by The Rev. Dr. Christine Leigh-Taylor
January 21, 2024
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
On January 6 of this year, the Christian Church observed the Epiphany of our Lord, an event that traditionally begins with the wise men or magi following a star to discover Jesus as a newborn or perhaps a young child. Jim Taylor talked about this event in his sermon on December 17 when he was devoting successive Sundays to the key characters in the Christmas story. Epiphany follows Christmas as a season of revelation and discovery about just who this Jesus is, not only for the people of Israel, but for the whole world. Episodes include his baptism, his assembling a group of helpers, and their initial experiences. Epiphany season ends with the Transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain. Then we enter Lent.
I find Epiphany to be a powerful season. In addition to revelation there can also be a sense of adventure, maybe even a time for new directions. Perhaps this is why the passage from Jonah was chosen for this Sunday. The people of Ninevah had wandered into selfish and self-destructive behaviors and God was going to wipe them off the face of the earth. But before doing that, God called to Jonah to reach out to the people and warn them to change their evil ways. Amazingly, they listened, and repented. And God did not destroy their city.
In our Gospel lesson from Mark we find Jesus calling fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, first Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and then brothers James and John. Jesus tells each of them that he will teach them to fish for people.
Jonah was a bit like John the Baptist, urging repentance. Jesus goes further, calling ordinary people out of their usual lives to join him in an activity dramatically new, dramatically simple, yet dramatically transforming – as Jesus calls it, fishing for people.
Maybe that’s not something you or I would jump at. It sounds like missionary work, which takes a special dedication. However, you and I are gathered here this morning because we believe in Jesus’ power to heal, to love, and to provide ultimate meaning to our lives.
One recurring Epiphany message is to discern how God calls each of us to use the gifts we are already given to advance God’s kingdom of love and mercy. When we share some God moments, I hope you might tell us how you have felt called. For me, that has meant several different paths at different times throughout my life. Each path has acknowledged my family responsibilities as it also invited me to explore new ways to be useful in the wider world.
And, I have even felt called to ‘fish for people’ – in my own way. In my last secular position before going to seminary almost 30 years ago, I served as assistant dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. I was in charge of Budget and Operations, a new position they created when this business school realized that they were operating at a deficit in their university budget. You’d think a business school could manage their own finances!
One of the people under me was a youngish woman, of a different race, not as educated as I, but whom I considered very capable of further responsibility. I was coaching her, but I felt constrained in the language I could use. I couldn’t ask her about her religious beliefs as they might relate to her sense of purpose, and I couldn’t talk to her about mine. It was frustrating. It was one of the pushes that led me to seek ordination so that I could be legitimate about the words I wanted to use. Mind you, I was not trying to be coercive; I just wanted to talk to her - and others - about their sense of God’s intentions for their individual fulfilment and usefulness.
I don’t feel called to be a missionary. I don’t feel called to be an ascetic or monastic. At this stage of my life, I am a retired Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Northern California, and I serve two churches once a month each, as well as associate priest at my home parish in Placerville. It’s called Church of Our Saviour, with the old English spelling of ‘saviour.’ My roles are fewer now, but still important.
Some of you know that I am here because Jim Taylor invited me. That involves an interesting account – sort of an Epiphany story – of its own.
Late last summer I sent an email to Jim, whose twice-weekly columns I had read for over 24 years – through seminary. I knew a lot about his life, because he had written so much about it. I was considering a road trip here with my dog, but I just didn’t have time. However, we stayed in email contact, and ultimately, I flew here Nov. 8 and attended church with you on Nov. 12. Jim and I have developed a wonderful relationship – can we leave it at that, please! – and he has visited me and now I am here for a somewhat longer stay.
I actually want to use this personal experience as an example of an Epiphany message. It is so easy to ignore or reject suggestions of something new, something a little different. Please, don’t do that! I had this little idea that maybe I could write to this guy in Canada whose columns I appreciated. And I finally did it! Talk about a God moment!!! When he picked me up at Kelowna Airport on Nov. 8, with a sign saying “Christine” it was the beginning of a whole new and life-giving connection.
I know I’m expanding the bounds of what “calling” may be about. But we are humans and one of our most important callings is to love – sometimes it’s romantic love, sometimes it’s selfless or sacrificial love, sometimes it’s family love or something else. I’m from the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. and our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who is a master of African-American preaching styles, well, as he says, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
In addition to our individual callings, we are each called to express love and to be love in all the myriad ways that is possible during each stage of our lives. Early on it might be love of family and perhaps pets. As we mature, we are encouraged to find a “calling” – a trade or career that will provide both independence and fulfillment. Many of us are also called to find a life partner with whom to share the challenges, responsibilities, and satisfactions of our years. Over time both the work and the partner details may change, sometimes by choice, often by circumstances beyond our control. Or, as an Epiphany, a revelation or discovery of a new calling.
Let us make our lives about love. There just is no higher calling. Amen.