- Karen Rohrer
Sermon from 11.13.16, Isaiah 6:1-13
Oh Lord. We come to you broken and reeling. We come to you frightened and angry. We come to you knowing in a new and deep way that we are people of the cross.
From my broken words, set loose your gospel, so that no matter the poverty of my words and thoughts, you might heal us of our fear and prepare us again for your work in the world. Amen.
Friends you may have noticed that I read beyond our allotted scripture. Indeed the calendar we use to select our Sunday texts suggested we end before we learn what God calls Isaiah to say to God’s people—but I think you will agree that that is a significant part of the story—both in our bible and in the world as we find it.
There are hymns written about this scripture—perhaps you have heard one of the more famous, “Here I am Lord.”
These hymns talk about being sent by God in words and tones that seem to resemble a sort of noble speaking tour, carrying light out into the world, speaking as the one God has chosen to open eyes and change hearts—perhaps even being received by crowds who clap.
But that is hardly the picture we get from the scripture itself.
First the call of God is terrifying—the very walls shake and the first thing that Isaiah feels, in the face of all this, is his total inadequacy. He recognizes his own personal unclean lips—and he recognizes the ways in which his community’s systems and structures have created a whole people group of unclean lips.
This sudden rush of self-knowledge is something we will consider more in a moment—as I imagine some of us have had similarly horrifying experiences this past week.
Following that rush, however, two things happen to Isaiah. First in a flash of pain, his lips are burnt clean—and he suddenly stands as a man of clean lips. He is transformed by God’s presence in a way that those in his community are not. Then the call of God comes over the space—“Whom shall I send?” and somehow, something happens wherein Isaiah, totally overcome by the moment, says,
“Here I am, send me!”—without even asking what that might mean for his life. Indeed you get the sense that, to Isaiah, it doesn’t matter anymore.
And, well, I suppose that is a good thing, because the word God gives him to take to God’s people is a hard one.
In light of this past week, I have been thinking a lot about the hard words we get from God.
Passages like the one in Matthew 10, where Jesus says, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword” or in Luke 12, where he predicts that “they will be divided, father against son and son against father” or perhaps in Luke 9, where a man wants to bury his father before leaving to follow Jesus and Jesus says in response, “let the dead bury their own dead.”
Before, I had thought of these passages as confusing and a bit cruel, not the gentle, understanding Jesus I was accustomed to. I never quite knew what to do with them.
In the last week though, I’ve been invited to think about what it means to be a woman of unclean lips, among a people of unclean lips--who by some grace she didn’t earn, has seen the Lord.
And it occurs to me that once your lips have been burned—once you have seen God in the temple and signed on to tell the story, it makes good sense that that story might also burn the ears of those who hear it—that it might also carry with it not peace, but a sword.
Friends, this week has revealed my own racism.
As the pivots on the thresholds of the el train shook and made the turn to go under ground after Spring Garden, and I quietly wept on Wednesday morning, I looked around the car, wondering who in the car might be a member of the secret majority who had just changed my experience of our country so completely.
I wondered if they resented me, a professional, childless woman, with my short hair and my politically correct tendencies. A white man sat down next to me and didn’t notice my tears. I wondered if he was the type to joke about sexual assault in locker rooms and find it all quite funny. I cried some more and looked out the window.
Somewhere in there, I looked up. There was a young black man sitting across the aisle, in one of those seats that flips down and faces the center of the train. He had noticed I was crying, but tried not to notice too much. He looked at me kindly when he did glance over, even as he tried not to stare. Crying on the train is awkward for everyone. So it took me a minute for it to sink in. He didn’t seem surprised that I was weeping in public on a subway car. Indeed, I realized, he knew exactly what I was crying about—of course he did.
He knew because what I was just seeing, what I was just then experiencing, people who look like him have been seeing, saying, shouting in the streets for months and months now. I had not been listening to them.
When he rode the train the day before the election, he was already practiced in thinking, I wonder who on this train hates me, just because of the way I look.
I wonder who in this car jokes about me when I am not present or fears me when I walk by them on the sidewalk after dusk even though they don’t know me, and have no idea whether or not I am kind.
The realization kind of knocked the wind out of me. Woe is me. I am lost. I am a woman of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. And I have been for much longer than I knew.
How did I not hear his reality before that moment? How did I not realize how vulnerable he must feel, wondering which person who looked like me might hate him for no reason?
Everywhere I looked all week there were levels of this same reality, all through the systems of our city and our lives. Throughout the week, I encountered online checklists on how to care for the vulnerable and reminders from folks who fear what is coming.
I’ve heard fear articulated regarding fair housing for LGBT folks, deportation for Hispanic folks, harassment for Muslim folks, heckling for families that include different races, abuse and intimidation for women on the street and in the work place, lack of available medical care and medicine for women and gay folks and trans folks, hatred for Jews, intellectuals, and “the politically correct,” bullying for children who are gay or black or brown or Muslim or disabled.
This list is growing longer and more dizzying in my mind.
Friends, this was certainly made more overt by the election, but we have been a people of unclean lips for a long time. Many wept at this election because it was a confirmation of what they already knew about our country.
For me this election brought me to the moment of burning coal to the lips--the moment when Jesus’ hard words about peace and swords, and fathers and sons, and the dead burying their own dead begin to make sense.
As to the issue of peace and swords—there is no peace when someone is coming with a sword toward the vulnerable. As to turning father against son—the hard truth is, I don’t get to value my father’s feelings over the safety of one of God’s children---even if I love my father.
As to the dead burying their own dead—it has become clear to me that we do not have time.
We do not have time to argue about unity or what is conversationally fair or polite or about whether politics is something we should be allowed to discuss in church in terms of concrete consequences.
People are literally being assaulted ALREADY. Children are staying home from school in fear, my sister is beside herself with terror because my beautiful niece, her adopted daughter, is vulnerable because she is brown and because she has a white mother. Someone painted a swastika on bench in our neighborhood. Black students are being harassed and threatened in mass at the UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA.
So I’m not spending any time on whether or not it is polite for me to mention that this election hurts me and those I love—that we are weeping and frightened, that you don’t “just give a chance” to someone who has already articulated his violent plans for you and people you love. For those who have ears, let them hear.
We don’t get to bury the dead anymore—we have to tend to the living.
So it is true that the message God gave Isaiah to carry to the Israelites was a hard word. I imagine that Isaiah didn’t relish sharing that particular message—especially when he had to share it in his hometown, among his people and his friends, around his own family Thanksgiving table.
To be honest, I don’t relish the call to share God’s word around my family’s Thanksgiving table either this year. By my lips are still burning, and my conscience is still cut.
Friends, people are already suffering and they are already terrified. Given what we have seen, we can no longer defer the truth that God has called us to speak. We can no longer defer the work that God has called us too.
We must speak the truth, we must stand with and defend the vulnerable. We must check on our neighbors and keep our community accountable in a season of ugly, violent behavior.
We must meet the eyes of the frightened and offer whatever power we have to the service of protecting them. Where we have power, we must speak up for those who have none.
Friends, the work ahead of us is not for the faint of heart, but we have here gathered a community of people who love each other, love God, and are accustomed to the practice of grace, forgiveness, and hope. This moment is what we have practiced for.
We will not give up our hope and we will not neglect the power of joy in the face of hatred. Ours is the way of the cross, it is not safe and at this moment it does not look peaceful—but what I can promise is that the only way out is through.
And the path through the cross is the way to resurrection and life again. Stick together. Keep practicing hope. Scripture tells us that by our endurance we will gain your souls. May it be so. Amen.
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