A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
November 12, 2016
If you’e been around Presbyterian worship services for a while, this text might seem familiar to you. It’s commonly read on Trinity Sunday. It’s also the framework for how a Presbyterian worship service is structured.
We begin with a call to worship and a hymn of praise, looking up, metaphorically, to the Lord, high and lofty, on a throne. “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty” We move to confession—“woe is me! I am a person of unclean lips”. From confession, we go to an assurance of forgiveness and pardon, although I’ve yet to pick up hot coals from God’s altar and touch your lips with them when we offer forgiveness. Maybe next month. Then we hear the Word of the Lord, the voice of God. And that voice calls us to respond. We respond with offering, and with sending. We place the sacraments—baptisms and communion— after the Word is read and proclaimed, because we see sacraments are part of the call of God and our response to that Call.
Here I am. Send me.
Isaiah makes a great, and somewhat unusual, response to God’s question of “whom shall I send and who will go for us?”
Often people respond with, as we saw last week:
“oh, you were talking to me? I was headed to Tarshish” or,
as Moses said,
“you must be mistaken. I’m a hot mess and would be a terrible prophet” (which is my own translation from the Hebrew).
Those are the biblical responses.
Then there are the less biblical or heroic responses where God calls us into difficult situations and we say “oh hell no. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Please, dear Lord, call someone else”.
No. That’s not right. We’d never say that. Of course we respond just like Isaiah, the first time God calls. Of course we do.
And I’m only sort of kidding here. Because I know, in fact, that many of you have responded to God’s call in your lives and have said “here I am, send me”. And maybe it was the 1st time you were transported to the Temple and saw seraphs singing a rock opera that shook the pivots on the threshold, whatever those are. Maybe it was the 46th time.
It doesn’t really matter how long it took you to hear the voice, to really get it. It matters that, at some particular moment in history, we find ourselves in the presence of God, and we hear God’s call and we respond.
I noticed this week that Isaiah’s call story happens 6 chapters into his story. He’s already got 5 chapters worth of propheting experience on his résumé before the year that King Uzziah died. He’s been a good church member, paying his per capita and contributing to the capital campaign. He’s already brought food to coffee fellowship and collected and crocheted hats for the homeless. He’s been preaching, and proclaiming God’s word all over the place.
And then, in the year that King Uzziah died….
Biblical scholars love verses like that because dating a biblical text is so difficult.
But King Uzziah! We know that.
He died in 742 BCE.
The point is that in the middle of a particular moment in human history, Isaiah finds himself transported into the presence of God. There was a particular moment in Isaiah’s faith journey when he needed God in a new or different way. And I could give you a whole sermon on Assyria, Babylon, exile, and what was happening for Isaiah.
But I’m more interested in what is happening in our lives that requires God’s in-breaking now. Perhaps it is “In the year that the Cubs won the World Series….”. Or maybe it is more like “In the year my loved one was diagnosed with cancer….” or “In the year I lost my job….”
We all have moments in time—moments of celebration or moments of pain— when the particular context in which we find ourselves helps us realize that God is calling us to respond in a particular way.
I’d like to propose a particular historical location for where I think we are today:
“In the year that Donald Trump was elected President….”
We’ve just had a presidential election. You may have seen something about it on the news? Exactly half the voters supported the candidate that won and the other half voted for the candidate that lost. Which means that this very room is likely more divided than perhaps we would have guessed last week. No matter the outcome of the election, our nation was going to remain divided, and it is up to us as Christians to respond to the wounds and to seek healing and justice.
And it is too soon to know for sure what kind of president Donald Trump will be.
I call on us to pray for his welfare, for his wisdom, and for him to lead us toward our better angels. As some of my colleagues said in a letter to their congregation:
“When our elected officials and policies work to uphold the health, worth, dignity, and prosperity of all people regardless of race, religion, gender, class, citizenship, ableness, and sexual orientation, we will gladly work with and alongside them. When our elected officials and policies fall short of these great aims, we will be advocates and witnesses for social justice–not in order to blame or to demonize, but rather to follow God’s command to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” (Fourth Presbyterian Church Pastoral Staff, Chicago, IL)
As Christians, we pray FOR people. And we live out our prayers with justice, hope, and witness.
The reason I’m bringing up this very thorny election in a sermon is not about what happens in DC but about what happens here in our community. We’ve just come through a year of rhetoric unlike anything I’ve seen in my life. Yes, there have been horrible things spoken before 2016.
This year, though, our president elect himself changed the standard for civil conversation, and the veneer of civility that used to constrain our public discourse was wiped away.
I trust that not everyone who voted for him thought they were endorsing his language when they voted for him. It doesn’t really matter now. Because we’ve elected him. And he will be our President.
The reason I bring it up today is because some people have taken his election as validation of their hatred and are acting out in word and deed.
Here are some things that happened just this week since the election. (Some I got from this article and others from my friends on Facebook and their experiences).
—Near San Francisco, a home in Noe Valley flew a nazi flag where kids walk by to get to school.
—The KKK is scheduling a parade in celebration of the election in North Carolina.
—A white middle school student brought a Trump sign to school and told a black classmate it was time for him to get “back in place”.
—A Presbyterian Colleague in Iowa found this note on his car yesterday:
—A woman in a Hillary t-shirt was attacked on campus at Boise State.
—Parents of children of color spent the day picking up their children early from elementary, middle, and high schools across the country because they were inundated with slurs and harassment and unable to study.
—A group of Hispanic kids in Raleigh were taunted by white children, telling them they were “going back to Mexico.”
—A fourth grader at Star Elementary School was told before the election to ‘pack his bags’ when Trump won, by another student. Thankfully, the administration of his school has stood against that kind of speech.
—Thursday morning, here in Boise, a woman who works at St Als had this experience:
“This morning I was at the bus stop. There happened to be 2 other women with me. Both woman of color. One is Indian and the other is Muslim ( and she was wearing her headscarf) I ride the bus with these 2 woman very often and they are both lovely woman. They always has something nice to say. Always bringing a smile to my face. This morning we were all talking as normal and a man in a big black truck drove by and yelled out his window “You’re time us up bitches!” And threw his soda at us.“
I heard from a number of teacher friends about the fear and anxiety children and college students were facing in their classrooms. I heard from a number of other friends about racist, bigoted, homophobic, and sexist comments that were directed at their own children in school this week. It happened here in Boise. It’s happening all over the country.
And it is not okay. And it is up to us as people of faith to stand up and say, “no. Not in our country.”
I hope we consider this the moment when we find ourselves looking up at God almighty in the Temple while freaky six winged seraphs are singing as loud as they can HOLY HOLY HOLY and we think “In the year that Donald Trump was elected president, I saw the Lord….”
For the first time in my life, this passage in Isaiah makes sense to me. I need to be whapped upside the head by a stray seraph wing so that I’ll stop long enough to wonder where in the world am I and what is happening. I need to drop to my knees and look up at a God so big that the hem of God’s robe fills the whole room.
Because if I’ve got to do this myself, using my own resources? Forget it. I couldn’t possibly. I need a big, ol’ holy holy holy God of power and might. And I need that God right now.
And so, like Isaiah, we cry out “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 good news in this text, of course, is that it is God who is Holy, and all high up in the temple. God is bigger than the things that divide us. God is bigger than the trials we face in any parts of our lives. I take great comfort in this weird image from Isaiah of Seraphs and loud praise and the reminder that God is bigger than I can understand.
The less good news is that we don’t get a promise that everything will be easy. We don’t get a promise that God will send us to be safe and comfortable. After Isaiah’s confession, a seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal to purify and cleanse him. The seraph uses tongs, because only a fool would use their hands to pick up a hot coal out of God’s own altar fire. And he touches Isaiah’s lips with it.
This purifying fire had to hurt. And burn. And sear. Don’t worry. I didn’t make a prayer station to have people burn themselves with hot coals after the prayer of confession.
But we have to notice in this passage it is only after the pain and purifying, cleansing wounding that God speaks.
‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’
I invite you to repeat after me:
Here I am. Send me.
God is calling us, at this particular moment in history, as we sing praise to our God who is bigger than anything we can imagine, to respond to the call.
I don’t know what that will look like for you.
I have a few ideas and hope you will share other ways to respond later on the blog once the sermon is posted.
One, we can stand with people when we hear others who have forgotten how to be civil in our world. I would say not to engage the bully, but to stand with and engage the person facing the verbal abuse so the bully can be ignored. If you see someone being physically harmed, call 911 and take photos to be a witness.
We can, and must, continue to work for justice, inclusion, and peace.
A movement started after the Brexit vote in the UK, when immigrants were feeling unsafe after that vote. People started wearing safety pins on their lapels as a sign of being a “safe” person, someone who would not judge someone because of their skin color, religious persuasion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. I have some safety pins for you if you would like to also wear one, as a visible sign that people are safe in your presence.
I also have some sidewalk chalk. If you’d like to take a piece as you leave, there is a movement to have people write messages of safety, support, and welcome on sidewalks. You can write these messages here on the sidewalks in front of church or take it with you to write messages in front of your home, or in public places. (Probably not a good idea to write on other people’s sidewalks).
And in all of this, I hope we will continue to come together to worship the God who is bigger than either our political hopes or our political fears. To be a nation united requires us to listen to people we love who see the world very differently than we do. I confess that this week there were moments when those other voices burned me like a hot coal from God’s own temple. It is not easy. It is what we are called to do. The poet Alice Walker said this week after the election, “do we turn on others or turn toward others?” I’m grateful to be able to gather with you this night, turning toward you with love, hope, and faith about this call from God.
‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’
We are here, God. And we have the courage to answer you because we know you will equip us for the task and will cleanse and purify us in the process.
Again, I invite you to repeat after me:
Here I am. Send me.
May it be so.