5th Sunday Ordinary Time Isaiah 6:1-8
I’ve always been fascinated by conversion, and I have to say, after 25 years of working with adults in our Rite of Christian Initiation, the topic has never lost its appeal. Practically every Mass I attend here at St. James will have a person in attendance who wentthroughRCIAatsomepointinthepast,andit’salwaysgreattoseethem. Strictly speaking, conversion is usually defined as someone who has moved from no faith whatsoever to our Catholic faith family. There have been a couple of folks in RCIA who fit that pattern, but the vast majority are people who are entering the Church from another faith tradition. This is not to say that their journey has been any less a conversion experience – not at all. Some thing or some one is behind every decision to enter our family of faith, and every story is unique. Our readings today feature two dramatic examples of conversion moments.
The first scene is from the old testament prophet Isaiah, who recounts the mystical vision he receives “in the year King Uzziah died”, which is estimated to be roughly 743 BC. King Uzziah was one of the better kings of Judah, and he reigned for 52 years. Why did Isaiah mention the King in this reading? Perhaps to anchor his vision to a particular time and place that he would always find easy to remember? Or, perhaps, because King Uzziah was special to him in some way? Maybe as a mentor or royal sponsor? The young Isaiah may have been a bit rattled by Uzziah’s death, asking the question we’ve all faced in our lives, “What now?” But God had a plan in mind for Isaiah, and as is typical of God, He takes the first step.
The second big scene appears in our Gospel reading, as Jesus, quite literally, rocks Peter’s boat! Luke constructs this story with great care, painting a picture that’s very easy to imagine. Jesus, surrounded by the crowds, is seeking a better vantage point, a mini-pulpit so to speak. He chooses Simon’s boat, which at first seems to be a random event, until you remember that just one chapter earlier, Jesus had cured Simon’s mother- in-law. So there is some prior relationship at work here, certainly enough for Jesus to politely step into his boat and have Simon pull a little bit out into the lake. Now the stage is set for the big surprise.
Notice how in both situations, God comes to both Isaiah and Simon in the ordinary circumstances of their lives. Neither of our two heroes was actively seeking God. Isaiah was probably taking a nap; Peter was mending his nets after a fruitless night of fishing. Not much going on, huh? Then God moves. Then Jesus moves. In the majestic vision of the Lord, Isaiah has two reactions, a shocked recognition that he is in the presence of God, and an equally dismayed realization that he is a sinful man in the midst of holiness on a grand scale. Notice Peter’s reaction to the great catch of fish. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
It’s important to take a closer look here, because the question of worthiness always arises in everyone’s spiritual journey. Jesus frequently praises people who are humble, who have a self-deprecating attitude toward God. This is most famously seen in Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, where we hear the line, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled , and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” But what does this really mean? Are we supposed to walk around all day with bowed heads, mumbling apologies? Or do we act like some of the early saints, who would deprive themselves to the point of personal injury in an effort to show God how penitent they were? Fortunately , the Church discourages such masochistic practices, but the question remains – what is our proper stance before the Divine?
Ironically, we need to start with sin, failure, and brokenness. When we ‘re young, full of good health and energy, and the world is open to possibilities and success, we engage with our gifts and strive for the best. We have some successes, some failures, and we all soon learn the lesson that we ‘re not perfect. Hopefully , along the way, we also experience the unconditional love of a parent, a friend, or a lover who accepts us regardless of our resume. And , if we are wise enough to let God into our lives through an active prayer life and engagement in a community of faith, we may one day find ourselves i n the presence of God just as Isaiah and Simon did.
About 4 years ago, I was traveling to Orange County on business, driving up the I-5, listening to my large collection of Christian music. I like to hit “shuffle” and just let the Holy Spirit select the songs. I remember being a bit down, just a sense of dissatisfaction with everything . I’m sure that never happens to you, right? Anyway , a song came up from Matt Maher with the chorus “I rejoice in you”. It’s a beautiful song of praise to God, and I was singing along with it because we all sing great when we’re in our cars, don ‘t we? And then, the second time the chorus came around, the lyric “I rejoice in you” suddenly flipped in my mind , and I had the overwhelming feeling that God was singing that lyric to me. I rejoice in y ou. Needless to say, I burst into tears, and barely made it to the off-ramp. It took me 10 minutes to compose myself. I was elated and at the same time, very very aware of how often I don’t measure up to that love.
The interesting thing is that God frequently enters our consciousness through our sin, failure, and brokenness -these are the open cracks in our narcissism. A narcissist is someone who is so in love with himself that he is incapable of recognizing his own failings and sinfulness, and as a result, God cannot enter into their consciousness in any meaningful way. So here’s the good news. Apparently , sinfulness does not slow down God in the least. He knows we’re unworthy. He knows we sin. He knows our dissatisfaction with life. All it takes is the smallest amount of humility , that little recognition that yes, indeed, I am not a god. That ‘s it. Isaiah ‘s lips are seared with a holy ember; Jesus raises Simon with the comforting words, “Do not be afraid.” But that’s not all.
Any conversion experience, to be worth its salt, must change the person ‘s life in a meaningful way. But God always honors our free will, and He does so in both of these episodes today. It comes to Isaiah as a cry for help, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” It comes to Peter as a challenge , “…from now on, you’ll be catching men.” Isaiah’s response? “Here I am, send me!” Peter’s response? “When they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” The conversion event is complete.
You see,brothers and sisters, when God calls you directly and specifically, he wants one thing only – your cooperation with His plan. It can take many forms,this plan, and often the details are sorely lacking. But I’ll tell you this much -when you agree to cooperate, when you say, “Okay, Lord, I’ll do my best to follow you, “then life will take you into places and spaces you never thought possible. And when God rejoices in you, there’s no better place to be.
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach