In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 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!”
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.
3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.
7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.
8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
It is good to be with you this morning, saints of Aspinwall Presbyterian Church! Your pastor has invited me to guest preach several times, but this is the first Sunday that my schedule and his schedule matched up. So I’m excited and grateful to be with you all this morning.
I have been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about vocation. The word, “vocation,” comes from the Latin vocare, which means “call.” Both “call” and “vocation” are used interchangeably in the church world, I’ve discovered. Pastors don’t say “I am looking for a job.” They say, “I am looking for a call.”
It is as if the work pastors do in the church is a vocation or a call, and all the work non-pastors do in the outside world is just a “job” or your “career” or that thing you do that puts food on the table and the bill collectors away from your door.
But I think both points of view are probably wrong.
I think call or vocation extends beyond what you do for a living, whether in a church or secular setting.
I think your call or your vocation is about answering the question of what you are going to do with your life?
What will be its focus? What will be its lodestar, as it were? What is your guiding principle whether you are a banker or a bartender? Or even a pastor?
I’ve been thinking about vocation because my last living uncle died a few weeks ago.
If you read my uncle’s obituary, you’ll see that his job – what he did for a living — for almost 60 years was “teacher.” He taught Biology and Botany in high schools, and at two different colleges. That is what my uncle did for a living, right up until a month before he died.
But I think his vocation – the organizing principle of my uncle’s life, his call – was to help things grow and never, ever give up on them.
My uncle’s teaching career was spent at institutions that serve the needs of poor and struggling students of color, mostly from urban areas like Center City Philadelphia.
After he retired from Cheney University, one of the nation’s oldest predominantly African American institutions of higher learning, he spent another 20 years teaching at a community college with mostly non-traditional adult students either returning to a classroom after many years away or entering a college classroom for the very first time.
And when he wasn’t helping struggling students to blossom, my uncle ran a rambling 16-acre farm, complete with a huge organic vegetable and flower garden.
People who knew my uncle know that he never, ever threw away a plant that was dying or dead. He was somehow able to graft and coax and replant until by some miracle that dead plant yielded something beautiful.
And my uncle’s farmhouse is stuffed to the gills with packets of seeds, some of them dating back decades. While you and I would probably give up on the idea of planting a row of begonias with seeds from 1998, my uncle could somehow sweet talk those seeds into growing.
But that was my uncle’s vocation. Old seeds. Dead plants. Students that other universities wouldn’t take a risk in admitting. Single mothers who hadn’t taken a basic science course in years, but found themselves back in a classroom studying to be nurses in order to support their families. My uncle never gave up on any of them.
As I reflected on my uncle’s vocation to spend his life coaxing beauty out of unlikely places and people, I thought about how God finds the most unlikely people, calls them in strange and amazing ways, and coaxes them into a vocation of becoming a co-worker with God.
You see two examples of this in our Scripture texts this morning.
Isaiah is sitting in a pew in the temple, when he is faced with the full and downright frightening glory of God, complete with smoke, thunder, and angels roaring, “Holy Holy Holy!”
And Isaiah’s first thought, first response is: “Woe is me! Not me, Lord. I am a sinner, and the people I live with are sinners. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
And of course, the angel solves that who sin thing by taking a piece of burning coal and touching Isaiah’s lips.
Thus purified by the touch of an angel, Isaiah’s excuse of being a horrible sinner no longer works.
So God says, “Ok, that’s done. Who is going to go do this thing for us?”
And we always hear Isaiah’s response as punctuated with an exclamation point, right?
“Here am I! Send me!” That’s how it appears in the Bible, right?
But, of course, there’s no punctuation in the original Hebrew.
In fact, given the smoke, the thunder, the angels, the probably painful scar on his lip from the live coal, I don’t think it would be unreasonable to imagine that Isaiah’s response was a little less than enthusiastic.
Given the scene, Isaiah’s response could have been more like, “Here am I? Send me?”
Isaiah wouldn’t be the first prophet to think twice about stepping up to do what God has in mind. In fact, many of the prophets had a very good reason to pass on their call.
Jeremiah says, “Hey, I’m just a kid!”
Moses says, “I haven’t finished my public speaking class.”
Amos was just a dresser of sycamore trees.
Jonah says, “I hate Nineveh and I can’t believe you don’t hate them too!”
Most of the prophets did not volunteer, but were drafted. Usually into calls that didn’t make much sense to them, but were ultimately important for God’s purpose.
And interestingly, if you keep reading the rest of Isaiah 6, almost immediately after Isaiah says, “Here I am. Send me,” God breaks this bit of strange news:
“Guess what? You’re going to preach and preach and nobody is going to listen to you! In fact, your job is to proclaim the horrible things that are about to happen to the people. They won’t listen to you, but keep preaching anyway, Isaiah.”
To which Isaiah sighs, “Lord, how long?”
I feel your pain, Isaiah.
Throughout Scripture, we can see how God sees the potential in unlikely people. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even Jonah with his terrible attitude about the Ninevites.
God can make it work. God will make it work through the people who can hear, and see, and accept God’s call.
And vocation isn’t something you pursue. Vocation pursues you.
You can say yes to the call. You can say no to the call.
I always imagine a lot of people passed right by the burning bush before Moses finally stopped to chat. And I think that you and I also pass by burning bushes all the time. But God never stops pursuing us to help us see our purpose in co-creating the Kingdom of God.
We see another story about vocation in our New Testament reading this morning.
Jesus arrives at the lakeside surrounded by a crowd. His fame is growing.
There are lots and lots of people crowding around Jesus.
And without even asking, Jesus gets into one of the boats belonging to Simon Peter.
And Simon Peter decides to get into the boat with Jesus and take it out into the lake at Jesus’ request.
We don’t know what Jesus preached to the crowd.
It could be the same sermon he preached back in his hometown synagogue.
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
But we know what he says to Simon Peter after his sermon.
Jesus looks at Peter and says, let’s go fishing!
And Peter says…
You gotta be kidding.
We were out here all night.
No fish out there.
We just got done washing these nets.
And then there is a pause.
And maybe Simon Peter suddenly recognizes and remembers who Jesus is.
This is the man who healed that crazy man in the synagogue.
Jesus was the man who cured all sorts of people in Capernaum.
This is the man who healed Simon Peter’s mother in law.
Simon Peter says, “Ok. If you say so. Let’s go fishing.”
And when those nets fill up, Simon Peter’s vocation is about to become clear.
Jesus is offering a new way to fish when the old ways have stopped working for Simon Peter and the Sons of Zebedee.
And like Isaiah, Simon Peter’s first response is, “Nope. Not me, Lord. I am too sinful, too broken, too messed up.”
And Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. Come on Simon Peter. Let’s go see what we can catch together.”
So James and John and Simon Peter follow Jesus.
And the text says they left everything behind. The fish. The boats. The fear.
Their vocation is to follow Jesus. Into something new and different.
From now on, the vocation of the disciples will be to catch people. Not for consumption.
They will learn from Jesus to care for people,
To love people,
to bring good news to the poor
to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, 1
9to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And the disciples will learn this way of Jesus so that all of those people the encounter and catch up in the Holy Spirit can go out and do the same for other people.
That’s what happens when you see your vocation, you call, your purpose in life is not what you do for a living, but that which gives you life.
Your vocation is about whose you are and who you are following and who you are serving.
Whether you are a teacher, a preacher, a fisherman, a banker, a mother, a father, a GetGo attendant, a janitor, a student. Anyone. Everyone. No matter your age or abilities.
When your life is oriented toward Jesus, listening to Jesus, walking with Jesus, getting involved in the work of Jesus.
When Jesus is your lodestar, your organizing principle, your vocation is about sharing the unimaginable and life-changing grace of God.
And that requires listening, and hearing, and always trusting that Jesus will seek you out and know you and call you. Every day.
I love Peter. Because I know Peter is a lot like all of us. He will go on and make mistakes.
Like incredibly big, dumb mistakes. Peter will forget who he is. He will forget his vocation. He will forget that Jesus is Lord, not Peter.
Peter will be afraid, deny his faith, deny Jesus when life gets tough.
And yet, Peter always comes back.
To his lodestar, his vocation, the organizing principle of his life, which is Jesus.
Because, Lord, where else would he go?
The world needs more people like Isaiah and Peter.
People who are willing to step out in faith, put those nets out just one more time if you say so, Jesus.
The world needs more people who are just crazy enough and faithful enough, to not give up on the idea that even in the least promising circumstances, God promises abundance. God can make something beautiful grow.
People like my uncle who never, ever gave up on the possibility of beauty.
I spend most of my time working alongside churches that are very much like Peter and John and James at the end of a long night of failed fishing.
They are faithful, loving church people who have been going out and fishing, doing the same thing over and over, never catching anything. Their nets are empty. It seems as if all the fish have disappeared, forever.
Very often, people are tired. Sometimes angry. Sometimes ashamed. They’re ready to give up on fishing altogether, stay in the shallow water, or maybe just huddle on shore.
In some of the congregations I work with, it seems that their organizing principle, their lodestar, their vocation as a congregation is only about saving their church.
They want to catch just a couple fish, maybe some young families, just enough to keep them alive. They are afraid to hope for anything else. They are afraid to try something new.
And what I say to them is what I say myself every day.
I point to the man in the boat with them.
The One who says, don’t be afraid.
The One who says, let’s go fishing.
The One who says, let’s go deep.
The One who promised, I will be with you.
I remind them they are loved by Jesus and have already been forgiven.
But, I also always say to them, “Are you sure about this?”
Are you sure you want to stop for the burning bush?
Are you sure you want to risk having your lips touched by a hot coal?
Are you sure you want to preach to people whose ears are closed and whose hearts are hardened?
Are you sure you want to love people who look a lot like your worst enemy?
Are you sure you want to find yourself in a boat about to capsize under the weight of more fish than you’ve ever seen?
Are you sure you want to follow Jesus all the way to the cross?
Because there will be a moment you’ll find yourself in the temple – or in your living room or on a crowded street or in bed at 2 a.m. when sleep is elusive.
In those moments, you’ll hear a voice that says, “Whom shall I send into this terrible, beautiful world?”
And if you are not careful, you’ll be crazy or sane enough to find yourself saying, “Send me.”
And who knows what will happen then? Only God knows.
No matter how we experience the presence of God, we can never be separated from the promise of God – to be with us, to be for us, to be in us. Which is the best kind of promise to remember, especially when you’ve got nothing but a bunch of empty nets, the pivots of the threshold are shaking and it looks like the whole place is about to go up in flames.
Let us pray:
God we give you thanks that you see gifts in us that we often cannot see for ourselves. We pray for your Spirit to call to us in ways we can understand, so that we our lives may be centered upon your joyful purposes. Let us not hide the gifts you have given us, but use each one to reflect your love and your grace, revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In him we pray, amen.