The Lessons for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (Year B): Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
The light of Epiphany shines through the lives of the Saints.
A life dedicated to a good cause rises above the ordinary and many times is considered a hero. We call this “responding to a call,” acting on a mission. All our heroes, whether saintly or secular, are people who responded to a call and acted on the demands it made on their lives. St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, as Luke described it, was dramatic and utterly life-changing. As Saul of Tarsus he was stopped in his tracks; he was called by name; he was confronted by the glorified Christ; and as a result, he became a new man for Christ.
The rather ridiculous person of Jonah, by contrast, tries to avoid a call and is confounded at every turn. God is not mocked, but God, apparently, can appreciate a joke.
The short gospel of Mark is filled with calls. Jesus calls the people to himself and to the kingdom of God, and the people call to Jesus for help and healing. We are barely into the first chapter when John, called by God to proclaim and practice a baptism of repentance, pays for his obedience to this call by being arrested by a worthless king.
Jesus, baptized by John, hears the voice of his Father proclaiming a call that is unique: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” and then spends 40 agonizing days in the wilderness contemplating his calling. Having chosen the way of utter obedience, he starts immediately to live out his response not in isolation but in the gathering of those whom he in turn calls by name.
There is an immediacy here, an urgency that propels the message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Cold chills run up and down the spine when the Son of God pronounces the word “time” – kairos in the Greek, the special time of God. Jesus uses this word, kairos, to speak of its fulfillment, or to declare at crucial moments: “My time (kairos) has not yet come.” He is always aware of where he is in God’s kairos.
As reported by Mark, he calls two sets of brothers first. Were they aware of God’s time? Is this why they responded so quickly? There seems to be no question in their minds that this is God’s call to them through this young, vibrant Jesus who becomes the focus of their existence from then on, even though most of the time they don’t understand him. With such obedience to God’s call to a new life is the world changed and saved.
The remarkable American anthropologist and medical doctor, Paul Farmer, responded to a conviction that all human beings on earth deserve medical care. Together with four other doctors he founded Partners in Health, and in the process is changing the lives of the poorest of the poor in Haiti, Peru, and Rwanda. What a shining light this man is in the midst of a hurting people. All because he responded to a call to heal the poor.
Dr. Muhammad Yunus responded to an inner conviction that poor women deserve to receive loans with the lowest interest possible so that their lives could be changed. By changing the lives of women for the better, he knew that he could help improve the lives of their whole families. On that conviction, or call, he founded the Grameen Bank, and the practice of giving small loans to women and the poor in general is now flourishing.
Desmond Tutu heard the call of God, which filled him with the unshakable conviction that all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin, are created in the image of God. That conviction led him to work with another great human being, Nelson Mandela, to bring an end to the evil of apartheid.
The stories of response to a call from God can be found all around us. We need them during this Sunday in Epiphany because the world around us might seem so dark and shadowy, with wars looming, human misery continuing in Syria, dictators oppressing peoples in North Korea and Cuba and elsewhere, and racial divisions, bigotry, and discrimination haunting us here at home. We desperately need the light of Epiphany, the revelation that shines upon people who respond to a call from God. When their words and their actions bring light, they are all blessed by God regardless of the name by which they call their Creator.
But we hear those stories and sometimes maybe think that that cannot be us – they were something special. Desmond Tutu, Mohammed Yannus, Paul Farmer – they were different, talented, unique. Well, yes, that is how they ended up but, here’s the thing…
Simon and Andrew, James and John, they were simple fisherman. They didn’t know how their lives would unfold when they responded to the call of Jesus, who promised to make them fishers of people.
There is a form of scripture reading based on Benedictine spirituality called lectio divina, which is Latin for “divine reading.” The reader is asked to read a passage a number of times: first to note what story says and what stands out in the narrative; then to interpret what the God is saying though the sacred text; and, finally to answer the question of what is God or Jesus is inviting the reader to do? People who use this method for reading scripture find it becomes an active part of their spiritual lives. The living word of God calls to them, beckons them, has them consider something new and challenging. This call is more than a nudge; often it leads to profound change.
There was young man in college who regularly participated in lectio divina who was studying to be an economist. He regularly met with his Catholic campus ministry group each Sunday Sunday on campus. As his senior year approached, there was a lot of things happening in his life, and unfolding of new career possibilities and an uncertain future when he began to realize he was, in fact, being called to be a priest. Now I stand here before you today, nothing special (if we are honest) except that I accepted the invitation of Jesus.
I responded, as did Peter and Andrew, James and John, and countless others before me, to the invitation because the man of God who was calling me possessed the light of Epiphany in his person. I heard God and said, Yes!
Answering the call of Jesus Christ is based on listening and being ready to respond. Listening is an art in itself. It requires us to do more than just hear things that sound good to us. Listening requires us to filter out all the noise, listening for the still, small voice of God that usually comes to us quietly, often through odd connections with people, sometimes strangers, who see something unique in us and call it forth.
Being ready to respond is quite another thing. At this time of year there is a musical play frequently performed, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which was composed by Gian Carlo Menotti. In this story, Amahl is a young boy who must use a crutch to walk, and he has a bad habit of telling fibs. One night as he is sitting outside, his mother calls for him to come inside, and when he tells her that he sees an enormous star “as big as a window” over their house, she does not believe him. Later that night there is a knock at their door, and three kings, the Magi, stand before them, asking if they could rest overnight in the house, explaining that they are on a long journey to give gifts to a wondrous child. After the kings fall asleep, Amahl’s mother, who is worried that her son will become a beggar, tries to steal gold from one of the kings. When she is caught, Amahl tries to attack the king’s guard who is holding her. The king is filled with mercy when he sees Amahl’s pitiful defense of his mother, and the king tells her to keep the gold, explaining that the Holy Child, for whom the gold was intended, will not need it, because his kingdom will not be built on earthly wealth. Amahl’s mother, filled with shame and remorse, begs the kings to take back the gold, and wishes she had a gift to send the Holy Child. Amahl gives the kings his crutch, his only possession, to give to the child. And miraculously, Amahl’s leg is healed, and he sets off with the kings to see the child and give thanks.
In this marvelous tale, both music and story work together as we witness an intervention by God into the life of a poor family, an intervention that results in profound change. The call of Christ can be seen as an intervention because that is what it is. “Follow me and you will fish for people,” says Jesus to the disciples.
The call is not always a loud command; it is often a quiet suggestion, but it is always an intervention that challenges us to change direction, move to a new way of thought and life.
If we follow the words of today’s collect, we see that the purpose in responding to the call is not just to better ourselves, but to receive grace to proclaim the Good News. No one has to wear a priestly collar to do that. The places we live, the families and friends we love, the workstations where we spend eight hours a day are all places for proclamation.
What Jesus calls us to do is proclaim, and he calls us to use the gifts we have to be proclaimers of God’s enduring love for each of us.