Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
6 February 2022
What we have in two of our readings are not only call narratives, the call of Isaiah to be the Lord’s prophet, and the call of Peter, James, and John to follow Jesus, but conversion stories. We may think of both Isaiah and the disciples as role models and heroes of our faith, yet that is not how they are presented to us. They didn’t just say, ‘yes, that’s what I’ll do’, but their lives took a profoundly different direction.
Isaiah experiences and sees God in the temple. He describes the awe he experienced as he encountered God’s holiness,
Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”1
The foundations trembled at the sound of the angel voices, and then the whole house filled with smoke. I said,
“Doom! It’s Doomsday!
I’m as good as dead!
Every word I’ve ever spoken is tainted—
And the people I live with talk the same way,
using words that corrupt and desecrate.
And here I’ve looked God in the face! …”2
So, the prophet who uttered some of the most beautiful words in the Hebrew scriptures, words filled with hope and promise, including my baptismal verse, not only believes himself to be unworthy but doomed in God’s holy presence.
And yet, God has chosen Isaiah not because of sinlessness or purity or piety, but simply because Isaiah is one of God’s chosen people. Sinlessness or sinfulness have nothing to do with Isaiah’s election. It is all in God’s grace.
Luke tells us about the call of the first disciples. It is an unconventional call narrative. Jesus does not say, “Come and follow me.” Jesus also does not call on Peter to repent for whatever sins were lurking in his past. Jesus simply blesses Peter with his presence when he steps out into the boat as the people press in on him. When he is done teaching, he calls on Peter to set out to the deep and let down his nets.
Peter replies, “Master, we’ve been fishing hard all night and haven’t caught even a minnow. But if you say so, I’ll let out the nets.”
It was no sooner said than done – a huge haul of fish, straining the nets past capacity. They waved to their partners in the other boat to come help them. They filled both boats, nearly swamping them with the catch.
Simon Peter, when he saw it, fell to his knees before Jesus. “Master, leave. I’m a sinner and can’t handle this holiness. Leave me to myself.”
When they pulled in that catch of fish, awe overwhelmed Simon and everyone with him. It was the same with James and John, Zebedee’s sons, coworkers with Simon.
Jesus said to Simon, “There is nothing to fear. From now on you’ll be fishing for men and women.” They pulled their boats up on the beach, left them, nets and all, and followed him.3
At the beginning of last week’s service I made remarks that perhaps were not as clear as I had hoped they would be. I said that I am concerend about a new tribalism in our society, and how we are all are tired of the pandemic. And that as the pandemic drags on, our disappointment and frustration has become increasingly directed at the other. Those unvaccinated blame the vaccinated, but those who are vaccinated also blame the unvaccinated. All this is understandable but it’s not going to get us anywhere.
And I suggested that while we will remain truthful, it’d be helpful if Christ’s church did not participate in the sport of blaming, of scapegoating, as much as we may disagree with others.
I grew up as the son of an antivaxxer mother. I was vaccinated for tetanus, but that was it, and I do not know why tetanus, because my mother was against it all. No diphtheria, no polio, no measles, no small pox. It was not until our eldest was born that I caught up on my vaccinations. I am not against vaccinations.
My mother suffered from an undiagnosed and untreated narcissistic personality disorder. I will give you an illustration. In 1998 she came to visit us in Winnipeg and deeply desired to have a relationship with her only grandchildren who were 5 and 2 1/2 at the time. Yet, she was completely unable to interact on a child’s level. Children are generous and so all that the building of a relationship with a child requires is the paying of attention. But as my mother was unable to understand that a five year old will not sit on your lap unless it has a reason to and that that reason is based in relationship, not blood, she stated, “If she does not pay attention to me, I will not pay attention to her.”
It was sad to see her complete failure at building a relationship with her grandchild and I had reason to look at my childhood again from a new perspective.
The reason I tell you this story is that my mother did not cease to be my mother because she was an antivaxxer or because she was unable to build and maintain relationships. It was a difficult relationship for both of us and for everyone in our family, but a relationship it was, however wanting.
We who live in this time and place live with people we disagree with, some of them vehemently, some of them are hateful and hate we must unequivocally reject. But rejecting the hate of others does not mean that we too are not capable of hate, of marginalizing those who are inconvenient, and who do not fit our mold.
The polarization of our society does not have to mean the polarization of the followers of Jesus. Even if someone acts as a fool (I am intentionally restraining my language here), the followers of Jesus are not entitled to dismiss that individual, for to dismiss them entirely would dismiss their personhood, and even fools are created in God’s image.
The talk-show host Stephen Colbert spoke about this last week. He quoted Robert Hayden who says, “We must not be frightened or controlled into accepting evil as our deliverance from eviler, we must keep struggling to keep our humanity, though monsters of abstraction threaten and police us.”4
During the last few days I have found the words of Chrystia Freeland much more helpful than the words of our Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister insisted he has always spoken about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, but then talked about conspiracy theories, microchips and “about God knows what else that goes with the tinfoil hats.” Trudeau did not address the broader angst driving those who chose to peacefully demonstrate over the weekend, other than to tacitly chastise them for not standing up to those espousing hateful views.5 That was unfortunate.
Freeland said, “Two years of COVID, it’s been a lot. And it’s frustrating that there’s not an absolutely obvious clear, for sure, finish line. And those things really weigh on people, and so people are tired and grouchy.”6
When God called Isaiah, Peter, James, and John, God did not do so on account of their perfection or sinlessness, but on account of God’s love and grace. We may wish Jesus had not commanded us to love our enemies yet Jesus did and he lived it too. And perhaps loving our enemies is a bigger part of following Jesus than we had assumed. But loving our enemies has never been an optional part of discipleship. Besides, those we disagree with are not going to go anywhere, so how do we live together?
Where do we receive the capacity to love my enemies?
In the community of the church we remember the example of Jesus and we practice. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, apart from him we can do nothing but those who abide in him bear much fruit. Loving the other and loving our enemies because they too bear God’s image is part of our ongoing conversion.
1 Translation: New Revised Standard Version
2 Translation: The Message by Eugene Peterson
3 The Message