A baptismal meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2003, dedicated to my father, Herman C. Ahrens, Jr. for his birthday and Nicholas Henry Mitchell on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
Heroes of Faith
Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
The call of God is a disruptive and disorderly and disturbing and odd and mystical thing. It sometimes happens under the cover of night. It happens when two world views collide and a new one is formed. It happens when we are outside the main gate listening-in to the conversation of others. And then, while in the act of doing this rather strange and covert act, we overhear others speaking of something we care about. We burst in as though it is about us - like some force is pulling us into discovery beyond all rational ability to stay outside our overhearing. The call comes when a core value, a deep belief, a consistent theme is touched, hammered upon, or heard anew for the first time. And the call often supercedes our protests as the call's recipient. We sometimes flee, sometimes ignore, sometimes openly and angrily or frightfully challenge God. But, having received divine reassurances, we accept what is already planned and true in the heart and mind of the Almighty. The call often starts in the center of something old and emerges as something new. And, interestingly enough, the call rarely comes at the beginning of our story, although the beginning, in the mind of God, has had the call written in it all the time.
The call stories of the prophets and of other servants of God are very private and individual matters and yet so many of them are written down for all to read. For Isaiah (in today's text), for Moses (Ex. 3:1-4:17), for Gideon (Judges 6:11-24), Jeremiah (Jer. 1:4-10) and Ezekiel (1-3), the call accounts are encounters with God, either directly or through God's messenger, a commission to do the Lord's will or speak the Lord's word, and a ritual act or sign symbolizing the designated roll. In all these stories, except Ezekiel, the one who is called objects to the vocation and then is given reassurances. And the resistance is not so much linked to hardheaded personalities as it is to the overwhelmingly awesome experience of standing in the presence of God. For these divinely chosen ones, it is part of the office, part of the divine verification process, to feel unworthy in one or another.
Isaiah comes to the edge of the Holy of Holies. He stands just outside the gates of the Temple and sees the six-winged Seraphim present and the ark of the covenant passing by. He smells the smoke from the offering filling the whole house of the Lord. Isaiah's woeful cry is like a confession of sin and an expression of mourning for himself and his people. He knows that he is unclean. He knows that he is not worthy to stand before the Lord. And with grace and powerful gentleness, the Seraphim touches his lips and cleanses him by deed, for the word. He pronounces Isaiah cleansed, removed of guilt, forgiven of sin.
I don't know about you, but all too many days, I feel unworthy to do the will of God and certainly to speak the word of God. I feel like my unclean mouth is a reflection of my unclean heart. I do not feel that I am good enough, pure enough, honest enough or clean enough to speak on behalf of God about anything and anywhere. And in my heart, I pray for God to cleanse me. I don't need a six-winged Seraphim. I would be happy if it were a two-winged messenger or even a smiling child on a bike from the hood who came to cleanse! Just a sign, something or some reliable human messenger who could say, "Timothy, you are cleansed. You are forgiven. You are redeemed (not merely redeemable, but `redeemed')."
It is by listening in, by overhearing the stories of others, that this cleansing, this forgiveness, this redemption comes. Let me share a few examples . . . then I end.
Two of my heroes of faith are Tony Campolo and Thomas Merton. Yesterday, Tony was in Columbus speaking at the "Amazing Grace" Conference sponsored by The Shepherd Initiative in Columbus. Along with Peggy, his wife of 40+ years, he spoke about his views of homosexuality and Christian faith. As an evangelical Christian, he has struggled mightily to reconcile judgmental texts of scripture with his growing belief that homosexuality is not a choice (although how we live into any of our sexual identities is all about choice) and that God blesses the union of souls in the blessing of gay and lesbian couples.
I came to know Dr. Campolo when I was in high school in Pennsylvania almost 30 years ago. He was a sociology professor at Eastern Baptist College and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Yesterday, after many years apart, he greeted me and remembered me. At first, I doubted that he truly remembered me - a high school kid, now graying with a high school kid - who worked on his congressional campaign in 1976. But, I could see that he did.
I found myself listening to this hero of my faith with new ears. I heard his genuine, heartfelt struggle, to reconcile himself to people from whom and an issue from which he has long been separated. I saw in his eyes - up close - the genuine love of a man who honesty seeks "in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin." He told stories and quoted scripture and through the telling, and my listening in, I was aware that I was on holy ground, in the presence of one the heroes of my faith, hearing his confession of sins and as I overheard the old, old story in a new way, I felt cleansed, forgiven, redeemed of my sins.
I need to share with those of you who don't know, how utterly unworthy I felt to receive the Good Shepherd Award from the Shepherd Initiative on May 18th. As a recovering liberal homophobe, I was overwhelmed that day, not only by Matt Christman-Lees (whose Covenant Union Service I performed with his partner, Ray) all too kind words, but also by your response of a standing ovation. For once, I was truly was speechless.
In my mind's eye, I experienced a flashback over 20 years of struggle with issues and persons who are gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual. All too often in those flashbacks, I saw myself failing to say or do the right thing. I felt like Oscar Schindler in one of the final scenes of Schindler's List, standing before the liberated Jewish prisoners saying to them as he held the golden ring they had cast for him from the their collection of gold caps from their teeth. He said, "If only I had started sooner and given away more of my wealth . . . If only I had saved more lives . . . If only . . . " I felt like Schindler. I thought, "If I had only spoken more kindness to my gay friends when I was younger . . . I only I had stood up and spoken out of their behalf sooner . . . If I had only done this or that . . . more gay and lesbian persons would have felt loved, more lives would have been saved . . . If only . . . "
At times, I look out at you, and think, I am not a good enough Shepherd of this flock we call First Congregational Church. I can tell you about all the phone calls and visits that I have in my DayTimer which have gone unattended. I can tell you about all my good intentions and failed attempts. But, as I look at you feeling like a "not-good-enough" Shepherd, you look back and I see your eyes. They are eyes filled with compassion, love, and grace. They are eyes of encouragement and zeal for God. They are eyes of suffering and joy; eyes of hope and growing faith.
And in my seeing you, I am overwhelmed by the experience. I realize that God is not finished with me yet. In your lives, I overhear healing. In your stories, I overhear grace. In your transformations of faith, I feel like Isaiah, standing outside the gate of the Temple, witnessing miracles growing of suffering, coming from within the gate. And although I don't feel worthy, I do feel loved. And although I am overhearing stories of rebirth and the rekindling of God's gifts within you, when I hear God speak in the midst of all of it, it is I who cries out, "Here I am . . . Send me!" And whether I am sent or simply wonder off like Don Quixote in search of the windmills of salvation, I become hopeful that in my going, the direction I'm headed will become clear, even though I know that it is merely in the stepping out, the speaking up, the moving forward, and in mounting my horse and heading to battle with the dragons, that God's miracles begin to unfold.
I told you that two of my heroes of faith were Tony Campolo and Thomas Merton. Merton is always with me . . . in my daily devotions and in my heart of prayer. He is, if you will, one of my spiritual directors. So, although I have not spoken of him this day, I close with this prayer for the road ahead, found in his classic spiritual devotion, Thoughts in Solitude:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (From Thoughts in Solitude as found in Through the Year with Thomas Merton, ed. By Thomas P. McDonnell, Image Books, Garden City, NY, 1985, January 4, p. 4).
With Nicodemus and Isaiah, I pray that God's call in your life, will guide you down the road ahead. And with Tony and Thomas, I pray that you will move down that road with no fear, knowing that God is ever with you, and will never leave you to face your perils alone. Amen.
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