Sunday, September 23, 2012

Frustrated Fishermen and Barren Old Couples: Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Conception of the Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist in the Orthodox Church

Epistle to the Galatians 4:22-27
The Gospel According to St. Luke 5:1-11
             Probably everyone who has a job or is in school has felt at some point like the disciples did when Jesus Christ found them washing their nets.  They had fished all night and caught nothing.  Things hadn’t turned out as they had hoped, and they were disappointed and frustrated to the point of giving up.   I’ve been there many times and I bet that you have also.  But then the Lord told them to get back to work and let down their net.   They did so and caught so many fish that their net was breaking and their boats began to sink.  Just imagine what a surprise that was for them. They were all amazed and St. Peter fell down before Christ and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” But the Lord said, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  Then the disciples left behind their boats and nets and followed Christ as His disciples.
            That day probably began like any other day.  The fishermen were busy with their work and who knows whether they expected anything out of the ordinary to occur.  It was just another day with the same old routine and the same responsibilities and worries.  But then the Lord blessed them and they saw that their work was not simply about fish, but about bringing people into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God.
            Surely, the disciples knew that they couldn’t take credit for such a large haul of fish.  And there was no way that they could become fishers of men simply by their own power.  We are made of the dust of the earth, enlivened by the breath of God.   We are just flesh and blood.  We can’t make fish swim into our nets or even solve many of the small problems we encounter every day. Much less can we give anyone eternal life. 
            The good news of the gospel, however, is that our Lord is able to bless and transform our humble work, the difficult situations we face, and all the struggles of our lives.  No matter what we are doing, no matter how well or poorly it seems to be going, no matter how frustrated we may be, Christ is with us, inviting us to make the same old frustrating and boring routine into a ministry of the Kingdom.   
            Granted, the disciples were called to a very special ministry in the founding of the Church; they had to leave their old occupations and serve the Lord full-time as evangelists, apostles, and bishops.  Some continue to be called to serve in that way.  But most of us will remain right where we are, spending each day in an office, a shop, a classroom, or some other workplace.  We may be tempted to think that what we do has no spiritual significance, that we are somehow second or third-class in our service of the Kingdom because we remain in the same old world.   But that would be a great error, for all work is holy because it provides opportunities to be good stewards of God’s creation and to offer our lives and the fruits of our labor to the Lord for blessing and fulfillment. 
            Yes, our work and our education can be very difficult, but we are called to bear our crosses and learn patience through our struggles and problems.  In response to disappointments and difficulties, we have opportunities to grow in humility and trust.  That is what Zacharias and Elizabeth did as a faithful Jewish couple who had not been blessed with children.  Like the disciples, their nets were empty and they had given up hope for children, an especially painful situation for Jews who had a role to play in continuing the family line of Abraham that God had promised to bless in the Old Testament.  Of course, the story of the Hebrew people began with Abraham and Sarah, another elderly couple without children, whose frustration and sorrow was overcome by God’s promise to bless them and their descendants.   They could take no credit for this blessing and neither could the parents of John the Baptist.  And even though Zacharias responded to the message of the Archangel Gabriel with doubt, he and Elizabeth were still blessed beyond their expectations.  God always remains faithful to His promises, even though we are often not faithful to ours.
            Their life was not a bed of roses, however, for Zacharias would be martyred when the wicked King Herod murdered the young boys of Bethlehem.  Elizabeth died forty days later and John grew up in the wilderness as an ascetic prophet who would eventually lose his head for criticizing the immorality of the royal family.  But God worked through these painful circumstances to prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ, to extend His promises to Abraham to all would have faith in the Savior.
            Do you see what these stories have in common?  Barren elderly people have babies.  Fisherman who have caught nothing suddenly find that their nets are breaking and their boats sinking because of their large haul.  And people like you and me grow in patience, humility, and selflessness by enduring our daily disappointments, worries, fears, and aches and pains.  At times, we may feel that we are accomplishing nothing and be tempted to think that there is no point at all to what we do all day or maybe even to what we have done for years.  But that would be truly a temptation, for the Lord has promised never to abandon us, to be with us always, and we know His power most when we have no doubt about our own weakness.  If we are offering our lives to Him as best we can, we can trust in His blessing—even if we cannot figure out how He is at work in our present situation.
            What is failure and frustration in our eyes may present a unique opportunity for us to grow into the people God wants us to be, to prepare us for a role we cannot yet imagine.  He used the childlessness of Zacharias and Elizabeth to prepare the way for Christ.  He used the frustration of the fisherman to open their hearts to the new life of discipleship.  And in ways that we probably do not yet have the eyes to see, He calls us to use our present circumstances as an opportunity to grow in faith, hope, and love and to better serve Him and our neighbors.           
            Contrary to what our culture teachers, our work is not simply about us.  It is a form of service through which we transform God’s good creation for His glory.  And we don’t do it alone for we journey together toward a new heaven and a new earth.  Jesus’ Christ’s ministry of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and proclaiming good news to the poor shows that His salvation concerns the real-life challenges that people continue to face in the world as we know it.  He showed God’s love for the hated Gentiles and Samaritans, for people who had fallen into great sin and were shunned by respectable people.  In His Body, the Church, all peoples and nations are reconciled and united in the life of the Kingdom.   We cannot judge Him by worldly standards and neither should we judge ourselves in that way.
            Whether we see it or not, our daily work plays a role in bringing His salvation to the world.  Everything that we do and say should be a sign of God’s blessing.  We all have the opportunity to forgive those who wrong us; to work toward reconciliation with those from whom we have become estranged; to refuse to treat people differently because they look, act, or think differently than we do; and not to let greed or ambition get in the way of relating to others with honesty, kindness, and decency.    Of course, our work must support us financially, but there is a difference between meeting our legitimate needs and selfishly worshipping comfort, convenience, and commercialism.  When we have the opportunity to encourage our co-workers, classmates, or businesses to serve Christ in the poor, lonely, or troubled, we should do so. 
            Like Abraham and Sarah, Zacharias and Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, our calling is to use the challenges, blessings, and painful struggles of our daily lives to grow in holiness as we play our role in making this world an icon of God’s salvation.  That’s how we may all become fishers of men.  So even if we feel like we have fished all night and caught nothing, it’s time to let down our nets again in obedience to Christ’s command.  He alone turns apparent failure into glorious victory.  He alone works even through our troubles to bless us.  So we must not fall into despair or fear, but instead trust that God is with us and at work in our lives.       

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