Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
February 4, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
It had been a difficult week for Gail. Her son had been diagnosed with a learning disability and the car had broken down. She came to church that morning out of habit more than anything else. Her friend had given her a ride; the kids were situated in their Sunday school classes, and Gail was sitting in the pew quietly listening to the organ prelude. In the quietness of that moment the burdens of her life felt heavy and discouraging.
The service began and Gail stood to sing the first hymn. She mouthed the words of hope and felt her heart somewhat lightened. The hymn ended and she sat down again. Her body felt the support of the pew back; her eyes looked up towards the altar and took comfort in the beautiful flowers there. The choir began to sing and Gail closed her eyes. The music carried her into another place. Her imagination began to weave a story. In her mind she imagined a creek flowing through the mountains and she felt herself as a leaf floating with the water, effortlessly, without care, guided peacefully along as afternoon sunshine bathed her face. Then as the flowing water rounded a corner she had a vision of a Being sitting on a large boulder abutting the creek. A multitude of birds surrounded the Being; they were singing and calling to one another in joyful melodies. Deer stood nearby, squirrels and rabbits played around the rock. A brilliant radiance glowed from the Being and flowed outward filling all the air around it and eventually reaching Gail. Deep warmth spread through her and she felt an ecstatic joy as she experienced being touched by the most powerful love she had ever known.
Tears rolled down her eyes as she gazed upon the Being. A dove flew from the hand of the Being to her with a flowering branch in its mouth and laid it gently in her hands. As it touched her hands her body was filled with a sense of comfort, trust and forgiveness. In that one moment all of her life became holy to her and she had a sense of God's presence residing solidly within her. A voice surrounded Gail, "Will you join the dance? Will you dance with me? And from deep within her came a response: "Here I am, ready to dance." And the air swelled with songs that moved through the core of her being.
The music in the church service had stopped. Gail slowly reopened her eyes and gazed about in wonder at the normalcy that surrounded her. For she knew she had experienced something that could not easily be captured in words. And, she knew that she had fundamentally changed in ways that could not yet be articulated. She left the church service that morning in somewhat of a daze and yet with a deep reassurance that she had encountered something of God.
This morning we heard the story of the prophet in Isaiah who has an encounter with the Lord sitting on a throne. We hear of angels with six wings, thresholds shaking and a house filling with smoke. In the midst of this strangeness we see how the prophet recognizes the holiness with which he is surrounded and he feels his own brokenness in comparison. But, an angel flies to him, touches his lips with a live coal and he feels his guilt depart and forgiveness flood his being. The voice of the Lord asks "Whom shall I send" and in the new found strength and love from what he has just experienced, the prophet answers, "Here am I, send me!"
Some commentators conjecture that Isaiah was likely attending a religious festival. In his capacity as prophet he could be imagined standing with the priests and watching the ancient ceremony with its symbolism and music along with the other worshipers. It is likely this was something he had done before. But this time, something changed for him. There was an opening created through which came a vision, which transformed his life. We don't know what led him to that moment but we can imagine that when he woke up that morning and prepared to go to the ceremony, he had no idea what was going to happen.
What can we learn from this story of Isaiah and the story of Gail? God comes to us in the midst of our daily lives and often in unexpected ways. Our physical senses - what we see, hear and feel - are often guides in experiencing God's presence. Our imaginations help create the possibility for God to speak to us through symbols and images. God may come to us in brokenness of spirit where the hole created by the terrible and tragic in our life weakens us to a point where our defenses that keep God away depart. Our experiences of God may come in ways that seem strange to us - so strange we dare not repeat them to others for fear of ridicule or disbelief.
In our lesson from Luke this morning we hear of another encounter with the Holy - this time as the fisherman experience Jesus in their midst. It happened on a day like most days, the fishermen were going about their usual routine, cleaning up their nets. This day they were likely more discouraged than usual for after working all night they had still been unable to catch any fish.
Into the middle of them walks this man Jesus who has a crowd following him. He asks to use Simon's boat to go away from the shore so he may address the crowds from the boat. We can imagine Simon noticing the crowd with some amazement; listening to Jesus preach to them with words that made him wonder anew about some things. His curiosity was aroused. So when Jesus finishes talking and asks him to move the boat to deep water and again put out the nets he does so, even though he fully expects them to once again come up empty.
But the nets came up so full of fish that they were beginning to break. The other fishermen were summoned to help. Watching this strange spectacle and viewing the abundance surrounding him Simon Peter has a vision of more than what is just before him. He knows there is something special about this encounter and feels unworthy to be a part of it. "Go away from me, Lord," he says, "for I am a sinful man!"
But Jesus reassures him and tells him not to be afraid. Jesus gives him a peek into the future and says, "From now on you will be catching people." Simon Peter and the others become disciples. An ordinary day ends in an extraordinary way.
This story again reminds us how an experience of Jesus and God comes in the midst of the ordinariness of our lives AND to ordinary people. Jesus did not go into the temples seeking "holy" men to follow him. He went to a lakeshore and sought the fishermen.
This encounter with Jesus also demonstrated an abundance of life overflowing the containers that hereto had been empty: hundreds of fish filling what had been empty nets. Jesus challenged the belief systems of the fishermen present and invited them to enlarge their imaginations to take in whole new possibilities. It is in his encounter with them that life suddenly is seen differently through their eyes. He encourages them not to be afraid of what they have seen but to trust in where it will lead them. He sees their future before they do and calls out for them a new vision of who they are - catchers of people.
Encounters with God require a radical openness to the strange and different popping into our lives in unexpected ways. Such experiences ask us to shed our preconceived notions about things and allow visions of the miraculous to fill our spirit. Affirming the powerful gift of our bodies and our senses as ways to experience God keeps us radically open. All our spiritual experiences are embodied ones - whether one experiences a seraph touching one's lip with a coal of redemption or the warmth of God's love infusing one's body. We can encounter God in walking through a quiet forest or in the sacred space of passionate love-making. If we are open to the powerful transformation possible in such encounters they will change the way we relate to others in a life-affirming way.
Perhaps one of the most challenging things about living life with radical openness is trusting in our experiences of encounter with God despite what others might say about them. Or even despite the reduction we may give to them ourselves some time later. Can we be so radical as to believe that God might choose us to bring some special expression of God's Self to the world?
The radical truth of our faith is that God has already chosen us. We are made in the image of God; we are given the pathway of Jesus to follow and the Spirit flowing through us to make all things possible. God is simply waiting for us to say yes to the dance.
What God asks of us in those moments of revelation is for us to honor them by living life differently. Such a commitment - trusting and answering a call - requires risking life, as we have known it. It often asks that we give up that which we hold dear in anticipation of a greater vision for life that God has for us.
Frederick Buechner writes about his experience of waking up everyday with a sense of God calling him anew to life.
Buechner says, "Darkness was upon the face of the deep, and God said, "Let there be light." Darkness laps at my sleeping face like a tide, and God says, `Let there be Buechner." Why not? Out of the primeval chaos of sleep God calls me to be a life again . . . God calls me to be this rather than that; God calls me to be here rather than there; God calls me to be now rather than then . . . Waking into the new day, we are all of us Adam (and Eve) on the morning of creation."
Living with radical openness to the presence of God in our lives enables us to create and be created in each moment. It enlarges our imagination to endless possibilities for being God's expression in the world. It helps us to fully let into our lives the abundant love God has for each one of us.
Let there be Jan. Let there be Phoebe. Let there be Peter, and George and Stephanie. Let there be encounters at the lakeshore, in the pew, at the office, at the bedside of a dying loved one and at the birth of a new baby. May we radically open our lives to make room for the fullness of God to be encountered everyday. Amen.