Epiphany 3: Call Me Maybe

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20)

When I saw the Gospel reading for the third Sunday after Epiphany was the calling of the first disciples, I knew immediately that I was going to entitle my reflection “Call Me Maybe.” It’s not every day I get to integrate my love of trashy pop music into my religious work. (Actually, that’s not entirely true – I directed a summer camp program last year entitled “Top 40 Theology,” in which we did things like exegete OneRepublic, use Beyoncé to enlighten a passage from Romans, and have a glow-stick-tastic dance party in the camp chapel. But I digress.) I had no idea how/if the song would relate to the passage in question; I just liked the title and ran with it.

As a general rule, I’m opposed to mixing religion and pop music, if only because Christian radio is so mind-numbingly banal. I am prepared, however, to make an exception in this case.

As it worked out, however, that seemingly flip title got me to think much more deeply about the nature of calling. We talk about being called a lot in the Christian tradition: called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, called to be peacemakers, called to go and make disciples of all nations, called to be love one another as God loved us first, called to the ministry, and so an ad nauseum. In the non-religious realm, we often speak of finding our calling, discovering and walking that path to which we are uniquely suited and that uniquely suits us. In both cases, a calling isn’t something we can will into being of and for ourselves. We can’t choose a calling the same we can choose a career. Certainly, our choice matters; in order to be lived, a call must be 1) heard and 2) answered, and that requires our active cooperation. But the call itself seems to originate elsewhere, whether in some external source or (as I’m more inclined to think) in our own deepest selves, deeper than our conscious, calculating mind. Your calling is, in the oft-quoted words of Frederick Buechner, “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When we consider calling in Buechnerian terms, then, you might think that discovering your calling would be be a profoundly joyful experience, that living into it would be the easiest thing in the world. And it often is! But because our callings operate upon us at levels deeper than those of the conscious mind–and because human beings can be willful little pricks–our callings can be sources of frustration and even profound suffering – especially when we refuse to answer them.

That’s certainly the case for Jonah in this week’s first reading. He had just spent the last two chapters of his eponymous book running away from God’s call to prophesy to the city of Nineveh, because he knew full well the fate that typically awaits those who accept the prophetic mantle (“getting thrown in the stocks” is one of the more pleasant possibilities). Finally, after sailing as far away from Nineveh as possible, getting himself thrown overboard, and spending three days in the gastrointestinal tract of a whale, Jonah finally, begrudgingly accepted God’s call. All that suffering could have been avoided if Jonah had just listened to God’s call in the first place.

But honestly, would we have acted any differently in his place? To accept your calling is to commit yourself to a process, an allurement, a power that is not entirely (or even particularly) in your control. It is to make a decision to do this instead of that, to be this instead of that, to collapse the wave function of limitless possibility, to limit yourself in some real sense to this path – and to all the inconvenient detours and trudging rainy days that might follow. And even then, there are no clear-cut guarantees that this path among all others is the right one. To pursue one’s calling is a supreme risk, an act of incredible faith.

We say we want to find our purpose, to do and to be that which brings us our greatest joy, to live our lives with souls on fire. But purpose requires commitment. Joy is intertwined with sadness. Fire burns. It’s easy to see where Jonah was coming from. Better to qualify that yearning for purpose with a conditional: “Call me! …maybe.”

Jesus calls the first disciples.

In this light, I’m struck by the incredible, borderline-crazy bravery that the first disciples show in this week’s Gospel reading. Jesus has only just begun his ministry; he hasn’t yet built his reputation as a miracle-worker and healer. He might as well just be another mendicant preacher, of which there was no shortage in first-century Palestine. And yet here Jesus steps up and says to these Galilean fishermen: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” At best, he might hope for confused indifference, if not outright hostility, to such a call. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John are literally in the middle of doing their jobs. What possible incentive could they have to drop the nets that provide them with their meager livelihood and hitch their wagon to this dude’s dubious star?

And yet they sensed something in this strange wanderer, something so singular and compelling that they were willing to down tools and walk, to set off on an adventure whose end they could hardly have foreseen. No “call me maybe’s” for these guys; they heard the question underneath Jesus’ invitation and unequivocally answered “Yes,” committing themselves to both untold suffering and overflowing joy. That takes some serious guts right there. I pray that we might all have that same courage: the courage to pursue our callings, and to hell with the consequences. The courage to live our lives with souls on fire. The courage to drop the “maybe” and commit ourselves, wholeheartedly, to that which we were born to do.

Amen. –Tom

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