Our scriptures are filled with stories of people who are called, and by “called” I mean that faithful people have discerned that God is offering direction and purpose in their life and making a proposition to them. A “call,” then, might also be described as a divine invitation. A “call” is certainly a mile-marker for where we sense the presence of God intersecting in our lives.
A prophetic call from God, or from the voice of the Lord however we discern it, is a multi-stage process. God chooses a person, usually at a moment of crisis when some intervention is needed and puts forth a message to proclaim or action to perform (typically an impossible task). The person denies it because of their inadequacy. God basically says, “I’m gonna be here with you,” usually offers an affirming sign, and keeps the promise as the calling is fulfilled.
Fortunately, our calls are not typically like Isaiah’s, who came directly in the presence of the LORD almighty. And what did he encounter? The presence of the LORD on a high throne, the LORD’s hem–the LORD’s glory–filling the whole temple. This is saying that God of heaven also fills all of creation with God’s glory, and Isaiah was seeing it. Seraphs are in attendance. Seraphs, not chubby little cherubs but seraphs, six-winged fiery beings. They sang their Sanctus that we sing a version of at every Eucharist. “Holy, holy, holy Lord,” we sing. As they sang, the very ground shook, and the air filled with smoke. Isaiah is struck by his unworthiness, his uncleanliness yet is still awe-struck that he has seen the LORD of hosts. A seraph flies to him with a coal from the altar and touches his lips, departing from Isaiah all guilt, blotting out all sin. And now when the voice of the LORD asks “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” what does Isaiah say?
“Here am I; send me!”
This person Isaiah, whom we know so little about, becomes one of the most renowned of the Prophets, a mouthpiece for the voice of God. And the optional text for today shares that what Isaiah is called to share is not good news, not what people want to hear. There’s a reason not many clamor to be a prophet or even to do the work of God. This passage, this call story of Isaiah is one of the Old Testament lessons suggested for ordinations to the priesthood in our Church. More than likely it points not to the magnitude of God’s commission (which is still great) but rather points to the reality that God calls and equips all of us to holy work, to ministry in our particular context, be it in the church or in the world at large. Isaiah can represent the universal believer.
Peter has a way of filling in for us as a type of “every man,” too. Simon Peter has a very different kind of encounter with God, one much more down-to-earth. Peter’s been working all night and is working with his fellow fishermen tending to the nets. Jesus has come near the Sea of Gennesaret, another name for the Sea of Galilee, and is preaching to the crowd that’s pressing in. Jesus gets in one of the boats and asks Simon Peter to push it out a bit so he can teach the crowd sitting down, perhaps to let the wind carry his voice to the people. Peter and crew hold the boat in place, maybe enjoying a bit of rest after a night of work, listening to the voice of Jesus while they man the boat on autopilot. They do what they do with ease.
Then Jesus tells Peter, calls on him, to go out deeper and to cast the nets, and Peter doesn’t hold back his resignation. “We’ve already fished all night and got nothing,” Peter says. They must have exchanged looks or something nonverbal because Peter goes on to say, “Alright . . .okay . . . if you say so,” as if his mom has just told him to do it because she said so. And they catch more than they can handle. In the chaos of the moment when the weight of their catch is about to sink them, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet, confessing his sinfulness–not unlike Isaiah in the presence of God. Jesus tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus hears Peter confess his inadequacy but still chooses him, calls him to a greater purpose, and in telling him not to be afraid is also affirming what he says repeatedly, “I’m gonna be with you.” Peter, James and John bring their boats to shore and leave everything to follow Jesus and become fishers of people.
The call of the apostles lives on in faithful disciples, including Paul, who knows he’s called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul is quick to remind us of his past sins and the grace he’s received. He reminds us today how hard he works, as if he’s the hardest worker of all time. His confidence always strikes me as boastful, but maybe his self-assuredness is an affirming characteristic, one meant to give us strength and confidence, too. Paul never fails to acknowledge his past sins, how he was unworthy, too. Yet he continues forward, advocating for the faith, shaping the church as one Body in Christ.
Where would we be if any one of these people has stopped at their claims of unworthiness: Isaiah emphasizing his uncleanliness as he must have been where he wasn’t allowed in the Holy of Holies; Peter, who could have stayed with his boat, focusing solely on the fish he may or may not catch; Paul, if he would have let his blindness lead him to despair? Sure, God could move on to the next person, and we don’t know how many were before these chosen ones. But these are the people who answered God’s call in their life and said in one way or another: “Here am I; send me.”
Send me to proclaim the Good News of God through Christ. Send me to learn the skills to heal and comfort the sick. Send me to build homes. Send me to teach the children. Send me to defend the accused. Send me to raise a family. Send me to change policies. Send me to care for our roads. Send me to protect the citizens. Send me to fill our community with music or art. Send me to fill hunger. Send me. Send me. Send us. Here we are.
Even if we’ve known since we are a child what we want to do with our lives, there will come a point when we want to say, “Whoah. Not that. Not me.” We may think we don’t have the skills, or we may think we’re not worthy. We’re sinful. We’re not the right person. And we may not be wrong. But when we enter into holy work, we’re not doing it because we can cover it all on our own. Actually, we cannot do it on our own. We depend upon God’s help, in any way it comes. It’s going to come from mentors and teachers, friends and allies, and even opponents who strengthen us along the way. There may be those auspicious times when things just seem to align in the perfect way, reminding us that we are where we’re supposed to be, doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing. There may be times when everything seems wrong and we think we’ve messed up, missed the call, but there’s a still, small voice that reminds us not to give up, that it’s just temptation prowling at our door trying to keep us from doing good work.
When the boats were laden with their catch, Peter turns to Jesus, falls at his feet, and tells him to “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter, who had been listening to Jesus, maybe halfheartedly, confessed that he had turned away from God. Peter was working night shifts and probably wasn’t keeping the law as well as he was supposed to be keeping it. But mostly, Peter, in his resignation to do what Jesus invited him to, was hinting at his greater distrust of God. Almost like he was saying, “Fine, I’ll throw the nets in; it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.” Peter didn’t trust, until he saw that it did make a difference, and then he, like the others, was amazed. And if Jesus can lead them to a great catch, what if everything else he was saying was true and could happen? Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid.” He’s going to be with them every step of their way.
Just like with us when we are called. In all our questioning, all our discernment, all our doubts, and all our resignation or faithful trust, Jesus is with us. God is with us. Yes, it’s scary when we are called to proclaim what people don’t want to hear. Yes, following the Way of Jesus might take us in new directions. Yes, it’s okay to be self-assured and confident in faith, so long as we know that it’s grace that makes us whole and not any effort of our own. Yes, when we discern the call of God, it’s up to us to go through the process and choose whether or not we want to answer or not. We always have a choice, but only God leads us to life abundant, love eternal. This I trust. This I believe, as one who like you has been called.