Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Isaiah 6:1-8
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
I want to talk this morning about what it means to be “called” by God to do something. This partially comes out of a conversation that nine of us had last Tuesday evening about what it means to be “called.” This was a meeting of the Discernment of a Deacon Team. We are starting by asking some very basic questions like this.
What does it mean to be called?
Our first reading this morning is perhaps the most well-known “call” story of all, particularly for Jews and Christians. Isaiah has a wondrous vision of the awesome and holy God. It causes him to feel unworthy. God offers cleansing and forgiveness and then utters the great question, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, inspired by this vision, replies, “Here I am. Send me.”
It is a truly marvelous story, and to any of us who have ever felt truly called to do something, it resonates deeply. So we just sang a song inspired by the story, a song which is itself inspiring.
Here I am Lord; it is I Lord.
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
The problem with that song is also the trap of the Isaiah call story. It seems like the process is: the Lord calls; I respond. Now that may seem as natural as breathing, but it is a duality, and Christian spirituality does not like dualities. Christian spirituality has a Trinitarian shape and so does any call you or I get as a Christian person.
In any conversation resulting in a call there are three equal parties: there is God, there is the individual, and there is the community, the Body of Christ, the ecclesia, the church.
Three times since I have been here at Two Saints, someone has presented themselves to the Vestry and myself as feeling a call to the ministry of a priest. Each time I have been very proud of the Vestry, who took their role seriously, and each time I have been proud of those of you who have served on the discernment committee that fed into the Vestry’s discernment. None of these has been an easy decision, although in each case the decision was to nominate the person for ordination.
Each time, however, we have had a serious conversation about what right any of us have to “judge” another person’s call. If he or she feels called to be a priest, who are we to say no?
Who we are is one of the members of the Trinity of call. No one does any ministry alone, much less ordained ministry. The Body of Christ—we—are an equal partner in any call. And the word is not “judge,” the word is “discern,” and that is not just a matter of semantics. To judge is a dualistic activity. To discern is Trinitarian. It is to recognize that there are three players on the field, all of whom must be listened to, and all of whom must ultimately agree.
This can be painful. In the process toward ordained ministry it almost always is.
This is a letter dated May 4, 1983. It is a letter from Bishop Wilbur Hogg, then Bishop of Albany, admitting me as a postulant for ordained ministry. That meant I was accepted into the process and could go to seminary. I opened it at the kitchen table in a boarding house on Lincoln Ave. in Glens Falls, New York where I was student teaching. I whooped and my landlady and the other two boarders came running. “I’m in,” I exclaimed, and I wept.
A month or so later I was on the annual retreat for postulants and candidates for ordination of the Diocese of Albany. In my first conversation group with members of the Commission on Ministry, one of them asked me how it felt when I got the letter from the Bishop. I told her it was an experience of great joy and affirmation.
Instantly I knew I had said something wrong. After a moment of silence, one of the other members shouted (and I do mean shouted), “Young man, we have affirmed nothing. You have a very hard road ahead of you to convince us you should wear a clerical collar.”
Burst my bubble. I went to my room and wept again, but for a different reason.
Now it is true that the guy did not have to kick the snot out of my self-esteem, but it was a learning experience. This was not just about “me” and “my” call. They were a vital part of my call whether I wanted them to be or not. And they got to have their say because that is the communal nature of the church.
Now, of course, each one of us responds to call on a daily basis. Something presents itself to us and we choose whether to respond or not and, if we respond, how. And we do not usually stop and ask the church’s permission to make that response. Of course not. We are given authority, each one of us, to act in the name of Christ. We do not have to ask to be ministers; by virtue of our baptism, we just are.
But, nevertheless, the Church is present in every act of ministry, every response to call, that we make, or, at least, it ought to be. We are with one another in daily life and decision-making by the patterns with which we operate that we are formed in here together. Primarily that pattern is the Eucharist. If all ministry is Trinitarian, it is also Eucharistic.
What are some aspects of this pattern? We rehearse them every time, like last Sunday, when we baptize someone or renew our baptismal covenant: the pattern of our life, and of our authorization as ministers, uses words, verb and noun pairs like continue apostolic, turn repentance, proclaim good news, seek Christ, love neighbor, strive justice, respect dignity. If these patterns shape our existence and shape our ministry, we are never alone.
Some calls require a closer examination, a more robust searching for these patterns and how they might come together in someone’s life for the good of others. This should be true, I believe, pretty much any time the Body of Christ authorizes one of its members to act on its behalf, particularly if the exercise of authority is involved. And this should be true, I believe whether the call in question is lay or ordained.
We should acknowledge that this Trinitarian sense of call frequently rubs us Americans the wrong way. The “self-made person” is an ideal among us, and that includes the right to determine your own fate. We are fed with individualism with our mother’s milk, although this may be more true of those of us who are from European ancestry than African.
The church (we) are simply counter-cultural in this regard, and that is fine. The only mistake we make is when we don’t talk about it so that it is clear up front. Too often we talk about the ministry of someone like me as if God and me made it happen, and nothing could be farther from the truth. At my ordination to the priesthood, the Body of Christ said,
…we believe him to be qualified for this order.
And the Bishop did not proceed until the people had answered the question,
Is it your will that Michael be ordained a priest?
And those were not just liturgical niceties. They reflected a long and sometimes painful struggle for God and me and the Body of Christ to get on the same page.
I don’t want this simply to sound like exercising a call in the church is a difficult thing. By and large, it is not. It is a joyful thing. I have just wanted to be clear about its Trinitarian rather than dualistic character.
Whatever it is, from priesthood to deciding whether to rescue a fawn wandering down a city street or speak to a stranger, it all begins with the elements in the Isaiah story:
· A God ready to call even someone who needs forgiveness.
· A human heart open to that forgiveness and being sent not to serve self but others.
· A community ready to nurture and support—provide the patterns for this service.
Isaiah 6 does look like a dualistic story, but it is not because of one very strange little detail. God asks:
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
The Trinity of God, any one of us, and all of us together as Christ’s Body, make for the kind of calls that not only serve the world, but change it.