The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you join with me in prayer? May the words of my mouth and the meditations and transformations of each of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our peacemaker and creator. Amen.
Today is the Academy Awards, or the “Oscars” as we also know them. Gerhard, my husband, and I love the Academy Awards! We love watching the interviews on the red carpet, the live music, sometimes the jokes (that varies a lot depending on the host), and we love rooting for our favorite films. As a minister, though, it makes me reflect deeply on the power these movies and particular genres of film have over us and our ethics and national values.
Movies can be a force for good and social change, but often over time, through repetition of themes and motifs, they have formed some of our worst collective ways of dealing with love, with conflict, and how to “deal with” and “take care of” a perceived enemy. Thanks to Westerns, in particular, our collective American Conflict Resolution looks more like the John Wayne film True Grit than it does the ways of Jesus. True Grit and the ways of US Marshall Rooster Cogburn hold more weight than the ways of Jesus of Nazareth in our culture. Movies and television often drive values or ethics more than meditation, places of worship, friendships, or Spiritual teachings like today’s absolutely fabulous Scripture from the Gospel of Luke.
When we think about what forms our idea of an enemy, we think of the movies and classic American Westerns above all where there are clear lines between the good and the bad. These formulaic, overly simplistic films that Hollywood is still producing have generated a popular way of thinking about enemies and how to deal with them. Violence and division seem to be the resolution in most cases. Regardless of if you have ever even watched a Western, they are enculturated into our mores and values.
Love him or hate him, disregarding his politics, still one of the top ten most popular movie stars of all time, according to a recent poll, is still John Wayne and his Westerns. Huffington Post movie critic and film expert John Farr tried to get to the bottom of the question: “Why [does] John Wayne still rank among today’s most popular stars?”
Farr writes, “What accounts for this actor’s uncanny endurance? Other better actors played cowboys, like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. Other bigger stars like Clark Gable and Gregory Peck played soldiers. But around the world, whenever John Wayne played a cowboy or a soldier, he was America. Wayne’s persona—its bigness, roughness…literally came to define our heritage. And to a surprising degree, it still does.” This cultural identity power is still with us and our politics. We all are trying to live like John Wayne in a Western in how we respond to perceived enemies—as both progressives and conservatives.
Think about it: How does Conflict Resolution usually work in a Western? Does it end in transformation and wisdom seeking understanding? Is the community better off or transformed because of discourse and problem-solving out there on the range? Are different sides seeking common ground or shared space? Can one town tolerate two authorities? No, none of that mushy, highfalutin European stuff! Is there resolution? Is there resolution to the dispute? Yes! Always! There is always resolution—usually with a rifle, a duel, or a high plains shootout. My thesis this morning: American Conflict Resolution is not the same as the Conflict Transformation of Jesus.
Where does our Scripture today fit within this overwhelming cultural narrative of power to oppose enemies rather than transform community?
Today, in Luke Chapter Six, we find ourselves in the Wild West of the Ancient World, and we are on the side of the outlaw. We are with a wanted outlaw named Jesus or “Jesus the Kid” as he was probably referred to by local authorities. Chapter Six of The Gospel According to Luke is a somewhat lawless, Wild West chapter of the Bible for the Jesus of Nazareth story. In most of this chapter, the writer of Luke lets us know that Jesus and his small band of disciples were popularly viewed as the outlaws, the problem, and the enemy. Yes, what is often missed about Jesus’ discourse on “Love Your Enemies” is that it appears in the middle of a chapter where he and his band are the Wild West Outlaws.
In the first verse of this chapter, Jesus and his disciples take some grain from a field and work it and eat it on their way. The Pharisee Sheriff stops him, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath around these parts?” Jesus replies, “The son of man is lord of the Sabbath.” There is a new sheriff in town!
A couple of verses later, in verses 6-11, we read that Jesus got in a fight with the local authorities in another small town while healing a man’s hand on the sabbath. He says to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or destroy it?” Jesus is a theological and legal outlaw on the high plains of Ancient Israel. Truly, I tell you this is Wild West sort of material, and with Jesus there is a new Sheriff in town.
In my reading of Chapter Six, by the time we get to the Enemies Discourse from today’s lectionary, Jesus is breaking down and going on a verbal rampage. He is tired of being called an enemy everywhere he goes. I view this as a sort of exasperated Jesus who is tired of being chased down, on the run, and accused of breaking the law and being the enemy all the time. He is ready to set the record straight.
Jesus responds to his reputation as an outlaw of the powers that be by proving it to be true. In a world or tribalism, divisions, and enemies at every turn, Jesus announces that there is a new sheriff in town with a new set of rules. Jesus posts these new rules on the swinging door of the saloon:
“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[a] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
There are at least three overlooked points about this passage that will help us better understand it and how to live under by the rules of Sheriff Jesus rather than Sheriff John Wayne.
First, as I have already alluded to, if read correctly within the context of Luke, Chapter 6, Jesus is the one who is constantly being accused of being the enemy. They were the outlaws of the Empire, the sheriff, and the religious powers of the time. Love your enemies, friends, is about how we hope people might even treat us. It is a reversal of perspective.
Here is the resulting, useful spiritual practice for the Progressive Church in the time of divisive politics: In moments of local, personal, or national disagreement give yourself the label of enemy. We love to be the Wild West heroes. We love the be the saviors of the town on the side of the good, but it is powerful to try to see how we are challenging for others or even threatening.
This doesn’t mean that we as progressives give up or weaken in our resolve, especially in the face of so much injustice, but it does mean that we find the humanity, the love, the need for our enemies again. We need to disengage from the script of a Wild West Western we are all living through politically. It is an enculturated script we all follow. For every enemy you make, you make of yourself an enemy.
This does not mean that we are wrong or let go of our work and justice advocacy, but it is a practice of self-evaluation and self-awareness that opens conversation.
In Western movies, good guys vs. bad guys is always dualistic. We must reject these dualistic world views—even the one we so often live into by calling ourselves “Progressive Christian” rather than just “Christian.” We pick the camp of politics rather than a camp of Christ.
The word enemy used in this passage comes from a Greek word meaning either someone who is actively hostile or passively odious. All of us are enemies of someone either actively or unconscious passively.
An example in my work: I know that when I go into a room where I am meeting with Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians for Habitat for other reasons (there are a lot of these opportunities in affordable housing), they know that I am a gay minister. Therefore, in some way, I know that I am perceived as enemy even if we have common cause in other areas.
The only way I am able to speak with them and show compassion is to remember how challenging I am to their world view, their systems, their entire theological framework. I own who I am in the space, and I find compassion for the anxiety or change I must represent. All of us understand what fear of change or anxiety can feel like and can find compassion for that human quality rather than the cause itself.
If, for an instant, I look for how I might be seen as the enemy, it can change how I enter the room or engage conflict. I know that I represent pain, change, and fear of the unknown as the world and culture changes. That must be hard. While I will never agree with them or change who I am, I can find compassion for their experience. Rather than blaming them for their theology and context and cutting them off and refusing community or connection, isn’t it more powerful to come in with compassion for their fear while also owning who I am? Who knows where those relationships might lead?
In American Conflict Resolution, we always view ourselves as the hero cowboy or cowgirl on a high horse with a penultimate right to win and to resolve that conflict once and for all for the benefit of our understanding of good.
Where in your life do you know you are perceived as the enemy? Can you take the time to think of how you or what you represent might make that other person feel—even if you totally know that it is ridiculous or unfounded? Can you for even a second imagine their vantage point? Remembering always that Jesus was the perceived enemy rather than hero.
Now you are doing transformative work!
Secondly, we see Jesus in verses 32-35 making sure that the enemy is humanized. It is like a mirror. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” Jesus is calling their and our bluff. He is really asking: Are you sure you are always the hero of this story? He points out that love for primary community and for family is a common value we all can relate to—so what makes a true hero?
Thirdly, and I love this, notice in this passage God hath not promise a life without enemies. A world without those who disagree with us is not promised. We like to pray for peace on earth, but it would appear God does not see uniformity of perspective or a lack of enemies as the way to achieve peace. “If only everyone saw the world exactly the way we see it here at Plymouth, then the Realm of God would be realized” … is theological fallacy. In fact, it appears that God’s will might be a world where we have to find compromise—maybe that is where the Sacred is found. The Peace of Christ lies in learning somewhere in living well with difference.
This brings me back to the problem with the True Grit and the American idea of Conflict Resolution. Resolution implies that there is one right outcome. It implies that conflict can be resolved once and for all. Resolutions result in violence, in arbitrary end, and in pain. At the end of the movie True Grit pretty much everything is resolved, but everyone except Wayne’s character and one other are pretty much dead. Is that really the model we want to follow even as progressives who are sure we are right?
I believe what Jesus is talking today about is akin to Conflict Transformation. One scholar writes, “[Conflict transformation] is something more than conflict management or conflict resolution. The goal of conflict transformation…is not only to end or prevent something bad but also to begin something new and good. Transformation asserts the belief that conflict can be a catalyst for deep-rooted, enduring, positive change in individuals, relationships, and the structure of human community.”
A couple of weeks ago, I received a text that I thought was a joke at first asking me to serve on Governor Polis’ Clergy Council. It is a small group of 11 interfaith clergy from across the state who meet with the governor several times a year to offer support, ideas, and perspective. I spent an hour with the governor and the group last week. During that meeting, a fellow clergyperson from Denver asked, “What can we do most to make a difference for good?” The governor thought for a minute and then asked us to do everything we can to help change this adversarial culture in our society of partisanship, artificial divisions, and the rampant creation of enemies. I agree with the new governor on this and am willing to work for a new civil discourse in our state and country. I see our Scripture today as God and Outlaw Jesus calling us to do better in trying to have compassion for and get to know our enemies in both personal and political settings.
In Colorado, the Wild West history is at our core. This True Grit Conflict Resolution is embedded in the DNA of our state history. It is every rancher for her or himself mentality. In some ways that means we have less open conflict than other states, but we are great good at putting up emotional barriers, riding people off and riding into the sunset. “You stay on your ranch and I’ll stay on mine and we be just fine so long as we don’t speak.”
In reality we need each other, we need transformation that comes from authenticity in conflict, and we need our enemies to start talking to us again more than ever. We can’t just stay on our separate Fox News or MSNBC ranches and stop engaging in real community. We can’t do that and just hope we will wake-up to a different world in the morning.
At the end of the movie True Grit… almost everyone is dead. That is not the outcome of Christ. Conflict Transformation calls us to not resolve things with violence and reinforcing divisions but to engage, forgive, and truly love our enemies. The proliferation of enemies and the “enemyification” of society will only slow down when we are willing to see our own role in being the enemy as Outlaw Jesus is in our story today. For it is only in learning to see ourselves both as hero and outlaw that we truly can come into conversation ready to be transformed.
Happy Trails to you—until we meet again! Amen.
3. Thomas Porter, The Spirit and Art of Conflict Transformation: Creating a Culture of JustPeace (Nashville: Upper Room, 2010), 5.
Related Original Liturgies
* Call to Worship
Leader: But I say to you that listen, love your enemies!
People: Do good to those who hate you.
Leader: Bless those who curse you.
People: Do to others as you would have them do unto you.
Leader: The word of God for the people of God is not always easy to hear. It is often against the grain of our popular culture and learned behavior.
All: May we rediscover the truly counter-cultural meaning of Christian love and learn to find goodness and God even in our worst enemies.
* Unison Prayer
Sometimes, God, we think we are Wild West heroes—take no prisoners, leave no question, lasso ambiguity, get things done, demonstrate true grit. Here on the Ranch of Life we confuse the values in movies for the ethics of Jesus. We know that is not your way. Today, we commit to a new way that seeks reconciliation where there is pain, self-reflection where there is pride, and an end to the building wave of enmity in our time. Amen.
* Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving and Dedication
May this table be a corral of forgiveness, a chuckwagon feast of grace, a pasture of plenty, and a reminder of your presence in and among our lives no matter what trails we may wander or paths we may trace. Help us to give with a sense of common good and remember always that we give not for ourselves but for your realm where enmity is no longer, and where love endures forever. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, CO
I want to start by saying that I appreciate that ministers are in a privileged position in that we have access to a pulpit, which we try to use responsibly. And I’d like you to know that you do not need to agree with what I say from the pulpit, and that I am open to dialogue with you about it, and I appreciate that you are willing to listen.
I grew up in the United Church of Christ in the 70s, a time when many of us kids in mainline churches didn’t learn much about the Bible. But I do remember memorizing two passages from the Bible: the 23rd Psalm and the Beatitudes. Beatus in Latin means blessed or happy, and so the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with all the “Blesseds” are called the Beatitudes. Of course, we memorized Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, not Luke’s. Most American Christians probably don’t even know that Luke brought the Sermon on the Mount down to earth and calls it the Sermon on the Plain.
Luke’s rendition is a more raw, tough-minded set of blessings, which is one reason that it was not given to us kids to memorize – the same reason that most of us know Matthew’s version better. And Luke leaves in not just the blessings, but the curses as well, and we can’t have that, can we?!
The church I grew up in, Second Congregational UCC in Greenwich, Connecticut, was a very affluent congregation. The poor in spirit were blessed, and that was good news indeed for my family, for the chairmen of the board of Exxon, General Electric, and Textron, all of whom were members of our congregation, not to mention one of our senior members, George Herbert Walker, after whom two presidents have been named. (I was just impressed because he was part owner of the New York Mets!) This was a congregation that defined privilege and wealth. I don’t envy the clergy at that congregation trying to preach on Luke’s version of the Beatitudes: imagine telling the captains of industry: “Blessed are you poor” but “woe to you who are rich!” Can you imagine?! That would be tough to hear if you were in their shoes.
I hate to tell you this…we are in their shoes.
The Greek word we translate as “poor,” ptochos, doesn’t mean struggling middle class. It doesn’t mean that you bought a more expensive car than you should have and you’re having trouble making the payments. It doesn’t mean that things are tight because your son or daughter is attending a private liberal-arts college. It doesn’t mean that you’re worried that your 401(k) won’t be what you hoped so you can retire when you’re 65. Ptochos means dirt poor… reduced to begging… hungry… without any property. While most of us experience financial struggles of one type or another, there are very few folks in this congregation who are in that place… who are “blessed” in that way.
But, the rest of us: woe to us who are rich, for we have received our consolation!
Some scholars say that these Beatitudes are directed to the disciples, not to a larger crowd. (And you could make that argument, based on Luke’s account: “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’”) Richard Horsley writes, “As such they do not speak of ‘the general human conditions of poverty and suffering’ applicable to the crowds or the generic ‘anxiety about the basic necessities’ but of specific consequences of discipleship.” (Horsley 1991:194).
Phew! That was a close one. Maybe the text really isn’t about poverty in general. We don’t have to worry unless… we… are… disciples… or… followers of Christ.
The reality is that 2.3 billion people on this planet – 33% of everyone around the world (and 72% of us in the United States) – claim to be Christian, so if poverty is supposed to be a “specific consequence of discipleship,” then some of us are blowing it. (Just for the record, 24 percent of the world is Muslim, and only 2/10th of one percent are Jewish.) Maybe we’re meant to be sacrificing a bit more than we are already. Perhaps we are meant to be a blessing to the ptochoi – the poorest of the poor.
I have a hunch that most of us in this room would share our lunch if a hungry person sat down next to us; we are a very compassionate congregation. But, there are a lot of hungry people around the world and even in our community whom we simply don’t see. And sometimes there are hungry people whom we don’t want to see.
Sometimes, there are people who we wish would remain invisible. We wish we didn’t have to see refugees trying to make their way from Syria and Africa into Europe. We would rather not see Mexicans and Central Americans coming across the border into the United States. And we’d rather not be forced to acknowledge and deal with people living in Fort Collins experiencing homelessness.
Most of us would share our lunch with a refugee, give a drink to a Mexican migrant, or give a few more bucks to the Homelessness Prevention Initiative. And some of us in this room are doing a whole lot more. Every Friday, a team here at Plymouth interviews folks for rental assistance. Yesterday, we finished a week of hosting several homeless families at Plymouth, which requires a large team of folks. Thank you all for putting your faith into action.
Why do we tolerate a world that allows these conditions to exist in the first place? I’m not suggesting that we just throw money at problems – which often creates vicious cycles of corruption and dependence – though it’s a place to start. I am suggesting that we help create equitable, sustainable systems that ultimately enable people to help themselves. And when dire situations arise globally or locally, we should have the capacity to respond with compassion and tangible assistance.
Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop who died in the 90s, put it this way: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
I know that we need to have the Mission, and Faith Family Hospitality network, but why are there homeless people in Fort Collins to begin with? Is it because businesses offer low-wage jobs that can’t keep a family housed in this community? Is it because there is a limited supply of affordable rental options? Is it because we have a crisis in mental health and substance abuse in Fort Collins that we are only beginning to address? Is it because our taxation priorities have shifted toward aiding the super-rich at the expense of the middle class? (If you think that is an exaggeration, think about Amazon paying no federal tax on $11.2 billion of profits last year.)
Fort Collins Housing Catalyst, on whose board Jake serves, is making some great, creative strides around permanent supportive housing that assists formerly homeless folks to live in a stable environment with support for their physical and mental challenges. And they are doing great things toward increasing affordable housing, like the construction of The Village apartments on Horsetooth.
What I hope you hear me saying is that our faith demands justice, not just charity. Discipleship is costly. Justice is costly. And if we have the courage to open our eyes, we will see there is much work to be done in the world around us.
Aren’t there times when we would rather that Jesus remain invisible, too…or at least silent? Jesus is so non-threatening when he is the paschal victim on the cross or when he is that babe in the manger. Jesus is so benign when all we have to do is say that he is our Lord and Savior in order to be saved. But as Christians we have to look and consider Jesus, because as Isaiah said, “the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” (Isa. 35.5)
The low-cost disciple isn’t following the Jesus of the Beatitudes. There is far more required of us if we claim to be disciples of the Christ of our faith, who demands that we risk everything for the sake of the kingdom of God.
One of my favorite poets was an Anglican priest in Wales, R.S. Thomas, and he wrote this poem, called “The Kingdom,” which reflects the rough-and-tumble beatitudes of Luke.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
I hope the words of Jesus push you at least a little to do something, to grow, to expand your horizons and your involvement, to go deeper in your faith.
My prayer for us is that we approach God’s world and our faith with eyes, ears, and hearts open to God, to our best selves, and to all of God’s children.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The vision of the heavenly throne room
1 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!"
9 And he said, "Go and say to this people:
'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed."
11 Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said:
"Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12 until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled." The holy seed is its stump.
There’s never a convenient time to be called to the ministry of being a prophet. In fact, prophets are usually called at inconvenient, turbulent times. Because that’s when we need to be surprised again with God’s messages of wholeness and love.
For the 8th century BCE Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, the call came the year that King Uzziah of Judah died. It was time of political and cultural instability. King Uzziah had been a very good king for most of his 52 year reign until his pride got the better of him. Legendary history has it that he usurped the role and power of the priests in the temple by trying to light the incense there. Simultaneously there was an earthquake breaking open the roof of the temple and the sun shining on the errant king’s face caused him to have leprosy. And soon after, he died. It is not a good sign when a Hebrew king tries to defy the ways of God. It always spells trouble!
During the immediate years after Isaiah’s call, the reign of Uzziah was followed by an ineffective couple of kings, Jotham and Ahaz. During Ahaz’s time Judah is threatened by war from the countries of Syria and Ephraim. Ahaz is listening to advice from unreliable military sources. Rather than listening to God’s appointed prophet, Isaiah, who is trying to give him God’s messages and save him and the people a heck of a lot of trouble!
Why all this history background? To help us understand what God was calling Isaiah into through this very surprising vision of God that we just heard! Not into an easy job.... Hebrew scripture prophets are always called when the people and their leaders are in the biggest mess, especially when they are unaware of their mess and need the help of God’s ways of justice and love.
Scholars think Isaiah was a mid-level bureaucrat in the court of the kings of Judah during times of war and exile. In my imagination he was a good worker who just kept his head down and got the job done. No particular heroics, no stellar performances that single him out. Just a regular guy trying to make a living and be good person by going to temple, performing the required sacrifices, saying the required prayers.
And suddenly prophecy is thrust upon him in this mysterious vision – the robes of the Holy One filling the temple, smoke and incense, angelic beings, called seraphs with six wings, flying about....and direct conversation with the Divine. That is the most mysterious and scariest part of all. Here is an ordinary, temple-going guy who is called suddenly by God, a government worker just trying to provide for his family and be a good person, not a priest or preacher! Not a religious professional! And God calls him to be the prophet for the people in a very dangerous time. Watch out, lay people! In the midst of his ordinary life he receives this mysterious vision!
Somehow, Isaiah was obviously open to it, perhaps because he was a regular temple-goer following the religious traditions of his people. But he was not specially trained. His first response to the presence of the Divine was ....”whoa, I am not worthy to be here....I am a person of unclean lips and live with others of unclean lips.” In other words...I’m not who you think I am....I’m not perfect or wise about this religious stuff...I observe of the rules but I don’t think I’m good enough for this faith in action stuff. I’m a government middle manager. I’ve might have made some iffy ethical choices in my time. I’m not so sure about this mystery thing and definitely don’t feel worthy of it, perfect and holy enough to be here face to face with you, God.
God simply reaches out in grace to the humiliated and hesitant Isaiah....no shaming, no rhetoric, no dogma....just “Here we can make you clean with just a touch....accept my grace and love....and let’s get down to business....I need a prophet.”
“Oh! Oh, my!” responds Isaiah and after the touch of holy fire, “Okay....I’ll go! Send me!”
Isn’t it interesting, according to this prophetic story, that once we really accept the grace of God, the steadfast love of God, the forgiveness and wholeness offered by God we are freed to say, “Oh, ok! I’ll go!” And we haven’t even heard the assignment yet. (There are other prophets in the Hebrew scripture tradition who do put up a bit more resistance ..... “no, really, I’m just a boy”.... or “I can’t speak well enough. I stutter!”....God just keeps offering grace until they accept it and accept the job.)
All this is good news for us, isn’t it? God comes to ordinary people in the midst of our lives offering grace and love and purpose and meaning and wholeness! We just have to show up! Maybe that’s the tricky part? Showing up....because here is the rest of the story that we were not asked to read...the next five verses of Isaiah chapter 6. This is what the Holy One asks the new prophet to show up to...
"Go and say to this people: (my people of unclean lips....those people just like you),
'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.
Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’ "
What? Make them unrepentant? What is up with God? I thought God was supposed to help us and be faithful in offering grace to us! How can you hear God’s message with out your ears? Or see God’s revelations without your eyes? Or understand God’s meaning without your mind? Scholars have poured out much ink over what this directive from God means. Do we as a people have to experience a “no” before we can experience a “yes”? From God? Hear some judgment, some tough news, before we can hear and really receive the good news? That was Isaiah’s visceral experience in the temple. “I am unclean, not whole, not as good as I thought I was” Then its God’s power heals. Could this be a poetic, prophetic and parabolic way of God saying....listen with your hearts, I put my laws and love within you, you are created in my image. Just listening with your more rational senses, trying to figure it all out by yourself will not get you where you need to be to really experience the grace of God. Don’t get stuck in all your see and hear and do not understand. Listen with your hearts.
With such a very tough assignment, Isaiah understandably says, "How long, O Lord?" How long do I have to deliver this unbelievably hard news?
"Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled," God says.
In other words...for as long as it takes for the people to realize they rely on me and not the human wisdom of an unfaithful king. In Isaiah’s historical context this means even into exile and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. For us could it mean until all we think we have built up with your own power and might no longer distracts us from listening to God.
Why is it so hard for us to accept God’s grace? Why do we hide from it? The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed the mystery of God, “you drifting mist that brought forth the morning” saying:
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
Our fervent hands hide you.[i]
Franciscan father, Richard Rohr, writes, “The key to entering into the Divine Exchange is never our worthiness but always God’s graciousness. ... To switch to an economy of grace is very hard for humans because we base everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value or worthiness of some sort.”[ii] We work on a merit badge system.
The tough news message here is the message of surrender, folks. And by that word, the S word, surrender, I do not mean becoming a worthless, ragged doormat for God. That is not what God requires! Remember Isaiah’s vision. God does not think we are worthless...God always offers us grace! And along with grace offers challenge, purpose, meaning! We surrender in order to get out of our own way so we can listen and follow. We do love to stand in our own way when it comes to listening to God because listening to God is risky business.
Yet God calls us again and again, through prophets, through the visions of our hearts, to be attentive to God’s ways....to live counter-culturally to the ways of the world....God calls us to put down our soul roots into the heart of God, to trust, to discover purpose and meaning in relationship with the mystery of the Holy One who is ultimately the Divine Energy of the cosmos....all that is and has been and will be, the unity and love of God. Then as we go about our “normal” everyday lives as Isaiah did....God will break through with epiphany and revelation....even if it seems we are living in the midst of destruction.
God says to Isaiah, “Even if a tenth part remains like the stump of a tree that is felled and then burnt to the ground.....God will break through when we can finally pay attention with our hearts. Isaiah says “The holy seed is its stump.” God does not desert us to live in a burned out life, but even in the devastation there are seeds of God’s grace that can grow into faith.
May we open our hearts to the holy seed and answer God’s prophetic call in each of our lives as well as in our life together as God’s people here at Plymouth!
[i] Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still; Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2014, 42). Ibid
[ii] Ibid, 42-43.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.