Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church in Iowa on January 24, 2021:
One of the pleasures Bob and I have had over the past few months is watching a TV series called The Chosen. It’s a crowd-funded series that you can only watch through an app, so it’s a little complicated to find online, but it’s worth the effort.
The Chosen is a drama based on the Gospels, and though its theology is more traditional than that of many people in the Episcopal Church, the stories it tells are compelling and often very moving.
What’s unique about the series is that it’s a Gospel drama in which Jesus is somewhat of a bit player. Instead it focuses on the people around him, fleshing out their lives and motivations with story lines that go beyond the original source material.
I thought of that show when I read the Gospel reading for today, because its depiction of Simon being called is one of the series’ most memorable scenes.
In the show, Simon is both likable and morally conflicted. He’s a fisherman who’s fallen so behind on his taxes that he’s in danger of going to prison. So he approaches the local Roman authorities and cuts a deal. If they forgive his debt, he’ll turn in some of his fellow fishermen who are secretly working on the Sabbath to avoid paying taxes on their catch.
His brother Andrew is appalled—a Jew, betraying his fellow Jews? But Simon is desperate.
Now you’ll have to watch the show to get the full story, but the climax of the episode comes when Simon tries one last time to catch enough fish to pay his debt honestly and not have to betray his fellow fishermen. Over and over again he throws his net into the water, only to have it come up empty. He grows more and more angry, furious at the situation in which he finds himself, and hating the person he has become.
And then he sees a man standing on the shore. “Throw your net into the water one more time,” the stranger says.
Simon looks at him with contempt, seeing only a jerk who’s butting into his business. But he’s desperate, and so he throws the net into the water one more time.
You can guess the rest of the story. Simon catches so many fish that they nearly overwhelm his boat, a catch more than enough to pay his debt. He’s overjoyed and amazed. And when the man on the shore, who of course is Jesus, says to him, “Follow me,” Simon says yes.
Now this is just an imaginative reworking of a familiar story, but I’m struck by how it gets to the heart of what a call often involves: desperation.
I know in my own life, especially in my work, I’ve been called more often by what didn’t work than by what did. I’ve tried one thing after another, and it would seem for a time as if I was on the right path, but then the trail petered out. I’d take another turn in the road, and that would be fine for awhile, and then that too would end, and I’d have to start over again.
All of this makes me think that God might well be a pig farmer instead of a shepherd.
Let me explain. I grew up on a farm, where we raised pigs, among other animals. Now pigs are smart, a lot smarter than sheep, which makes them harder to manage. Often the best way to get them where you want them to go is to shut off all other avenues. If you want them to get out of a barn, for example, you create barriers so they have to go in the right direction.
The pigs try going one way, only that way is blocked, so they head another way, but that’s blocked too, and gradually you can get them where you want to go by heading them off at each pass, to use a cowboy metaphor.
I’m actually surprised Jesus didn’t use pigs more often in his parables—they’re much more interesting than sheep.
So how does this relate to us today? I think it relates because we often misunderstand the nature of call. We think calls have to be accompanied by shafts of light and harp music and yellow brick roads stretching before us. Instead hearing a call is often much more like the story told in that TV show. Simon is ready to follow Jesus because of his failures, not because of his virtues. A call often comes out of hardship, not of strength.
And it almost never turns out like we think it will, which is why it’s a good thing Jesus wasn’t too detailed in his invitation. He could have said to Simon, “Follow me and you will become one of the most influential people in the history of the world.” Or he could have said, “Follow me and you will experience terrible suffering, you will lose everything you own, and you will die a painful death.” In Simon’s case, both of these statements turned out to be true.
But instead Jesus simply says, “Follow me.” Because honestly, it’s usually better not to know where a call is going to lead you.
Let me tell you another story that moved me this past month. I was asked to write an endorsement, a blurb, for a new book coming out in the fall, one written by a Catholic writer named Christy Wilkens. In it she describes going to the French pilgrimage site of Lourdes with her young son, who had developed a severe epilepsy disorder when he was just a few months old.
She goes to Lourdes, of course, in search of healing for him, and her prayer throughout the pilgrimage is, “Jesus, heal my son.” She prays it during masses, during processions, and during the bath her baby receives in the waters said to have healing properties. She is a devout Catholic and her petitions are relentless. “Make him whole again,” she prays, over and over again.
When her son is not healed at Lourdes, she is bitter and angry. But it takes this crisis of despair to open her eyes. She finally comes to see the ways in which her son is viewed by the other people there, how they cherish him for who he is, not for who he might become if he was healed. She sees how his brokenness allows the light of God to shine more brightly through him. And gradually, slowly, that light begins to penetrate her broken heart, and she realizes her call is not to be the mother of a son without disabilities, but instead to be the mother of a son whose path will be different from what she had hoped when he was born, but still a path of wholeness.
In other words, we often don’t get the calls we want, but we get the calls we need.
I think perhaps there’s a lesson here for all of us troubled by the political scene today. We know that despite the election results that many of us view as positive, our country is torn by division. And I think many of us want a call that’s goes something like this: we are called to be beacons of light in the darkness. We are called to enlighten those who are mistaken. We want our cousin, or high school classmate, or anyone who voted in a way we disagree with to see the light. We want to hear them say, “Please tell me where I went wrong and help me do better.”
Now if you’re receiving messages like that from friends and relatives–well, good for you. But I expect it’s not happening very often.
Instead, maybe our call is to accept that life is messy and hard and many people aren’t going to agree with us, and that many people are like Simon, a good man making bad choices because he’s desperate and fearful. And maybe our call isn’t about being vindicated, but about trying one thing after another to heal the brokenness. And when one thing doesn’t work we try another, and when that doesn’t work we try another, until eventually we realize, like that mother in Lourdes, that God has been at work all along, if only we’d kept our eyes open.
“Follow me,” Jesus said to Simon on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he’s saying it to us today. It’s just that like a pig farmer, he often uses closed doors to get us to go in the right direction.