May 27, Equipped to Speak - Empowered to Risk

Equipped to Speak-Empowered to Risk

Isaiah 6: 1-8

“The seraph touched my mouth with (a burning coal) and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”   Isaiah 6: 7

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost – a special Sunday in the church year.  Today is a special Sunday in the church calendar as well.  It’s Trinity Sunday.  Earlier this month I asked Pastor Kurt what the Brethren do with Trinity Sunday.  He said, “Not much.”  It’s not a day or a concept found in the Bible, and I won’t burden you with a technical definition or explanation of it only to say that it became an informal part of Christianity around the 2nd century.  Folk began to realize that God and Jesus and the Spirit were all alive in the world, especially in the church, and they began using it as an ascription at the time of baptism: in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As the centuries came and went, it eventually became a doctrine of the church. 

Trinity Sunday is positioned in the church calendar in such a way as to say, “Okay, we’ve got God and Jesus and the Spirit.  They’re all here, present and accounted for.  We’ve reached Pentecost, the penultimate event of the church, but so what?”  

I like to think about Trinity Sunday as the occasion when the church provides an answer to so what.  It’s the time when the church becomes equipped to engage in the mission to which it has been called.  It’s the answer to the question Kurt raised on the very first Sunday in Lent: “Why don’t we do something?” Okay, let’s do something.  We’ve got the church.  Now, what is the church called to do? 

The Old Testament lectionary reading for today, Trinity Sunday, is Isaiah 6: 1-8.  That text pretty much describes what Trinity Sunday is really all about.  It’s about loosening the tongues of the faithful and then sending them into the world to speak God’s truth. 

“The seraph touched my mouth with a burning coal and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”  “You have been cleansed by this act and through that absolution you have been equipped to go and speak.”  So, God asks, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”  Well, you know the rest of it don’t you.  Isaiah, being absolutely taken by what he has just experienced, exclaims, “Here am I.  Send me.”  Now that may be the climax, but it is certainly not the end.

I really believe that those who chose this text for Trinity Sunday lost their nerve.  They didn’t include the last verses of chapter 6.  They just sort of left us thinking that Isaiah and we have volunteered to go out to speak lovely words like: I will go out and share the good news of Jesus or I will go out and pronounce benign blessings and mild benedictions upon all of God’s children.  Not so!  

What are we supposed to do?  Beginning at verse 9, God let’s Isaiah know exactly what he is to do.  I want to draw your attention to the screens.  There you will find the remaining verses of chapter 6.  I would like you to read along silently as I read it aloud.  God says to Isaiah, “Go and say to this people:

         “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.

         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;

         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.

How’s that for something to do once we’ve been equipped to speak– go out and share that kind of message?  You see, the words Isaiah is commissioned to say are void of any good news.  These are words of judgment leveled against a people who deny the existence of the daily injustices going on before their very eyes.  It was a description of the way life was is being lived.  In our contemporary setting, it would be like saying, “See this sexual harassment over here?  It’s okay.  It’s just guys being guys using their locker room language.”  It’s looking at injustice, and denying the inappropriateness of such behavior.  Basically, when we do that we’re saying such behavior is alright.

We live in a charged political climate in this nation.  And as a nation we are denying a whole host of words and actions being leveled at the poor, the naive and those who are otherwise easy targets – dreamers, undocumented immigrants, people of color, school children and teachers, and those who don’t look like us and whom we have now identified as our enemies.  So we pass laws that create bigger divisions between people or turn marginalized people into no people at all.  We use our power to threaten those who are without authority or voice, we jeopardize the lives of our children by allowing our educational system to crumble, and we do whatever we can to divide and conquer in order to maintain control.

We see, hear, and read about these kinds of injustices in our land every day, but our response is to insist that it’s just a mirage.  And in the face of that denial, God is telling us that God’s going to keep us in denial mode.  God’s going to keep our eyes closed and our ears shut to the injustices all around us, in order that we not repent.  Besides that, God is not interested in healing anybody.  Wow!

I’m psychologizing a bit when I say that when Isaiah was told to bring those words to Israel he couldn’t believe that God would suggest such a thing.  He cried out to God wondering how long this would continue.  God’s word to Isaiah was, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitants and houses without people.”  When we understand these words in light of the whole of Isaiah’s prophecy, we realize God is foreshadowing the Babylonian Captivity. 

It appears to me that we, in this nation, are living in denial mode.  In the face of our denials, what might the consequences look like in our time?  I can’t even imagine what wasted cities and houses without people would look like.  It’s hard to fathom a Chicago or a Fort Wayne or a North Manchester as vast emptiness. 

Kurt has said many times that he looks for the good news when he prepares for a sermon.  I believe that most people who are serious about sharing the gospels attempt to do that, after all it is good news.  But every now and then, we find ourselves wrestling with a text that flies in the face of that philosophy and hands us what appears to be nothing but bad news.

Carole and I have talked a lot over the past months about the state of affairs in our land and in the world.   And on several occasions she has suggested that perhaps we need to experience what we’re getting.  And we’re finding out that our continual denials are no longer being met with divine grace.  It’s as if God is saying, “If you’re going to insist on living like this, then you’ll just have to live with the consequences.”  For Israel that was being moved far away from their homeland to 40 years of captivity.  Frankly, I don’t have a clue as to what that may mean for us.

In a recent issue of Sojourner's Magazine, J. Dana Trent, a Baptist minister in North Carolina, offers an alternative to this doom and gloom scenario given to Isaiah.  She suggests we reclaim the truth of the Exodus Event where the people of Israel, slaves to the normalization of the Pharaoh’s tyrannical reign, fled to the desert under Moses’s leadership where they had nothing.  In that desolate place bereft of anything they could call their own, they risked building a community shaped by cooperation and the truth of God’s love.  God then gave them commandments of ritual and ethics completely antithetical to Pharaoh’s dictatorial reign.

She wonders.  In our prosperity have we forgotten the tyranny of absolute, unfettered reign?  Have we stripped the story of the Exodus and the gospels so sharply from our canon that we’ve proof-texted our way into forgetting Pharaoh’s tyranny and Jesus’ commandments: to love one another, to lay down one’s life for another, to be your sister’s and brother’s keepers?  These last verses in Isaiah 6 cause one to believe that Israel had forgotten Exodus and the risk of forming a new covenant community.

These last verses stood for Israel as a reminder of the risk needing to be taken.  And in light of the truth of their faith history, it is important to remember that the mission God gave to Isaiah was not the only word or the last word God had for Israel or that God has for us for that matter.  It is painfully clear that modern readers of the text tend to move over these words too quickly.  Is it ever possible that the Word of God, the truth for the present and future, just might be the proclamation of judgment? 

Gene Tucker, professor emeritus in the Old Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia has said that the word of God is not some kind of doctrine that requires the same kind of proclamation in all times and places.  So, he continues, there is a time and an occasion for judgment, but there is also a time and occasion to risk salvation, and I’m wanting to say that we could easily miss that yes because we have not heard the no. 

Do circumstances have to get worse before they get better?  Something like that is suggested in this chapter from Isaiah.  But there is a glimmer of hope even in the face of such a devastating message.  The hope lies in the stump that remains standing when everything is burned and burned again.  God says quietly, yet audibly, “The holy seed is its stump.”  We can do lots of things that will curl God’s hair and cause God to contemplate throwing in the towel.  But God is not like us.  God’s love is a holy seed that remains regardless the devastation all around.  It’s a holy seed bearing the possibilities of a new creation if we would but risk our lives for its sake.

By most accounts, the Pentecost experience was a feel-good moment for the church.  But the question became, “Now that we’ve experienced this fire and wind of the Spirit, now that we’re gathered, now that we’re all jacked up, what are we going to do?”  First, let’s remember that there is something to do.  Our text for today suggests that once equipped, we are to risk speaking God’s word of truth, as disconcerting as it is, into a confused, disjointed and needy world – a world bent on living in denial.  We are to risk the truth to the end that a new Pentecost community is born.

And let us not shrink from the task of speaking that truth knowing full well that the consequences of our speech may not find favor among those who continue to deny the world’s brokenness.  Nevertheless, being armed with the truth and being equipped to speak the truth, we are called to risk pressing on with the truth and tenderly sow the holy seeds of hope wherever we go.  There is good news after all, and it affirms the fact that what we know and experience as reality today, certainly is not the end.