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Hearing the passage from the prophet Isaiah about his vision of being in the presence of God, a presence so magnificent, makes the interior of Windsor Chapel for the Royal Wedding last week look like an abandoned warehouse by comparison. This Isaiah passage is a common one used at ordinations and other sending services. There is no denying the dramatic impact of Isaiah’s response to God’s question “Whom shall I send and who will go for us”:
“Here am I. Send me.”
Except then we hear what follows, what it is that God needs someone to do:
“Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not understand. Make the minds of this people dull, stop their ears, shut their eyes so that they are unable to see, hear, or understand. Keep it up until they’ve managed to ruin everything; until nothing is left but a stump;” until the entire “corrupt system” has been dismantled?
And now it feels like a T-shirt I once owned with a cartoon drawing on the front of a single scene, a woman talking on the phone, weeping, and the caption read “I don’t know. The dog was barking. The baby was crying. I had to burn it down.” In other words, it made sense at the time to say yes, but now in hindsight I’m not so sure.
It’s easy to say yes to God when we think we know how things are going to go. But, then life starts to happen and we are no longer sure we understand why God would have us doing what we are doing. Don’t know that I’d go as far as saying “Here am I, but please don’t send me. I’m just checking in.” But I might ask for a less horrible task.
How do we react to our own discipleship, our own vocation – whether ordained ministry or teaching school or practicing law – what happens when it looks like God’s path for us is going to be more complicated than first we imagined?
At some point during the most challenging time of graduate school, I told my spiritual adviser that I really believed that one reason I was there was to impress upon me that it is entirely possible for a person to be exactly where God has called them to be and it still be incredibly painful. I wanted to remember that for when I returned to counseling and to parish ministry. I wanted to be aware when someone was telling me about suffering that my first thought should not necessarily be that they are “in the wrong place.” They might be in exactly the right place.
I thought of this again while thinking about the context of this lectionary reading in our wider culture as we honor tomorrow all those men and women in our military who in the words of the Prayer Book “ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy”, paying the ultimate price with their lives. I know that one soldier’s experience of a war can vary widely from that of another depending upon what point during the conflict they entered the theater.
Those who endured the invasion at Normandy or that long winter during the Bulge likely felt more like Isaiah than those who came in at the end. One of my favorite stories I remember from my father when I was very young was him telling about being in a company that liberated one of the camps in Germany. He said he didn’t feel like much of a hero. That the Germans were gone and basically they opened the gates and helped with the medical triage.
What he did at the camp that day by opening the gates didn’t measure up by half against the courage of those who had endured from inside the gates. He always ended his stories to us with a moral. The moral to this story was “Sometimes God calls you to do your best inside the gates and sometimes God calls you to open the gates. It may not seem fair. But, either way, if God has called you, you need to show up.”
That image of the seraph flying to Isaiah holding in a pair of tongs a coal taken from the altar and touching his mouth – allowing him to assent to going wherever God sends him along with my father’s story of showing up for whatever is next evokes these words from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched – as surely they will be – by the better angels of our nature.”
So, now it all comes down to this: History has shown us – from the year that King Uzziah died through our own Civil and World wars – that the time comes for each of us to stand before God and respond to God’s call to us without knowing whether the call will lead us to places inside the gates or to be the ones to open the gates for someone else. Will we listen to the better angels of our nature and not knowing what the future holds, commit ourselves to a course that will perhaps be long and hard without knowing exactly how we will come out?
Tomorrow’s holiday is about so much more than how we honor our dead. It is about how we honor God’s gift to us of “life” and determine what shape our gratitude will take in our own lives. We must determine whether we are prepared to stand against tyranny and injustice in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
I believe it will require not only personal courage and fortitude, but the fierce love of a community of faith rooted in Christ’s mission so we can echo Isaiah:
“Here we are. Use us, Lord.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Trinity Sunday (and Memorial Day in the U.S.) Year B 2018