'Beyond the call of Duty’ from ‘A Place at the Table'
Isaiah, St Paul and St Peter all have a deep sense of their unworthiness before the Lord in our Sunday readings today.
Isaiah describes himself as a man of unclean lips, St Paul says he hardly deserves the name of Apostle because he persecuted the early church and St Peter tells the Lord to leave him because he is a sinful man after witnessing the huge catch of fish.
And yet despite this unworthiness they responded to the grace of God, one became the great prophet, the others great Apostles. Despite their unworthiness and their experience of it, God still chose them, and they never let their unworthiness have the last word.
All of us have our life history, amazing blessings but also regrets and personal struggles and sinfulness that can cling so easily. We have tried again and again to keep the Lord's commands. We can grow tired and weary from what the Gospel demands of us like the fisherman out all night catching nothing. We can sometimes ask to be released from the burdens of commitment, of thankless tasks, of frightening and overwhelming situations. St Peter, though wearied with trying to catch fish all night unsuccessfully, says a remarkable thing to Jesus who tells him to keep fishing. Yes, maybe a little hesitant and complaining but nonetheless an inspiring act of faith: "But at your word I will let down the nets." (Lk 5, 5). He responds in obedience and trust, though he had no earthly reason to believe his efforts would prove successful. What a lesson for us to remember when we feel like giving up or when we allow our failures to get the better of us.
I remember when I was around 12 excited in the opportunity of riding a pony my sister was intending to purchase. I sat up on its bare back looking forward to what I thought would be a leisurely ride when suddenly it took off. After hanging on for dear life, I was flung to the ground and its flaying leg connected with my left fibula. I ended up in plaster for six weeks. My mother that first night must have got up to me 7 or 8 times to comfort and reassure me in the pain I was going through. She was tired and probably felt like complaining but she never did. She hung in there. She didn’t give up.
Be Not Afraid
Something a little more sobering is a story I read about a burnt-out journalist in 1978. It was my first year in the seminary and it was the year Pope John Paul was elected as Pope. The journalist sat at a desk in a dreary hotel room. On the table he had placed a bottle of whiskey and some pills. He planned to end his life by putting the pills in his mouth and washing them down with whiskey. A radio played in the background. He heard a voice with a Polish accent. The voice said, "Be not afraid." It was the newly elected Pope.
Something happened inside that man. Through Pope John Paul, he heard Jesus speaking. The man swept the pills into the waste basket and poured the whiskey down the sink. He began a new life. Despite his sense of failure, he heard those beautiful words, "Do not be afraid." What a gift and grace for that man to respond in such a way. Thank God.
In Jesus’ invitation to not be afraid and to keep persevering despite the odds, may I make mention of the firefighters, helicopter pilots and those working tirelessly in all kinds of ways behind the scenes in the Nelson area at present responding to the crisis caused by the fires. These men and women are an inspiration. I know the locals are so grateful to everyone involved. The human spirit is amazing in times of crisis.
Jesus in speaking the words to St Peter, ‘Do not be afraid’ speaks these same words to us. Maybe we have not come to the edge of despair, maybe we do not have Peter's vivid awareness of sin, but still we know we have fallen short. Our past and present failures can cling to us. And we can allow them to weigh us down.
Still, Christ says, "Do not be afraid." Jesus wants to forgive us, but he wants to do something more. In our first reading we heard how an angel took a burning coal and touched it to Isaiah's lips. Early Christian writers saw the burning coal as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. Especially when we receive Communion, Jesus wants to purify our lips and to cleanse our bodies and souls to sustain us for the various tasks he has chosen us for. Keep going. I am with you.
Several years ago, when I was an assistant priest at St Mary of the Angels in Wellington, we celebrated a service for all those who worked in emergency services. The congregation was a sea of uniforms, even police dogs were present at the entrances to the Church. I sang a song I wrote especially for them. As we are mindful of those on the front line in the Nelson area fighting the fires today you may like to listen to track 8 ‘Beyond the call of Duty’ from ‘A Place at the Table’.
May Christ’s Word to us today and the inspiration of courageous people we know and hear about encourage you in what you are having to face. We may not have it all together, we may have regrets but we are called and we are chosen.