Sermon: Cast a Lifeline by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli

February 06, 2022

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC February 6, 2022, the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. “Shine On!” series.


Text: Luke 5:1-11                                             


Evangelism is a good word with a bad reputation.” I love this line from A Disciple’s Path Companion Reader. It goes on, “The term has been so abused by slick preachers and manipulative politicians that people inside the church are afraid to speak it and people outside the church run for cover the moment they hear it.”[i] Isn’t this true? The word “evangelical” carries so much baggage in our country it’s difficult to remember that the word evangelism comes from the root word meaning “good news.” To be “evangelical” in its unsullied form is simply to be one who shares good news.


Because of evangelism’s well-earned bad reputation, some may be fine with our covenant promises to faithfully participate in the ministry of the church by our prayers, presence, gifts, and service, but find themselves avoiding the last part: witness. I think for many of us, however, we understand this piece of our discipleship as “walking the talk,” that is, “proclaiming” our beliefs and values through our actions. This is a core part of Christian witness. It’s summed up in the quote attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”


We “walk the talk” both as individuals and as communities. What we do and how we are as a community says a lot to other people. The way we organize and share our common life, set priorities, and engage with the world a is a critical part of our witness, what theologian Douglas John Hall calls “ecclesial body language.”[ii]


And in conversation about our Gospel story for today with my friend and mentor, Rev. Jesse Jackson, he emphasized the responsibility we all have as individuals. He reminded me that God didn’t send a document or an email, God sent a person. And as disciples we are called not just to admire Jesus, not just to worship Jesus, but to follow Jesus.


In our Gospel, Jesus didn’t send those anxious to receive the good news of God a press release or an article about the good work of his congregation, Jesus showed up in person among the people. A key piece of witness is showing up where people need to receive some good news.


Jesus shows up and asked a certain person, Simon Peter, to take him out a little way in his boat, and from there he shared with the crowds. When he’d finished speaking, Jesus got Simon further involved, simply by asking him to do what he already knew how to do: “Let down your nets for a catch.” Simon had no reason to believe that there would be any fish. He had no reason to believe there was any point to casting his net. But he humored Jesus and let down the nets. The unexpected happened, the nets were filled, and Simon is moved to confess his sinfulness. I find this part curious. Why is this Simon’s response?


It makes me think of so many people who don’t believe they are worthy of notice, worthy of good fortune, worthy of others’ confidence, worthy of others’ love. I can hear Simon Peter thinking, “I don’t deserve this bounty. I haven’t earned it. I’m not worthy of your praise or attention for this work, Jesus.” Might that have been part of what is happening here? I think of the heartbreaking lyric from an old Sting song about a transgender sex worker who says, “it’s just not in my plan / For someone to care who I am.”[iii] I imagine there are so many, in a variety of contexts, who sing that song.


Simon had no reason to believe Jesus would care who he was, no reason to believe he would be invited to put on Rabbi Jesus’s yoke and follow him as a disciple. The way things worked in those days meant that if Simon had what it took to follow a Rabbi he would’ve already been in graduate follow-a-Rabbi school and wouldn’t have taken up the family trade as a fisher. According to the ways of the world, Simon Peter had little power and limited options.


But Jesus showed up, recognized that Simon Peter had the resource Jesus needed to do his work (a boat), honored and encouraged Simon’s fishing skill, then called him to apply that skill in a new direction, to “fish for people.” Jesus said, in essence, you have gifts that can be used for the work of the Kin-dom. You are worthy of this call. You are important to God and loved by God. Jesus threw this unlikely fisher a lifeline, an invitation to step more fully into his giftedness, purpose, and place in God’s family.


This is the piece of our own witness that we may sometimes miss: invitation. We are called not only to share God’s liberating love with others through our presence and our action, but also invite them to explore and experience it for themselves.


You and I, like Simon Peter, are called to follow Jesus and to “fish for people.” That doesn’t mean that we manipulate, trap, or hook people—Jesus didn’t do that, he showed up and honored Simon Peter in every way!—it means we cast a lifeline to those who need one. Sometimes that will mean showing up in solidarity in places of struggle and need to bring the good news that someone cares and is willing to do something to help and to amplify the voices and leaders in that community. Other times, it might mean inviting someone to come to our church. (just five words changed Cheryl’s life!) We’re not asked to be someone we’re not, to be inauthentic, or to insert some testimony in awkward ways. We’re not asked to force anything or try to change anyone’s mind. We’re simply called to remember that there are so many who don’t have it in their plan for others to care who they are; that there are so many who feel empty and hopeless, that so many people are searching for meaning and purpose and belonging and hope and friendship and love—even some people who seem to have everything. And many of us find in our faith and faith community those life-giving gifts. We have good news to share! And you never know how a simple invitation might change everything for someone. Our assumption that people aren’t interested or will be hostile could keep us from being agents of God’s prevenient grace in another person’s life.


If we not only admire Jesus, but truly follow Jesus, our witness will be both life changing and world changing. We know that Simon Peter’s life was changed forever; but it wasn’t just about him. Simon Peter became part of a community of friends and disciples who tried to follow, teach, and serve in the way of Jesus. That work was imperfect, but Spirit and grace fueled. And, as the story goes, the public witness of the first Christian communities provided a powerful vision and invitation into a new way of living together, grounded in the love, mercy, justice, and generosity of God. Their communal “body language” was a beacon of hope. And it changed the world. It’s why we are here today.


We may choose to avoid the word “evangelical” because it is so twisted in our time. But in our words and our actions, as individuals and as faith community, we are called to follow Jesus, to fish for people, to cast a lifeline, putting the net of our hearts and lives down deep into all the hopeless, cynical, wounded, weary places where people have no reason to believe that emptiness can be filled, that meaning can be found, that they can be loved, or that things can be different or good or life-giving. As we respond to the call, casting our lifeline, we will experience and share the bounty of God’s grace that always emerges in Spirit’s wake. And isn’t that good news?




[i] James A. Harnish with Justin LaRosa, A Disciple’s Path: A Guide for United Methodists, Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 65.

[ii] Douglas John Hall, The Confessing Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996, p. 135

[iii] Sting, “Tomorrow, We’ll See,” from the album A Brand New Day, 1999.