Our readings for this morning all describe God’s call to different people to follow God.
Each story is wonderful and important in its own right. But what matters most for us now is the common pattern in all three. Together they can teach us about how we respond to God’s call to us, how we live as Christian people.
The call to Isaiah in our Old Testament reading has long been one of my favorites. Isaiah was a high-ranking priest who becomes arguably the greatest of the prophets. But in our story, Isaiah is still a young man. Suddenly Isaiah has a vision of God sitting on the heavenly throne, with angels flying all around praising God.
A vision like that is a great gift, but Isaiah is terrified. Face to face with the holiness of God, Isaiah sees his own uncleanness, his unworthiness. Overwhelmed, he cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost” because “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”
In our Gospel reading, Peter has the same reaction to Jesus. Jesus commandeers Peter’s boat so that he can teach the crowds. When Jesus finishes, he tells Peter to cast out his nets.
Peter is a fisherman. Peter has already fished those waters. Peter knows that casting his nets out again was pointless. But Peter agrees, and, to his astonishment, he pulls in a miraculous catch.
Now, this is not a vision of God surrounded by angels. But it is enough for Peter. Peter reacts just like Isaiah did. Peter falls down at Jesus’ knees and begs him, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Face to face with the divine power of Christ, Peter sees his sinfulness, his unworthiness to remain in Christ’s presence.
Then there is Paul. In the reading from Corinthians for this morning, Paul lists all the people to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. “Last of all,” Paul concludes, the risen Lord “appeared also to me.”
Paul doesn’t give any details here. We get the full story of Christ calling to him to become an apostle in the Acts of the Apostles. But Paul does acknowledge what both Isaiah and Peter acknowledged before him. Paul acknowledges his uncleanness before the holiness of Christ, his sinfulness before the risen Christ’s. Paul confesses, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
So, here’s a lesson from our readings for this morning. Even the great heroes of Scripture, the prophet Isaiah and the apostles Peter and Paul, even they respond to God’s call initially with a sense of their own unworthiness.
How about us? God calls us to ministry as well. Probably none of us are called to be prophets or apostles. Not many of us have dramatic visions of God surrounded by angels or the risen Christ straightening us out. But we are all called by God. What can the experience of these three heroes of the faith teach us about our own responses?
I should probably have a keener sense of my unworthiness and sin than I do. But I have been more moved by what lurks beneath the sense of unworthiness in Isaiah, Peter, and Paul: the realization that all is not right with the world, that God’s call begins with God helping us to see that we need to make some changes in our lives.
This time twenty years ago, I had a good life in Georgia. My job was going well, and things seemed good with my family. I assumed that I would keep doing more or less what I was doing for the rest of my life.
It turns out God had other plans. Over the next decade, I got ordained, changed careers, and moved to Massachusetts. I am really happy about how all that has worked out.
But it wasn’t easy along the way. And the necessary first step was recognizing that change had to happen in the first place.
I was slow to notice, but my good life in Georgia was gradually becoming less satisfying. Things got tenser at home, but I figured that was normal. I was getting alternately bored and irritated at my job, which of course made me less effective. But it didn’t feel like a crisis.
As I look back, I was a little like a frog in a pot of water on the stove. The water was getting hotter and hotter. But apparently, if the temperature goes up slowly enough, frogs won’t jump out even if they can. And then they die.
The temperature in my life was going up, and things were getting a little uncomfortable, but I told myself, over and over again, that everything was fine, that I was in a temporary dip, that things would work out.
Finally, God opened my eyes. God helped me to see that things were not fine, that God was calling me to make some big changes in my life.
God was calling me to repent, in the literal sense of that word: to turn around, to go in a different direction. And it all started with a recognition that something was wrong, that I was holding on to things I had to let go, that I was ignoring God’s call. If I had lived centuries ago and if I were more prone to dramatics, I might have said, “Woe is me. I am lost.” I might have said, “As it stands now, I am unfit for service to the Lord because I have been actively resisting God’s will.”
When God calls us, our first step is recognizing that something is wrong and needs to change, that we need to let something go, that we need to move in a new direction.
And the process keeps going throughout our lives. God continues to call us, to invite us, to new and deeper life, new and deeper love, new and deeper relationship with God and with our neighbors. Sometimes the call is dramatic, and so are the changes we are called to make. Other times they are more modest.
But even in times of apparent stability, even in times when we are not called to make external changes in our lives, God continues to fill us with a holy discontent, with the awareness that we have room to grow. God gives us a longing for more intimacy, and more love, and more joy, in God and with each other.
In our readings, we see Isaiah and Peter and Paul wrestling with that discontent, lamenting the wrongness in their lives and the way that wrongness separates them from God.
But we also see a second common reaction in our readings for this morning. Even though the prophet and the two apostles are unworthy to be in the presence of God, they don’t get stuck there.
Isaiah is cleansed by a coal from the altar and eagerly volunteers for service. Jesus reassures Peter that he doesn’t need to be afraid, and Peter becomes a fisher of people. Paul, looking back, sees that “by the grace of God, I am what I am, and God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.”
And we, in our own less dramatic way, know God’s forgiveness and love. We try to heed God’s call. And we experience, however imperfectly, the joy of living as God’s people.
As we enter into this season for reflecting on God’s call to use our time and talents in service to God’s mission, my prayer is that we can discern God’s call to us and move forward joyfully into whatever God wills for us now.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan