January 26, 2020
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?
There’s something that typically happens at social gatherings, whether it’s a backyard barbeque or a formal dinner party, a wedding reception or gallery opening. Maybe you’ve experienced it—you’re introduced to someone you haven’t met before, and you fall into conversation with them. And after exchanging the usual pleasantries, one person inevitably asks the other: “so, what do you do?”
I don’t know why this question has always bothered me. It’s not like it’s too intrusive; I’m not being asked to reveal the deepest, darkest secrets of my soul. And I’m not in the CIA. (As far you know.) I think what I find annoying is the assumption that what I “do” will then be identified with who I am. So if I say I’m a journalist, or a banker, or a cop, or a Deacon in the Episcopal Church—all of these descriptions give people permission to define me by my occupation.
And I think that’s especially frustrating for anyone who doesn’t necessarily love what they do professionally, or people who just see their jobs as a way of paying the bills, and who pursue their passions—what they see as their real calling in life—in their spare time. There are plenty of people who don’t equate who they are with what they do for a living.
This tendency to define people by their occupations can be especially difficult for those who feel deep in their hearts they have a certain calling, but struggle to earn a living from it. They yearn to be a professional athlete, or an artist, or to start their own business. They believe beyond the shadow of a doubt, and usually not without good reason, that God put them on the earth to do just that. And if things don’t work out quite the way they’d hoped, they face a pretty awful dilemma: Who am I, if I’m not what I always saw as my true calling? And if I wasn’t called to be that after all, then who was I called to be?
In today’s lesson from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls his first disciples: Simon/Peter and his brother Andrew, and then another set of brothers, James and John. All four live in Capernaum, and work as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Now this was a very good living in those days; the brothers very likely enjoyed a stable, respectable, middle class existence. And yet in spite of this, Matthew tells us that all four, at Jesus’ simple request, immediately dropped everything and followed him. According to Matthew, they didn’t ask where they were going, or why. They didn’t even ask this apparent stranger who he was or where he had come from. The first pair of brothers at least got the odd explanation that they would be made “fishers for people.” OK Jesus, that clears everything up, thanks a lot!
Why would these hardworking and upstanding men toss their lives aside for this eccentric figure? What gave them the courage to answer Jesus’ call so quickly? Remember, at this point Jesus hadn’t said or done anything especially remarkable—he’s not yet Jesus the miracle worker, the charismatic preacher and teacher. The Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, the Transfiguration, Passion and Resurrection, all of this is still to come. In Matthew’s account, Jesus has only just been baptized by John in the Jordan, and resisted the Devil’s temptations in the desert. He has just moved from his native Nazareth to a brand new town, and is going around making the rather obscure proclamation “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
And that’s what, to me, makes this text so extraordinary. What made Jesus’ call so irresistible? What was it about his sheer being that inspired enough trust in these fishermen to drop everything and follow him? I wonder if it’s because in Jesus, they recognized someone who was truly and fully and fearlessly himself. And I wonder if direct contact with that kind of raw personal freedom and honesty radically and instantly transformed how these first disciples saw themselves. My guess is that seeing Jesus suddenly made them feel, perhaps for the first time, fully alive, fully human. Apart from anything he said or did, Jesus simply embodied and radiated light, strength and the promise of salvation, as the Psalm says. And Jesus’ presence alone produced a fearlessness in these first disciples that empowered them to answer his call, to give up everything and follow him.
The Gospels don’t tell us how the disciples felt about their professions. Did Andrew and the others feel that fishing was their true calling in life? Were they called because they were fishermen, or did Jesus simply make use of what was already there? Whatever the answer, meeting Jesus made these two pairs of brothers recognize that they were called to be more than fisherman; by calling them to be disciples, Jesus freed them to be fully themselves, and empowered them to do things they would not otherwise have done.
Now what about us? The disciples experienced a kind of intimacy with the earthly ministry of Jesus that doesn’t seem available to us, all these centuries later. How do we get close enough to Jesus to hear that same irresistible, empowering call? One simple but profound way is through the sacraments: first of all Baptism, which grafts us irrevocably onto the Body of Christ, and then the Eucharist, which nourishes that Body, week after week by bringing us into a mystical union with one another, and with the risen Christ, at the Lord’s Table.
But the fact is that if we really want to spend time with Jesus, we need to be with those he came to lift up. Not the wise and powerful, not the winners and the heroes. If we’re looking for Jesus, we will find him with the sick and the dying, the prisoner and the refugee, the homeless, the hungry, the victims of violence. We’ll also find Jesus in what is perhaps, for many of us, an even scarier place: in our own hearts and minds, the places where we keep our deepest, darkest secrets, where we relive our most heartbreaking and traumatic experiences.
The miracle is that when we meet Jesus in these painful, difficult places, we are also most likely to meet ourselves—sometimes for the first time. We can finally see ourselves as God sees us, and instead of feeling unworthy or insufficient, we suddenly we feel, in an instant, that God holds and loves us more deeply than anyone or anything else can; we finally know that, despite all our self-doubt and imperfections, we are more than enough in God’s eyes. The closer we get to Jesus, the clearer his call becomes; it drowns out all our fears, and frees us to become who we truly are.
Now I understand that in the real world, and especially New York, life is expensive; it’s not entirely clear how the ability to see ourselves as beloved children of God is going to put food on the table. All this talk of our true calling and vocations might seem like a luxury, maybe even an insult, to someone who is struggling desperately to make ends meet. What we do is obviously important, it’s an integral part of who we are. Research shows over and over again that meaningful work is crucial to self-esteem and overall happiness. A good job fuels our sense of dignity and integrity.
No one would deny that, and yet I believe there’s still more to it. I’m convinced that the more we suppress our deepest longings, and the more cut off we are from the joys and sorrows of our neighbors, the more difficult it is to find meaning in anything, including our work. By the same token, no job, no career will ever give us everything we need. And the more we identify ourselves with our jobs and careers, the less likely we are to be in touch with our true selves. What we do is important, but it’s not who we are.
There is an unfathomable and blessed diversity in our world: we are doctors and baristas, teachers and custodians; we are rich and poor; black, brown and white; female and male; trans and non-binary; bi-, gay and straight. But I believe that none of those descriptions alone captures the full reality of our being. None of them alone does us justice. At our very core, each of us is an utterly unique and irreplaceable human person, whose most fundamental identity is as one of God’s beloved creatures.
My friends our true calling, our primary vocation, is to be fully and fearlessly ourselves. This is what those Galilean fisherman instantly recognized in Jesus’ call—the freedom to be who they truly were. Which was more than what they did for a living, more than who their family or society, their friends or enemies, said they were.
This freedom is God’s gift to all of us. And we receive it whenever we let Jesus into our lives. So move closer to him, close enough to hear his call, close enough to know that, as a beloved child of God, you have nothing to fear. You are free to be who you are. AMEN