Sunday, February 07, 2010

Big Bang Call Narratives

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany – Year C (RCL)
Isaiah 6:1-6; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Sunday, February 7, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

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)

Last week, we had the story of God’s call of Jeremiah. Today, we go back in time about a hundred years and witness God’s call of Isaiah. Isaiah’s call is a very different one than Jeremiah’s. As you will recall, Jeremiah was reluctant to accept. God had to push him a little. Isaiah, on the other hand, seems to want to accept, but sees a bit of a problem. He confesses that he is sinful and not worthy of serving as God’s representative – “I am a man of unclean lips.” God takes care of that little problem. Using a seraph to touch Isaiah’s unclean lips with a burning coal, God forgives Isaiah’s sins and removes all guilt. In his exuberance in the wake of God’s gracious gift, Isaiah jumps in when God seeks a volunteer, even though he does not quite know what God is asking – “Here am I; send me!”

Every time I hear this reading, I can’t help but think, “Are you crazy? You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.” And then I am reminded of a time when I reacted just as Isaiah did, sort of.

In 1994, I went to England for a two-week program on Benedictine Spirituality. While the whole trip was formational in many ways, one of the most significant moments came about a week into the program. We took an overnight trip to Ampleforth Abbey, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery north of York. The first evening at Ampleforth, we sang evening prayer with the monks. After evening prayer, I felt moved to just stay in the chapel and pray. The chapel was cold and dimly lit, and as I sat there in the darkness praying, I suddenly experienced a sense of light and warmth, what I perceived to be the overwhelming presence of God surrounding me, holding me, loving me. All I could do was cry. I didn’t want to leave that place. I felt completely at ease, as if I had found home. That night, I did not sleep much. My spirit was restless. My mind was awhirl. The next morning, I took a walk through the foggy Yorkshire countryside with Norvene, one of our program leaders. I told her about my experience the night before and how I felt like I might be called to stay there at Ampleforth. Norvene offered to talk to the Abbot to get his permission for me to stay on for awhile. The idea was very tempting. At first, I was there with Isaiah: “Here am I; send me!” But then I was barraged with all sorts of questions. Was I ready to become Catholic so I could stay here? How will my parents react when I call and tell them I’m not coming home? What about my house and all my belongings back in California? What about my career? After thinking and praying about it, I ultimately declined Norvene’s offer, and decided that I needed to continue on with the study tour. Despite a very close all, I just wasn’t ready to say “Here am I; send me!”

While I did not answer God’s call at that time, it was a pivotal moment in my discernment process – the moment at which I realized in a serious way that God was calling me, and the moment at which I knew I had to really begin the work of discernment. Of course, it took another five years of discernment and some pretty heated arguments with God before I finally accepted the call to Holy Orders.

It’s easy to get swept up when presented with a big, dramatic call scenario. When that happens, we naturally want to join with Isaiah and say, “Here am I; send me!” All of the call stories in today’s scripture lessons are essentially that way – relying on the miraculous, the dramatic, to prompt acceptance of the invitation being issued. In our Gospel lesson from Luke, we hear the call of Peter. After a very unproductive day at fishing, when all Peter wants to do is go home and get some shut-eye, Jesus asks him to go out into the lake and try again. Peter reluctantly complies. Jesus then produces a miracle in which they catch more fish than the nets could hold. Jesus uses a show of abundance to demonstrate to Peter what the Kingdom of God is like, to show him that he is needed to help spread the Gospel message. As a result of this miracle, Peter accepts Jesus’ call, leaves everything, and follows his new master. “Here am I; send me!”

While our Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthian doesn’t specifically deal with Paul’s conversion and call, he certainly alludes to it. You may remember from Acts how the Risen Lord came to Paul as he was traveling to Damascus, and through much drama, including flashes of light, booming voices, three days of blindness, and recovery of sight, Paul gives up his strict adherence to Judaism and his self-righteous persecution of Christians to join the very group he had been persecuting. Because of this, he goes on to become, despite his claims of being the least of the apostles, the most influential apostle in the spread of Christianity to the Gentiles. “Here am I; send me!”

These are some pretty dramatic stories. But the reality is, most often God calls us not so much with explosive scenes of visions and miraculous signs, but rather in more subtle ways, with gentle nudges and soft whispers. These require more work on our part. These require that we be attentive. These require that we struggle through with trying to figure out what is going on. Is God really calling me, or is it something else –fantasy, delusion, wishful thinking? Wouldn’t it be easier if all calls were big bangs? After all, our universe started with the Big Bang – the moment in which God created all that is. And all of our scripture lessons show us that God is capable of operating in our lives with a big bang – breaking through into our everyday lives in unexpected ways.

Regardless of the form God’s call takes, these three call narratives, when taken together, say a lot about how God operates in our lives, about the way God reveals himself to us when we least expect it.

First off, God does not command. God invites. And if at first we refuse, God tries different ways of getting the message across, so that we might reconsider. God invites and Isaiah does not feel worthy due to perceived sinfulness. But God wipes out that problem and invites again. And Isaiah accepts. Jesus invites Peter, who could have said no and continued his life fishing for fish instead of the harder task of fishing for people. But Jesus, through the imagery of the overabundance of fish, showed Peter what the Kingdom of God could be like, if only he would help. And Peter accepts. The Risen Lord invites Paul, who could have said no and continued on the far easier path of maintaining the status quo instead of working to create something new. But God showed Paul his love and mercy, and how he could be a part of taking that message to the world. And Paul accepts. These were all tough nuts to crack, but God patiently continued to invite. But I can tell you one thing from personal experience. Even though God does not command, but invites, he can be very persistent.

A second and related characteristic is that, while God is all powerful and could do all this Kingdom work by himself, he made us to be co-creators with him in this world. He wants us to have input, to be a part of the process of building his Kingdom. And frankly, when you’re dealing with human beings, there are just some times when a human touch makes more sense. In that, God still needs our help. God needed Isaiah as a mouthpiece to the people of Judah, to be someone who could speak to them on their terms. God needed Peter and Paul to carry the message of Jesus Christ to the entire world following his death and resurrection, to share their personal experiences of the Risen Christ. Such tasks are better carried out, can only be carried out, through human agency.

Third, despite our objections, God finds ways to remove our perceived and sometimes self-imposed impediments. Isaiah felt himself to be a sinner. God removed his sin. Impediment gone. Similarly, Peter felt he was a sinful and lowly fisherman. Reading between the lines, Jesus said “that doesn’t matter. We can use you anyway. What better example of who is welcomed than a sinful and lowly fisherman?” Paul felt he was the least of the apostles, unworthy to follow Christ because of his persecution of the church. Despite his past, God showed him that he was loved, through the care of Ananias. No matter who we are, no matter what we may have done, God loves us unconditionally, and wants us to be a part of his work, to be part of his Kingdom.

And fourth, God calls us wherever we are. The time and place in which we receive God’s call is not limited to holy places like churches and monasteries. They can happen anytime, anywhere. For Isaiah, it was during worship in the Temple. For Peter, it was while he was doing his secular job. And for Paul, it was while he was traveling, between assignments, as it were. God looks at where we are in our lives, and meets us there. God makes ordinary places extraordinary. God makes secular places holy.

All of these come together when God breaks into our lives. And ultimately, it’s not about how miraculous or spectacular God presents himself to us. Even though not all calls are filled with visions, like Isaiah’s call, or miracles of abundance, like Peter’s call, or lights and temporary blindness like Paul’s call, they are all still big bangs – for in that moment when we accept God’s call, something new and beautiful is created – the union of Creator and created working in partnership for a common purpose. And in such moments, God is revealing his infinite love for us, his boundless grace. God is showing us that no matter who we are, no matter what we may think our faults are, we are all of value to God, and he wants to use us, if we just give him a chance. If we just give ourselves a chance and boldly say, “Here am I; send me!”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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