  Well, even though Simon knows how to do his work – he’s a professional fisherman – things just aren’t panning out for him.  But then Jesus comes into his boat, uninvited even, and asks Simon to head out again, taking him along.  And with Jesus as his partner on the journey, everything is different.  Simon can’t explain it; he can’t even haul in the bounty Jesus brings him.  But even more, he’s wrestling with the bigger question:  Why me?  Simon’s sure he’s not good enough, that Jesus has no business being in the boat with a sinful guy like him.  But Jesus says, not only do I belong in your boat, alongside you, I’ll empower you to bring others in, too.  We’re going to help people see that God’s actually the one in charge, that God’s reign and rule is the true power in our lives.  Come on, Jesus says to Simon, and see for yourself just how powerful that good news really is.

It’s traveling with Jesus that makes all the difference.

For us at St. Andrew’s, traveling with Jesus has brought us to a good place as we begin 2020.  More people are hearing God’s Word and receiving the sacraments; our Sunday attendance is up 11 percent from a year ago – and, I would bet, so is Coffee Hour, which one Vestry member described as “must-see TV.”  To some degree, the increase in attendance is about more people being in this room on Sunday mornings, but it’s also about five other factors: people watching the livestream at home (a number we can count), people coming to Java & Jesus across the street, people coming to our Third Sunday worship events, people coming to Evensong the first Sunday of the month, and more families with children coming to church.  Anymore, on a given Sunday, we have about 40 kids and volunteers in the nursery and children’s chapel, and that is a tremendous blessing.

We also see participation in kids’ and youth ministry increasing generally (not just on Sunday mornings), with kids’ participation up by 40 percent and youth participation up by 18 percent.  Just as heartening, and a foretaste of things to come, is participation in adult classes, discussion groups, and Bible studies.  That’s increased 30 percent in the past year.  More on that trend in a minute.

In terms of the stewardship season, we also saw great progress in our journey last year.  We asked you to increase pledging by 10 percent, a big ask, to continue our ministry of engaging with people and to meet our rising facility costs.  And you did, with 159 households increasing their pledges.  We asked you to consider pledging if you’re someone who hadn’t been doing that.  And you did, with 62 households making new pledges.  We asked our younger adults especially to consider pledging.  And a number did, with pledges from people under 45 doubling.  We asked you to increase your pledge so we could decrease our reliance on special gifts to fund staff positions.  And you did, allowing us not to spend almost $100,000 this year from the Gather & Grow account and other special donations.  We asked you to consider a Christmas gift to replace the sidewalks and parking lot.  And you did, enabling us to begin that work early this summer.  You’ll hear more about the budget downstairs, but – with that kind of commitment, we can fund our engagement ministry fully, and address our facility needs, and increase our outreach giving from the operating budget to $55,000 this year.  For all of that, I truly thank you.

And … all this is a good start.  We have a lot more distance to travel in balancing the demographics of our congregation and our giving.  People 70 and over make up about a quarter of the St. Andrew’s family, and they provide more than half of our financial support.  Now, I took the non-math option in seminary, but even I know that’s not going to work for the long term.  Those are imbalances we’ve begun to address … but only just begun to address.

The other component of our stewardship season was the inventory we took this fall, RenewalWorks, to help us build our spiritual vitality.  Lora Kokjer and I have more to share about this downstairs, and the Vestry will be spending time with the results at its retreat next weekend.  But at a high level, I can tell you this:  St. Andrew’s came out very positively compared with the baseline of Episcopal congregations.  We saw strength in how deeply people feel involved, how positively people regard worship and other activities, how people see the church’s ministries empowering them to grow and serve, and how people view their leaders as spiritually authentic.  We also saw opportunities for improvement in areas that make a priest’s heart glad.  We now have data to prove that you want to learn more about the Bible.  You want to understand our core beliefs.  You want to build your spiritual practice.  You want to go deeper in your journey with Christ.  That’s about the best news I could have asked to hear from the RenewalWorks study.

So – where do we go from here?  Well, go back to today’s Gospel, because we heard it there.  Our call is this:  Row out with Jesus, and fill the boat.

What does that look like?  Well, let me share one of the most important and far-reaching recommendations that the RenewalWorks team is making to the Vestry.  It’s pretty radical, so get ready.  That core recommendation is that we be intentional about bringing the Bible and prayer into meetings and activities here – even when no ordained person is in the room.  Yes, shocking though it may be, we’re recommending that, in our groups and gatherings, we read some Scripture and we pray.  Perhaps your reaction is, “Duh….”

But I think it represents an important cultural shift.  We all know this family of St. Andrew’s is not the same as a civic group, like the Rotary Club.  We aren’t the same as a secular nonprofit, like our outreach partners in the community.  We might share common values and goals.  But we are the Church, the body of Jesus Christ in this particular place and time.  We are his disciples – rowing out onto the water with him, walking alongside him in our journeys.  Finding simple, authentic, unobtrusive ways to embed the Bible in our life together and to pray – that helps us remember who we are and why we’re here.

Here’s another way to row out with Jesus, another recommendation from the RenewalWorks team: We need to create a St. Andrew’s Discipleship Curriculum.  You’ve made it clear that you want to learn more about the Bible, and our core beliefs, and our Episcopal identity.  You want to know how to pray, and you want spiritual resources from people you trust to help you connect with God and go deeper.  Bottom line: You want to own your faith.  That’s good stuff, and we’ll be working this year to create a roadmap for the journey to get you there – from exploring a life with God in Christ, to growing that life, to deepening that life, to centering your life in that relationship.

When we own our faith, we can tell our stories – the stories of our church family and the stories of our hearts.  When we know God’s deep desire to walk with us forever; and when we come alongside God in prayer and worship – that equips us to open our hearts and tell this story we’ve come to know, this story of Jesus making the journey with us.

That’s the key to the second part of the plan for 2020, which is filling the boat – not with fish, not with a resource for us to use; but with people who are searching for the same kind of relationship we’re searching for.  St. Andrew’s has become a truly welcoming family.  Not that that work is done at all, but our focus now has to be on the other two steps of filling the boat, which are inviting people and connecting them into this family’s life – asking someone to a backpack blessing, or a service project, or a gathering around the firepit at HJ’s.  That someone may be a friend who has no church, or it may be someone already here at St. Andrew’s who’s trying to find where she fits in.  But in either case, the invitation – the engagement – makes all the difference.  For you are a conduit of blessing for that beloved child of God.  The journey from exploring to growing to deepening to centering in a relationship with God – that journey empowers us to bring others along.

And to help us bring others along, I believe the time has come to create a new worship opportunity, one to which we can invite people who aren’t likely to check out our traditional 8:00 or 10:15 offerings.  It’s been a good and instructive journey for us over the past few years – from Take 5, to Ascend, to Java & Jesus, to our Third Sunday offerings, each one helping us learn what an authentic fresh expression of worship might look like at St. Andrew’s.  So, now, here’s what we’re planning: a live service at HJ’s, alongside the existing 10:15 service, with Java & Jesus happening in the Jewell Room.  We’ll design that new service at HJ’s to reach people we wouldn’t reach with our other offerings, people looking for a more casual and intimate atmosphere, with music more like what they’d hear in a bar than what they’d hear on an organ – more prayer and praise, less formal liturgy.  Now, it’s important to say:  This is not a new flavor for us eight o’clockers and ten-fifteeners to try.  It’s actually not for us.  It’s worship for people who aren’t here, the people we’re called to bring into the boat.  You’ll hear more in the weeks ahead, but the first service at HJ’s will be Easter morning.  Please, and I mean this sincerely, keep this undertaking in your prayers.

We have such rich potential for growth in the year ahead – growth in so many ways.  Some of that will demand a lot from us, especially creating a new worship opportunity and continuing to make pledging a standard of being part of this church family.  But the most important growth begins more easily.  We can come alongside Jesus with just a few simple steps toward the boat, where he’s already waiting.  I said this a few weeks ago, and I’ll say it again.  Beginning, or renewing, a journey with Jesus Christ really just asks this much of us:  Read the Bible.  Say your prayers.  Come to worship.  Then, building from there, you’ll find the power to cast out your own net, the power to offer an invitation when the time is right.  And when you do, I can’t wait to see who God brings into the boat next.