Fifth Sunday in Ordinary - C
Feeling overwhelmed by God
My Dear friends in Christ
Peace be with you. What kind of summer job have you had? When I was in college, I had a variety. One summer, I had two. I worked in the afternoon and early evening delivering medications to various nursing homes throughout Central Iowa. Very few things are more awkward than bumping into an attractive classmate who’s been visiting her elderly grandmother while you’re delivering four packages of adult diapers. My other job took place from 6:30 in the morning until 2:00 or 2:30 in the afternoon as a cook at a local greasy spoon restaurant. I had worked there in high school as a dishwasher and had learned how to cook in the cafeteria in college so I felt like I was prepared for this job. Well, I wasn’t. In a college cafeteria, you make a lot of one thing for people and they have little choice but to eat that. At a restaurant, even a little greasy spoon diner like this one, people ordered all kinds of things to be prepared in all kinds of ways and they wanted them as fast as possible. The first day, the owner told me that he’d come back and help if I ever fell behind...more like when I fell behind because he helped every day for the first severa weeks that I was there. In fact, I remember one day when I was behind but trying not to ask for help that I fell so far behind that the waitresses had to ask the owner to help. He came back and sternly asked why I hadn’t asked for help to which I apologized and said I wanted to work it out. He bailed me out and then, again, sternly asked me to just ask for help when I’m falling behind. Finally, at the end of July, there was one Monday when it all clicked for me. The orders came at a pace that I could handle them and I was getting the food out reasonably well. I only made three or four easily correctable mistakes. Mistakes are killer when you’re trying not to fall behind. I made it past the lunch rush and walked out to see the owner smiling at me. I had finally made it.
I couldn’t help but notice that in all three of today’s readings, the author is describing an encounter with God. In the first reading, Isaiah’s encounter is very much shrouded in the expectations of the people of the Old Testament. For them, an encounter with God was like playing with fire. We often associate fire with the devil but the word “Seraphim”, which the first reading used to describe the angel, comes from two Hebrew words meaning “the fiery ones” or “the burning ones”. God, who is never described, sits on a throne flanked by these burning, multi-winged entities who are chanting the same words we use in the midst of the eucharistic prayer “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters pray this prayer, called the qedosh, as part of several of their services. It emphasizes God’s otherness and transendence. One commentary I read noted a “chasm between God’s holiness and human sinfulness” which is emphasized in this reading. “It is the Lord who bridges this gap (by having the seraphim burn away the uncleanness of Isaiah’s lips) and God outfits the prophet with the moral integrity needed for his ministry.”
Likewise in the gospel, St. Luke tells a story that seems to merge stories from several other places in the gospels. Unlike Mark and Matthew who simply have Jesus call Peter, James, and John as they are fishing to come and follow him, St. Luke includes a story about a miraculous catch of fish that foreshadows the life he is calling them to be as fishers of people through the word of God. And, like Isaiah in the first reading, Peter realizes at one point that he is in the presence of God and has a moment of utter humility. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Yet, I think Paul has the harshest version of humility in the second reading from his letter to the Corinthians. Most Biblical scholars hear in this part of Paul’s letter an early creed that may have been part of the Christian gathering. But, Paul adds some things at the end about his calling. In our translation, Paul describes himself as “born abnormally.” Most of the commentaries that I read said that a better translation would be born “as if to an abortion” or “as if stillborn.” The commentators think that Paul’s opponents were using these types of phrases to make fun of the fact that Paul wasn’t very good looking, sort of the biblical equivalent of bullying. If it’s true, Paul finds a way to spin this phrase in a positive way by using it to describe how he was reborn when he moved from persecuting christians to being incredibly effective at preaching so they may believe.
There are times in our lives when we aren’t listening to the will of God and things aren’t going well for us. God has a way, like he did with St. Paul, of knocking us off our donkeys and inviting us to change the course of our lives. But, there are also times when we know we are doing the will of God and life is just hard. Areas of disagreement with a boyfriend or girlfriend or parts of our job or our education that suck are a couple of examples. We may be tempted, in those situations, to give up too easily when we feel overwhelmed. If so, hear the word of the Lord in these three readings: ask God to heal you and direct you like Isaiah did, do the best you can with the gifts God has given you like St. Peter did, and remind yourself that you’re using the gifts God has given you to the best of your ability like St. Paul did.