In this season after the feast of Epiphany and up until Lent, we find ourselves in what today our church calls “Epiphanytide”. It’s a green season. The green seasons in the church year are ones where, instead of focusing on a particular series of events in the life of Christ, we pause to reflect and grow. We still hear stories about Christ, but they aren’t focused quite in the same way that, say, the Christmas stories are.
This year, in the season of Epiphanytide, we’re hearing a lot of stories about vocation. Often when we talk about vocation in church, the first thing people think of is a call to ordained ministry. In this sense, vocation means that you have a sense that you are called to be a deacon, a priest, or a bishop. These are certainly vocations, but the term has a much broader use. Vocation is a fancy word that means “to be called”. We believe that every person has vocations. There are many ways of life, many kinds of ministry, that are vocations. To be married or not to marry can be vocations. To be a parent or not to be a parent can be a vocation. To be a teacher or a nurse or a grocery store worker or a farmer or a custodian or just about anything else can be a vocation. Something to which one feels called by God because there is some purpose in that work, in that way of life, which will glorify God and make known the kingdom of God here on earth.
It makes sense that these days leading up to Lent have a great deal to say about vocation because, historically, Lent is a season about inward-looking preparation for Easter, but is also especially the final forty days of preparation for those people who wish to be baptized into the Body of Christ. In the early years of the Church the only time for baptism was the Great Vigil of Easter, the night before Easter morning. The forty days of Lent were the intense period where those who intended to be baptized and the community supporting them in that work made their final preparations before the great plunge into the waters. This was some of the most intense learning about what it means to be a Christian. Prior to that season coming, it makes sense to have conversations about vocation because the Church understands baptism as a vocation. People come to the font wanting to be baptized because God has called them to be there.
Whenever we hear a call from God, we have a choice about how we respond. Sometimes our circumstances, sometimes our own desires and tendencies, make it difficult to respond to the call from God in the way that we suspect God might like best. If we have a sense that God is calling us to a particular kind of work but the training for that work is in a city far, far away but there are a great many good reasons for us to stay here, it can be a difficult decision to make. Do you leave your job and uproot your family and go far away to train for this work or do you stay where there is stability, where other people’s lives are not so dramatically impacted by your response to vocation, and hope that there will be a way to serve God just as well here that will reveal itself in time?
God’s calls to us often involve some sort of transformation. Not necessarily geographical, but more often inside ourselves. While God’s transformations are always for the good, the process of transforming is a great deal of work, sometimes very difficult, and can be costly. In this season, we’ve heard of a number of different kinds of vocations.
The magi are called to come and know Christ through their observation of the natural world and their awareness of prophecy and they follow a star.
John the Baptist is called to be the Forerunner of Christ. He’s the one who comes before and lets you know the one who’s following is the real deal. John is so fine at following his vocation that a great many people think he might actually be the Messiah. John quite literally calls other people to a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan: Come and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Change your heart and mind and your stance toward God. John’s call is so powerful and so many people notice that he eventually ends up arrested for his trouble.
Last week we heard the story of Samuel hearing God’s call in the middle of the night. He goes to his master Eli and says “I heard you calling me.” Eli replies that he has not called. They realize, together, that it is God calling Samuel. This is an important story because often when we hear God’s call, we’re not sure exactly what it’s saying, where it’s coming from, or what it’s about. We need the help of our community to sort it out.
Today we hear the story of God calling quite directly to Jonah, telling him to go to the people of a city and deliver a message. It’s not something Jonah is particularly excited about because he’s not bringing news from God the people will be glad to hear, but he responds faithfully and does it.
Of course, in today’s gospel reading, we hear Jesus saying to people, as plainly as possible, “Come and follow me.” They have things to do together. First to Andrew and Peter, then to James and John. Jesus calls them to leave their nets and become fishers of people, instead of fishers of, well, fish. This line about fishing for people I have always heard taught as a call by Jesus to these men to be evangelists: Come and I will journey with you and I will teach you and you will bring more people to me, like fishermen catching people in a net. I think this is a worthy teaching, but I’m very grateful for the work of Ched Myers, a theologian in the United States, who has done some work on this idea of what it means to be a fisher when that image is used in scripture. This is important because it gives us some insight into what Jesus and Andrew and Peter and James and John might have understood when Jesus used that image. It is a second way of hearing this passage that is somewhat different from what I’ve always been taught and I think it’s a compelling argument.
Ched Myers says that fishing, in the language of the prophets whose words these men would have known, when applied to people is not an image that refers to drawing people into something like fish in a net. Rather, fishing for people refers to pulling people out of situations where they are oppressors, where they are holders of undue power and wealth, where people are abusing the positions they hold to the detriment of those around them. This comes up in the prophecies of Jeremiah (16.16), Amos (4.2), and Ezekiel (29.4) I think it’s an image that makes sense. When fishing for fish, you want to hook the fattest fish. When fishing for people with God, you would pull the most powerful, the most corrupt out of their positions if you wanted to make a change in the world. Of course, the prophets are always on about the changes that need to be made in the world so that it is less the way we might like it and more the way God envisions it.
This image holds well the idea of fishers of people being those who address injustice and corruption in the world because it’s also the favourite image of the church for teaching about how Christ’s death and resurrection free us from death, for the first three or four hundred years of Christianity. The short version of that story goes something like this: Death is a greedy, powerful thing and when Christ is hanging on the cross, Death sees the greatest prize Death could ever hope for. There hangs God, waiting to be consumed by Death. Now, you and I know that God cannot die but death is too greedy and too selfish and tries to consume good and, in so doing, learns that Christ on the cross was a fishhook and once Death’s mouth closes on that hook, God yanks Death from its place of power like a fish out of water. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Death is undone and we are freed from its power as well.
Jesus is calling these four disciples to be fishers of people, not only in an evangelistic sense—telling people about God and Christ and the new thing that is happening—but calling on people to address the injustices, the oppressive powers, the wrongs of the world. Calling on them to participate in God’s new thing. Jesus calls them to leave their jobs, their families, and all of the stability and comfort they may know. We often think of these fishermen as not particularly well off, not particularly empowered, labourers. But in preparing to preach this homily, I was struck by the fact that James and John get up and leave their father in the boat with hired workers. James’s and John’s father is a wealthy enough man that, in today’s terms, he owns the fishing company. He owns a fleet of boats and pays people to fish for him. These are his sons who stand to inherit what is a prosperous fishing business and whatever other wealth their father may hold. Mark’s telling of this story gives us a glimpse of what they are leaving behind. Not just the stability of a simple labourer’s daily life, but a substantial family business and an inheritance that will provide for them and their families.
This is significant. They are leaving to do something else. Not just moving to a new home or changing jobs in town, but they’re cashing in the RRSPs, selling the house, and they’re gone. They’re moving on to do dangerous work to which Christ has called them: Calling out oppression and injustice in the world, bringing healing to those who need it, speaking of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist was just arrested for exactly this sort of work.
God calls us to places where we will be transformed so that through transformation we may become more and more like Christ. We are Christians, after all: Little Christs. This transformation often begins with the change of our own hearts and minds. Exactly what John the Baptist was calling people to in the River Jordan. As we are transformed internally, we better and better reflect the glory of God and this begins to show forth in the rest of our lives. The way we conduct ourselves, the conversations we have, the way we act, the choices we make about where we will work, where we will buy the groceries and clothes that we need, the kind of things we will spend our time doing, the kind of people that we will spend our time with, and others begin to see these changes. They see us behaving in ways that obviously have a motivation but may not be the most sensible choices according to the values of the larger world. We must have values from another source. They see us as individuals, they see us together when we celebrate, when we feed people through the food ministry here at Holy Trinity, when we enjoy life together in fellowship, all sorts of things. They see our shared life and they begin to wonder what it is about this God, about this Christ, that makes us behave in these ways. Why are we willing to give up what seems to be ours for love of this God? And through asking, through wondering, they may begin to see God also.
It’s a costly thing, and at times it is painful and difficult, to allow yourself, your family, your church, to be a response to God’s call. To be transformed by god, to give yourself over entirely to God’s service, whatever that looks like, with your whole life. God’s call to each of us is different, but the promise is the same.
We hope that as people hear God’s call in their lives and as they discern what that might mean for them, that they will respond in faith just like John the Baptist and Samuel and Jonah and Andrew and Peter and James and John and all of the rest of the people who followed Jesus 2,000 years ago. We hope that as we hear and discern together the call of God in our lives and communities that we will begin that work of fishing for people. Not only drawing other people closer toward God, but addressing the injustices and oppressive powers of the world. That we will begin to open locked doors, the heavy gates that hide God’s blessings so that those fat fish can keep them for themselves; that we will call out injustices and greed with the voice of prophets; that we will heal the wounds of the hurt and suffering like Jesus and the Apostles; that we will pray together for the Church and all the concerns of the world like Hannah and Hagar and Anna and Elizabeth and Mary and all of those incredible women of scripture; that we will swing open the doors like Christ tearing the gates of Hell from their hinges and reveal the Glory of God. The richness of God’s blessings to a world that is so desperately crying out to know them.
We hope and pray in responding to God’s call to us that all of this and more, God will make happen. For the blessed opportunity to show forth the light and glory of God in the world, just like the star that called to the magi at Epiphany: Thanks be to God.