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A Time for Prophets

Sermon, Bishop Paul V. Marshall
At the Ordination of
Mary Lou Divis and Charles Warwick
St. Stephen’s Wilkes-Barre – May 18, 2012

        When any person first has the apprehension that God is real everything changes.

What is different about this night is that two people have worked very hard and very faithfully to get here through unusual circumstances. Lou in particular has cheerfully walked a complicated road that I can only admire.

What is also different is that for the third time at St. Stephen’s I take my lead from the music, and want to say a few words about Isaiah’s vision in our first lesson, because you will hear it powerfully portrayed in the offertory anthem.

742, the year King Uzziah died, was not a good year. The good times were over. Uzziah’s reign was for years nearly as prosperous as Solomon’s. It had been a good time to be a Judean. And even when the king fell prey to the sin of pride and was smitten with leprosy, the material prosperity continued for a while under his son the co-regent. But it wasn’t the same anymore. The Assyrians were gearing up and rattling the newest military technology –– iron swords that cut through other weapons like butter –– and there were many in Judah who were frightened or wanted appeasement. The northern kingdom was already an Assyrian vassal state. Suddenly it wasn’t such a good time to be a Judean. Suddenly (increasingly shaky) material prosperity didn’t feel like enough, and come to think of it, the stronger Assyria got, the weaker the stock market was looking in Jerusalem. The pro-Assyrian party was growing in Judah, which meant that that worship of Yahweh was seen as irrelevant or useless by increasing numbers of people. Economic downturn and the seeming irrelevance of religion … is any of this starting to sound familiar? That’s where we start our story.

Isaiah may well have been a priest, but whether or not this is so, his experience of call was in the temple and has a good deal to say about what we do tonight, as we seek vision in an age of recession and violence, an age when we have made ourselves a tributary province of a number of Asian countries, and there is plenty of evidence that we have neither moral compass nor characterological GPS in public or private life..

Isaiah’s call is not a vision with lots of words and instructions –– that would come later. Isaiah’s call was a fundamental experience of who he was as a person and in relation to Almighty God.

Here Mary Lou and Charlie will understand particularly well. Isaiah was not possessed with any strong ambition to be a prophet: it was messy and dangerous work if you weren’t an official state prophet, a hired religious yes-man. No, Isaiah was called to be unpopular by the experience of God’s holiness and God’s mercy. The call came because he was about the business of a faithful person: he was praying.

I wonder how many who have been ordained for a while remember this. Isaiah’s call starts with a vision of God, a kind of intersection of parallel universes: he is in the temple but he is also standing in the heavenly council. He says those simple but devastating words, “I saw the Lord.”

When any person first has the apprehension that God is real everything changes.

After the angels sing what we call the Sanctus and the incense begins to clear, Isaiah makes the right choice.

He doesn’t feel special, privileged or entitled, nor does he feel entrepreneurial about this theophany as St Peter would. He certainly doesn’t Google Whipple’s website for a prophetic mantle. No, he is completely flattened by what he sees and hears. Awe and humility are the only authentic response to a vision of God. Any priest who believes he or she has domesticated God will lead many souls to perdition. Humility is one of the basic tools of our trade.

No, Isaiah’s response to a vision of the Lord of Hosts is the realization that he is quite unworthy to be in that presence, and that goes double for his culture. He is inclined to slink away and go say some penitential psalms.

We must acknowledge the reality of our unworthiness to stand before God’s people and proclaim the word and break the break, but if we stop there we will become useless, because there is more than masochism to ministry.

The “more” is the next moment in this story. Just as Isaiah is getting a good debilitating guilt going, a seraph, carefully covering its “feet” (whatever they were) with one set of wings, presses a glowing coal from the altar of incense against Isaiah’s lips. I would have preferred a cooling dab of holy water. But that’s the point. The sizzling, crackly, burning away of Isaiah’s sin is meant to be an unforgettable experience of God’s cleansing Grace. You stand here tonight because the cleansing Grace of God in Jesus Christ has touched you and changed your heart and lips, as searing as the experience may have been. Just so in Isaiah’s story: the man of unclean lips is both forgiven and cleansed.

Years of therapy are telescoped in this story for a reason. That is, Isaiah has been granted a vision of the divine not for his own spiritual fulfillment — it is not clear to me that our contemporary sense of personal spiritual fulfillment is a biblical concept — Isaiah has been granted a vision and experience of cleansing so that he can hear God asking the heavenly council, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And this new person, this temple sight-seer become Tzadik, says …“Send me.” I think you know the rest. He went on to speak of wolves and lions, virgins conceiving; he said comfort my people; reminded then that though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow. Isaiah was not a pussycat, though. “What do you mean to beat the vineyard and grind the faces of the poor?” To all the ages he said, “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil.” The man, all three of him, could hardly speak without uttering a quotation.

Fast forward to 2012. To say that we are a people whose moral life is out of order is understatement. It is now a matter of law in this country that the legislative process may be owned by the highest bidders and there cannot be much doubt that democracy is in decay. Far worse, Christianity’s good name has been hijacked: an astonishing 91% of young people in a recent poll gave as their first association to the world Christianity, “anti-gay.” Christianity and religious freedom are having their names hijacked to oppress women in ways we thought were over decades ago. Who will in clear words and compassionate acts dare to say that the first word about Christianity is not “anti” anything, that its first word is not a word of corruption or oppression but the word that God loved the world and gave a Son; that the Son did not come into the world to condemn the world?” Who will say that word? I believe that God hopes it is you who will speak.

But you know, if you are faithful you will have the same problem Isaiah did — read his book: Calling for mutual accountability will always be sneered at as inciting class warfare. But the prophets called for it anyway. Preferring plowshares to swords will always be sneered at as weakness, but that is what Isaiah did. Suggesting that the poor themselves have responsibilities and teaching them to meet them may well be seen as patronizing or sometimes racist, but that’s what Ezra did. Resisting First-Amendment bullying by the much larger denominations is going to mean embracing some ecumenical embarrassment, and we will have to remember Paul confronting Peter. Urging a nation to repair its moral character rather than to look for quick fixes is the particular burden of your generation of clergy, just as it was repeatedly for the prophets of both covenants.

Now let me make that harder. The clergy who have been “occupying” various buildings have not brought much aid to the poor or repentance on the part of those they oppose. Banking laws are a little too complex to reform in an ashram — again the importance of restoring impartial government. The battle with sin is defined differently these days. By the year that the King of Rock and Roll died, the revolution of the 60s and 70s was over. We have to be smarter, wilier, sweeter than the merely confrontational. You might think of Desmond Tutu or Dorothy Day as effective models here. Our tools of incarnation, presence, integrity, and adamant dedication to justice all come straight out of the Bible. We just have to be wise as serpents as we attempt to follow Isaiah in transforming our culture.

The courage to do this comes from the presence and power of the Lord Jesus himself. It comes from your life of daily prayer and frequent feasting at the Eucharist. It comes from the examples of thousands of years of faithful predecessors in prayer and prophecy. Jesus’ faithfulness was vindicated, as yours shall be, and he has promised to be with his church for ever, including you and me.

Think this over during the Creed. If you still hear the voice calling, if you still can remember the seraphim flying, if you still want to say “send me,” I’ll meet you by that chair over there in a few minutes. I hope you will come.



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