Epiphany 3B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, January 21, 2018
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
“Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” -Mark 1:20
In 1181 or 2, a baby boy was born to the Bernardone family. His father, Pietro di Bernardone was a wealthy textile merchant. His mother, Pica, was from a distinguished French family. At this point in history, most of the human family was either poor or noble. There were few wealthy people outside of the nobility and the middle class was just breaking into existence. Many of those who were beginning to form this new class were merchants and traders. This class of people might hope to one day become wealthy and distinguish themselves among their neighbors with their wealth, but they were not likely to become royal. They did, however, desire to see their family name become worth something and so their hard work and good deeds in their communities were important to them. Pietro was not unique in this desire to establish himself and his family name. His expectations were that through his own hard work and the eventuality of his son joining him in the family business he would accomplish his desire. His son had little interest in making money, instead he enjoyed spending it—buying fancy clothes and partying with his friends. His father expected him to go into the family business but the townspeople expected him to blow his money on good living. I’m not sure what his expectations of himself were, but I am pretty sure of God’s expectations for the young man—and they did not include partying, fine living, or even entering the business world. You see, we know the young man as Francis of Assisi.
We are well aware of Francis’ vow of poverty and his work to rebuild God’s church but these were not the expectations of this young man nor of his family, friends, or neighbors. Even after Francis began to follow God’s call to him and rebuild churches, his friends kept waiting for him to tire from the work and return to his old life, believing all of this to be a passing fancy. Instead, Francis never returned to his old ways, he was disowned by his family, and began a life of hard work and begging; never owning anything again.
How many times in our own lives have we found our paths diverge from that which was, is, or will be expected of us? How often do we not meet the expectations of our parents or our friends or even ourselves? Francis’ call is not unique in failing to meet expectations that were established by himself and others. His call is unique in his response to meeting the expectations God placed upon him. Francis heard God call to him to rebuild his church when he wandered into a little chapel called San Damiano that was in disrepair. He had prayed, “Please, God, help me know what to do with my life.” And in response, he heard a voice say, “Francis, my house is falling into ruin. Go and repair it for me.” Francis took God quite literally at first, working hard to repair the tiny chapel. But soon, he realized that he had been called to a greater spiritual work—that the ruined church was not a building but an institution that had become broken and lost its way and God desired someone to help it to heal. Francis devoted his life to that mission and we continue to see and feel the effects of his ministry even 900 years later.
The disciples too were young men who had expectations. Some of those expectations were defined for them by their parents, or others, or even of their own design—but how many of them ever even dreamed that they might be called by God? James and John and their father, Zebedee, were obviously successful fisherman who owned two boats and could afford hired men. Mr. Zebedee was well on his way to building a fishing dynasty, teaching his sons the intricacies of casting and repairing nets, haggling for a good price over the fish that were caught, even the ins and outs of boating, tides, and weather patterns. These are qualities a good fisherman must learn in order to be successful in his work. Mr. Zebedee was not fishing in pursuit of leisure but in order to make a living and it was obviously a good living with every expectation of passing his business down to his sons. James and John certainly seem to be living into their father’s expectations for them and quite possibly their own expectations—they had a good life and were making a good living. Yet, they will cast all of this aside to go and follow Jesus simply because he calls to them.
We are plagued by expectation in this world. Some of them are demanding and others are not. Some of them we might desire and others we might reject and brood over, allowing bitterness and negativity engage us rather than discovering our true calling. Imagine what might have happened had Francis or Peter or Andrew or James and John not followed their call, not lived into the expectations of God, and instead continued to try and live into the expectations that their fathers or friends held for them? We struggle with our expectations for ourselves. We struggle with the expectations of others. Are we struggling with the expectations God might have for us as well?
God is always calling to us to follow him and we are not always listening. It is not lost on me that God meets us where we are—for James and John, Peter and Andrew that spot was in their place of work; For Francis, that spot was in his place of need. God’s call can come to us in any setting, we need only be willing to listen for him and hear him.
Sometimes we are called toward God, to come and follow him. Sometimes we are called to go and spread the good news, to do the work of reconciliation. Always we are called to partner with God and do his work of redemption in this world. Rarely will that call meet with our expectations or the expectations others might have placed upon us. God seems to enjoy surprising us and we so often surprise ourselves in our response to God. But that doesn’t make following God’s call any easier.
Francis spent a life in poverty—always begging for his next meal. He no longer had the support of his parents or his friends. He would make other friends who dedicated their life to the work he was doing and they would become his family. But even in his own order, he would find that he had lost control and authority for its direction and purpose towards the end of his life. Though he would die peacefully, he suffered from blindness and serious illness in those last years. James, the brother of John, would be the first disciple to be martyred—being executed by the sword on orders from King Herod. Andrew seems to have been crucified on an “X” shaped cross—the one represented in the field of blue and shaped by a series of smaller white crosses on our Episcopal shield. Peter is thought to have been crucified upside down in Rome at his own request as he did not believe himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Though John is thought to have died a peaceful death of old age, he is believed to be the disciple made responsible for Mary at Jesus’ crucifixion and as such may well have had to go into hiding, fleeing Jerusalem, and making a new life in a foreign land. I don’t think any of them expected their life to turn out the way it did.
Responding to the call of God is neither expected nor easy. It requires a willingness to give something up—be that our own or another’s expectations, our wealth, our way of life, our careers, and in some cases maybe even our friends, family, and homes. It doesn’t lend itself to meeting the expectation we have set for this world because God is not of this world. The kingdom of God is here and not here, it is the now and the not yet, and God’s call to us is to live in the heavenly kingdom even as we live in this earthly one. Whatever our expectations of that kind of kingdom living might be, God’s expectations are even better. I can’t imagine that Peter, nor Andrew, nor James, nor John, nor even Francis looked back over their lives and regretted that day when they responded to the call of God.