Sermon delivered at Providence Baptist Church, Shawboro, North Carolina for their 190th Homecoming Celebration.
Everything that I ever needed to know about how to be a minister, how to love my neighbors, how to preach, how to lead a congregation, how to administer pastoral care, how to pray for others, and how to have a covered-dish luncheon, I learned from my church family at Providence Baptist Church and from my family that raised me in Shawboro.
My fondest memories include Bill Dawson and Steve Saunders taking the youth group to Caswell. After seminary, I continued to take youth to Caswell, and in the early nineties, Kyle Matthews taught us a song at Caswell that continues to inform my understanding of what church is all about.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Growing up in this very special corner of the world surrounded by water, I learned that the main thing that the church should keep the main thing has a lot to do with going fishing.
I guess you could say that because I enjoyed going fishing so much with my Nana and Granddaddy in Oregon Inlet, all of those stories Mr. Wellons taught us about Jesus going fishing with his disciples really had an impact on me.
Like the one when Jesus is having church down at a place where every pastor in land-locked Oklahoma dreams of having some church, right on the beach. The congregation gathered that day is so large (the dream of every pastor), they keep “pressing in on him to hear the word of God,” almost pushing Jesus into the water.
Jesus sees two boats belonging to some fishermen who are out washing their nets. He climbs into one of the boats belonging to a fella named Simon and asks him to put it out a little way from the shore so he could teach the crowds on the beach from the boat, setting up a little pulpit on the water.
After the benediction is pronounced and church is over, Jesus says to Simon, “Let’s move the boat to some deeper waters and go fishing.” And this is when, for Simon and all of us, that church really begins.
Simon says, “Jesus, we’ve been fishing all night long and haven’t caught a thing. But, if you say so, I’ll cast my net one more time.”
It is then that Luke tells us that they catch so many fish that they had to call in re-enforcements and a second boat. The nets begin to break. Filled with so many fish, both boats begin to sink.
Now, notice Simon’s reaction to this glorious catch: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow for this miraculous catch of fish!”
Nope, not even close.
Scared to death, Simon says the almost unthinkable: “Go away from me Lord!”
Then, as it usually is with the stories of Jesus, we learn there is much more going on here than a few folks going fishing. This is really not a story about catching fish. It is a story about catching people. It is a story about bringing new people aboard. It is a story about the main thing.
And, like Simon, it is this main thing about being church that scares us to death.
Growing up in Northeastern North Carolina, I quickly learned that there are basically two types of fishermen.[i] First, there’s the fisherman who really doesn’t care if he catches anything at all. He’s perfectly content sitting in his boat with a line in the water. He couldn’t care less if he gets a nibble all day long. Enjoying the sunshine, taking in the salt air, brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes, he’s so comfortable, he is so at peace, so at home, he might even doze off and take a little nap. He’s just happy to be in the boat. He’s got a bag lunch, some snacks and a few cold beverages, and a bumper sticker on his truck that reads: “A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work.”
And besides, if he did catch anything, which by the way would be by sheer accident or dumb luck since he’s not paying any attention whatsoever to his pole, that would just mean for some work for him to do when he got back to shore. And one thing that fishing is not supposed to be is work! At the end of the day, these fishermen reel in their line to discover that their bait is long gone. As my Granddaddy used to say, the poor souls were out there “fishing on credit.”
I am afraid this is the problem with many of us in the church today. We’re perfectly content just to have one line in the water, not really caring if we ever bring anyone else aboard. Because bringing aboard others always involves work. It involves sacrifice. Because you know about others? They are just so “other.”
So, the main thing about our faith is reduced to making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is happy, peaceful, and comfortable. If we catch something, that’s well and good. But if we don’t catch anything, well, that might even be better.
Then, there’s the fishermen who are really intentional about catching fish. Nana and Granddaddy were definitely of this type.
On the water with Nana and Granddaddy, I didn’t know whether to call what we were doing out there “fishing” or “moving.” Because oftentimes, as soon as I could get some bait on my hooks and drop it in the water, I’d hear Granddaddy say, “Alright, let’s reel ‘em in. We’re going to this place over there where the fish are more hungry.” I remember spending as much time watching the bait and tackle on the end of my line fly in the wind as we moved from place to place as I did watching it in the water. But guess what? With Nana and Granddaddy, we moved a lot, but we always caught a lot of fish!
Mr. Wellons also taught me a little phrase that continues to inform my ministry today. I remember him saying it every time I would go to his house. Which we would almost always do around this time of the year to see their Christmas tree. Mr. Wellons would proudly call my parents to let them know that he and Mrs. Wellons were one of the first in Shawboro to get their Christmas tree up, and we would head on over. Every time before we left, Mr. Wellons would always say the same thing: “Come back when you can’t stay so long!”
To be the church that God is calling us to be, we have to be a people on the move. The danger with many churches, is that we can get in a rut of staying too long in some comfortable and contented place, like, let’s say, 1955.
In the 1950’s, we as the church grew accustomed to people coming to us. We didn’t have to move. For variety of social and cultural reasons, all churches had to do to attract a big crowd was to open their doors and turn on the lights. There was a great church construction boom in the 1950’s, as the prevailing church growth mentality was “if you build it, they will come.” And people came. Some came because they had nowhere else to go. Most people stayed home on the weekends. Going to church and to Grandmama’s house afterwards for chicken pot pie and cornbread was the highlight of their weekend, if not their entire week.
However, here in the 21st century, hardly anyone stays home. People are constantly on the move, on the go. So, in order to share the good news of Jesus with others today, we have to get up and intentionally be on the move. We have to constantly reel in our lines to go to meet people exactly where they are, especially in those deep, dark places where people are hungry for love and starving for grace; where they are thirsting for liberty, justice and equality. And when we meet them where they are, we need to seriously meet them where they are, not where we may want them to be.
The problem is that too many churches today are sitting back, half asleep, with one pole in the water. They are not moving, not going out. They not only could not care less if anyone comes to them. But if by sheer accident or dumb luck someone new does happen to come aboard, churches expect them to come aboard in a manner that measures up to their own expectations. That is, they expect people to come aboard who look like them, behave like them, and believe like them. Many churches claim their doors are opened for all; however, they really do not mean “all.”
I will never forget that Nana used to go fishing with this special pocketbook. It was leather. And she must have lined with plastic. Nana always went fishing with this pocketbook, because when Nana was about the business of catching flounder, Nana did not discriminate. What I mean by this is that Nana very graciously welcomed all flounders aboard the boat, even if they did not measure up to the expectations of the North Carolina Wildlife Commission.
I remember measuring a flounder: “Ah man! This flounder is a half inch too short, I guess I need to throw him back.”
“Oh, you will do no such thing!” Nana would say with her English accent and a savvy British giggle. “He’s ‘pocket-book size!’”
Last week, I called to share this story with mama, to which she responded: “Jarrett, you better not tell that story!”
But as I told my Oklahoma congregation last week, “If following Jesus does not get you into some trouble, you’re probably are not doing right.”
The reality is that as a pastor, I am constantly getting into trouble. And what’s crazy is that I get into the most trouble when I preach sermons on unconditional love. People in my congregations have become livid when I preach against hate and discrimination and for loving and including people who do not measure up to our cultural, societal, or religious expectations.
I once heard someone say that he was downright ashamed to be a member of his church, because it was becoming a church for “those people.”
Here’s the thing, this person he truly believes that the main thing that the church is about is making sure that everyone who is already in the boat is contented, comfortable and happy. He does not have a clue that the main thing is actually about bringing others aboard without discrimination and leading them to make the life-giving, world-changing confession that “Jesus is Lord.”
And God help us when the church embarrassed to stand up to our friends and family and shout with the Apostle Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation!” What’s the rest of that verse? “For everyone…Jew and Gentile. (Romans 1:16). Everyone.
I am afraid that there are people in every church who remind me of fearful ol’ Simon, who upon looking at all those different fish in the boat, responded to Jesus with those unthinkable words: “Lord, go away from me.”
And the sad truth is: when a church begins discriminating, denigrating, and alienating others, when a church starts running away others because they are so “other,” then I believe that church also runs the Spirit of Jesus away, as it ceases being the church. It ceases being the body of the Christ who loved all, welcomed all, and died for all, and it becomes the worst kind of club.
As the church, as the body of Christ in this world, the main thing is to make sure that we are only excluding those whom Jesus excluded, and that is no one, even if it gets us into some trouble.
Before Jesus left this earth, I believe his final words were to remind us that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, how to be a church where the Lord is never sent away, but always present.
In Matthew 28 we read what we call the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go (be on the move) therefore and make disciples of all nations, (All. Without discrimination.) baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Late Disciples of Christ pastor Fred Craddock loved to tell the story of a local church that functioned more like a club. They failed to understand that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Although their sign out front read, “A church that serves all people,” when all people would show up to be served, the grumbling became so intense that it continually drove the newcomers away.
“Would you look at how long his hair is? Do you see all of those piercings! Oh my word, how those children are dressed! He sure is odd. She’s certainly strange. Don’t tell me we are now going to be a church for those people!”
About ten years went by. When, one day, Craddock was driving down the road where that church was located when he saw that the building that once housed that church had been converted into a restaurant.
Curious, he stopped and went inside. In the place where they used to be pews, there were now tables and chairs. The choir loft and baptistery was now the kitchen. And the area which once contained the pulpit and communion table now had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. And the restaurant was full of patrons—every age, color and creed.
Upon seeing the sad, but very intriguing transformation, Craddock thought to himself, “At last, God finally got that church to serve all people.”
I thank God today that all I ever need to know about how to lead a congregation to be the church, I learned not in the hallowed halls of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but right here in the Providence Baptist Church of Shawboro and in a boat on the waters of Oregon Inlet.
Well, Providence, it has been 190 great years, but the question before us today is: “Do we want this church to still be sharing the good news of the gospel, still making disciples who will love all people, still baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit 190 years from today?”
If we do, we must never forget, and teach our children and their children to never forget, that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
[i] I heard my friend Rev. Jesse Jackson allude to these “2 types of fishermen” at the Oklahoma Disciples of Christ Regional Men’s Retreat at Camp Christian, Guthrie, Oklahoma, 2016.