Sittin’ Around Fishin’

art 01One of the cracks in a broken world just got a little bigger. At least it got a little more visible. During a recent interview, Governor Andrew Cuomo reportedly said that “extremist conservatives” have no place in New York. According to the report, Cuomo defined “extremist conservatives” as “those who are against abortion rights, gun-control measures and gay marriage.”

One county executive called Cuomo’s remarks “’extremely disconcerting’ and divisive in a state that should embrace all political philosophies.” And here in Buffalo, Roman Bishop Richard Malone called Cuomo’s comments the best example of extremism he’s heard in a long time.

Because of my Christian faith, I support abortion rights, gun-control legislation, and gay marriage. However, I would not label as “extremist” my brothers and sisters who oppose those things, and I would not suggest our society would be better off without such persons. On the contrary, it’s an essential characteristic of true community that we need people of every differing opinion, as the human body needs every differing part, if all of us together are to be whole and healthy.

The crack in New York State’s political world that Governor Cuomo spotlights seems a lot like the fissure growing in The United Methodist Church over gay marriage. As debate over the question continues, differences in how to interpret and apply the scriptures are becoming more divisive. Pastors, theologians, ethicists, and educators who believe the essence of the gospel ought to take priority over the rules of the denomination, and who act on their faith, are being expelled from the church.

Our trouble is as old as the Christian faith. In his letter to the church in Corinth twenty-five or so years after Jesus’ resurrection, St. Paul was already striving to prevent fragmentation of the church over disagreements about faith. Factions led by Apollos and Cephas – even some who claimed to be following Paul – threatened to split the church apart. Paul might have kept them together for a while, but he couldn’t stop the tendency in the human community to divide into factions. The tendency continues today.

Followers of Christ are not sent into the world to gather the chosen few into the “correct” group so they won’t be lost with all those who are left in the “wrong” groups. In Christ, God was bringing the whole world together, not letting any belief or behavior of ours stand in the way of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). And that reconciliation is our message, our role, as the body of Christ.

When Jesus told his first disciples he was going to make them fish for people (Matt. 4:19), he was not talking about baiting people and hooking them to get them into the right boat, the right political or religious group. Someone once tried to do that to me, and about the only time I felt more violated was when someone broke into my house years ago and stole some things. Jesus was talking about casting a net of love and respect large enough to include everyone without exception in a community where everyone is welcomed and has an essential part to play in the welfare of everyone else.

Politically liberal or conservative (extreme or not); natural-born citizen or undocumented alien; rich or poor; highly educated or grade-school dropout; white collar or blue; straight or gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered; Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or “none of the above” – Jesus invited as his followers people who would share his great vision and take on his agenda of universal reconciliation.

That’s why our theme this year at Williamsville is “Joining Hands – Building on Love: Seeking Authentic Community for the Healing of the World.” All of us, every last one of us, are essential personnel in that work. Every time a politician or civic leader or bishop or church body or even an ordinary neighbor says someone or some group has no place in our nation or state or church, we need to stand up and speak up and say: There’s another way to live that will make life more abundant for all of us.

Fishing for people can be tough, intimidating work. It can be tough for us who try to do it and intimidating for those whom we’re trying to catch, if “catching” means recruiting people for membership in the church or converting them to Christianity. I’ve been in both of those roles, trying to catch and squirming against being caught, and long ago I had enough of both of them. But there’s another way to fish.

Most of our fishing, our witnessing to our faith, is simply about showing others who we are and what values are at the center of our lives. Instead of saying to a neighbor or colleague at work, “I read something this morning,” it might be as simple as saying, “I read something in my devotions this morning.” It’s not a soul-winning contest; it’s very simply the sowing of a seed, the opening of a door to further conversation.

Fishing for people does not mean that we become more aggressive about sharing our faith. It may mean instead that we become more sensitive to the deep needs and hungers of those around us, which means that we must also become more sensitive to our own deep needs and hungers. And in that sensitivity and presence to ourselves and to the other person, God can find the opportunity for reconciliation, to weave threads of the authentic relationship that in time will become the blessed community that is the realm of God.

When Jesus sought out those who would follow him into a world of abundant life (John 10:10), he did not seek out the spotlight of Jerusalem. Instead he went to Capernaum, a small village in the backwaters of Palestine. Maybe it was his way of showing that the reign of God is not tied down to a single location, or to the correct political party or social group, or to people who are best at observing the established rules of religion.

And maybe it was his way of saying that there’s something more important than purifying the community or building the established church. As Pogo said, “Important work like sittin’ around fishin’ remains to be done.”

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