In the year King Uzziah died . . . So begins the sixth chapter of Isaiah, in which Isaiah is called as a prophet. In reading Isaiah’s call story, it’s easy to get caught up in the wild elements of the story: the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne; the seraphs and their various wings; the hot coal and the tongs that carry it, etc. It’s also easy to focus on the seemingly eager response that Isaiah offers, “Here am I; send me!”
Isaiah’s call story is a truly dramatic and remarkable one. Yet, in the drama, we may miss that vital first statement that marks the context of the call, “In the year King Uzziah died.” Isaiah’s call didn’t come in a vacuum, or in a solitary, personal moment. Isaiah’s call occurred at a particular moment, within a set of circumstances.
This angle of the story came to me as I reflected on the annual honorary degree dinner held at Colby College, where my husband teaches, the night before commencement (which also happened to be the night before I was planning to give my Sunday sermon at Old South with Isaiah 6:1-8 as the focus scripture from the lectionary readings). It’s an event that I look forward to every year, as it offers an opportunity not only to celebrate accomplished individuals, but also to hear from them and to learn a little about their stories. This year, my husband and I served as hosts for one of the celebrated people who was also the commencement speaker this year, Senator Susan Collins.
During the dinner, all of the individuals had an opportunity to speak. I was struck by the sense that each of them had recognized a moment, or a set of circumstances, that led them to response. Each of them experienced a certain kind of “call” to do something, to respond, to take a risk:
Rebecca Corbett is an assistant managing editor at The New York Times. She was involved in the reporting that broke the Harvey Weinstein story.
Theaster Gates is an artist who “creates sculptures with clay, tar, and renovated buildings, transforming the raw material of urban neighborhoods into radically re-imagined vessels of opportunity for the community.”
Greg Powell was contentedly working as an attorney when family friend, Harold Alfond, called and asked him to try something completely new: become chair of his charitable foundation. The Harold Alfond Foundation is the largest charitable foundation in Maine.
Susan Collins is the most senior Republican woman in the United States Senate. At the honorary degree dinner, the story of the evening focused on the government shutdown this past January. While many legislators chose to huddle in their own ideological corner, Collins invited a diverse group of her colleagues to her office. A system was established that forced the participants to talk one at a time and to listen to each other. The shutdown lasted only a few days.
All of these individuals recognized context and circumstances and then responded accordingly. That they were being celebrated at Colby College (and in other ways too) meant that the risk they took worked out and worked out well.
The lesson that these honorary degree candidates offer is one that should be part of church life as well, especially for churches of the old Mainline. In churches like the one I serve—a church that was once the center of community life, where people had to arrive an hour early for the Christmas Eve service to get a seat—quite a lot of energy is spent in arguing our context and circumstances. We fret and complain. We push against the reality in which we exist.
We are no longer at the heart of community life. The Christmas Eve service, while still the largest of the year, doesn’t even come close to filling the sanctuary.
Over the past fifty years, our circumstances have changed, and changed dramatically. Instead of carefully considering our new context, though, we complain and argue. If only the Sunday morning sports practices would end. If only families would appreciate how important church is to their well-being. If only . . .
As is the case for Isaiah, context and circumstances are important. The call is grounded in a particular moment.
For the current moment, how is the church—and its members—being called? To what mission, to what opportunity, should we direct our focus? What risk is calling us to action, that we might share God’s love and hope?
Certainly, there are opportunities, and plenty of them. Our communities abound with poverty, homelessness, spiritual hunger, loneliness, and addiction. Yet, we so often yearn for what we had, and what we were. It’s okay to hold fond memories of our past, but those memories shouldn’t get in the way of how we are being called now, in our current context, to be God’s people.
We may be fewer in number, but we are called to important ministries in this time, grounded in our own context. It’s time to let go of the past, and to take stock of who and what we are now, and how God is calling us. As Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness, and that of his people, he was cleared of that sin and was able to see and to hear anew what God was speaking to him. And, when the call of God came, Isaiah responded with a compelling eagerness, “Here am I; send me!”
We, the church and its people, are called to do the same—in this time, in this place.