Kicking and Screaming

By David Harrison

Kicking and Screaming.

That’s probably the best way I can describe how it was to be sent by the diocesan powers to be to Port Hope, Ontario in May of 1999 to take up the position of assistant curate of St. John’s Anglican Church.

Kicking and screaming.

Maybe not literally (although close, at times). But certainly metaphorically. We were nicely settled in our first home in the east end of Toronto. Our twin daughters had just turned one. My wife Mary Lou had a challenging new position with the Government of Ontario. Surely, having gone through four and a half years working on my Master of Divinity, with part-time studies and two educational leaves of absence from my own position in the Ontario civil service, God – the bishop – someone could find me a curacy in Toronto where we could hold onto to at least some modicum of family and personal stability.

But no. Port Hope it was. Into a tiny bungalow which smelled of mold and where nicotine poured down the walls whenever someone had a shower or plugged in the kettle. To a small town of 12,000 for a couple who had lived their entire lives in Toronto. With two one-year-old babies where we had no friends, nor family, to support us. To a parish unlike any parish I had ever experienced or attended.

Kicking and screaming was how Jonah went to Nineveh. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time” our first reading begins. The whole story is that when the word of the Lord came to Jonah the first time, Jonah ran the other way. He had no interest at all in going to proclaim repentance to the people of Nineveh. Instead of heading east, he headed west and hops a ship. And, when a storm arises, Jonah has the opportunity to spend three days and three nights in the belly of a large fish, pondering his fate.

And so, when the Lord calls him a second time, Jonah (reluctantly) goes to Nineveh and proclaim the need for repentance. He obeys, but grudgingly.

Calling is a theme woven through this morning’s readings. We sometimes call it “vocation”. In the context of scripture, and in our context, this is about our calling by God, for it is God who does the calling. To Jonah.  To Simon and Andrew, as they were casting their nets into the sea. To James and to John, who were mending their nets. “Come”, Jesus says. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Go, Jonah, to Nineveh and proclaim. Go, David Harrison, to small-town Ontario, for that is where you will begin your ordained ministry.

But lest we think that vocation is just about the calling of God of biblical characters or clergy, vocation – calling – God’s calling and vocation – is for each of us. Two Sundays ago we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his adult presence and ministry. And then last Sunday and this, our readings draw our attention to calling – to how God calls people to do some very specific things.

Yes, sometimes, that calling will be about “what we do for a living”. But not always. It isn’t clear that Simon and Andrew, James and John, ever stopped being fishermen. But they were willing, at the moment that Jesus called them, to leave their nets and follow him. And much awaited them in pursing that vocation.

Our calling might be to a particular volunteer commitment. It might be to a new way of life. It might be to a position far less prestigious and well-paying. It might to be a particular avenue of service. It might be hugely public, or intensely private. It might play itself within the Church; it may be in the secular world. It might take us an hour a week, or 50 hours a week. We might be called by God to a range of different things.

And it might, at times, be supremely annoying. Jonah was annoyed. He actually didn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent. He actually wants the whole lot of them to pay for their sinfulness, and so when God eventually has a change of heart and saves them, Jonah is thoroughly put out.

Among my responsibilities to the wider Church, I a member of the diocesan postulancy committee, which chooses and guides those preparing for ordination in the Diocese of Toronto. The key question we ask ourselves of each applicant is this: “Does this person have a calling – a vocation – to be a priest of the Church in the Diocese of Toronto?” Everything else hinges on that discernment of calling.

But it is, may I emphasize, not that all ministry in the Church is that of the ordained. It is one particular form of ministry – ministry of leadership, a ministry of Word and sacrament. But the Church’s ministry is all of ours. Our liturgical ministries are wide and varied – readers, musicians, intercessors, greeters and sidespeople, servers, the altar guild, the vital ministry of hospitality at coffee hours and potluck. Our ministry includes pastoral care, teaching, guiding, outreach, social justice, governance, overseeing the treasury. It is all “ministry”, and the call into these various kinds and forms and shapes of ministry is to each one of us, and it is a call from God.

It is a call to enter into the saving work of the good news of Christ. Henri Nouwen, priest and spiritual writer, puts it this way: “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

A real sense of urgency is also woven throughout this morning’s readings. The four fishermen  respond without a moment’s thought or hesitation, immediately leaving their nets to follow Jesus. Jonah’s response takes more time but God’s call is persistent. (Indeed, that is another aspect of God’s calling. God keeps calling.) And although our brief second reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is not explicitly about calling, it is about urgency. For Paul, it is a real sense of urgency that it will not be long until Christ comes again and so he is exhorting the Corinthians to live with that sense of urgency – “let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

To our ears, this sense of urgency seems strange, and even misplaced. Paul was wrong, on the surface. And yet there is still real spiritual insight to be gained. Martin Luther, indeed, offered this comment on this text: “We must not sink too deeply into either love or desire, or suffering or boredom, but should rather behave like guests.” In other words, we are called to live lightly, to hold things lightly, to be deeply aware that we passing through this world – we are, in a sense, guests. Guests, though, charged with the calling of caring for and attending to the needs of the world, the needs of our sisters and brothers, the needs of the Church, Christ`s incarnate Body.

The Rev. Canon David Harrison is rector of St. Mary Magdalene’s Anglican Church, Toronto.


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