Sermon: Is Isaiah a role model for volunteers? (National Volunteer Week)

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church for National Volunteer Week
The 27th of May, 2018

Isaiah 6:1-13

Today is the last day of National Volunteer Week. So it’s providential that in today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures we meet the prophet Isaiah who, when God asks ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ immediately responds with, ‘Here am I; send me!’ What a wonderful role model for volunteers! God asks and Isaiah answers. No quibbling about how busy he is, no suggestion that Isaiah has done his share of prophesising in the past and it’s now someone else’s turn. None of that. This Hebrew prophet could be the patron saint of volunteers!

(I checked and the actual patron saint of volunteers is St Vincent de Paul, a French saint who founded several groups to support the poor in the seventeenth century. Did you know that?)   

Of course, it’s not that simple. It takes a while to get to the point at which Isaiah volunteers himself. Today’s reading begins with the prophet having a vision of God. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne with the mere hem of his robe filling the temple, attended by praising seraphs. The voices of the seraphs are so loud that they shake the building, and the building itself is filled with smoke. This is a literally awesome image of God; an image to fill us with awe. This is a vision of the God who is wholly other than human; the God who is the almighty.

In response to this image, Isaiah becomes aware that he is a mere mortal, and definitely not God. The transcendence of God reveals to him his own sinfulness, and he responds in fear and sorrow: ‘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!’ In comparison to the Lord of hosts Isaiah, like all humanity, is unworthy, inadequate, puny. God is enthroned, high and lofty, and Isaiah is unworthy to see even the hem of God’s garment. Yet he has seen this vision, and he is terrified.

Isaiah is not left in this terror. Isaiah has seen the holy God who fills the earth with glory, and realised in contrast his own sinfulness and inadequacy – and immediately that sinfulness is forgiven and that inadequacy overcome. Isaiah reports: ‘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.”’ The seraph is quoting the technical language of the rites of forgiveness in the Temple. Before Isaiah can even formulate a request for forgiveness, that forgiveness has been granted. It probably wasn’t painless; lips being touched with a live coal would end up scorched, at the very least. But it was complete. Isaiah’s guilt is gone and his sin buried.

This may be why Isaiah answers immediately to God’s call with: ‘Here am I; send me!’ Most people called by God in the Bible protest, arguing that they’re not qualified. Isaiah is not even being called by name, unlike, say, Moses. God addresses Moses by name, but Moses raises objection after objection and in the end says, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ In contrast Isaiah responds to his call with alacrity, because his feelings of inadequacy have already been overcome. God, the Lord of hosts, the almighty, the holy one whose praises the seraphim sing, is also the one who forgives and calls into service.

Isaiah is a volunteer. God does not address him by name, and one commentator I read this week suggests that in the context of this story we are meant to imagine God addressing a divine council like the one that we see at the beginning of the Book of Job where ‘the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord’ (Job 1:6). In that case God might have been expecting that one of those heavenly beings will answer the call. Instead the response comes from a mere human, the prophet. Isaiah does not wait to be asked individually; he responds immediately to the need he perceives. Hence the suggestion that Isaiah could be a patron saint of volunteers.

While preparing this sermon I had a look at the most recent statistics on volunteering in Australia from the Bureau of Statistics. The ABS found that in 2014 34% of women and 29% of men in Australia did some sort of voluntary work. Volunteering rates were highest for people aged 15-17 years (42%), then people aged 35-44 years (39%), and then people aged 65-74 years (35%). Couples with children (38%) were more likely to be involved in voluntary work than single people (25%) or couples with no children (29%). I imagine that’s because the couples with children are volunteering at their children’s schools, or sporting clubs, or at groups like Guides and Scouts, supporting the many extra-curricular activities that children do. People employed part-time had a higher volunteer rate (38%) than those employed full-time (30%), or those not in the labour force (retired 27% and other 30%). I suspect that unemployed people don’t actually have any free time to volunteer, given the number of jobs they’re meant to be applying for! Religious organisations received the second highest number of volunteer hours, 147.6 million hours, second only to sport and physical recreation to which 157.5 million volunteering hours were given.

Today is the end of a week that celebrates volunteering, and churches are a huge beneficiary of volunteers, but last year I read a blog post by an American pastor, Erin Wathen, with which I found myself agreeing. The post was titled, ‘Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers’. Not that churches do not need the many, many things that people do in and for them, without pay – Wathen’s reflection was prompted by thinking about the astounding work her people had done to get their church ready for Easter. But that volunteering is the wrong word for it. Wathen compared using the term ‘volunteer’ to when she is out without her children and someone asks whether her husband is ‘babysitting’ them. Just as her husband cannot ‘babysit’ his own children, we cannot ‘volunteer’ at our own church. Wathen writes, ‘To volunteer means that you are an outside resource, stepping in to help an organisation in need …it’s what you do at a place that is important to you – but not at a place that belongs to you’. But churches belong to their members. Wathen says of the church, ‘It’s your own place, your own people. So of course you help take care of it. Of course you do yard work and make coffee and teach the kids and sing in the choir and whatever all else it is you do for the home and the people you love’. To say that when we do anything at church we are volunteering is like saying that we are ‘volunteering’ in our homes when we wash the dishes or make the beds. So, at the end of this week to celebrate volunteering I want to encourage us not to think of ourselves as volunteers here, in this church, our own place.

The Revised Common Lectionary ends today’s reading from Isaiah after he steps forward and answers God’s call. It finishes on a high notes with, ‘Here I am; send me!’ But that’s not where the story ends. Isaiah accepts God’s call to be a prophet and God immediately tells him that his prophecies will fail. He is to prophesy to the people that they will not listen to his prophecy, a bizarre contradiction. God is sending someone to tell the people that it doesn’t matter that God has sent someone, they will be destroyed anyway. ‘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.’ That’s the other thing about volunteering for the church – it may not have material results.

When I was in the Macedon Ranges I volunteered as an Emergency Chaplain with the Victorian Council of Churches Emergency Ministries, called out to provide pastoral first aid after bushfires and floods. My primary job was to sit with people, either in silence or listening to their stories, after disasters. There were times when I was deeply envious of all the other volunteers, the CFA, the SES, the Red Cross, because they were doing practical things. They put out fires, they fed the hungry – they answered needs that could be seen and responded to. There are studies that show that psychological first aid, helping people de-stress as soon as possible after a disaster, helps to prevent later PTSD, but Emergency Chaplains never get to see this. We just do what we do in the faith and hope that what we’re doing is helpful. This is what ‘volunteering’ for the church is like. There is no guarantee that anything we do will have a successful outcome. And what does success for the church look like, anyway? If we think that success is an increase in church numbers, then mainstream churches in Australia have been failing for decades, as has Christianity as a whole. If we think that success is being faithful to God, then that is as impossible to measure as the work of Emergency Chaplains.

This is another reason that what we do for the church shouldn’t be considered volunteering. Wathen writes that the idea of volunteering ‘is rooted in consumer culture, in which we can swoop in and give or take a measure that we deem fit, and then dart out again feeling we have done our part’. If we think of what we do for a church as volunteering then it would make sense to ask whether what we are doing has tangible results and, if not, take our volunteering hours somewhere where they will be more productive. But that’s not what we do in our own homes. We don’t stop doing the housework just because it will have to be done again and our homes are getting older and more dilapidated all the time. We don’t stop reading to our children because they’re not getting measurably more intelligent each time we do. That would be ridiculous! In the same way, Isaiah keeps prophesying even though he knows he will fail, and we keep offering our best efforts to the church community to which God has called us even if we don’t know what success would look like. It’s counter-intuitive, and it’s why volunteering is the wrong word. Instead we should talk about ministry, or service, or even about acts of love.

But, whatever we do, whatever we call it; it is something to be celebrated. Ultimately that’s what National Volunteer Week does. In this profoundly money-driven world, National Volunteer Week delights in the people who give their time for free. That’s the sort of deeply counter-cultural thing that Christians have been doing for millennia and I hope will continue doing for millennia to come. That’s something to celebrate today, that when God asks, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ there are people who say, ‘Here am I; send me!’ Amen.

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