Sunday sermon from January 26, 2014
Text: Matthew 4:12-23
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
Many of you know that my wife Sarah is clergy in her own right; she serves as the assistant rector at an Episcopal church; and very often the first question that people ask us when they discover that we are an ecumenically ordained couple is whether or not we therefore have long arguments about theology, like they imagine that we would sit at the kitchen table on a Tuesday evening and rehash sixteenth-century arguments about church governance and ecclesial authority instead of just trying to figure out whose turn it is to clean up after dinner. We have also, each of us at this point heard every stereotype under the sun about our spouse’s denomination, and it is safe to say that we’ve repeated a few of them when the occasion of married life demanded it. But the truth is that on the whole we each benefit greatly from the wisdom of each other’s tradition; she, I think, learns on occasion from the good Presbyterian disciples of organization and order, of which her husband is far from a shining example. But, for my part, have learned greatly from her congregations about the theological act of throwing a reception.
Now, don’t take this personally. This particular congregation – Amherst Presbyterian Church is a church that knows how to feed people. Just last weekend at the session retreat as we were asked to identify various strengths in our congregation and somebody brought up not just our congregation’s prowess in the kitchen but in fact a specific recurring contribution to our potluck breakfasts, the details of which you’ll have to pry from someone else. This congregation knows how to feed people. But as a general rule I think there is some truth in stereotype here; if you were choosing between a dinner thrown by Episcopalians and a dinner thrown by Presbyterians and there were no criteria for your decision except the quality and quantity of the food and drink to be put in front of you I think many of us might make a decision that we’re not comfortable saying here on Sunday morning.
And the difference is surely not ability or acuity in the kitchen; surely the difference is one of sensibility; for whatever reason, I think Presbyterians – and again, you all excepted – have a kind of anxiety about putting together a decently lavish reception. Some years back when I was in the life of a different Presbyterian congregation Sarah and I would sometimes have occasion to come home on Sunday afternoons and compare church receptions, and I remember with perfect clarity coming home one September afternoon after both of our churches’ homecoming lunches. Hers had been this fully-catered outdoor picnic at some luxurious estate, more than you could eat and drink for adults and kids alike, and ours had been, as I recall, green salad and a piece of toasted bread. Surely not because we were incapable of having something more lavish. Surely rather because we had some good Presbyterian anxiety about being lavish in the first place, like if somebody accidentally brought dijon mustard instead of regular mustard that it would constitute an affront to the Gospel and be grounds for disciplinary action.
Or maybe it’s not about lavishness. Maybe we just want to know that people come to church for the right reasons, like having junk food around on Sunday morning would begin to constitute a kind of theological bribery and we need to know that you come to these pews out of a deep spiritual need to commune with the transcendent God and not just because you like donuts. There’s a moment towards the climax of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Ebenezer Scrooge onto the trading floor of the London Exchange and they overhear two of his colleagues debating whether or not to go to the upcoming funeral of someone – probably Scrooge – for whom they obviously bear very little affection. “It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral,” [says one of them,] “for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party and volunteer?” [Says the other,] “I don’t mind going if a lunch is provided… but I must be fed.” And of course we don’t want anyone here who just comes for the lunch and not for the chance to hear the good news and so the decently and orderly Presbyterian solution is to ensure that there is no lunch because of course what we do in this place is not the nourishment of the body but the nourishment of the soul. Eat breakfast before you come.
Now, of course, this is a congregation that knows how to feed people, but I suspect that were we to probe the deep scriptural history of this so Presbyterian anxiety we might find ourselves squarely in our Gospel reading for today, in this moment that separates out the nourishment of the body and the nourishment of the soul, this moment in which fishing for fish and fishing for people are presented as mutually exclusive options. This is of course the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry; in Matthew’s Gospel he has only moments before begun to preach his message, and so this story of Jesus calling his first disciples really has the opportunity to be a kind of foundational statement about outreach and evangelism and why people ever hear the good news. Simon and Andrew are the first Christian converts in recorded history, and then as now just as soon as they join the church he puts them on a committee, the outreach and membership development committee: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
And of course he makes it sound like a promotion. That’s the troublesome bit. I mean, it’s not like Simon and Peter and Andrew weren’t doing important work. Communities along the Sea of Galilee need fishermen. I can’t help but imagine that the success of local fishermen would matter quite a bit to the welfare of their communities. Those men being out in the sea doing their jobs might just be the difference between some families having food to eat or not, and then Jesus comes along and says “forget that business — I will make you fish for people! We are starting a movement! This thing is gonna grow like wildfire, so get out of the boat and let’s go fishing!”
And then what happens? In the Gospel of Matthew the very next event is Jesus’s sermon on the mount, a sermon that sustains itself over several chapters which we will have occasion to hear in the weeks ahead, the most exhaustive account of Jesus’s preaching in scripture and the cornerstone of Matthew’s Gospel; by this time his fame has spread throughout the region and the crowds are following him from as far as Jerusalem and Judea and yes even Galilee; the man is on a roll; his church absolutely is growing like wildfire and yet I wonder, as Simon and Andrew work through the audience, passing out leaflets and doing crowd control, I wonder if in that crowd they find all of their old friends from Galilee or I wonder instead about the ones who couldn’t make it because they were back home providing their own lunch, because when Simon and Andrew and don’t forget John and James all left at the same time frankly it kind of decimated the local economy and now Galilee is a lot hungrier than it used to be and who can find the time to go to church when you have so many mouths to feed? All because Jesus told them not to bother with the fish anymore, not when they could catch people instead.
But of course despite my protest it’s quite clear that Simon and Andrew have done a miraculous job of membership development; after all, half a chapter ago nobody knew who Jesus was and then he put these guys on the committee and fifteen verses later he’s preaching to crowds gathered from the four corners of Israel. And those of us in 2014 who can only imagine what it’s like for a church to grow like wildfire are left with no option but to kind of stare at this text in disbelief, to try and wring from it with such little success a recipe for outreach and dare-I-say-it evangelism that can turn five guys going fishing into a thriving ministry of thousands. I mean, what do you do? Is the secret that you just need to have Jesus in the pulpit? I know I’d show up for church. Or is their membership committee up to something? Do they have a trick up their sleeve that they haven’t shared with the rest of us? Maybe their brochure’s better than ours. Maybe their website’s better than ours. Maybe they’ve got fliers in just the right places; maybe they’re just going door to door selling Jesus like he was a vacuum cleaner, no good Presbyterian sense of decorum about themselves. Maybe it’s just that moment in history, a moment where people were so hungry for any morsel of good news that they would drop everything? Or maybe God is just somehow on the side of that congregation. Maybe that’s why they’re thriving. Maybe that’s why they’ve got all the crowds and why we can’t read this text with anything but envy.
Except that there’s a line we’ve overlooked, the last line of our reading from this morning, long after Jesus pulls together his new disciples and long before the crowds gather around the sermon on the mount, we have a single line of scripture that contains multitudes in its grasp: that Jesus went throughout Galilee, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Curing every disease and every sickness! Obviously we have throughout the Gospels stories of healing and stories of Jesus as miracle-worker, but Matthew doesn’t even bother here to tell us the details; the point here isn’t in the intimate interactions between Jesus and those who seek his healing touch; the point here is for Matthew to show us exactly how Jesus grows his church, for all his talk about spiritually fishing for people it turns out that before he can ever gather them to hear a single sermon, before he can ever get them out of their homes for church on Sunday morning, before he can ever so much as pique their curiosity about how God might be at work in their lives and in their midst, the first thing that he and his membership development committee do is provide for their most basic physical needs. He makes the lame to walk, and then they can come to church. He makes the deaf to hear, and then they can listen to the sermon. He feeds the hungry and heals the blind, and then they taste and see for themselves that the Lord is good. The implication is clear, and if you hear nothing else this morning hear this: there is no evangelism; there is no membership development; there is no strategy for church growth; there is no outreach that does not begin with feeding the most basic needs of all God’s children. Hungry people can’t hear the Gospel.
When I was an early teenager, thirteen or fourteen, I went through that phase that I think most teenage boys go through where I could just eat everything. I just perpetually vacuumed up everything in my parent’s house that wasn’t either nailed down or some kind of raw grain. If my mother were here she could describe the experience of this much better than I can, of thinking to herself “Oh, perhaps I’ll have one of those crackers I bought yesterday” and then going to shelf and realizing, “Oh, no, never mind. They’re gone now.” It meant that there was no such thing as a breakfast that would hold me until lunch, and so I have this memory, as ridiculous as it sounds, of getting excited on those Sunday mornings when I would come to church and realize it was a communion Sunday, because, you know, snacks. Even if I’d eaten breakfast ten minutes ago I knew that come along about halfway through the sermon I was going to start jonesing for something, and thank God communion was coming and at least it was better than nothing. And I admit that to you with some reservation, because it sounds so crass, because Presbyterians love nothing more than to spiritualize what we do here in denial of the very basic human realities of our situation: “Yes, it’s just a little cube of bread and a little thimble of juice, but of course it’s the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation and eat and drink of these and you will hunger and thirst no more!” But I’m thirteen, and I can tell you the truth, and that’s just a little square of bread and it’s better than nothing but I’m still hungry, and that’s just a thimble of grape juice and it’s better than nothing but I’m still thirsty, and frankly if you want any of the rest of your song and dance to make sense just hand me the rest of that loaf and one of those pitchers and leave me be. We may not live on bread alone, but still…
Hungry people can’t hear the Gospel, which means that the task of church growth always begins by meeting the most basic human needs of our fellow children of God. Membership development begins at the shelter. Outreach begins at the clinic. Evangelism begins at the grocery store, and it’s not handing out leaflets. It’s handing out coupons. And if that sounds ludicrous, or if that sounds over-ambitious, or if that sounds like I am just lost in the dream of what it would be like to be a church growing like wildfire, take heart, because more than anything else this is a congregation that knows how to feed people. Amherst Cares, Blue Ledge Meals on Wheels, and the Amherst Food Pantry are all supported by donations from these pews. Daily Bread in Lynchburg relies on a stable core of volunteers from among our membership. And last night at the community dinner, many many of you joined together to serve seventy-seven plates to people from throughout the town, and in so doing you are not just helping those less fortunate, as if that itself were not already a noble task: no, in fact you are with God’s help making space in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ can live and work and breathe.
The only task remaining is to imagine how much more we could do, how much more God could do with us, how much more God could do with the abundance given to us. The only task remaining is to ensure that we are not meeting the needs of the world with nothing but a meager offering of toast and salad. Seventy-seven plates once a month is a wonderful thing but you and I both know that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the real needs of this community and so if you want to build up a church together, let’s feed people. This is a congregation that knows how to feed people, so the only question is whether we are really living into the abundance of God’s grace and mercy? Or are we just handing out thimbles of grape juice and cubes of bread?