Commemoration of [George Berkeley &] Joseph Butler
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’ — Isaiah 6:6-10 (NRSV)
Isaiah was an advisor to King Ahaz, a real rapscallion who was determined to undermine all the religious tradition, worship and laws his grandfather, Uzziah, had followed so devotedly. If there was a commandment, Ahaz seemed bound and determined to break it. That must have kept him quite busy for a while, so it was a good thing to have a wise advisor like Isaiah to help keep an eye on things, even if his advice wasn’t particularly welcome or even worthy of having attention paid to it.
The passage today is a two-parter, the first one dealing with Isaiah’s call to be a voice of prophecy with God’s stamp of approval on him. Isaiah was a righteous man, capable of seeing all the wrongs that were being done and being able to draw a straight line between those wrongs and the eventual result of them. Still, God could call and Isaiah would have had the opportunity to practice free will to say “No, thank you.” Had that been the case, we possibly would have had the words of some other prophet in the Bible instead of Isaiah, which would have been a loss for all of us. Luckily for us, though, Isaiah was willing to undergo a trial, a burning coals on his lips, in order to be purified and perhaps even to make him take time to think about his words before he spoke them to make sure they were 100% truthful and 100% God-inspired. He passed that test, even to the point of answering God’s question of “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” with the same response heard over and over in the Old Testament, “Here am I.”
The second part was God’s message for Isaiah to note and to pass along. It’s funny, but it feels like that message was written for this time as well as for Isaiah’s. Newscasts, magazines and newspapers, conversations among people, all seem to reflect the same things spoken of in the message from God. It’s impossible not to read the passage and not remember the Holocaust, surely a case where eyes were blinded, ears were stopped, and minds were carefully and skillfully diverted from the atrocities that were happening right under their noses. Germany was not the only one guilty: genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Argentina, Bosnia, and Darfur, and the list keeps growing because they still keep happening. Evidently we haven’t learned enough yet to see much less eliminate genocide. Newscasts, newspapers and magazines may fit them into soundbytes, but it feels like we’re more interested in which celebrity or which legislator got caught doing what with whom. We seem to want diversion, not challenge.
One other thing I’ve noticed and that is that people are willing to be led. I look at the current economic problems and what I see are elected officials and others saying, in effect, “Vote for me and I’ll take care of you” or “Trust me, I am looking out for your best interest”, especially if it means the status quo remains the same or grows while the widows and orphans of whom Jesus spoke and the prophets prophesied are increasingly marginalized and the hope of the poor is taken away. Like the scribes and Pharisees, the whited sepulchers conceal corruption and decay while the exterior looks pristine. By focusing our attention on issues like gay rights and abortion which are important issues, yes, but not the only issues on the table, we have been distracted from the real problem of the economy, the increasing marginalization of the working-class poor and the uncertain employment picture. We’re busy reading about Khardassian kapers while the family down the block reaches the point where they quietly close the front door and walk away from a house they bought in good faith just a few years ago but which they can no longer afford to pay for or even live in. We are busy hearing about the latest scandal on Capitol Hill while starvation runs rampant, gang rape is widespread and children are forced to become terrorists elsewhere in the world. What is wrong with this picture? What would Isaiah say to us and about it?
The main question in my mind is how would I answer the question put to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I wonder if I would have his courage and his determination in the face of knowing that what he says would fall primarily on deaf ears? Could I, would I answer “Here I am, send me”? Even if I were not a recognized prophet or felt an overwhelming call from God to do this, could I still make some effort to be mindful of the things happening around me and speak out about them, hoping that even one person would see the message and answer in turn, “Here I am”?
Prophets tend to meet nasty ends, or at least periods of real trial. Today we have prophets, but our concern is more with profits. What can I do to help change that? How can I unstop my ears and eyes, open my mind and allow truth and rightness to be the guideposts?
I hope I don’t open the door one morning and find a seraph on the front step with a hot coal in a pair of tongs…