TEXTS: Isiah 6:1-8
Sometimes specific events in a person’s life coalesce in way that seems happenstance, yet also in way that has a powerful impact upon the person. Such has been case with specific events over past many days in my life. They have caused me to make a shift in the order of worship for the service today and have, I sincerely hope, guided the composition of the sermon that I’m offering to you now. The shift in the order of worship has the do with the fact that we did not read the gospel lesson from today’s Lectionary readings this morning. Instead I substituted the Old Testament lesson for the day, which is the account of the call and commissioning of the prophet Isaiah to speak the word of God to the people of Israel and later to the people of Judah nearly six hundred years before the coming of Christ to earth.
Now those of you who are contemporary service regulars know that we always read the gospel lesson and the gospel lesson only at our 8:00 am service. I made the choice to read only the Old Testament lesson originally because if centered around the concept of God calling someone into prophetic service and I thought that it might be a good time to talk a bit about what it is like to be called into God’s service as our call committee is finishing its work on our site profile and is hopefully preparing to receive and interview a candidate (or candidates) for the position of continuing pastor here at Zion.
And then came Monday evening’s call committee meeting which I will touch upon briefly, hopefully without breaking the confidentiality of the group. And then came a Thursday evening event in Cedar Grove that I attended in my position as a minister in standing with my home denomination, the UCC; a gathering termed an “ecclesiastical council” in which representatives from our local UCC congregations examine a pastoral candidate for the purpose of approving (or not approving) that candidate for ordination.
Let us then begin with Isaiah. We are told, in the sixth chapter of the prophet’s writings, of an event where he is faced with a vision; a divine vision; a vision in which this rather ordinary man is faced with the extraordinary presence of God Almighty in all God’s divinely regal majesty. Isaiah does his best to describe the indescribable, to relate the un-relatable, to give a human account of that which is anything but human, because, in his humanity, he simply cannot give a divine account of that which is utterly divine. And, in true human fashion, Isaiah proclaims his abject unworthiness – and the unworthiness of the people that he instinctively seems to realize he is representing. He proclaims, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips!”
God though, in all God’s graciousness and love, offers a symbolic cleansing of Isaiah’s sins; saying in effect, “I did not choose to reveal myself to you because you are somehow perfect. I did not choose call you because you are spotless or somehow free from sin.” God then asks a question, “Who will go for me?” and Isaiah, forgiven and renewed by the action of a seraph touching his lips with a burning coal, steps up and says, “Here am I. Send me.”
Friends, throughout the centuries, throughout the millennia, rather ordinary people; people who often see themselves as deeply flawed and unworthy of even the grace of God let alone the call of God, are nevertheless called by God to be prophets and priests, disciples and apostles, preachers and teachers. Having worked through the many years of my ministry with dozens of individuals who have chosen to respond to God’s call, I am constantly amazed at who these people are and the amazing gifts that they are afforded by God’s Holy Spirit. I marvel at the unbelievably diverse backgrounds that they come from, the unique life-situations that they have experienced, and even the diverse nature of the call itself as that call is made manifest in their individual lives.
Now I need to say to you, right here and right now, because of my interpretation of the 6th chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah and because of my own experience with perceived calls over the years of my life, I have come to believe that the call of God is not in any way dependent upon the characteristics of the individual whom God chooses to call. Isaiah proclaimed his unworthiness, and God chose to call him anyway. And when I look through what we call Holy Scripture, God seems to consistently call those who the societies around them deem unworthy, those who are on the fringe of society and even beyond the fringe of society; those who are often even seen unworthy by the religious establishment of the time and place.
Monday evening I watched as Zion’s call committee struggled with some basic but powerful overarching generalities around who might be considered “worthy” of a call to ministry here at this church. Would it be possible for a woman to even get her foot in the door here? What about a gay man? What about a lesbian woman? Could a young, married, white, heterosexual man still find himself out in the cold, especially if he were deeply dedicated to social justice? I find it interesting that the call committee didn’t even speak of other races or ethnicities this past Monday. I expect that it is something that we will have to at least touch upon tomorrow. (Yes, the group will be meeting on Memorial Day.) I listened to the discussion this past Monday with great sadness, because I know some extremely talented pastors out there who happen to be women. I have personally participated in the ordination of men and women who are decidedly not heterosexual. I have embraced with joy powerful ministries of people who are black and white, Asian and Hispanic, people whose bodies are covered with tattoos, who dye hair bright red for crying out loud, and those who have noticeable physical disabilities.
I mentioned the ecclesiastical council this past Thursday. The candidate who was being examined, Michael, is straight, white and male, but Michael made it clear that he is seeking ordination in the UCC even through most of his life and career to this point have taken place in the midst of other faith traditions, specifically and most recently in the United Methodist Church. Michael is seeking ordination in the UCC because he could not see himself serving and ministering in the midst of a denomination that does not see his sister as a full human being. (Michael’s sister happens to be transgender.) And friends, as straight, white and male as Michael is, I can tell you that he would probably not be easily accepted here in this congregation because he has spent a good deal of his life in missionary fields around world and has dedicated himself deeply to fighting for social justice.
Friends, the greatest struggle that I have had in my career and especially in my early career as a pastor was with my own feeling of unworthiness. And I know that many pastors have the same struggle, sometimes throughout their entire careers. And I carried on that struggle in the midst of a church and a society that saw me not only as worthy, but as ideal! I was the right skin color, I was the right gender, I was the right sexual orientation, I came from a good Christian family, I have never been addicted to any foreign substances, I have no criminal record for crying out loud, I got properly married and stayed in that marriage. I was exactly what many church bodies were looking for. To struggle with my own sense of worthiness while standing against those who would proclaim me unworthy because God happened to create me of a certain race or ethnicity, a certain gender or sexual orientation or physical ability or disability is a challenge that I can’t begin to imagine.
There two parts to a call as I see it. The first part is the question from God, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” The second part is the acceptance of the call, “Here am I. Send me.” God’s question was not, Who will go for us who will be acceptable to the people?” God did not offer the question, “Who will go for us who will fit in well?” In fact, again, if we look carefully at the Biblical record, most of those whom God called didn’t fit very well at all. Jesus, God’s own Son, didn’t fit very well.
Many years ago, early in my career, I sat in an ecclesiastical council or a young pastor. In those days many even in the progressive UCC had difficulty with the idea of ordaining a gay man into ministry and there was some suspicion that Ben was gay. When I was asked to consider whether Ben was fit for ordination, there was only one questions that I asked myself. That question was, “Does this person have the gifts required for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ?” Ben was approved for ordination – narrowly, and went on to become a powerful and prophetic minister of the gospel and, most recently, an executive officer of our national church. Through the years I have argued with others as I remember arguing with others at Ben’s ecclesiastical council. They would say to me, “but he is . . . but she is . . .”, and my answer has always been the same. “Does he, does she have the gifts to minister in the name of Christ?”
We have no idea what kind of candidate the Bishop will recommend to us here at Zion Church. (And let me make it clear; once a candidate is recommended, I will step away from the process. I will not know nor do I want to know who the candidate is or anything about the candidate.) It is my prayer though that whoever that candidate might be, whoever those candidates might be if there be more than one, you will examine them with only one overarching thought. “Does she; does he have the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit that will allow him or her to minister effectively here in this pastoral setting?”
May God bless you all and may God bless especially our Call Committee and our Church Council in this part of the discernment process. Amen.