I am not one of those people who take whiskey backpacking. Those people exist, but I am not one of them. Out there with the bears, wouldn’t you want to be 100% alert? Out there in the beauty of the mountains, wouldn’t you want to be fully present to take it all in? And why, with limited space in a backpack, would one want to carry anything extraneous? (There’s only so much space in those packs…) And why, with only one’s own back and legs carrying the weight, would anyone want to carry additional liquid, which is heavy? I am not one of those people who take whiskey backpacking; for me, it’s not worth the weight.
I want to get back to our choices of what we carry, but first, a movie…
With all due respect to Franco Zeffirrelli and Mel Gibson, I think the best Jesus movie ever made was the low-budget, black and white, 1964 Italian classic, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I love Pasolini’s film for the beautiful scenery of rural Basilicata in the boot of Italy; I love that he used untrained locals as “actors”—a 19 year-old economics student played Jesus, for example, and in the later scenes Pasolini’s own mother played Mary; and I love Pasolini’s eclectic soundtrack, the music of which provides a rich subtext to the scenes and incorporates anything from Bach’s B Minor Mass to Blind Willie Johnson’s famous 1937 rendition of the Gospel & Blues classic, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.”
I love Pasolini’s movie, too, because of his close adherence to Matthew’s text. The text in Pasolini’s depiction of Jesus calling the first disciples, for example—today’s Gospel lesson—is taken straight from Matthew’s Gospel, nothing omitted and nothing added. Let me share with you Pasolini’s scene… After Jesus is tempted by Satan (played by a local with prominent teeth who does affect a convincing sneer) Jesus walks calmly and resolutely, robes billowing in the wind, across the dusty hills, through farmers’ fields, down to the sea. Once at the shore, Jesus walks calmly toward Peter and Andrew, who are working at their boats. “Pietro,” Jesus calls. The camera zooms to Peter’s startled face, ringed with dark curls, and holds. “Andrea.” The camera zooms to Andrew’s. “Venite con mi. Vi farò pescatori di uomini”—“Come with me; I will make you fishers of people.” James and John—each looking no more than 17—are running full-tilt along the shore, running with a youthful exuberance toward the camera, trailing a fishing net behind them. Encountering Jesus they stop short and look up: “Giacomo, Gianni, figli di Zebedeo, venite con mi.” “James, John, sons of Zebedee, come with me.”
The question most often asked of the story of the calling of the first disciples is: “Why did the disciples drop everything and follow?” And we assume that there must have been more exchanged between Jesus and the disciples that the text does not tell; or, there must have been a previous connection between Jesus and the disciples—they already knew each other; or, maybe Jesus was highly charismatic such that anybody, were they asked, would drop everything and follow. Though the question most often asked of the story of the calling of the first disciples is, “Why did the disciples leave everything and follow,” Pasolini’s film raises for me a different question, one that precedes the question, “Why did they drop everything and follow?”
To get at that question, a few more questions… Why did Jesus walk as far as he did—across the dusty hills, through those farmers’ fields, along the beach to that particular section of beach—to call Peter and Andrew, James and John? Why did he not call the group of farmers whom (in the movie) he encountered along the way? Why did Jesus choose that particular stretch of beach and not another? Why did Jesus call those specific fishermen and not the others working nearby? In short, “Why did Jesus choose Peter and Andrew, and James and John, and not any of the others to be his disciples?” If it is a mystery as to why the disciples dropped everything and followed, it is also a mystery as to why Jesus chose the disciples he did.
I wonder if in choosing Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew is trying to demonstrate—similar to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians—that God “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (I Cor 1:27–28)? Or I wonder if God chose fishermen so that nobody would be intimidated and that everybody could relate to them—similar to what Paul writes elsewhere in 1 Corinthians—“To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (9:27)? And maybe Pasolini, in choosing untrained local peasants pulled from the street to be his “actors,” was trying to drive home the whimsy of Jesus’ choice and also of the Kingdom of God, in which “many are called but few are chosen” (Matt 22:14)? Jesus’s choice of whom to call as his disciples seems haphazard and random, and seems to vindicate what Fr. Richard Meux-Benson, the founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Episcopal monastery over in Cambridge, once wrote, that “God delights to employ in his service those who are least fit for it.”
We will never know why the disciples dropped everything and followed—but follow they did. Likewise we will ever know why Jesus chose the disciples he did—but choose them he did.
Which brings us to ourselves. Those of us who are here this morning, Jesus has called us. Jesus has chosen us. In choosing us, Jesus walked past others whom he might have called. He has walked to our “beach,” as it were, and not to another. Among those working nearby, he has singled out us and not others, and he has issued to us an invitation: “Follow me.”
As with the disciples, it is unlikely that we will ever know why Jesus has called us. But more importantly, now that Jesus has called us, how will we respond?
As mentioned, the soundtrack to Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is eclectic and provides a rich subtext on the various scenes. For example, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” is played while Jesus prays in Gethsemane. Odetta Holmes sings “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” as John baptizes at the Jordan. The Kol Nidre, a chant that begins the Jewish Day of Atonement, is sung shortly before the Passion.
The music Pasolini pairs with the calling of the disciples is the so-called Cherubic Hymn from the Eastern Orthodox Mass. As Jesus approaches the disciples at the shore, the Russian basses growl and the tenors soar as the choir sings:
We who mystically represent the cherubim…Let us now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the king of all…
“Let us now lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the king of all.” Whatever else following Jesus may mean—the music suggests—following Jesus means (as did the disciples) “laying aside… that we may receive.”
Getting back to whiskey and weight and the things we choose to “carry…” Chances are, each of us is “carrying” something extraneous, something heavy that hinders. Chances are, we’ve carried it for years. And chances are, this extraneous heavy weight keeps us from running, like James and John, along the shore closer to Jesus. I wonder, what would it look like to put this weight down? For—we are here today—Jesus is calling. We may not know why Jesus calls; but what we do know is that, if we would heed his call and “receive” him—and deep-down I suspect that each of our hearts wants to “receive” him—it may be necessary first to “lay aside” and to let go of weight that hinders. And if we need it, maybe ask Jesus for help in letting go. Jesus will surely help, for—as much as our hearts deep-down desire him—he desires us even more. I wonder, what is it that you are being called to “lay aside” in order that you “may receive the king of all?”