At one time or other, we’ve all received a call (or we will), late at night, or early in the morning, at home, or at work or school. Someone on the other end of the line urgently wants us to do something or go somewhere. The call is one we may dread or welcome, perhaps one that we hope will never come. One day during a break in a summer course I was teaching at Loyola University some years back, I was told my father had called from New Mexico. “I can’t walk,” he said when I called back. “I think I’m paralyzed. Can you come home?” I went that night, and I was able to return shortly afterwards to be with him for the next two months before his death from cancer at 78.
The call might not be a summons to a difficult vigil. Often it is a call that brings an invitation to promotion or an appointment. One way or another, there are calls that we may not or should not refuse. They will shape the rest of our lives, summoning us to a destiny we only dimly imagine.
Today’s three readings all turn on the challenge of the prophet’s call or, as some say, vocation. In the first, we hear
the story of Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, which has much in common with Jeremiah’s experience we heard about last week. Here, we have a classic theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence in power and glory. And it has the expected effect on Isaiah: “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” [Isaiah 6:1].
Samuel and Jeremiah received similar, disturbing calls. Jeremiah’s response was even less confident than Isaiah’s. He immediately tried to back out of his summons: “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” [Jeremiah 1:6.]
God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and gives him prophetic speech. The Book of Isaiah relies on symbolism to communicate the same divine insistence and the same promise of divine support. Isaiah’s response is more wholehearted after that: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here — me! Send me.”
The first reaction a genuine prophet has to the call of God is likely to be sheer terror and a fast retreat. Elijah fled to Carmel to escape the wrath of Jezebel, and Jonah’s futile attempts to evade his responsibility became a paradigm of the reluctant prophet. Even Jesus was tempted to back away from the full implications of setting himself against the principalities and powers that dominate the social systems of the world, both his and ours. In each of these cases, God promises to strengthen and support the one chosen to bear the bad tidings that so often make up the prophet’s message. It is that promise of help, of companionship and strength that Paul appeals to in the reading from his letter to the Corinthians:
“…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.”
The same promise is conveyed in the gospel reading, which takes the form of a parable in action. Peter and his partners had been fishing all night, without success. And now this stranger, this… this carpenter’s son tells them to try again, they weren’t doing it right. Peter protests, much as Jeremiah and Isaiah protested. And he then witnesses a different kind of revelation, a small domestic miracle, but one that meant much more that flashing lights and smoke to a professional fisherman with a big temper and a bigger heart. But when Peter sees the net full of fish, he repeats the disqualification that we heard from the others: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” “I am a man of unclean lips.” “Hey, I’m just a boy!”
But, as before, the words Peter next hears are of strength and support: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching people.” And like Isaiah, the response of all the fishermen is instantaneous and generous: “And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
Later, of course, the disciples faltered. Discouragement, defeat, ridicule, and exhaustion always take their toll. And so it is not amazing that we all try to evade the implications of discipleship. You can expect to. God apparently expects it, and provides assurance that the task can be done and will be there to help and support. I am reminded here again of Martin Luther King, Jr., who came close to despair during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Everything seemed to be falling to pieces. But as he prayed one dark night, he felt God’s presence and heard the familiar promise: I will support you, I will give you the strength. And he, too, said yes, send me.
We may not face the same huge challenges that these great prophets had to contend with. It’s even allowed for us to want to avoid them. There is precedent there. But each of us is nevertheless invited, called to undertake the cost of discipleship in our own time and place, to speak the truth when the truth is inconvenient, to pluck up and pull down if necessary, to work hard, to fish all night and, ultimately, all our lives. And we get the same promise and are offered the same reward: God will be with us and receive us in the end. There’s no turning back, really, even if we are permitted the brief luxury of avoiding the summons until God finally lets us know that there is some business at hand that seriously needs attention. Right in front of our noses.
So let us pray that we will be able to recognize that call when it comes, for it will come, often and in small ways for most of us; so that we, too, can say, Here I am, Lord! Send me!