Instability, Confession, and Calling

A sermon on Luke 5:1-11 and Isaiah 6:1-13


(for an audion recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Mihály Köles on Unsplash)

Quick poll: Anyone hear these two stories and wonder… “huh, what’s Pastor going to do with those?”

I did! All week, I wrestled with these stories, wondering what in the world I could say about them that would have relevance in your lives.

Perhaps part of the problem is that they are both call stories and telling our call stories is not really part of the culture of most Lutheran communities. I wish is was, because each and every one of us IS called by God, but we don’t tend to think that way.

I think the disconnect is broader than that, though. There’s nothing relatable to hang onto. The details of the stories just seem so far removed from our lives.

First, we get a divine vision of being caught up into heaven, where many winged-angels intone a continuous chant to God’s glory, and sins get burned away with a coal from God’s altar, and the prophet nominates himself to take God’s dire message to the people.

Anyone here relate to that?

Then, there’s the scene by the lakeshore. There’s a crowd are so eager to hear from Jesus that they are literally pushing him into the water in their efforts to get close. Then there is a discouraged fishermen who apparently thinks nothing of wasting all his effort in cleaning his nets when Jesus tells him to try again after a whole night of failure. Then, when the risk pays off and Jesus practically swamps the boats with a miraculous catch, Simon doesn’t even rejoice in the bounty. Instead, he first tells Jesus to go away, and then abandons the magical haul to follow Jesus when he tells him he is going to catch people now.

Sure, lots of connections to our daily lives.

So, there I was, Friday morning, opening up one more gospel commentary, desperate for inspiration, when I read this sentence:

“The themes in this (gospel) text around trust, call, discipleship, abundance, discouragement, risk, and persistence are always relevant but have particular relevance during this challenging pandemic time (emphasis added).”[1]

I could not help by laugh at the contrast between my week-long question of “where is the relevance?!” and this commentator’s confident assertion that the relevance was obvious, especially at this particular time in history.

When I finished laughing at myself, I took another look.

Her statement was about the themes in the text, not the context and circumstances of the stories, so re-examined the stories for themes to DO relate to our current context.

With that question in mind, I did indeed see an instant point of connection: instability.

The Isaiah call story starts with a historical note: “in the year that King Uzziah died.”

Now, unless we have studied ancient Israelite history, King Uzziah probably doesn’t mean very much to us, and we might just skip past this detail. Thankfully, scholars can make his significance accessible for us, and they tell us that Uzziah was not just a strong king, but also a “stabilizing presence” even after he passed on the throne to his son. [2] His death, therefore, meant disruption and uncertainty for the prophet and his country.

But even without this context, setting the scene in the year of a death resonates for us. We all know the way that death disorients – whether in a nation or in a family. It leaves a hole filled with grief. It requires us to make profound adjustments. And it reminds us of our own mortality.

Before we get distracted by the mystical heavenly vision, Isaiah’s prophecy connects us to a sense of instability.

The gospel context is more mundane, in some ways, but it also offers pointed reminders of instability.

The crowd pressing in on Jesus to the point that they are at risk of drowning him reminds us of the recent scene in Nazareth, where the crowd’s enthusiasm for Jesus’ teaching turned murderous when he did not say what they wanted to hear.

And the plight of the fishermen, resignedly cleaning their nets after a long night of work with nothing to show for it, speaks eloquently of the universal plight of the working poor. It is entirely possible to “do everything right,” but to still not be able to put food on the table, through no fault of your own.

Instability is a pretty universal human experience. And the pandemic has only deepened that resonance.

Constants we never even questioned – things like open schools, and open hospital beds, and general openness to be guided by science – we lost them all, at least for a time.

And that kind of loss did something to us.

How can we trust any source of stability when the whole world can be shut down by a virus too small to see? How can we feel safe when everything seems up for grabs?

We are grappling with the deaths of people we care about AND the death of our old assumptions about the way the world works.

We are encountering the volatility of crowds in national conflicts around elections and racial tensions AND in the way people behave in local school board meetings.

We are confronted by the fragility of world markets, and of our own economic security.

Our contexts might be wildly different than an Israelite prophet and a group of Galilean fishermen, but we CAN relate to the feeling of instability.

So then, what do we do with this point of connection with our two biblical stories?

I suppose there is a level of comfort in the solidarity. Despite the unique circumstances of our global pandemic, we are not alone in the feelings of dislocation and anxiety.

And we may also find consolation in the assurance that God has spoken into such circumstances before. Feeling overwhelmed, or even defeated, does not disqualify us from hearing God’s call.

But I, for one, want more than that. I want guidance on how to cope with the instability. I want a message of hope in the face of turmoil and fear.

Unfortunately, that’s not what I get from these stories… at least not immediately.

You see, there is another similarity that connects these two stories – a similarity which might actually be the reason I was struggling so much to see their relevance for us, because the pattern repeated in the biblical texts is so wildly different than the way that we respond to instability.

In both of our stories, the person confronting instability is presented with evidence of God’s awe-inspiring glory, and the response is the same. Both Isaiah and Simon respond to their revelation by naming themselves as sinful.

They don’t see God’s power and think “Oh, good! Everything’s going to be fine. God has it. I don’t have to worry.”

That’s what I WANT them to do. That would be a clear message of hope: “Just trust God with the instability and you will be fine.”

But it’s not what they do. They see the contrast between their messed-up lives and worlds and God’s power and glory, and in that moment of realization they face the truth of their own brokenness, knowing that they have no right to make any demands on a holy God.

That pattern is probably the reason that the lectionary puts these two stories together. I think it is also the reason why they feel so disconnected from us – because abject confession is NOT something we do.

In 21st century America, a willingness to own our faults – to admit that we got ANYTHING wrong, much less describe ourselves as sinful or unclean – is profoundly counter-cultural.

We are much more adept at self-justification… at self-selecting the media sources that that will confirm our biases, and disputing any arguments that call our actions into question, and protecting ourselves from any challenge that will make us feel ashamed, or unclean, or sinful.

This addiction to self-justification was highlighted on the national stage this week, when a major political party sought to shield its reputation by describing the January 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse,” but that statment is just a symptom of a much deeper cultural disease that infects the entire political spectrum, and the broader culture.

From frivolous lawsuits, to zoom filters, we are a culture that seeks any opportunity to pass the blame, and seeks every tool to hide from our own flaws.

If the people of Isaiah’s time were a “people of unclean lips” then what are we? Certainly not people who would willingly submit to being cleansed by a live coal from God’s altar.

But here’s the hope in the pattern of confession in these stories – they are met with grace. In their willingness to confront their own unworthiness rather than desperately seeking to hide from it, Isaiah and Simon discover that they don’t have to have it all together in order to be blessed and called by God.

As a recovering perfectionist myself, this is the deepest meaning of grace to me.

The assurance that I do not have to “go and sin no more” in order to feel safe and loved. A willingness to confess my faults makes them so much less overwhelming, because God can meet me, and bless me, and use me faults and all.

If you cannot relate to anything else in today’s readings, or in my sermon, I hope you can hear this invitation to the power of confession and calling.

Whatever you bring with you to worship today, there’s no need to hide it. Just be honest with God, and then listen for the words of grace and calling that God has for you.

Our world in unstable. And that makes us want to cling to lies about our own strength and rightness. But if instead we can learn to confess our need, we will find that God does not expect us to be perfect… only willing to follow.

Thanks be to God.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-51-11-6 [2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-isaiah-61-8-9-13-3

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