Homily for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
February 6, 2022
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA (SKP’s departure sermon)
I often begin my homilies with a prayer. Today, I echo three prayers uttered to the divine from the lips of the beloved, chosen servants of God from our lectionary readings:
Here am I, send me.
How Long, O Lord?
Yet, if you say so.
We’ll come back to these prayers. But first, a few words about our journey together.
Having grounded ourselves in these prayerful expressions of what it means to walk our Christian lives together in love and service, I’d like to take the liberty of beginning where I began with all of you: a newly minted priest in the Summer of 2019.
This diocese is not in the habit of using the term “curate” although it was often the term used for the first place in which the newly ordained was placed under the mentorship of a more senior cleric in order to live faithfully and formatively into the first years of their call. This idea of a “cure” took form from the Latin root, cura meaning “to care for” and by extension, the curacy was a time in which the newly ordained was to be given some additional support and care while learning the art of caring for the needs of others. This spiritual apprenticeship was something I yearned for: being in the presence of a community where I could be supported while deepening in my own learning and experience of this new, sacramental commitment I had undertaken in my life. “Here I am, Lord” is an expression one should never utter lightly. And so it has been that with David and Buck and Dorothy and Malinda and all of you to guide and encourage me, I have grown more deeply into my priestly call, and more deeply in my love and regard for all of you.
I’m also keenly aware that there are other uses of the term “cure” which have more widespread usage and applicability. This includes both the Middle English application to the emerging art of medicine which strove “to cure” by caring for the body not only by soothing symptoms but through science and study. And then, there is the third meaning of “to cure” as often applied to ham, bacon and other deliciously aged foods which cure over time, naturally allowing more flavor to seep into their very essence. I’m told that the process of curing meat requires at least one of three mechanisms: smoke, salt and time. I’d like to thank Buck particularly for adding to the smokiness and saltiness of my curing process, and say that I have loved every minute of it.
In all seriousness, I think all of these definitions apply to our time together. And while I technically have been working here with the title of priest associate, I find this concept of a curacy fitting. Here, I have learned to care, deeply. Here, through soothing our weariness and applying science, technology and study I have witnessed growth and healing emerging even in the midst of a global pandemic. And here, the very essence of what it means to be a priest has sunk into my flesh, my mind, my heart, my spirit. It has permeated me in a way that is unalterable. I will always be the priest that I am…wherever God calls me…fully cured with the love that is the tradition of St. Mark’s. And so for all of that and the tremendous love of the past three years, I thank you all.
Back to those three prayers.
Here I am, send me. Today’s first lesson is also one of the appointed lessons for the ordination of priests. I was at an ordination recently where an outstanding scholar and homilist The Rev. Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams began right where all of us sitting there were thinking when this scripture was read: shaking our heads in unison at the audacious and enthusiastic prayer, “Here I am, send me!” as if to say, “Isaiah, Isaiah…what are you thinking?” She went on to unwind this passage like the hem of the robe filling the temple and invited us to consider the real possibility that this wasn’t an expression of naivety, nor was it Isaiah’s first call or encounter with the almighty. It was, she suggested, the prayer of one who had already been seasoned by living a life in response to God’s call and learning that our fighting, our struggling, our fleeing are all just the vanity of our humanity. The yes-saying that we do to God is a prayer; it is one we eventually learn to utter with grace and humility because at some point we realize that all we are and all we have ultimately belongs to God. And so it is that our response to our creator is one not of self-assured readiness, but of humble recognition that who we are is already at the service of the one who has loved us into being, and loves us still. Here I am. Send me.
How long, oh Lord, how long? One of my St. Phoebe School students reflected a month or so ago that in all her visits to parishes and all through all the many prayers we offer for those ill with COVID, those who have died from COVID, those who are struggling with mental health and economic hardship from COVID…never once had she heard someone boldly and confidently pray for an end to the pandemic. She’s started doing exactly that, by the way. Every. Single. Day. Why is it so hard to raise our voices in lament and frustration…not just for comfort in affliction but in the powerful and curative belief that God is powerful enough to end affliction. This kind of prayer is a modern day echo of Isaiah’s tormented cry, “how long, oh Lord, how long?” after he receives the prophetic indictment that God knows the people are listening but do not understand; that they see but do not comprehend. In this era where skepticism abounds, is it possible that we withhold our fervent prayers because we fear they may not be answered? Do we place limits on God by not seeing clearly and therefore, not recognizing the capacity our God has to heal and love in ways utterly beyond our own comprehension? This prophecy echoing across the ages challenges us today, living in our age of logic, prediction, and control. What would happen if we fervently prayed to end the pandemic. What would happen if we prayed publicly and fervently for an end to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia? Praying shapes believing, and we act on our beliefs. What would we be doing differently in our everyday lives if we began to pray so boldly? Sometimes I wonder if we hold back from prayer because we know the truth, deep down: prayer doesn’t only change situations; it changes us. How long, Oh Lord, how long?
Yet, if you say so. Now, this prayer spoken by Simon Peter to Jesus might sound at first like a lack-luster version of “here I am, send me” but I suggest to you that it is different, and it has deep relevance for the work we…the Church and the followers of Christ within it…are called to do. You see, Simon’s trade was fishing. Simon knew fishing, and he was good at it. Being an expert at something means that you know it so well that you can tell when effort is required, and when effort is futile. It was as much a part of Simon’s expertise and guidance to other fisher-folk to know when to call it a night as it was to know when to cast the nets out. Simon had used his expertise to ascertain that this was not the time to lower the nets and catch fish. But Simon saw and heard Jesus. And in that moment, all of his own learned expertise and wisdom were set aside at the request of Jesus. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” Simon may have been tired, and he may have even felt like his knowledge and control were being second-guessed…but all of that comes to a close with an expression of trust. I commend this prayer to you. It invites us to step aside from our typical inner dialogue which for me might be something like, “Thanks, Jesus…just give me a bit more time to second guess myself and think through a thousand possibilities to explain why it might not work and then I’ll be in touch and let you know if I decide to take action.” This prayer of divine doing acknowledges our doubt and still says, “Yet, if you say so, I will.” When we are still enough to hear in our soul when it’s time to trust in the power of God in our lives, when we acknowledge the cacophony of our doubts, our insecurities and our fears; when we are ready to pack it all up and head home we can still say, “Yet, if you say so” and drop our nets. Perhaps that means dropping our facades, our defense mechanisms, our insistence about how we think things should be. We can do these things asked of us not of our own power but because we trust the One who is speaking to us to fill those empty nets with everything we need. Yet, if you say so.
After Simon utters this prayer, he drops the nets and hauls in so many fish that both boats are sinking. Jesus acts with abundance. It is all just too much for Simon. I’m not talking about the two boats full of fish. I mean the overwhelming, overflowing magnitude of God’s love and grace even in the midst of our human exasperation. This is what drops Simon to his knees, suddenly feeling all the places where he has fallen short. And it is in that very place…on this journey that Simon is on, that James and John are on, that St. Mark’s is on, that I am on…where Jesus meets us. It is in that moment where we grasp the enormity of God’s abundance that our hearts break open. There is newness, revelation, a transforming encounter with divine love and grace.
And in that moment Jesus said to Simon the expert at catching fish: “Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching people.”
Jesus saw in Simon all that was needed, for exactly who he was
And in this very present moment in the midst of our lives, Jesus says to us: “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus sees in us exactly what is needed, for exactly who we are.
And we know how this Gospel passage ends: And they left everything, and followed him.
I think it would be disingenuous to end this homily or walk away from this Gospel as if it were a fairy tale ending, like “and they lived happily ever after.” We know from all our Gospel texts that following Jesus was filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for those who chose to be disciples. And so it is for us, the Church and the followers of Christ today. Jesus isn’t promising us a life free from trouble, or pain, or bittersweet goodbyes. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension are our reminders that lives of discipleship are enfolded in the ultimate reality that Love Wins; that even death is no match for resurrection.
This lectionary year, Year C, we are reading primarily from Luke. The three lectionary years each focus on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark or Luke. John’s Gospel is woven into particular places across all three years but we never get to the final verses of John’s Gospel. We do hear the part of the final chapter of John, during the Sundays of Eastertide, where a grieving and perhaps despondent Simon Peter goes back to fishing. In that resumption of his familiar trade, he has an encounter with the risen Christ, who nourishes the disciples physically and spiritually with a breakfast of grilled fish on the beach, served with love in the midst of the awe of resurrection. Whether the final verses of John beyond that story were penned by the author or added by a scribe several generations later, the Gospel according to John ends with this incredible statement which I hold as spiritual truth: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
I will close today with that expression guiding my closing prayer for you, and for all of us: May there be so many incredible things that Jesus does that if every one of them were written down, you would run out of paper to write them. May our prayers be fervent, and our living out of the work God has called us to do be earnest. And may the time we have spent together nourish us, cure us, and inspire us to boldly say again and again, “here I am, send me.”