Sunday, June 4, 2023

Sermon: "I Don't Belong Here", Isaiah 6:1-8 (June 4, 2023)


The Narrative Lectionary takes a break over the summer, but it offers suggestions of scripture to take a closer look at, parts of the Bible that are glossed over or skipped entirely during the regular cycle. So, during the month of June, we’ll be looking at Isaiah, a book that’s long been called “the Fifth Gospel” in Christian circles because of the large number of messianic references contained within its pages.

Not that this is an easy prospect. Isaiah is complicated: most scholars believe that what we know of as the book of Isaiah was written by at least three different people over the course of at least two centuries. We most often encounter it in the Church during Advent, so pretty familiar with its Messianic prophecies. But Isaiah has its own context completely separate from Christ. It was originally written before, during, and after the Jewish exile from Israel, and so a lot of it is devoted to explaining how God could allow such a terrible thing to happen to God’s people and what God was going to do next. Isaiah was one of God’s most prolific prophets during this time.

Our reading today is Isaiah’s call narrative. He was already well aware of his people’s sinfulness – he’d watched as the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the southern kingdom of Judah fell, too. And so, when he has a vision of the divine throne room, with seraphim zealously proclaiming God’s holiness, he knows he’s in trouble. “Woe is me!” he cries, “I’m a sinner; my people are sinners, yet I’ve seen the Lord with my own eyes!”

Now, let’s pause for a minute. It’s probably hard for most of us to relate to Isaiah’s exact predicament. While it’s likely that each of us has felt God’s presence before to one degree or another, it’s far less likely that any of us have seen the Lord’s full glory with our own eyes. But I’d be willing to bet that many of us can relate to the general underlying feeling that Isaiah was experiencing in this moment: the overwhelming conviction that he didn’t belong there.

This feeling of profound dislocation is such a universal human anxiety. I don’t just mean being somewhere that makes you think, “Eh, this isn’t for me;” I mean being in a place or situation that makes you feel, all the way down to your bones, that you are in the wrong place. I’m talking one minute you’re in a theater looking for the bathroom, next thing you know you’re on stage in front of hundreds of people – that kind of feeling. Only, in Isaiah’s case, the feeling is much, much worse – he’s saying, “This place is far too holy for me, a terrible sinner; I shouldn’t be here!”

Isaiah didn’t belong because his sin was out of place in the presence of such intense holiness, but this sense of not belonging can also arise for the opposite reason – finding yourself in a BAD situation. A friend of mine told me about a time that she found herself struggling at a new job. The leadership was deceitful and manipulative, different perspectives weren’t valued, and there was little to no accountability within the organization. My friend found herself regularly experiencing fight-or-flight mode at work, having stress-dreams, and even curling into a ball and crying on the floor when she got home. It took her a while to figure out why she was so miserable in this position, but after speaking to a career coach, she realized that the organization’s core values were in direct conflict with her own. It wasn’t just that she didn’t like the job; she didn’t belong there.

No matter what causes it, this out-of-place feeling is awful, especially when you’re somewhere that you feel you can’t escape. You feel helpless and stuck, and you’d give almost anything not to feel that way anymore. There’s a sense of desperation about it. But as terrible as this feels, the consequences of feeling comfortable somewhere that you don’t belong are much worse.

If Isaiah had felt like he belonged in the divine throne room, there’s no way he would have let the seraph remove his sin – why would he let anyone put a glowing coal to his adequately righteous lips? He would have remained exactly as he was. He also wouldn’t have had any motivation to ever leave. Why would he abandon literal heaven to become a prophet – one of the most thankless jobs ever – if he was comfortable where he was?

My friend witnessed firsthand the damaging consequences of becoming too comfortable in the wrong place. She watched as colleagues were mistreated, slandered, and demoted by the organization…and she watched them accept this abuse because they believed it was a part of belonging there. The system perpetuated itself by manipulating every employee into believing that this was just the cost of doing business. In reality, it’s the cost of feeling like you belong in a place that you don’t.

Feeling comfortable somewhere you don’t belong leads to apathy at best and suffering at worst. But DIScomfort in a place you don’t belong tells you that something needs to change. And if the feeling is strong enough, it compels you to do something about it. Sometimes, the needed change is for you to get out of there – this is what my friend decided to do. She believed that challenging the system would have made things worse for the employees that she managed, so out of compassion for them and integrity for herself, she left the job. Sometimes, the needed change is within yourself. Isaiah couldn’t stay in God’s presence in his sinful state, but God had brought him there for a reason. So, with the help of a seraph, Isaiah himself changed.

Other times, however, these kinds of small-scale changes aren’t possible. Sometimes, when you realize that you don’t belong somewhere, the change that you need to make is in the Whole. Dang. System. Once Isaiah’s guilt had departed and his sin was blotted out, Isaiah was finally able to exist in God’s presence – but it STILL wasn’t where he belonged. And having had this divine experience, he realized that the world into which he’d been born could no longer be his true home, either. He saw that it was broken, but knew that God could make it into something far better than it was. So, he decided to return to the world that was no longer his home to help turn it into a place where he DID belong. He decided to share what he knew in the hopes that he and his fellow human beings could figure out how to work towards that better world together.

Friends, we need to take a page out of Isaiah’s book. As those who have chosen to follow the way of Christ, we no longer belong to this world. The world to come, God’s kindom, is our home; THAT is where we belong. But since it’s a place that doesn’t yet exist fully and since we’ve already been transformed in Christ, the only option left for us is to change the world around us. So, like Isaiah, we must be willing to say the hard things, to speak the harsh truths, about the world as it is, to help others realize the better world that’s possible.

If you feel like this doesn’t sound worth the effort, that it’s too difficult…you might want to ask yourself if perhaps you’ve become a bit too comfortable in a place that you don’t belong. I mean, it’s not entirely your fault. We’ve all been led to believe, by our communities, by our leaders, even by the Church itself, that the kindom of God looks an awful lot like the world as it is. Our holidays are nationally recognized; our sacred stories are a part of the larger culture; our traditions are widely accepted. Everything we see tells us that this means we ARE home, that we belong here in THIS world as it is.

But God’s kindom can’t be built upon these things. Following the right traditions, saying the right words, making the right gestures – these are the things that the powers of this world care about. What matters in God’s kindom is that there’s room for everyone at the table. That the wolf and the lamb can live together in peace and harmony. That justice, mercy, and love are the laws that guide us. And we have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but to our human siblings, to make THESE the things that we fight for.

No matter how content we may think we are with this world as it is, there are countless others who cannot find that same peace. Who not only feel like they don’t belong but are ACTIVELY MADE to feel that way. Gay couples having beer bottles thrown at them for holding hands. Immigrants being spat at. Women being treated as literal objects when they stop for gas. People with parents of different races being called terrible names. Trans kids being refused life-saving care. It’s impossible for these people to ignore the fact that others have decided they don’t belong here. And if there’s anyone who doesn’t belong here, then this CANNOT be God’s kindom.

We should know what it’s like to not belong in this world. So we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with these siblings, these sacred spirits, these beloved children of God. We know that there’s a better place, a place where we DO belong, and we know that they belong there, too. We owe it to them to loudly and unapologetically proclaim this truth to the whole world. And until God’s kindom comes in full, they deserve a sense of real belonging with us.

This world may be where we live, but it’s not our home. We need to be taking real, tangible steps to change this world into a place where everyone DOES belong. Whenever we find ourselves a little too comfortable with the way things are, we need to pray for God to shake us out of our complacency: fewer prayers to preserve what is, and more prayers to show us what needs to change. Less “Send me peace where I am,” and more “Here I am; send me.”

The good news is that, just as we shouldn’t stay comfortable in a place that we don’t belong, we aren’t meant to stay uncomfortable forever, either. We’re a people who have seen God’s face in Christ and are called to bring about holy transformation. Our discomfort is a sacred tool meant to challenge THIS world and to bring about the one that SHOULD be. The home that God has prepared for us. The place where we all belong.

So don’t give in to comfort. Don’t give in to complacency. Don’t give into the lie that this world is “good enough”. Lean into the discomfort, and let it provoke you to action – on your own behalf, but also for others. Work towards Isaiah’s vision, God’s promise. Work towards the kindom. Work for the place where each of us will truly, wholly, FINALLY belong. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment