In this morning’s Gospel reading, St. Luke tells us that Jesus was being pressed by yet another crowd of people. Most of them probably did not yet know who Jesus was but they surely had heard of His miracles and teaching. So, it is no wonder that so many of them were curious and anxious to see Him and hear to what He had to say.
The story of Jesus’ ministry to this point has Him preaching and teaching in the Temple. This is the first account of Jesus going out among the people, into the streets, meeting them where they were and entering into their everyday lives. This is the perfect example of evangelization and it is the exact behavior and conduct Christ expects of all of us, but especially those who are His consecrated and ordained ministers: His bishops, priests and deacons. But this is subject matter for another homily at another time.
As was told to us in the Gospel, Jesus gets into Peter’s boat, summons him and asked him to put out a ways from the shore so the people could gather on the shore and listen to him. After speaking, he told Peter to go out to the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Now, Peter and his partners had already finished a very hard day’s work and like many of us who have tried our hand at fishing, he had come up empty. They had already washed their nets in preparation for the next day and most likely were surely exhausted, disappointed and ready to just give it up for the day. But Peter, in an act of obedience says, “Ok, if you say so I’ll do it.” Nothing more than that, just simple obedience to Jesus.
I certainly have times what I am totally worn out, tired of fighting to get people to take their faith seriously, tired of government that constantly tries to silence the Church and diminish its influence, tired of people who cannot or simply refuse to accept the fact that I am human, tired of people who demand more than I can ever hope to deliver, not to mention all the thousand other little things that make work to make one’s day oftentimes hectic and frustrating.
It is specifically in those times that I hope Jesus does not call me and ask me to do even more before I have an opportunity to rest and catch my breath! But inevitably, God has other plans. So the phone rings at 11:00pm and it is one of the local hospitals calling to request that I come to the hospital to give Holy Anointing to someone who is dying and is not expected to make it through the night. So, I get up, get dressed and head over to the hospital, where I know I will be until whoever I anoint passes from this world into the arms of God. The hospital always likes it when I show up because I do not simply anoint and go my way. It is this time, this very intimate time, when one is about to experience death, that a priest is most needed. Sometimes the situation is not so grave. Sometimes it is just a call to come and hold the hand of a sick person who is sacred and alone. You would not believe what a joy and comfort it is for me when I have such opportunities. Just to be able to sit with the person, hold their hand and talk about this or that or about nothing at all, what a tremendous sense of comfort and joy. It is such a blessing to be able to enter into another’s sadness, grief or fear.
There are other times when God’s blessings manifest themselves in other ways, like sharing a meal with a homeless person, or washing or bathing someone who cannot do these basic things for themselves anymore, or taking an elderly person out for lunch and/or shopping. I believe those blessings are indeed as great as a fisherman’s boat overflowing with fish. I admit that I only recognize some blessings in hindsight but they are always there. I would suggest that it is in the times when we have given ourselves over to worldly problems and done everything we can to control our lives that we are most likely pressed into the work of living out the Gospel.
Acting on Jesus’ command, the nets are raised and are overfilled with fish. So many that another boat is needed to hold the catch. Needless to say, the fishermen were astonished and certainly had to have a feeling of discomfort and uncertainty, as one would expect after having witnessed a miracle. Peter’s response to the miracle of abundance was to protest that he is unworthy because he is a sinful man.
This story is similar to one which appears in the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah is in the presence of God and is being called by God to take a message to His people. Isaiah protests and says, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Both Isaiah and Peter feel the magnitude of their unworthiness. A seraph cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal and Jesus has a word of cleansing for Peter. Whatever troubled their hearts was let go as God set them on a new course and empowered them for the new work in the kingdom.
After witnessing all that took place, Peter, James, John and the others leave everything they have and follow Jesus. They dropped everything they were doing, walked away from their possessions and families and followed Jesus. This surely made more sense in the times when miracles and the supernatural were simply assumed to be what they were, but I think that it is probably a stretch, even then, to assume that they were normal occurrences. In the days of Jesus, miracles were also signs of divine power of which the true importance lay not in the vents themselves but in what they might signify.
Matthew and Mark recall the vent but do not include the miracle of the fish catch. The disciple’s response is probably easier for us to accept if we include the miracle but their action is nonetheless an act of free will made in faith and obedience to Jesus. That, of course, begs the questions, “What do we have to leave behind to follow Jesus?” and “What have we failed to leave behind to follow Jesus?”
About six years ago, a very prominent and successful attorney I know from New York City, his name was Anthony, made a visit to our Cathedral. Anthony was tired and worn out physically, mentally and spiritually. He was very troubled and could not find any peace or solace; no matter what he tried to do, he could not still his restless heart. I suggested that he take some time and get away, drop everything he was doing, and just pick up and go. I invited him up here for a weekend visit. After much going back and forth and indecisiveness, Anthony called me about three weeks later and asked if he could come up and visit. He called on Sunday and said that he would like to come the next day and spend a few days. I told him that he was more than welcome and that I would be expecting him.
On Monday morning, Anthony drove up here to our beautiful Mohawk Valley and checked into a local hotel. Later that evening we met for dinner, during which I invited him to come and visit the Cathedral and spend the next day with me. We agreed to meet at the Cathedral at 9:00am. When he arrived here, I met him outside. Anthony was very impressed by the building but was quite stunned by its surrounding environment. I could tell by the look on his face that he was not used to such surroundings. When we entered the Cathedral the look of shock and disbelief on his face quickly deepened. You could clearly see his uncomfortableness. Obviously, what he saw was not what he expected. I can only imagine what Anthony was thinking but it was obvious that he regretted taking time off from his very successful life to come up here and be exposed to a lifestyle and environment that was pretty much beneath his position and status.
After letting him take in all of the Cathedral’s poverty for about thirty minutes, I suggested that we leave and that he accompany me on some errands. Thus we set about my weekly Tuesday routine: going to the local Hannaford’s Supermarket and picking up boxes of bread and cakes and delivering them to Mother Maryann’s Soup Kitchen. Anthony helped me load the boxes into the car and then unload them again and bring them into the soup kitchen, where we were warmly greeted by some of the volunteers. I introduced him to the volunteers and some of the guests, all of whom thanked him profusely for doing so much good for them. The poor man did not know what to make of it all or what to say. I was pleased that his level of uncomfortableness was on the rise.
After the soup kitchen we made a couple of more stops, one being the home of an elderly woman for whom I did some shopping and house cleaning each week. As I went about putting groceries away and some cleaning, vacuuming and dusting, Anthony was at the kitchen table taking to Agnes. Yes. He was still very uncomfortable, not knowing what to make of it all. I was smiling to myself as I listened to the conversation. I am sure he wished he was someplace else, like back in New York City at the New York Health and Racket Club or even in a crowded subway car; anywhere but here. After we left Agnes, we made a couple more stops, at a nursing home to visit three residents there. After all of this we went to lunch, where he did not say much at all.
After lunch, we headed back to the Cathedral, where he sat for the longest time over there, against that pillar, just staring into the Sanctuary. Every once and a while, I would glance over at him. I could see that he was deep in thought, even praying it seemed.
Later that evening we went out for dinner. Anthony did not talk much but then he asked me a question, “Do you enjoy doing what you did today?” I looked and him and said, “I do not like doing what I do.” He looked at me puzzled and shocked. I took a sip of water and then said to him, “I love what I do!” He smiled and just went on eating his dinner.
The next day Anthony met me at the Cathedral early as I was going to celebrate Divine Liturgy; it was the commemoration of one of my favorite saints. It was only me, our cantor and my friend Anthony present for the Liturgy. After Liturgy, I saw the same look of confusion on Anthony’s face, yet there was something different about his demeanor. He said the Liturgy was beautiful, even sublime, and that it reminded him of the Italian Masses he remembered as a young child, but that it was sad that only three of us were present. I quickly corrected him and told him that we were not just three in attendance but that the whole Church Triumphant was present in the Cathedral worshipping and giving praise and thanks with us. Again, he smiled and said nothing.
My friend left on Thursday morning to go back to New York City. He had just spent three days being shaken out of his comfort zone, spending time in prayer and reflection, and quiet listening for God. That weekend Anthony called to thank me for the hospitality and told me the visit gave him a lot to think about. I told him he was welcome and that I was here for him if he needed me.
About a month later, Anthony called me again and told me that he had met with the vocation director of his diocese and that he had made the decision to leave his practice and enter the seminary to study for the priesthood. I was overjoyed! He made a decision at that time to leave his comfort zone of high income, recognition in the legal community, power and prestige, and enter seminary. Last year, Anthony was ordained a deacon and next year, God willing, he will be ordained a priest. God said, “Follow Me,” and in faith and obedience, this man did exactly that. There was a special blessing for me in all of that because I was with Anthony over the course of those three days when God began whispering in his ear.
We all know the story of Mother Teresa. At the tender age of 12 she strongly felt the call of God and knew right away that she was called to spread the love of Jesus Christ. At age 18 she entered a convent and joined the Sisters of Loreto. While teaching at a high school in Calcutta she was so moved by the extreme poverty she saw from her window that she sought and received permission to work among the poorest of the poor in the slums. The story of her work is well known throughout the world. The woman we know now as St Teresa of Calcutta continued to obediently answer God’s call to serve His people until her death.
I know there are thousands of stories about people who have received calls to radical vocation and there is assuredly no logical or rational explanation for why such things happen. But the fact is, God calls us to follow Him today just as certainly as Jesus called Peter, James and John. Now, I am not suggesting you run away to a monastery or convent (actually not a bad thing to consider), enroll in a seminary (well yes, I actually recommend our young men do such an off-the-wall thing) or fly over to Calcutta (no need to fly there as there is much of the same work to do here in our own country).
The important thing to recognize is that God’s work of calling did not stop with the Gospel stories. God’s calling to us continues to this day. God’s call to us is not an invitation! It is not “Hey, ya’ll wanna come over here?” God’s call throughout history is one of command; sometimes subtle and gentle and sometimes aggressive and yes, even violent. God has already “ordered” all things so the call is just one more piece of the divine puzzle. That was surely the case with Peter, James and John. When Jesus commanded them to follow him, the events surrounding their lives had already been ordered to support their obedient response.
Just as Jesus involved Himself in Peter’s everyday concerns about fishing, God calls to each of us in our ordinary everyday lives and asks that we follow Him. Sometimes that call is to radical vocation and sometimes it is a call to feed God’s sheep right where we are, in our families, at our work, in our Church, and in our communities. Jesus’ behavior and actions provide the perfect model for us. He went out among the people, into the street, where they lived, worked, experienced joy and sorrow – all of the messiness of their lives.
As for us, how do we respond? Did a homeless person appear before us this week as a reminder? You know all the kinds of people we welcome and serve here at the Cathedral. The plight of the world does not escape us here at the Cathedral. Many of those we serve would not be welcome in other churches. In fact, if some of the people we welcome and serve here were to present themselves at some of the more “affluent” churches in the city, the police would be called to remove them.
The doors of our Cathedral have always been open to the least acceptable of God’s people. Sometimes we are scared and uneasy about encountering some of the people who show up here. I must admit that I too sometimes experience the same feelings and fears that some of you do. I know what I am called to do and I confess to you that sometimes it is difficult to respond to that call in the way that Christ commands us. Perhaps my faith was at a low point or perhaps I had once more replaced God’s will with my own. But in the end, God’s voice was loud and clear and my heart was moved to share unselfishly the love I so richly receive from the Lord in my own life. From there, the floodgates just open and immense joy fills my heart. This is the experience I tried to convey to Anthony that one night at dinner.
What I have learned is that following God’s call is not a single event, it is a life-long process filled with much failure punctuated with occasional bright spots of success. God’s call to follow can be as subtle as something that moves us to ask questions or it can be very dramatic. It can be the pain and agony of homelessness, or a debilitating illness, or drug addiction that constantly spurs this parish to compassionate action and to a more genuine appreciation of God’s blessings to us and the gift of life He has given us.
I am convinced that we are called to continue Jesus’ ministry to bring good news and hope to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and to challenge the powerful to allow God’s people to enjoy His every blessing without interference and oppression. If we have a blessing of wealth, power and prestige, we are called to use those blessings to continue Jesus’ ministry and bring souls to God through Him. If we have the beautiful blessings of poverty and humble life we are called to use those blessings to continue Jesus’ ministry and bring souls to god through Him.
The message in Luke’s Gospel is not so much one of acceptance of, or recognition of, a call, it is one of obedience. A call to discipleship is something that God has both commanded and enabled.
As the story of Jesus’ ministry unfolds we see that His work and ministry have grown to require the recruitment of disciples, of workers of charity and service. After His death, the growth of His Church requires many workers in the vineyards: the apostles, the seven chosen to serve, St. Paul, St. Barnabas, the men of Cyprus and Cyrene, St Phoebe, St. Teresa of Calcutta and millions more over the ages.
You see, the fishing for people continues. God has chosen to work through we human beings, we vessels of clay, and because God has chosen to work this way, it is crucial that we be alert to God’s call and obedient in response to that call.