Sermon from May 20, 2018; Guest Minister, Rev. Jenn Tafel
“If Not Me, Then Who?”
Good morning! So glad you are here today.
I like the ocean. While I was born in southern California, I spent my childhood and adolescence between Washington, D.C., Boston, and Colorado. I returned to my home state for high school. I’m not sure how many of you know, but there really is a difference between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I enjoyed my visits along the shoreline when I lived on the East Coast but I have bonded with the Pacific Ocean. It feels like I’m cheating on it when I visit the Atlantic—or even one of the Great Lakes. We have a bond, the Pacific and me. We “get” each other. If I’m going to swim in an ocean, it’s going to be the Pacific. There are no questions when I sit and stare into the vastness. The repetitive sound of the waves is music to my ears. The smell of the salt air is home to me. It is calming. It is sustaining. The lost parts of myself begin to reformulate. I shift and feel whole.
Whenever I go “home” to visit my mom—I have to have at least one day at the beach. She gets it; as she loves to hear the waves, too. Her mom was the same way. It’s in our genes. My Grandma would pack up my cousins and me for a day at the beach whenever we were in town. Our time at the beach, both individually and collectively is restorative. No explanation needed.
I share this with you because this is the time and space where I feel most connected to God, the Creator, Divine energy—whatever you call it. The vastness of the ocean is a physical representation of how I can understand the abstract idea of God’s vastness. Is it the same thing? No—but it’s a representation. Do I “see” God at the beach? In the creation and nature, yes; but actually seeing God, no—just maybe some of the parts. I experience God in these moments—and that’s the closest I can get while being Jenn on the physical plane.
When I read the passage from Isaiah word for word with the intention of letting the words sink in, I was blown away. The passage seems so far-fetched that clearly it isn’t real. Sure, we can sit here and debate the reality of the words—or we can let the words wash over us and see where and how we connect. That is after all what our opening song is about, right (“Ancient Words” by Lynn Deshazo)? We come and gather in this space to let the ancient words transform us—in big and small ways.
Looking over what the scholars have to say—their focus is on the times in Scripture when God was seen face to face, and by whom. It is curious to read over and compare the stories—as an intellectual curiosity. However, my take-away was the experience by the author. Was the point of this story to report on what was occurring in the Temple or the result of this experience: acceptance of God’s call? For me the two are inextricably linked. How can one have such an experience and NOT feel compelled to act? (I’m sure it
happens!). The visceral experience of what the author was witnessing was soul shaking. I am shook from reading it—thousands of years after the fact. The author couldn’t help but be impacted.
So what was going on? The passage begins with an in-depth account of witnessing God sitting on a throne with the Seraphs present. It truly is an other-worldly experience. God is elevated on a throne—a common understanding in those times of how God would be present. The Seraphs (a type of angel) are there, too. From Israel-a-History-of.com we hear,
“Seraph is the actual Hebrew term used to denote these beings. It comes from a word which means,to be on fire. SERAPH conveys the ideas of; burning, fiery, poisonous, serpent. Holman’s Bible Commentary on Isaiah states Seraph ‘basically means the fiery ones’; (p. 68).”
With this definition perhaps the other imagery present of smoke and fire makes sense.
The author takes in what is happening only to realize their inequity and human (faulty) nature and acknowledges to those present that they are unworthy of this experience. The source I used for study explains,
“Isaiah not only recognizes his own unworthiness and sin, but also the sin of his people and nation Israel – thus he fears he will instantly be struck dead.”
Isaiah realizes his humanity and corruption, and knows sin cannot coexist with God, nor can it enter the heavenly realm. However, like Satan, in the earlier example from Job, “Isaiah was allowed to enter the presence of God.” He is cleansed (the source of communication at least) by another element associated with fire and smoke—a piece of coal.
The passage then goes on to explain the details of the call of God and what it means in practical terms. The author, assumedly Isaiah, answers this call. They are moved on every level from this visceral and other-worldly experience. They have “no choice” but to be moved in this way. Could this person have said no? Of course. Maybe this is the point where we find an entry into the story by asking if we would respond in such a way. What is not lost on me is the imagery of fire—I keep coming back to that.
Perhaps these figures impart a fiery spirit upon the authoR (or maybe the author
is inspired on some level by these figures who are surrounding God.) From a correspondential perspective it makes sense that this is the element used in this way. Fire represents the light of Divine Wisdom and the heat of Divine Love. With fire present in this way, the fiery beings surrounding God make sense. The fire could be contagious—it certainly was for Isaiah.
Perhaps we don’t think of fire in this way; holy and sacred. We know of it as a call to action for sure, but not in this sense. The call to action for many is from a safety perspective. It is dangerous. It takes things without thinking of the consequences. It is awe-inspiring when we know we are safe and are able to keep it contained. We can’t let it get loose. Maybe some of you here have stories of the danger and destruction—as a Californian, I certainly do. And yet, I still love fire. I enjoy building fires and watching them come to life. I know I am safe in that moment and I can let loose a bit. Maybe I am in awe and reverent with fire because I know of its capacity. When I went home for
the holidays I saw first-hand the power of destruction. The air quality was
diminished because of the fires in southern California. Life is impacted by
And yet, life is also impacted in the creation, from fire. We are seeing that with the volcanoes in Hawaii. The lava is terrifying but it is also what created the islands. There wouldn’t be a foundation without the fire. It is life and death in one.
I chose the passage from Gospel of Matthew as our message from the New Testament because it is known as The Great Commission. I chose to pair it with the passage from Isaiah because people are answering a call from God in both texts. In Isaiah, the author is moved to work on God’s behalf because of the experience they are witnessing.
However, in contrast, Jesus is directly sending the disciples. He is telling them to go rather than them saying, “Send me.” They are witnessing something perhaps just as drastic since they are seeing him after Easter morning—so there are definitely some questions on their part for sure. What is similar to the experience in Isaiah is the reverence. They bow in reverence—and like us—“some doubted what they were experiencing.” They had a similar mission as Isaiah and I’m sure they encountered the people who wouldn’t believe. This text ends with a passage that one of my supervisors in hospital chaplaincy had on his wall:
“Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age.”
No matter what—God is with us. Whether we are sent, or called to action—it is the Creator who will be with us in all of our encounters.
I paired today’s readings before I was reminded it is Pentecost Sunday.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them. Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us
hears these words in our native tongue?
We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome— all Jews, or converts to Judaism—Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “Women and men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it’s what Joel the prophet spoke of: ‘In the days to come— it is our God who speaks— I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those
days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved. (Inclusive Bible, Acts 2: 1-21)
Fire is also synonymous with the Holy Spirit—we hear of this in other contexts like the story of Pentecost. It is a call to action. It was a call for Isaiah, Moses, the Disciple, and others. While these are amazing stories in Scripture—and maybe that’s all they are—they are important stories if we consider ourselves followers of this tradition. I am not one to discount their importance by saying, “Well, I’m a realist living in the 21st Century and when do we hear of similar things happening?” I acknowledge our chaotic culture and ask instead, “How are we being impacted by the awe and mystery that is present in spite of our chaotic culture?” And then move from awe to action. Our world needs us. Our light is needed. Our love is needed. Our compassion is needed. Our thoughtfulness is needed. The quote, “If not me, then who?” actually comes from Hillel the Elder, a Jewish leader who lived in the first century: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Indeed—it is us and it is