Reflection: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
As I look back at the last two years of my life, I’m acutely aware that sometimes our lives are radically turned upside down. Sometimes I’m amazed at the ways that dealing with cancer has changed — and sometimes opened up — my perspective on life. It has been the sense of, as the old Judy Collin’s song says, “seeing life from both sides now.” For me, before cancer and since. It has altered my sense of purpose and meaning and also of commitment and discipleship. I’m convinced that each of us has had, in some way, that experience of life being turned upside down.
I was amused when I first read today’s Gospel during the week before Christmas. Amusement is very unlike my more common reaction to Gospel stories — we have heard this over and over. John is jailed. Jesus is proclaiming the coming kingdom of God and calls the first fisherman who immediately drop their nets and follow him. It’s easily a well-worn Gospel before a tired audience. And it’s hard to be renewed or moved or encouraged or challenged by tired Gospel.
I was anticipating starting radiation Christmas week — and experiencing my life turned upside down once more. And being tired of that feeling. And I’m reading a Gospel where every character is experiencing life turned upside down. It was a remarkable perspective from which to read the text— immersed in my own uncertainty, ambiguity and inner turmoil — of my life, my immediate world, turned upside down and seeing that mirrored in the lives of John and Jesus and the first disciples.
I’ve spent a lot of time these past two years people-watching at the cancer center. Flannery O’Conner once described the church as “here comes everyone.” It’s an apt description of the cancer center where life-threatening illness makes race and religion, social and economic status, differences among us, moot. I’ve found community and belonging there. And hope and perseverance. In a place where everything simply is what it is. You live with it, deal with it, fall apart, and go on. There is a cast of characters there that I’ve come to respect, admire, and, I think, love.
And there is also a cast of “here comes everyone characters” in today’s Gospel. And, like the cast of characters at the cancer center, each is experiencing life turned upside down — trenched in that same sense of uncertainly, ambiguity, and turmoil — and a hope for the fullness of life hanging on in the background. I was laughing at my own recognition of those feelings. At my sense of community with the Gospel cast. I found myself liking them.
Start with John. John finds himself in jail. The charges are dubious — the result of fear and prejudice; the unease of those confronted by integrity and addicted to power. I find myself wondering what goes on inside John’s mind and his heart. And my heart knows it’s simply a too easy answer, if we know what it is to have our lives turned upside down — to say to John keep a positive outlook or strong faith, have courage, everything will be OK. Being in the jail of an oppressive power never bodes well. And faith gets really messy — John, who had recognized Jesus at the Jordan, now sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is the Messiah or if he should look for another. That’s strong faith — but upside-down faith — lived in ambiguity, uncertainty, turmoil and still grounded in hope. lt’s a faith cancer understands.
And Jesus … Jesus hears the news of John’s arrest and his life is turned upside down. He up and moves from Nazareth to Capernaum. John’s arrest literally uproots his life. Did the news of John’s arrest compel Jesus into the next phase of his ministry? Did it awaken in him an inkling that if it John could be arrested, he could as well? An inkling that both he and John, could end up dead. Was it his first inkling that the time for living is short? Where does ambiguity, uncertainty, turmoil in his life take Jesus?
It takes Jesus to Capernaum by the Sea — by the sea. Matthew is specific about that. The prophet Isaiah may have foretold that move — a light coming into a land of gloom — again that’s too easy an answer. In the Gospels the seashore is liminal space — it’s not the dread danger of the deep sea or the protection of high ground. It’s a place where life emerges out of the turmoil, a place of expectation where new things come into being, where hope is bred. A place of heightened alertness. A place where one is confronted by the reality of what is. By the immediacy of now. Where up-side down becomes gift. It’s a chemo kind of land.
So it’s in that space that we meet the rest of the cast. We encounter two brothers, Simon and Andrew. Andrew is casting a net into the sea — fishing. He’s most likely up at least to his knees in the water. The idea is to throw the net, rather like a pizza, so it stays flat and parallel to the water and then settles and begins to sink — trapping whatever fish might be under it. This was sustenance fishing. Jesus calls to him to come and follow him, and Andrew, and his brother, drop everything and go. That’s certainly a call that turns life upside down — with Andrew’s net still floating on the water. Their lives are changed forever.
And, nearby, on that same shore, Jesus sees two other brothers, James and John. They are in their boat mending nets. Jesus calls to them to come and they drop their nets, leave their boat, and follow him.
John Vanier was fond of saying that the remarkable thing about Jesus is how quickly he begins to gather a community around him. He doesn’t go it alone. He relies on the love, care and support, the presence of others, even when they mess it up. How crucial it is, when life is buffeted by turmoil, uncertainty, change, newness, to have a community surrounding one. We are never called alone.
And that leaves a most fascinating character — Zebedee — who is left, holding the torn net, picking up the pieces of a now shattered fishing enterprise, and figuring out what to do next. Minor characters like Zebedee serve to highlight the text and its characters. hey are not simply a loose end but a foil highlighting the major characters. His staying behind does not mean he is not chosen, that Jesus rejected hm. The role he is left is every bit as important as the roles of his sons in Jesus’ mission, in the unfolding of the kingdom of God. It is his to carry on. He reminds each of us that there are things to which we are called and things that are not ours to do. Zebedee is a powerful witness to that. To staying power. While his sons become the fishers of people, Zebedee continues to put food on the table —and in so doing to feeds as Jesus feeds.
The final funny thing about today’s Gospel — and this reflection — I don’t know where it ends. Or how to end it. I don’t know anymore than John knew in jail or Jesus knew on the shore of the sea. Or Andrew knew when he left his net. Or James his boat. I don’t know where cancer ends. Where life ends. But the promise of the Gospel is this — it will not be tired. That hope will not die. The kingdom will continue to unfold — and Jesus continue to call — and life continue to turn upside down as we continue to be here for one another.