Often I tell stories about my kids. But sometimes I do something and they ask, “are you going to tell this one?” We found ourselves having just that conversation over our Christmas vacation in Florida. We were pulling out of a gun range parking lot. “Are you going to talk about this?”
And so, the story of how a pastor ended up belonging to a Florida gun club.
But to understand how I ended up there, I need to start back a few weeks. Earlier in December, Jay hurt his back. He took it easy and it got better. Until one of those weekend snows; he spent the weekend snowblowing, cross country skiing, and even shoveling out the fire hydrant. Not recommended when recovering from a sore back. The next day he hit a wall of pain.
A trip to urgent care and lots of rest got him feeling better in time for Christmas Eve. But then he over did it again. We flew out the next day. Again, not recommended for a sore back.
So we arrive to Florida to see his parents in their retirement home. We’re sleeping in a guest room of the retirement home. Jay’s walking around like his 89-year old father. The future passed before my eyes.
We made another trip to urgent care. And then I felt my own urgency, sitting around with three Edmundsons in wheelchairs with lap blankets and two teens looking for fun in a retirement home. Desperate times call for drastic actions. And that’s when I remembered: I’d seen a shooting range on the way in from the airport. It was either that or a wheelchair race.
When I proposed it, the kids didn’t believe me. “You want to go where?” I didn’t think it was so odd. I’d grown up shooting guns at Boy Scout Camp; never scouts, they’d never had the chance.
And so we set off. Entering the shooting range I’d seen by the airport, an employee asked if I had a concealed carry permit. “No.” “Well,” he said, “we follow the law here; you can’t shoot without a permit.” Sensing our disappointment, he added, “but go down the street, they’ll let you shoot there.”
So we not only got a chance to shoot but experienced all the problems with our weak gun laws; such regulations as exist can too easily be driven around.
But I wasn’t thinking about politics in that moment; I had two teens ready for the range. So we drove down the road. Take Aim sits between two auspicious landmarks: on one side, a showroom for used ATVs and on the other an abandoned National Guard facility now cordoned off as a superfund site. Not exactly scenic Florida.
Inside, they offered a deal: you could use the shooting range without a permit if you became a member of their gun club. The club had a full arsenal of choices; we stuck to the low end, 22’s.
The former presidential candidate Howard Dean famously said that Democrats had to stop focusing on “God, guns, and gays.” But there it was, a godly gay with a gun.
I think my kids still can’t believe I took them to a gun range. But sometimes we have to do the unusual and unexpected. Even if no one can quite believe it.
I mention this today because of course Peter, Andrew, James, and John did something utterly unexpected too. It seemed like an ordinary morning fishing but it ended with them leaving everything behind so they could follow Jesus.
Nothing in the Gospel of Matthew prepares us for the unusual and unexpected action of the first disciples. Jesus called; and they took the remarkable step of following him.
The original Greek text captures the abruptness of this change. We translate their response to Jesus’ invitation as, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” The word we translate at “immediately” - eutheos in Greek - is literally the exclamation, “Good God.” So we could better capture what Matthew wrote if we translated him as giving a first person account of a bizarre scene; “Good God! They left their nets and followed him!”
The disciples took a tremendous risk. Think of what this decision meant for them: leaving behind their families, abandoning their work, dropping everything. This risk remade their lives.
Matthew told this story - at the very beginning of the Gospel - to emphasize that following Jesus calls us beyond the familiar and the comfortable to take extraordinary risks by doing unusual things. Discipleship requires us to do the amazing; to push ourselves to do something so out of character that friends might say, “Good God!”
I hope that the most shocking things my kids can tell about me won’t be taking them to a shooting range. But instead, risks I took to follow Jesus.
As a congregation, we decided in 2015 to take on an audacious goal of growing the size of our worshiping community. We wanted to bring new people into our community and engage our existing members so they came more often. Overall, we aimed for a 5% growth each year.
Articulating the goal turned out to be far easier than achieving it. Like a New Year’s resolution, we’ve struggled. And, in fact, our worship attendance declined.
Inviting friends to church is risky and challenging for many of us. Many of us would rather go to a gun club then invite a friend to worship. I’m not always sure why this is so hard; but I know it is for many of us.
Over the last two years, as we’ve talked on-and-off again about this goal, I hear a common refrain: “I don’t know anyone looking for a church. None of my friends would be interested.”
There’s research on this. Of people who don’t belong to a church, nearly 80% would go if a friend invited them. But only 2% of people in a church ever invite their friends. So there’s a mismatch between people willing to accept an invitation and those willing to give an invitation.
Yet still people insist to me, “I don’t know anyone whom I could invite.”
So I want to set aside the sociological research and tell you what I experienced. One of my friends is Hindu. She grew up in a multi-faith environment in India. She was a Hindu child attending a Protestant school with Muslim friends. I invited her to come to Plymouth one Sunday when I thought the sermon might be meaningful to her.
“I can’t come,” she said to me in an email, “but I told someone else about it.” My Hindu friend knew a couple who walked out of their Catholic congregation after anti-gay remarks by the priest, vowing not to return. Hearing about Plymouth, they decided to come. Over the next few months, I would occasionally see them in worship. We’d talk and then a bit later I’d see them again until eventually they were coming with some regularity. They joined the church. Catholics who became Protestants because of a Hindu.
And you know what happened on the Sunday they joined? Three different people came up to me to say, “Oh, I know him” or “Oh, I know her.”
It took a Hindu friend to bring this couple into our church. And yet, they already knew several of us. But no one took the risk of making an invitation. Here’s our challenge as a church: I don’t know enough Hindus for us to rely on them to grow our church. But here’s our opportunity: we all have friends who would say yes if we asked them to church.
Now I know the other reason I get why people can’t take this risk. “I don’t want to seem like some pushy Christian.”
I get it. We can all ante up with tales of pushy Christians. And so in the United Church of Christ, we’ve tended towards the opposite. With evangelicals being very pushy, in-your-face about salvation, we tend to be quiet and soft-spoken about our faith.
We think this is a version of “they go low, we go high.” But our quiet approach comes at a terrible cost. Across the country, our progressive congregations grow smaller as we go quieter.
Telling people about our faith and our church doesn’t have to be annoying. Mary Ann Neevel was never a pushy Christian. She didn’t hit people over the head with her faith and always remained open to learning about the spiritual traditions of others.
And yet, it seemed like every time I visited Mary Ann in the hospital, she had a new story about someone she’d invited to church or told about the UCC - the doctor, new to the community, who would really fit at Plymouth. Or the nurse, recently divorced. Or the custodian.
It seemed no matter how sick Mary Ann got, she still found a way to talk about her faith and this community; not because she was pushy but just because she wanted to share what she loved.
So it’s not, “when they go low, we go quiet.” But rather, “when they use shame, we share love.”
I know this feels risky. I know it felt risky to the disciples to follow Jesus. But discipleship means leaving behind the familiar to try something new and unexpected. The risks we take matter to people.
Recently I talked with a newer person to our community. A number of things happened to make life stressful. One of those perfect storms; everything happening at the same time. In the midst of it, two people from church took her out. “And suddenly,” she told me, “I realized I didn’t have to carry this burden alone.” The perfect storm changed into something manageable; gave her the ability to ride it out.
Another new person to our community came because they wanted to be part of a community making a difference. They wanted to support our work facing white privilege and advocating for racial justice.
Neither of these people would have come and stayed without people taking the risks to invite them and get to know them.
People come to church for all sorts of reasons - some because they need support and others to give support (and most because of both). We can help our friends by sharing with them a community where they can be cared for and where they can care.
I surprised my kids this Christmas by taking them to a shooting range. It was far outside my comfort zone. But despite it, we had a good time. Sometimes taking a risk, doing something unexpected, turns out alright.
I know inviting friends to church can seem as unexpected as my going to a gun range. But this risk builds our community by inviting people to “discover meaning in life, grow in relationship with God, and serve neighbors near and far.” We all know people who want that in their lives; the question is whether or not we can ask them to join us on this journey. Alleluia and Amen.