Sermon: The Mystery of Call

May 27, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8

I titled this sermon, “The Mystery of Call,” which mostly meant that what I would say was a mystery to me at the time.

For sheer drama, it is difficult to beat the pageantry of Isaiah’s call to prophecy, which he gave us here in chapter six of his book. We’ve got God’s robe filling the temple, and angelic figures with many wings flying about. They’re even an angelic choir, singing songs of praise. We’ve got an earthquake and smoke filling the space, which is maybe a little too close to home this week.

We’ve even got the basic outline that informs most Christian worship: This passage opens with the angels’ praise, and moves to Isaiah’s outburst of confession. Isaiah receives forgiveness, and the last act of this worship service is commissioning: God’s assignment of new responsibilities to our prophet.

We follow this outline pretty closely on most Sundays, and so do our neighbors near and far.

If you want more wonders in a Biblical call story, it’s hard to find one grander than this. Jeremiah got a voice. Moses got a voice and a burning bush. Even Jesus only got a voice and a dove. No, if you want something bigger and louder than this, you have to go to Ezekiel, who gives seven chapters to describe his first vision.

In addition to all the Hollywood pageantry, though, there’s something else distinctive about the call of Isaiah. Patricia Tull writes: “Unlike Moses with his myriad excuses, Isaiah is hardly able to contain his excitement, waving his hand like a student raring to speak up in class. He is Scripture’s only figure to cry out, ‘Here I am! Send me!’”

The only one.

Ministers tend to be obsessed with the idea of call. “If you don’t feel a sense of call, don’t enter the ministry,” we solemnly intone. When interviewing a candidate for ordination, or a newly arriving pastor in the association, somebody will always ask for the story of their call. And we can all tell it.

We can all tell it.

I don’t think that’s unique to pastors and preachers, however. I think God has a voice for everyone. Every one of you, and everyone you know, and a much larger number of people that you don’t know. I think God is interested in what we do, and what we say, and how we live, and how we love. I think God strives to give us direction. I think God is still speaking.

As Thomas Merton writes in No Man Is an Island, “For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God’s will, to be what God wants us to be.”

It sounds easy. The fact that it isn’t easy is revealed by the fact that Isaiah is the only one in the Bible to hop up saying, “Here I am! Send me!”

There are a lot of pressures on people to mold them, and not all of those pressures are from God. In 2013, a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that fifteen-year-old girls outperform fifteen-year-old boy in science – except in three countries: Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. There are similar studies showing an achievement gap in math.

In 2017, a study of European girls found that their interest falls off at around age 15, along with a similar decrease in their interest in the humanities. I guess it’s no surprise that teenagers get less interested in school around that age. The study found that young women quickly regain their interest in the humanities, but they don’t regain it in the sciences.

CNN quoted Martin Bauer of the London School of Economics: “Conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles and lack of role models continue to channel girls’ career choices away from STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] fields.”

If you want evidence of the cause for this lack of support, all you have to do is look at the subheading for the CNN story, which reads: “Teenage girls can be a fickle bunch, especially when it comes to their interest in science, technology, engineering and math.”

“Teenage girls can be a fickle bunch”? Yes, I’d like a serving of stereotype with my news about gender bias…

That’s just one instance of a social pressure based on gender. Some pressures limit, and other pressures establish a sense of privilege. A short story ran around the Internet this last week from @adigoesswimming:

“My teenage nephew told me he asked a girl out and she turned him down. I said, ‘You know what to do now, right?’ He said, ‘I know I know keep trying’ and I said ‘NO. LEAVE HER ALONE. She gave you an answer.’ He was shocked. NO ONE had told him that before. TEACH. YOUR. BOYS.”


That’s a pressure. And that’s a call.

There’s something awkward about Isaiah’s call. All the hymns of praise, all the angels, all the smoke, leads to a strange commission (which we didn’t read). As Charles L. Aaron describes it:

“God specifically tells Isaiah that his preaching and ministry will not ‘work,’ in the sense of positive response. The people will not listen. Isaiah’s words will even create the dullness. The church confronts the reality that the proclamation will not necessarily lead to ‘church growth,’ especially in the numerical sense. The passage offers hope in the form of a God strong enough for all the evil in the world.”

That is the awkward truth of God’s call: We get called to work, to speak, to guide, but not necessarily to succeed. I am feeling Isaiah’s pain. This week has been a bad one for this nation. Even as the Attorney General was announcing plans to separate parents from children if they crossed the border without permission, a policy unworthy of the America we believe in, we learned that children already separated from parents have gone missing from the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. One would be bad, but we’re not talking about one: we’re talking about over 1400 children.

This weekend, the President has blamed everyone for this except his own morally bankrupt policy.

The chorus has arisen, “We are better than this!” The sad truth is that we are not better than this. This is what we have been doing.

We must become better than this.

And… I am feeling Isaiah’s pain.

Also this week, the federal government reduced regulations on banks and financial institutions. The last time the federal government did this, it set up the financial crisis of 2008. It doesn’t take a prophet to know that it’s not going to go any better this time.

I am feeling Isaiah’s pain.

On these matters, I can only advise you to speak, and speak, and speak again. Make their ears dull with enduring you. Perhaps Jesus was right, and even the unjust judge will be worn down by perseverance to grant justice in the end.

But also: attend to your particular call, the one that makes you into the person God wants you to be. Attend to the ways in which you can bring love and laughter to those about you. Attend to the ways in which you can bring truth, and correct falsehoods. Attend to the ways in which God has strengthened you, and equipped you. Attend to the needs of the world which your drive and passion can meet.

Call, truly, is not a mystery. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it is as distinct and as wondrous as each individual soul.

Attend to your call. Do your work. Speak your truth. Share your love. And God will smile.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Has the miracle occurred? Does the prepared text match the recording? Once again: No.

The image is “The Prophet Isaiah” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, found in the Archbishop’s Palace in Undine, Italy.

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on May 27, 2018

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