The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

The thoughts expressed here are my personal thoughts and sometimes reflect my political views. As a private citizen I have every right to express these views.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Homily: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Readings: Is 6:1-8; Ps 138:1-8; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Lk 5:1-11

In one of my other lives, one of my pre-retirement working lives, I had responsibility for interviewing and hiring those who would work for me. I always considered these hiring decisions the most important and yet the most difficult I had to make. I suppose I had a pretty good track record, but every once in a while I’d get fooled.

Sometimes I’d hire someone who just seemed perfect for the job. He had the education and qualifications, projected just the sort of personality and attitude I was looking for…and so I hired him. And then I soon discovered that he was lazy, barely competent, disloyal, and unable to function as a member of a team.

But the surprises weren’t always bad. Once, to satisfy pressing customer needs, I had to hire a couple of trainers quickly. The first who walked in the door was a young woman with a so-so educational background, a thin resume, and very little experience. She was also extremely nervous throughout the interview.  But something, some gut feeling, told me to hire her. She turned out to be an outstanding employee because she had drive, a positive attitude, a willingness to learn, and loved her work.

Now with that in mind, just think about Jesus’ hiring decisions. He was putting a team together, this apostolic team of His, a team that would have to begin and grow a worldwide enterprise of the sort never before seen. What’s His vision for this organization, this Church? Geographically, he told his disciples, it will span the entire world, encompass all nations. But that’s not all. He also promises it will exist until the end of time.

And so, whom does he hire to lead it? Does he bring in the top religious leaders of the time? Or the greatest thinkers? Does he tap into the elite, the movers and shakers of the Empire, the power brokers, the intelligentsia? No. Instead He chooses a bunch of fishermen from the backwater of Galilee, a collection of simple, unknown men who, for the next three years, seem totally incapable of understanding anything Jesus tells them.

What kind of men are they? Well, most were indeed fishermen, but one, called Matthew, was a tax-collector, probably the profession most despised by the people. Not a very customer-focused hire.

Another, named Judas, proves to be disloyal in the extreme, so disloyal he betrays Jesus by handing Him over to those who will kill Him. Simon Peter, the de facto leader of the group isn’t much better. Full of bluster and false pride, he talks a good game, but when the going gets tough he denies Jesus again and again. Then there’s Thomas, the doubter, and James and John, the “Sons of Thunder” Jesus calls them with sharp irony, the brothers so concerned with their ranking among the disciples. And the others…well, they just fade away at the time of Jesus’ greatest need.

Oh, yes, Jesus hires one more apostle. He reaches down and touches a man named Saul, a leading persecutor of the early Church. That’s a bit like the CIA saying, “You know, we should be more multi-cultural here. Let’s hire some al-Qaida and Taliban folks to work in our embassies.”

But, you see, Jesus wasn’t influenced by all the worldly qualifications – and disqualifications – that we consider so important. He wasn’t hiring for a business start-up. No, He was choosing men who could become faithful, trusting disciples, men who could do His work of leading the world to salvation.

Jesus sees each person’s true worth and judges the heart and the will. He judged the apostles and He judges us not so much for what we are, but for what we can become on our lifelong journey of conversion.

Like the apostles, and many who came before and after, we too can resist that call to conversion, that call to discipleship. Isaiah, Paul and Peter – the three men we heard from in today’s readings – each resisted God’s call when confronted by his own insignificance, his own sinfulness, in the presence of God’s transcendent greatness.

Of the three I suppose I feel more kinship with Peter. He just seems so totally human – a practical, down-to-earth sort of man who says what he thinks, and isn’t easily impressed by others. He was a commercial fisherman, an entrepreneur who, with his brother Andrew, owned his own boat and nets, and worked hard to earn a living. He probably came from generations of fishermen, since in those days occupations were usually passed on from father to son. Fishing was in his blood. He knew his trade and he knew the Sea of Galilee as well as anyone.

So when Jesus told him to “put out into deep water” and cast his nets, Peter was justifiably skeptical: “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing…” [Lk 5:4-5]

Yes, a nice way of saying, “Look, Jesus, you’re a carpenter and obviously a very holy man, but if I know one thing it’s fishing, and there’s no way we’ll catch anything now, not in the middle of the day.”

Yet, despite this, Peter did as Jesus asked: “…but at your command I will lower the nets.”
"Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."

And what happened? They caught so many fish that their nets were tearing and they needed the help of other fishermen on another boat.

Now Peter had witnessed the miracles of Jesus before. He had seen healings, even the cure of his own mother-in-law, but Peter was no doctor.  He had seen Jesus turn water into wine at Cana, but he was no chemist. But this was different. Because Peter knew fishing, and he knew that what he’d just witnessed had never happened before, that he’d witnessed a miracle.

Overcome by this revelation, he fell to his knees, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” [Lk 5:8]. Just moments before, he had called Jesus, “Master.” Now he calls him, “Lord.”

But just as He did with Isaiah, and would later do with Paul, God takes the initiative. Jesus knew that Peter’s sense of unworthiness was accompanied by something else: a very deep fear. I look back at my own life and see it littered with these fearful, Peter-like moments, but Peter’s experience was far more profound. For Peter, at his very core, was frightened, frightened by the sudden realization that he was weak and powerless in the presence of something, of some ONE, much greater than himself. And he was frightened too by the knowledge that Jesus could see into his inmost being. Frightened by the darkness, the sinfulness he knew was there. I suspect he was also frightened by what Jesus might ask him to do.

Yes, Peter was frightened, and Jesus knew it. Jesus also knew that Peter’s sense of unworthiness and fear wasn’t the same as unwillingness. Peter, this tough guy, normally full of bravado, was now overcome by a kind of fear he had never before experienced. But Jesus also knew that Peter would ultimately do whatever His Lord asked of him. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells him, “from now on you will be catching men” [Lk 5:10].

You see, brothers and sisters, Jesus accepts us as we are. He loves us as we are. But He loves us too much to let us stay as we are. He calls us as we are, but He always calls us to something greater. He calls us to holiness.

How did St. Paul put it in today’s first reading? “…I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle…But by the grace of God I am what I am” [1 Cor 15:9-10]. God doesn’t call saints. He calls sinful men and women and makes them saints. He calls the weak and makes them strong. And He calls us all, every single one of us.

As He calls disciples to Himself, He makes the most unworldly of hiring decisions. He hires everyone who comes to Him in humility and powerlessness. Paul and Peter both came to understand that the Incarnation – this God becoming man – and especially our Lord’s passion and death was an act of voluntary powerlessness on God’s part. They also understood that Word and Sacrament aren’t gifts to make us feel good, but rather a way for us to participate in the humbling work of Christ.

God’s call is a call to powerlessness, something that many of us, clergy and laity, have yet to accept. It’s a call to “put out into the deep water” – and that can be a very scary place when you’re alone. The first true steps in faith are always a bit frightening, brothers and sisters, but you’re not alone, for Jesus promises to be with each one of us every step of the way.

What is He calling you to do? Don’t know? Then look to your weaknesses, because the call will come from there. And then, like Isaiah, you too can respond, “Here I am...Send me” [Is 6:8].

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