Call, courage, confrontation, and care—these are all part of what it takes to make “good trouble” as the late Representative John Lewis called it. And all of these are at the heart of an active Christian faith. As we explore the assigned scriptures in this series—including classics like the call of Isaiah, David and Goliath, and the woman who touches Jesus’ cloak for healing—we will consider our own call as persons and community. Where or how is God calling you to participate in making “good trouble” for the Kin-dom?
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC May 30, 2021, Trinity Sunday. “The Call: Good Trouble” series.
Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
The late U.S. Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis often told the story of asking his parents and other elders about the racist signs he witnessed all around. He said, “They would say, ‘boy, that’s the way it is. Don't get in the way and don’t get in trouble.’ But when I was 15 years old, in 1955, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. The action of Rosa Parks and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired me to find a way to get in the way. And I got in the way. And I got in trouble, ‘good trouble.’” He repeated these words often and they have become a kind of call to all people of faith and conscience in America. Again and again he urged, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Over the next weeks, we’ll explore scripture with an eye toward God’s call in our lives as individuals and as a congregation—and how we, as followers of Jesus, are called to get in some good trouble in order to love God, love each other, and change the world. I hope you’ll use this time to reflect on what God may be saying to YOU and to listen for particular invitations or challenges each week. We begin today with a message about call in the midst of crisis. //
Let us pray… God of justice and of new life, open our hearts and the ancient text of scripture by the power of Holy Spirit that we might receive what you have for us today. Amen.
I’ve recently started watching the television show “The Walking Dead.” On the surface, it’s a story of a zombie apocalypse. But more than that, so far as I can tell from the 7 episodes I’ve seen so far, it’s a story of human relationship, ethics, and the gifts and challenges of life in community. It’s also an opportunity to explore the different ways people react and respond in the midst of crisis. We, of course, don’t anticipate a zombie apocalypse anytime soon, but I have found that as a person who’s interested in human behavior, community dynamics, and spiritual and personal growth, watching the show has led me the question I often ask when confronted with a challenging human scenario: “What would I be like if that happened to me?
The truth is, we have been in a multi-layered crisis over the past year and a half, a multi-phased crisis, a crisis that’s spun out and highlighted multiple other crises. And some of us are experiencing personal or interpersonal crises of various kinds. What are you like in the midst of crisis? What are we as a congregation like? What do we do? How do you respond?
Theologian and spiritual teacher, Elisabeth Koenig writes, “The anxiety-ridden energy of a crisis contains potential for change. Confronted squarely and reflectively in the presence of God, the energy of crisis can expand our sense of who we are.”
Crisis and the anxiety that rides in on it may not be things we want to welcome into our lives or spend energy on. But there are moments in our lives as persons and communities—like right now—when we cannot avoid crisis, when we can’t pretend that everything’s “fine.” In these moments, the question becomes, who and how will you be in that space?
I imagine I don’t need to outline all the ways that crisis and anxiety can lead to defensiveness, blaming, confusion, reactivity, distorted perception, paranoia, breakdowns in communication and thoughtful engagement with others, and personal panic and inertia. Dissociation from self and disconnection from others often happens. Fight, flight, and freeze are common. All of this can lead to pretty unpleasant things.
Spiritual wisdom from many traditions—and certainly Christian wisdom—encourages us to resist the urge to run away; we’re encouraged to be aware of what’s happening around us and what comes up in us; to observe and to try to name as best we can what’s going on; to breathe, to pray, to bring all of our feelings, reactions, anxiety, fear, anger, questions—into the presence of God and to ask God to help us learn from them. The invitation is to hold the crisis in the larger perspective of the story of God’s liberating love and mending activity in the world, to remember that this moment is not all there is. And to intentionally remain open to what God will reveal to us about ourselves, others, or the realities and world around us. Crisis can be profoundly clarifying.
Isaiah found himself in a crisis moment: King Uzziah has died after reigning for 52 years and, even though during that time the people of Judah rebelled against God (Is 1:2ff) in all the familiar ways—injustice, greed, hypocrisy, lies, arrogance, and power grabs (Is 1, 5)—things had been relatively stable. King Uzziah had managed to hold the nation together.
But now things feel unmoored, uncertain. The injustice that has been allowed to linger and flourish in the nation has left the people and the country vulnerable to all sorts of destruction from within and from without.
And in the year that King Uzziah died—around 738 BCE—in the midst of the national crisis and with anxieties rolling down like an everflowing stream, Isaiah had a vision of God. The hem of the divine garment—just the hem!—filled the entire temple. And seraphs—strange six-winged beings who hid their faces and their feet as they flew—called out to one another proclaiming that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory (no wonder the hem is all that’s visible in the temple!). Things become shaky and filled with smoke.
It’s a beautiful, terrifying divine encounter in the midst of a crisis. And Isaiah could have shut down or allowed fear to send him running. But he stays present. He identifies and names what comes up in him. He feels lost—perhaps uncertain of whether he will survive this moment—for he is aware of both the sin of the nation and his own sin. He acknowledges that God is present in the mix of it all—that he has “seen” God, a thing that has meant death for others in the lore of Jewish religious history. Just then, Isaiah is touched with the purifying fire of God’s mercy. His sin and guilt are “blotted out.” God has not destroyed Isaiah in this moment. God has cleansed him, liberated him.
Hear again the words I shared at the beginning: “The anxiety-ridden energy of a crisis contains potential for change. Confronted squarely and reflectively in the presence of God, the energy of crisis can expand our sense of who we are.”
In this anxiety-ridden moment of crisis in Judah, in the midst of the extraordinary encounter with God, Isaiah discovers that he is strong enough to stay present in the midst of fear, uncertainty, and guilt; he learns that he is forgiven, that he is free, and that he is called. When he overhears God asking the question “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah says, “Here I am, send me!”
If you read on in chapter 6 of Isaiah, you will see that after Isaiah has volunteered himself, he learns that the work he is called to is impossible. The people, he is told WILL NOT LISTEN TO HIM. It’s a kind of “things will get much worse before they get better” kind of calling. And the getting better part isn’t really assured.
This reality might have led Isaiah to turn tail and run! But he doesn’t. He simply makes himself available and present to God—even as he aware of his vulnerability and sin. And as the scriptures reveal, Isaiah just kept reminding people of God’s love, God’s way of justice, God’s faithfulness, God’s promises, God’s desire for relationship—even when they couldn’t or wouldn’t receive the message or respond.
Not many of us would rush in to volunteer for a job where there’s a high probability that we won’t see the results we desire or when we know that people will likely reject us or our message or whatever it is we’re offering. But, as Rev. Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Which is to say, a divine calling may very well mean doing what is called for in the moment simply because it is right not because it will have immediate positive effects.
John Lewis wrote, “Take a long, hard look down the road you will have to travel once you have made a commitment to work for change. Know that this transformation will not happen right away. Change often takes time. It rarely happens all at once. In the movement, we didn't know how history would play itself out. When we were getting arrested and waiting in jail or standing in unmovable lines on the courthouse steps, we didn’t know what would happen, but we knew it had to happen… We used to say that ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year…Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”
The call for some of us may not be to agitate for justice in the public square like King and Lewis but to do what is right in much less visible ways. I just had a conversation with one of my clergy colleagues who shared that the double digit years she’s investing in her congregation are primarily spent in ways that most people will never see or even understand…the deep work that happens under and behind the scenes to bring healing, raise consciousness, and adjust systems into more just and faithful shapes. Deep culture change in community—as well as deep personal change in our lives—is often about the work that happens day in and out that others may know nothing about but that ultimately creates openings for liberation and new life. And often—in community—the new life may emerge once we’re gone and without anyone knowing we played any part in its flourishing.
Whether public and with high visibility or behind the scenes and known only to a few, we may be called to do things that scare us or that we believe are beyond our capacity. We may be asked to step up and move forward in a relationship, a vocation, a ministry, a leadership role, when the way is terrifyingly shaky and unclear—like a shaking structure filled with smoke. In my own life, I have found that what I heard Rev. Dr. Ianther Mills preach at Asbury the Sunday before I started my ministry here at Foundry is true: “What God brings you to, God brings you through.” All our fears and guilt and insecurity and worry about failure are no match for the grace and power of God working in and through us if we are willing, like Isaiah, to stay present and discern what God is revealing in our lives and community.
Crises of any kind will evoke lots of challenging feelings and reactions. Rather than rejecting them, can we confront them “squarely and reflectively in the presence of God” and be willing to discern how God is calling us, revealing to us more of who we are, and beckoning us into deeper faith, hope, and love? Maybe you’ve already heard or are hearing God calling you in the midst of crisis to affect some kind of change in your life or in your work or in your relationship or in the larger society. Will you, like Isaiah, be willing to respond, “Send Me!”?