Answering the Call

Homily for Sunday, January 26, 2020
Epiphany 3A
I Corinthians 1:10–18
Matthew 4:12–23

gospel-2I 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.”

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brooklyn_museum_-_the_calling_of_saint_peter_and_saint_andrew_28vocation_de_saint_pierre_et_saint_andrc3a929_-_james_tissot_-_overallThe 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.”

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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.”

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting 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?”

Questions of Identity

Homily for Sunday, January 19, 2020
Epiphany 2A

From a movie that just came out at Christmas and is still in theatres, here are three quotes.  (And you’re welcome to guess the movie, if you like)…

“Beware, she is not who you think she is.”
“Who is she?” Continue reading

Feeling Ambivalence

Homily for January 12, 2020
The Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3:13–17

Waltham falls

Photo Credits: Martha Bancroft

Though many commentators have noted the theme of water running through the books of Marilyn Robinson’s “Gilead Trilogy”—her books Gilead, Home, and then Lila, about the fictitious Pastor John Ames and his ministry in small-town Iowa in the first part of the last century—I would say, given Robinson’s deeply Christian background and her thoughtful theological writings (which she seems to do in her spare time between novels), that the theme of Baptism runs through the “Gilead Trilogy.”  Listen, for example, to these lines from Gilead, the first of the three books: Continue reading

Sudden Impingements

Homily for January 5, 2020
Christmas 2A
Jeremiah 31:7–14

4899043782_7b21cb71b0_zThis morning I want to speak about idolatry.  But because idolatry may seem rather quaint and hard to relate to, I want to speak first about families, dysfunction and Christmas, which, because we’ve just been through it (and are actually still in it), I suspect we can all relate to.  And I want to introduce families, dysfunction and Christmas—and then also idolatry—through the author Jonathan Franzen.

Franzen, who at one time was more famous for his snub of Oprah than for his novels—in 2001 he turned down an invitation to appear on her show fearing that an appearance would taint his work as “popular” rather than as “high art”—once remarked Continue reading

Opening Lines

Homily for Sunday, December 29, 2019
Christmas 1A
John 1:1–18

We’ve all heard it before.  At least those of us who have been around those of us of a certain age have heard it before: the party is nearly over; conversation is ebbing; guests shift in their seats; and finally somebody says something like, “Well, I suppose I should be on my way,” and stands up to leave… but not without letting out a groan as they stand.  Elizabeth Arden, the founder of the fashion house, when asked what she did to stay looking so young, purportedly said: “When I stand up, I stand up quietly.”  No groaning.  In just a minute, I want to get back to youth and its elixirs, but first things first… Continue reading

Letting Jesus In

Homily for December 24, 2019
Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1–20

Nativity scene headerIf anybody had told us beforehand how difficult it would be, I’m not sure we would have done it.  Or, rather, if we had had any reference point for what people told us—because, surely, somebody had tried to tell us how difficult it would be, and we couldn’t hear it—I’m not sure we would have done it.  But each of us had had pets when we were younger, so, surely, we could be parents (right?). Continue reading

The Devil at Christmas

Homily for Sunday, December 22, 2019
Advent 4A
Matthew 1:18–25

screwtape-letters-2Bishop Gayle Harris once said that, “The Devil always shows up during Holy Week.”  Those of us who work in the Church—or are active in, say, the choir or the altar guild, or are simply here about the church during Holy Week—know whereof Bishop Harris speaks: there is always something that, if we let it, tries to disrupt our celebration of the Resurrection.  Similarly I say, “The Devil always shows up during Christmas.”  Except, whereas during Holy Week the Devil shows up at Church, at Christmas the Devil tends to show up at home. Continue reading