“We will never change the world by going to church. We will only change the world by being the church.”
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 PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
If Sharon and I did not have Caller ID on our landline home phone, we would unplug the phone so that we would never have to hear it ring. Marketers have become so sophisticated that they disguise their calls by using not only our Area Code, but even our prefix to try to fool us into picking up their calls. Just in the month of April of this year, there were 3.4 billion robo-calls across the country. So many of us have received the infamous call from the IRS that we can laugh about it. And yet there is no end in sight. ust last week, I read about the latest tool that was introduced at Google’s annual developer conference. Google introduced the Artificial Intelligence program, known as Duplex. It is an automated voice assistant capable of making hair appointments, booking restaurant reservations and conducting other tasks over the phone. It even inserts lifelike pauses and filler words like “um” and “hmm” for extra realism. At no point in the demo were the receptionists on the other end of the calls informed that they were talking to a computer rather than another human. Can you imagine this tool in the hands of marketers and what increased intrusion they can inflict on your home life?
I’m afraid that some of us react to God’s call in the same way. We don’t want our lives to be intruded upon and we certainly don’t want any interruptions to the way we have chosen to live our lives. We associate God’s call with Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on our doors. ell believe it or not, we are in good company, namely, we are in the company of some well-known, famous people in the Bible. Isaiah goes to the Temple to worship God, to find some peace and quiet, to escape from all the problems in the world. Well, Isaiah meets up with God in the Temple; but to his shock and surprise, Isaiah finds God calling him into service out in the world. And Isaiah tries to hang up on God, just like the way we hang up on telephone solicitors. Isaiah says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…!” And surely you remember Paul’s familiar excuse: “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” What I have found throughout the Bible, in the stories of God calling folks to service, is the common theme of refusal and excuses — “I’m only a child, I’m too busy, I don’t have the gifts or necessary skills, so and so can do a much better job, maybe next year, my husband is leaving me, my job requires me to travel a lot, I’m too old…”
I. I first learned this as a student in seminary and have since heard the quote many times over the years. It was Karl Barth, an early 20th century giant in the world of biblical scholarship, who said to his students: “The proper way to read and study the scriptures is to have the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other.” Well, there happens to be an important clue as to what was going on in the world in the opening verse of today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah. In Isaiah 6:1 we hear: In the year that King Uzziah died…That would be precisely 742 BCE (Before the Christian Era). And we know, historically speaking, what was happening that year. Uzziah was one of Judah’s last truly powerful kings and that with his death, the fortunes of the nation of Judah would dramatically change. In 742, with King Uzziah’s death, the powerful Assyrians were poised to invade and take over the land of Judah. It was a time of great threat, upheaval, uncertainty and transition (there’s that word again). And you know from personal experience what happens in such times of tragedy and change. I was studying in the library in Geneva Hall on the campus of SFTS when news of JFK’s assassination shattered our peace and quiet. Other assassinations followed—Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember in detail where I was and what I was doing when the 1989 earthquake struck the Bay Area; and then came 9-11. And you do know what has happened over the years whenever disaster struck—people went to church! So the Temple was filled to capacity when Isaiah heard the call from the Nominating Committee of the Temple. need not remind you of what we read and hear in today’s news, whether it comes to us from CNN or FOX. Whether it comes to us from Calvary Connections or the Chronicle. Both the news and the scriptures challenge us to discern and to answer God’s call. We are called to examine our vocation, our calling. And I am not talking about our jobs, our careers, our work, our profession. I am talking today about what is the PURPOSE of our lives? What are our PRIORITIES? I am talking about how we might discern what God has in mind for each of us in these times?
II. In the first place, I want to remind you that God calls ordinary people. By ordinary, I mean common, regular, everyday folk. The disciples were not people blessed with special, superb qualifications for the position of disciple. They had not even applied for the job of disciple. They were fisherfolk. They were ordinary. They could have been garage attendants, computer programmers, secretaries, engineers, financial planners, bankers, kindergarten teachers, pharmacists and nurses, artists and writers, homemakers and nannies. They could have been working for a government agency or in the non-profit sector. They could have been high school and college age students. God calls ordinary people from every walk of life.
I like the way some congregations identify who the ministers of the church are. On their worship bulletins, they announce: Ministers: THE CONGREGATION! And then for the people who have a particular function in the congregation like Elders and Deacons and Pastors, they list them by name. So in the church of Jesus Christ, God calls ALL OF US to be ministers. Let me tell you about two particular individuals, among the many people I have worked with in my ministry. Asa was a retired logger, who never went to college. He lived alone in a shack. When his health failed and he ended up in a run-down dreary nursing home, I watched him wheel himself up and down the hallway, stopping by each resident—many abandoned by their families—and grab their hand and chat with them, bringing a smile to their faces. Clayton spent his entire career working as an official for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, achieving the highest rank on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. On Saturday evenings when I went next door to the church to make final preparations for worship the next morning, I would find Clayton on his hands and knees scrubbing the toilets to be sure they were clean on Sunday.
III. At one of the services that I attended at St. Gregory’s of Nysa Episcopal Church here in the city, the congregation gathered around the altar for Prayers of the People. One of the worshippers responded to the invitation to share a joy or a concern and said: “I love coming to worship here at St. Gregory’s because I always find God here”. The presiding priest responded gently to her: “I am glad that you find God here at St. Gregory’s; but we want also to help you find God wherever you are!”
Ramadan is here. It is the holy month during which healthy and able Muslims are commanded to abstain from food, drink (not even water), and sex from sunrise to sunset and invest in intense prayer, charity and spiritual discipline. The disruptions of Ramadan which bring pain and annoyance are intended to create opportunities for growth, similar to what we do at Lent. I came across, recently, an essay in the NY Times, written by a Muslim, sharing his experience of Ramadan. Driving to the University of William & Mary to deliver a speech, his right tire blew out on the highway right before his exit. He pulled his car over to change the tire, but his car jack broke, leaving him stranded on the side of the highway. He tried for 35 minutes to flag down a friendly car; nobody stopped. With his dead cell phone in hand, he just stood there, freezing, praying that someone would help him. Finally, a young black driver, who turned out to be a transgender student working on a doctorate, pulled over. The student waved off his profuse thanks by saying: “If it happened to me, I hope someone would do the same.” And he went on to say: “As a fellow person of color and around here, well, we all got to help each other.” He used the student’s phone to call a tow truck, and then started chatting with the student about his life as a transgender person on campus. Their conversation was interrupted when a tough looking white dude with an earring arrived, smiling broadly, to change his tire and jump-start his car. The white dude assured the Muslim that he would make it to his speaking engagement and took time to make sure he knew the best places in town to have dinner afterward. The writer’s small crisis had just created an opportunity to form a tiny, temporary multicultural community. He writes: “I can find the Ramadan spirit not only in fasts and prayers, but also in places like this: on the side of the road in Williamsburg, VA, where a black trans student and a white man from the South reached out to help a brown Muslim stranger, a fellow American, get his car running.” That moment on the side of the road reminded him what this month was about. He ended his essay with this: “I don’t need quotes from prophets or Quran verses to explain it. I’ll simply repeat what that kindhearted student told me–‘We all got to help each other’— and maybe that’s how we make America great.
So regardless of whether we are married or single; regardless of whether we have children or aging parents to care for; regardless of whether we live in Pacific Heights or Bay View Hunters Point; regardless of whether we are young or old, male or female, straight or LGBTQ, self-employed or unemployed, college-educated or uneducated, retired or just starting our careers… God calls every single one of us to share the love and justice of Jesus Christ in our homes, places of work, schools, pubs, coffee shops, supermarkets and malls, while driving our car or riding on MUNI, on the streets and alleyways, everywhere. God calls us to BE the church!
And just as God will supply in abundance for God’s people—whether that abundance takes the form of wine for a wedding or bread for the thousands or fish for the fishers—God will supply us with abundant grace to equip and empower us to do God’s will. The Bible and the Daily Newspaper tell us that we stand today on the threshold of enormous change and upheaval. May our doubts and fears be transformed by the grace of God into the faithful words of Isaiah: HERE AM I…SEND ME!