Isaiah 6:1-8 (CEB)
6 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. 3 They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” 4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!” 6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” 8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “Here I am. Send me.”
This past summer I was fortunate to join with other Vanderbilt Divinity students and attend the Children’s Defense Fund conference at the Alex Haley Farm in Clinton, TN. On the first day of the conference, Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner, a civil rights veteran and a Presbyterian minister, led the seminarians gathered there in exploring theology and action. She asked us what she calls the EMT questions: the questions that Emergency Medical Technicians ask people who have just been in an accident to assess head trauma.
These questions are:
Do you know who you are?
Do you know where you are?
Do you know what time it is?
Do you know what just happened?
If a person responds correctly to all of these questions, they are considered “alert and conscious times 4.” If they only respond to the first three questions, they are considered “alert and conscious times 3” and so on. Rev. Dr. Lindner told us that the first question, “Do you know who you are?” is the most important, because identity is the last thing to go in trauma situations. She also proposed that the utility of these questions does not end in a hospital setting, but that they can also be applied to prophetic ministry.
Let’s ask the prophet Isaiah a few questions:
Do you know who you are?
Yes, I am Isaiah, son of Amoz.
Do you know where you are?
Yes, I am in Jerusalem in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Do you know what time it is?
Yes, it is during the reign of King Uzziah.
Do you know what just happened?
Yes, King Uzziah has just died. And I have seen a vision from God.
Well, our prophet seems to be alert and conscious times 4. But something is missing from these questions when applied to theological work. We must also ask: what is the meaning of all of these answers together? What do we do now that we know the facts?
For Isaiah, he lived in the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Uzziah. Biblical scholars tell us that in this time, around the 7th century BCE, Assyrians exiled many elites from the northern kingdom of Israel during the time of Isaiah’s ministry. This created a lot of political tension within the community of Jerusalem in the south, because they feared Assyria would come for them next, according to other prophets and psalms recorded in this time period. King Uzziah’s death also marked a point of transition of power and potential social upheaval. Isaiah’s ministry took place under several different kings: after Uzziah, there’s his son Jotham and then his son Ahaz, and then Hezekiah. The point is, there was a lot of political strife going on in Isaiah’s time; you can read about the cycle of good kings and bad kings and all the transitions in the book of 2nd Kings.
In recent weeks, we’ve talked a little about the job description for prophets, which never seems like much fun, and for Isaiah it’s the same. God grants Isaiah a magnificent vision and allows Isaiah to see the world as God sees, and yet, these are God’s directions to Isaiah: “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend.” God sends this chosen prophet to go speak to people who willfully turn away from God. Sounds kind of like a doomed mission, to me.
And yet, there’s something about answering God’s call with a strong “Here I am. Send me.” that sticks with me. Could what’s missing be the meaning to which the EMT questions are pointing? Acknowledging the facts of the situation, recognizing the possibility of trauma, and still answering God’s call affirmatively.
Glendale, what are the answers we give to the EMT questions today?
Who are we?
In some ways, all we have to do is turn over our bulletin. “Glendale Baptist Church, a caring community of equality and grace.”
We are Christians, called to be a community of the living body of the Christ. We are called to contradict violence with love, war with creation, hatred with understanding, ignorance with wisdom, fear with faith, and oppression with justice. We are people who have amazing resources in our DNA of building communities of resistance–whether it is providing sanctuary for Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany or witnessing against the School of the Americas or crossing borders to create a mutual and loving relationship with a church in Santa Clara Cuba or declaring themselves open, affirming and inclusive of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer folks, Christian churches have been–and will continue to be–places where people gather to join God’s work in the world. With Isaiah, we are called to be a people who show up and speak to a people with unclean lips–and sometimes they look like us.
Where are we?
We are in Nashville, Tennessee. We are in the Southern United States. We are in former Confederate territory. We are in a church. Like Isaiah, we inhabit space in a powerful country that too often sees threats surrounding us.
What time is it?
There are different ways to mark time. One way is printed on the front of your bulletin. Another way to describe today is that it is the first Sunday after a presidential election, a fairly normal every-four-years occurrence. Or, we could say we are living fifty years after the Civil Rights movement began. And like Isaiah, we are in a time marked by political upheaval and transition.
What just happened?
We now have a leader who brags about assaulting women; who threatens to build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out of this country; who made disparaging remarks about a soldier who was killed in the line of duty because he was Muslim; who, for that matter, wants to ban all Muslims from this country that some say was founded on a value of religious freedom. Many are saying this election result is a surprise because they were taken off-guard, because they thought “surely, people are better than giving in to hate/racism/sexism” “surely, this won’t happen” and then it did. People have been saying, “The veil has been pulled back and now we see clearly.” In recent days, we have seen horrifying hate crimes take place all over the country. Now that the veil has been removed, those who would commit acts of terror have been emboldened by the vocal validation of the man who will be sworn in as the President in January. A gay man in a bar was taunted and beaten; Latino high school students in Michigan were told to go back to Mexico; women are being harassed openly in grocery parking lots and malls and outside their schools; white men have told black men and women and children, “It’s our country now.”
There we have the facts–we are alert and conscious times four. So what do we do now?
First, let us remember that only some people are now having the veil pulled back off of a world which they–which I, too,–dearly hoped was not really the reality. Some have been living with various veils over their world for quite a while. As a woman, I live partially in an unveiled world where the realities of sexism and misogyny affect me every day; but because I’m white, the veil of white privilege keeps me from experiencing systemic prejudice based on my skin color. There are many veils that cover worlds of homophobia, transphobia, bias against people with different abilities, ethnocentrism and so many more. Many people in this very room live in unveiled worlds where prejudice is obvious and bold and affronts us every day; others are kept from seeing by veils of privilege marked by whiteness, economic status, white supremacy, patriarchy and American citizenship.
In Isaiah’s vision, the prophet had the veil of his humanity pulled back such that he was blessed with being able to see how God sees: the glory and praise of the Lord was too much for him! His reaction to seeing the vision was confessional: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips!” He mourns that he is ruined, there is no hope for him because he has said terrible things, perhaps words that divide and exclude, that propagate bigotry and hatred. He confesses his complicity in the uncleanness of his people. In the United States of America, as in many places around the world, our privilege/our social status, is determined by several factors. The most prominent factors are race, gender and economic status. Due to these factors, all of us in the room are complicit in structures that oppress, meaning that we have a part in making possible a way of living that puts down people so that others–so that we–can be lifted up. For those of us that benefit from systems that use and abuse people so that we can maintain our own comfort and complacency, we must follow Isaiah’s prophetic lead and confess our role in sustaining systemic evil. We must confess all the ways that we have stayed silent while people used words, perhaps racial epithets, that we deem unacceptable, or perhaps it was saying something homophobic at the family dinner table, or objectifying someone’s body in a workplace. We must repent of our part in this violence.
Hear the words of a friend and colleague of mine, Jules Galette, said at Friday’s protest at Vanderbilt: “For the arc of the moral universe to approach justice, we must bend it.” This is a big task, but God is in the habit of asking prophets to do big things. And as Glendale Baptist Church, we already have a statement expressing our angle on bending this arc:
Again, on the back of our bulletin, let’s read together: “We strive to partner with God and follow Jesus on the Way of Love; to create sanctuary for one another with special concern for those who are marginalized; to work intentionally for mercy and justice; to sustain a creative and compassionate theological voice; to gather resources joyfully and share them generously; to love our neighbors and care for all of creation.” Those are pretty good places to start.
Concretely, we know what living these commitments look like. As I read the following activities, please raise your hand if you are involved in these programs. Look around at each other to see who is raising their hand–maybe stop them on their way out and talk to them about their work.
This looks like:
- serving folks experiencing homelessness with Room in the Inn;
- supporting our Muslim siblings at the Islamic Center in 12South or over in Murfreesboro;
- volunteering with LGBTQ youth experience homelessness with Launch Pad;
- feeding people with Luke 14:12;
- gathering churches together to provide moral leadership for our Nashville Community with Nashville Organizing for Action and Hope;
- raising awareness about sexual assault and providing support for survivors;
- Providing healthcare;
- organizing against white supremacy with Showing Up for Racial Justice;
- making music and art to celebrate beauty in our world;
- growing food and building sustainable infrastructure.
Look around us–we are already involved in so many important activities. This election just means that we keep doing what we’re doing, but with an understanding that we must act more urgently–we keep educating and keep agitating and keep growing and keep bending that arc of the moral universe further and further towards justice.
But what if we are still not ready to act? What if we are afraid that as we bend, we may break? We may not be the best speakers, we may have said or done things that have hurt and angered and oppressed people in the past. We may be waiting for the right words and we wait for the right time and we wait to be perfect and we wait for approval and we wait for total safety. But the time for waiting is past. That time is long past. Our complicity will not depart from us, but we do not have to remain stuck there. Even though Isaiah has unclean lips, he cries, “I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!” Then, a seraph brings a hot coal from the temple altar to anoint his lips, confirming that God chose Isaiah to do God’s work. God knew Isaiah had the potential to speak truth to power and so the anointing coal prepares Isaiah for righteous conversation.
My people, in times like these, God anoints our mouths and readies our speech. For some, the coals grant the courage not to shy away from or avoid tough conversations and speak hard truths and call out those who are divisive or in denial–even those closest to us. For others, we need more love on our tongues to speak into a world inundated with fearful and hateful speech. God, working through our community of resistance at Glendale Baptist Church, is preparing us to engage with our neighbors, to call them into loving dialogue and to spur them to action. On your way out of the sanctuary, please pick up a red gem from the baskets by the doors to symbolize the coal that anoints your lips. What is the righteous speech that God wants you to use to bend the arc of the moral universe just that much further toward justice?
Dear friends in this community of Christ, we know who we are. We know where we are. We know what time it is. And we know what just happened. So, when it is time to make meaning from these answers and take action, God asks us this: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”
And even though we know the facts of the situation, as dire and scary as they may be; even though we have ventured into the unveiled world to see as God sees; even though we are aware that trauma may come in the days ahead, I pray that we all can answer in one voice: “Here we are. Send us.”
Originally preached at Glendale Baptist Church, 11.13.16.