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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Epiphany 3 – Year B

I have a question for you this morning: Have you ever pondered your own ordinariness? I have and do. I often consider how I do not have what it takes to be a Martin Luther King, a Mother Theresa, even a “Poor Man’s Philanthropist” like our city’s own Thomas Canon. I also wonder how these ordinary people became extraordinary. Were their callings thrust upon them? Did they perhaps not know until they changed the world that they actually had the capacity to do so? Were their calls collect calls, as it were?

Or were they born with some sort of super-hero gene that was their birthright to greatness?

Something tells me that when Jesus issued his call to Simon and Andrew, James and John, it was the former. By all biblical accounts these fishermen led ordinary lives. Fishing was who they were, who their fathers were; they were born to it as they were born to their villages. It was their life. They did the work that would feed their families. They were part of the local economy, waking early, following the patterns of fish, and selling at market. It was an identity that offered sources of happiness as reliable as any they knew — family and friends in the village, children to carry on their names and care for them should they be fortunate enough to reach old age.

But then Jesus presented them with the words, Follow me! –words that contained inherent risk. He offered them a new identity, one that had nothing to do with their pedigree or geographic or social location. Instead, it would be about movement –a willingness to take a journey, to begin a pilgrimage with no destination. Their call was to be fishers of souls, to pluck others out of their ordinary lives and challenge them to the same life of faith and service that they themselves had risked.

Yes, there was risk. Risk and cost. Because the price of admission to this new way of life was no less than the life they they, their friends, their families, and their ancestors had always known. Follow me. A challenge as well as an invitation. A challenge to embrace the recklessness of faith, to turn from all that was familiar and go forth armed only with belief. Belief that the man beckoning them to follow was indeed their God; belief that what they would pursue would not be a waste of their lives but a renewing of them; belief that discipleship is the ultimate act of honor and goodness and courage.

The New York Times Magazine publishes an anthology of obituaries each year entitled The Lives They Lived, and in this issue it featured the notable deaths of 2005. One of the life stories recounted was that of James Stockdale. Do you remember him? I knew him as Ross Perot s reluctant running mate during the presidential election of 1992. After delivering the unforgettable opening line in the vice presidential debate — ”Who am I? Why am I here?” — Stockdale was reduced to a national laughingstock. Most Americans remembered him by way of a ”Saturday Night Live” parody starring Phil Hartman..

If there ever was a faithful model of discipleship, it was Admiral Stockdale. If ever there was a person whose character and actions embody St. Paul’s claim that “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters” (1 Cor 7:23), it was Admiral Stockdale. Here is some background: Navy Commander Stockdale was shot down in September of 1965 while on a mission over North Vietnam. Before he was imprisoned at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” his shoulders were wrenched from their sockets, his leg shattered by angry villagers and a torturer, and his back broken. Even then he refused to capitulate. He endured seven years of captivity as a Prisoner of War, one of the longest such ordeals in American history. Tortured 15 times, Stockdale was forced to wear vise-like heavy leg irons for two years, and spent four of his seven years in solitary confinement, in total darkness.

Rather than allow himself to be used in a North Vietnamese propaganda film, Stockdale smashed his face into a pulp with a 50-pound mahogany stool. For the next several weeks, he kept himself unpresentable by surreptitiously bashing his face with his fists. Another time he broke a glass pane in an interrogation room and slashed his wrists until he passed out in his own blood. The North Vietnamese never did manage to film him, but his ploys cost him two years in leg irons.

The magazine piece details how the torture meted out by the North Vietnamese was simply too intense to limit the P.O.W.’s statements to name, rank, serial number and date of birth. So Stockdale created new rules designed both to protect America’s war effort and to keep the P.O.W.’s alive. His guiding principle, as he articulated it years later, was this: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” So Stockdale ordered his men to endure as much physical abuse as they could before acceding to any of their interrogators’ demands — the key, in his view, to preserving a sense of dignity — and to always confess to fellow inmates everything they had been forced to divulge. He believed to carry an unclean conscience was to risk descending into a spiral of guilt and shame that would make them only more vulnerable to themselves and their captors.

Though his captors held his body prisoner, their relentless attempts to break his spirit never succeeded. As Stockdale was later to remark, “Lameness is an impediment to the leg but not to the will.” Throughout his captivity, Stockdale’s steadfast refusal to cooperate with the enemy kept alive the spirit of resistance in his fellow P.O.W.s. Most importantly, the magazine piece recounts how Stockdale came to see heroes not as people who had carried out their duty with distinction but as individuals who had done something no reasonable person would ever have felt justified asking them to do. ( The New York Times Magazine , December 25, 2005, pgs. 39-40)

Jesus was and is certainly no reasonable being. And have you ever considered whether or not Jesus was justified in asking complete strangers to risk their livelihood, reputation and life just because they had a hunch that he was godly? Jesus’ call to discipleship is a radical one; it is a crazy and yes, reckless, one if you really stop to think about it. My call, your call, may not seem so radical–and aren’t we grateful for it! Especially grateful that it is not a call to endure torture or martyrdom. But then on another level I cannot help but feeling like a lightweight, weak-bodied and weak minded compared to someone like Admiral Stockdale. I believe that what we take from the gospel this morning and from 1st Corinthians is the notion that a call to discipleship requires adopting a philosophy based on a profound sense of duty, dignity and loyalty under all circumstances. We may be called to serve in small, even mundane tasks, and we may be asked to serve in larger-than-life incomprehensible ways. In any event our call is to live the gospel, where we are now, under any and all circumstances, because the grace and consolation of God is not repelled by imprisonment, fear, incompetence, anger, self-doubt, ordinariness and even death.

James Alison tells the Irish joke in which a traveler asks, “How do I get to Dublin?” and gets the response, “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t start from here.” That’s not Jesus’ response, and that’s not the freedom that comes from Jesus’ gift. Jesus starts with where you are. The four fishers called by Jesus in our gospel story will find freedom–a freedom that goes far beyond the wear and tear of discipleship. It is a freedom from living in anonymity and dying into nothingness. To accept the audacity of Jesus’ call and also to discover Jesus’ tender, unambiguous love. It is a journey in which one discovers what it means to be loved by God, and through this love, to be awestruck by the heroism, achievement and pain of one’s own survival. It’s a journey of identity in which we move from understanding ourselves as marginal to perceiving that God will always give us the tools to endure and to succeed. Know this: God will give you the strength and courage to change your world. It may not be THE world. But it will be yours.


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