Thursday, January 21, 2010

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany Year C

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13); Psalm 138; I Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Unlike Jeremiah's response to his call (see last Sunday's reading) Isaiah's response does not express reluctance so much as unworthiness, which makes God's call more astounding.   After a vision of "the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty," surrounded by otherworldly creatures calling "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts...," Isaiah becomes suddenly aware of his status as well as others: "I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips...."   What happens next could not have been anticipated.  "Then one of seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth...," Isaiah reports, and tells him, "your guilt has departed...."  After this encounter, Isaiah can now respond:  "Here am I, send me."  He is given the bad news he is to deliver.  He is to confuse people.  When Isaiah asks how long he should stymie understanding he is told, until everything is desolate.

The psalmist dwells on the Lord's steadfast kindness and truth, which even "all the kings of the earth" acknowledge.  But she also acknowledges that even though the Lord is "high," the Lord sees and knows "the lowly."

Paul reviews the essential points of his message" Christ died for our sins, was buried but raised on the third day, appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to "the Twelve" and five hundred others and eventually "to one untimely born... least of the apostles, unfit to be an apostle...."  "But I am what I am," Paul writes.  Indeed, he continues, if God's grace has been grater to him  then so will his work on behalf of the gospel.

Luke's version of this event is more dynamic, but Matthew, Mark as well, include Peter's spontaneous confession.  Luke presents Jesus as trying to get away from the crowds which are growing in size and fervor by commandeering a boat belonging to a fisherman named Simon.  Go back out and drop your nets, he tells Simon.  To  which Simon replies that they have been out all night and caught nothing.  But he defers to the request, goes back out, they cast their nets and haul in so many fish the boat could sink!  Simon is so astounded at the bounty, he falls to his knees and pleads for "the Lord to leave, for I am a sinful man."  His business partners, James and John, are witnesses.  Jesus now says the words that will change Simon Peter's life, the arc of Luke/Acts and the narrative of the church.  "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."  After they got back to shore, "they left everything and followed him."

Isaiah allows himself to dwell on God's complete and total otherness and blurts out: "I am a man of unclean lips...."  But through this same experience he also comes to believes just as assuredly that God took the initiative to do something Isaiah would have never imagined was possible.  God bridged that gap by sending a representative (a "seraph") with a live coal from the altar to assure him that his "guilt has departed.  This experience is so vivid to Isaiah he can feel the touch of the hot coal on his lips.  The psalmist also marvels in a less personal observation that although the Lord is "high," the Lord "knows" the "lowly."  Paul, too, is still amazed that God would select someone as unfit as he for a leading role in the church.  Simon Peter also has a profound experience of God's overwhelming generosity and, through the direct invitation of Jesus, is introduced into a whole new way of looking at life and living his life.

Consider some of the details of Luke's story more closely.  Simon Peter and his business partners, James and John, are putting their nets away after a long and unproductive night of fishing, which is their livelihood.  Jesus tells them to launch out again and cast one more time.  Although they have no expectation of success, they acquiesce to one whose words and actions must have sparked some interest.  In just one sentence (seventeen words in English)Luke transforms the entire event into an epiphany: "When they had done this, they caught so many fish their nets were beginning to break."  Fully aware that he is in the presence of the wholly other whose trait is always a profound sense of staggering abundance, Simon Peter falls to his knees and, echoing Isaiah, confesses his incompleteness in the presence of such complete generosity.  But Luke does not leave this as some purely personal experience.  This experience entails an invitation; take this life-changing awareness of generosity and become a witness to others so that they, too, have their eyes opened and become witnesses themselves.  Peter, James and John say "yes" to this invitation given by Jesus and the rest (literally) is history.

In his brief but intensely insightful study, The Call and the Response, Jean-Louis Chretien trains his considerable attention to detail on this openness to experiencing and living life as abundant generosity and the connections to others it inspires:  He writes: "I experience the joy of seeing, of touching, of hearing, of attentively exercising the diverse possibilities that are mine always seeing, touching, hearing, something other than myself, out in the world.  Saint Thomas [Aquinas]following Aristotle, makes this an irreducubile principle: Non potest homo sentire absuqe exteriori sensibili, *'man cannot feel without some external sensible'.  Each and every sensation starts by consenting to the world, and from this ground only can it ever return back to itself.  The joy of being is of another order than self-sensation and self-enjoyment.  Every joy is fueled by a pure yes, rising like a flame, without curling back on itself.  One never says yes to oneself, which is why one is never truly oneself except in saying yes."  (pp 122-123) * Summa contra gentiles, II, 57 (Torino Marietti, 1961, section 1333)

Through tired, blurry eyes one morning, three people experienced the abundance of life  and its source so fully it nearly overwhelmed them and, as importantly, they accepted an invitation form one who knew what he was talking about to become witnesses to opening the eyes of others.  And they said "Yes!"