Sunday, January 25, 2009

'Calls' and 'Falls'

(Third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 25, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Jonah 3: 1-10; Mark 1: 14-20.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of the Year 2009]

It matters not whether you’re big and tall—or short and small;
This simple truth applies to all:
You will most definitely have a call,
But just as certainly will you suffer a fall;
And how you deal with your fall has everything to do
with how well you live and fulfill your call.

Jonah was called—he was called to be God’s prophet to the Ninevites (we heard a small portion of that story in today’s first reading); the apostles were called—they were called to be leaders among the earliest followers of Jesus Christ (as we heard in this Gospel reading from Mark, chapter 1).

And we are called. We are called, among other things, to be different—different from those in the world who are materialistic and hedonistic and selfish; we are called to embrace and to live Christian virtues in every dimension of our lives (including when we go to work, and when we get behind closed doors). We are called to be holy and to serve God by fulfilling his perfect plan for our lives. For most people that involves marriage and natural parenthood; for some it involves priesthood, the diaconate and/or religious life; and for others it involves service in the Church or in society as a single person.

And within those 3 primary “calls” or vocations, there are particular calls that we each have to serve God in a chosen profession, or in charitable organizations, or in some other way.

But regardless of what your call is in this life, at some point along the way—and maybe several times along the way—you will fall. As I indicated a few moments ago, there is a call for every human being, but for every human being there will also be a fall. And here I’m not just talking about a little mistake; I’m talking about a decisive moment of failure that challenges your vocation or call and threatens to destroy it. It might be a big temptation that you start to give into—like the temptation to give up; it might be something more serious like an act of adultery or some other mortal sin.

And how you deal with this fall has everything to do with how well you end up fulfilling your call—as it says in the last line of the poem I read at the beginning.

What’s interesting and noteworthy about the prophet Jonah is that his call and his fall happened almost simultaneously! That doesn’t occur too often; usually there’s a period of time between the two.

God told him to go and preach to the Ninevites, so that they would repent of their sins and be forgiven. Jonah responded to that call by getting on the first ship headed in the opposite direction. Why? Because he hated the Ninevites and didn’t want God to forgive them, that’s why! Jonah wanted God to “fry” them, not forgive them! He wanted fire and brimstone, not kindness and mercy!

The Lord, of course, was not impressed by Jonah’s fall—or his juvenile antics—so he sent a terrible storm onto the sea, which resulted in Jonah being thrown overboard and getting swallowed by a big fish. Three days later, the fish spewed Jonah back onto the shore, after which God called him again.

This time Jonah went—albeit begrudgingly—and he preached the message God told him to preach; after which everyone repented, from the king of Nineveh on down!

Jonah, you know, is the envy of every preacher: The guy preached for one day, and everyone turned to God!

I should be so blessed!

However the story ends sadly with the prophet sulking like a five-year-old and praying for death. He prays for death because he’s incensed that God has forgiven the people of Nineveh and spared their city.

Apparently his days as a prophet were finished. And it leaves you wondering: How much more good could Jonah have done—and would Jonah have done—in his life, had he responded to his “fall” a little better?

How much good would he have done, had he responded to his fall like the apostles responded to theirs? Called by Jesus in this scene from Mark 1, they all fell extremely hard 3 years later on Holy Thursday night, when they either denied him or betrayed him or simply ran away in fear.

But they all came back, with the exception of Judas, who unfortunately responded to his fall with despair.

Although he could have been forgiven like the rest! As Bishop Sheen used to say, the great tragedy of Judas is that he could have been “St. Judas”—had he responded to his fall with sincere repentance, like the other 11 disciples.

How you deal with your fall has everything to do with how well you fulfill your call.

It’s never pleasant to hear of a fall, but it’s always a joy when you see someone respond to theirs in the right way, and then move on successfully to continue to fulfill their call in life.

I remember early on in my priesthood dealing with a couple who were experiencing severe difficulties in their marriage. They were both called to holy matrimony, but he had been unfaithful—and she had found out about it. Needless to say, she was extremely angry (as she should have been).

By the time I met them, which was long after the affair had ended, he had repented of his sin and was sincerely trying to make amends.

And she knew that; however she still had a lot of anger within her. In fact, at times she would slip into what seemed like an uncontrollable rage.

It was not pretty.

But to her credit, she persevered—and so did he; and together they both did the hard work that was necessary to restore the trust in their relationship.

And last I knew they were doing very well.

Ultimately they responded as a couple to this terrible fall in the right way.

As I was preparing this homily the other day, providentially I happened to come across the personal testimony of Chuck Colson online. His is yet another story of a fall after a call.

If you are old enough to remember the early 1970s—the time of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal—then you are certainly familiar with Chuck Colson’s name, since you heard it on television and read it in the newspapers almost every day.

Colson was chief counsel to President Nixon in Nixon’s first term of office. During that time, he was disdainfully called “the White House hatchet man,” and was once quoted as saying, “I’d walk over my own grandmother to re-elect Richard Nixon.”

I don’t think his grandmother was too happy about that—but that’s another story.

Needless to say, he was a ruthless and power-hungry individual.

And then came Watergate. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to one to three years in federal prison.

In the midst of all that political and legal turmoil, Chuck Colson experienced a personal conversion to Jesus Christ—a conversion, incidentally, that was scoffed at by most people in the secular media.

They didn’t believe that he would change; they didn’t believe that he could change.

But he did. So much so that many years later, when Mike Wallace asked him during a 60 Minutes interview, “Chuck, how do you now look back on Watergate?” the former hatchet man responded, “Mike, I thank God for Watergate, because I learned the greatest lessons of my life. The teaching of Jesus is true. He who seeks to save his life will lose it. He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

Chuck Colson served seven months of his 1-3 year prison term, but in a certain sense he never left prison. I say that because in 1976, he founded an organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries, which has since become one of the largest and most successful prison outreach programs ever, with over 40,000 volunteers who minister to prisoners, to ex-prisoners, and to prisoners’ families.

He even has satellite programs around the world in 112 countries!

Some people thought Chuck Colson’s conversion was an act. Many others thought it was superficial and wouldn’t last.

But it has!—to the point where he is now one of the most respected and admired evangelical Christians in the world.

Here was a man who had a call—a call that very few people ever experience: a call to serve at the right hand of the President of the United States.

And then he fell—big time!

But out of that painful fall came a genuine conversion. And that led to a brand new call.

That, my brothers and sisters, is the kind of thing God can do, when we respond to our falls with faith and with repentance. In other words, when we respond like the 11 apostles, and not like Jonah.