Once there was a man who was trashing his life by drinking. He failed to graduate from law school because of his drinking. He ruined a promising career on Wall Street because of his drinking. Everything was falling apart. He very much wanted to stop drinking, but he couldn’t do it. He had several hospital stays and sometimes could stay sober for a bit, but then he would relapse.
One day, on his fourth hospital stay, he was lying in his hospital bed in the throes of despair. He said, “I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” He had a vision of a bright light and experienced a feeling of ecstasy and serenity.
Not only did he quit drinking, but he dedicated his life to helping others get off alcohol as well. His name was Bill Wilson, also known as Bill W., and he cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous, which has helped millions of people deal with their addiction to alcohol. He changed the world. Pretty good for a guy who wrecked his career in finance and was too drunk to get his law degree. (History of Alcoholics Anonymous - Wikipedia.)
There’s a lot more to the story, of course. Bill W. wasn’t a perfect guy or a martyr. But I think that’s the point of today’s reading in Isaiah. God isn’t looking for people who have it all together. God is looking for those of us who show up in all our mess and failure, just as we are.
Isaiah sees this life-changing vision of God in the temple, surrounded by seraphim and smoke. It is humbling, awe-inspiring. Isaiah’s first reaction is not, “Wow! I must be something special to have a personal audience in the temple with God! Stand back, Moses: here comes Isaiah!” No. Isaiah’s reaction is fear and despair: “Woe is me!” he says, “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 Ruler, the God of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5.)
According to tradition, you cannot see God and live. Isaiah appears to fear judgment for all his failings personally as well as the failings of all the people. But the response is not condemnation or judgment. It is forgiveness and an invitation to serve. Imagine saying you have unclean lips and then having those lips “cleaned” with a burning hot coal. Yow. Perhaps it is like Bill W. hitting bottom—repeatedly, in his case—and finally being able to open himself to God’s presence, to God’s cleansing and help and love and transformation.
Maybe you have known someone whose life got off track through addiction, as Bill W.’s life did. Maybe it was even you. And maybe you were full of judgment and loathing, as Isaiah seemed to fear God would be. But God does not loathe us. God loves us. Just as we are, in all our failings. It is out of those very failings that God empowers us to serve. Bill W. came to understand that one key to staying sober was to talk with others who were also staying sober. Out of their shared experience they could connect and support each other in ways that no one else could. Because they had been there, and they knew. Out of their personal brokenness came the very quality that could help make themselves and others whole.
On this Memorial Day weekend I am thinking as well of soldiers who sign up and commit to serve their country, even at the risk of death. On Memorial Day we remember all those who went off to war and didn’t come home. My grandmother Hazel was pinned to a fellow named James, who went off to war and never came back. She grieved, and then she married someone else. We found a photo of James recently. He was a handsome young man. And he is not my grandfather.
So we remember all who paid that price, both in lives lost and in the grief of those left behind. But I think as well of those who returned broken and traumatized, suffering from PTSD, or perhaps wracked with guilt for things they did when they were swept up in the culture of war. On the radio the other day I heard an interview with the mother of a soldier who came home, and she was so relieved that he had survived his tour of duty. But he was troubled, changed, and at some point he committed suicide. This is an all too common occurrence. The trauma and guilt, the inability to sleep because of nightmares, the unresolved anger, the helplessness—these kill people, too. I think of Isaiah saying that not only did he have unclean lips, but he lived in a people who had unclean lips. We talk about sin as whatever separates us from God and God’s love. The culture of war has done that for far too many people.
God sees Isaiah. God loves Isaiah. God forgives Isaiah. And God calls Isaiah.
God sees us. God loves us. God forgives us. And God calls us.
God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” As if there is anyone else in the temple, anyone else having this vision of the Divine. It seems a little set up, like God is hinting. And Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!”
“Here am I; send me!” We get to say that, too. We get to open ourselves up to that love, that forgiveness, and that call. It is not an easy call. God calls Isaiah to prophesy a message of doom to the people. Fun! What a great way to make yourself the hit of every party.
We are called to do hard work—work of love and justice. Work that has meaning, that changes the world. Work that is worth doing, that is life-saving, like the work of Bill W.
Out of the pain and failure of our lives, God can make something beautiful and life-giving, if we but say, “Here am I; send me.” Let us be such people: open to God’s vision, open to God’s love and forgiveness, and willing to serve wherever God sends us. Amen.