A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
" . . . there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."
Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
The Princess was ill this week, and I spent most of my day off sitting on the couch with her while she watched old TV shows on one of Nickelodeon’s digital cable channels. We watched one my boys would call an old-fashioned favorite: Legends of the Hidden Temple. Teams of youngsters compete in quasi-athletic events in order to solve a mystery and win a prize. They wear helmets and swing on bungee cords and avoid water hazards and negotiate mazes. We laughed at the rubbery-lipped Sphinx that set tasks for the young competitors, but I also thought about Isaiah, and his hidden vision in the Temple, and about Peter and his public experience on the shore. Both stories meet our understanding of a legend, something that seems unlikely to be real or factual, yet proves to us the hero’s strength, resolve or destiny.
Willa Cather claimed there were “only two or three human stories,” and in Isaiah’s story we find five notes that create a model for discipleship and for worship.
The first note is our encounter with the presence of God. In the first verses of the Old Testament passage, Isaiah sees God as God is—enormous, all-encompassing, and powerful beyond words—this corresponds to our praising God at the beginning of worship, as we praise God with our opening prayers and hymn, and then invoke God’s presence among us.
On the second note, Isaiah sees himself as sinful—using the important words of his own time, he refers to himself as having unclean lips, “Woe is me!” he cries. We, too, admit our feelings of inadequacy when we lift up our Prayer of Confession on Communion Sundays.
On the third note, Isaiah sees himself as God sees him through the act of the seraphim, cleaned by the live coal. This purification represents God’s gift of grace to each of us; although we realize our weakness we experience God’s forgiveness, spoken in the Words of Assurance.
On the fourth note, Isaiah overhears God’s mission for him, something we hope to hear as we open the word in the reading of the scripture and, I hope, in the sermon.
Finally, Isaiah sees himself going forth into the world to serve God. We experience this in the closing hymn, which often speaks of our commitment, and in the commissioning words of the Benediction. Our service of worship does not simply end to be left behind and forgotten; it propels us into the world with a purpose. But of course this fifth note cannot be played without our acceptance, an assent to God’s call that I believe we show when we take the bread and the cup at Communion.
Isaiah and his vision feel far away from our reality, but if you’ve ever been in a boat on the water, or if you’ve ever tried to do something you know how to do and failed, if you’ve ever sat with a rod in your hand waiting for a nibble or un-knit a sweater to correct a mistake….then you have been in Peter’s sandals.
Peter hears the same five notes we found in Isaiah’s story. He sees the wonder of God in the overabundance of fish filling his boats, and immediately he acknowledges his own unworthiness. It is a very human, frank way of responding to God’s action. Peter sees the huge gap between his humanity and God’s power. His sense of sinfulness comes from fear. He might as well be saying, “Keep away, sir, for I am just a regular guy!! I don’t know how to cope with the reality of an all-powerful God! Even if I go to the synagogue and pray, I don’t really want God to come this close to me on a workday!”
But Jesus assures him that he will indeed be a disciple, a fisher for people, and Peter feels the acceptance that took the form of purifying with a hot coal for Isaiah. He gets up and follows his master.
You heard a few Sundays ago that I delayed my response to God’s call, but there was a time even after I began seminary that I “gave up” and tried to find some other way to be a faithful person. My marriage ended, my home sold, my children and I unsettled, I tried to return to school, but found the very slow pace frustrating. Then my father, the person on whose judgment I relied, died suddenly. After his death, I left school, seeking some other way to live my life. But the prospects that initially seemed so bountiful quickly proved to be as empty as Peter’s nets.
“God,” I argued, “how can a single woman with three young children possibly hope to finish seminary and go into parish ministry? Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful woman, weak and exhausted and not all that sure I trust you!”
But like Isaiah, I had heard the question, years before.
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!" (Isaiah 6:8)
It was Isaiah’s answer, and it was my answer, too, whether I liked it or not.
And so, at a time when I had taken some meager jobs in the theatre, while my relatives and friends were urging me to try selling real estate, I went out of town for a weekend, and while I was away, undisturbed by cats and children, I had a dream. In the dream, I shared a lighthouse keeper’s home with a group of people of all ages. I walked on the beach with a minister and embraced him. Then I returned to the house to batten it down against a storm, for the care of this community was my responsibility. I received a reminder that God had spoken, was speaking, and would speak to me again in dreams, and that the dream pointed the way back to ministry.
Nevertheless, I spent a few days trying to forget the images, trying to pretend I did not know what they meant! I felt the same sorts of fears we hear from Isaiah and from Peter. God’s persistence won me over, even if it did not relieve all my anxiety; and I returned to Andover Newton Theological School the following semester.
Even after I went back to school, the way was not always smooth. I remember well the December I was trying to write my ordination paper, a month that featured three weeks in which there was only one day that all three children were well enough to go to school. With a sick child at home this week, I was living an all-too-common human story, one that seems not at all legendary, that of a woman trying to juggle work and motherhood. No matter how I arrange the five notes making up the story of my call to ministry, the theme remains that very juggling.
Churches, like people and families, have only two or three stories, patterns of living that repeat over and over again, as Cather says, “as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” I can tell you that churches everywhere are wondering how to be faithful to their heritage and considerate of their current members while grappling with how to be relevant and hospitable at the same time. Downtown churches struggle when members move to the suburbs. Traditional churches compete with contemporary-style congregations.
The hard truth of most human stories is that God’s need for us, God’s sending for us, doesn’t always allow us to have it all. Sometimes we have to walk away from the catch of fish and follow God’s leading to an unpredictable future. But that future always has some basis in who we are and where we’ve come from; our natures and our origins suggest the path we will walk in the future.
Isaiah cried out that his lips were unclean; God sent him to use those lips to speak the truth. Peter thought himself only good enough for fishing; Jesus needed him to fish for people.
I suspect that my dreams and my juggling of roles will continue to play important parts in my life of faith and in my answering of God’s call to ministry.
If there are only two or three human stories, if our songs, like the larks’, repeat the same five notes, we have much in common with one another. No one of us is so ordinary, or so exceptional, that we cannot all feel connected. Do you hear your story being told, your song being sung? Can you help to tell this church’s story? God has something for each of us to do and for this church to be. Let us work together to discover what that may be, even if it means we have to leave everything to follow Jesus. Amen.