St. Philip Lutheran Church
6 February 2022 + Lect. 5c (Epiphany 5)
Rev. Josh Evans
It was a risky venture. Sure, they had always done things together in the past. They collaborated on summer projects and even sat in on each other’s regular weekly gatherings. But something as big and ambitious as this … a merger? What if it doesn’t go the way they planned? What if not everyone is on board with it? What if…it fails?
These were the questions I imagine the two Lutheran congregations were pondering – and more. For several years, they had already been doing Vacation Bible School together. Their pastors regularly swapped pulpits with each other. They even shared some staff and council leadership. But now, the proposal on the table was officially coming together … closing two congregations in order to create something new entirely.
It was risky. You can almost feel yourself instinctually holding your breath in that in-between space … between the ending and the new beginning. What if… ?
As if it wasn’t enough that Jesus essentially hijacked Simon’s boat and demanded of the tired, worn-out fishermen to put out a little way from the shore so he could teach the people whatever he was teaching them (the text never actually tells us) … as if all that wasn’t enough, now Jesus – absolutely not a fisherman whatsoever – gives the professionals unsolicited advice to let down their nets for a catch (just try again!). As someone who doesn’t like being told what to do, I can strongly relate to Simon, and I imagine what he actually says is far from what he actually thought and wanted to say.
There were certainly questions: It’s been a long night. We just started putting everything away, and now you want us to take it all back out again? We’ve been doing this our whole lives. We know these waters. And you think we’re going to catch something, just like that? Who are you to tell us how to do our jobs? But … what if… ?
It had to be one of the largest hauls of fish they had ever seen! So large, in fact, that it was starting to break their nets. So heavy that not even two boats could hold it all before they began to sink.
They took a risk, and the risk produced more abundance than they ever dreamed possible.
We’re often taught to think of this story as a miracle story and a teaching about evangelism. Fishing for people means catch and no release. Casting our nets wide and indiscriminately pulling people into the church to fill pews – though theoretically to experience the same kind of community we ourselves have found.
But I have to say, when I actually step back from that metaphor and really look at it, it strikes me as kind of sketchy … manipulative, even. Fishing for people, “catching” them and not releasing? Shouldn’t we want people to want to come here – willingly and intentionally – and not be dragged in by our nets?
What if the real miracle of the story is not the abundant catch of fish? What if that’s not actually the point?
Yes, I think it’s still a call story. I think it’s still a story about what it means to follow Jesus, and to invite others to follow him as well. But if the miracle is catching all those fish, then why on earth would they leave it all behind? It’s right there at the end of the story: They left everything and followed Jesus. Everything … including the fish.
There’s something more going on here, and I think the key is found in the midst of the crisis … in the midst of the breaking nets, in the midst of the sinking boats, in the midst of feeling overwhelmed, both physically and emotionally … after they had been working all night … they were tired. This was the kind of stuff for the start of a shift, not the end of it.
But in that overwhelm, in that crisis, they signal to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. That’s where the real miracle is.
The real miracle is in the community, in the partnership, in getting through the hard thing together. The real miracle is in the community that already exists … before the amazing catch of fish.
The real miracle – of being a part of the kind of community that Jesus is calling us to – reminds us that we are not alone. The load isn’t ours to carry by ourselves. The help and partnership we need may be as close as the other boat, or in the next pew, or in the other congregation ten minutes across town.
When those two Lutheran congregations closed what had always been, with all their own histories and traditions, they organized to become UNITY Lutheran Church. That was in 2016. The three pastors from one congregation had all stayed on, and the one pastor from the other congregation had intentionally resigned to take a new call. Two years later, the congregation voted to call the first pastor specifically called to UNITY. (Spoiler alert: I’m talking about myself.) The dream was starting to take shape. It was working … in ways planned and in ways unexpected.
This new thing that the Spirit was calling them to was also working specifically because of what hadn’t changed.
The people and the community that made up both congregations never changed, and in fact, it only got bigger in the process. One growing congregation – landlocked on three sides by a subdivision and on the fourth by a main road – gained a sprawling 17-acre campus. And the congregation on the 17-acre campus – with aging members who had lived to see generations come and go – gained a Sunday School program with dozens of kids every week.
And so much more than that, too. The best of both places was now a part of UNITY.
Risk happens. We hold our breath and wonder: What if it doesn’t go the way we planned? What if not everyone is on board? What if it fails?
But what if… what if it does work out?
What if it leads to a promise and a place of abundance we could have never dreamed of? What if leveraging the assets we have – our people power – and the abundance of community that God has already provided, lets us actually – intentionally – fish for people? What if the community grows not because they were caught in a net and dragged here… but because those people on the outside looking in see a community doing the hard stuff and the good stuff together and they want to be a part of it too?
The real gift, the real miracle, is you – all of you, all of us. What – and who – we need is here.
In a few moments, we’ll gather around the font to welcome Annie into the family of God – and to welcome Annie’s parents and big brother into the St. Philip family, too.
Today is about Annie’s baptism, but this is an act that involves the whole community – all of you, all of us. While Annie cannot speak for herself, her parents and sponsors respond on her behalf, and the whole congregation also makes promises to accompany Annie on her Christian faith journey.
In this sacrament, as we welcome Annie into the family of God, we’re also reminded of our own baptisms – some longer ago than others. We remember – maybe with the help of family stories and photographs – the people who surrounded us when we were brought the waters of this font – the sponsors and family members who answered for us, and those saints, past and present, of this congregation or other congregations, on behalf of the whole church, who also promised to accompany us on our Christian faith journeys.
The real miracle is in that community.
The real miracle is here, in this community.
Thanks be to God!