Here is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, 4 February, 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 6: 1- 8 (9 – 13), 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11, and Luke 5: 1 – 11.
I found the reports last week about the faith-based initiative for welfare that the present administration is pushing interesting. Not wanting to pursue the fundamental issue of the separation between church and state, I wonder why we have to even think about the need for welfare support in this country in the first place. It should be that in a land of plenty, which is how we see our country, everyone has what they need and no one should lack for anything.
But we know that is not the case for there are countless homeless, hungry, sick, and people in need throughout this country. And the question must be asked as to how we, as a country and as individuals, will respond to the needs of others. This is not a new question, but one that has been with us since time immemorial.
The impetus for the founding of the Methodist Church came from society’s response to the needs of those less fortunate.
The prevalent attitude of the church during Wesley’s time was that poverty was a result of sinful life. Being poor was a fate given to you by God and there was very little you could do about it. If you were poor, it was because you lead a sinful life and were to be pitied. In the sermons of that time, one can read of a real concern for those less fortunate but it was assumed that the only way the working class, the poor and downtrodden could be saved was for them to make their lives better. If they lead lives like those who had enjoyed the success of society, then success would be theirs as well.
Wesley felt that it wasn’t necessary for those less fortunate to be like their betters but it was necessary to enable them to find the way to Christ for themselves. But he also understood that a church and a nation that ignores members of its society could never expect worldly success, let alone success in Heaven. Having accepted Christ as one’s personal Savior, you could not sit back and wait for the Glory of the Lord to come to you. You had to take the message of the Gospel out into the world, both in thought, word and deed. John Wesley understood that the church must present a message people understand. But the message must be accompanied by actions. To Wesley, preaching the Gospel was more than a Sunday experience; it was a daily occurrence. Preaching the Gospel alone is not enough when people are hungry, homeless, or suppressed by an indifferent society; you must help people overcome such barriers. If people are hungry, they must be feed; if people are sick, they must be healed; if the people seek to improve their lives through education, there need to be schools. If the church is to be a vital and living part of the community today, it must offer the hope and promise of the Gospel message to all that seek it.
The church throughout its history has always been a society of people. But, for many people, this means that the church has taken on the form of a social club where like-minded people gather together and have fun and fellowship and generally support one another. Now, I see nothing wrong with those activities; they are essential parts of the life of a church. But I do see something wrong when people view themselves only in those terms and refuse to look beyond the boundaries of the church. I can remember the horror people had at one church when it was suggested that one week out of every fifteen the church be used to house two or three homeless families and that the members of the church assist in the feeding of the families. Those things were just not done in polite society.
But that is the other side of the coin. Whatever breaks down in society, the church needs to be involved. The church needs to stand up for what is right and good. Over the years, the church has stood for good education, equality among all peoples, civil rights, and stability in society. And the call will go out for people to lead the in this regard.
But many people do not want to answer the call. Locked in their own private pain and troubles, many cannot see how they can help others. But in our own private pain, we find that God will meet us and move us beyond it, to make a difference.
Isaiah comes to the temple in pain, seeking after God. He had this vision from God in the Temple. The revelation that came as part of this vision involves a powerful and majestic display on God’s part. In the presence of God, Isaiah saw himself as he really was. His words were "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips." (Isaiah 6: 5) God’s revelation brings a sense of Isaiah’s unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people.
The same was true for Peter in the New Testament passage we read this morning. Up until this point in the New Testament, Jesus had carried out his ministry alone. Now he begins to enlist his followers, his disciples. The message of this passage is that God calls ordinary people to do the extraordinary and empowers them to do it.
Jesus climbed into the boat and called these fishermen to fish for people. But it was only after they realized Who was in the boat with them that the call came. And that call is just like the one we get — to serve.
But when Simon Peter realized Who was in the boat he fell down in front of Jesus and said, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5: 8) He knew he was in the presence of God ( he had called Jesus "Master" in verse 5 but "Lord" in verse 8) and had no right to be there. He simply wasn’t up to the task that Jesus was asking him to take on.
Like Isaiah, Peter was immediately conscious of his unworthiness in the face of God. None of us, by our own merit, can stand before the God of the universe with our heads held high. Any person who has accepted God’s call as an adult has had this overwhelming sense of unworthiness. The past floods one’s consciousness, and the person will echo Peter, "Depart from me! I am sinful, O Lord." We are all inadequate and unworthy.
Even Paul admitted that he was unworthy to work for the church since he had sought the persecution of the church. But through God’s grace, he was able to change who he was and it was through God’s grace that he was able to work for the church.
Isaiah’s honest admission and confession in the presence of God invoked Gods’ forgiveness. Isaiah also knew what to do with his unworthiness. Are we doing anything with our own unworthiness? Are we in touch with the spirit and movement of God’s own self-disclosure to the point that we can honestly admit who we are and what we have or haven’t done, as God’s person? Such a movement is crucial for us to ever get to a place in our lives where we trust God with all of who we are.
Once Peter realized who was in that boat that day, he feared for his life. But Jesus offered him the soothing words that God has said several times before already in Luke. To a trembling Zechariah, to Mary, to an ordinary Peter, God’s words of serenity were "Do not be afraid." God say to us, when we realize our own undeservedness, "Do not be afraid. My Grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."
Paul speaks very plainly about the resurrection of Christ and its meaning on our lives. One of the most important facts of the Christian faith is the bodily resurrection of Christ. The very existence of the Christian church bears witness to the fact that something happened to transform a broken, beaten group of losers into men and women who gave their very lives for Christ, whom they witnessed in his resurrection power.
More than all the factual data we could muster in our endeavor to prove the literal resurrection of Christ is the very fact that he, right now, is in the business of changing lives. Before Peter’s empowering, he was no more capable of catching people than he was capable of catching the fish the night before. But God’s enduring presence enabled him, as it enables us, to do the extraordinary and answer the call to discipleship and service.
After God forgave Isaiah, He asked "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" (Isaiah 6: 8). These questions imply God’s concern for Isaiah’s community of faith. The progression of this drama has now moved from the personal need of Isaiah — his grief — to his coming to the Temple seeking after God, to God’s revelation to him as God discloses himself, to the honest confession by Isaiah of his own unworthiness, to forgiveness, and now to God involving Isaiah as God discloses His own concern as to who can go to the people with his Word. It is a sweeping story that describes, in detail, the call of this prophet of God. Some who have received this same call will see their own story here. The power of this call is discovered as Isaiah is moved beyond his own need, through forgiveness, to being invited by God through the petition to participate with God in bringing his Word to the community.
The challenge is like that. It is a challenge that changes us. To Peter, Luke 5: 10, "From now on," was not a time reference but a fundamental change in the state of affairs. After we met God, whether in the boat like Peter or in a vision in the Temple like Isaiah, we can never be the same again.
With God’s help, we are enable to move beyond our own hurts, pains, struggles, doubts, and fears to become persons sent forth in the name of the One who calls. Through our own encounters with this God who loves us, we are able to answer the question put before Isaiah who shall be sent.