Year A, Second Sunday after Epiphany
From the moment of creation we are called—called by God—both to be, and to do!
The “being” part is called “life.” The “to do” part, a vocation. It can be the tricky part for most, if not all of us; Yes? Who am I really? What is God calling me to be and to do in life?
Fittingly, the Prophet Isaiah (in our first reading) lays out this confused plot for us:
The Lord called me (even) before I was born ....
He made my mouth like a sharp sword—(then) in the shadow of his hand he hid me! ...
He made me a polished arrow—(then) in his quiver he hid me away! ...
He said to me, “You are my servant ... in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain...!”
God replied: “(Maybe the task I gave you) is too light a thing ... (here’s a greater task:) I will give you as a light to (all) the nations ... It is the Holy one of Israel, who has chosen you!”
Poor stumbling Isaiah; indeed, poor any of us—hearing and heeding God's call!
I am minded of Psalm 139, the words:
Where can I go from your spirit? ... or where can I flee from you presence?
If I ascend to heaven you are there ... If I make my bed in Sheol you are there (also). ... If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day.
When it comes to vocation—to a calling from God—I am also minded of the Francis Thompson poem, “The Hound of Heaven;” his opening words:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him …
Isn’t life fun? Or should I say, challenging?
The calling of St. Andrew and St. John, by James Tissot (1836-1892). Brooklyn Museum
In our second reading, this morning, from his first letter to the church at Corinth, Saint Paul casts a different light on this equation of being and doing.
The Corinthians are not yet aware that God’s personal practices are strange, and that knowing your weakness is often the qualification that God chiefly looks for in his followers. But Paul is going to do his best to tell them and to show them.
He starts out cautiously, with well-judged praise, almost flattery. But even that is laced through with phrases that should make the Corinthians pause.
Paul tells them that they are called to be saints, but so are thousands of others who call on the name of Jesus, even today.
The Corinthians might have thought they were special in this, but they are not. Anyone who calls on Jesus is their equal in many ways.
He acknowledges that they are, indeed, a very impressive bunch; acknowledges they are doing brilliantly in their public witness, at least when it involves exciting speeches.
But then he overlays his praise with a new fact: that their lives are perhaps not quite so highly thought of at all; that they are inclined to put their trust in themselves, rather than in the loving power of God; even in each other as called together, in Christ, to be his “body”—to be his witnesses.
Paul will “drop (his) second shoe” on them—so to speak—next week. Stay tuned!
One of the big differences between the prophet who speaks in Isaiah, and the Corinthian Christians, is the number of people who share in God’s calling.
The prophet experiences loneliness and misunderstanding, and his task seems often a solitary one. But Christians are called to be witnesses together, and to learn from each other as well as from God.
At the center of all this is Jesus—the Christ—“the heart of the matter,” as detailed in this morning’s Gospel reading. We will come to this shortly; but the beginning of that understanding starts with each of us as individuals.
“Being” and “doing” as God has called us—yes, a sometimes tricky and confusing matter! We do all have a story to tell, and I firmly believe we should share it. But—please note—it isn't, for the most part, about ordained ministry in the Church! Where does one begin?
For several years of my wayward youth (“wayward”, my words, note) we lived on lower Columbus Avenue, in New Haven. It was at the bottom of the road below Liberty Street, at the corner of Lafayette; a neighborhood that—alas—no longer exists.
You know the sort, though—typical of its time: grocery stores, restaurants, and other shops, at the ground level and usually two floors of apartments above them.
It was like this all the way up the road, on both sides. In effect, we faced each other across a canyon filled with fast moving traffic—a “no go” area when it came to “playing out” (in the days when being able to play out was the norm)!
This “playing out,” however, meant either a long trek up to the neighborhood playground; which seemed—back then—to be miles away, or just going around the corner to the next road to one of your mates. That “road” was one level lower than our road, with no shops whatsoever.
If you were brave ... or foolish ... or crafty ... or all three, as I thought I was then, you learned the shortcuts. You simply dashed through one of those archways between the shops to their backs. There, you soon learned, that ground level on our road was the garage-roof level of the road behind.
And, if you were as tall and skinny as I was then—no exaggeration—you simply “hang-dropped” into the backyard of your mate’s house below. Magic!
Doing this in reverse, of course, was not so easy; it was downright dangerous and stupid ... but not too dangerous for the likes of me when being chased, even in fun ... that is, until I realized—from our back windows upstairs—that Mom could see me doing it! Oh dear!
How did I come to this realization? With those ill-fated words, shouted from on high from our kitchen window: “You get home this instant!” (That’s the polite version).
Well, I ask you, what imaginative kid is going to let his mother get the best of him—especially when, not only you, but every other kid in the neighborhood knew she had “bested” you? ... Not me!
I conspired ... I wrangled every mate I had to conspire with me. I waited until she was off somewhere and then placed myself in the aforesaid window. I spent hours—or so it seemed—moving my mates around the back neighborhood like chess pieces (shouting to them mom-fashion, of course) until we found all the places that could not be seen from that window!
Did I win? No way! What I hadn’t counted on was her own brand of “craftiness.” She, too, had conspired; this, with about every other mom in the neighborhood. So what I now heard shouted at me, from on high, was “Get home! Your mother wants you r-i-g-h-t now!” and “right now” meant “this instant!”
Admit it now—go ahead—you were just as crafty as I was back then. But, no doubt also, so were your parents, especially Mom!
Admit it: she had the God-given ability to hear conversations—even whispered—at three miles; to be able to see around corners, or through walls; to know what you were thinking long before even you thought it yourself; she even knew what your mates were thinking!
“Crafty?” She was definitely “crafty” from the beginning ... and taught those skills to you—survivor’s skills; skills for getting on in life, as you made your own way through that remaining bit of the world out there till today; the one called “reality.”
And the good news in all this, for all of us?
First, for the most part, we grew up to be just as concerned about the younger generation as our parents were.
And, second—and it’s even better news—we often know and act upon our knowledge of the difference between the words “being child-like” and being “childish.”
But there is a downside in all that; it’s when we do forget to distinguish between them ... just as those early Christians in Corinth, perhaps even those “would be” disciples in this morning’s Gospel. We shall see.
Who are you, really? As far as I know, no language on the face of the earth lacks some way of saying “person” ... that, to be human, is always to be in relationship. You can be a person in your own right, but you can’t be a person alone. Personhood requires a relationship, one to the other. It is exactly what we were created for.
The first thing we see Jesus doing, as he emerges from the waters of baptism, is calling a group of people together.
They have no idea how much they are to go through, how much they will need each other, or how much they will accomplish, or be remembered for it, down through the ages.
Over the last two weeks we were invited by both Aldon and Bob to reflect on journeys; especially our own life’s journey. Bob aptly reminded us, last week, “... that perhaps [Jesus’] insistence that John baptize him and not vice versa [was] a symbolic affirmation that Jesus (would) not be acting alone, but [would] need the help of others—John’s help; his disciples help; our help ... !”
Re-reading Bob’s sermon, then this week’s Gospel passage, gave me an “aha moment”; I found myself rummaging through what I’ve come to call my “working copy”—the Bible I used in Theological College when taking notes.
What I found was an “eye-opener”—part of that same passage being filled with underlines and short side-notes! The lecturer, at the time, had caught my attention; I needed to listen carefully; there was no time for longish, long-hand note taking.
Verses 37 to 39 of today’s reading—they seem simple words, at face value, but they are more; much more:
The two disciples heard [John] say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them ... he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to (Jesus) ... “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.
“The two disciples heard ...” In the context of “vocation”—God’s “call” to be and to do—the Biblical word used here implies an “obedient response.”
They are John the Baptist’s followers. They “heard” John say “Behold, the Lamb of God!” They are then obedient to his direction, and they turn (from John) and now follow Jesus. They did not simply “go after him” ... they “walked behind him;” they became his “followers;” in effect, his disciples.
Many times in the next few weeks and months we hear similar words, out of the mouth of Jesus: “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me!”
Jesus says to them: “What are you looking for?” “Where (they ask him) are you staying?” The Biblical word as used here means to “abide”; to “dwell.” In Scriptural terms, God is the God who dwells with his people; who “abides” with them; abides in them; abides within you and me!
This as in John, Chapter 15, verse 5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me, and I in them bear, much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing!”
Three little words: “hear”... “follow” ... “abide”. They are at the heart of our shared life in Christ. Unity in Christ. It is the Good News of our Salvation.
Salvation—it sets us free from meaninglessness and emptiness in life.
It awakens, instead, a sense of divine purpose, and the joy of fulfilling it, in and through each other.
Salvation in Christ: to be, to know, and to do as he does, with a shared past, present, and eternal future. It’s called the Christian Life—our Good News! Amen.