Isaiah 6:1-8

Who will go for us?

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Each of the four Gospels has an account of Jesus calling his first disciples, and they aren’t the same. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is down by the Jordan River where John the Baptist is doing his work, and two of John’s disciples follow him home, then they invite others who Jesus invites to follow him. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and invites first Peter and Andrew who were standing on the shore, throwing their net into the sea, and later James and John, who were mending nets in their father’s boat. In those cases, the disciples immediately follow Jesus. Today’s Gospel, from Luke, is a little bit different. Those differences are very human, and I think, pretty amusing.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had already been preaching and teaching for a while before he encountered the disciples. So when he was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he wasn’t just walking along the beach, noticing the fishermen working, he was surrounded by all sorts of people, wanting to hear what he had to teach, to be healed and so forth. So, in order to be able to teach the large crowd and not to be overrun, he sees a boat and climbs into it and asks Simon Peter to row out a little way from the shore so he could address the crowd. What exactly Jesus said isn’t recorded, but I’m sure that what Jesus taught was pretty similar to what he taught on other occasions: good news to the poor, repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand, perhaps some parables or parts of the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of his teaching, Jesus didn’t ask the fisherman to take him back to shore, but to row out in deep water and put out his nets. Peter resists, because he is exhausted. He’s been working all the night, and hasn’t caught any fish. A day of work and nothing to show for it, no pay, nothing to eat. Sometimes life can be difficult and discouraging. It wasn’t the end of life—he would survive to fish the next day—but life can be on the edge, even for a person who has a job.

Jesus insists, so the fishermen continue to row. All of a sudden, there’s a huge unexpected bounty of fish in their nets—more than they had ever caught at one time. What happens next is what I find funny—they go from being exhausted and depressed because of a lack of fish, to being panicked and afraid because of too many fish. They get help from the other boat, they fill both boats to the point that they nearly sank. As they get to shore, Simon Peter falls down on his knees in front of Jesus. He sees this as a miracle, this bringer of the Word of God has clearly done something from God and he’s very afraid. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Where have we heard that before? In our Old Testament Lesson, which is the account of the call of the prophet Isaiah, he says: “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!”

Being aware of the presence of God is a frightening thing. It makes clear how people truly fall short of God’s goodness, how truly inadequate we are of embodying and teaching the truth. Even though it’s suddenly his best day of work ever, Peter is overwhelmed—how can this be? What is God doing with me?

It’s possible to get everything we imagine we want, and yet not have any idea of what it’s for, or what our next step is. And Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be one who nets people.”

Peter, Andrew, James and John were thus called to follow Jesus as he traveled around Galilee, healing, preaching and teaching; and as he journeyed to Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection. But God’s call is not limited to these disciples alone, or to prophets like Isaiah. Each of us is called out of our particular limitations: our fear, or our poverty; our anger or our disappointment; we are called out of having too much or struggling to have enough, to live lives worthy of the Gospel—to be Jesus’ witnesses and hands right here. It is fearful to be called by God, because when we hear that call—and know that it is God—we are aware of the perfect love of God and all too aware that our own love is far too imperfect. How can the perfect God make use of such imperfect and flawed creatures?

The answer is God’s mercy. That is both the simplest, most straightforward fact—and the deepest of all possible mysteries. In God’s compassion for all God’s children, God chose to call us, in all our sinfulness, to be the vessels of his compassion. That is the Gospel—the opportunity to live and deliver God’s mercy into this world.

The epistle lesson we heard today from First Corinthians is how Paul states this. In fact, it is the earliest account we have of the Gospel message that the early church proclaimed, because he is repeating what he had been taught from the beginning:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (which is the Aramaic name that we know as Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred sisters and brothers…then to James, and all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called…”

 

Paul also was aware of his unworthiness. But he proclaimed the mercy of God—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, so that we might have life—life as abundant as that great haul of fish and as joyful as the opportunity to share it with others in God’s love.

They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;

he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;

you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;

your right hand shall save me.

 

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Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the feast of the name of this congregation, our patronal festival, if you will. But the Trinity is not a traditional patron saint, the Trinity is the Christian understanding of the nature of God. So what is that? The Trinity is often explained in such confusing ways that we can be left with the impression that it is only to be understood by high flown theologians, and perhaps it is only relevant to them. This could not be further from the truth. The understanding of the Holy Trinity is only for the humble—the confusion comes when we try to control the infinite God by subtle and crafty explanations. There is nothing more relevant to everyday people than the God who creates and rules over all, who is also present among us, suffering with us and guiding us in his love among us.

The foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity is the faith of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is one God, and only the one true God is worthy of worship. This has always been the Christian affirmation—we worship the one God, the God of truth. It is not a matter of anything goes, whatever opinion anybody has, or whatever godlike thing they want to follow this week. We are all accountable to the one God, the God of truth.

And yet, no one has ever seen God; no one controls God or prescribes to the all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God what God may or may not do. The God of truth is beyond our self-interested descriptions of God.

So we find Isaiah in the temple, probably quite a young person, about 2,750 years ago. He had a vision: six-winged seraphs and smoke filling the temple. He was afraid, and rightly so: “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!” The unseen God, the creator of all, has appeared to him—the holiness of God might well destroy him. The holiness of God is not to be trifled with, God is not to be described according what human beings think would be good, for those notions almost always emerge from human selfishness—“I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Our lesson from this morning comes from the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah. One thing to note is that the books of the prophets aren’t presented in a linear fashion. The first five chapters actually happen after the time when the sixth chapter takes place—after Uzziah, the King of Judah had died.

Uzziah was king for a long time, perhaps half a century or so, and during that time there was relative stability in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. After his death, many things happened—about 20 years later the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and a century of wars followed, ending in the destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile of much of the population of the southern kingdom of Judah. What is described in the first five chapters of Isaiah is the social injustice in Israel following Uzziah’s death, the lack of accountability of its leaders.

There are recurring phrases from the first five chapters: “Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” Or: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you…!” The prophet speaks the oracles of God, condemning these abuses of power and wealth.  The prophet of truth speaks these words of the true God, the false prophets would do what they could to make the wealthy and powerful more comfortable. Isaiah is aware of himself, his own inclination to participate in the sinful, self-serving speech that is characteristic of human beings: “I live among a people of unclean lips.”

What I am trying to put forward here is a humble doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not that we are somehow better because of the Trinity—that our belief automatically means that we are free from all the inclinations to be unjust that Isaiah is railing against. What it means is that we are humbly, before God, confessing Christ.

There is one God, the God of truth and justice. You shall not bow down to idols or make up other kinds of supernatural justifications for what you want.

How do we know that one God? With Isaiah, there is a pretty striking image: one of the Seraphs takes tongs and picks up a burning coal from the altar. ThuribleAs if Mr. Emmanuel reached into the thurible and pulled out a piece of the charcoal that burns the incense and brought those tongs up to the altar rail where you are kneeling. Fortunately, Malcolm Emmanuel is not a seraph and God does not choose today to call us by touching our lips with the live coal like he did with Isaiah. We receive something else at the altar rail.

Christians have always affirmed that there is one god, the True God, who was from the beginning, before all things. But Christians also know God in the person of Jesus the Christ, who lived among us as the truth. The distinction between Jesus and every other human being is not something magic, but that rather than being a man of unclean lips, seeking to twist the truth to serve himself, Jesus was God’s love for us. This was not just the appearance of God walking on earth, but God whose love made him as close to us and as vulnerable as any human being. He lived in love and healed the sick, and the uncleanness and selfishness of human beings caused him to be killed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is how we Christians try to make sense of our experience of the God of Truth, so distant and so close, so powerful and so vulnerable. It is not that we are smarter, or have philosophically more powerful arguments than non-Christians, it is not that our explanations end all discussion or argument. We teach and we believe that the God of Love has come among us, and that is the reality that we have to talk about. God touched Isaiah with a burning coal, he touches us with the real presence of Jesus Christ. His love is among us is the Holy Spirit. Even among those of us who know that we are people of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips, the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth, the Truth of the God of Love.

As St. Paul says in today’s lesson from his letter to the church at Rome: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”