St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Woodstock
22 January, 2012, Third Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev’d Georgene Conner
REELED IN: EPIPHANY THREE
For today’s reading go to:http://bible.oremus.org/
Jesus doesn't ask does he? He doesn't say to those fisherfolk, "Will you follow me (even though we'll sing that-ater and it's a real favorite hymn of mine) - leave everything and travel with me around the countryside - allow yourselves to become totally confused - sometimes be afraid - have your heart broken, and then revived." He says, according to Greek scholars, "Come after me and I'll make you fishers for people."
Jesus went fishing and he reeled in four people.
That's not the way that Jonah or the apostle Paul behaved. Not by a long short.
God said to Jonah, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me." But Jonah, who hated the Ninevites, booked himself on a boat heading for Tarshish - going in the opposite direction. A great storm came up and the crew was afraid. They threw the cargo overboard to lighten the load but the storm kept up. Jonah was down below, asleep. The captain wakened Jonah and asked if Jonah knew what was causing the storm. Jonah told him that it was because he was fleeing from God. "Who are you and what should we do to make the storm go away?" the crew asked. Jonah said, "I am a Hebrew who worships the God of sea and land. Throw me overboard and the sea will become quiet." The crew hesitated and tried to row to shore but the storm became even more fierce. So they threw him overboard and the sea died down. God provided a huge fish to swallow up Jonah where he spent three days and nights in the belly of the fish. Jonah prayed to God to save him and God had the fish spew Jonah up on land - just about 60 miles - a three days walk from Ninevah.
That's where today's scripture comes in: The Word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Jonah started walking to the city proclaiming "You better shape up or in 40 days God will wipe out Ninevah. He had only gone about a day's journey with this speech but the people believed him and everyone, great or small, put on sackcloth and turned to God.
When God declared forgiveness for the Ninevites, Jonah turned a blessing into a complaint by whining, "I knew God was a God of mercy and forgiveness dad gum it - and now God is giving that mercy to the Ninevites."
God called. Jonah tried to run away but God reeled him in anyway.
On January 25th the church celebrates the feast day of Paul, formerly known as Saul, who hated the people who followed Jesus. In his own words, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (26:9-21), he says to King Agrippa:
"Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' I asked, `Who are you,Lord?' The Lord answered, `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles - to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'
After that Saul lost his vision and was sent to someone who could heal him. Perhaps that strange warped sense of humor of God - before you can open the eyes of others you have to know what it is like to not only be blind to the truth, but blind to everything. Paul changed and became an ardent follower of Christ.
God called and Paul was reeled in.
I finally finished Pat Conroy's South of Broad this past week. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it to you. A lot of the story depicts the author's love for Charleston, South Carolina, but as a genuine southerner who has never been there - that is not what appealed to me about the book. It was the issues that really grabbed my attention - hard issues of the times in the book - issues dealing with the onset of AIDS, suicide, sexual abuse by priests and parents, murder, drugs, unjust punishment, retribution and reconciliation. The other huge issue running throughout the book is that of human relationships - the unflinching love of friends - built on acceptance no matter where they had come from or what they had done - what lengths people were willing to go to for friends even when they had, like Jonah, like Paul, expressed distain and contempt for others.
The main character, a young man named Leo who is called Toad because he is not very attractive or athletic, gets caught holding a bag of cocaine. It belonged to a football player but Leo does not give up the name of the player, not because they are friends but because he just doesn't think it's the right thing to do. For that loyalty he is arrested and ends up on probation for two years. Everyone in town thinks of him as a drug person. Part of his probation is to go by weekly to check on a man named Harrington Canon, the owner of an Antique shop and not the most pleasant man in the world. Mr. Canon hardly ever says a kind word to Leo, but Leo faithfully checks on him. At the end of his senior year, when his probation is almost up, on a day Leo is going by to check on the man, he notices that the cats are outside and wailing for food. He goes inside fearful that Mr. Canon is ill - which he is. He has been so sick that he has been unable to take care of his bodily functions and he is lying in a mess. Leo cleans him up and then calls an ambulance so no one sees Mr. Canon in that condition. Then Leo calls his father and the two of them clean up the whole house. When Leo visits Mr. Canon in the hospital he admits that he has leukemia, has known about it for 2 years and does not believe he will go home from the hospital. He dies and then his lawyer calls Leo to come over. Leo learns that Mr. Canon's antique store, his house, and over $250,000 is being left to Leo. The money is to help him get started with a job when he graduates college.
Here is how Pat Conroy writes about this discovery: "No matter what angle he chose, this majestic house would not be his had he not refused to tell the police officers who had planted cocaine on him during the first week of his freshman year. What was a boy supposed to do with that cache of forbidden knowledge? How is that supposed to help him fashion a philosophy so he could go on to live a worthy, self-actualized life? What do you do when you learn for certain that fate can lead directly to the ownership of one of the finest residences on Tradd Street? It did not look like the work of God, but it might have represented the handicraft of a God with a joyous sense of humor, a dancing God who loved mischief as much as prayer, and playfulness as much as mischief."
For Leo, it is not so much the acquiring of things from Harrington Canon that impacts his life, it is learning how to love. When Leo took care of Harrington Canon when he was in a position to be totally embarrassed by the literal mess he was in, Leo, out of love, not duty, tended to him. Leo's good character is a direct result of his unknown encounter with God.
Is this not like the story of Jonah - of Paul - of so many people who thought they were doing one thing for their own reasons only to find later that God had something else entirely in mind - and that something ended up being much more than their minds could ever have conceived.
When God calls, you are going to be reeled in, sooner or later.
When Jesus went fishing he did not go into the temple and try to recruit the religious leaders in the temple. He did not go to the political leaders of his area. He went instead to those who were living everyday lives - those who were living in the 'real world.'
When Jesus called to those fisherfolk on the shore he said, "Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women." He did not say, 'in addition to everything you are doing now - I want you to add on certain tasks and duties." He did not say, "In addition to who you are right now - I want you to take on other personas." His call, which was more like a demand than an invitation, was a new and different life.
Jesus took an active role in the calling of his first disciples. The norm back in those days was for not for a rabbi to seek out a student - the students were the seekers. The rabbi would interview them and decide who was worthy of being a disciple of that particular teacher. "Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Home Another Way, says, "No self-respecting rabbi would ever have gone out to recruit his own followers, and if he had he would not have picked the first four people he laid eyes on."
Those fisherfolk were not sitting around, mending nets, and wondering who they should check out to be their teacher. They probably weren't the type to look for a teacher anyway. They were focused and occupied with their own world, their own relationships, their own vocations. Jesus did not put out an ENEWS as I admit I have done - saying "Help needed to bring in the kingdom of God - sign-up sheet on the bulletin board. Jesus issued a call to them to follow him and they just got up and followed. We don't know what was said - we can't explain why four people would just get up and leave everything they knew and follow one person.
This response really speaks to the extreme power of God. We are caught and reeled in.
But we shouldn't stay focused on his call or their just getting up and following Jesus - in essence making a commitment to him. This would be like staying focused on the moment in a wedding when the couple says each to the other, "All that I am and all that I have I give to you. I will stay by your side forever." We should look at what that kind of promise means - to be with someone - to follow them - because it is forming an entirely new kind of life - one which requires work - day to day work.
Sometimes in churches we are so good about luring people into a commitment - that we fail to nurture their growth or we are not really honest about what it means to be a Christian. We often hear of people talking about Christians as being to the far right and then off the conversation goes about the issues of the day but being a Christian - a follower of Jesus - means the day to day work of trying to be a loving, responsible, forgiving, and accepting person. And it is not easy. It is easy to spout off about issues - to get bogged down in debates - because then no one has to do anything.
Making a commitment to Christ is not a one-time event to which we respond and then we're done - complete some task, and then we're on to some other way of spirituality or religion. Answering the call of Christ is saying, 'I will live my life in a certain way beginning now and continue forever. I will love, serve, heal, reconcile and forgive.'
When God goes fishing, we will be reeled in - even if we try to go the other way and even if we have acted terribly toward other people. And guess what? God is always fishing. We have a choice - whether to be caught or not but just know - God never stops fishing.
You call and we follow.
You call, and we leave behind
The nests of our past lives;
The things that bound and held us;
Our old selves and our regrets.
For calling and disturbing,
For surprising and making new,
For moving us towards wholeness,
We thank you Lord.
Kate Mcllhagga from Around a Thin Place: An Iona pilgrimage guide by Jane Bentley & Neil Paynter