Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 4, 2001, at St. Martin de Porres Parish
In today's liturgy the church invites into the vocational stories of three great proclaimers of the Good News. Isaiah, Paul, and Peter are each called to proclaim God's word to their neighbors, as each of us is called.
As we listen to their stories we might identify with the way each one responded to God. Their story mirrors the ways any one of us might deal with the call of the Lord.
First, Isaiah. He presents us with awesome scene, in the holiest of places, the Temple. The vision of the seraphim and all the trappings of omnipotence are dramatic indeed. He knows he is in the presence of God.
But there is a small detail we might be inclined to overlook, which sets the context for the story and makes all the difference in understanding what is going on. He tells us that the vision occurred at the time of the death of King Uzziah. Now Uzziah means nothing to us, but his mention said lots to the original people hearing Isaiah's account.
Uzziah had been king for a very long reign, for 50 years in fact. And it was a time of great prosperity and security for the realm. Things were going great, economically and politically. Sounds pretty familiar, huh? And Isaiah call as prophet is precisely to challenge the complacency of the people. One writer says that no other prophet was as direct as Isaiah in challenging the people's pride, their self-indulgence, and their callous injustice toward the poor. He had the difficult task of making them see that the whole system of wealth was built on the backs of the poor.
So he protests his unworthiness: a man of unclean lips. But God touches his mouth with a burning coal and he is transformed. He becomes courageous enough that when the Lord is looking for someone he will say, "Here I am, Lord; send me."
Then we hear Paul's story. He is conscious above all of how viciously he persecuted the church prior to his conversion. And that was very real. I don't think we really appreciate the fact that he went about throwing ordinary people into prison for no other reason than the fact that they were followers of Jesus. He is tormented with those memories and says the Lord's appearance to him was to 'one born out of time'. Actually the Greek word he uses to describe himself is the word for a deformed fetus, a monster. He recounts all the other worthy apostles and others to whom the risen Jesus had appeared and he contrasts himself: he appears to me?
And finally, Peter. Remember, Peter had already chosen to follow Jesus when he first met him by the side of the lake. But now Jesus is raising the ante: "put out into the deep" was a literal request but it also symbolized God taking the relationship to another level. Jesus was saying, "Trust me. I know what I am doing. Even if you have fished all night and think you know all about fishing, do what I ask. And the resulting great catch of fish tells Peter that something deeper is going on here, that he's unworthy to be part of. And Jesus tells him that now it won't be enough just to be a follower, somebody along for the ride. He is to be one who goes out, a leader. The Greek expression that Luke uses, "from that moment on", is the same phrase that Mary uses in the Magnificat: "from this moment on all will call me blessed." It marks a dramatic turning-point, a conversion to something more.
So there we have the three callings.
And it's pretty easy for us to identify with these three men. We are all too aware of our unworthiness, our resistance, our sinfulness. We are people of unclean lips; we may not have persecuted the church but we all know that our lives have not always brought credit on God's people.
But that's the whole point of the stories: all of those excuses come from concentration on ourselves, not on the God who is calling. Sure, God is all-holy and transcendent; you've persecuted Christians, you thought you were the great expert in fishing -- but that's all irrelevant, it's a copout. It doesn't count and it's a way of avoidance.
Because our God, the all-holy One, chooses to be near; our God has a plan for each of us, and our God will carry it out.
You or I may not be physically knocked off our horse was, or touched by a burning coal, or gifted with a great catch of fish. But the call comes anyhow, and the grace is given for us to answer.
We may not be called to stand before Roman emperors and declare our faith (we might just be called to speak up at city council about some local injustice in our system) but we are called to act out of a different vision. We are called to be different.
Back in the 60's one of the popular calls was for people to be 'adjusted'. 'Adjustment to society' was going to cure everything. I heard Martin Luther King take that mind-set on. He said that if we are really Christians we should be maladjusted in an unjust and violent society. Not passive but, as he put it in a wonderful phrase, "creatively maladjusted". Maladjusted but doing something about it. We are called to recognize the dignity of God's children in everyone, no matter; to reach out to those our warped society looks down on.
Our God is indeed all-holy and transcendent. But our God is also as near as the person sitting next to us in the pew, or the person pulling up the same net with us at work; the person on the bus or the kid seated at the next desk in school, or even the one who elbows us under the basket fighting for a rebound; the one sitting opposite us at the dinner table, or the one who shares a marriage bed.
We may not have a burning coal touched to our lips, but in a few minutes our mouths will be filled with the body and blood of Christ. Let's pray that we can allow it to transform us so that we can respond to God's daily calls "Here I am, Lord. Send me."