February 6, 2022| 5th Sunday after Epiphany
In this beginning of the year 2022 we have been reading about joy and we have been reading about courage. Joy and courage hardly seem to match our present circumstances. Or perhaps they do. It is precisely when things get tough that joy and courage are most needed. I'll say more. Centuries-old human wisdom teaches us that precisely when things get tough there is a chance for a turn around. Not at all an assurance, but a chance. When things get tough, it is possible that the real values come to the fore and all the fluff, that previously we saw as important, falls to the sides.
Joy and courage are paramount at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. Even though different Gospels tell different stories, they all show an explosion of joy and wonder and delight when the Messiah shows up on the stage of the world. At Cana, rivers of wine accompany the wedding dances! Here, the fish nets are bursting! What a plenty! What an exaggeration! What a story to tell! “How much fish you say they got?” “So much that the boats were sinking!” In the context of a subsistence economy, like the one of the Mediterranean poor in the 1st century, you cannot possibly say something more wonderful. Rivers of wine and nets full of fish. The plenty that the prophets of old envisioned for the banquet of the end times is here now. That is the basic message of all the different stories which we read at the beginning of each Gospel. And yet, these stories are more realistic than one may think. Things get tough when it comes to announcing the message of joy to a depressed people, or to issue warnings to people that are too proud of themselves. That is why we get the stories of the vocations of prophets and apostles that we get, stories that discuss the difficulties experienced by them. Realistic stories, then, even when couched in the language of legend.
The Bible distinguishes between false prophets and true prophets. The false prophets tell what the people want to hear. For example, in times of plenty, false prophets tell the people that everything is fine, that they are protected and nothing bad will ever happen to them. In the same circumstances, true prophets warn the people about the calamities that will surely follow if they do not change their ways. But at times of famine and trouble, true prophets announce joy. It is not that true prophets are simply contrarian. They see into the depths of the human heart and of human history. They see what others don't see as well. For this reason, they get in trouble. And, for this reason, they need courage. They need to be able to risk. And they need to be able to let go of all that encumbers their vocation. Jeremiah, as we read last week, says that he is only a boy, he cannot possibly become a prophet. But God replies in a vision: “Do not tell, I am only a boy”. Isaiah in his vision, as we just heard, objects that he is a sinner, that the words that come out of his mouth are impure, so he cannot possibly become a prophet. But then, the angel of the Lord comes to him and touches his lips with a burning coal. As if to say: “Fine, you are a sinner and the words that come out of your mouth are impure, but I purified your mouth and now you have no more excuses”.
Jesus models the courage of the prophets and runs the same risks. If you remember, last week we heard of him escaping the fury of the congregation at Nazareth. It is after such an episode that, according to Luke, Jesus meets Peter and the others. The Gospel story from Luke that we proclaimed today is an enhanced version of the basic one that is found in Mark. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus simply is walking along the sea; he calls Andrew, Peter, and the others who are working around their boats, and they follow him. Luke elaborates this basic story to underline the difficulties that one encounters, from the very beginning, when one is called to become a prophet, one who announces the word of God. Echoing Isaiah, Peter says: “I am only a sinner, get away from me!” I am not enough, I will never be enough, this cannot be happening to me. Peter, here as elsewhere, is the symbol of the Church. Peter is us. And his nets are so full that they burst. We can be amazed, at times, at the plenty of life and joy that we can experience in community. Especially during difficult times, being here in church is wonderful. But are we ready to cast our nets?
Last week, on Friday afternoon, some of us spent two hours at the gate “fishing for people”. Some simply did not answer our greeting. Some did but did not stop walking. With others, we began a conversation. Oranges and lemons were our bait. And Caterina, the dog, as well. What was interesting for me was the simple human connections that were created. Yesterday, we had our first composting workshop in the Garden, to be repeated every first Saturday of the month, and we had about ten people in attendance, mostly new young people. We always have some people not belonging to the parish who access our courses online. In all cases, it is the human connection which makes the difference. And it is not mostly ideas that create the connection, but an attitude of welcoming. One may think that the word of God is communicated through the classes on the Bible that we teach or even more obviously, through my preaching on Sunday morning. It is. I hope it is. But the same is true of the composting workshop, or the chat in the street. Mind you, no religious words were exchanged in the last two examples. And I am not saying that these events are baits that we are launching in the hope that those fish will finally walk into a mass or a class. No. That is not, at least, what I think. This culture has been so filled with religious words, Jesus has been taken to mean shame and moral control, to mean that we are right and live in the truth while you are wrong and live a lie, to mean that God wants the status quo and that is irreligious to challenge it... in other words, Jesus and his message have been taken to mean so many horrible or, frankly, stupid things, that religious language has become a dead tool in the mouth even of those who feel called to announce the Gospel of joy and release. It is, instead, the simple human contact, the kind exchange with strangers, that is already Gospel. It is not a bait. It is good in and of itself. Hosting a composting workshop is saying that life is plentiful, that no waste is really waste, that what dies is the beginning of new life, that there is hope for humanity and other creatures. And that is the Gospel of joy at times of trial. It is the message, already. Paradoxically, adding religious words would spoil the message.
To be clear, I love religious words. I built my life around them. The Gospel language and metaphors have become the language of my soul, and I deal with theological writings and discussions on a daily basis. I am pretty unhappy on the rare occasions when I am not able to participate in the Eucharist on Sundays, because I cannot pray together with you with the words of the Our Father and the Eucharistic prayers. But I must admit that those same religious words need translating today. I need another idiom if I want the message to be understood by people who did not have a church upbringing, or they grew up in abusive church contexts. The most sacred of words for me, the word “Jesus”, to which I bow my head in prayer, is for others an insignificant word, and for some even a dirty word. It pains me to say it, but I think it's true. Why this has happened is a matter for historians. Our job is to be prophets in this context. To stop saying that we are not enough. That we don't know how to do it. Paul confesses to be the “the last of the Apostles”. In fact, many doubted he was even an apostle at all, as he never met Jesus during his earthly life. But, he says, I saw Jesus alive after his death. Many others did before me, but I did too. Paul, the one who had not met Jesus in the flesh, the one who persecuted Christians, became the boldest of the apostles of Jesus. It is from Paul's boldness and from Peter's daring choice to cast the nets again that we must take our example.
What is the center of the Gospel? The kernel of the message? That the Lamb of God came to free us from sin and shame. That's all. The courage to live a full human life, with all its contradictions, springs from the liberation from shame. In the ancient world there was no more shame that being crucified or being a relative of somebody who had been crucified. But the early Christians said: “We saw him alive!” Shame is gone, boldness and courage are born on the day of resurrection. Every Sunday, we come here to remember that day. The point of becoming apostles, prophets, ministers of the Gospel, is not to make as many disciples as possible until our nets burst. The point is to announce to others the same experience of liberation from shame that we are experiencing. Our job, at most, is to say: “Come and see! This is where we have found joy and freedom!” It is not our job to fill our nets. It is God's job. It is a mistake, in my view, to make plans to grow the Church. It means taking God's jobs out of his hands. Now, God might not get offended, but we would surely thwart the plan. Our job is to experience joy. To taste the goodness of the Lord. To enjoy the plenty of life that we were given even in the midst of a famine. The famine of meaning, of love, of human connections, that this society is going through. And the material poverty of so many. Despite all of this, our task is to enjoy life and spread the joy of living. It is not easy, and in fact it might be more difficult than building a megachurch.
We need courage and boldness. But Jesus is in the boat with us. His sacred words come to us as a gift of love. Let us cherish the wisdom that, day after day, week after week, year after year, we learn from his lips. Then we, despite ourselves, our mistakes, and our sense of unworthiness, will become the Jeremiah and the Isaiah, the Peter and Paul, the prophets and apostles of our age. AMEN.