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Whom Shall I Send?
March 13, 2016
A reading from Isaiah:
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. 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. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 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!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 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.’ 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!’
There is a bulletin board hanging on the wall just inside the main office here at UPC. I’m sure very few of you know it exists, and those of you who might have seen it probably have walked right past it without so much as a second glance. There is a reason we keep this particular bulletin board away from casual view. The reason being is that if you saw what was on it, you would probably think your pastors were nuts. Pinned on that bulletin board are dozens of clippings from the dregs of the internet. There is some good stuff up there, but mostly it is a collection of snarky cartoons and satirical articles that poke fun at everything from religion to politics. Among the more notable postings include an info graphic with instructions on how to literally “gird up your loins,” and a list of the top 12 ways to make the Christmas Eve service more fun – including the suggestions to place baby ducks in the baptismal font for people to play with, trying to convince your section of the congregation to start doing the wave during the sermon, and in a mocking voice, to quietly repeat everything the pastor is saying. There are also inspirational sayings on this bulletin board, including this little gem “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you can never know if they are genuine.” Abraham Lincoln.
But perhaps my favorite post on this wall of sarcasm is a photo of an actual item listing that was put up for sale at a church silent auction fundraiser. Item #61 Block a Hymn for a Year. The item description reads “Tired of a particular hymn? The highest bidder will be able to request that one hymn be given a sabbatical for an entire year. Please write your bid and the hymn you wish to retire in the spaces below, so if someone loves that hymn, they may outbid you and retire their least favorite hymn instead.” I don’t know why we bother with a stewardship campaign around here. Just throw that one out in the courtyard on January 1st and let the games begin.
As much as a listing like this might strike terror into the hearts of Ara and Scott, I’m glad such a thing exists, because, hypothetically speaking, if I were to win this item, I know exactly which hymn I would ban.
For years growing up at church, it seemed like every other Sunday, we closed out the service by singing the hymn I the Lord of Sea and Sky, also known to us as “Here I Am, Lord.” I can’t tell you how many times we sang that hymn. And not just in church, but also at youth camps, at Mo-Ranch, and on mission trips. Our youth choir sang it one year on Youth Sunday… twice. Both as the anthem and as the closing hymn. It wasn’t long before the words of the hymn started to fade together, the melody began to grate on my nerves, and ultimately, the meaning and message of the hymn was lost on me. It became just another moment of noise, the droning on of a 1980s praise song as I sat in the pew, checking my watch, unfazed and unmoved.
I’m sure we’ve all had that a similar experience, one where repetition or over exposure blunts the edge of even the most noble or notable of messages. Whether it’s a pop song on the top 40 station that plays every 20 minutes, a television commercial for starving children in Haiti, the words to the Lord’s Prayer, or a billboard with a red white and blue campaign slogan, over time our eyes and ears dull to the message, the advertisement, or the invitation. This past week I took a look at the bulletin boards in the main hall of UPC, and on just the bulletin boards alone; I counted 109 opportunities to get involved, requests for assistance, or advertisements for upcoming programs or events. And it’s good that we have so many things going on here, but for heaven’s sake, it’s overwhelming. I can understand why it might be hard for visitors and new members to find a place to plug in. Where do you start? What group do you choose? And if you’ve been coming here for a long time, I get that you’re already plugged in‒you already serve on a few committees, attend a class or two, sing in the choir, and help make brownie bags. So when a new opportunity crops up on the bulletin boards, it’s easy for the post to blur into the countless other requests up there. And let us not forget that bulletin boards aren’t the only way we communicate these opportunities with you all. Weekly email updates, monthly newsletters, mailers, Facebook, minutes for mission, and tables in the courtyard to name a few. This church is involved in so many wonderful ministries and missions that, oddly enough, it can be overwhelming to find a place among them. Where do I fit in? Who am I called to be? Why did God bring me here? But as we are about to discover, we’re not the only ones with a question on our mind.
We don’t know much about the personal life of Isaiah before we join him in the sixth chapter of his book. We know that he probably began some sort of ministry a few years prior to King Uzziah’s death sometime around 740 BCE. It could’ve been that Isaiah’s youth had been influenced by the Assyrian invasion of Israel at the hands of king Tiglath Pileser III – an excellent baby name for those of you expecting a boy. We know his wife was referred to as “the prophetess” and that he had two sons named She’ar-Ya’huv and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, also good baby names. We know that Isaiah lived during a time of great political instability in the Ancient Near East, with warring nations and wicked rulers threatening the very existence of the kingdom of Judah. But there is one thing we know about Isaiah that was absolutely central to his identity. Isaiah was a prophet. Isaiah had the gift of speaking truth to those in power. The very first chapter of Isaiah begins with a prophetic vision about the wickedness of Judah. In fact, the first five chapters of the book are nothing but prophetic visions that came to Isaiah. Isaiah had a gift. Isaiah had vision that others around him didn’t have. He saw the world for what it was and where it was going. Isaiah was a prophet and Isaiah has a message that the world needs to hear.
So in chapter six we meet up with Isaiah on his way to into church. We see Isaiah strolling past the bulletin boards in the hallway of First Temple Church, past the advertisements for camel sitting services and buy one get one free sacrificial doves. He takes a bulletin from the usher, his eyes scanning past the announcement about the new book the adult class is reading called “Thy Best Life Now.” He sits down in his pew and overhears that one church lady whispering about the latest news that the king had died. And something stirs in Isaiah’s heart.
“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. Seraphs were in attendance above him; and one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”
Isaiah blinks. Either this church just got some fancy new power point screens or something really strange is happening here. The vision continues.
“The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Isaiah blinked again. The church lady was still talking about the latest news. His bulletin was still in his hand. The priest was walking up to the pulpit to begin the service. Isaiah sat there, transformed by what he had just experienced. And in a quiet voice, barely louder than a whisper, he speaks, “Here I am. Send me.”
Has that moment ever happened to you? Maybe not so much with the celestial fire works, but have you ever experienced that moment when your heart, your gifts, and the calling of God all connected in one glorious moment of clarity and purpose? When you realized what God had put you on this earth to do? When you saw clear as day how your talents and energy were to be employed? Have you ever had that moment? Have you ever had that moment when, in the midst of a constant stream of advertisements and opportunities, one clear need, one irresistible request, flipped your world upside down?
In the church, we use the word vocation to describe this marriage of gifts and calling. Vocation is different from simply what you majored in during college. Vocation is different from simply having a career or a job. Vocation is the synchronization of who God created you to be and what God has called you to do. Yes our vocations can include our careers. I was not blessed with gifts in mathematics, thus the good Lord did not call me to pursue a vocation as your church financial manager. You’re welcome. For us here in the church, our vocational awareness leads some to teach or to govern, to care for the aged or care for the young, to work with spreadsheets or with shovels. According to the gifts God has given us, we gravitate toward, as Calvin puts it, a sphere of vocation, in which we find life and meaning. Isaiah’s vision of the throne was a moment of vocational awareness. It was a moment when the person God had created Isaiah to be and the job God had called Isaiah to do fell into step. And although God isn’t crashing in on us with flaming angels and fog machines like the good old days, it is still possible to find such vocational awareness through prayer and discernment. Ask yourself, what gives me life? What gives me that deep sense of energetic purpose? When do I feel most complete? Then look for those opportunities where your gifts connect with the needs of others.
Do you feel most alive when you’re in the great outdoors, well have I got a youth group camping trip for you! Do you feel most complete when solving complex issues? Let me introduce you to the volunteers at Street Youth Ministry. Do you feel closest to God when you’re showing another hospitality? Have you checked out the welcome wagon lately? Do you feel a sense of purpose when you give your money to those in need? I know a few folks on resources and planning that would like to speak with you. In fact, one of the best examples of vocational awareness I know of happened just like this. Years ago when I was an intern at a large church in Houston, there was a man there named Terry. I met Terry at a church dinner one evening and asked how he was involved in the life of the church. He said, “Well, I have no time, and almost all of my energy is spent at work. I’m rarely in town to come to church and I am not the type to serve on a committee. I have one gift though. Money. My gift is earning a lot of money. So every year I go to the senior pastor and ask how much the budget is short that year. Then I write a check. That’s my ministry here. That’s how God has called me to serve this place.” As squeamish as we are to think about someone talking of their financial gift to the church, Terry understood his vocation as earning and giving money. The way he spoke about it, so down to earth yet so passionate, was like hearing a Sunday school teacher talk about an exciting lesson plan or a choir member getting hyped up about a rousing spiritual. Terry found that which gave him life, discovered who he was called to be. Terry understood that the Church of Jesus Christ asks a lot of it’s members, and he knew that when the call came to give of his money, his answer was, “Here I am.” Terry also understood that when the call came to help with VBS, to sponsor a confirmation kid, or to bring food to a potluck, that others would answer the call according to their gifts. The church asks a lot of its members, because we know that it takes all of us, all of our gifts, all of our vocations, to do the work of Jesus Christ.
This church asks a lot of you, and I know it can sometimes feel as though we are constantly asking you to give more, do more, help more. And I know for many of you, the church is just one of many organizations in your lives that are asking a lot of you. But as we look ahead toward Holy Week, we are reminded of the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.” This church isn’t just asking you to do something or give something. We’re asking you to be something. We’re asking you to be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ. We’re asking you to be a person who is willing to tune your life into the life of God. We’re asking you to be a person who will commit to this community of faith. Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” God gave Isaiah the gift of prophecy and called Isaiah to be a prophet and to speak God’s truth to the hunger of the people of Israel. In the same way, God has given us all a wonderful diversity of gifts, interests, and abilities, too many to number. And God calls each of us to be a part of this community, to be followers of Christ. If you are already plugged into the ministry and mission here at UPC, don’t keep it a secret. Tell others who God has called you to be in this place. Better yet, seek out gifts in others, your friends, co-workers, and neighbors, and invite them to be here with you. For those of you new to our family of faith or are looking to get more involved, pay attention to that pull on your heartstrings, be open to that Isaiah moment where your gifts are connected with the needs of the world, and listen for the voice of God calling out to you, “Whom shall I send?”
So maybe it’s time for me to hear that old hymn anew. Maybe it’s time for all of us to take another look at the bulletin boards, to read the Thursday emails, to find a place to plug in. But beyond all that, maybe its time for us as a congregation to double down on our commitment to be with one another in this community, to answer the question on the mind of God “Who will go for us?” with one voice, united in ministry: “Here we are Lord. Send us.”