Answering the Call
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
May 27, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
In 1990 I returned to the church where I grew up to become an associate minister of fellowship activities. Included among those activities was the youth group. Being good Congregationalists and following our history stemming from the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, our youth groups were called Pilgrim Fellowship, or PF for short. I gathered the kids who were the elected leaders of the group for the purpose of creating their calendar of activities for the year. As we plotted their major activities one by one I was amusingly amazed and somewhat shocked. In essence, we could have overlaid their calendar to the annual calendar from when I was in Pilgrim Fellowship some fifteen years earlier.
They were doing all the same things! I asked them, “Why are you doing all the same things?” “Tradition!” they answered almost in unison. When they were little kids growing up watching the church activities of the youth group, they aspired to be just like us. Except they weren’t. That’s when I told them where all their traditions came from. Our youth group invented the Easter breakfast fundraiser. Our generation created the PF Variety Show. If they wanted to be like us, I suggested they start being original and forge ahead with their own path. Some of the old stuff they were doing still drew a crowd, though a lot of the activities were becoming pretty stale over the years. In short, they were trapped in a history of precedent and were recycling through old, worn out activities from which the Holy Spirit had moved on long before.
Clara Barton, who administered health care to the sick and wounded from Civil War battlefields and later founded the American Red Cross, epitomized growth and change in her leadership. She once said, “I have an almost complete disregard for precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.” Of course, this is Memorial Day weekend, a time when we Americans have set aside since the terrible days of the Civil War to especially honor those who’ve fallen serving our country. Memorial Day truly and rightly embodies the sacrifices of those in the past who’ve given their all to protect our freedoms, our values, our way of life. So, we honor the actions of those heroes. At the same time we look at history and honor the fallen, we cannot get stuck in the musty precedents of the past that, as Clara Barton alluded to, might hold us back from declaring a bold new future.
Barton would have found common ground with one of my favorite historical figures, Union General Ulysses S. Grant. In 1864, Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac and engaged the brilliant and masterful General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Their first battle against each other, the Battle of the Wilderness fought in early May 1864, was a seesaw affair that was difficult to determine because of the thick woods that shrouded the movements of the two armies. During one moment when Lee’s army seemed to be threatening both flanks of the Union forces, a worried general approached Grant and said, “… this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experiences; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan [river] and cut us off completely….” General Grant came to his feet and though usually not too emotional, became rather expressive. “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear and both flanks at the same time. Go back to your command and try and think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” To gain victory, Grant needed to inspire a new way forward rather than risk defeat through those worn out by resting on precedent thinking.
Last week we celebrated Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit as a gift from the Father to the church. The Holy Spirit epitomizes the holy voice of the church to proclaim the gospel, the good news to the world. The Holy Spirit represents the glory of God moving on from the dangers of precedent thinking, from those traditions that trap us in the past and don’t allow us to move forward with the Spirit of God. Just like my youth group from 1990, it is easy for churches to be dying in the precedent of old thinking while the Holy Spirit keeps moving down the road picking up believers who are willing to travel with it.
The prophet Isaiah, from today’s scripture reading, had what only can be described as a really big Spirit of God moment. He was in the temple. Imagine the same scene in our sanctuary. There, in all glory, was the Lord of hosts “… and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings …” flying about and proclaiming “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The sound of their voices was so powerful “… the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” Again, imagine this happening in our sanctuary. Now, we would have two choices. The safe way forward would be the temptation to fall back on precedent and research whether or not the Lord of hosts and the seraphim received a building use permit from Session. After all, the Municipality of Anchorage building code people and the fire marshal might take issue with shaking the building and filling it with smoke.
Yet, instead of precedent, we can follow the lead of Isaiah. It is the way of true confession. “Woe is me!” he cried, “I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” And through true confession, the Lord finds us a new way forward where we no longer rest on tired precedent and instead join the Holy Spirit toward a glorious future. Lutheran Pastor Donald Moldstad commented on this passage and wrote: “The bright glory of God exposes the filth and sinfulness of the prophet. The glory of God in his law exposes our filth and sinfulness.”
Then comes the moment of God’s grace. God gladly hears and instantly rectifies Isaiah’s plight. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’” God doesn’t mess around with grace. Rev. Moldstad reminds us that once King David confessed his sin, the prophet Nathan instantly absolved him. Jesus similarly and lovingly bestows immediate grace upon the Apostle Peter. And how quickly did the grace of God turn around the Apostle Paul one day on the road to Damascus? The self-described “chief among sinners” was directly brought into grace.
The summer of 1945, shortly after World War II ended in Europe, a memorial service was held at the Holy Trinity Church, London for a war hero who happened to be a German national. The service was broadcast via the BBC, which seems remarkable due to the likely hard feelings for the Germans that understandably persevered in Great Briton so soon after the war. Nevertheless, the service was dedicated to the Christian martyrdom of German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom I choose to specifically remember in this sermon on Memorial Day weekend. Dietrich’s seminal work, “The Cost of Discipleship,” pushes against precedent thinking created by many Christian churches, which he would describe as “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” he wrote, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!” He goes on to condemn church and society so caught up in the precedent of receiving the benefits of a no cost grace, and then going back to selfish sinful lives, and refusing to participate in any kind of work in discipleship. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Isaiah received real grace, because he genuinely confessed and asked forgiveness of his sins and when the seraph touched his lips with the white-hot coal he proclaimed to Isaiah, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” In the 1970s there was a theological movement in Wesleyan circles called “orthopathy” which combines two Greek words “ortho” meaning “right” and “pathos” meaning “feeling.” According to Henry Knight, orthopathy moves us beyond the mere movements of religious ritual and practice that we often perform out of precedent, because somebody told us we had to and because we’ve always done it that way before. “We need not only right beliefs and practices,” Knight writes, “we need a right heart; we need not only to think and do what is faithful, we need to be faithful persons. To put it differently, orthopathy does not primarily refer to a warm heart, but to a heart formed, governed and motivated by love.”
I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put orthopathy in the category of the more desired “costly grace” which means we’re actually living the faith and not just merely practicing the rituals. He defines costly grace to be “… the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God.”
Bonhoeffer lived the costliness of his discipleship. Just before the war started, friends in America invited him to get away from Germany and come teach at Union Theological Seminary. He was scarcely here three weeks and feeling very unsettled and realized God was calling him to challenge the Nazis on his home turf. He knew he could not abandon Germany to the Nazis and so he boarded a ship and returned to his homeland to take a stand against evil. Ultimately, he realized the depth of the Nazi evil in Germany, and joined the German resistance, and assisted in the failed plot to kill Adolph Hitler. Because of that, the Nazis, who already had him imprisoned on other lesser charges, executed Dietrich just three weeks before the war ended at Flossenburg prison camp on Sunday, April 8, shortly after delivering worship services for the other prisoners incarcerated with him.
Isaiah was in the temple. He could have, the day God came to him, chosen the easy path of being busy and distracted following all the expected religious practices and rituals set by precedent. In that case, God may have moved on to search for another worthy prophet with a right heart and a willing faithfulness. Yet, Isaiah took the harder road and did his part. He candidly recognized he was unclean and sinful and, in that state, he couldn’t possess a genuine relationship with the Lord. Upon his confession, he immediately received God’s grace. Then, and only then, was he able to hear the voice of the Lord’s truth calling to him. Do we get that? Isaiah doesn’t hear the Lord’s voice until he received grace. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” When Isaiah confessed, he gave up himself, he died to himself, and lived for God, which allowed him to answer the call, “Here am I, send me!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Like Isaiah, Dietrich chose the path of costly grace and set his own life aside for the sake of the Lord calling him. He did not expect Divine grace for free. He did not garner God’s presence in his life through the precedents of past rituals that were made cheap and less meaningful through watered down church practices and routines. He confessed and gave his life to God and when the call came he responded, “Here am I, send me.” On this Memorial Day, let us remember the likes of his martyrdom for the Lord. And, whenever possible, strive to live the legacy of true discipleship for Christ in and through our living. Amen.