Fifth Sunday after Epiphany 2007

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on February 4, 2007. 
Based on Luke 5:1-11 (Epiphany 5, Year C).

 It’s not every day that you actually recognize someone handing out religious tracts at Grand Central. You’ve seen these people, or more likely, you’ve walked briskly past them. If you give them any thought at all it’s to mutter “religious freak” under your breath. But a few weeks ago, after a meeting in the city, I did encounter someone I knew handing out tracts. Actually I would have walked right past the faceless voice that 

asked, “Are you a child of God?” except that my traveling companion had suddenly stopped to give this man a hug. That’s also something I never thought I’d see – someone I know hugging a subway evangelist. It was at that point that I realized I too knew this man who was handing out tracts in Grand Central. Don’t worry, he’s not an Episcopalian. But he does live in Westchester; he is a respectable member of the community; he has a well-paying job; he’s not a member of a cult; he’s not insane. And so while he clearly doesn’t fit the tract-hander-outer stereotype, he does have a profound passion for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

Of course I had no idea what to say to him so it was a fairly awkward encounter. ‘Saved any souls today?’ just didn’t seem right. In some ways I was embarrassed for him, though he clearly wasn’t and was delighted to see a couple of people he knew.

But another source of my embarrassment may have been the fact that I could have never done the same thing. I can say it’s not my style or I can rationalize that I use other methods to spread the gospel. But the fact is, I’m not a very good evangelist. I don’t have the same passion to go out into the world and fish for souls. I don’t go door-to-door to hand out religious tracts; I don’t strike up conversations about Jesus with total strangers; I
don’t offer to pray with people I meet at coffee shops.

This morning’s gospel is all about the dreaded e-word: evangelism. Jesus uses fishing as a metaphor for what the disciples are called to do, which is to spread the good news of the gospel. The disciples’ will be transformed from mere fishermen to fishers of men. And the entire world will change as a result.

We too are called to be evangelists. And this is a great challenge for those of us who have been taught that religion is a private affair; that it is something exclusively between God and the individual. We don’t say grace in public places for fear of being embarrassed and being lumped in with those freaks who hand out tracts in Grand Central .We’re taught that “imposing our religious views” on others is unseemly and rude. And so we err on the side of politeness. We avoid discussing religion with our friends for fear of offending them. Even though it’s difficult to truly be friends at any level of depth if we leave out the very core of our being. 
 

One of the things holding us back from evangelizing others is fear. Fear of rejection, fear of coming across like a religious zealot, fear of failure. And so it’s interesting to hear Jesus preface his remarks about fishing for people by saying, “Do not be afraid.” He knows this isn’t always easy. But it is part of being a disciple of Christ.

The word “evangel” simply means “good news” in Greek. So an evangelist is someone who shares the good news. Which doesn’t mean you have to knock on doors or hand out tracts to be an evangelist. These are mere methods of evangelizing. Perhaps the most effective form of evangelism doesn’t even involve words at all. Our actions may be the loudest form of evangelism we can offer the world. Because when we treat people with the love of Christ, we evangelize; when we stand up against the injustices of the world, we evangelize; when we speak to one another, rather than about one another, we evangelize.

What’s interesting about this exchange between Jesus and the fishermen is that even as Jesus is explaining that they will become fishers of men, he has just evangelized them himself. This entire conversation about fishing has as its subtext the conversion of Peter, James, and John. Now granted Jesus can evangelize and convert people simply by looking at them and saying “Follow me.” I doubt that method would be so successful for one of us, although I guess you could try it. But the first step here is simply a conversation. And that is something we can do; engage people in conversation and live out the gospel through our actions in the world. Just as Jesus spoke to these fishermen in the midst of their daily routine, evangelism happens in the midst of our daily lives. We can speak to people about faith not just in the sacred and safe confines of a church. The kingdom of God extends into the everyday – it exists in coffee shops and shopping malls
and schools and even in the midst of domestic chaos. And so we are empowered to call others to God just as we ourselves have been called by God.

I’m not going to start handing out religious tracts at Grand Central or The Westchester or Club Fit. Nor would I ask you to. I don’t even have any tracts. But we can learn from those who do, we can learn from those who spread their nets seeking to “catch people.” And perhaps, every once in a while, we can at least drop a line in the water and see what comes up.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007

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