January 22, 2023

Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading the prophet Isaiah speaks of how anguish and darkness have left and all have seen a great light. God has made the people grateful and joyful. “For the yoke that burdened them (has been) smashed. Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus on hearing that his cousin John had been arrested: “He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea.” Jesus then began to preach a message of repentance. While walking along the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers (Peter and Andrew) and invited them to join him: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They dropped their nets and followed him. Jesus then came across brothers James and Joh and made the same invitation and they also followed him. Then then went around Galilee where they taught in synagogues, proclaimed the kingdom and cured illnesses.

I’ve heard this Gospel, it seems, my whole life. And with virtually every reading I’ve been told some version of “when Jesus calls you, follow him.” Sometimes some creativity is introduced when the preacher asks about those who Jesus called who didn’t follow, hinting darkly that they will live to regret their “no” to Jesus.

But let’s look at it from a different angle today. Why did Jesus call who he called? Peter, Andrew, James and John certainly were not the only laborers that day on the Sea of Galilee. What became of those Jesus didn’t call? And what informed his choices?

In reading the Gospels the case can be made that Jesus didn’t do very well in his choices. Time and again we see these followers trying so hard to please Jesus and failing so miserably. They try to shield him from children (Matthew 19:14). Peter promises to die before denying Jesus (Mark 14:31) only to deny him that very night. They slept while Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:40).

And yet he chose them. Any corporate hiring manager will tell you that finding the right person for the right job is as much luck as it is skill because there are so many variables. I once participated in the hiring of a new hospice chaplain and recognized that we needed to hire not only someone who had the education and experience to do the job, but also someone who understood and shared in the culture of the agency and could work well on a team. The candidate also needed to value the job well enough to work hard and had enough stability to stay at the job for a long time. We ended up hiring someone who worked with us a few weeks and left to take another job. Oh well…

And in the end, Jesus’ choices ended up going well: these were the first leaders of what we now know as the Christian Church. For all their missteps and mistakes in the Gospels we see them taking the helm in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus saw something in them that most of us would probably have missed.

It’s a cliche but there is value in the phrase “a diamond in the rough.” We all look for diamonds but we sometimes overlook rough areas in the false belief that diamonds come only in platinum settings. During my brief experience as a prison chaplain I was often asked how I could find any light in such a dark place. That’s actually a good question, but oftentimes they were really asking why I bothered to look for light in a place that was so dark. They were convinced there was no light to be found and I risked being drawn into the darkness myself if I stayed too long. When I hear that I picture Dr. Martin Luther King’s mug shot and think of his famous “letter From Birmingham Jail.”

As disciples of Jesus we are called to seek out these diamonds in the rough. Sometimes it means we look beyond how someone looks or smells. We look beyond skin color, net worth, zip code. We recognize someone’s sexual orientation, ancestry and past decisions not as impediments to who they are but instead as guideposts to where they may go. Remember, Jesus was never part of the elite. He was a man of questionable parentage from a backwater outpost who had the audacity to argue against the learned and the powerful. Perhaps Jesus himself could recognize a diamond in the rough because he was one himself.

Finally, we need to recognize the need to respect those Jesus choose, even when they are ourselves. I think we’ve all met priests who talk about recognizing their vocations from an early age. The recently deceased Pope Benedict XVI declared at age 5 his desire to be a priest. But I also know several priests (myself included) who took a much longer route to accept a call to priesthood. During my discernment I confidently informed God that he had made the wrong choice and if he knew what he was doing he would leave me alone and choose someone else. After I was ordained I returned to the parish where I was raised to thank the congregation for literally pulling the priesthood out of me. I told them that, like God, they saw something in me that I didn’t want to acknowledge. Candidly, I saw priests as an unhappy, entitled group. They looked lonely and often aloof. They didn’t look like someone I wanted to share my dreams with, or even a beer. But those who supported me recognized a kindness and sensitivity that mattered much, much more.

I suspect we’ve all encountered people who we couldn’t imagine as parents, but the birth of their children transformed them into new people. Or friends we couldn’t imagine being self sacrificing enough to marry who turn out to be beloved husbands and wives. As I was preparing this homily I landed on an old John Denver song (don’t judge me). In his song The Eagle the Hawk he wrote about how we all need to reach for “all that we can be and not what we are.”

We are good and God dreams for more from us.