February is Black History month. At this fraught moment in our nation’s story, today’s readings come at a critical moment. They pertain. I first preached this homily in 2004. I was surprised today at how pertinent it is once again.
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, one that we may hope will never come. It might also be welcome. 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 we 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 the 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].
Jeremiah was even less confident and immediately tried to back out of his summons: “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” [Jeremiah 1:6.] But God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and gives him prophetic speech. Isaiah’s response is more wholehearted than Jeremiah’s: “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 prophet has to the call of God is likely to be sheer terror and even a fast retreat. After denouncing her, Elijah fled to Horeb to escape the wrath of Queen Jezebel [1 Kings 19:8], 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 last week’s gospel, we saw how he came to understand and perhaps even anticipate the rejection and violent repudiation his mission would entail. And 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” [1 Co 15:10].
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 protest. And he is then witness to a different kind of theophany, a small domestic miracle, but one that means something to a professional fisherman with a big temper and a bigger heart. When Peter sees the net full of fish, he repeats the disqualification that we have heard from Isaiah: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” “I am just a boy.” “I am a man of unclean lips.”
But, as before, the words Peter hears are of strength and support: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching people.” And like Isaiah, the response of the other fishermen is also 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 of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was near despair one Saturday night in Montgomery, Alabama, in the midst of the now-historic bus boycott. Then, it was just a lot of trouble. He could have been a highly paid and respected professor in a northern seminary. But he felt called to work with the poor and oppressed in the heart of the most racially segregated area of the country. And now, everything seemed to be failing, and his career was in tatters. But as he prayed at the kitchen table that night, he felt God’s presence and heard the same promise: I will be there, I will support you, I will give you the strength.
King was a good scholar and knew his bible well enough to realize that probably meant he would wind up like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul: an exile, opposed, slandered, hunted, imprisoned, beaten, and ultimately killed in a far-off place. But he, too, said yes. And like Medgar Evers, John Lewis, and Desmond Tutu, he changed the world. But their task is not finished.
We may not face the same huge challenges that great prophets had to contend with. It’s even allowed for us to want to avoid them. There is excellent precedent there. But each of us is nevertheless expected to undertake the cost of discipleship in our own time and place, to say 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 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, Lord! Send me!