HOMILY—EPIPHANY 5 (10 Feb. 2019)—Open to God’s Work
In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
“Here am I; send me!” What a keener that prophet Isaiah is! Sort of like an anxious puppy fetching the shiny red ball for his master. Contrast that to the rather cautious attitude of Peter in the gospel passage when Jesus tells him to cast his fishing net in deeper waters: “Been there; done that. But I’ll do it if you really want me to.” Jaded, one might say. What are we to make of these seemingly contrasting attitudes? In a way, both are responding to a call—almost an order—from God, yet the task itself, strangely enough, remains undefined. Where are you sending me? Isaiah might ask. Why should I cast my net in deeper waters? Peter might ask. God seemingly asks first, and only then tells us what the task or its purpose is—and then again, perhaps not. But is that really fair? Does God really call us to work that is hazy and unclear, work that is obscure and indeterminate? And how are we to respond?
I remember when I was undergraduate advisor in my university department, the many, many times I had to answer that recurring question: “What am I going to do with a BA in Religion?” It was a fair question. I guess it would have been the same if it had been a degree in sociology, or linguistics, or perhaps even one of the hard sciences. The question behind the question was really this: “What will it bring me? Is it worth spending so much time in this field, even though I love it, and then not be able to do anything with it?” It was essentially a functionalist view of education: there has to be a return on my investment. I couldn’t, of course, guarantee them a job, much less in such an eclectic and diverse field. But I did try to reassure them that it wasn’t in any way a loss: that real education is about passion; that people with degrees are more likely to get interesting jobs than those without a degree; and that what counts ultimately is how much you enjoy what you are studying because you do spend a fair amount of time at it. Mine was most definitely not a utilitarian view of education. My one hope was to inspire the student asking the question; to encourage them to remain open to the opportunities that their degree would invariably bring them. In other words, that there was a good reason for doing what they were doing. And that even though I couldn’t guarantee the result they might want or expect, something worthwhile would most certainly come of it. They needed to remain open to that possibility. There was no definitive, clear or absolute answer to their perennial question. There was only the certain promise of multiple possibilities.
I wonder if it isn’t the same thing with the work that God regularly asks us to do. If we think of our own lives, I’m sure we could all recall times when we were quite unsure where we should be heading, or what we were being called to do? Should I follow this or that path? In what direction might God be nudging me, and why? Simply recall our baptismal covenant, which we will hear repeated in a few moments. We are most assuredly being called to some important work here: prayer and fellowship, proclaiming the good news of the gospel, serving others, striving for justice, caring for creation. Big, important things; necessary things without which God’s work could not come to fruition. But how many of us have a clear sense of how we might go about accomplishing these things? Not many, I would think, not even clergy at the best of times. Of course, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from striving to do them, as blurred and imprecise as the call itself might be. As always, we stand in hopeful expectation, our ears finely tuned to the summons. In a way, the summons is what really counts.
We know that answering the call, whatever it is, can be risky business, or at least disorienting and perhaps even disconcerting. Let me share an example from my own life. From the ages of 13 to 18, I was a seminary student—in other words, I spent most of my “growing up” years in a rather closed environment. I was happy and content there, but then I decided I had to leave. The reasons were far from clear to me at the time, but I knew deep down that it was the right thing to do. I distinctly recall the first morning after my departure, when I was staying with friends who had also left. I woke up with this unbearable sinking feeling in my stomach: an overwhelming sense of having made the wrong decision, that my life was now rudderless and without purpose. I was so afraid of being without the security of my seminary life that I broke into tears. I got over it, of course, but the sense that there was a larger, hidden purpose to all this stayed with me. Perhaps it was a sense that God wanted me somewhere else, doing something else. Fast forward almost fifty years, and that’s when I finally got my answer. Lots of things had happened in between, and I wasn’t thinking about this all the time, but it was only on the verge of my sixties that God reminded me of what was actually in store all along: priestly ministry in the Anglican Church. About as far from my starting point as I might expect. The work, of course, wasn’t significantly different, but the context certainly was. I still have a grateful sense of God having held me all those decades, and then finally depositing me where I was supposed to be from the get-go. Sometimes, that’s how God works, keeping us guessing until the right moment comes along. We don’t necessarily always know what our work will be. In a way, that might not be such a bad thing. We can certainly do other interesting things in the meantime, preparing and equipping ourselves for the day of reckoning—which I most certainly did. Waiting time, for God, is never, in fact, wasted.
So, what happened to our two heroes from this morning’s readings? Well, Isaiah did become a prophet, after being cleansed of his guilt, and he was sent to summon the people of Israel to repentance and a new relationship with their God. As for Peter, he followed Jesus’ command, and the catch was suddenly miraculous. This brought about a sudden change in Peter. Acknowledging the nature of Jesus’ power, he affirms his own sinfulness. It is only then that Jesus reveals the real work he has in mind for Peter: to catch people. And Peter accepts the call—not only him, but James and John also. Notice the sequence of events in both cases: God calls in an open-ended way, without really spelling out the divine purpose; there is repentance from those being called; God then specifies the task; the call is finally heeded and the task fully accepted. If we think seriously about it, we could certainly discern similar patterns in our lives as Christians, whatever the charge to which God might be summoning us.
Whether it is that nervous undergraduate student worrying about her future, or me waiting out decades in expectation of the ultimate solution to my vocational riddle, or you asking God for a sign of how you might be called now or in the future to service as a baptized Christian, we all need to remain open to the task that lies in our future, however opaque or ambiguous God might choose to keep it in the meantime. Sometimes, actually trying to guess what that work might be, and then playing at it, can be half the fun. It’s really not a bad way to live out a life.
In a few moments, Margret Cicely and Adam will be received in baptism as children of God. We do not know what lies in store for them, or what God’s purpose for their work in this world might be. But we can be sure of one thing: that God is most definitely calling them somewhere, and to something. We hope and pray, with all those who love and cherish them here today, that theirs will be a response full of trust in God. Amen.