Today we find ourselves making our way through the season after Epiphany, leaning toward any light we can see, trying, along with Jesus’ first disciples, to understand what it means to be people who live in a world of darkness insisting that there’s enough light for at least one more step toward wholeness, reconciliation, hope.
That’s who we are; that’s what we’re called to do…which all sounds so nice, until we have to gather the courage to take a different path, speak an uncomfortable truth, change our lives to reflect what we believe. It’s not always easy to say yes to the call of God, to the pull of conviction that might lead you or me in directions we never imagined.
If you have ever felt that way, well, you’re in good company.
Biblical scholars would tell you that the planners of the lectionary texts chose to place our gospel text and our Hebrew text side by side this morning because of the common theme running through them. The theme, they report, is the call of God, two stories of being urgently and relentlessly invited to participate in the work of God in this world, often in ways that the characters could not understand, but ultimately could not ignore.
I also happened to notice, though its likely the authors of the lectionary did not intend this, that both of our stories today have to do with water: the story of fishers along the Sea of Galilee struggling with their nets early one morning, and the story of Jonah, finally delivering a message to Ninevah after spending a few days actually inside a fish.
I don’t know that there’s any theological significance to this shared characteristic, but you can’t deny that there’s a distinct nautical theme running through everything today. Given my experiences of a childhood near the ocean, I confess I can’t help but read these scripture texts and think of my own memories of the water.
When my father had children I suspect it was his fondest dream to teach his sons how to navigate the tides, lay net in the bay, use a spear gun underwater, and scour the tide pools for dinner on the beach. Sadly for him he had a daughter. Then another one. Then one more.
By the time his fishing buddy was born I was already six years old, so he had awhile to wait before he’d be taking my brother with him diving. To his credit, Dad rose to the occasion and filled my childhood with memories of diving in rocky coves; creating our own system of underwater signals for the moments that we, say, found ourselves caught in a school of angel fish; learning how to scale and clean what we caught; coming in from a dive, arms like spaghetti, and resting on the beach; grilling an octopus we just speared on an open fire . . . how lucky was I?
Of course a large part of these experiences involved my Dad instructing me on various important safety tips. Respect the ocean, Dad always told me. Learn the tides; know your limits; display a healthy respect for the creatures whose home you are invading.
Among these myriad lessons I remember learning specifically about eels. When you’re diving in the reef, one of the most sought after, and dangerous, catches is the big moray eel that lives in the crevices deep in the reef. They are hard to catch; they must be speared. And their massive, muscular bodies are very strong. Watch your fingers in particular if you run into an eel, Dad always told me, because in addition to mouths filled with razor sharp teeth, their outer jaws are built to open and close in a strictly-limited, full range of motion. In other words, when an eel opens its jaw, it must open all the way then close all the way before opening again.
It’s an interesting fact to know but imperative if, say, your finger is anywhere near the mouth of a moray eel. Because, Dad explained, once the eel has hold of you it can be . . . inconvenient, even impossible, to go on your merry way unchanged, if you know what I mean.
Today we heard Mark’s version of the call of the disciples, and it reads almost like a fairytale. As you read, you can almost imagine the breeze blowing along the shores of the Sea of Galilee; the sun rising on the edge of the water; seagulls calling as fishermen ready their boats for a day’s work. And who appears on the seashore but Jesus, who calls out: the time is near, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and follow.
Naturally, as any of us would do, right?, the fishermen immediately (Mark says) throw down their nets, and follow him.
With all due respect to Mark, who understandably wanted to paint a picture of Jesus’ compelling message, I doubt it really went down exactly that way. In other words, I would be very surprised if those fishers threw down their nets and trotted off while their boats floated off their moorings into the middle of the lake. Those nets were not just recreational fishing nets—they symbolized the very subsistence of their families.
And, you’ll notice that Mark begins his story of the disciples’ call with the ominous little phrase: “…now, after John was arrested…”. The region of Galilee was so small, those disciples would have known Jesus all their lives, watched him hone his message and begin his ministry, heard about the opposition he was facing, and perhaps even suspected they were giving up so much more than their fishing nets if they followed him.
I think the scene that day was more like a surrender; they knew they just had to go. There must have been something so compelling, so relentless, that had grabbed hold of their hearts long before that morning on the beach, and just wouldn’t let go—the very call of God that they couldn’t ignore—so they followed.
And we also heard the story of Jonah. Today we heard the very end of the story, describing the prophet’s trip to the city of Ninevah to warn the people there of God’s displeasure. What we didn’t read today is what happened before that, about when God first called Jonah to go to Ninevah to pass along God’s message. The story doesn’t record exactly what Jonah’s verbal response was, but we know enough to surmise that it was something in the family of: “Are you out of your mind??!?”
That’s right. Unlike Mark’s whitewashed story of the disciples answering the call of God, Jonah ran hard and fast in the exact opposite direction God called. You recall that when he heard the call of God, Jonah booked the next ship out of Tarshish headed directly AWAY from Ninevah, refusing not just to do what God asked but underscoring his refusal by physically hiding in the hull of a ship bound for the other side of the world.
Jonah couldn’t imagine that the call of God would seem so counter-intuitive to what made sense. What good, pray tell, would it do for him to go to Ninevah to tell the people they were in trouble? How could God ever be asking such a thing? If he hadn’t been mistaken about hearing God clearly then certainly God had made some kind of mistake. But here we find him today, pulled back again to God’s call, unable to ignore God’s invitation.
I think perhaps in this season of searching for the part we will each play in God’s work in this world, we may be hearing a call from God, too. Whether we answer with enthusiasm and immediacy like Mark says the disciples did, or kicking and screaming, as Jonah did, answering the call is something we must do because . . . once we have woken up to God’s invitation in our lives, we will live in dis-ease until we find a way to answer. There are some things that, once they have a hold on you, will just never let go. Relentless.
Perhaps you’ve had occasion to read some of the work of Anne Lammott. Anne writes about gritty and real faith, about a God who will not stop pursuing her. She tells the story of her conversion in her memoir Traveling Mercies.
Anne was going through a very tough time in her life, she writes, struggling with addiction and recovering from an abortion, she was lost. She writes about one night of crisis (p. 49-50):
“After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there–of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.
And one week later, when I [wandered into a nearby church, pulled in again by the music], I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling–and it washed over me.
[After that]…, I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said ‘[F— it]: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’
So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.”
What is the meaning of my life? What it is God wants me to do with this life I’ve been given? These are questions that the prophets and the first disciples asked; these are questions that we are asking, too. But sometimes the answers we hear don’t make any sense: Wake up early on Sunday mornings to go to church every week? Join a community of faith? Give away money that I earn? Rearrange my schedule so I am regularly offering my time and my skills to those who have needs? Going to seminary? Giving up a lucrative career to work in advocacy? Leaving the suburbs to live in the neighborhoods that need changing? Changing the entire direction of my life to follow the pull of God’s Spirit?
Could this be the call of God? Because every life has one; God is constantly inviting you and me into God’s work of reconciliation in the world, and God will not stop until we finally answer.
Hear the good news today. The call of God is alive in your life and mine, regardless of how and when we are able to hear and answer. Whether we’re like Jonah who ran screaming away from it, or like the disciples who got up to follow with naive enthusiasm, we should never worry that we’ll miss the invitation. The call of God in your life and mine is tenacious, relentless. It will sink into our hearts and never let go, it will pursue us again and again and again, until what seemed at once to be completely ridiculous all of the sudden becomes urgent . . . imperative, even, until we throw down our nets or throw up our hands or finally say: “Okay, you can come in.”