The references to 2013 are when I began at Trinity Geneva to help an historically dwindling congregation decide if they had a future, what it might be, and how to address the overwhelming needs of expensive historic buildings. Long story short, the buildings are in the process of being sold for development into a 29 room boutique inn, and the congregation moved into a former wine bar in downtown Geneva where it has been happily gathering for four years. In between there were law suits and all kinds of drama but the congregation stayed focused and strong.
We don’t get no respect —
clergy that is.
I won’t argue that we should
but you might be surprised to know
that what was once a respected profession
has slipped quite a bit.
In the health care industry
clergy are more often than not
treated as a nuisance
if not a hazard.
In the business world,
we are naive and we wouldn’t know the difference
between a bottom line and a bottom.
In public life and politics
we are professional pray-ers,
window-dressing meant to be seen but not heard.
So this little story about Jesus
telling the professionals how to fish,
and watching them flail in despair
from their sudden success,
is a lovely story
about pulling one over on the smug specialists.
None of which has anything to do with the story…
It does have to do with feeling in inadequate
in the face of a serious challenge.
2013 for example.
After having moved to Geneva
imagining Katy and I might find a home
in which to retire some day,
I met with Charlie Bauder — Trinity’s then treasurer.
It was the week of our first Annual Meeting together
and it was the first chance I had
to go over the books with Charlie.
He had sent me some reports before I moved
but honestly, I couldn’t decipher them.
When we finished that session
Charlie said, “You’ve got five years.”
Actually, I don’t remember how many years
he said, but I do remember it was finite.
I won’t lie to you.
I hurriedly calculated how many years
I needed to work before retiring.
That was the hospice chaplain in me
accepting there was no hope for the patients survival.
Then the creative problem-solver in me went to work.
What could we do?
I can get rather obsessive
when confronted with a challenge.
Mostly though, I just felt inadequate.
I didn’t know you.
I didn’t know Geneva.
I didn’t know the building.
I had been hired at half-time.
I was a writer now, and wanted that part
of my life to flourish not wither.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw God!
Seraphs were all around – each one with six wings!
And they sang out to each other.
And the whole place shook at the sound of their voices,
and the temple was full of smoke.
And I said…
‘Woe is me!
I am a creature of unclean lips
standing here in the presence of GOD,
and I live among a people of unclean lips
and yet my eyes have just SEEN God!’
Then one of the Seraphs flew to me,
holding a live coal
that had been taken from the altar
with a pair of tongs.
The seraph touched my mouth with it
and cleansed my lips, so that,
when I heard the voice of God ask, “Whom shall I send?”
I felt my lips open
and my mouth form these words: ‘Here I am. Send me.’”
Now that is an amazing vision
or dream or hallucination,
but it boils down to the devastating knowledge
of just how puny
Isaiah felt in contrast
to the indescribable magnificence
of the Creator of the Universe.
And it was only then,
only in the presence of his own nothingness
before the astounding everythingess of God,
that he understood:
Even though we cannot,
and sometimes does.
Suddenly he understood
and God will,
give us what it takes
to open our mouths and say “YES.”
because of God,
not because of our own will or capacities,
the “Yes” comes out,
and things happen
that weren’t supposed to happen.
Sometimes, because of God,
and because of mystical seraph’s
unleashed in the world – not because of our own
highly sophisticated professional selves –
that wasn’t supposed to.
that we have nothing to do with
and stuff that makes things
turns out to be okay…
at least for the moment.
Back in January 2013
Katy and I were living apart —
she was finishing up her job in Vermont
for six months while I set down roots here.
I tried to keep a positive spin on things
but the more she knew
the more skeptical she was.
And why not, deep down I was skeptical too.
You won’t be filled with confidence
when I tell you that my strategy was surrender.
When faced with the impossible,
like quitting drinking and drugs,
surrender isn’t a half-bad strategy.
I don’t do it very often
because I am lousy at it.
I like power and control a whole lot better.
sometimes I recognize when to surrender.
Surrender is when we look up
and suddenly realize how enormously inadequate we are
before the task that is hovering before us.
It comes on suddenly,
almost in a flash,
and we see how monstrously enormous
is when we cry “uncle”
into the mouth of heaven,
and then admit that we are powerless
before something that has defeated us.
Sometimes, and this is most terrifying,
we surrender to something that may even
have the capacity to kill us.
“Woe is me…Woe is me, we cannot succeed;
we cannot win;
we cannot even survive…without you, O God.”
That is surrender.
I suspect when we hear weird stuff
like that reading from Isaiah
it is hard not to dismiss it as a hallucination
or just plain fraud.
But truly, it is not all that weird.
In fact, there is not a doubt in my mind
that all of us have had such an experience –
a moment of utter and astounding powerlessness
before a task,
and our response was some version
of “Woe is me.”
And I suspect that when we did surrender,
there appeared a seraph of some kind,
not as imaginative as Isaiah’s
but someone or something
put a hot coal on your lips —
a spark of light
that changed or turned it all around —
in some way
if only for a moment.
Come on, I know that has happened to you,
and I thank God
that it has happened for me.
You may never have thought about that experience
as an Isaiah moment,
but Isaiah is describing a moment
like you and I have had.
They are strange moments in our lives —
those moments of powerlessness
when a power greater than ourselves
reaches out to us
once we have surrendered.
The story of Jesus inviting Peter to join him
also sprang from a moment of powerlessness.
Peter does not ask Jesus for help with fishing.
He doesn’t need help with fishing,
not from some stinking rabbi.
Fishing is his business – he’s a professional.
He’s been fishing all his life.
He’s making a living at it.
He knows what to do and when to do it.
He commands respect among his peers.
He’s got pride.
He knows all about his thing
because it is his thing.
He doesn’t need some itinerant preacher telling
him how to do his thing.
has nothing to do with God,
it’s his thing.
It’s his business.
It IS business.
It’s his thing…
in other words,
it is our thing not God’s thing.
Let’s just get that straight, Jesus.
Of course, Peter was wrong
and he was about to have a painful moment
to remind him that he was wrong.
It was not his thing
and it never is just your thing or my thing.
Jesus steps into Peter’s thing,
and claims dominion for God over ALL things:
politics — all the real things.
In one terrible moment of awakening,
Peter stands in the astounding presence of God
and experiences his own powerlessness.
In one awful moment
he realizes the way things really are,
and he is utterly devastated
that God is literally present in all things…
and nothing we do
is divorced from God.
The shear enormity of God
slams Peter on his butt
and he begs Jesus to get away from him
because he is a man of unclean lips
among a people of unclean lips.
In other words,
Peter realizes the enormity of the distance
between himself and Jesus,
and he feels as if he doesn’t even belong
on the same planet with the guy.
“Get away from me Jesus,” Peter says,
“for I am a man of unclean lips!”
Jesus is a Seraph
flying toward him with hot coal in hand.
Well, 2013 turned into 2022.
The story we began together is still not done.
In the meantime we had to learn to surrender
to a pandemic.
This is not a fairy tale.
We all know there were many hard things about 2013
and subsequently leaving 520 S. Main Street.
Since the Inn project hasn’t taken ownership yet
and we are still in limbo,
we know what it is to wait…and wait…and wait.
But in my experience,
surrender creates possibility.
Surrender activates opportunity.
Surrender to our powerlessness,
makes room for a power greater than ourselves
to empower us.
I am going to go out on a limb right now
there is a Seraph
circling your life right now…right now.
There is a Seraph,
just waiting to place a burning coal
on your lips,
and when it does
it will consume the distance
between you and God
for just one moment.
For just one moment, one moment long enough
for you to say, “I surrender.”
Maybe it will even be an, “I-surrender-send-me” moment.
I realize these are just crazy old stories
and I may sound crazy talking about them.
Surely nothing like a Seraph could really happen.
Not in the real world,
because in the real world
we are in charge. Right?