"Love’s Push and Pull”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 10, 2019
University Baptist Church
Coretta Scott King advocated for the beloved community. It sounds so much easier on paper than it is in practice. Such is the push and pull of love. Love gives so much and demands so much. It seldom sits still. Especially when change is afoot.
After her husband died, she helped create the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. It was part museum, part pilgrimage site, part think tank, part incubator for nonviolence.
The King Center, originally curated by Coretta, was eventually given over to her children. But within the family, there were different opinions about how it would accomplish its work. Anyone here have families that disagree with each other? How do you push forward when the people you love disagree with you? In Quaker traditions, a congregation makes a decision only after there is consensus. It means that everyone has adequate information and has had time to prayerfully considered all of the options. When a decision is made by consensus, then everyone is on the same page and the project has the greatest opportunity for success. The challenge with this is that one person can block consensus and stop the movement in its tracks. It also means that the congregation has less freedom to respond quickly to an emerging crisis. So, a crisis might pull and the consensus process might push back against it.
Just like in Martin’s life, there were competing forces that pushed and pulled at the movement’s heart. Martin was criticized by some for speaking out against the Vietnam war. They thought he should stick to race relations. But Martin argued that a disproportionate number of soldiers were people of color, and they were fighting a war for dubious reasons overseas while not giving enough focus on issues here in the US. Martin and Coretta linked poverty with race and when Martin was killed, he was busy working on a poor people’s campaign in the nation’s capital. Love pushes and pulls us. It makes us pay attention. It asks us where we are.
Our scripture reading has God offering Isaiah the chance to reconsider who he is. To reconsider whose he is.
Isaiah felt the push and pull of love, too. Isaiah worked in the temple in Jerusalem. As a priest, he was one who gave religious sanction to the work of the King. And as long as the priest told the people that the King was doing God’s work, then it was awful hard to oppose the king.
King Uzziah did a lot of great things. He brought stability to a country which had been in a civil war for fifty years. He made sure that the towers were fortified. He built a sophisticated army. He expanded the borders of Judah and made friends with his neighbors. He even recreated stable relationships with Israel.
But stability and equity are not the same things. Sure, there were few wars and lots of military spending, but social problems were also on the rise. The people became arrogant in their prosperity and forgot the widows and the orphans. They blamed other people for their relative poverty. They mistrusted outsiders and even levied curses upon them. They trusted themselves a lot more than they trusted God. The word for that is idolatry. Isaiah the priest ignored the underside of the glitzy fortress he and Uzziah established. He pushed love of humanity away in favor of love of power.
But then he had an encounter with the living God. When the people were mourning the great King Uzziah’s death, Isaiah had a vision of God on the throne. And guess what. God didn’t look one bit like Uzziah.
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the God of hosts” said the angels in Isaiah’s vision. “The whole earth is full of God’s glory.”
God’s glory, not Uzziah’s
Not this or that empire
Not the glory of violence.
Not the glory of the so-called free market system.
Not the glory of military might.
Not the glory of prosperity for some at the expense of others.
And Isaiah, in a moment of humility in the presence of God, realizing the power that was there—the real power, fell to the ground and said, “I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips. I have told lies on behalf of the empire. I have squandered my duty as a priest. I was too preoccupied with being liked and getting along. I have pushed Love away and have been pulled by the love of security and prosperity. I’m sorry. I’m a man of unclean lips.”
But he couldn’t just leave it there. He added a bit of an accusation, “and I live among people of unclean lips”. This is a “the devil made me do it” line and a cop-out. Isaiah was a priest and should have known better. He had access to the scrolls. He was the imparter of God’s word. He gave holy sanction to the King’s actions. If he lived among the people of unclean lips, that was partly his fault for not being enough of a truth-teller.
One of the angels heard his pathetic cry and swept down and took a coal off of the altar of sacrifice which was used to atone for all of the sins of the people. And the seraph took the coal and touched it to Isaiah’s supposedly unclean lips. Dang. Now his excuses were gone.
In a voice of soft compassion amidst the ruckus came the voice of the seraph: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” What the angel didn’t say, but Isaiah knew was “now what are you going to do? What are you going to do once your excuses are gone?”
Isaiah admitted that he and the nation were lost. In the presence of the people as an establishment priest he had parroted the words of the great king. But now that the king had died, the scales came off of his eyes and he beheld the true face of God in each of the people.
When we stand in the presence of God (and we do--not only in church but when we encounter people made in God's image) it is important to be humble. It is important to confess and know that we have something to learn. None of us are ever total experts on human experience.
Don't you see that it is only after Isaiah confessed his need that the angel touched his lips. And the angel said "your guilt is taken away and your sin is forgiven."
That’s when God said, "Whom shall I send?"
In a moment of humble clarity, Isaiah said, "Here I am! Send me!"
This morning’s Star Tribune carried a story about Jake Sullivan, a star High School and College basketball player who floundered after his basketball career ended. But he later found his calling by adopting needy children from Ghana. He found his purpose in the success he passes down to the next generation. He approaches this next chapter with the same determination and passion with which he pursued the game.
Isaiah was called to tell the people of Judah to repent of their idolatry and get right with God once again. God is constantly making things new, confronting us in our complacency, recreating the world, recreating each of us. And Isaiah the former establishment priest would be God’s spokesperson for change.
The rest of the book of Isaiah is the poetic words of a prophet who tells the truth with love. He pushes people to accept the truth. He pulls people away from their altars of easy answers.
And those poetic words of Isaiah were repeated by the Gospel writers when they described the Messiah as one who would expose and promote love.
We are gathered here in this place as sinners in a land full of sinners. We have unclean lips and we long to be touched by holiness. And we are touched by holiness each time we touch each other, each time we look with honesty at a sister or brother in need, each time we tell the truth with love. Each time we muster the courage to face the bitter cold of apathy with the coal from the fire of purpose, we are washed clean.
We are gathered here in this place because we have heard God say to us, "Whom shall I send?"
Whom shall I send?
What shall you say?
I say remember that you are people convicted by the truth of the Gospel of love. You are pushed by love to step into the gap with a word of encouragement.
You are articulate people who can express love’s pull.
You are people who can show that love is more powerful than hate, that hope is more sustaining than despair.
Words are empty if they are not backed up with action.
Think about some way that you can express love, not only interpersonally, but on a scale that will move the needle of justice and of peace.
St. Francis said to preach every day, but only when necessary use words.
May you, like Coretta Scott King, like Isaiah, like Jesus step out in faith buoyed by the love that is above and before us.
And if the people turn a blind eye or a deaf ear or are indifferent, redouble your efforts, get creative until they too are pulled and pushed not by fame or fortune but by love to do something truly miraculous in this world.
This is not a time to be timid. This is a time to channel all of the good energy God has given you.
Maybe you’ll have a song in your heart.
One that can’t be ignored.
One that truly marks the way forward.
Maybe it sounds like this:
(at this time, Alex Weaver sang “Let Them Hear You” from Ragtime)