I entered the chapel at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist exhausted by the long day of travel from Madison. I’d had only enough time to drop my things in my room before the evening Eucharist. Stressed, tired, distracted, as I entered the space, I was immediately reminded why I had come here. It’s a remarkable space, perfectly, beautifully designed. You’re suddenly thousands of miles and a thousand years away from Harvard Square in Cambridge. Designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram in the Romanesque style, the walls are stone, with roman arches throughout, lovely stained glass windows dominated by deep blues.
I was a bit puzzled because the paraments were red, not green, and incense was already billowing from a side chapel. As I settled into a space I’ve worshiped many times before, I knew that God was in this place. As the service began, I made the connection. The red was for the day’s commemoration, the Martyrs of Japan, those faithful Christians who, in 1597, were crucified in Nagasaki because of their faith. It’s a horrific and powerful story, told again in the searing novel “Silence” written by Shosako Endo, and recently made into a film by Martin Scorsese. It’s also a story that works powerfully on me, not least because of the longer story, that of the persistence of underground, hidden, Christians in Japan for the next three centuries until the arrival of Western missionaries in the late nineteenth century. As I worshiped, I was reminded of Jacob’s response after his dream of the ladder to heaven, “Surely this is the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.”
Or consider this story. Some 2700 years ago, in the year that King Uzziah died, the priest (probably) entered the temple in Jerusalem. Very likely, it wasn’t much larger than the chapel at the monastery I visited, or for that matter, this worship space at Grace Church. We don’t know why he was there. We can assume he was performing his priestly duties, rituals and obligations that he had performed many times before, things that had become routine, as such things can and do for priests, whether in the 8thcentury BCE or the 21stcentury CE.
In any event, he enters the temple, a place familiar and sacred. He might be noticing the magnificent decorations, or perhaps, some flaw in the walls that needs repair; most likely his ritual duties are running through his mind. He wants to make sure he will do everything perfectly. But suddenly a vision overwhelms him, not of this temple but of the heavenly court, the throne of God, surrounded by seraphim. Holy, Holy, Holy, they cry. There’s an earthquake, smoke, fire. He falls on his knees in terror. It is the dramatic story of the call of Isaiah the prophet.
Or another story, alluded to more than narrated in today’s reading from First Corinthians: “And last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.” Paul is referring to what is known as his Damascus Road experience, his encounter with the Risen Christ as he was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus in pursuit of followers of Jesus. Another dramatic encounter, another call.
Or let’s switch gears. You’re a fisherman. It’s not your hobby it’s your job. You rely on the catch to feed yourself and your family, and the proceeds from selling your catch is your only income. You and your colleagues were out all night on the lake and you have nothing to show for it. Your nets were empty. You’re exhausted, frustrated, perhaps a bit worried or perplexed, and yes, you’re hungry. You may not know what you and your family will eat today, but what you most want is your bed.
A stranger comes up to you; he’s followed by a crowd. He comes up to you and asks you if you would help him by taking you a bit offshore, away from the crowd. For whatever reason, you agree—maybe he’ll give you something for your trouble. You put the boat in the water, your sore shoulders lean into the oars again, and cast off.
Do you even listen to what he is saying? Maybe you catch a few words, but you’re probably dozing and getting increasingly annoyed that you’re out on the lake when you could be home resting. Finally, the guy finishes. At last, you think, you can go home, and rest a few hours before going back out on the boat. But instead of telling you to take the boat into shore, he tells you to go out into deep water and to put your nets out there.
The guy’s crazy, you think. I mean, he said some pretty strange things, what little you heard of it, but this is absurd. You were fishing all night, busting your ass, and got nothing, not a minnow. But grumbling, you do it.
You go out to where he’s told you to go. You’ve been fishing these waters for years, your father and grandfathers, for generations. You know what works and what doesn’t work, how the fish respond, where they’re at. But, there’s something about him, about the way he talked to the people, so you set out the nets. And as you begin to bring them back in, you can’t believe it. The nets are full, fuller than you’ve ever seen them, in fact, so full, you and your brother can’t hope to bring them in by yourselves. So you holler out to your friends on shore and they quickly come to help. When you finally bring them in, the catch is so large it fills both boats, in fact, your boats are dangerously low in the water.
When you finally finish and realize what’s happened, you shake with fright, fall down on your knees. You weren’t paying attention earlier, you don’t really care about that religion stuff, that’s for other people, for people who have time and money to waste, not for a fisherman like you. But now you figure it out. This isn’t just one of those crazy preachers who come around regularly, or one of the even crazier guys who stir up trouble against Rome, this is something completely different: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Do you identify with any of these stories? Do you have a similar story of an encounter with God? Many of us have had powerful religious experiences, moments when we sensed God’s presence in ways we had never felt before or perhaps since. Maybe they were moments when we felt deeply and powerfully connected with God. They may have not turned into “call” stories, that is to say, a sense, perhaps assurance that God was or is calling us to some particular thing, a form of ministry, a future direction in our life, but many of us know such experiences, know the sense of God’s ineffable beauty, God’s transcendence, and our deep connection to God.
But there’s something in all of these biblical stories that might seem alien to us, even those of us who are most familiar with religious experiences. And I don’t want to make to much of this, because each of these stories are in some way paradigmatic or normative events—not only for the individuals involved but also for the communities of the faithful who have read and studied them over the centuries. These three men are not typical, ordinary believers. Each of them was called by God to be leaders—Isaiah the Prophet, the Apostles Peter and Paul. Nonetheless, I do think they have something to say to each of us, whatever our calling, whoever we are.
It’s something Paul alludes to “and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle…” Isaiah and Peter declared it outright: “Woe is me, for I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips!”
Peter cried out “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
These stories of encounters with the divine are not just about the experience of God’s presence. They are also stories of what happens to us in such moments. Often, the experience of God’s transcendence, the experience of the miraculous, brings home to us the vast gulf that separates from God. We see that in each of these responses. But that’s not the end of these stories. It’s not just about the thrill, it’s also about what happens next.
Isaiah’s experience propelled him into prophecy. He accepted God’s call and preached God’s word to the people. Paul became an apostle, called by God, sent by Jesus Christ, to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. Peter did become a fisher of people.
Our culture has taught us to seek new experiences—we yearn for those highs. But our faith teaches us something very different. Such experiences may be powerful, they may be life-transforming, but their purpose lies elsewhere, in drawing us more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ and reshaping ourselves in his image. The journey lies ahead. It may not be easy, we may stumble and fall but the memory of that experience gives us strength and hope, and accompanied by Christ we will walk with him where he leads.