THROW YOUR ARMS
AROUND THE WORLD
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: "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!" 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" (Isaiah 6:1-8, NRSV)
Every church has its heroes. One of ours would be Dr. Gerry Parker who pastored this church in the Protestant boom years, from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s. Another would be Maggie Grundman who agreed to start an afterschool tutoring program for at-risk children. She named the program Adventures In Learning. Maggie agreed to run it for 6 weeks, 6 very long weeks that lasted over 30 years. Another would be John Walter, who along with his wife, Joan, made a substantial donation to endow our music program in perpetuity. John also rolled up his sleeves and brought his toolbox to fix anything here at the church that was in disrepair.
In my home church, my grandparents, whom we called Granny and Gramps, were heroes of the church. First, Gramps was a beloved high school teacher for decades where it was said that he taught every course except home-ec including Latin, French, Spanish, English, history and the list goes on. My grandmother was a hero in town for cofounding the town library and serving as the first children’s librarian for years. Granny was also a counselor of sorts. While she never took a psychology course, Granny was an exceptional listener and a wise advisor. She helped countless people navigate the trials and travails of life. At church, my grandparents had something in common—they taught the adult Sunday School classes for decades. Granny taught the women’s class which had an unfortunate name, the Dorcas class. No it wasn’t filled with dorks rather it was named after a leader in the early church named Dorcas. She was well known for loving the poor and making clothes for them. Granny was a great Sunday School teacher because she spent hours researching and reading about the topic for the next Sunday. Gramps was also a great Sunday School teacher. His class was so big it had to meet in the sanctuary. Unlike Granny, Gramps spent no time preparing for his Sunday School lesson. Instead, he would famously walk into the class. Ask what the Bible reading was for the day. Read it and then teach an unforgettable lesson including lines from Shakespeare and stories from Greek mythology. My grandmother often wished that she knew the Bible as well as Gramps. The difference was that Gramps was the son of a Presbyterian minister who made darn sure that his children knew the Bible backwards and forwards. I tried that with my kids but it was hard to compete with Sponge Bob Square Pants and Jimmy Neutron.
As beloved as my grandparents were, even they did not attain the highest in Southern Baptist hero worship. That sainted place was reserved for foreign missionaries, people who had answered God’s call to spread the Gospel to faraway places from China to Africa to Latin America. Our church revered my friend, Jeff Powers, who was a Southern Baptist missionary in Botswana. I had friends from college who served as Southern Baptist missionaries in Guatemala. Foreign missionaries were held in high esteem for the sacrifice they made in leaving families and friends behind, to live in often difficult circumstances by American standards. While there were many physicians, farmers, and teachers who no doubt made a huge difference for people living in poverty, the missionaries’ ultimate goal was to lead the “lost” to Christ. As you would guess, the “lost” were people who, regardless of their religion, had not publicly professed faith in Christ, had not been baptized by dunking (the Baptist way!), and had not joined a Southern Baptist church.
Out of all the passages in the Hebrew Bible, today’s scripture lesson contains a story and a phrase that launched a thousand missionary ships. The story was about Isaiah and the phrase was, “Here am I Lord, send me.” Despite sometimes feeling culturally superior, missionaries of old and of today are in the hinter lands hoping to share the Gospel, which in Greek means “good news.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, some 700 years before the birth of Christ, God called Isaiah to be a prophet. No bearer of good news, Isaiah was tasked with being a bearer of bad news. And the bad news was this—Israel had broken their sacred covenant with God. They broke the Ten Commandments, stopped offering sacrifices in the Temple, and began to worship other gods. Since Israel was now on God’s bad side, the nation lost divine protection and would suffer God’s punishment. To show the Israelites who was boss, God would allow the Assyrians to conquer those who had at one point been called God’s Chosen People. Israel fell in pieces and then fell in total in 720 BCE. (Personally, I don’t think the world works that way and I don’t believe in divine wrath but they did and this is their story.)
Sheldon Blank, a professor at Hebrew Union College, lays it out like this: “Painfully sensitive to the rottenness of his society, Isaiah foresaw its consequent collapse. But he also knew and offered an alternative to tragedy: his people’s survival depended on their acceptance again of the ancient moral demands [embedded within their covenant with God]. By returning they might be saved. To obtain their return was Isaiah’s [deepest desire]. Or, differently and more properly stated, because he spoke for God and of God, his goal was to redirect his people into the ways acceptable to the God whom by their conduct they had alienated, and so to save them from catastrophe. He screamed dread warnings and pleaded for [the nation to repent]. He gave way to despair because he…had no success. His people seemed to him bent on self-destruction; that was the sickening course of their destiny as Isaiah saw it unfolding.”
Having no lasting success, Isaiah saw himself as a failure. He wasn’t though. God sent Isaiah to warn the people. Nowhere does it say that God actually thought the people would hear Isaiah’s warning and repent. When his thankless job as a prophet drove him to despair, Isaiah’s mind must have drifted back again and again to his mystical experience with the Divine in the Temple when God called Isaiah to be a prophet in the first place. As the text tells us, Isaiah actually volunteered for the job. It is our text for today and it says: In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “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 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:1-8, NRSV).
This was Isaiah’s mystical and ecstatic experience with God. By the end of it, he was inspired to answer God’s call with an emphatic YES! Here am I, send me! Sara and Abraham said yes to God beside their tent in the middle of the desert. Moses said yes to God at the burning bush. Mary said yes to God in her home after hearing the Angel Gabriel’s announcement. Jesus said yes to God at the Jordan River when he was baptized by his cousin John. Peter said yes to God when he dropped his fishing nets, followed Jesus, and began fishing for people. The Woman at the Well said yes to God in her transformative moments with Jesus in the middle of a dusty town on a hot day. Paul said yes to God by saying yes to Jesus whom he met in a blinding flash on the road to Damascus.
All of these people became heroes of the Bible and heroes of the Church through the ages. This brings us back to Dr. Gerry Parker and Maggie Grundman and John Walter, back to you and me. For we too have a call from God, though usually without the pyrotechnics. We are not called to heroism, but rather to living lives that say yes to God. My grandmother said yes as a librarian who touched people’s lives by being an insightful counselor and teaching Sunday School. My grandfather said yes by being an inspiring teacher of both high school and Sunday School. For most of us most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are saying yes to God but we are when we say yes to loving our neighbors and say yes to those in need. This service can be played out in any number of ways.
I like the imagery of a “thousand points of light,” a phrase and concept of the recently deceased former President George H. W. Bush. He [first] used the phrase publicly in his speech accepting the presidential nomination in 1988. He compared America’s service clubs and volunteer organizations to “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” In 1990, Bush created the Points of Light Foundation. The organization now has headquarters in Atlanta, Washington and New York, and bills itself “the world’s leading volunteer organization. In 2012, Points of Light mobilized 4 million volunteers to 30 million hours of service worth $635 million.”
President Bush referenced the “thousand points of light” theme often including in his 1991 State of the Union address in which he said: “We can find meaning and reward by serving some higher purpose than ourselves, a shining purpose, the illumination of a Thousand Points of Light. And it is expressed by all who know the irresistible force of a child’s hand, of a friend who stands by you and stays there, or a volunteer’s generous gesture.”
On their 1991 album, Achtung Baby, Irish rockers U2 wrote a song about someone “trying to throw [their] arms around the world.” And that is our call today. When we with Isaiah say “here am I, send me,” we are being a point of light, we are throwing our arms around the world, we are saying yes to God, and yes to Love. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
February 10, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Creator God, speak to us of the dormant places within us and within Your Church, O Lord. May Your warmth and light bring renewed energy and purpose to our lives. May we be nourished and fed to continue to grow and develop. May we rise up and stretch toward You, seeking Your inspiration and responding to Your power in us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Prayer written by Rev. John Miller from Hymns For A Pilgrim People, #35