by Michael Usey; Isaiah 6.1-8
I know that many of you are listening because you’re hoping that you’ll hear an entire sermon about dream sex with spirit demons, about alien DNA, and about miracle covid cures, and other prurient topics, but you’ll have to wait on a week that we didn’t bury a great American Christian.
In our Hebrew Bible reading for today, it too was a time of trouble, the year in which King Uzziah died. Israel had many kings, a few wonderful, many terrible, some simply mediocre. But Uzziah was a wise king whose death left a leadership vacuum and a spiritual malaise (sounding familiar?).
Isaiah, in this troubled hour, continued to exercise his faith. While the nation was mourning King Uzziah, the faithful continued to worship God in the temple, Isaiah included. It was there he saw a vision of God “high and lifted up and the divine robes filled the temple.” This divine vision produced in Isaiah a deep sense of unworthiness. Two seraphim appeared and announced that this was God-of the Angel Armies. Isaiah’s reaction was:
I’m as good as dead! Every word I’ve ever spoken is tainted— blasphemous even! And the people I live with talk the same way, using words that corrupt and desecrate. And here I’ve looked God in the face! The Creator! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!
Encountering the Holy One overwhelmed Isaiah. God took the initiative, however. A seraphim removed an altar coal and touched Isaiah’s lips, saying, “Your guilt is gone, your sins forgiven.” It was God who enabled the cleansing and reconciliation. Then God asked, Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? Isaiah responded to the call immediately: Here am I. Send me. And God sent him to go and speak on the Holy One’s behalf.
It’s a commission given to all the faithful, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, continuing with Ruth and David, Esther and Amos, to the first disciples like Matthew and Phoebe, to St. Paul and St. Priscilla, to all who since have obeyed the call, like Rep. John Lewis, whose obedience I want us to briefly consider.
Isaiah’s experience illustrates six common stages of Christian experience: We feel empty, alone, needy. We turn to God. We are overwhelmed by our own unworthiness. We are made whole by God’s initiative. We are commissioned to go and follow Jesus. We go. In doing so, we take our place among all those past and present who have accepted God’s call to stand up to evil and sin and corruption, both in the world and within ourselves.
Most of us grew up having been taught about heaven and hell in Christianity. I’m always surprised how few verses there actually are on the concepts in the Bible, and how all the mentions of hell are actually to a literal burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, but that is another sermon. Most of our ideas about heaven and hell actually come from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which has an outsized influence on us. But the idea that we have to give an account of our lives to God in the afterlife, the idea that there is an ultimate moral accountability in the universe, corresponds to what we know about human nature, now that we can actually study how our mind works in real time.
In our generation, we have been able to establish that our moral life is not optional in the human experience. We can’t turn it on and off. Morality is actually hard wired into the human psyche. We can locate it in the brain and watch what happens when we violate our conscience, when we commit moral injury.
This is crucial. I’ve known people my whole life who have casually suggested that morality is optional equipment, that it’s only the concern of the hyper -religious. It is a social construct and frankly you can make more money and have a more exciting life, if you just switch the moral switch to the off position at critical junctures in your life. Then we did the studies on PTSD and found out that a large percentage of people who suffer from trauma, years afterward, decades afterwards, didn’t necessarily engage in some act of outward violence themselves. They simply did something that violated their conscience; they committed moral injury. They participated in a group action where others suffered and they didn’t speak up on behalf of the victims. They didn’t do enough. And they can’t get past that. Years go by, they still can’t get past that.
They don’t need hell in the afterlife. They have hell in this life. I don’t know about the afterlife, honestly; I don’t know how God will judge our actions. I haven’t seen that yet. But what I do know is how people feel at the end of this life and I’ve talked to several hundred people now over four decades. And at the end, people care about their moral lives, about how they will be remembered by their families, about whether they did enough in this life to justify their existence.
At the end of the movie, Saving Private Ryan James Ryan goes back to Normandy and stands in the graveyard where his platoon is buried, now an old man. Ryan turns to his wife and asks, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life. Tell me I was a good man.” I’ve heard more people say that at the end. It is not just God’s ultimate judgment; we need to be honored by those that knew us best and depended upon us the most. And so will you, I can guarantee you that.
I was thinking about that and Isaiah’s commission this week as our country paused to pay tribute to John Lewis, the Congressman from Atlanta, who was born to a poor sharecropper family in rural Alabama during the period of Jim Crow segregation. Congressman Lewis was raised in a family that taught him just to find his place as a “black boy” in the South, not to challenge the system because it would end up in violence and death. Just keep a low profile and stay out of trouble. I come from the next generation after Congressman Lewis, but we were taught something similar on the white side of the tracks in California. San Diego has been a military town for a long time, so there are people from all over, as well as strong Mexican and Central American cultures, overlaid with distinctive Asian aspects, such as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. I can’t remember my parents saying anything racist to me, but I do remember my father saying, “The problems that plague black American culture will be solved by black American leadership.” He believed it, and so did I, for a long time.
John Lewis experienced racism early and often. He was a kid and tried to check a book out of the local library only to be told that the library was for white kids only. Never mind that 80% of the people in his county were black. Less than 1% were allowed to register to vote, so they were effectively shut out of all social decisions made in the area.
John Lewis went to church. His parents read the bible to him. He knew about Jesus. He learned about the higher way of compassion, love, and that we’re all children of God. He looked around him and saw what wasn’t right, that his people were crippled, and he determined that he would not just help them limp through life, but he would change the Jim Crow South that crippled them.
As a young man, he pursued higher education in one of the only ways available to him at the time: he went to the American Baptist seminary (which is our denomination) in Nashville, Tennessee. These were the Northern Baptists, who had stood against slavery from before the Civil War, and were training young black ministers at the time, like Martin Luther King Jr.
There, he learned about non-violent protest. He learned about Gandhi. And too many people don’t know this, but when journalists asked Gandhi where he learned about non-violent protest, it wasn’t from his native Hinduism. Gandhi learned about it reading about Jesus in the NT at Oxford University as an undergraduate. John Lewis decided that he had to part ways with his parents who wanted him to stay out of trouble. He got into trouble, good trouble.
He saw something that was not right and he set out to illustrate it. And he took Jesus as his model and this is what I want to lift up from his life today. He read those lines from the Gospel of John, “Greater love has no one than that they are willing to lay down their life for others.” Powerful lines. Subversive lines. Lines that will get you in trouble. Lines that will get you killed. His generation had to teach themselves about the spiritual discipline of non-violent resistance. And they figured out just how difficult it is. They learned that the hard way, from bitter experience. They had so few choices, they almost had to do it.
They took their cue from Gandhi’s historic march to the sea. The British promised to arrest any of his protestors and they did. But they did not count on 75,000 people to show up and follow Gandhi in a peaceful protest. When they got to the sea, the British were there with lines of soldiers with batons. But Gandhi had trained the protestors to walk up to the Army and if they were hit, to simply fall to the ground and not strike back.
Saint Paul said, “Do not return evil for evil, but overcome evil with a good justice.” Jesus said, ‘turn the other cheek.’ This is what they did. The soldiers could stop the first wave, the second wave, the third wave. But there were 1000 more waves of peaceful protestors behind them. And the soldiers could not hit peaceful people protesting with dignity. They just couldn’t do it.
There was a reporter there that day from the NYT. He had a photographer with him who took pictures of the soldiers tiring of hitting innocent people. And he telegraphed New York on the local phone with the headline for the paper. “Today India is Free.” He recognized that you cannot stop a moral force with violent force forever. It just won’t work.
John Lewis and Martin Luther King and the other ministers that led the Civil Rights protests decided that the way of Jesus, the way of nonviolent resistance, was not just for Jesus, the exceptional one. No, they realized, that we call him the Messiah because Jesus is the divine way for all of us to follow. We can all do this. Our spiritual selves can triumph over brute force. Our spiritual courage can transcend fear.
Back in the day, they were just a small group of people, a minority. They only had 600 people that were willing to march over the Pettus bridge in Selma to demand voting rights. They only had a handful of white allies with them. Almost no one thought this was a good idea. Almost no one thought it would make any meaningful impact. But here is the thing that most people don’t know because our children aren’t taught about it in schools.
Those leaders trained all the protestors.. They taught them about Jesus and the non-violent resistance Jesus used when he went to Jerusalem. They explained to them the sacrifice they would have to make, the spiritual discipline it takes to ‘turn the other cheek’. They showed them how their discipline would eventually register on the conscience of the nation when moral integrity is shut down with bigoted brute force. Days of training. Weeks of training church people who were already on board with following Jesus.
And then, only then, did they march. John Lewis was tough, like the heavy weight fighter Joe Frazier. He could take a punch. And take a punch he did. He was arrested 41 times, mostly out of sight, manhandled in an ugly, humiliating fashion. He was a servant. Jesus taught us that this is what real leadership looks like. Not the last to take the blows, but the first, not needing any exemption from service, but being willing to pay the price. It is not sexy, not romantic, not something you would post on social media. But it is real.
“Greater love has no one than that they are willing to lay down their life on behalf of others” in the name of God’s cause. He could have died. Most of those Civil Rights leaders actually did die before the reached the age of 40. But I’m glad John Lewis did not, because he got to live long enough to illustrate the divine moral of the story. Because the press actually showed up to the march in Selma, the country saw him beaten on national TV. Our conscience as a nation was horrified at what they saw. Our leaders changed their minds. And former committed racists like President LBJ led the change. The voting rights act was passed just a few short months after the protest at Selma.
Thus a chapter was turned in our national life, and we grew more whole as a nation. John Lewis went on to get involved in politics himself as a Congressman with all of the virtues and the compromises that attend being in the House of Representatives.
Three decades later, he is in his office in Washington, an ordinary full of appointments with lobbyists and constituents. His secretary ushers in a 90 year old man with his son. The man tells him that he was a member of the KKK back in the day and that he beat him at one of those marches back in the early 60’s. He grew quiet and he said to the Congressman, “I’ve come here today to ask your forgiveness.” At the end of his life, he didn’t want to be remembered for how he hated. He was ashamed of himself. He didn’t want to pass this on to another generation. He wanted to clear his conscience. The times change; the power differential changes too. John Lewis had the man stand up. He looked him in the eye and he said “I forgive you.” And they hugged. St. Paul said, “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus”. Think like the Messiah thinks. See each other as God sees us. Live spiritually more expressive lives, filled with moral purpose, superhuman and expansive enough to forgive those who were your enemy, those who have hurt you.
Someone asked John Lewis about that moment, how he felt. Because surely, year after year, for decades, he had dealt with the frustration that boils to the surface remembering being beaten and humiliated. Each time he felt that wave of anger and revenge, like we all do. He had to work it through spiritually, not once, not a few times, it was part of this life as a survivor. But he was a Christian, a simple follower in the way of Jesus. He said, “I felt free. Like Dr. King used to say, Hate is too heavy a burden to carry on your shoulder.” Then he added, like he was still a young idealist, ‘Man, love is the better way.’
Love is the better way, not just for John Lewis, but for us. I lift him up today because too many of us in the church were taught that Jesus is so exceptional no one could live like that. But we can, way more than we were led to believe.
All three former presidents had amazing things to say about Congressman Lewis’ life. I was particularly stunned by Barack Obama’s words: “The police at the Edmond Pettus Bridge thought they’d won that day! But, quoting St. Paul: Hard pressed on every side, we are never at our wits’ end. They didn’t have the last word: A young kid from Troy can stand up to the principalities and powers …. John Lewis is a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America. He believed that in all of us there exists the capacity for great courage. To make that happen he just kept getting arrested. . . . He knew the race was not yet run. For him Democracy isn’t automatic … we have to work at it. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy, a big hearted, tolerant, inclusive America, we’ve got to do what he did. Real courage comes, not from turning on each other, but on turning toward each other. In our Beloved Community, we do not walk alone.”
Our moral life matters. John Lewis reminds us all of that. You won’t have to go find a cause to live for. The zeitgeist of your time will track you down and compel you to act. John Lewis didn’t stand for black rights anymore than Sojourner Truth stood for women’s rights, or Russell Means stood for Native American rights, or Ceasar Chavez stood for Latino rights, or Harvey Milk stood for gay rights, or Dorothy Day stood for workers rights. They all stood for human rights.
We are a better people when we live in mutual respect, in a harmony of diversity, a world where all of us are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is our higher, more noble spiritual future. So follow your conscience. Love God fiercely and express that love with your fellow human siblings. Our children are watching and this is our one precious holy wild life. Because of Jesus, we are a moral force more powerful than we can know. Amen.