At my previous pastoral assignment, I was fortunate to have the Little Sisters of Gulu, Uganda each year as the Diocesan Missionary Cooperative Plan Partner for the parish community. The Little Sisters are a Congregation of women religious founded by the Diocese of Gulu as an outreach ministry to the people who were harmed and displaced by the decades-long civil war in Uganda.
After several years of contributing to the construction of a residence building for the women and children who had been held captive by the insurgents, I was informed that the Sister who usually preached on behalf of the Missionary Cooperative Plan collection would not be visiting us during that particular year. The residence building had been completed. Now, the Sisters were collecting people instead of money. All of the members of the Sisters’ community were traveling around the region affected by the war; they were collecting people to fill the residential treatment center that our contributions had helped to build.
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus instructs his newly chosen disciples to collect people, as well. Jesus called two sets of brothers who, until that point in time, had been partners in a fishing business. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mt. 4:19)
“Fishers of men” is a strange sounding phrase, even though we know it was addressed to professional fishermen. The awkwardness of the phrase owes to the lack of familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures on the part of Jesus’ disciples today. Jesus was paraphrasing a line from the prophet Jeremiah. Within a long exposition of the prophetic nature of Jeremiah’s life, God said, “I will send many fishermen to catch them. After that, I will send many hunters to hunt them out from every mountain and hill and rocky crevice.” (Jer. 16:16 NABRE) God was promising that all those who had been scattered by idolatry and war would be gathered together again. Jesus paraphrased that Divine promise, indicating that the time had come for God to gather together the lost and wandering faithful.
Every time I read this Gospel passage, I think of the Little Sisters of Gulu, Uganda and their missionary journey to collect displaced women and children, and former boy soldiers, in order to fill their newly constructed residence building. The Little Sisters collected people, just as Jesus’ first disciples had been instructed to do. This remains both the task of Jesus’ disciples today and the test of true discipleship: to gather the lost and abandoned, to bring sinners back to God, to assemble a congregation which will give authentic worship to God.
If one wants to claim faith in Jesus, then one must show evidence that one imitates the example of Jesus’ first disciples. “Faith” remains theoretical unless one actually gathers together the lost and forsaken. Virtue remains merely an aspiration unless one actually helps to reconcile sinners to God. Religious practice is completely empty unless one helps to form a faithful congregation which gives appropriate worship to God.
There is a slightly clunky phrase in an old hymn entitled, “The Summons” by John L. Bell. The hymn asks the rhetorical question, “Should your life attract or scare?” I’ve met people whose lives scare rather than attract. Obviously, the lives of all of Jesus’ disciples should give a sufficiently persuasive witness that outcasts, sinners, and the unjust will be attracted to faith in God.
In our parish, there is a wide variety of opportunities for practicing faithful discipleship. Some volunteer opportunities, such as the hospitality ministry, require less than an hour a month of one’s time. Others, like the Children’s Faith Formation program are weekly commitments. The volunteers of the St. Vincent de Paul Society take turns being on-call to help those in financial need in our area.
There are many more opportunities beyond the boundaries of our parish. Cooking a meal for the residents of Pinellas Hope, volunteering at the Hospice facility on Tampa Road, driving for Meals on Wheels provide a great service to the local community. More importantly, these activities can be, for Jesus’ faithful disciples, responses to Jesus’ call to gather the lost, reconcile sinners, and offer appropriate worship to God.
Jesus still calls the faithful to follow him. God still promises to redeem those who fulfill God’s will. It still remains each person’s responsibility to respond to the call and the promise. Today, you are being called to seek out the lost, reconcile the sinner, and form a worshiping community. What effect should your life have on your local environment?