Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
I remember around November or December of 2017, nearing the middle of my last year of seminary, I began having discussions with different people about finding that elusive first call. One of those people was Father Andrew Hybl, the Dean of Students at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Father Andrew is also originally from Arkansas, and previously served as the priest at St. Peter’s in Conway. Well Father Andrew and I were talking about some of the many possibilities starting to open up across the church, and he asked me, “have you consider the Diocese of Arkansas?” I’m not sure if the sound I made was more laughing or more simply scoffing, but was certainly to communicate how ridiculous I thought that idea was. Arkansas? All the way over on the other side of the country? I don’t think that sounds like the sort of place I’m going to go. No, that would be completely out of the question to take a job in Arkansas of all places. He pressed, “you really should consider it, it’s a great diocese and the bishop is amazing.” I thanked him for his counsel and reassured him that was one of the last places on Earth I would end up.
You see, I seem to have a bit of a talent for daring God to make the next move. My three successive positions I held at Symantec were like that. I would be talking with the person doing that job and would exclaim, “I would never want your job!” Six months to a year later I would be doing it. Of course, this doesn’t quite work like a spell. I’ve tried that. For example, I would hate to be independently wealthy. Oddly that statement has not produced any results.
The point is that God calls us to places, to work, to ministries that we don’t always expect, don’t always understand, and sometimes don’t know that we will want. There are countless examples of this throughout scripture. One could argue that it is one of the clearest hallmarks that God is involved. Someone reluctant is told to go do something. Moses. Jonah. Abraham. Peter. Paul. So many times God speaks, and for the stories we read today God speaks clearer and louder than most people ever get the opportunity to hear, and yet still those that God has called try to refuse. They try to bargain or find their way out. It’s not that God has taken their free will, they ultimately choose to follow one way or another. It is something that they will feel compelled to do.
Some like Jonah go kicking and screaming. So do we. We hear God’s call and sometimes it’s too difficult. Or maybe it’s too scary. Or maybe it’s too unbelievable. Sarah had that experience. She laughed when she heard God tell Abraham she was going to have a child. When God speaks, we might be tempted to laugh. I think we all have stories about that in our lives. But we also have stories of times when that call from God was as clear as Jesus telling Peter where to cast the nets.
Peter doesn’t argue with Jesus when the command is given. Peter says, “If you say so, I will do it.” Jesus is not a stranger entirely to Peter and the others, though this seems to be their first meeting. But certainly it would be hard to believe that Peter and the others involved in our Gospel lesson today haven’t already heard of Jesus. They had to have known of some of the things Jesus had done, some of the miracles, some of the teaching; certainly this spectacle of Jesus needing to go out on a boat to address the crowd would tell them something. Peter has faith in Jesus and in following what he is told to do. It makes me think that we today, with the benefit of all this scripture and thousands of years of Jesus still find it hard to follow as readily as Peter did.
Let’s also be clear about something else: Even when those that have been called follow God, they don’t automatically become perfect. Peter is of course our best example of that. How many times does Jesus have to correct Peter in our Gospels, leading of course to that most famous line, where Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” The book of Jonah ends with Jonah sulking under a shrub and cursing the shrub that God has put there to give him shade. Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land. In the reading this morning Isaiah clearly does not see himself as worthy or clean enough to take on the call of God. He exclaims that he is unclean even though he has gazed upon God. Peter falls to his knees exclaiming that Jesus should go away from him because he is a sinful man.
That highlights the other element that is so incredibly important to passages such as these today. While God calls us all through either obvious or mysterious encounters, one response we might always have on hand is not thinking we are worthy enough to take up the work. In these stories, it isn’t that they just think poorly of themselves or are being demure. I think it’s fair to believe Peter and Isaiah when they point out their unworthiness, and to accept they truly believe it. But what God offers, has already offered long before any call is issued, is forgiveness.
Isaiah is ritually cleansed when the angel touches the hot coal to his lips. It’s fair to say this act is symbolic and certainly not a practice we will begin participating in anytime soon. But the forgiveness, the blotting out of sin, the acceptance of humanity in its broken and healing nature is as intrinsic to the nature and narrative of God and the ministry of Jesus Christ as calling people to their work.
God calls us all to something. For some of us it is to be clergy, some to teach, some to lead in a multitude of ways. Some to sing, some to sweep, some to pray. That call that God offers will always be waiting. It’s not something that ever quite goes away or seems completed. It is lifelong work. What is equally important for us to recall is the forgiveness that goes along with it. If there is ever a time when you are contemplating what you know God has called you to, and telling yourself that maybe you just aren’t good enough or holy enough or worthy enough to follow, remember that forgiveness from God is eternal and unwavering. God’s forgiveness holds us lovingly and when we can embrace it, takes away those obstacles we put in front of our call. Listen for where and to what God calls you. Know that you are loved, you are worthy, and you are forgiven. Nothing stands between you and the tasks to which you are called. Take up your nets and cast them where God has told you to.