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"Called to Fail" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on February 10, 2019 by Kathy Miller

Called to Fail

Scripture—Isaiah 6:1-13

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above God; 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 God’s 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!” And God said, “Go and say to this people:


‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And God said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.



It is difficult, in our current context, I find, to fully appreciate the grandeur of the vision Isaiah is describing in this morning’s passage. We are a more casual congregation; we have no room reserved only for God, no purification rituals that must be performed in order to enter this space; we have no cherubim or seraphim carved into the space above us, no incense and very little gold. And so it is difficult to put ourselves in Isaiah’s place, to imagine what it would have felt like to be in his shoes in this moment.

The writer, Annie Dillard, spoke to this cultural gap when she wrote that “on the whole, I do not find Christians, sufficiently sensible of conditions … it is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”[1] Isaiah, I suspect, would have been grateful for a crash helmet or a life vest, for the God that Isaiah encounters in the Temple is so immense, so majestic that the temple is filled with just the hem of God’s robe. Never mind the flying fire creatures with six wings whose voices cause the foundations of the building to shake!

Is it any wonder that Isaiah’s response is to tremble and recognize his own unworthiness? What other response is there in that moment? We may not be able to fully picture Isaiah’s context, but we know what it is to stand under a dark night sky bright with stars and feel our own sense of self slip silently away as we observe the vastness of the universe. We know what it is to stand on the brink of the Grand Canyon or any awe-inspiring landscape and have our breath stolen by the majesty of creation. We know what it is to feel our insides ripped out from within us when faced with the grief of profound loss—what it is to have our hearts torn open and our insides fully exposed as we encounter the limits of our own knowledge and control. Who among us hasn’t had at least one of these experiences, whether positive or negative? Who among us can’t relate to Isaiah’s automatic response of humility? Who are we, after all, in the grand scheme of things?

Isaiah is far from the first, and will not be the last, to respond to God’s unexpected presence in this way. Indeed, our human response to God’s sudden appearance is so consistent that biblical scholars have identified a whole genre of literature in the Bible that follows the same pattern, it’s referred to as the call story genre, and it goes like this:

  • God shows up,
  • the human in the story expresses a sense of unworthiness or doubt about their own sense of self,
  • God equips them for what God is about to ask of them,
  • sometimes, depending on the person involved, there are more objections and more reassurances,
  • and then the individual is sent on their way with a new job from God.

Moses’ experience at the burning bush is perhaps the quintessential example of this pattern. God appears, Moses stands in awe, God tells Moses what he has been called to do, Moses comes up with every excuse imaginable. God responds to each and every objection until Moses is left with little choice but to go.

There are variations, of course. For example, when Jonah is called, he skips the objections and simply jumps on the next boat going in the opposite direction, only, in the end, to be swallowed by a large fish and spat out exactly where God had wanted him to go. There are variations, but the pattern is recognizable.

Indeed, if you’ve ever received a call from the nominating committee, you’ve likely experienced a version of this pattern. The phone rings, you make the mistake of answering it, Michael Clickner is on the other end asking you if you’ll be a deacon or an elder and you hem and haw as you think of all the reasons why that would not be a great idea—you’ve got a lot going on, you don’t actually have any idea what an elder or a deacon does, your spouse will give you the evil eye if you tell them you’re going to be out another evening for a meeting, you’re getting old, your kids are too young, there are far more qualified people, etc. Nonetheless, while not God, Michael has a reputation to uphold, and so one way or another the majority of you are persuaded to say yes.

And so you show up to church one Sunday morning and give thanks that we do not equip you by touching a burning coal to your lips but instead simply lay hands upon you. It’s a pattern that continues even in this day and age.

However, I suspect it unlikely that any of you, when called by the nominating committee, pulled quite the 180 degree flip that Isaiah does in his call narrative. If Isaiah’s first response is one of unworthiness, his second response can read far more like the overachieving student in the front row, arm extended as high as possible, bottom no longer in her seat, saying ”ooh, ooh, here I am, choose me.” And if we stop at this verse, as we often tend to do, then it makes sense to read Isaiah’s second response with this gusto and enthusiasm, to sing the melodic and stirring hymn often paired with this text, “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord?” Because if we stop with this verse, what we have is an iconic call story that begins with the glory of God and ends with a prophet ready and eager to do God’s bidding. It’s a call story we can all aspire to, minus the burning coal bit.

Only, the story doesn’t end with that verse. The chapter doesn’t even end with that verse. The scene goes on as God tells Isaiah exactly what he is to say to the people and how the people will respond.

Author Frederick Buechner describes the scene this way, God said, ‘Who will it be?’ and with charred lips Isaiah said, ‘Me,’ and God said “GO.’ God said, ‘Go give the deaf Hell till you're blue in the face and go show the blind Heaven till you drop in your tracks because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.” And when Isaiah asked how long, God replied, “until hell freezes over; until the cows come home.”


And now, given the rest of the story, it is hard not to go back and hear Isaiah’s response as slightly more tentative and hesitant. It is, after all, a matter of tone and inflection. It helps to remember that Isaiah is the only person in this vision. He may well have been less “eager volunteer” and more “observer of the facts already written on the wall.” The text tells us that he overhears God asking “whom shall I send, who will go for us,” and so it’s not hard to imagine Isaiah looking around, seeing no one else, and responding hesitantly, questioningly, “here I am? Send me?” Because better to volunteer than be conscripted. Because when faced with the overwhelming majesty of God, it makes good sense to go along if only to get along. How else could Isaiah respond? If he was any student of Israelite history, he had to know that he was going either way—God is not known for folding when faced with protestations or negative responses.

There’s much in this call story of Isaiah to unpack (for starters, why does God not want the people to hear Isaiah’s message?), but what I want to draw out this morning is God’s surprising candor about Isaiah’s future failure. God does not beat around the bush (so to speak)—Isaiah is going to fail and he is going to fail utterly and completely. Isaiah is going to preach and no one will understand what he is trying to say. He’s going to point and no one will be able to see the object of his attention. Isaiah is going to bomb. And because that is how God wants it, no amount of effort or work on Isaiah’s part is going to change that. Isaiah, in this scene of great majesty and splendor, is being called to fail.

I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of failure. I make an effort not to put myself in situations where I might fail. I work more hours than I should, stay up later than is wise, and overly prepare all in an attempt to stave off failure. I am the kind of person who procrastinates and puts off writing papers (or sermons) until the last minute because I’m afraid to fail—afraid I won’t be able to do it and afraid that if I do manage, it won’t be good enough. And so I procrastinate so that if I do fail, I can at least blame it on a lack of time rather than my own inherent inability.

Despite a lot of work and a decent amount of experience, failure remains one of my greatest fears. And yet here is a passage in which God, in all God’s grandeur, tells someone that in order to succeed in their God-given calling, they will need to fail. And if we can set aside for a minute the thorny theological questions about why God would want or will failure, there is immense freedom to be found in this great good word.

Isaiah’s call story reminds us that God does not call us to succeed. God calls us to be faithful—to seek out our own call (the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need) and to live into it as faithfully as we know how, regardless of the results. It is a counterintuitive reminder to allow the journey, the work, to matter more than the destination or the results. For our newly ordained and installed deacons and elders, it is an invitation to consider where Covenant’s unique gifts might meet the world’s deep need and then to go and do that, regardless of whether or not it will bring in more pledges, increase our membership, or stand any chance of success. For all of us, it is an invitation to dream and to experiment—to imagine where our own gifts and talents and interests might meet a need in the world and then to do that, whether it makes good sense or not.

Isaiah’s call story, in all its grandeur and majesty, is a reminder that sometimes what we are called to do is fail, but that doesn’t mean that we are doing the wrong thing.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Annie Dillard. Teaching a Stone to Talk, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 48

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