God's Healing Forgiveness and Our Worthiness to Serve
"For Now You Shall Be Fishers of Men"
As the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time is upon us and the liturgical calendar rolls forward like cherries and lemons in a vintage Las Vegas Slot Machine, we find ourselves on the threshold of Ash Wednesday and the subsequent journey of reflection and sacrifice that is Lent.
The Readings this week focus on stewardship and the answering of God's call as viewed through the lens of our worthiness to serve.
In the First Reading from the Book of Isaiah (6:1-2, 3-8) we encounter the reluctant prophet, reluctant only in his perceived worthiness to spread God's word, in what is essentially a glimpse of heaven. Complete with "the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of His garment filling the temple while Seraphin were stationed above," it certainly must have been an awesome vision. Isaiah goes on in explicit detail: "The Angels cried out "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the Earth is filled with His glory!", similar to what we as a parish community pray in unison at Sunday Mass. But as the door frame shook and the temple house filled with majestic smoke, Isaiah was overcome with a general feeling of anxiety, once again brought on by a more than gnawing feeling of unworthiness, quick to speak of his impending doom as "a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips." Isaiah was a sinner and it was only at this moment that he realized the gravity of the situation and subsequent repercussions of his sinful ways
It was then that an angel delivered an ember taken from the altar, touched it to Isaiah's lips and said "See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged". It was at this very moment that Isaiah, now galvanized by the strength of God and the Holy Spirit, eagerly responded to God's call of "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?" with an unwavering and resounding "Here I am - send me!".
It's important to point out that God called Isaiah in the moment, warts and all, as He does all of us. God does not wait until we're ready, until our mundane to-do lists are completed and we can click on the "accept" button thus officially scheduling God's appointment request on our Microsoft Outlook Calendars. Fortunately our God is not one of spreadsheets, Powerpoint Presentations and meandering conference calls.
To the contrary, God calls us to serve oftentimes when we least expect it, for His plan is far different than our imperfect and oftentimes comical attempts to control and lay out our life on our terms. It's also important to point out and observe God's effortless and unrelenting willingness to forgive. It was as though God's message to Isaiah was simply "let's not get bogged down with past failures and shortcomings. There is important work to do, it must be tended to now and you're the man that I have chosen to do it."
The 2nd Reading finds Paul addressing the Corinthians, and in doing so he points out that he "was the very least of the apostles, not fit to even be called an apostle due to his persecution of the Church of God." But he clearly had the wisdom to accept his own shortcomings ("But by the grace of God I am what I am"). He also realizes that it was purely through God's grace that this conversion took place despite the fact that he admits to having "toiled harder than all of them" so that through his preaching, all could believe.
The Gospel Reading rounds out our "trifecta of unworthies" as we find a frustrated and beleaguered Simon Peter at the end of a long evening. What was the source of his consternation you ask? Well let's just say that the fish weren't exactly jumping into the boat for him and his mates. When Jesus asks him to casts the nets one more time, Peter essentially placates Him by following His directive but he expects nothing other than to hoist yet one more empty net out of the waters for his trouble.
It was only when the nets were literally bursting with fish that Simon Peter realized not only his foolishness of the moment, but his general and overall lack of faith. Perhaps this lack of faith was fostered over a lifetime of being disappointed by his friends, or disenchanted with his career choice, Maybe it was due to marital or financial trouble. In other words the same things that grind us down and cause us to slowly lose faith over time, as we obsess over our troubles rather than turning them over to God knowing full well that He will take care of all our needs as He always has. Jesus undoubtedly understood Simon Peter's struggles (as He understands our daily struggles) and chose to focus on his redeeming qualities, overlooking his foibles and shortcomings. He decides to make Peter the rock upon which the Church will be built - a story of redemption that is nothing short of amazing in the grand scheme of things.
We too all called to be fishers of men, as Jesus so symbolically anointed Simon Peter on that seminal day in the Church's History. For many of us it can and will be accomplished merely by our actions and treatment of our fellow brothers and sisters. St. Francis of Assisi once said "Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary."
It truly is all about how we live. And one should always keep in mind that people are very observant by nature, and many possess a great ability to recall acts of kindness both big and small. How nice is it to run into an old friend who you haven't seen in a long time and they quickly recall a moment when you wrote them a note when they were struggling through a tough situation, a note in which you simply told them that you were sympathetic of their plight, were there for them and that you were praying for them? Or perhaps when you threw a small impromptu surprise party for a friend either at work or in a social setting so as to recognize and celebrate a milestone event in their life? These are just two examples of little things that can often leave a memorable impression on a person, particularly in a world that seems to have lost its human touch.
The Season of Lent is but a few days away. What better time to go back and re-focus on making a few minor changes in the way we act towards others in an effort to truly embody a God-centered person who has been called and inspired to participate in the mission of Jesus?
When the Priest at your local parish applies the ashen cross to your forehead this Wednesday and implores you to "repent and believe the Gospel" he is in essence asking you, much like God asked Isaiah, "Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?"
May we all have the grace, courage and wisdom to answer this challenge with our own unwavering and resounding response:
"Here I am - send me!"
To our Chinese Friends reading this article, I wish you all a prosperous, healthy and joy-filled New Year.