Easter 2, Year C
Readings: Acts 9:1–20; Psalm 30; (Revelation 5:11–14); John 21:1–19
Malala Yousafzai will be sixteen in July. She has been nominated in a worldwide petition for the Nobel Peace Prize. She has been an activist for girls’ education in Pakistan since she was twelve. At first she wrote an anonymous blog, but then the BBC came to do a documentary about her. You may remember that a Taliban assassin tried to kill her recently. What call did she hear to become an activist? Why her and not the girl two doors down? Why not all the twelve years olds in her town of Mingora, up in the foothills of the Himalayas.
In 1995, when Craig Kielburger was twelve years old, he saw a headline in the paper about a Pakistani boy, Iqbal Masih. The headline read “Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered.” The story told how Masih was forced into bonded labour in a carpet factory at the age of four, became an international figurehead for the fight against child labour by twelve years of age, and was then murdered. Kielburger got angry and began researching child labour. He took the article to school, a Catholic school in Richmond Hill, gathered friends his age and together they founded a group that evolved into "Free the Children." That group has become an international organization that has forty-five countries participating in helping the world become a better place.
Malala and Craig’s stories raise the whole question of call. Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu from Albania was fascinated by stories of missionaries to Bengal. When she was twelve (what is it with twelve year olds?), she decided to become a nun. When she entered the Sisters of Loreto at age twenty-one, she took the name Teresa. By then she was teaching in India. At her second school, in suburban Kolkata (Calcutta), she experienced first the 1943 famine in the area, then the intense conflict between Muslims and Hindus during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1948. She was noticing the plight of the poor more and more.
Something happened while she was on her way by train from Kolkata to Darjeeling, on her annual retreat. Here’s how she describes her road to Damascus experience: "I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.” She called it “the call within the call.” She ended up leaving the Loreto Sisters and forming the Missionaries of Charity. Its mission was, in her own words, to "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." Sister Teresa was on her way to becoming Mother Teresa. But by “all those who feel shunned by everyone,” did she mean everyone including the LGBTQ community, or women who found themselves pregnant but did not want to have a baby? Also, she never felt a call to ask the why question: why are they hungry, naked, homeless, crippled, unwanted, unloved, shunned?
She went through at least two re-orientations, to become a nun in the first place, and then to discover a vocation with the poor, but perhaps, like Peter, she needed a third call, or a third and fourth. The word orientation is because of the orient, the east, where the rising sun appears. If I know where the sun rises, I can figure out all the other directions. Malala Yousafzai, Craig Kielburger, Mother Teresa, Saul/Paul, Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael of Cana, the sons of Zebedee– it’s about call today, re-orientation, turning to the feeding of sheep, caring for the flock. It’s not just these people, of course, or even famous people. It’s about us. What is our orientation, and are we facing in the direction we are meant to go?
It’s not about sexual orientation, today, although we could talk about that a little bit, too. It looks like I can’t really get a new sexual orientation. If I’m hetero, bi, trans, homosexual, that seems to be it. Heaven knows people try. They try to change themselves, they try to change others. I’m not hearing that this can happen. What we need is for society to accept that, to re-orient itself. The kind of conversion, the kind of transformation our scriptures are speaking to today is to our outlook, our hearts, our souls. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out that it doesn’t have to happen all at once: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Can we turn toward, take another step toward "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, the unwanted, unloved, uncared for, shunned by everyone?" And what will it mean to undergo a transformation such as that? Having scales fall from our eyes is one thing. That’s just the first stage. Which sheep did we not notice as we first got re-oriented? How can we keep scales from re-occurring? How can we take the next step?
Saul was mingling with Christians all the time. It was his job, supposedly, to gather evidence so they could be prosecuted. He would have to infiltrate Christian groups. In the process of hunting down followers of Jesus, he seems to have gotten a little too close. Something happened. He ended up taking a new name and following the Way himself. Seventeen hundred years later, John Wesley wrote that “my heart was strangely warmed,” to describe his transformation.
Wesley, like Paul, like Teresa, was in transit when change began. He had been in America, a Church of England priest who went to preach to First Nations people in Georgia. That went poorly. He had to leave suddenly over a little incident to do with the affections of a woman who was betrothed to someone else. On the way home, he got talking to a Moravian on the ship. In those days it took six weeks to cross the Atlantic, not six hours, so there was time for an extended conversation. And then back in London, in a chapel in Aldersgate, Wesley had the life-changing experience that led to the appeal and spread of Methodism.
There was a story in the paper this week about an Iraqi woman, an architect, who can’t go back to her homeland because she has become an activist for women. One of the consequences of getting rid of Saddam’s harsh regime was that men freed from jail formed gangs to kidnap women to sell as sex slaves. Yanar Mohammed and a colleague, Nasik Ahmad, started organizing women to report on who had gone missing each day. She does her work here in Toronto, and communicates with the staff and volunteers back in Baghdad. Why does she do it? Three reasons: other feminists, supporters and co-workers who share her passion, and her own conviction about the cause. “I will not rest in peace until there are better conditions for women, and for the whole of Iraqi society.”
Many different ways to hear and answer the call, to get re-oriented. There’s no point coveting any of these people their conversions, though. The call to you is the call to you. How you are answering it, how you will answer it, that’s up to you. Personal experience seems to have a lot to do with getting re-oriented. “I was opposed to gays and lesbians until my son or daughter turned out to be one.” “I never liked those foreigners until I ended up working with one of them.” “I never thought my in-laws would be those kind of people until my child came home with a sweetie who was one.” And on it goes.
Personal experience doesn’t always work, or at least, not by itself. We probably all know someone who should have had a change of heart if personal experience was going to do it, and somehow clings to thoughts, feelings, opinions that are stuck.
No, if personal experience such as getting to know the other is the seed, that new acquaintance has to fall on fertile soil. There must be some readiness to let go of old notions and replace them with an open mind, an open heart. “Put our nets over the other side of the boat? It’s the same lake. What does he think that’s going to get us? Put them over the other side. What does he know about fishing?” Versus: “Put our nets over the other side? Sounds wacky, but you never know. We’ve tried everything else. It’s fish we want, after all, not status as expert fishers. Nothing ventured...”
We’re in the transformation business. What is happening for children around here, the eight year olds, the ten year olds? Do they know by the time their twelve that they are called to change the world? Are they in settings where they will be supported when scales from their eyes? Will someone be there to affirm them and show them what to look at with their new vision? We know that young people who have not committed themselves to the good, can make other choices by the time they are fifteen or seventeen or eighteen. And who else is in the transformation business with us? There are many, many allies to discover. There will be an Interfaith Walk toward the end of June where we can discover what we have in common with Muslim and Jewish lovers of peace. Then we walk a week later in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. We’re on the road, and anything can happen.
The old joke is “I must hurry and find the others, for I am their leader.” Which way are justice and peace headed, and how can we join that number?