Wednesday in 4 Lent
St. John’s, Montgomery
In the chapel at General Seminary in New York there’s a large Bible that immediately blocks your way as you enter from the narthex to the nave. The sacristans would always mark it before a service to the readings designated for the service that day; but after the service, after it was over and people were beginning to file out to go to classes, or eat, or head out into the wilds of Manhattan, the sacristans would turn it back to this section of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, which is where it stayed until it needed to be marked for the next service.
There was something nice, something comforting in knowing that whenever you walked into the chapel the words of Isaiah would be what you’d see¦if you stopped and looked at that Bible. And I noticed over the years that folks often did stop to look, especially the visitors, because they were curious to see what the Bible was turned to.
I still think about that Bible and I’m glad that I know the comforting words of Isaiah are what’s always there, because I think all of us, whether we’re having good days or bad days, need to hear God speak comforting words. We need them because we often hear so little of them day to day.
We hear a lot about what we have to do, or ought to do. We know that we have places to be and people who count on us to do a hundred thousand things. We know that there’re errands to run, bills to pay, doctors to visit and loved ones to worry about. We know there are children to feed and cart around to all the activities that fill up their lives and make ours complicated. Our days are full and most of our lives are filled with anything but comforting words, let alone something designed to help us remember that we’re not forsaken.
But comforting words can also be challenging words. Words designed to invite us to rest, to feel and live with the knowledge of God’s love as well as to trust in God can be challenging precisely because of what they ask us to do. It’s hard work to rest our anxious minds, and to trust that God loves us because it asks us to let go of our need for control, for security, and for order.
The spiritual writer Ronald Rolheiser knows exactly where the tension in our lives lies and names it directly: …we want to be a saint, but we also want to feel every sensation experienced by sinners; we want to be innocent and pure, but we also want to be experienced and taste all of life; we want to serve the poor and have a simple lifestyle, but we also want all the comforts of the rich; we want to have the depth afforded by solitude, but we also do not want to miss anything; we want to pray, but we also want to watch television, read, talk to friends and go out. Small wonder life is often a trying enterprise and we are often tired and pathologically overextended.
Now, I’m certainly not telling you that you shouldn’t care about yourself and your life. I’d never say don’t make plans or goals that require something of you. I’m not about to tell you that your life ought to be free of worry. When we care, whether it’s about our future or a loved one’s future, it involves a risk of being hurt and disappointed. And we’ve all felt disappointment too many times to risk being hurt again. It’s just so much easier to stop caring, to stop trusting and to retreat inwards.
But notice what Isaiah is reminding us because it matters in how you understand yourself and how you understand your relationship with God. Isaiah reminds us that the covenant relationship still exists. Isaiah reminds us that God hasn’t forgotten us, even when it feels like God has. God made a promise and God, Isaiah tells us, keeps promises.
So I hope you hear Isaiah as an invitation that’ worth your attention. I hope you hear the invitation to a relationship where you’re invited to continue to live as the people of the covenant promise. Because whatever else we like to say about God, God is ultimately a relationship where God hears our cries, it’s a relationship where God brings salvation, it’s a relationship where God sets us free from all that keeps us closed off and allows his light to shine in the dark places of our being.
And equally important in this relationship is an understanding of ourselves and our place in God’s promise of life. Isaiah reminds us that in this relationship our identity isn’t bound up in what you do or accomplish, nor is it about who your friends are or aren’t, or even which zip code your house is in. Our identity is to be found in the God who comes to us as a Messiah. And as a Messiah who gives us a sense of vocation to see beyond the present boundaries.
But if you notice, and if you can hear it, there’s a sense of call implicit in Isaiah. It’s a sense of call for us to know who and whose we are. We’re God’s people who have a vocation of servanthood and proclamation. And as humans, we’re miserable when we lack a sense of purpose or a vocation for which we’re well suited.
Please don’t mistake my use of vocation to mean the same thing as occupation because they’re not the same. One’s sense of purpose can come from one’s occupation, but it may not always be so. And our occupation may lead to a sense of vocation, but not always so.
Our vocation is to exist and to exist as people with a distinct identity. And in the midst of that is to exist as individuals who respond to God, which is a response that comes in different ways given who we are, and yet, isn’t limited to my own private set of likes and dislikes but within a framework of others with their needs and expectations.
What a vocation ultimately is is a commitment. We assess ourselves, we ask the hard questions of ourselves and, hopefully, we’re honest to ourselves and others about who we are. It’s what allows true life, not the false pretend life we’re good at creating and being deceived into, but life where who we are and who God has called us to be is lived fully by our response to the invitation of God.
Our vocation and our life are a gift from God, who calls us to live into the covenant life we’re offered. Isaiah gives us the raw materials for offering your life in faith. It’s a gift that sustains you in the journey of your life. It’s a gift that’s a keystone for health and vitality for you and this faith community. It’s a relationship that says remember what I’ve done for you and do this in remembrance of me.
These are the comforting words we long to hear because they reassure our anxieties and help us see we’re not forgotten. God has not given up on us but speaks in all the places and times where we feel anxious, alone and alienated. And we all have those days, days when we’re healthy, good, sweet and smart¦and our not so good days.
Thinking back on that Bible in the chapel its function was a lot more than words to be read during a service. By its very presence it provided comfort and a visual reminder of a relationship which we hold dear and helps define us. At its best it’s what all scripture does for us, which is why we go back to it time and time again; it’s just good to be reminded some times.