In a certain monastery, the monks took turns preaching. This rotation greatly worried a new novice. When his first turn to preach came, he looked out at the assembled monks, looked down at the lectern, and eventually, in a very nervous voice, asked who knew what he was going to say. Nobody raised a hand. “Well,” he said, “I also don’t know what I am going to say.” And with that, he sat down.
Needless to say, an irritated Abbot assigned the novice to preach the next sermon. Again, standing at the lectern, shifting his weight from foot to foot, after a seemingly interminable silence, the obviously uncomfortable novice asked his listeners who knew what he was going to say. This time, every monk raised a hand. “Good,” said the novice, “I don’t need to preach since you already know what I am going to say.”
The novice again met with the Abbot, who again assigned the novice to preach. When the novice stepped to the lectern, the monks could feel his nervousness. He looked at the assembly and then at the lectern. Finally, he spoke, “Raise your hand if you think you know what I will say.” The monks hesitated, unsure how to respond. Slowly, about half raised a hand. Visibly relieved, the novice said, “Good. Those of you who know what I’m going to say tell those who don’t know.”
This morning’s gospel reading can easily conjure up cinema worthy scenes. Jesus walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee spots Simon and Andrew, then James and John, fishing; he calls to them; they immediately drop their nets and leave everything to follow a man whom they have never met.
Alternatively, perhaps the four fishermen had met Jesus on occasions when all five were in a crowd listening to John the Baptist preach. Perhaps the five had shared one or more meals, either on occasions when they had travelled to hear John the Baptist or when they gathered because of budding friendships. Perhaps those meals had led to long conversations about their hopes for spiritual renewal and Israel’s restoration as an independent kingdom. Perhaps the five by unspoken mutual consent looked to Jesus as their leader, someone who might lead their preparations for a new Jewish king if he himself was not to become that new king. If so, when Jesus beckoned the four to follow him, his call had grown out of those deepening relationships and much conversation.
The gospel reading contains little detail. Mark’s brevity makes sense. Writing materials were expensive in the first century; copies of a document, laboriously transcribed by hand, were even more expensive. Mark’s gospel, the first biography of Jesus written, is the shortest and contains the fewest details. The text offers no reason to presume that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were unacquainted with Jesus prior to him calling them to fish for people.
This alternative version, or something like it, seems more credible and more analogous to how God today calls each of us to become a disciple. In general, three principles characterize God’s call to a person.
First, God calls an individual to tasks and to roles for which that person is, or can become through education and training, well suited. Jesus recognized in the four fishermen the character and gifts to successfully fish for people. Conversely, God never calls anyone to tasks or roles for which their personality or God-given abilities makes unsuitable. The novice in my opening story had either incorrectly heard a call to join that monastery or misunderstood God’s call about the basic direction of his life. God calls each of us, lay and clergy alike, to minister in Christ’s name. The call may challenge us without being unattainable; answering the call leads to deep joy and fulfilment.
Second, God calls each individual in a way that individual can hear. For some, this call may be an inner feeling or sense; for others the call may be a word of Scripture understood in a strikingly fresh, personal way; for most of us, the call may come through another person, such as in Jesus’ call to the four fishermen.
Third, God’s call to Jesus echoes in God’s call to us. We are to “to bring good news to the poor. … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor." Although historians know little about the twelve disciples, the known facts emphasize that in God’s call we will invariably hear an exhortation to promote justice, to love our neighbors, and to practice mercy in some specific way.
In 1968, two Maryknoll nuns attended a conference at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. One evening, they strolled to the harbor and sat on a bench watching the ships. One nun noticed a Farrell Line ship anchored nearby. In 1955, she and two other Maryknoll sisters were three of twelve passengers who travelled for 42 days from New York to Dar es Salaam aboard just such a freighter. She told her companion about that freighter’s captain, who had encouraged the three nuns: “Anytime you see a Farrell Line ship in the harbor, come on out and we’ll feast you with American ice cream!” The nun ended by enthusiastically exclaiming, “Let’s go!”
“Go where?” replied her startled companion.
“Out to the Farrell Line ship and eat American ice cream!”
After futile protests, the second nun reluctantly joined the first in a rowboat they hired to take them to the freighter and then return for them in an hour. Drawing alongside the Farrell Line freighter, a crew member hailed them, and then called over a young officer who courteously invited the nuns aboard.
Once aboard, the nun explained that they were Maryknoll Sisters, teachers attending a conference at the university, and repeated the invitation extended to her in 1955. The officer apologized that he could not introduce them to the Captain because the he was in his quarters, grieving privately. He had received word just this morning that his only son had been killed in Vietnam.
The two nuns exchanged glances, then one said to the officer, “Take us to your Captain.” The officer hesitated, but soon realized that the nuns would not accept no for an answer. They quietly followed him to the captain’s quarters. There they sat with the Captain for an hour, weeping, talking, weeping some more. In that era before cell phones and the internet, they left the Captain with two serious hugs, promising to call his wife in Pennsylvania to tell her that they had seen her husband, and assuring him and his family of their prayers. While being rowed back to the dock, the nuns just looked at one another with teary eyes. They had heard and obeyed an unexpected call from God to love their neighbor.
What is God calling you to do?
George M. Clifford, III
Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 21, 2018
Parish of St Clement