Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Sunday, February 10 2019, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Of all the many and diverse call stories in scripture, the calling of Isaiah is one of the most vivid, and in many ways one of the most moving. It is often chosen for ordinations—I chose it for my own ordination as a priest—but, though it is not the only way of imagining vocation, it has something to say to many people who have found themselves called to many different lives. The imagery is magnificent, and influenced many later writers—the throne room of God, the shaking doorposts, the seraphs with their many wings crying the words we still use in the eucharist — “Holy, holy, holy.” Traditionally, one kneels for these words; here, where kneeling is difficult, some people bow, because we are meant to be taken into that throne room, struck with that same astonishment.

Isaiah’s response is, understandably, to feel intimidated and unworthy, and when he says this, one of these terrifying seraphs takes a coal from the very altar and places it on his lips. His speech, his words, made holy, not because he is or is not worthy himself—that is treated as an irrelevance—but because he is chosen.

But after all this imagery, it finally comes down to a simple exchange. A voice says, “Who shall I send?”, and Isaiah responds, “Here I am. Send me.”

And sometimes this is exactly how vocation feels. There is a need. There is a problem. There is something that has to be done. And you may or may not be the best person for the job, you may or may not feel like you’re up to it, you may or may not want to. But you’re the one who is there. You are the one who is willing to step up, because someone has to. Here I am. Send me. I will feed these people who are hungry. I will call out this injustice. I will clean up this mess, I will take care of this situation, I will do this job. I will speak this word, regardless of whether anyone listens. I’m here. Send me, I guess. I’m not the best choice, but for now I’m it.

‘Regardless of whether anyone listens’ is, in fact, almost the whole point in this case, because God tells Isaiah straight up that his job is to speak to a nation which is going to ignore him until it’s too late. In a strict sense, he is being called to a complete waste of time. And yet, it is apparently still important enough for him to be called, to be given an extraordinary vision and a compelling charge. And while Isaiah could not protect the Israel of his time from its institutionalized injustices and terrible political decisions and inevitable catastrophe, the words which would be spoken by this prophet, and by those who were inspired by him and whose writings are gathered under the same name, have survived for many centuries, and have had meaning for many people and many societies. Our actions may echo beyond us in ways we don’t know, and may never know.

But I will take a step back in the text, because the connection between our three readings today is in that earlier moment, Isaiah’s conviction of his own unfitness for the task, and his calling nevertheless.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians—and this happens quite often in Paul—it turns into a pretty classic humble brag. Of course, I was the last of the apostles, and the most unworthy of all, and really not even fit to be called an apostle, but obviously God just wanted me to do it, and by the way I have worked harder than any of you, I mean, not that I have, it’s obviously God working in me, but, you know. This is Paul, and there’s nothing to be done about him some days. I think his sense of his own earlier wrongdoing was real—he was responsible for some number of deaths, and it is well that he does not deny this—and his conviction that he had been turned around by God’s love alone, and that he had much to atone for, was deep; but he’s almost unable to speak about this without making it sound passive-aggressive, and we probably just have to accept this as part of the very human, messed-up, brilliant and frustrating person he was.

Simon Peter seems, from the unusually consistent portrayal across all four gospels and the book of Acts, to have been a much more straightforward person than Paul, and inclined simply to blurt things out, as he does here. And like Isaiah, when he uses the word translated into English as “sinful”, he doesn’t mean that he’s an especially bad guy; rather, that he is inadequate, a loser, not up to the standard of miracles, that there is a task being presented to him of which he is not capable. It also might be worth examining a bit more closely what it is to which he thinks he can’t measure up.

Now, this story from Luke is a bit odd in a few ways. It combines the account, found in Mark and Matthew, of Jesus calling a group of fishers on the Lake of Galilee, with the story of a miraculous catch of fish, which John’s gospel places after the resurrection and in quite a different framework of meaning. It has rather the appearance of Luke patching together a few different stories relating to fishing, not entirely neatly.

I also need to note that the image of “fishing for people” or “catching people”, although it does occur in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, is highly problematic, suggesting as it does a kind of coercive mass seizure of human beings in order that they may be fed into the maw of a hungry God. I regret to say that this has been pretty much how the church has read it for years, and it has been the engine for much of our worst behaviour. It is a tricky metaphor to disentangle, and perhaps requires a detailed reading of all the fish imagery through the gospels, which I can’t entirely lay out now. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the Galilean fishermen were not subsistence fishers; rather, to put it plainly, they were precarious industrial labourers at the bottom of what amounted to a huge corporation dedicated mostly to providing luxury goods to the elite; and without interpretation, the miraculous catch could seem to be more of the same—temporary relief for the workers, probably, but essentially a miracle of capitalism. By calling Simon and the others away, Jesus is, at least in part, detaching them from this in order to reconnect them to their own community. If Jesus really did use the metaphor of fishing for people here, it perhaps meant something more like, “You are not working for the forces of exploitation any longer; you are working with, and for, humanity now.” And this is a reading which is also much more in line with the way that John uses and interprets his story of the miraculous catch after the resurrection.

It is at this point that Peter can, in effect, say, “Here I am. Send me.”

It is not, whatever the circumstances, easy to accept the task, the sending. Isaiah takes it on with the advance warning that he is going to fail. We will often fail, but how we fail still matters. Speaking the truth still matters even if no one pays attention at the time. Seeds are planted, and grow the next spring, or years on. There is hope in a tree, if it be cut down, the stump may sprout. Vines spread slowly, but are almost impossible to kill. And our fishing may yet become something which connects us back to the living threatened waters of hope and the community around us. None of us is adequate to the task before us. But here we are. Here I am. Send me.