A little over a month ago, residents of two communities were struck by a major disaster. Tropical Typhoon Wasi, better known in the Philippines as Typhoon Sendong, was a late-season tropical cyclone that caused catastrophic damage to the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, in the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
Hundreds of unsuspecting victims perished in that tragedy and because it happened in the middle of the night, some literally “died in their sleep”.
Media coverage about the December 16 and 17 tragedy were immediately made available worldwide. One video, taken the day after the calamity, was about the rescue made by four sailors dispatched by the captain of their vessel upon their gaining sight of persons floating alongside tons of debris. This video captured the touching moment of the saving miracle through the hands of these four able bodied sailors.
What caught my attention in this video was how this particular girl, the last one to be picked up, had difficulty in clinging to the lifesaver buoy thrown at her. The reason behind that difficulty was because she was holding on to a box of something she must have considered very important.
She grasped it as though her life depended on it as it did quite literally. She had hard time letting go of the box but finally did after being repeatedly coached to let go of it. Then and only then was she able to haul herself up to the boat safe and sound. Only then was she able to benefit the more important opportunity to enjoy life, which she could have easily lost, had she continued holding on to that box rather than the lifesaver buoy.
This video is a good example of the sad reality of how people, especially at times of calamity, desperately try to salvage things that they consider important. And I’m sure you must have seen similar images.
From the ones I’ve seen in the past, there was one who tried to save a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; one old man was carrying a baby girl and then there was one that, of all things he could have picked up, tried to save a “piglet”. It must have been the most important thing he could think of.
Indeed, there are those times when we’re pressured to take with us things that we think will benefit us in the event that we survive; things that we might have guarded too well; the ones we consider the most precious. While they may have been our choicest possessions, there are times when they, too, might have to be intentionally left behind along with the ones that, by necessity, have already been. A reality check will tell us that sometimes, leaving something behind can be one of the most difficult things we will ever do.
Two of our Lectionary Readings for this 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany are stories of “leaving behind”. The first comes from the Gospel lesson (Mark 1:14-20) and is easy to notice. Here we find Simon and Andrew “leaving behind” their nets upon their invitation by Jesus to become fishers of people. There’s also James and John, sons of Zebedee, who not only “left behind” nets and their boat, symbols of their trade, but also the very symbol of family, Zebedee, their father. The second “leaving behind” story, however, is not as clear as the first. It actually is “imbedded” in the Jonah Story, assigned as our OT Reading for today (Jonah 3:1-5,10). I used the word “imbedded” to connote that it’s there somewhere, hidden, assumed, buried. We need to dig it out and perhaps a good way of doing it is to take a refresher look at the whole Jonah story.
The Book of Jonah is fairly short; four short chapters. When you get the time, please read the entire book so you’d appreciate more this “leaving behind” that I’m talking about.
Jonah was a Jew and a true believer of God. He knew that his God was a loving and forgiving God. Jonah knew that his God is capable of welcoming back those who have turned their back at him as well as those who have not known Him yet. This was what Jonah was afraid of when he was first asked by the Lord to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. He knew that the LORD will get His way and so he fled from Him.
And why would he disobey what the LORD wanted him to do? Remember Jonah was a good Jew, one among those who believed that they were God’s chosen people. On the other hand, the people of Ninevah were the Gentiles, “those” people. So, why would a good Jew like Jonah preach for their repentance? He’d rather see them doomed to perdition. A good Jew, at that time, would rather see them end that way. He must have been deeply worried that if “those” people would indeed turn to the LORD, the Ninevites would then be among them, the chosen ones and you bet, Jonah thought he better flee from the LORD.
That’s the reason why he wanted to flee from the LORD the first time. But the loving and forgiving God would not quit. As the story is played out in Chapter 1, Jonah fled to Tarshish, got into a huge storm, got tossed out and finally ended up in the belly of this great fish where he had his “discernment” and his conversion.
It’s in his prayers, in Chapter 2, where Jonah began to consider “leaving behind” all that smug-like Jewish mindset that he, and his fellow Jew, treasured. It was in those prayers that Jonah, who was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, had to slowly let go of his “treasure box” and attempt to cling onto the fullness of life that was behind the LORD’s command for him to go to Nineveh.
It’s then with this frame of mind that we read Jonah’s story in our Old Testament Reading today. It is here where we find Jonah’s initial “letting go”. Jonah “followed” the LORD’s command but was not in a very convincing way. While walking through the breadth of the city of Nineveh, a good three days’ travel, Jonah casually said: ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ I could picture Jonah’s call to repentance to be mild and bland.
We assume that Jonah’s obeying of the LORD’s command the second time might show his complete “leaving behind” of his initial resentment of the Ninevites. The truth is that Jonah’s letting go was “wishy-washy”. It was on and off. If we go to the last chapter of the book of Jonah, there we find that he was not really completely sold out to the idea of “leaving behind” whatever he held against the Ninevites. He was not at all pleased at the fact that the Ninevites repented. Jonah resented God’s change of heart and it showed how that process can take a heavy toll.
My dear friends in Christ, these three “leaving behind” stories have something to tell us. We, too, have our own “leaving behind” stories and they can be either difficult or relatively easy, depending on what it is that we’re leaving behind.
An example of the easy ones could be “leaving behind” that extra pair of pants or that matching blouse and skirt that just wouldn’t fit in your luggage. You know you could say, as the Italians in New York would say: “Forget about it”.
But what if you had to leave your home and had to stay in a nursing facility? Or what if you were forced to relocate for work, leaving all of your family and friends miles and miles away? Or what if you had to end a relationship because it no longer works? Or what if you had to leave your parish so you could be closer to family? I know how difficult these questions could get and there are others that are even more difficult.
What I think makes it difficult is when we do it because we choose to do it. Leaving things or relationships behind because we don’t have any choice might make it a lighter burden as compared to doing it as a matter of choice.
Both the Jonah Story and the call of Simon, Andrew and the brothers James and John are lessons we can learn from. They are passages in which God called people to serve Him. And this “calling” involved following God’s voice wherever it led. In both situations, accepting God’s invitation required a stepping out in faith. “Being faithful” did not mean simply believing certain things. It meant going on a journey, a faith journey to be exact, one in which they couldn’t “take” everything with them. Some things had to be left behind.
And while some of the things we have to leave behind are of practical value, there are those that aren’t necessarily so obvious. This is especially true with our spiritual journey; we have to leave some things behind. We need to leave all those things that hinder us from fulfilling our mission to be God’s partners in making sure that the “former ways of the world will pass away.”
The life we are invited to embrace is a “new” life and, in many ways, like the lifesaver buoy in our first “leaving behind” story. Fortunately, we, too, can do exactly what that girl did. Having to leave that box behind is painful, but she did it for one reason. She knew that her life is what is most important.
In our pursuit for a genuine life in Christ, we need to leave our “treasure box”, our “nets” and our “trade” so we can cling on to God’s “lifesaver buoy” thrown at us, again and again.