Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fishing on the Other Side: Sermon for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany, January 25, 2015

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

As Jesus passed along the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew. They were fishermen, so they were throwing fishing nets into the sea. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little further, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment, he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.
- Mark 1:14-20, Common English Bible

Mark’s is the shortest of the four gospels in the Bible, and we think it’s the first one written. It has the least detail. Some of us hearing this little story about Jesus calling the fishermen may remember how the other gospels tell the same story. Matthew tells it pretty much the same way as Mark. But Luke’s version is a bit different. In his account Jesus tells Simon to row the boat out farther, into the deep water, and drop the nets. Simon replies, “We’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing. But if you say so, I’ll drop the nets.” So they do, and the catch of fish is so large that the nets are splitting, and another boat has to come help them, and then both boats are so full that they start to sink. In yet another version of this story, in John, Jesus says to them, “cast your net on the other side of the boat, and you will find fish.”

I’m mentioning this because this is a good opportunity for me to talk about something facing the church right now. In the United Church of Canada we have General Councils every three years, with commissioners elected from Conferences across the country. I went to the General Council in Ottawa in 2012, and we voted for a comprehensive review of all of the church’s structures and programs. And the group formed to conduct that review came back with a report last year that in some form will go to the next General Council, this summer in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. That report begins with this story of Jesus and the fishermen. It’s called Fishing on the Other Side.

This report is the result of consultations with congregations about who we are as the United Church, how we do things, and how we can live faithfully in changing times. Since then there have been more consultations with presbyteries and conferences. Now, I don’t have to tell anyone here that times are changing in the church. Fewer people attend worship. Fewer young adults, youth and children are participating in congregations. We don’t have the money or the volunteers to do everything we used to do. These pressures are resulting in congregations amalgamating, clustering, or closing, and we have gone through all of that here and around here.

So when the task group consulted with over 600 congregations across the country, they heard about these changing times, and they heard a clear understanding that we are being called to change and to live out God’s mission in new ways. They heard a strong sense of identity as an open, welcoming, and justice-seeking church. They heard that the way we govern ourselves may have worked well at the time of church union 90 years ago but is now too expensive and cumbersome, and needs to be simpler and more effective.

This wisdom from the church is reflected in the principles guiding the comprehensive review. As a church we want strong and vibrant communities of faith at our core, to support people in their spiritual journeys and inspire and equip them to participate in God’s mission. We want our structures to support and enable congregations, and focus on relationships and connections rather than setting and enforcing rules. We want congregations to group together in networks for mutual support and faithful action, rather than governance. We want a strong denominational voice. We want adaptable, nimble and sustainable structures and policies. We want to support and nurture ministers, and to ensure their effective and efficient oversight and discipline.

Fishing on the Other Side, and the reports that the comprehensive review has produced since, set out a model of what a church based on these principles would look like. At the centre of the new model are communities of faith - congregations and a variety of other ministries. You know that right now our decisions in lots of areas, including what we do with property and how I am employed here, are subject to approval by presbytery. In the new model, we would be solely responsible for community life, including worship and learning, and property, leadership, and local administration. We would be able to access support, resources and services from the denomination to help us do that, but we wouldn’t have to answer to anyone.

Right now we are part of a Presbytery, which is part of a Conference. The original Fishing on the Other Side report set out a model with no presbyteries or conferences at all. There would be no levels of church government in between communities of faith and the national body. Communities of faith would be able to group together voluntarily with other like-minded communities around a particular interest or issue. So, just off the top of my head, there might be a rural ministry network, or a network focused on sponsoring refugee families in a particular area, or a French-speaking network. These might continue some of the mission of presbyteries and conferences. But these networks would, as I said, be voluntary and have no decision-making authority.

Now, just recently the comprehensive review responded to feedback by proposing that there would be a middle level – not like presbyteries or conferences, but several regional councils to support, rather than oversee, communities of faith.

And at the national level there would be a much smaller denominational body, tasked with taking public positions, looking after our relations with other churches and faith groups, ordaining and commissioning ministers, and providing shared services like payroll and pensions.

Finally, Fishing on the Other Side puts forward a major change in how we support and oversee ministers. Many of us are familiar with colleges for nurses, teachers, and other professionals. The report proposes a national college of ministers to implement the standards for ministry set by the United Church. A congregation would only be able to call a member of the college as their minister. The college would investigate complaints and discipline ministers. And, if there is to be a college, ministers would be encouraged to form a corresponding association to support and represent them.

Summing up this new model: no oversight of congregations in matters like property and personnel; no presbyteries or conferences, only regional councils and voluntary networks; a college of ministers. That’s what the model looks like now; the final version that will go to General Council will be presented in March.

This may seem very "inside baseball," but it represents a major shift in how we act and what we do right here. And this is all pretty radical, given that we have done things pretty much the same way for 90 years. I was elected as a commissioner to the next General Council, so I will be voting on the comprehensive review recommendations in Corner Brook in August. The theme and logo for this General Council are inspired by the history and culture of Newfoundland, and by our fishing story from the Bible, with the logo depicting a fish, which is a very old Christian symbol, and water, with words taken from the book of Revelation: "Behold, I make all things new/Voici je fais toutes choses nouvelles." And, after General Council decides, their decisions will go to all pastoral charges and presbyteries to vote on in a series of remits, so we here will also get to decide on the future shape of the church.

When the Moderator of the United Church, Gary Paterson, was with us in November he said that the way things are can’t continue. The status quo is not an option. The words he chose as the General Council theme, Behold I make all things new, remind us that the church can’t remain static – it is always reforming. Change is coming – the question is what kind of change.

We know the challenges we face. And we know that Jesus continues to call us to follow him. And, maybe, setting aside our ties to the ways things have been and the ways we are used to doing things will open us to amazing new possibilities. Is Jesus calling us to let down our nets on the other side? We need to decide. I welcome your questions and comments and prayers as I make my own decision.