Brief Synopsis of the Readings: The prophet Isaiah spoke shortly after the death of King Uzziah. Isaiah declared that he was in a wretched state; he and all the people have unclean lips. But then a seraph (angel) took a live coal and touched Isaiah’s lips which took away his sin. When God asked “Whom shall I send,” Isaiah responded: “Her I am, send me.” Luke’s Gospel recounts Jesus on the side of a lake. His disciples came in from a fruitless attempt at catching fish. When Jesus asked them to go out again he was told that it was useless. Nevertheless they went out and caught so many fish that their boat nearly sank. Overcome with emotion Peter said: “Leave me Lord; I am a sinful man.” Jesus then assured Peter that he had big plans for them.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the presence of greatness.” I think in our lives we all have this experience. We all recognize that, at a few times in our lives, we experience greatness in another person and we’re gifted by being in the room when it happens.
I’m reminded of something I heard many years ago. A doctor, who was also a Catholic priest (how’s that for education?) led a group of students into the room of a dying patient. He asked the patient: “Are you praying for a miracle?” He said yes and the doctor/priest asked him: “Do you have enough faith to let God choose the miracle?” One of the students then stated: “Stand back. We are in the presence of greatness.”
So what do we do in the presence of greatness? I’ve known several doctors who speak about the “imposter effect.” They’ve spent years looking up to the brilliance of doctors, and when they can finally put the initials “MD” after their name they still feel less than worthy. With varying degrees they care for patients and make decisions while living with the fear that they live in a community where they don’t belong, that they aren’t good enough to be doing what they’re doing. Obviously this isn’t unique to doctors. I’ve heard the same thing from senior executives, and, well, clergy.
Spiritual leaders (and yes, I include myself in this group) recognize that we claim a great deal of respect because of our calling. When I was ordained, a woman my mother’s age addressed me as “Fr. Tom.” I told her I was the same person she had known since I was a teenager and she could keep addressing me as “Tom.” She shook her head and told me that I was always going to be Fr. Tom out of respect to my office. To tell the truth, I didn’t think that people who call me Tom were being disrespectful but I completely understood her desire to call me Fr. Tom.
And this is where we introduce King Uzziah. He was a good guy and a good king, but he strayed toward the end of his life. Spoiler alert: this section describes events that happened before this reading and in another book (2 Chronicles 26:16-23). At the time he, like other kings, ruled over everyone they saw. But their rule wasn’t absolute and there were things a king couldn’t do. It was understood that only priests could enter the Temple of the Lord and make an offering on the altar of incense.
When he broke that rule and took on the role of a priest he was called out by the real priests. I give them props for speaking truth to power. I admire their courage and think we can take a lesson from them.
When we talk about following Jesus we often talk about what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t be proud or selfish. We shouldn’t act as if we earned all of our blessings or believe that the poor deserve their poverty.
But there’s another side to discipleship. Accepting the mantel of Christianity also means that there are times we are called lead and to do great things. Both Isaiah and Peter are shown fearing their call and recognizing their unworthiness.
I write this with some hesitancy because I don’t want to appear to blow my own horn, but I think I have some understanding of this. When I was 25 years old I applied to several churches to be a youth minister. I felt I was called to work with high school students but I interviewed at four different churches and was not hired. Discouraged, I got a call from a church in Manassas, Virginia and I didn’t give it much thought. But when I interviewed I learned that they weren’t interested in only a youth minister: They wanted someone to start a youth ministry program, but they also wanted someone to run their CCD (Sunday School) program.
I quickly learned that the current occupant of that job was a priest whose alcoholism had gotten so bad that he could no longer hide the fact that he was having an affair with a divorced mother of four in the parish. At the time there was no youth group and the CCD program had nine hundred students and a hundred teachers.
I took the job only because I was desperate for work and I was convinced I was much too young and inexperienced. If the parish knew what they were doing they would never have hired me, and I was going to take the job (and collect the paycheck) until they came to their senses and fired me.
As it turned out, the parish was right and I was wrong. The job drew out of me gifts I didn’t know I had, and taught me to trust my gut. This surprised nobody more than me, but I was able to provide healing to the program and start a youth group that continues to this day.
At the end of our first reading Isaiah recognized how he was gifted and said: “Here I am, send me.” And while Peter did not accept his position as leader of the apostles in this reading, we know from other readings that he accepted this role.
The call to follow Christ calls us to humility and simplicity. But it also calls us to recognize that sometimes we are called to roles beyond what we think of our limits. Isaiah and Peter recognized their sinfulness and unworthiness, but we revere them because they also recognized God’s dream for them.