A Meditation on Isaiah 6: 1 – 8 and Luke 5: 1 – 11
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church February 10, 2019
At Second Presbyterian church in Nashville, Tennessee, Martha Denton was one of the saints. She made a point of meeting and welcoming everyone. She was loved by young and old. She was always there with a meal when someone had a new baby or had just gotten out of the hospital. I remember how she looked out for the new pastor, pointing out all the land mines that he should avoid. I remember how she volunteered in the office every Friday, supposedly to fold the 300 worship bulletins, but really to catch up on the week’s news (gossip) with the office administrator. She didn’t miss anything. She used to say that she loved being old because she could say whatever she wanted to say to whomever she wanted to say it. She didn’t worry about filters anymore.
Martha watched as our family grew from two boys to three, and one day she said to me, “I sure was worried about you and Lou. Those boys were running circles around you. I was so relieved when you got things figured out! I was afraid I was going to have to intervene!” She spoke the truth – the sometimes shocking truth – in love and always with laughter. After I had gone to work for the church, after several years of knowing Martha, I invited her to be a companion for the first grade Sunday school class. They were a fabulously wild bunch (I had a son in that class). We let each age group choose a name for themselves, and they, led by Martha, decided to name themselves “the squirrely ones.” It was quite perfect really…and to complete the picture Martha appeared the next Sunday with a squirrel Beanie Baby safety pinned to her blouse. It was quite a look. There stood Martha, waiting for her little squirrels to gather. She was going to make sure they could find her amidst a sea of grownups. She wore that squirrel every Sunday for a year.
Martha was the person who would ask anyone to do anything and you had to say, “yes.” “Will you be on the elder nominating committee?” she asked me. “Uh…sure…what’s that?” I simply couldn’t say no. “Will you teach Sunday School?” “Will you come to Presbyterian Women?” “Will you…?” The first time she asked me to do something, I had no idea who she was. I just knew that a woman with a determined look on her face had stopped me in the hallway and told me I needed to make ice cream for a city wide fundraiser. “Yes, ma’am!” was the only appropriate response.
When Martha called, you said “yes.” And what I would realize much later was that Martha was giving me a place, a role in my new community of faith, setting me free to serve. Calling me by name and empowering me to be an active part of Christ’s church, to be in relationship with others. Laboring together for God’s kin-dom.
Today’s stories from Isaiah and Luke are “call stories.” They are the stories of God and Jesus inviting people into the fullness of the experience of the life of faith. As when Martha called me, neither Isaiah nor Peter knew what they were getting themselves into. But they also knew they had to say, “yes.” They had to say yes to God’s invitation. I knew I could trust Martha. I knew that if Martha thought I could do it, I would find a way. I would dig out the ice cream maker and the recipe book and show up for the fundraiser. I would study the second grade leader’s guide and get up an hour earlier to prepare for teaching because Martha believed in me and said the church needed me. Those were easy calls to answer compared to the calls placed on Isaiah and Peter.
Both of the stories we heard today are somewhat strange stories – let’s be honest. I really think one of the biggest obstacles to understanding the stories of the Bible is that we think it is sacrilege to say something doesn’t sound right. We think we have to turn off that critiquing part of our brain when we read scripture. Let’s just affirm right here, right now, that we should laugh when a Bible story is funny, cry when a story breaks our hearts and protest when a story doesn’t make sense.
Let’s name the “disconnects,” the places where something seems “not quite right.” Instead of skimming over the difficulties, or reverentially nodding along ignoring them, let’s recognize them as signposts. They are the red flags signaling for our attention. Just look at these two stories. In the first one, an angel brings a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips to purify him! That sounds more like torture than forgiveness. Or look what Jesus does to Peter: he nearly swamps Peter’s boat and his friend’s boat with that miraculous catch of fish. With a savior like that who needs enemies, right? These stories are equally beautiful and terrifying. We are good at naming the beautiful; we tend to avoid the terrifying. But God is as much at work in the terrifying moments. God isn’t trying to frighten us; God is trying to free us. The question is: When the prison door swings open, do we want to walk out?
God calls someone: Isaiah, Peter. The one being called responds in embarrassment, humility. God purifies, forgives, restores. God empowers. And the individual thinks, “You want me? Are you sure?” And then says, “Here am I, send me!” The individual responds by leaving everything behind and following Jesus. The truths embedded in these call stories are radical and freeing.
Isaiah is so overwhelmed by God’s presence that all he can say is “I am lost! I am dirty. My people are dirty, too.” What does God do? God doesn’t focus on Isaiah’s failures. God recognizes Isaiah’s honesty, knowing that Isaiah’s acknowledgement is the key to his freedom. It is the addict naming the addiction. “When we name our shame, it takes away some of its power to hurt us (or others.) …God does not seek our guilt, but its obliteration. [Stacey Simpson Duke, p. 227, Connections, Yr. C., Vol. 1] God does not celebrate our shame. God does not celebrate our guilt. God seeks to obliterate it. Every single time…
Isaiah has said “yes” to a terrible job. Much harder than making ice cream for the fundraiser or teaching the second graders. He has said “yes” to delivering sobering news to his people. He must tell them of the consequences of their choices, of the devastation that will result. But God will not leave them abandoned. Even as God describes the devastation, God says that a stump of a tree will remain and that stump will be a holy seed. We humans seem to be adept at ruining what is good, while God continues to seek to restore and renew, to free us of our past.
This thread of release appears over and over and over through scripture, reappearing at the seashore in Galilee. Jesus does not seek out Peter to shame him; Jesus seeks out Peter to free him from his shame. Peter has heard Jesus teach. Peter has seen the crowds pressing in to be near him. That isn’t enough for Peter. He needs a sign, and Jesus complies. He gives Peter enough fish to tear his nets and sink his boat, and at this sign, Peter falls to his knees. “Go away from me!” Peter yells. “I am a terrible person!” But Jesus wasn’t seeking Peter’s humiliation. He was trying to wipe it away. “Don’t be afraid, Peter. Don’t be afraid; be free!”
After hauling in this ridiculously huge catch of fish, what does Peter do? He walks away. He leaves all these fish behind on the shore. That’s kind of funny, too. He apparently doesn’t even take some home for supper. This pile of fish is a crazy abundance, not unlike the barrels of wine at the wedding feast at Cana. Jesus didn’t need to make that much wine; it was a symbol of God’s abundance. Here, we see it again, in another public setting. So many fish that the boats start to sink. An unnecessary abundance, a visible symbol of God’s welcome and grace. These are also symbols of God’s economy. More than enough wine to satisfy the thirst. More than enough fish to feed endless empty stomachs. What a feast that day!
But let’s not kid ourselves. We paused our reading of these texts at convenient but incomplete points. We can imagine a cheerful Jesus putting his arm around Peter’s shoulders as they go off together to fish for – to “catch” people. There will be wonderful moments on that adventure, but that journey will also include more failures by Peter and Jesus’ state sanctioned execution. That journey will include the incredible conquering of death and the joyful restoration of Peter. Jesus will once again find Peter in a boat without any fish. And once again, Jesus will provide food for a hungry disciple. God will always seek to erase the shame. Jesus will always bring freedom. Jesus, before he leaves this earth, will invite Peter to “feed my sheep,” and Peter will do just that. He will teach, and heal, and preach. He will also die a martyr’s death… He said yes, not knowing what it would mean, but can you imagine he had any regrets?
I wonder if you have tried pressing in close to hear Jesus as the crowds did that day? I wonder if you have ever imagined yourself in the throne room of God as in Isaiah’s dream. What would you do? Would you be fearing God’s condemnation, Jesus’ shaming, or would you be expecting God’s freedom? Would you be waiting for Jesus to say, “Don’t be afraid!”
A call may come to you in so many different ways. Saying “yes” to it is just the beginning. You won’t really know how far that “yes” may ask you to go. You could end up wearing a squirrel pinned to your shirt, or having to deliver bad news, or making ice cream, or saving a life. Wherever that call takes you, it will set you free. That is the amazing promise of God. For each of us. For all of us. Thanks be to God, who calls us all, just as we are. Let all God’s people say, “Amen.”
Fun Fact Sidebar:
In Mark and Matthew, Jesus invites his new followers to be “fishers [ἁλιεύς, (halieus)] of people,” but Luke says it differently. In Luke, Jesus says ζωγρέω (zōgreō), “catch” people. Catch sounds frightening; like a kidnapping. We need the full definition ζωγρέω of which is to “catch alive.” So, instead of fishing, which has a connotation of death, Luke uses “catch alive.” Luke is careful to affirm that Jesus is inviting his followers to bring people to life rather than death.
And the rest of Isaiah:
Isaiah 6: 9 – 11
God said, “Go and say to this people:
Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend.
Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,
so they can’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed.” I said, “How long, Lord?”
And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” The LORD will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed.