Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
A Psalm of David.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
On Being Sent
I think a good argument can be made that the book of Isaiah has influenced Christianity more than most other books in the Hebrew Bible. When early Christians turned to Hebrew Scripture to try to understand the life and ministry of Jesus, they often looked to Isaiah. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus first seems to explain his mission, he quotes the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."Scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp also reminds us that during Advent, when we speak of a child called Immanuel, that is "God with us," we are quoting a prophecy of Isaiah. Whenever we talk about the importance of the Messiah, we are building upon the work of Isaiah who first described an anointed ruler who would come from the line of David and would restore the nation of Judah. And, according to Blenkinsopp, whenever we read a description of God's people surviving and even triumphing despite being pitted against all of the world's great powers in later Hebrew Scripture or the New Testament, we are reading echoes of Isaiah. If we are going to spend some time with a Hebrew prophet in hopes of learning something more about the Gospel, Isaiah is a good place to start.
We're starting by learning how Isaiah became a prophet of God. As prophet call stories go, this is a pretty interesting one. In some ways, it is a lot like other call stories. Like the stories of Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah reports an encounter with the Divine. In this case, Isaiah describes a presentation of God that is designed to show God as a kind of ruler that is very different than earthly ruler. God is so grand that the hem of God's royal robe can fill the whole temple in Jerusalem. Unlike earthly rulers, whose attendants are mere humans, God's difference as ruler is demonstrated by God's supernatural attendants. God's attendants are called Seraphs, which literally means "burning ones." Their grandeur nearly matches God's. They are described as having six wings, two sets of which they use to protect their tender body parts from the sheer energy or power or whatever it is that emanates from God. These Seraphs are a choir, and they sing a refrain that may be familiar to you: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory." So thunderous was their song that the walls of the temple shook. The temple even filled with smoke, perhaps from the burnt offerings of the faithful.
Like other prophets, Isaiah grows concerned that he is unworthy to be in God's presence. He says that he is a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips. And, yet, despite feeling as though he is not worthy, he is amazed that he has seen God. "Yet, my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then, one of the Seraphs flies to him and offers him a way to feel clean before God, a ritual where the seraph takes a live coal and puts it to Isaiah's lips. Have your lips ever burned with words you felt like you just had to say. Maybe this felt something like that. Or, maybe it was more like when you drink hot coffee and it immediately wakes you up. Either way, the seraph told Isaiah that his sin was no more... it was blotted out. And, immediately after this ritual, Isaiah, for the first time, heard the voice of God.
It is this next part of the story that diverges from other call stories. In many other call stories, God calls a person by name and the person responds. We can look to Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and Samuel as examples of people who respond when God calls them out. But, scholar Patricia Tull points out that that's not what happens here. God never says Isaiah's name. God simply asks a question, seemingly to the seraphs: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" God doesn't seem to have one particular person in mind like God did in those other call stories. And, here we have Isaiah, who just moments earlier felt unclean and unworthy, piping up and saying, "Here am I; Send me!" And, it turns out that God takes volunteers. God says, ok. You want a shot. Go and take my words to your people.
I have been thinking about this burst of prophetic volunteerism all week. I can't help but think about what would inspire me... inspire us, to jump up and say, "Send me" when we hear God asking for volunteers to go speak to God's people. I've been trying to think about this in terms of how we can re-imagine and reinvigorate our sense of mission and vision. Like, I've been trying to think of some new ministries can we develop that get us so excited that we jump up and say, "Send me!" when we hear about them. The thing is, though, I've been kind of distracted. I've had a hard time thinking about Gospel volunteer opportunities here in Winthrop because I've spent a lot of time worrying about a bunch of volunteers who have been gathering in another church in another small town thousands of miles from here. Each morning since last weekend, volunteers have been showing up at First Baptist Church in Wimberley, Texas. They've heard a call, too, but this time, rather than hear a call for prophets, they heard a call to find the missing. It has been muddy, bug-infested, heart-breaking work. But, they were not promised that it would be easy. They were just told that it was necessary. And, they stood up and said, "Send me."
The last time Tasha and I went to central Texas, when we drove by the Blanco River, it wasn't much more than a wide, shallow stream. The drought has been so bad for the last 5 years that even large lakes have nearly dried up. To help give you some perspective, Medina Lake, which is about an hour from Wimberley, was usually about 5 times bigger than Maranacook. Until last week, it has been so dry that was 5 times smaller than Maranacook. Then, the rains came. Enough rain to fill make Medina Lake twice the size of Maranacook. Nearly a foot of rain dumped on cities and towns in this huge swath of the central plains, hitting parts of Oklahoma, Central Texas, and northern states in Mexico. Car, trucks, even whole houses were swept away by the rapidly falling river. Thirty-one people have died in Texas and Oklahoma. Fourteen have died in Mexico. Eleven people are still missing in Texas. The governor has declared 47 counties to be disaster areas. If you heard today's reading from Psalm 29 and wonder what the breaking of the cedars of Lebanon might sound like, I bet you could find someone in central Texas who could tell you.
Remember how Jesus said that the heart of the law is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself? Well, hundreds of volunteers in Central Texas are taking up the call to love their neighbors, and have been looking for all of the missing people. In Wimberley, this means that they meet up at the Baptist church or the high school. Many of the volunteers are friends or family of the missing. Some, like Irasema Rivera, know what it's like to lose someone they love with no explanation. Rivera, who's brother disappeared years ago and was never found, said she wanted to help because, "You want to know. You just want to know." The volunteers sort out donated bottles of water and make their way down muddy river banks, hoping for signs of life while being fully aware that they may find instead the bodies of the dead. John Charba, one of the volunteers, said this about his time working with the others, "It's inspiring, and in brings to me a sense of family and community that I didn't know was out there." John's cousin Randy is still missing, as is Randy's six year old son, William. They have found the body of Randy's wife Michelle. Her body was found because the call for help went out, and someone answered, "Send me."
I really hope that the people who have suffered in the wake of these storms don't think God made the storms happen to punish them. That way of thinking about God bubbles up in times of trauma when people are looking for answers to unanswerable and hard questions about why disasters happened. Some may look to Psalm 29 or even other parts of Isaiah that fall after our reading for today to show that God creates these disasters for a reason. But, Psalm 29 was written about the first thunderstorms of the fall, the rains that allowed the people of Israel to have enough water to farm and drink after a long rainy season. It was not written about a storm sent to punish people. It was a powerful gift. My hope is that rather than seeing God as punishing people through disasters, instead, people would see God as present in the pain alongside the broken and wounded. After all, God knows what it is to lose a son. And, God, through Christ, knows what it is to suffer alongside humanity. And, God, through the Holy Spirit, is what calls out to us, "Whom shall I send?" and, then gives us the courage to respond with "Here I am. Send me!" So, yes, God is there in the storm, but not to break humanity, but to connect us to one another and to the Divine so that we can survive when these disasters strike.
The people in central Texas that I've talked about today know that you don't always hear your call from God sitting on a big throne. Sometimes you hear God through the pain of your neighbors. While they might not be prophets, they are living into a holy calling of love and compassion with each muddy step they take. I pray that all of us, prophets or not, can hear God's calling, even if we don't feel worthy or prepared. I prayer that we can be ready to say, "Send me."
Works that Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Patricia Tull's commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2458
J. Clinton McCann's commentary on Psalm 29- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2453
Karoline Lewis, "The Necessity of Three"- https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3627
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993),
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=629
Manny Fernandez and Richard Pérez-Peña, "Hundreds Form Search Parties to Seek Survivors in Texas Floods," http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/28/us/texas-oklahoma-louisiana-storms.html?_r=0
"Coming, this Weekend, for South and Central Texas: Up to Five Inches of Rain," http://tpr.org/post/coming-weekend-south-and-central-texas-5-inches-rain
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.