The 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

22 January 2012


The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 22, 2012

     Pick your patron.  There are more than enough to go around in today's readings.  A patron saint for each one of us, I should think.  There is Jonah, the reluctant, runaway prophet; there are all those people of Nineveh, sinful but repentant; there are the Galilean fishermen who became followers of Jesus:  Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; James and John, the sons of Zebedee.  Pick your patron.  Chances are that one of these would make a good one.  Chances are that there are hints of your story and mine in each one of their stories.

     For the second Sunday in a row, the Church is asking us to reflect on God's call in our lives.  Last Sunday we had the young Samuel, a mere boy, hearing God's mysterious and insistent call in the night.  And we had the first apostles, irresistibly attracted to Jesus, the young Rabbi from Nazareth, who invited them simply to "Come and see."  And now we have Sunday number two devoted to the call.  We ought to pay attention, for we, too, have been and are now being called by God.

     And, my friends, we receive our call in some pretty good company for this is a call that has been received before, countless times down through the ages: received, struggled with, run away from, rejected, accepted (however haltingly), accepted, affirmed, embraced -- and sometimes, amazingly, all of this by the same person!

     Take Jonah.  Was there ever a more reluctant recipient of God's call than this cowardly, temperamental fellow (it would be tempting to call him a "flake" if it didn't sound so irreverent!)?  Why on earth did God ever call Jonah?  Couldn't God have found a better voice than his?

     Today's telling of the story of Jonah is the Readers' Digest version only.  The opening words of the reading should really have been "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time."  There was a first time, you may recall. It was not unlike the second:  "Jonah," said God, "arise and go to Nineveh and proclaim that I am about to destroy it for its wickedness."

     The only real difference between Jonah’s first and second calls from God was that the first time, God told him to go to Nineveh, Jonah went and boarded the first ship he could find that was headed in the opposite direction from Nineveh!  But God had his way.  God always does.  God doesn't tend to change plans or to alter the call merely because of human hard-heartedness or cowardice.  And so (you know the rest of the story), a fierce storm blew up on the sea, Jonah was thrown overboard by his shipmates who suspected he was the cause of the storm, and a very cooperative whale happened by, swallowed him alive and eventually ferried him to land.

     As fate would have it (or rather, as God would have it), Jonah had something of a conversion experience while camping out inside the belly of the whale.  He came to his senses (wouldn't you?!) and once he had been coughed out onto dry land, he headed straight for Nineveh to do the very doomsday preaching he had so dreaded.  The rest of the Jonah story is what we heard in today's first reading.  To Jonah's utter amazement, the inhabitants of Nineveh, one of the great "sin cities" of the ancient world, actually listened to God's message through Jonah and repented.  Even the king found himself in sackcloth and ashes and so, too, as the story goes, did the lowly cattle in the fields.  Now I ask you:  if that’s not repentance, what is?!

     The book of Jonah is a great story of God’s call, of human resistance, and of the triumph of grace.  And it would be a totally edifying story if it ended right there.  It didn’t.  Jonah, ever true to form, got quite angry and upset with God.  Why?  For being so compassionate with these sinful people!  Jonah, it seems, had been hoping for fireworks.  He had looked forward to seeing Nineveh buried beneath fire and brimstone!  (Do you ever wonder why God puts up with such human silliness?  But we should probably be grateful God does because we contribute enough silliness of our own from time to time...).

     So much for the Jonah story.  Did you pick a patron there?  Did you hear any of your story?  In Jonah's resistance to God's call, perhaps, or in his conversion, or maybe in his anger at God’s mercy, letting people off the hook so easily when they really should have paid through the nose?  Or maybe you identified with the people of Nineveh:  people too sinful to be worth anything, but infinitely worthwhile to God who refuses to let even the most grievous human sin outweigh the divine mercy and compassion....

     Then there's today's Gospel.  It presents us with more potential patrons to pick from: Peter and Andrew, James and John.  Each of them received a personal call from Jesus.  But maybe you find these four apostles a little unreal, leaving their nets as they did, and their fathers and mothers, their homes, their very livelihood -- leaving all at hearing one word or two from an itinerant preacher from Nazareth, "Follow me."

     How are we ever to find our stories in theirs?  Weren't they just a little too heroic and selfless and quick in the way they left everything behind and followed Jesus?  Yes, but remember the rest of the story.  Remember Simon Peter whose good intentions tended to outdistance his performance and who, when the chips were down and his life and livelihood hung in the balance, forgot his call and denied -- not once but three times -- that he ever even knew the Master.  Is that a part of your story?  It is of mine.  And so is the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee and of Mrs. Zebedee, who was so very ambitious for her sons, but only, I have to think, because she knew their ambition, knew what they secretly wanted for themselves.

     So, my friends in Christ, pick your patron.  Who will it be?  Jonah?  Peter?  James?  John?  Pick your patron.  And to remind you of your choice, you can always go out on our front steps and meet most of these folks there captured in bronze on the Cathedral’s great doors, door handles, and even the doorstops.  Jonah, gingerly climbing out of the whale’s mouth is there; so is Peter, about to sink in the waters of his own disbelief but for the rescuing hand of Jesus; and Peter is there a second time -- dissolved in tears as the crowing cock awakens him to his cowardice in denying his master; and James is there, too: our patron, generously dropping his nets to begin a whole new kind of fishing with much higher stakes.

     Pick your patron: they’re all out there captured in bronze, but I assure you there’s not a plaster saint among them!  Any more than there is among us.  Each was called by God, called by name.  Called to change.  Called to repentance.  Called to follow.  Called to glory.  And the same is true for you and me.  We should thank God that we are in such good company...!

     Father Michael G. Ryan


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