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Sermon | Here I am. (Don’t) send me.
Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
Speaker: Joel Miller
There’s something compelling about call stories. These are the experiences that move us to go on and do things we feel we must do, in service to the world.
I learned early on that pastors are frequently asked to tell their call story. So when did you feel called to be a pastor? This is perhaps because, of all people, pastors are expected to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. Or maybe it’s because most people assume nobody would actually want to be a pastor unless they’re really called. You know, unless God made them do it.
My typical answer to this question starts with the time around sixth grade when I was asked to preach a sermon at our little church. Not quite knowing what I was getting myself into, I decided to tackle the entire book of Job. I had a growing interest in the Bible and spirituality in high school and was encouraged by people I admired to consider being a pastor. There’s a lot more to it than that, but those were the early seeds. It’s always meant a lot to me that calling, if we’re going to stick with that term, comes from community and not just something I decided I wanted to do. Or maybe I’m still just trying to figure out the meaning of Job.
With Desmond Tutu’s recent death there have been a number of replays of interviews he had given. Terry Gross and Krista Tippet were a couple I listened to. One story he tells that impacted him greatly as a child was the first time he met the Anglican priest Trevor Huddleston. They were passing on the street and Huddleston, a White man, tipped his hat to Tutu’s mother, a Black woman, something that simply wasn’t done within apartheid South Africa. It left a deep impression, and Huddleston would go on to become one of the biggest influences in Desmond Tutu’s life.
Today’s lections from Isaiah and Luke both fall under the category of call stories.
Isaiah’s involves a great vision of the Divine Presence. “In the year king Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple.”
It’s not clear whether Isaiah is actually in the Jerusalem temple, or whether it’s more like a dream. Either way it likely felt like the most real thing he’d ever experienced.
In reading over this again I was struck by the use of the word fill that shows up three times. This is a call story about fullness.
In the prophet’s time, a king on a throne was the most majestic image they had in regards to glory and power. That’s what God looks like to Isaiah except it’s so majestic that even just the edge of the robe of God fills the entire temple. In other words, this house that symbolized a place of Divine dwelling could barely contain a little piece of God’s wardrobe. That’s the first fill.
There are fantastical angelic beings called seraphs, each with six wings. They’re flying around, calling out to one another:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Yahweh of Hosts. God’s presence fills all the earth.
That Hebrew word for presence has a lot of dimensions to it. It can also mean glory, honor, reverence, and more literally means weightiness. The Divine weighty, glorious awe-inspiring presence fills the whole earth. That’s the second fill.
And this is a big one. Now we’re not just talking about a temple, but everything, the whole earth. The Divine presence fills every tree and rock, ever salamander and whale, every cloud, every pool of water, every human face and every breath that maintains every life.
Finally, and perhaps a bit anticlimactically, we’re back to the temple, which keeps shaking - and filling – with smoke. Dense smoke is not the fire itself, but a sign that the flame is very near.
It all sounds pretty amazing, except that all that fullness is a little too much for Isaiah. And really, how could it not be? The Divine presence might fill the whole earth, but Isaiah doesn’t. And neither do we. We’re small finite creatures. Mortal. With doubts and imperfections, trying to find our way on an unmarked path. Often failing others and ourselves.
When confronted with the all-pervasive effervescent charge of Life itself, Isaiah, the great prophet of Israel, feels small and unworthy.
“Woe is me,” he says. “I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
But if the Divine Presence fills everything, that includes Isaiah too, even if that’s the one thing Isaiah can’t see. One of those seraph’s takes a live coal from the altar, flies on over to Isaiah, and touches it to his lips.
This is, after all, a call story. And God needs those lips to know that they too are full of glory. Guilt, sin, unworthiness – it all goes up in smoke and blows away.
Isaiah 6:8 “Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me.’”
Is this an eager “send me”? Enthusiastic and proud? Is it reluctant? Resigned? Is it certain or unconvinced? Is it full of the fullness it has just witnessed, or still just mostly lost?
Did all this happen at once or is this a condensed telling of a process that happened over many days or years for Isaiah?
We don’t know. What we do know is that Isaiah, even if he was feeling perhaps more lost than he ever had been, is embraced and called in his lost-ness. As if realizing he is indeed lost is what qualifies him for being this agent of God in the world. If we’re lost, there’s only one place we can be. We’re here. Right here. Even if we don’t know how here relates to there. “Here I am,” says Isaiah. And so this prophet-to-be makes himself available to this Presence that fills the whole earth.
If Isaiah’s call story is one of majestic transcendence, the calling of the first disciples is grounded in the practical and mundane. If Isaiah’s call smells like incense, the disciples’ call smells like lake water and fish.
Jesus is standing by the lake of Gennesaret, another name for the Sea of Galilee. He’s teaching, and the crowds are getting big, pressing in on him. He’s running out of room to stand. He sees a boat and figures he can get a bit of distance between himself and the crowds by getting on board and moving his pulpit out into the lake.
In this story, it’s unimportant what Jesus was teaching. We’re not even told. What’s significant is whose boat this was. It was Simon Peter’s, who is all of a sudden sharing his boat with this wandering teacher.
The teaching has ended, and the real lesson begins. It had been a bad night fishing, but Jesus wants them to give it a go another time. They push out into deep water, let down their nets one more time, and catch so many fish they have to call for help. The nets are almost ripping and the boats are filling up with fish. There’s that filling sub-theme again. And again, it’s too much. Like Isaiah, Simon Peter’s first reaction to being in a great presence is to feel deeply unworthy.
His response to Jesus: “Go away from me, Master, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus doesn’t seem concerned. He tells Peter to not be afraid. From now on it’s people they’re going to catch.
And it turns out all those fish aren’t the point of the story either. They get left behind for someone else to process and sell. That day Peter and Andrew, James and John, and likely a few unnamed others, get caught up in Jesus’ net of the kin-dom of God.
These stories come to us during a season when we’ve been forced to confront in an intensified way what it is we do on a daily basis – whether it be working inside or outside the home, parenting or grandparenting, studying, volunteering, or otherwise. Whether we have extra time to ponder these questions or whether we’re mostly just in survival mode.
The temptation of call stories can be that there’s just one right path for us in this world and if we haven’t discovered what that is yet that it’s another sign that we’re unworthy of it anyways. There may indeed be something that better suits your gifts or interests or personality, something much more fulfilling than what you’re doing now, but being called is much more than just finding the right job, or the right time to retire from that job.
We’re talking here about a Presence, a glory, a weightiness that fills all things. Fills temples with smoke, fills boats with fish, fills all the earth and all creation with the pulse of life. In that sense, there’s nothing we can do, no job or hobby, that doesn’t put us into contact with this Presence. Every task is an occasion to love. Every work an opportunity to witness glory.
Or, as Desmond Tutu learned young in life and practiced throughout his life, every human encounter a chance to convey dignity to the other.
We are in some sense, like Isaiah and Sarah, Peter and Mary Magdalene, unworthy of any of this. We are small. We are underprepared and unqualified. We fear vulnerability and the unknown. If we get right down to it, we are lost.
Jesus doesn’t argue with Peter about whether or not he’s worthy. The angels don’t argue with Isaiah about whether he has unclean lips. Jesus says “Do not be afraid.” The angel touches Isaiah with a mere coal of the altar all aflame with God. The Spirit is always calling. No one and everyone is worthy.
The whole earth is filled with Divine glory, which means we are too, even if that’s the hardest thing of all to see.