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The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 21, 2018


     Pick a 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 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.

     This is now the second Sunday in a row that the Church is asking us to reflect on the subject of God's call in our lives.  Last Sunday we had 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 should pay attention to what we hear, for we, too, have been and are now being called by God.

     And we receive our call in good company for it is one 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 this by the same person!

     Take Jonah.  Was there ever a more reluctant recipient of God's call than this cowardly, temperamental fellow (let’s be honest: Jonah was ‘flaky!’).  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 highly abridged.  The opening words of the first reading tip us off to the fact that we're in the middle of the story, not at the beginning ("The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time", we heard). Let me remind you of the first time the Lord's word came to Jonah.  It was a lot like the second:  God said to Jonah, "Arise and go to Nineveh and proclaim that I am about to destroy it for its wickedness."

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

     As fate would have it (or rather, as God would have it), Jonah had 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 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 his preaching 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, true to form, got quite angry and upset with God.  Why?  Well, for being so compassionate with these sinful people!  Jonah 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 four 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 Galilee, "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 that they were human, too.  At one point, Peter would forget his call and deny his Master - not once but three times.  And James and John would show how human they were when they wanted to rain down fire and brimstone on the unwelcoming Samaritans, and when they boldly requested princely places at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom.

     So, my friends, 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 on our bronze doors, door handles, and doorstops.  Jonah, gingerly climbing out of the whale’s mouth is there on a door handle; 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 to be in such good company...! 

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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