020622 Epiphany 5c Astounding Holiness

The sermon begins at minute 23:30 of the video

Isaiah 6:1-8; I Cor. 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

       Believe it or not, I really am happy to be back and to see you all. It’s interesting reading about what happened in the U.S. from Mexico. I found some of it surprising, some not so much. I didn’t expect Stephen Breyer to announce his retirement, though he was under a quite a bit more pressure to do so than I was. I hope there is not as much controversy about my replacement as there is about his. I was also surprised that Whoopi Goldberg would make a mistake about race – albeit an understandable one. The Good News is that I think it opened up a teachable moment for at least part of the country. Not so surprising, but surely disappointing, was the Republican’s censure of Representatives Cheney and Kinzinger, and Virginia’s new Governor’s ban on masking requirements in schools. Jeez. I can’t even leave for ten days!

     I believe today’s texts offer an important perspective on how to respond to all that and more. Isaiah’s experience was framed concretely by what was going on in his country. King Uzziah had reigned for 52 years when he died at the beginning of the Isaiah text. It wasn’t quite as long as Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years, but close. Such a long period of tranquility tends to make people nervous about change. Things hadn’t changed for so long that the threat of change was terrifying. Fear mongers could manipulate people easily. So God told Isaiah to confront the fear of the leaders and people of Judah, sending him to warn Israel’s leaders against ruling on the basis of fear. His first mission was to tell the King of Judah, who was terrified in the face of a new alliance between Syria and Israel, not to be afraid.

       What happened to Isaiah that allowed him to confront the politics of fear? The sense of his own unworthiness arose from his depths when he was confronted with the majesty of the Holy One. Then he experienced forgiveness for his sin through the hot coals and the word confirming that his sin had been blotted out. So, when God asked, “who will go for us?”, Isaiah was ready to say, “Here am I; send me.” The encounter with the holy evoked both willingness and courage to be sent.

       Peter experienced something similar inside himself when Jesus told him and the other fishermen to put out into deep water after not catching anything all night. But Peter was not ready to face his sinfulness. He wanted to continue to be the self-made man he saw himself as. Whatever he meant when he said, “I am a sinful man”, didn’t deter Jesus from calling him to become a fisher of people. Jesus didn’t tell him to repent; or to go and sin no more; or to sell all that he has. Simon said that he was a sinner and Jesus called him to become a fisher of people. Boom.

       Paul told the Corinthians that the risen Christ had appeared to Peter, James, and Paul – three leaders of the new faith whose reputations they knew – to show that it was the encounter with the risen Christ that transformed those people into powerhouses and fisherfolk for God. The risen Christ also appeared to 500 others at one time. Whatever happened to all of these people, we need a strong dose of it. 

       It’s important to notice that there was nothing special about the circumstances in which these encounters took place. Isaiah had been in the temple before. Peter spent most of his life on boats, and had already spent time with Jesus. The people to whom the risen Christ appeared had all seen Jesus before. We don’t know what was different about this time. All we know is that it had nothing to do with the people and everything to do with God.  

       We also know that the encounter had a different impact than what has mostly been defined as knowing, doing, and feeling in philosophy, ethic, and aesthetics. Isaiah and Peter responded with an immediate willingness to do whatever was called for. Encounters with the holy are like that-immediate, leaving no room for reflection before the call elicits a response not mediated by weighing the cost or considering the options. The costs and the options come, in time, but the call and response is prior to that, not a result of it. That’s what happened to Isaiah and Peter.

       Over my years of ministry in the church, I’ve noticed that those who have had an encounter with the holy are more highly motivated to serve than those who may have attended church longer, but had never had such an encounter. These folks don’t need to be asked. They see what is needed, and even imagine what can be done, and start doing it, sometimes not even asking for permission. That is consistent with the biblical witness that God doesn’t have volunteers; only people who are called.

       It’s also important to acknowledge that people who have had this deeper encounter don’t become perfect people. We need look no further than Peter to know that. Encountering the holy doesn’t keep people from being hypocritical, irritating, and inconsistent. They can even be dishonest, unfaithful, and disruptive. Frankly, part of what attracted me to the Episcopal church is the understanding that holiness is both deeper and broader than any morality can possibly be. So much of what is held up as holy ends up being moralistic manipulation and defeatist whining, both in the church and in politics. Holiness does not judge or exclude. It liberates and embraces.

       The world desperately needs people who have been transformed by such an encounter with the holy. Perhaps the most serious malaise in our world is that more and more Us-them groups are showing up. They don’t even know how the other group thinks – rural and urban, Republican and Democrat, black and white, rich and poor; immigrant and citizen; the list goes on. Perhaps the cryptic instruction that Isaiah received for his mission can help us in ours: Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but don’t comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed”

       Why would God, and Jesus, want to make minds dull, stop ears, and shut eyes? Rene Girard points out that cultures characterized by Us-them thinking, tell people how to think, and decide what they can see, hear, and understand. Girard believes that Jesus taught in parables because he understood that we can’t heal Us-them thinking directly without falling into the same Us-them pattern. It’s a Catch-22: “Us” are those who are trying to reveal and undo Us-Them thinking, and “Them” are those who resist “Us” by persisting in Us-Them thinking. A frontal assault on Us-Them thinking results in “Us” lapsing into yet another form of Us-Them thinking! Parabolic language turns the ‘normal’ upside-down and inside out.

       If you followed that rather convoluted paragraph, you will recognize that only those who have confronted their own sinfulness through an encounter with the holy will be able to resist the temptation to confront Us-them thinking straight on, and thereby become just like those they are trying to change. Of course, the only way to avoid that is to risk becoming a victim of other people’s violence by choosing nonviolent engagement. And that’s what we’re afraid of, right? The January 6 folks are already armed and ready to fight. How will we respond? Jesus chose to suffer a direct assault of violence against himself, and calls us to follow that path.  Yikes!

       Isaiah knew this too. That’s why he asked, “How long, O Lord?” The answer he received is: Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until God sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump. Basically, Isaiah was hearing what Alcoholics Anonymous has made popular: many people must hit bottom before they will change.

       Friends, the Good News is that what is impossible for us is something God does for us. On the other side of wasted cities and desolate land is an abundance we cannot even imagine. Luke tells us that amazement captivated Peter when he saw such abundance. If we hang out in places where holiness can surprise us when it breaks through, we will be transformed in ways that we cannot fathom before it happens, and we will become agents of transformation in the world. Jesus will look into our eyes, call out our name, and we will abandon our small boats on the sand and with him, we will seek other seas.