When you go for a job interview what do you talk about? Your qualifications, your accomplishments, your abilities — all the things you can do which would make a positive contribution to the company. When you enroll in school what do they ask for? Your academic achievements, your past performance, your potential for future success — the gifts and talents you possess. How do you try out for the ball team? You fun fast, you jump high, you score more. You make the team by being bigger, stronger, faster. But when we look at the Bible we find that God goes about things a little bit differently. How does Isaiah go about his job interview with God? Does he tell his qualifications, his abilities, his accomplishments? NO! Quite to the contrary, Isaiah says how wretched he is: “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” How does Paul go about enrolling in the College of Apostles? Does he list his achievements, his performance, his potential? NO! Quite to the contrary, Paul points out how unqualified he is: “I am the least of the apostles; in fact because I persecuted the church of God, I do not deserve the name.” How does Peter get on the Jesus team? Does he prove to be bigger and stronger and better? NO! Quite to the contrary, Peter confesses his unworthiness: “Leave me, Lord. I am a sinful man.” God seems to have chosen those who were unfit for the roles they were to play in the divine plan. Yet despite their wretchedness, their lack of qualifications, their unworthiness, by God’s grace they were what they were.
Think for a moment how God’s way of operating changes the way we view our particular role in the church. There is a great temptation to sit back and imagine that the work of God goes forward because of the good people, the holy people, the worthy people. The monks, the nuns, the popes: they must be the ones God will use. But what, in fact, are the job qualifications which the scripture spoke of today in mentioning our heroes, Isaiah, Paul, Peter? How would the classified ad in the paper look?
WANTED: to be a worker for God either as a prophet or as an apostle. Must be a person of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. Must have done things which make you unworthy of the name. Must be a sinner. For further information call Et cum spiri- 220.
Is there anybody here who doesn’t meet those qualifications? When we look at Isaiah, at Paul, at Peter we see folk remarkably like ourselves. Yet God used them to bring about the kingdom of heaven. Our stories, messy and sinful as they are, are no different from the prophets and apostles. We can be fairly certain that if God used the likes of them, God can use the likes of us to be the agents of divine life in our day as much as they were in theirs. We start off every Mass confessing our sins — not so we’ll feel bad but to present the qualifications we share with Isaiah, Paul and Peter.
Well, if it isn’t goodness, or holiness, or sanctity which makes one fit for a role in the divine plan what does it take? Let’s look at the three stories today to see the criteria which God does use. First of all, to be a fit instrument for God we have to be willing to listen. Isaiah listened at prayer. He was taking time out of his life to give God some room. So the divine encounter occurs. Paul is attentive to the Scriptures. He handed on to others “what first of all I myself received.” Since Paul listened to the scriptures and to the traditions handed down to him, he could recognize the call of God. And Peter listened to the Master telling him to try again. He had worked hard all night but was willing to trust in the word of Christ which came to him. If we want to discover what God wants of us we must listen at prayer like Isaiah, we must listen to the scriptures and the traditions handed down to us like Paul, we must listen to the instructions which Jesus presents like Peter. It is attentive listening that makes one capable of discovering what we are to do for God.
The second step: to fulfill our role as God intends we must be willing to change, even when change is difficult. Isaiah finds that God is capable of burning away the wickedness of his life. Paul has to go up to those who were persecuting and confess, “I was wrong, you were right.” Peter has to admit that he doesn’t know it all, that the way had always fished wasn’t necessarily the best way. We all have ways of operating which can inhibit the divine plan. There are patterns of selfishness that need to be burned away. There are grudges and resentments that need forgiving. There is stubbornness and impatience we must surrender. But if we are willing to change, if we are willing to let God change us, we take the second step on our way to fulfilling our role in the kingdom of God.
The next step is obvious: we have to be willing to act. Isaiah volunteers, “Here I am, send me!” Paul says even though he was “born out of the normal course” he worked harder than all the others through the favor of God. Peter leaves behind his boat because he has bigger fish to fry. Action is the constant story of the Church. When God thought, “Who will give hope to the slaves by helping them on the Underground Railroad,” Harriet Tubman, all five feet and ninety-eight pounds of her, said: “Here I am, send me.” When God thought, “Who will advance social justice and civil rights in the United States,” Martin Luther King, Jr, the youngest and most inexperienced pastor in the city of Montgomery said: “Here I am, send me.” When God thought, “Who will be able to heal South African of its racism and apartheid,” Nelson Mandela, who had been breaking rocks in prison for the past twenty-seven years said: “Here I am, send me.” When God thought, “Who will help the Church to find a way to celebrate that one can be authentically black and truly Catholic,” young Bertha Bowman of Canton, Mississippi, not even a Catholic yet, said (on her way to becoming Sister Thea): “Here I am, send me.” When God thinks, who will help the church in Chicago to become more alive, more filled with good news, more helpful to the needy, more welcoming to the seekers, more merciful toward the lost – when God thinks that what do the people of St. James and St. Edna say?