Epiphany 5 Year C
You know, one of the problems that the denominations generally referred to as “Mainline Denominations” have is that of decreasing attendance. While there are some denominations that are gaining people, the “Tried and true” denominations seem to be losing members. I have always wondered why?
One reason that is often given can be summed up by a snide comment that is often attached to the mainline denominations. I am sure many of you have heard it. So often, we, and other mainline denominations, are referred to as “The Frozen Chosen.”
Unfortunately, I don’t think that title is too far from the truth. If we were to walk into one of the growing churches, I am pretty sure we would find anything but frozen. We would find people lively and moving. But so often when we walk into a mainline denominational church, ANY mainline denominational church, what we find is lots of “nice” people, but hardly an experience of the living Christ.
I think some of the reason for this may be because of me, and others like me. Within the mainlines, we have clergy who have a lot of education and have worked vary hard. The amount of education that goes into a Masters of Divinity degree is equivalent to that of a Ph.D. For me, that would be three years of full-time school along with a one-year internship. That is a lot of school!
Now, one problem with a lot of education is it tends to drive all the passion out of things. In psychology, I learned how speak and write dispassionately about things I would not dare mention from the pulpit. In seminary, we learned how to take scripture readings apart and how to analyze the words and the phrasing to understand what is being said. This is great if you want to write a thesis or a treatise or a book; but as far as bringing the living love of Christ to the people, it can be a little daunting.
You see, I think that one of the problems that face the mainlines is we have lost what it means to have a head-on encounter with the Living Christ.
In our gospel reading for today, we see what happens when everyday people run smack-dab into Christ. Simon was doing nothing out of the ordinary; he was cleaning up after a day of work on the sea. And in the midst of his daily life, he got a job to take some guy out onto the sea. When it came time for the man to pay up for the job, the man told Simon to drop his nets. Now, this would be a silly thing to do, especially after spending hours fixing and preparing the nets. But Simon dropped his nets and found that he was catching an unprecedented amount of fish! Luke does not say this is a miracle. Could have just been that a mighty big school of fish happened to be passing by. But even if it wasn’t a miracle in the sense that the laws of physics weren’t broken, it was enough to bring Simon to his knees. Simon saw what happened and knew that he had come face to face with something that he could not explain. The fish could have been explained by simple random chance, but Simon knew that there was something more. And this “something more” would change his life.
I was brought up with the idea that you didn’t talk about religion in polite company. And then, upon becoming a priest, I had to be careful of sounding too fanatical. Besides, I had all of this education to hide behind. I could preach sermon after sermon and never have to admit to a head-on encounter with the Living Christ. Besides, to admit to the world that something happened, is to open yourself up to all kinds of speculation about your sanity. But when we, the clergy, don’t share our real life encounters with Christ, we aren’t setting a good example. I would hope we could all be like Simon and allow our encounter with Christ to move us to not only speak out, but to change our lives.
There is something to be said about making ourselves vulnerable and telling our story. My cousin once asked why I wanted to be a priest. She also asked how I could believe in God. I gave her some deep theology and some book answers, and then I finally said, “My belief in God and in Jesus is the reason I can get up in the morning and the reason I can face another day.” When I finally said that, her response was, “Thank you.” The theology was great, but she wanted to know what it meant to run smack-dab into Christ. So I am going to do something I normally wouldn’t do; I am going to tell you about an encounter that brought me to my knees, at least figuratively.
Could this have just been a coincidence? Could have. Am I afraid that you will make fun of me? Yes. Did this experience change my life? Definitely! My standing here today is a direct result of it. Will my relating my experience convince you that Christ is alive? Should my experience convince you that Christ is alive? I don’t know, but that is not my worry. My job is to tell the story and then to trust that God will stir your heart to have your own experience of God here and now.
I think what we lack in the mainline denominations is that we do not share our experiences of the Living Christ. We may know the story, but do we tell the story? And if we tell the story, do we live the joy of the story in our lives? Simon’s life was changed by his encounter with Christ and he lived out that change. And through living out the Christ in his live, Simon went on to become the foundation of the church. From a simple fisherman to the founder of the faith: quite a change!
I am assuming that we are all here because we have had a face to face encounter with the Living Christ. It may not be as dramatic as what is often called “Born Again” experiences. It may seem to the casual observer to just be a coincidence. It may not seem to be anything great to others. But to us, it was the experience that changed our lives. And it is this joy and energy that brings us back every week. And it is this joy and energy that we need to show to the world.
Christ shares his story and his life with us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is not something that is restricted to “the few.” It is given, as Christ says in the scriptures, for the sins of the many! And it is this joy in forgiveness that we can share. It is this joy, this forgiveness, this energy that we want to share!
I am not asking that you all go out and back someone in a corner and tell them that they must give their life to Christ or be damned to Hell, no! I have had that happen to me and it didn’t do much to increase my faith. What I am suggesting is that we embrace our story and our place within the story of Christ and that we again feel the joy and love of that moment. Then, we allow that energy to pass through us and allow the Spirit to work through us. We allow the Spirit to use our unique gifts and talents and spread that love into the world.
Simon may have just seen the fish as a happy accident of life. He could have just been pleased with the catch and been done with it all. But he saw it as a face to face encounter with the live changing love of Christ. And through Simon living into that life changing love, the whole world was changed. We are called to be fishers of people, not keepers of the aquarium!
One of your points reminded me of an incident when I was in high school thinking about going to seminary. An older gent in my home congregation urged me not to let seminary change me like it did to all the other pastors.
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