Sermon written for First Presbyterian Elkhart, for delivery in the chapel and the sanctuary May 31, 2015
50 years ago an amazing movement began in a rural community in France. But as is often the case, the beginnings of this movement were rather humble. A very tall, very smart, very privileged Canadian man welcomed two men with disabilities, who had been institutionalized, to come out of the institution and live with him in a simple house that he had built— a house lacking even running water.
This man was just a bit younger than I am now; he was 36 years old at the time. Yet he had already had two careers by then— first as a British and Canadian Naval Officer, a career for which he had begun to prepare at the age of 13. Then as a philosopher/teacher/academic. But through all his years of military service and then academic life he kept feeling like there was something more or something different that he was supposed to be doing. This man’s name is Jean Vanier. I suggested he was privileged because his father was a Canadian diplomat who eventually became Governor General of Canada. Jean was born in Switzerland and educated in elite institutions in multiple countries. But even in the midst of his privilege, he was exposed to extreme suffering when he assisted his mother in caring for survivors of a Nazi concentration camp in France in 1945. Perhaps this planted the seed of spiritual longing that eventually bore fruit, 20 years later, when he invited Raphael and Philippe to come and live with him.
When Jean made this invitation, he did not do so because he was an expert in care for people with intellectual disabilities. He did not do so even because he had a family member with such a condition. He did so because he was exposed to the plight of people with intellectual disabilities and the deplorable conditions in which many such people were living and the wounds and needs of these people would not let him go. Jean, though highly educated, highly skilled, hadn’t the first clue how to share life with people with disabilities. Initially he cooked for them, badly, I’ve read. Eventually all three residents of the house shared the housekeeping chores together. This little home was named L’Arche- The Ark—safe haven for the vulnerable. Jean came to realize that it was less about doing for the men with whom he was sharing his life and more about being with them, learning from them. In a few years time the community grew radically when the 30 residents of the town’s institution all became part of the community and young people from around the world were attracted to come and share life there too. And some of these people, after a time in this community that Jean, Raphael, and Philippe began, moved on to begin other communities like it in different parts of the world. There are now 147 L’Arche communities, spread over 5 continents, over 5,000 members.
This is just a bit of Jean’s story, and the story of the movement he helped to birth. I share it today because I perceive resonances with the prophet Isaiah’s story, whose call story we just read. We don’t know that much about the prophet Isaiah, but we know he was a man who had access to elite circles— he had direct access to Israel’s kings. We know he was a “sophisticated poet with an educated grasp of Israel’s traditions” (Tull, 1091 OT). I think it is safe to say he was a privileged man. But I think it is also safe to say that he was a spiritually seeking man. He made his way to the temple where he was granted a vision. Quite a vision, no? A vision of the divine king, seated on a gigantic throne on high, the hem of whose robe filled the temple– hence my sense that it was a gigantic throne; the temple was a big place.
And then there were the six winged creatures flapping about, shouting to one another, shouting so loud the massive door frame of the temple shook. I’ve never paid much attention to those creatures, but this week I took a closer look at them and it turns out they were somehow serpent like, winged serpents… serpents, though, who are capable of using tongs… so they must have had arms, hands…. so perhaps they were reptilian… something like the dragons of mythology. These creatures were “stationed around” the Lord high on the throne, the Lord Isaiah describes as the king, the Lord of heavenly forces. It seems these creatures were part of the king’s heavenly forces. And it sounds as if they would have been a formidable army. Six winged, armed serpents, who shout so loud that the temple shakes… and were they the source of the smoke that filled the temple?
Isaiah’s initial response to this vision is shame and perhaps fear “Mourn for me!” he cries “I’m ruined!” He decries his unclean lips and the unclean lips of his people. He did not feel worthy of divine visitation. He feared his destruction as his unholiness met up with the holy of holies. But then he receives a word of forgiving grace as a hot coal is placed on his lips to purify them. After this Isaiah hears the Lord speak. What he hears are questions- “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” It seems to me that Isaiah was overhearing a question posed to the heavenly forces— to the seraphim— the winged creatures stationed and swirling about the throne. The Hebrew and Greek word for angel means messenger— God is frequently depicted in scripture as choosing to send heavenly beings to bear messages to humanity. It was a hard gig carrying a message in the ancient world. Having divine powers would have been an asset. Surely no one is going to mess with a six winged, armed serpent. But it is Isaiah who volunteers. He doesn’t even know where he will be sent or what the Lord needs him to do. But he’s there. He’s had the vision. He’s been forgiven. He raises his hand and with lips still burning he says “I’m here; send me.”
Other prophets in scripture are called by name and directly invited to the work God has for them. And often we hear a bit of protest from prophets in their call stories. “Not me. I can’t. You can’t mean me.” But here… Isaiah confesses, but does not protest. And he volunteers for divine service even though his name is never called. Is he qualified? Probably not. Is he tough enough for the gig? Who knows? He just didn’t let the moment pass him by and trusted, I think, that if God was sending, God would equip. And he went on from there to speak a convicting word, God’s word, to powerful men, condemning arrogance and teaching that “God’s care extended especially to the people without wealth, who stood outside the halls of power” (Tull, 1091 OT) This is not unlike Jean Vanier who left an ascendent military career, and then an ascendent academic career, and built a humble house into which he welcomed in two men with intellectual disabilities— though he hadn’t the first clue what he was doing in doing so. Both Jean and Isaiah saw injustice around them, brokenness around them, needs around them— and knew they needed to do something.
Isaiah and Jean paid attention to tugging on their hearts, to visions they were granted, and overcame any sense of unworthiness or ill-preparedness and dedicated their lives to the service of God. Pastor Rebecca and I, and members of the newly formed serving commission, are hoping that this congregation will do the same— that we will tune into the tugging on our hearts, and work together to do God’s work in this community and world, particularly on behalf of those whom Jesus called the least of these. You are in God’s house today. You have received assurance of God’s forgiveness of you. You are hearing God’s word. Whether you’ve heard a direct call or not, whether you have clear picture of what God might want you to do… I believe that each of us has longings in our hearts that are instructive. And that is what we seek to identify today- longings that might inspire us to step up, even if we haven’t the first clue what we’re getting into.
This whole month we are focusing on service or mission in our worship together. And in two weeks we will build an exercise into our worship time to help us discern God’s call to us in this time and place. And we begin that process today. In your bulletin you will find an index card with a question on the top of it. “What need in the world (or in our surrounding community) weighs heaviest on your heart?” For Jean Vanier, over 50 years ago, it was the deplorable treatment of people with intellectual disabilities. But what is it for you today? What do you see on the news that will not let you go? What wakes you up in the night? What brings tears anytime you read about it? Is it climate change? Or abused or neglected or simply poor children? Or immigrants? Or unemployment? Or hunger? What is it? Let’s take 3 minutes in silence to answer the question on our cards. Then we’ll sing and pray together. Then we’ll place these cards in the offering plates— and we’ll use them to prepare the exercise we’ll engage in two weeks. So that God’s tugging on our hearts leads to our action together making a difference in the world around us.
Resources in addition to scripture that were cited in or significantly influenced the writing of this sermon:
Tull, Patricia K. “Isaiah Introduction” in the CEB Study Bible, Ed. Joel B. Green.(Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2013), 1091 OT- 1094 OT.
I am grateful to this on-line posting for helping me make the connection between Jean Vanier and Isaiah 6.
I am also grateful to Megan McMurtry, ABD candidate for a Ph.D. in Old Testament at Vanderbilt University for a text chat that helped me get my head around the winged creatures and arrive at a focus for this sermon.
And as ever am grateful to D. Jay Koyle for his assistance with final revisions!