Watch and Learn – May 26, 2018
Watch and Learn
A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
Saturday, May 26, 2018
Main Idea: God is with us always.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
When was the last time you felt overwhelmed? Life often feels overwhelming doesn’t it? Being a parent, job pressures, health issues, money pinches, the unending news cycle and social media, or the multitude of minutia that threatens to bury us with paperwork or emails, Life, very easily and very often feels overwhelming. This past week I was in New York City and I was overwhelmed by the people, the buildings, the traffic, and the digital signage all over the city. This shows what a country mouse I have become, I felt like I was in a Star Wars movie or some film set way in the future. Our Scripture text today describes an overwhelming experience and reminds us that God is with us always. God cuts through all that overwhelms us to lead us forward.
Our text for today is set in circumstances that have some resemblance to ours today. The prophet Isaiah lived and preached in the nation of Judah (which today is Southern Israel.) Life in Judah was hard and getting harder. The haves of society had forgotten the have-nots. Their worship of God had fallen away. Their leaders were corrupt and greed had led to injustice. Their King Uzziah had brought the stability of a long reign but now he was dead. The nation was threatened by its near neighbors of Israel and Syria and by the mighty empire of Assyria gathering on the horizon. Isaiah felt overwhelmed.
And then, Isaiah had this overwhelming experience of God which filled all of his senses. He “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, just the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. He heard (and saw) the seraphim singing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Host; the whole earth is full of his glory.” He felt the shaking of the temple as they sang. He smelled the smoke that arose from their presence. He tasted the burning coal given to him by the seraph.
When we are overwhelmed, this is what it feels like. All our senses are on overload, we cannot take in another thing, we cannot see anything else, we cannot hear anything else, we cannot contemplate anything else. When we are overwhelmed with beauty or joy, it is a wonderful experience. When we are overwhelmed with grief or fear, it is horrific.
Isaiah is overwhelmed with the holiness of God and he breaks down. ‘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!’ (6:5) What can I do?” Isaiah’s words are striking, for he recognizes his unworthiness and yet he also recognizes the great gift he has been given, to see the Lord! In the presence of such glory, Isaiah is pointedly reminded of his shortcomings and his sin. In the presence of God, how could one not feel overwhelmed?
In answer to his distress, the seraph comes to him and reminds him of whose he is. With the coal, his “unclean lips” are made clean. That which was his sin and unworthiness has now been removed, “blotted out”. That which separated him from God has been removed. In the midst of swirling, overwhelming experiences, God is present as a small, warm, light which comes to us and claims us, like a glowing ember seen in the dead of night. God cuts through all the drama and clutter to claim our attention and heal us of what separates us from God. This is not easy. Letting go of what separates us from God can be painful (like a hot coal) as we are called to let go of our selfishness, our privilege, and our vices.
Once Isaiah has been claimed and healed, now he can hear God who asks, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ It is kind of funny to think of God looking for volunteers. Without even waiting to find out the assignment, Isaiah says, “Here I am; send me!” He is so happy to be in the presence of God, so happy to be claimed and redeemed that he is willing to do anything for God.
The lectionary stops the text at this upbeat, hopeful moment. But if we were to read further we would find that what Isaiah is called to do will not be easy. It will not endear him to the powers that be. It will not help him win friends and influence people. Isaiah is called to preach to a people who will not listen to him and who will bear the consequences of not listening to God. As Isaiah lives his life, preaching to those who do not listen, and watching as Judah and Jerusalem fall to Assyria, he holds onto the reality of God’s claim on him. In the midst of a life filled with overwhelming circumstances, Isaiah can perceive the presence of God with him like a bright, burning coal.
Now we may never have a vision of six winged seraphs or the hem of God’s garment filling our sanctuary but we certainly know what it feels like to be buffeted by forces that are beyond our control. Our world is in need of prophets like Isaiah, to call us to justice and mercy and peace. We live in a world where truth has become a matter of opinion, where mercy has been sacrificed in favor of security, and where the desires of a few outweigh the needs of the many. In our world we can be encouraged by the vision of God which is bigger and more overwhelming than all the troubles that we have. And we are challenged by God to cut through all that overwhelms us to focus on what God would have us do; that is share the Good News of God’s love. This is not easy. Many will not listen to us. Many will say we are foolish or uninformed.
Last Sunday, with New Alpha and our Karen Community, we went out of this sanctuary to sing and to pray for our communities in City Hall Park. It was our public witness to the power of God in the world. This past Thursday, around 2000 people gathered in Washington DC for a worship service and a candlelit vigil. This group of Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents were gathered to “Reclaim Jesus” from those who not only use his name for their political and personal gain, but [who] reject the gentleness, kindness, love of neighbor, the poor, and the truth that Christ embraced.” (Rhina Guidos May 26, 2018 CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE, cruxnow.com). This event was organized by a group of 23 religious leaders including Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, who preached at the royal wedding. They wrote a document entitled “Reclaiming Jesus; A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” which lays out biblical reasons for rejecting the “resurgence of white nationalism and racism,” oppression based on “race, gender, identity, or class,” misogyny, sexual harassment, abuse of women, policies that “debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God,” the “pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life,” autocratic political leadership, and “America First” policies. (Samuel Smith, christianpost.com). This movement is a challenge for us to use our faith as the basis of our politics. It is an opportunity for us to counter the negative impressions many people have of Christians by living out the teachings of Jesus and by modeling how healthy communities can work together. In the coming weeks we can read and discuss the Reclaiming Jesus document together.
As the prophet Isaiah knew, and as Jesus knew, our God is more powerful than anything else in the universe. We do not need to fear anything when we are aligned with God’s purposes. When we feel overwhelmed we can know that God is with us, leading us out of the chaos and toward love and healing. May we hold on to this certainty as we move forward in an uncertain world, always trusting in the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.
Let us pray,
Overwhelming God, we praise you and thank you for your presence in our lives. Help us to recognize you in the midst of our overwhelming lives. Empower us to follow your call and share your love in this world. Amen.