Sermon Seeds: Called, Cleaned, and Committed
Sunday, May 30, 2021
First Sunday After Pentecost Year B
(Liturgical Color: White or Green)
Called, Cleaned, and Committed
By Cheryl Lindsay
What does it look like when we become unsilenced?
There are so many ways to silence someone. We might ignore their voice or fail to consider their message. We might erect barriers that keep out alternative ideas and challenging discourse from entering certain spaces. Silencing happens when individuals or groups are routinely dismissed and discounted, like the young person who desires to lead but is told they haven’t paid their dues. Or, the more senior individual with new ideas who assured that time has passed them by.
Silencing can exact a devastating toll. The transgendered youth who becomes homeless or suicidal when rejected for telling their truth or diminished by those who insist they know more than the person living their own life. Warning from scientists about the condition of this planet we inhabit that have gone unheeded for decades or addressed with incremental and insufficient actions. A church that has withdrawn from society to create a barrier to the world on the outside while adopting the ways of that same world on the inside.
Little good comes from silencing.
Gary Light suggests that the cry of the Prophet Isaiah in this week’s passage could be translated as “Woe is me! I have been silenced.” This silence results from a moment of profound humility. Isaiah has a vision of the holiness of God with breathtaking–and silencing–effect. In this moment, his own failings, and that of his community, become clear to him. Humility turns to humiliation as feelings of guilt, shame, and unworthiness fill the prophet:
Isaiah expressed his sense of guilt and unworthiness before the Holy One of Israel by calling himself a person of “unclean lips” (6:5). Of course, “lips” is a poetic device in which the part stands for the whole; Isaiah knows that he is wholly unclean. It is significant, however, that he chose to express his condition by drawing attention to his lips. A prophet is God’s spokesperson. As a prophet, Isaiah could be faithful only by speaking those words that God put on his lips. Until this moment, Isaiah says, his lips have borne words that cannot survive in the presence of God.
The story is about Isaiah and his call to ministry. The vision gives him an opportunity to see the people as they truly are, but Isaiah does not exalt or remove himself from them. He identifies with them. Many divine visions prompt worship of God in all the glory. This moment reminds us that worship not only reveals God, it can also expose the worshipper. As Francis Landy states, “In this chapter Isaiah is both subject and object. He sees, hears, responds, and reports. The whole chapter is constructed through his experience; in fact, a whole tradition of scholarship sees it as being his apology. At the same time, he is the object of divine and seraphic attention.” Isaiah sees God and more clearly sees himself.
When we view our condition in comparison to the glory of God, we may seem to come up lacking. We may deem ourselves unworthy. Feelings of shame and remorse may arise as we consider the state of our community and world. But, God does not allow Isaiah to stay there. The seraph touches the point of pain and releases the prophet’s guilt. We’re called to behold the glory and not to dwell in guilt. As soon as Isaiah shifts to shame, God intervenes with a personal message. Isaiah no longer observes the angelic praise from a safe distance, he’s brought into the vision. The seraph touches his lips, the central metaphor for his condition and his impending call, and declares them clean. Condemnation, guilt, and shame have been blotted by the angelic touch like a napkin removing traces of a meal already consumed.
From this touch, Isaiah is unsilenced. His voice will sound out among his people of “unclean lips” to draw them into envisioning themselves as they are…and how they can be. Part of remorse for a current condition is hope for something new and better. The contrast between the vision of glory and the reality of the human condition should propel them toward a new way of being and living in relationship with God as they strive toward the glory.
The glory is attractive, moving, and formational. Noting that these events transpired in the year that King Uzziah died is more than simply dating the events. It sets them in a particular context of transition and identity shifting. “The death of Uzziah marked a particularly vulnerable moment for Judah. He had been king for more than forty years and had led Judah to enjoy its greatest level of peace and prosperity since the Davidic empire divided after the death of Solomon.” (Gary Light) Uzziah was a good king, but he was afflicted with leprosy which made him ceremonially and ritualistically unclean. That’s not the uncleanliness that Isaiah references in terms of God’s people. Their affliction is not a physical impairment but one of the heart and spirit. In response to Uzziah’s physical decline and eventual death, they have chosen a path that deviates from God’s direction and purpose for them. They have rejected God and closed their ears and eyes to receive God’s message.
Yet, God has not given up on them. God calls a new messenger to participate in the cleansing and release of God’s people. First, God fortifies Isaiah with a glimpse of unimaginable glory and then assures him that he is worthy of the call before it is even issued. Finally, God asks a question.
God does not call with a nonnegotiable demand. The Holy One issues an invitation after removing the obstacles to acceptance. Isaiah sees God, and receives a heart for God’s people. When he hears the divine question, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us,” Isaiah has been primed to respond affirmatively to the call of God to do what God has already revealed he wants to do.
Isaiah is unsilenced. He is given voice to accept the assignment, eagerly and without hesitation or fear. His lips are released to speak truth to power and to proclaim God’s goodness. He has been convinced of the need for repentance and commits to partner with God in encouraging God’s people toward it. Still, that doesn’t mean that Isaiah is guaranteed success. “After Isaiah’s lips are cleansed for the purpose of his prophetic calling, his impassioned ‘Here am I; send me’ is met with what might be called God’s prophetic bait and switch. Isaiah is called to a ministry defined by negation and privation. Isaiah will keep on speaking but Judah’s eyes will be shut, and their ears will be closed.” (Mark S. Gignilliat) Yet, Isaiah will never be silenced again.
That glorious vision, I imagine, sustained Isaiah through a long and frustrated ministry to hard-hearted people. The assurance of his own worthiness, after a recognition of his solidarity and similarity to those around him, convinced him of the worthiness of others even when the evidence of their behavior and attitudes presented a different portrait. The touch from God compelled him to reach out to others, and the release from God led him to a vocation of setting others free.
One of my seminary professions, Dr. Terry Wardle, would often remind us that our greatest ministry would come from our point of weakness. I have found that to be true, but only when I allow God into those spaces. When the touch from the Holy One assures me that my worth and value arises not from how much I’ve done or what I’ve attained, but when I see myself as God sees me–as I really am and still worth engaging, calling, and sending. Sometimes, we might take a close look at ourselves and see the places that might hold shame and condemnation and ask ourselves, where is God sending me to proclaim the good news of grace and liberty? What does the Holy One need us to say that only can arise from our experience and perspective?
There are numerous call narratives in scripture, but my favorites always involve Jesus who comes to us and keeps it simple. Follow me is his primary directive. The rest will sort itself out. The complexity comes from those that he calls: the tax collector, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, the prostitute, and even his future betrayer and denier.
While Jesus is not in the book of Isaiah, the narrative points to him. It speaks of him as a specific, promised person who will enter the lives of the covenant people. But, even more than that, it reflects the idea of him, God’s overwhelming, redemptive, and restorative love manifested in human flesh. We too have been called to visibly demonstrate and proclaim that same love in our flesh, through the words of our lips, the meditations of our hearts, and the actions of our lives.
Another superhero illustration: In the series WandaVision, Wanda has created a false reality in which Vision, the love of her life who was killed, is still alive. She takes over a town and manipulates everyone into this illusion as an outpouring of her profound grief as Vision was only the last in a long list of people that she loved who were taken from her. This requires a great deal of energy on her part and from outside the boundaries of the town, it is obvious how much power she’s harnessing and using to sustain this effort. Eventually, her machinations come to life and even the “fake” Vision discovers that she had fabricated him. He asks her, “Who am I?” She explains what he is to her, and then he returns with his own framing. He goes through his evolution as a created being all the way through her actions as he notes that he was “a memory made real.” Then, he asks another question: “Who knows who I might become next?”
Here we are…called and cleaned. That is the work and assurance of God. But are we committed? Are we ready to face what we might become next?
Who knows what we might become if we answer the call to be unsilenced? When our lips are freed to speak truth to power, how might we participate in transforming a world, even if it’s only our neighborhood? Who will go…pursuing the glory of the Holy One following the way of Jesus empowered by the Spirit?
Here we are. Will we?
For further reflection:
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.” ― Émile Zola
“Life isn’t meant to be lived perfectly…but merely to be LIVED. Boldly, wildly, beautifully, uncertainly, imperfectly, magically LIVED.” ― Mandy Hale
“I believe there’s a calling for all of us. I know that every human being has value and purpose. The real work of our lives is to become aware. And awakened. To answer the call.” ― Oprah Winfrey
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite members of the congregation to share their own call stories or reflect on how ministries have formed within your faith community.
Gignilliat, Mark S. “Theological Exegesis as Exegetical Showing: A Case of Isaiah’s Figural Potentiality.”
International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 2 (April 2010): 217–32.
Landy, Francis. “I and Eye in Isaiah, or Gazing at the Invisible.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 1 (2012):
Light, Gary W. Interpretation Bible Studies: Isaiah. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
6 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. 2 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. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 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!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 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.” 8 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!”
1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;
worship the LORD in holy splendor.
3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over mighty waters.
4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the LORD give strength to his people!
May the LORD bless his people with peace!
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 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!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 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.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.