“WHOM SHALL I SEND?” ASKS GOD
Isaiah 6: 1-8
In our rare full family gatherings around Thanksgiving, Mary Ann might ask our children, who are quite grown mind you: “Who will help me set the table?” A chorus of voices, simultaneously, declare, “Not it!!” Asking for volunteers in a home or in a church can look like the old “duck and cover” drills from the 1960s! Everybody tries to hide! As Vacation Bible School Director Mary Ann says, “Don’t make me call you; you call me!” But sometimes that is wishful thinking. Apparently God knows that too. Fifty years ago, the government drafted young men into military service if they did not enlist on their own. In the 1970s I had to register with the Selective Service too; my number was 26, so I knew I would be called up if the draft were reinstated. But it was 1974; troops had come home from Vietnam and there was no other arena of combat for which the United States was drafting. Drafting avoided the issues of seeking volunteers. But volunteers, on the other hand, show at least a modicum of interest in or willingness to serve. We have a volunteer choir; volunteer teachers; volunteers greeters, volunteer ushers and candle lighters; volunteers folded and stapled your bulletins; volunteers will fold our newsletter on Tuesday, and volunteers help keep God’s house beautiful. The Christian church could not function without volunteers. Although many people work in paying jobs and have to do so for income, volunteers often have the higher calling.
Calling. Calling is a term that many Christians use, particularly ministers. It perhaps harkens back to God’s call to Moses from a burning bush; or God’s call to Isaiah or to Jeremiah. For decades Uncle Sam drafted young men to serve their country. But God does not draft; God muses; God considers; God wonders; and then God asks, “Whom will I send?”
Some of you know that I spent a decade working to help Presbyterian congregations support our 10 seminaries and the two seminaries related by covenants. In that time I heard a lot of call stories of people saying “Yes” to God’s invitation. Here is mine in a nutshell. God didn’t draft me. I said “Send me.”
On April 9, 1956, the day I was born, God was asking: “Whom shall I send?” I had a lifetime in front of me, and I didn’t hear the voice.
On March 31, 1957, the day my parents dedicated me to God, God was asking again, “Whom shall I send?” I didn’t hear that either, but perhaps a seed was planted.
On March 22nd, 1969, the day I was baptized and confirmed into the Christian faith, God was asking “Whom shall I send?” But I didn’t know my Christian calling yet.
One day during my employment as the Assistant Janitor of Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield, Missouri in 1973, the Head Janitor and I were taking a break, sitting on big barrels of floor wax drinking orange soda. “You oughta be a preacher!” he said to my emphatically.
A seed was planted, but I didn’t realize it. I just said, “No, I’m going into business like my Dad.” Perhaps God smiled.
One day in the fall of 1976, I told my pastor, the one who had been with me for years, that I wondered if God was calling me to be a Pastor. He said, “Jeff, if there is anything else in the world you can do, do it!” Well! He put the cotton in my ears for God’s call quickly. But he later told me, “I said that because no one should enter the ministry because they think it will be easy. Enter it because, God has you by the collar and will not let go.”
In March of 1985, Mary Ann and I flew to Daytona Beach for the first time, and a Pastor Nominating Committee met with us in the old Peninsula House. God looked at his congregation called “Westminster By-The-Sea” and asked again, “Whom shall I send to serve as the pastor of my flock there?” It was then that I heard and responded: “Here I am Lord. Send me.”
Now today, as Commissioned Ruling Elder Tobias Caskey prepares for long-distance seminary training from Dubuque Theological Seminary; and as our elected Associate Pastor Glory Cumbow has just graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary last Saturday; listen to one other story from one who is passionate about her call and thankful for her training: The Rev. Emily Zieg Lindsey is now Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Waterford, Pennsylvania: She says: “I was actually at a youth retreat when I thought, ‘Wow; I might be called to ministry!’ I shared that idea at the retreat and had great support from my Youth Director and my Pastor who were there. Now after nine years in the ministry I know that there are many people out there hungry to learn and be fed, just waiting for a leader to come alongside of them to help them with the journey. When I started in my presbytery nine years ago I was the youngest pastor in the presbytery. Now nine years later I am still the youngest pastor in the presbytery!” We need young people, and second career people, to carefully consider answer God’s question “Whom shall I send?” Did you hear that? People retire from ministry. What young people; or second career people, might hear the call and respond?
I have since learned how many people have answered God’s question by being trained musically, or trained to teach, or is a person in the world who looks for times to witness for Christ. I have learned that some have said “Yes” to God’s question by volunteering in church. Some answered Uncle Sam’s call to serve our country. Some answered God’s call to make the kingdom of the world more like the Kingdom of God. And some have served both God and Country.
Our stories do not need to be poetic or dramatic; they have to be authentic. Some listen to someone else’s story and try to fit their own story into someone else’s story. It doesn’t work. For example, the classic story that Catherine Marshall wrote about her husband’s call to the ministry is told in her lovely biography A Man Called Peter, the story of the Rev Peter Marshall, a Scotsman who moved to the United States and is credited with planting the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans idea in people’s heads. This is how Catherine Marshall described her husband’s call from God in her book and in the movie by the same name: “Peter Marshall did not grow up wanting to be a minister. That was God’s idea—not his. In fact, it took quite a lot of persuasion to get him to accept that plan.” [Avon Books, 1971, p.15]
Today we have a call story of a prophet on earth being transported in a vision to a heavenly throne. “The Lord was sitting on his throne, high and lofty, and his robe filled the Temple.’ [Isaiah 6:1] This is not the earthly Temple. How do we know? Listen again: “Seraphs surrounded him; each had six wings.” [6:2] This is no normal earthly scene! It is a heavenly scene like the one in the book of Revelation. The seraph (an angel of the highest order) said: “Holy holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” We join with the words that Handel put to music and say to God: “Holy Art Thou.” Was the whole earth full of his glory then; or even now? No; that was a scene of hope and possibility. It was a terrifying scene even for a prophet. Feeling inadequate, he said aloud: “I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips.” Such words were uttered by Isaiah, but they could also be said by people in our own day! Are we also people of unclean lips, living among others of unclean lips? Clean lips mean we try to lift up others in our conversations, not cut them down. Clean lips do not constantly curse. Clean lips are not spouting lies. Clean lips move toward civil discourse rather than contentious fighting. Yes, in comparison to God, we all are unclean people. But we can make changes to move us toward holiness. Isaiah experienced something we also have to experience in order to say “yes” to God: Isaiah’s guilt was taken away by the fire of a coal and his sins were blotted out. You may not have experienced that exactly, but once we have acknowledged sins and start with a clean slate, we can hear things that sins have kept us from hearing. Things like God asking: “Whom shall I send?” Some here today, have said, “Here I am. Send me.”
And some have yet to say it.
God’s plan has worked. God got me to say, “Yes” to his ask. God got Emily Lindsey to say yes; and Tobias Caskey, and Glory Cumbow, and Peter Marshall. But some of you have said “yes” to God too! Many teachers, musicians, students, professionals, laborers, parents, and grandparents have said to God: “Here am I! Send me!” Now our job is to try to make the vision real today: that the kingdom of this world may actually become more like the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. It starts when we say ”Yes,” open our hearts, and roll up our sleeves. That is what God asks of us. Who is on the Lord’s side? And who will go for him?
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 27, 2018