Next month will mark five years since we began to explore how we might be better together. During that time, I’ve come to really appreciate our decision to continue with James and Andrew as our patron saints. Here’s why.
In today’s gospel lesson, we witness Jesus of Nazareth call his first disciples. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee’s shore, where he notices two brothers casting their net for fish. Jesus calls out to Andrew and Simon Peter: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
But that’s not the crazy part of the story. The crazy part is that,
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Then in the next verse, Jesus notices James and John, the sons of Zebedee, mending their nets. The same thing happens. Again.
Nothing has ever quite satisfied my curiosity about these two moments. What was happening in the lives of Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John? How were they so ready to walk away from their family vocation, their financial security, or even their social status-- all to go with this stranger? Could any of us make that same sudden shift in priorities if a stranger approached us with such an invitation? Or better yet, how often do we receive this kind of invitation and not even notice it?
While we can never know exactly why, I do think it’s fair to assume they must have had some kind of divine encounter. Upon seeing Jesus of Nazareth, hearing his voice, taking in his demeanor and invitation these four had a rare moment where there was a thin veil separating their inner knowing and the divine. At that moment, they knew this was an invitation they could not refuse.
This call story tells us a great deal about our two patron saints. Most notably, they appear to be early adopters.
This term comes from the diffusion of innovations theory, which explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spreads. At one end of the bell curve are the innovators, then the early adopters; in the middle of the bell are the early majority and the late majority; and on the other side of the curve are the laggards. If Jesus of Nazareth was the new innovator on the scene, sharing ideas about God’s dream for this world, then our two patron saints were early adopters of those ideas. They literally dropped their nets to follow Jesus and join a movement that seeks to turn this world upside down and right side up again.
As early adopters, our saints clearly had a taste for adventure. They had an enhanced capacity to be more curious than certain. They knew how to trust their instincts and see possibilities where others might only see limitations. Think of the story of Andrew finding the boy with the loaf of bread that would feed so many people.
This story tells us that our patron saints knew a thing or two about resilience. When you have a willingness to try a new idea before it’s mainstream, there will be times it won’t go well. You have to get up, dust yourself off and keep going. We see this resilient behavior again and again in the disciples.
Like our patron saints, we too have a reputation for being early adopters. Before many other churches in our diocese had considered mergers, former St. James and St. Andrew spent a few months dating, only to marry and start a new adventure together. Five years later and several other churches have taken a similar path in our diocese.
Then there was nesting. Long before the idea of multiple churches sharing one building took hold in our diocese, we were sharing space with a spiritualist community who met in the Whiteman Room and Chapel. While that community has since disbanded, we have recently welcomed a LatinX Spanish speaking faith community into our lower level.
As Ben Cluff recently reminded us, there was Tapestry. Before the wider community understood why a Syringe Access Program was so important, we welcomed them into our space, knowing just how much their mission and ours lined up. We were both serving God’s people, and we were in a position to support their good work. Now the wider community has accepted the importance of Tapestry’s programming, and they have outgrown our space. What a blessing to have been able to walk together for a while.
Now more than ever, we need to lean into our patron saints’ spirit of early adoption. A couple of weeks ago, the clergy and vestry met with a few ministry team chairs and some of our parish’s young/ under 50ish leaders. We began by taking in the birds eye view of trends in the wider church, and here at Saints James and Andrew. Some of it was hard to hear.
The Episcopal Church, like all mainline denominations, and more recently, evangelical denominations, has been in decline since the 1960s. When the national church offered their annual report near Easter 2020 (a month into the pandemic), the Episcopal News Service ran a story on the report, where the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, an expert in denominational decline and renewal said,
“The overall picture is dire – not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly...At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.”
That report reflected pre-pandemic data. It is too soon to say what the overall effect of the pandemic will be, because we are still learning to live with the virus. What we do know, as leaders across the Episcopal Church keep identifying it, is that the pandemic was like someone put their foot on the vehicle’s accelerator. Trends that might have taken five years, have happened in one.
We took a closer look at the trends of our parish. While we are the seventh largest parish in our diocese, we too have difficult decisions we will need to make in the next five years, as we are experiencing similar trends. Which is why we spent an afternoon sitting with the trends, and imagining where we might need to get creative about envisioning our future.
For these kinds of conversations, there are no quick fixes. As one wise lay leader put it, it’s more like a season of wandering in the wilderness. One of the most beautiful parts of wandering is we are more aware and mindful of our context, and open to considering new ways of doing things. We rely more closely on God and one another, and as a result we grow and change in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. We also live more fully into being the hands and feet of Christ in our community. Which is precisely the dream God is calling us into.
Who knows? At our conversation, one of our young lay leaders pointed out that we may find ourselves engaged in mission and ministry in the coming years that we can’t even imagine today because we don’t yet realize it’s the way our wider community may need us the most.
I imagine when Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John, dropped their nets to follow Jesus, that they were deeply aware that something transformative was about to begin. And I bet for each one, this new path was also terrifying. If we want to control our path, dropping our nets and following Jesus is going to be difficult and dare I say, excruciatingly painful.
In the midst of an uncertain future, it is easy to embrace a scarcity mindset. Which will leave us yearning to take back the reins and control our future, instead of being present in the current discomfort and relying on Christ and one another. When we yearn for control, we also become more concerned with ourselves than the needs of the wider community and God’s dream. We forget that, "The church is the only society that exists primarily for those who are not its members," as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry writes in Love is the Way.
Yet if like our patron saints, we drop our nets to follow Jesus, and remain open to where the journey may take us, we will come out of the wilderness a changed people.
Who knows where this pandemic will take us.
Who knows what the trends may become in the wider church or here in our parish.
What we do know, is we are being invited to join our patron saints in dropping our nets, and following Jesus.
So dear ones, this week, just one question for each of us to prayerfully ponder:
What nets do we need to drop, in order to more fully follow Jesus on a transformative journey of wandering in the wilderness? Amen.
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