Awash in Blessing!

Martha Stortz—February 7, 2007

Isaiah 6: 1-8
1 Corinthians 15: 1-11
Luke 5: 1-11

Once upon a time, when I was in graduate school, I helped host the bishop of the Romanian Lutheran Church at a conference he’d been invited to at our seminary in Chicago. I knew enough German to converse easily with him, and I was drafted to show him around in unfamiliar surroundings. I could see immediately that it was all too strange. He’d never been to the United States, and the South Side clearly stunned him, with a population that presented colors and classes and ethnicities—as well as decibel levels!—he had never seen before in the smaller and decidedly more subdued medieval city of Sibiu, his hometown in Transylvania, the German-speaking western part of Romania. And if the South Side weren’t unfamiliar enough, at the seminary he was wined, dined, and feted as a visiting dignitary and one of the keynote speakers. I could see my charge was fascinated and curious and exhausted all at once. It was all too strange.

As the conference wound down he begged for some respite. What he really wanted to do was walk by the lakefront, find a simple bean soup that was “nicht so sehr bohnenhaft,” “not too richly beany,” and shop. And he didn’t want to shop at Marshall Fields or Sak’s or any of the great shopping meccas in the downtown area’s “Golden Mile;” rather, a simple trip to Walgreen’s would do, where he could get his wife and teen-age daughters staples that were hard to come by in Romania: nail polish, nail polish remover, hair spray, and pocket mirrors. As he moved toward more familiar turf, he began to relax. It was all too strange.

It was all too strange… this was the disciples’ reaction to that strange and simultaneously compelling world of Jesus’ ministry. Like my friend, they were also fascinated and curious and finally exhausted, pulled in one direction by the tug of the familiar and in the other by riptide of God’s mysterious call. God’s call wins in the end, because grace finally overrides the tug of the familiar. Grace not only “perfects” nature, if you want to put it in that kid-gloved way that Thomas Aquinas did. Luther was a little more graphic, a lot more colorful: grace wrestles nature down to the mat, holding it down for the count. Ironically, you rise up a winner, not bloodied in defeat, and certainly not resuscitated, but resurrected to a new calling. For being resurrected is so very different from being resuscitated—but that’s the Easter sermon, and we have to wade through Epiphany and Lent to get there. This is a sermon about God’s call, because these are texts about calling.

If we listen carefully to the gospel in these three lessons for this day, we learn three things about God’s call:

that fierce pull of the familiar,
the way God calls,
and the ripple effect of that call.

First, that fierce pull of the familiar—and make no mistake, God’s call wins in the end, but not without a fierce fight. And what is God’s call struggling against? Us, plain and simple. We’d rather cling to the familiar—even if it’s the sorry truth that we’re sinners—than join a journey “of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown” (concluding prayer for “Evening Prayer: Vespers,” LBW, p. 153). Isaiah’s protest is Peter’s protest, and I wonder if it’s each of ours. When faced with the wild abundance of God’s grace, we freak: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” And then Peter, echoing Isaiah’s disclaimer: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Somewhere among the treasures of the Vatican Museum is a beautiful tapestry by the school of Raphael depicting this moment of double recognition, in which suddenly Peter sees who Jesus is—possibly for the first time—and simultaneously he sees himself in all his earthiness and petty inadequacy. The weaver puts Peter in one end of the boat, pulling in this huge net bursting with fish. His arms embrace the net, muscles bulging, but his face turns in the other direction toward Jesus with this “Holy Shit!” expression on his face. He looks at Jesus—and the first thing he can think about is himself! I forgot to shave. Did I remember to put on deodorant? It’s a bad-hair day! Classic! It’s like being invited to the heavenly banquet—and pulling out a Power Bar because that’s what you always have for lunch… !?!

You can see Peter and Isaiah flailing against the current of God’s call: I gotta bury my father; let me say goodbye to my brothers and sisters; let me just go back and balance my check book, maybe make out a will; I gotta book due at the library!!! (Cf. Luke 9:57-62) But it’s like fighting a rip tide. You’ll drown trying to swim against it, because it is an overwhelming abundance of water and force and sheer wave power. And the only thing to do is give in—and let grace pull you in.

These two forefathers in faith, Peter and Isaiah, teach us a lot about our gut response to God’s call: instinctively, we recoil, reverting to the familiar, even when it’s a world of scarcity, even when it’s an unflattering truth about ourselves. “Go away from me… for I am a sinful creature.” It’s like the prisoner in the Tower of London a few centuries back. By royal whim he was released, and the jailer came and unlocked the door to his cell: “You’re free to go.” And the prisoner studied the open door, and then gazed out the barred window. “You’re free to go,” the jailer repeated, louder with some irritation. And the prisoner did not move. Finally, he responded: “Yes, but I know the life of this cell, and the world beyond that door I know not.” The response of prisoner, the responses of Peter and Isaiah tell us something true about ourselves: we’d rather stay in the scarcity of a familiar darkness than step into the unknown abundance of God’s grace. And that’s the first thing I want to notice about God’s call: the fierce pull of the familiar.

The second thing I want to notice is how God calls: God calls us out by blessing. Isaiah is ambushed by blessing. In fact, there are so many seraphim floating around, he’s lucky he’s not buried in feathers. These angelic creatures are awash in praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah makes his all-too-human protest—“I am a man of unclean lips!” —and it’s as if one of the seraphim says: “No problem! You’re dealing with the Lord of hosts—God will provide.” And Isaiah becomes the man of formerly unclean lips, after a seraphim touches his mouth with a live coal. It’s a fiery blessing, absolutely calculated to counter the prophet’s protest: his sins vanish. God calls again, and Isaiah trips over himself signing up.

A similar thing happens to Peter, who is called through a blessing of fish—and actually it’s an abundance that has been absolutely calculated to bless a fisherman. Peter’s shock of recognition—it’s a double recognition —fades to amazement, as he suddenly sees who he really really is and who Jesus really really is. He and the other fishermen sink into the abundance of God’s blessing. So when Jesus beckons, they trip over their nets to follow.

God calls us by blessing. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth as he begins his public ministry, at least in Matthew’s gospel, are words of blessing: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,… ; blessed are those who mourn,… ; blessed are the meek,… ; blessed… ; blessed… ; blessed… ” We are called by blessing.

Too often we think of call in the language of command: “Go —and do this!” Or “Go—and be this!” You know, sort of along the lines of the guy who looked up from his plow on a fine summer’s day and saw a bunch of clouds forming the words “P.C.” in the sky, which he interpreted to mean “Preach Christ.” A few years later, after a bruising experience with candidacy and at seminary, he realized the clouds probably meant “Plow Corn.” When we think of call, we expect the language of command.

Command actually is not God’s way at all. God calls by blessing, and he calls out Isaiah and Peter and the disciples and all of us by blessing—and blessing us at the point of our greatest protest.

We’re not used to being called by blessing, but once you hear it, it sticks in your head like a song you can’t shake. You see everywhere people called by blessing. Isn’t this what Mary hears from her kinswoman Elizabeth, as she shows up on her doorstep, pregnant and confused and expecting rejection: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42) God calls by blessing.

But isn’t this the way we call God out as well—not by demand but by blessing. Hear it in the ancient Hebrew prayers: “Blessed are you, O Lord God, King of the Universe!” Hear it in the psalms, especially in the psalms of blessing, but even and especially in the psalms of lament: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name!” (Psalm 103:1). Hear that mutual blessing in Zechariah’s prayer, as he calls upon God by blessing—“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them!” (Luke 1:68)—and then turns that blessing onto his newborn son—“And you, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). God calls us by blessing—and we call God by blessing. It’s God’s way of getting our attention—and it then becomes our way of getting God’s.

Finally, Zechariah directs us to the third thing we need to notice about God’s call: it has a ripple effect. Quite simply, blessings leak. Like a drop of blue dye in a vat of water, they infuse everything they touch with God’s gracious touch. Zechariah blesses God, and those blessings get all over his newborn son. Messy! Deliciously messy!

But Isaiah gets this without being told. The prophet with formerly unclean lips doesn’t get to sit in the temple and enjoy all the flying, singing seraphim for very long: he is sent out. And he is sent out to spread the blessing to others. Peter, the fisherman blessed with a miraculous catch of fish, follows Jesus to become a fisher of people. His ministry is to spread the blessings he has so abundantly received.

What is the Christian ministry to which we are called? Nothing more than letting the blessings we have so abundantly received leak out into an all-too-often accursed world. Administer them at the points of greatest protest; pour them over the places of greatest need. Believe me, it is like water in a desert. What is Christian ministry? Nothing more—and nothing less!—than letting the blessings leak. Maybe a lot of discipleship—a lot more than we realize—is simply not getting in the way of God’s blessings.

Ah, let’s have Paul have the last word, because he has his finger on the pulse of the ripple effect of divine blessing. If I were a New Testament scholar, I would be constrained to point out that this passage from 1 Corinthians is one in which Paul circumscribes the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, “… first to Cephas, then to the twelve… then to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time… ” (1 Cor. 15:5-6). But I’ll let Dr. Balch tell you about that over lunch. What I want us to notice is how the blessings leak, and how the blessing of seeing Jesus leaks out into the world, into a world that longs to see something—anything—holy. This huge yearning for spirituality? Chicken soups for the soul? We’ve got it, if we can just step out of the way and let the blessings we have so abundantly received flow freely into the whole of creation.

The apostle Paul puts it all so much better: “… so we proclaim and so you have come to believe” (1 Corinthians 15:11). Be blessed—blessed to be a blessing to others!