“Can I Get a Witness? “
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, July 17, 2022
Reading: Luke 5:1-11
…Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him”.…After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him. Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others reclining at the table with them. Luke 5:10, 27 & 28
There are a lot of people out there who need to be drawn into the net of Jesus’ love and lifted up in his grace. Rob Bell tells of being at dinner with a friend who is very clear about how religious she isn’t. She thinks church and God stuff are silly and a waste of time. But then, at the dinner table, she was telling about her little girl’s recent health scare and how terrifying it had been for her as a mother and how all she could do was pray, even though she doesn’t pray.
I tell you about that mother who prayed, even though she is not religious, because when we talk about God and spirituality, we first must talk about our deep-down, intuitive, instinctive awareness that we need help. I realize that this sort of talk is out of sync with many of the dominant voices that have been working on us for many years now, insisting on self-help, self-discipline, self-esteem… Insisting that we have the answer to our problems, that there is no one else out there, and that if we don’t fix things ourselves, there are no other options.
While this sounds empowering and reasonable and free from all that primitive religious superstition, what we run into during our everyday lives are regular struggles that (if we’re honest) we need help with if we’re going to survive, much less prevail, because on our own we know that we are powerless.
What do we struggle with? Sometimes, because we live in such a safe, affluent society, our lives lean to leisure and entertainment, and we can live decades just “amusing ourselves to death.” So, for some of us, it’s procrastination and lethargy that drags us down or makes us numb. Then there are many dangerous struggles: for some of us it’s explosive anger, or addiction, the inability to forgive, or a sense of overwhelming helplessness in the face of tragedy, a low-level constant, gnawing anxiety that won’t go away, or the haunting sense that you’re not quite good enough no matter how hard you work and what you achieve.
When we’re talking about God, we’re talking about the very real sense that we do not, on our own, have everything we need, and we are not, on our own, everything we could be. We need faith – and by that I mean a trusting relationship with something, someone greater than ourselves, who we can look to for guidance, and lean into for strength.
When we have a belief system that includes that kind of trusting faith we can go forward in the adventure of life, even though we know we’re not perfect, and even when we’re pressing on, in the face of the routine, and the uncertainty and the fatigue.
Which brings me to Peter, the fisherman… Peter knew he needed help. Peter sensed that he was out of his depth, over his head in life. Recognizing in Jesus a power greater than himself, Peter felt… overwhelmed. He cried out “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Jesus’ response is to recruit Peter onto his team. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people… When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”
So, Peter, James, and John joined Jesus in a new fishing business. Why did they do this, then?
Why should we do this, now? Aren’t there numerous reasons why it’s smart today to connect people into a friendship with Jesus and healthy faith community? For one thing, the community of Christ is a great place for safe and fun relationships.
David Brooks, The New York Times, “In a world in which the healthiest people tend to be in community and those prone to depression and suicide tend to be disconnected we have much to learn…”
The Christian church has historically been a community where we love one another, bear one another’s burdens, share life together.
Bring your friends. Another reason to bring friends is the potential to make a difference, to contribute in a significant way.
A single mom started attending our church. She had a good job, two kids, wasn’t in crisis or need. I was curious and I asked, “What brought you here?”
She said, “I was drawn by the opportunities to serve. I want my kids to grow up learning to help people and to make a difference.”
Here’s something else. We have God here. Maybe that alone is enough. I confess to you that I have been tremendously influenced by something George Harrison, of the Beatles said. By 1968 he’d had enough of Beatlemania, the fawning adoration, screaming fame, and wanted out. He said, “Everything else can wait, but the search for God, cannot wait!” I think he’s right, and he is speaking a truth that is familiar to many.
I can’t tell you how many times in a week, even in a day, that I connect with someone who is hungry for authentic spirituality. Sometimes it’s a yearning that is quiet, a disease deep inside, a sense of seeking the Divine the Holy. My guess is there are people all around you who have had a taste of religion in the past. It wasn’t totally satisfying, and they got turned off – they had a minister who was a muttonhead, or a church that laid on guilt and shame and anxiety. So, they’ve wisely backed away, and kept their distance – But they still hunger for the holy, for the ONE who is beyond our telling, and yet as close as our breathing – Holy Loving Mystery.
We’ve got God here. Bring your friends. Because that leads to more. Once we accept Peter’s mandate as also ours and become “fishers of women and men” we, almost instinctively, in-advertently start connecting people with God.
Let me try an idea on you that will at first seem like it’s from left field, irrelevant, but I think we can learn from.
Study finds: “Obesity is contagious.” Friends help friends get fatter, a report in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates. Obesity can spread among a group of friends like a contagious disease… The effect is so powerful that distance doesn’t matter – the influence is the same whether friends live next door or 500 miles apart, according to the report. Instead of transmitting germs or viruses, people infected each other with their perceptions of weight. “For example, a man attending a Thanksgiving meal may notice his brother has gained weight and conclude that it’s okay to be heavier,” analyzed a professor of medical sociology from Harvard.
The phenomenon worked in the other direction as well. People who become thinner increase the chances that their friends and relatives will lose weight too, researchers said. The point? Our behaviours, our habits, our attitudes are contagious. You see where I’m going with this, right?
Here we are in church – to varying degrees, we have faith and spirituality that is important to us – or we wouldn’t have gotten up and come down here. I mean really, St. Mattress is tempting, right? But here we are. We might as well recognize and acknowledge that friendship with Jesus changes something – there’s value added to our existence. It’s hope when our world seems crazy; forgiveness when we’ve messed up; persevering strength to press on when we’re feeling exhaustion. It’s because we need somewhere to say thanks because we know how blessed we are; or we want the warm comfort of being surrounded in a safe place, by good people – who we trust and can relax with – even when we don’t know them all…
This place, this faith, this God, this Jesus as friend and role model – it does something particularly good, and there’s a part of us that wishes we could find a way to share it. Because once we connect people with the God seen in Jesus all kinds of good things can happen. Broken parts in life can be healed; mistakes and failures can be forgiven; hope and joy can be restored; meaning and purpose can be bestowed, perspective and understanding begins to clarify.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. A while back, the head of the psychiatric department at Duke University was a man named Bill Wilson, a Christian physician. One of his patients was a Vietnam veteran who had been nonfunctioning for decades. While in the war, mistakes he had made, things he had done caused the death of many people. The hospital staff felt convinced that his illness was the result of his inability to forgive himself. One day Dr. Wilson came to the unit and asked to see him. He went into the poor man’s room, sat on the bed, and said, “I want to tell you that your sins are forgiven.”
“What did you say?” asked the patient.
Dr. Wilson continued, “I have the authority to tell you through Jesus Christ that your sins are forgiven.”
That exchange marked the beginning of a healing, and the patient is now back functioning in society. Dr. Wilson initiated a miracle of healing, not as a psychiatrist, but as a disciple of Jesus. He brought that man to Christ.
How many friends and acquaintances do each of us have who are struggling with this whole problem of guilt? They have failed or hurt family and friends – and they feel that God is holding it against them. They need to hear that their sins are forgiven, that God doesn’t want to punish. God only wants to restore, renew, replenish, reconcile.
“God was reconciling the world to Godself in Christ, not counting humanity’s sins against them. And God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us…” II Corinthians 5:18 & 20
I love that scripture verse – it tells me that we are all supposed to be in the fishing business, as Jesus called Peter toward.
There are many people who you can invite – they’re curious about God stuff, they’re looking for a good place to make a difference with their lives, they’re dealing with a hardship and could use a little Divine presence. There is in them, as in all humanity, a hunger for the Holy. But we don’t want to be stupid or intrusive about this. We don’t want to offend, or embarrass anyone so let me share three quick tips for best results:
- Reach out to receptive people. Who’s that? At various times, individuals and entire groups are more receptive to spiritual things. People in a changing culture will be receptive, people whose personal lives are changing are more receptive, and people who are dissatisfied with their lives; and experiencing transition are more receptive than people whose lives are stable.
- Reach out to non-religious people. Well, that’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Nope, but we should relax right now and acknowledge that trying to get active Baptists or Buddhists to come to our church is not a highly effective strategy. Sociologist Rodney Stark studies religious trends in America. He writes: “People who are deeply committed to any particular faith do not go out and join some other faith… New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented.”
- Reach out to the “Impossible People.” It seems the establishment in every society, writes off certain types of people. They are, by socially agreed definition, hopeless, impossible, or losers. Think about this for a minute…
In the First Century, what did the following groups of people have in common: lepers, the blind or deaf, possessed or mentally ill; Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors? They were all outcasts barred from the temple, from formal worship. Jesus engaged and befriended them all, and then later, they were all welcomed into the early Christian movement.
So, who might be impossible today?
I want to say “No one” for all the reasons we’ve just examined. I believe that at one time or another, all your neighbours and friends and in-laws and co-workers will go through periods in their lives when they are receptive, and hungry for the Holy. Reach out to them… Bring your friends!
The Lord be with you in this church, and with each of us, in our life beyond the church, that we be contagious, gracious, compassionate, gentle, winsome agents for the Holy One.
I think I’m done… But an hour from now, when you’re sitting on a nice patio, waiting for your server to bring lunch, or you’re in front of a TV screen watching to see who will win the British Open, there’s a sign I’d like to put on the doors of our Church building: “Back next Sunday; ‘ til then… we’re ‘Gone Fishin’.”