Today’s post is by guest blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, a pastoral worker and writer and living in Albany, New York. Fran is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and most recently to a new compilation, A Stranger, And You Welcomed Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B from Clear Faith Publishing. She blogs at There Will Be Bread (breadhere.wordpress.com).
Today’s liturgical readings can be found by clicking here.
“Come after me.” (Mark 1:17)
With the door of my heart ajar, but not quite open, I reluctantly returned to church after a long absence. The door of my mind was also open, but barely a crack. Although a lover of God, I was skeptical of the institution. Despite my discomfort, I went along with returning pretty quickly, surprising myself as well as those around me. That was 30 years ago. Whenever I reflect on today’s Gospel, where the fishermen just leave their boats, I always think, what on earth would make anyone drop what they were doing and just go?
In today’s first liturgical reading Jonah, so previously averse to following God that he found himself in the belly of a whale, finally agrees to God’s plan and begins his journey across Nineveh where in record time he converts the large city. The least expected person becomes the agent of change in God’s hands. In today’s gospel we see something similar. When Jesus approaches some unlikely fishermen, saying “Come after me,” they do so – just like that, no whale required. And like Jonah, the former fishermen end up transforming the world, as they have continued to do for succeeding generations.
God seems to be fond of dubious characters to do God’s work. Typically it is never the high and mighty, but the lowly, the marginalized, or just the most ordinary humans that God invites into the picture. Sometimes it is the most scandalous person that gets the call, like the Samaritan woman or Zacchaeus. God’s got an eye on all of us, persistently pursuing the most unexpected candidates!
We are constantly surprised that evidence of prior belief, or piety, or social status is not required. When the Lord wants our attention, little gets in the way other than our own intransigence. The primary requirement is willingness, even if it’s only marginal. God’s kingdom is not a closed club for the very best people, but a place where we are all transformed by love, service, and inclusion – if we follow.
Yet, even for those who drop what they are doing to go, things can get in the way. Attempting to follow Jesus may lead you to find the door guarded by someone who won’t let you in. Or they let you in only to attempt to shame and demean you because you do not fit in. This has happened to many LGBTQ Catholic seekers. Such gatekeeping was a stumbling block for me all those years ago when I returned. Although I am a cisgender, heterosexual woman, my life has always been full of people from across the spectrum, many of them gay. In fact, if not for some of my gay friends, I might never have found my way back to church – and I certainly would not have stayed. I can still hear the voice of a gay friend, urging me on, telling me to “trust God, go deeper into the Eucharist, and be a light for others. Maybe we will all be surprised at what we find!” If he could say this and stay, how could I not do the same?
Jesus says, “Come after me.” It’s comprehensive. No one is left out. I cannot help but believe that all are welcome: the arrogant, humble, haughty, poor, self-righteous, saintly, educated, divorced, attractive, unchurched, well-connected, LGBTQ, and so many more. When called by Christ, we are asked to go – full stop. Jesus never pulls out a list of qualifications of eligibility for the initial “yes.” Perhaps God uses those who appear the most implausible as a powerful reminder that we are all the least likely. Societal or religious respectability is a veneer.
Of course Jesus also says to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” but why should we think that command is exclusively or even primarily about sex or sexuality? And isn’t there room for the fruits of the Spirit in our teachings about sexuality and marriage? We are all challenged to change. Whatever we show up with, we all need to ask what changes do we truly need to make? Hard hearts, rigid viewpoints, and cold rejection are not the fruit of repentance and belief in the Gospel.
Respecting the dignity of all human persons is much deeper and requires an open heart. Do we want a church where only a certain few are worthy? A church where we compete to see who gets voted off the island? Or a church that gathers sinners – which we all are – and transforms one and all together in love?
As someone who believes that our salvation is utterly dependent on everyone, I’m left dreaming of a bigger and more welcoming church. When Jesus says “Come after me” I say, grab your friends and loved ones to go with you. Demands for change will be thrust upon all of us–that’s God’s work. Our work is to follow Jesus, helping one another as we go. Christ, the ultimate fisherman, casts the widest net. Better it should strain from being overly full, than from a meager catch. The invitation is clear, following Christ will change us, but only if we say yes, and then let it happen – according to his will, not our own.
–Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, January 24, 2021