FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
February 07, 2016
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 6:1-2A; 3-8 Psalm 138:1-8 I
Corinthians 15:3-8; 11 Luke 5:1-11
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
[Sing] “Have it your way, have it your way.” You probably recognize that as the Burger King Song. When sung to people in America, it affirms that we live in a society that places a great emphasis on freedom and individuality. Burger King is using empathy with that sentiment to sell burgers. It is effective advertising, because the ability and opportunity to be what you want yourself to be is the holy grail of happiness that many people seek. In today’s America, when you get what you want, when you want it, and how you want it, you are said to be truly in heaven.
Many people think the entire world should be one big Burger King where you can “have it your way” twenty-four seven. We see, hear, feel, taste, and smell that theory every day, in our streets, in the courthouses, on radios and television. Power, money, and pleasure reign supreme as the values by which to measure our lives and happiness. America celebrates unrestrained choice, and glorifies the human will as the ultimate reality. When this happens, what is true or good exists solely within each of us. Nothing outside of us counts, because each of us, for herself or himself, defines what is true and what is good, with no duty to any authority other than ourselves. God is definitely notin that picture.
In the 1980s, books like “Free to Choose”, by Milton and Rose Friedman, and “The Virtue of Selfishness” by Ayn Rand, were popular among intellectuals who glorified a rigid individualism that neither God nor other people dare disturb. The logical corollary of that philosophy is that while humans have freedom, God does not have any freedom. Instead, God is not what God is, but onlywhat people want God to be at a given moment for a given purpose.
Today, we celebrate God’s freedom, God’s sovereignty, a freedom that allows God to do what God wants, with whom God wants, on God’s schedule. Whether we like it or not, the Bible presents God as free to do what God wants at all times and under all circumstances. Today, we hear about those of God’s choices which compel us to make our own choices in line with God’s plan, instead of following our own plans that often arise from our feelings of unworthiness for what God calls us to do. Often, we substitute what we want for what God wants because we don’t feel we’re up to the task God wants to set before us. Such was the case for Isaiah the prophet, and the great Apostles Peter and Paul.
God called Isaiah to be a prophet, the first reading tells us, “in the year that King Uzziah died.” Who was Uzziah? According to the Book of Second Chronicles, he was a king of Judah in the eighth century before Christ. His life was an example of bad things happening to someone who was a law unto himself. King Uzziah was a successful military commander.Early in his reign, he successfully conquered some of the most troublesome enemies of the Jewish people, in particular, the Edomites, Philistines and Arabians, who had been part of an alliance against the southern Jewish kingdom known as Judah. He also strengthened the walls of Jerusalem and other defensive installations. Feeling very full of himself, he decided to offer incense in the temple. That was a no-no, because in those days, only priests offered incense in the temple. But when he did so, an earthquake occurred and he was struck with leprosy, which in those days before modern medicine was both incurable and contagious, and required him to go into seclusion and share power with his son. Scripture implies that if King Uzziah had stuck to what God called him to do; he would not have suffered like he did.
What Uzziah lacked, but what Isaiah, Peter and Paul had, was humility before God, a recognition of their own unworthiness in comparison to God, and a recognition of God’ power, a respect for God’s will, in preference to their own wills. Isaiah was believed to be the son of a priest, and may have been a priest himself, which was a high-status job in his day, but when God called him to prophesy, his response was not, “yes, I can,” but, “I may not be worthy to do this, but I will do it.” He accepted God purging his unclean lips with a hot coal, and thereafter responded to God, “Send me.” His attitude was decidedly different from that of King Uzziah. Isaiah appreciated and experienced the holiness of God’s majesty in the Temple, whereas Uzziah saw the Temple as his personal celebration venue. For Isaiah, the smoke of the incense that filled the temple was an attribute of God’s presence, but for Uzziah, it was an opportunity to massage his own ego. Uzziah saw God as someone for his own use and benefit, whereas Isaiah saw himself as existing for the use and benefit of God. In our own day, people sometimes use religion more like Uzziah, and less like Isaiah. They use religion to accomplish their own personal success, rather than a means to carry out God’s mission. Politicians who spout religious phrases to get votes are a very good example of this, and I suspect as this political season rolls on, we will see more and more of that. Using scripture a tool to effectuate human ambition instead of the coming of God’s kingdom illustrates quite well the individualist philosophy of getting one’s own way while insulated from God’s will and/or the common good.
About eight hundred years after the time of Isaiah, Jesus needed help with His mission. One day, he wanted to go out a little ways from a lakeshore to address a large crowd. So he picked out a couple of fish catchers, Simon Peter and one other not identified in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus asked to use their boat, and they agreed. After he was done speaking, Jesus sought to compensate them for using it. Jesus took note of the fact they had worked many hours but had not caught very many fish. So Jesus told Simon Peter to take his boat into deep water, and lo and behold, Simon Peter’s net was filled to bursting with fish, so many that Simon Peter had to ask his business partners, James and John, for help! They had so much fish that their boats almost sank from the weight. This unexpected event of plentiful fish overwhelmed Simon Peter to the point where he told Jesus he did not deserve so bountiful a catch because he, Simon Peter, was a sinner. But like God did with Isaiah, Jesus overlooked his unworthiness, and focused on the future of Simon’s Peter’s eventual mission as an Apostle, telling him today you catch fish, but in the rest of your life, you will catch people. What Jesus was trying to convey was that Peter, despite his faults, would attract many followers to Jesus just as Peter had caught more fish than he ever had expected. Now remember, that Jesus was God incarnate, perfectly divine and perfectly human, so he could do extraordinary things that ordinary people can’t do. Here, Jesus used his divine powers to show Simon Peter how successful one could be when one submits one’s will to God. The overflowing nets illustrates for us that in doing church, God’s help is welcome. Just as Simon Peter needed help from Jesus, we can’t do church without Jesus. Simon Peter and his business partners were so struck with awe by God’s power that they were inspired to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Simon Peter was able to do this because he, like Isaiah, saw himself as imperfect in God’s sight, not focused on his own agenda as Uzziah was. When Simon Peter confessed to Jesus that he was a sinful man, the response from Jesus was, “do not be afraid.” In other words, don’t worry; everything will be alright. The miracle Jesus did in his presence to help him solidified his belief and trust in Jesus.
About thirty years after the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter at the lake, we meet Saint Paul. He was first known as Saul, a Greek Jew and a Pharisee, who persecuted Christians on behalf of the Jewish establishment, someone who said “no” to Jesus. But on his way to persecute Christians is Damascus, a city in Syria, Paul was suddenly blinded by a vision of Jesus. He fell down, humiliated by God’s power. Paul’s “No” to Jesus became a “Yes.” Several days later, his blindness disappeared, and he was baptized by Ananias, and thereafter was a very busy church planter and evangelist.
The calling of Paul, who had been a persecutor of Christians, illustrates that you don’t have to be perfect or important for God to call you to do something. The Bible is full of examples of people God called who were less than perfect, among them, King David, a murderer, Sampson, a womanizer, Rahab, a prostitute, Matthew, a tax collector, and Simon Peter himself, who denied three times that he knew Jesus. All of them ended up, despite their flaws, serving God in important ways that made a difference in the ongoing work in building God’s kingdom.
Christian theology keeps in tension two ways of looking at God: immanent and transcendent, or God among us or God over us. God is transcendent over creation as well as being present and ceaselessly at work within it, sovereign over the history of the world, its rulers, and his people who wait for him. God became present among us as Jesus. But when God makes choices, we experience bothof those forgoing aspects of God. God cannot be immanent unless God is transcendent as well. Because King David, Rahab, Sampson, Matthew, Simon Peter and Paul all recognized the transcendent, sovereign power of God, they were able to be immanent to the world as an extension of God’s presence within it.
The sovereign power of God is what enables God to be among us. In order for that to happen, we must allow God to be God. We must acknowledge God’s freedom to be God, and acknowledge God’s choices like Isaiah, Simon Peter, and Paul did. We can accept God’s choices by saying “yes” to God as those folks did. We cannot expect God to be Burger King.
When we wrap ourselves in getting what we want, when and how we want it, we shut God out of our lives. But we can only do that for so long. Ultimately, God wins, when our lives get into a situation where the factual circumstances leave us without a choice. Such was the case not only for Isaiah, Peter and Paul, but for all of us, whenever we face an compromising reality not of our own making, like horrific weather that closes off all escape routes, or an earthquake, or a wild-fire, that give us no choice but to surrender to God’s power, forcing us to acknowledge God’s absolute freedom. Respecting God’s freedom allows us to appreciate the freedom God gives us to make a range of choices, including a choice to accept God’s call to us.
Isaiah, Peter and Paul all ended up making good choices for themselves and for those they would eventually encounter in their respective ministries. Consider what would have happened if Isaiah just walked out of the Temple, if Simon Peter said, “no, thanks, I’ll just be a fish catcher,” or if Paul had gone back to his old ways of persecuting Christians. All would have ended up nobodys who did well neither for themselves nor for the other people who could have benefited from their lives had they said yes. We would not have a Christian church as we know it to build God’s Kingdom.
Because God works through people, God calls and chooses each of us because God needs all of us to build up God’s Kingdom, even if we are not perfect. God exalts the dignity of the human person because we are all made in God’s image, making us worthy to carry out God’s plan. God uses us as our lips to preach, our hands to heal, and our hearts to love. God calls us to be God’s word in the flesh in all we say and do. We are called to be wells of God’s compassion, havens of God’s peace, and purveyors of God’s justice. All of that requires that we listen to, and accept, the freedom to which God has call to us, and use our freedom to respond with a “yes” to God, just like Isaiah, Peter, and Paul did. AMEN.