Clarity of vision for the future – February 2022 Lectionary Preview
January 13, 2022 by Anna Pinckney Straight
Oh, the year when King Uzziah died. On February 6, we hear the passage from Isaiah reporting Uzziah's death followed by God's query about who will go for his people. Isaiah's response is glorious in its clarity. “Here I am,” Isaiah calls out in a response from his heart, “Send me!”
Clarity is a lovely thing. It's good knowing where you are as well as where you are called to go.
My favorite hike is in Dubois, Wyoming. Its destination is the top of a ridge known locally as “Little Whiskey.” At the top, you can twirl a full 360° and see miles in the distance in each degree of that turn — from the glaciers to the lakes formed by even older glaciers. I try to visit that spot at least once a year just to spend some time being able to see – ahead and behind, east to west.
My call to First Presbyterian Church in New Bern, North Carolina, is just a few months old at this writing (six, to be exact) and I've found myself yearning for that type of vision here at home. So, the other day I tried to replicate my “Little Whiskey” hike by climbing up to the top of the steeple of this historic church (On January 6, we celebrated 200 years of worship in the sanctuary). It took some parkour over beams and ladders on the way, and the path was not always clear, but I was drawn by the desire for the vision I would find at the top, a vision of our neighborhood, historic downtown, and the rivers just a few blocks away. I wanted to be centered.
The way up to the top of the steeple was littered with history. The bell that still rings on Sundays. The signatures of people who have visited and worked in the steeple over the last 200 years. But I wasn't looking for the past; I wanted to see the future. To see ahead.
When I got to the top, I peered as close to the openings as I could and was deflated to realize the vision was not to be. Louvers and wire required to keep critters from destroying the steeple meant that I couldn't see a thing beyond some glimmers of light just beyond where I stood. Disappointed, I made my way back to solid ground.
In this 21st-century church world, the inability to see beyond what's right in front of us is more norm than the exception. That can make Isaiah's clarity an uncomfortable word to receive.
Upon closer examination of this scripture, however, we find much uncertainty in Isaiah's time, as well. His call is placed in an odd location – six chapters in. We don't know when Uzziah died exactly, nor are we certain about the larger context. What are seraphs? These are textual signals of a practical reality. Isaiah's people—God's people—were heading into an uncertain time. Uzziah's name might be the surest Ebenezer here, “Yahweh is my strength.”
We don't have clarity about what is ahead, in our personal lives, in our communities, or in our world. Or in our churches. The traditional stewardship metrics we have used to track and understand giving patterns have had so many new variables introduced that it will be a long time before the new patterns will become clear. For now, embracing what cannot be known has become an essential spiritual discipline.
What we do have is the assurance that God is with us. God is our strength. And we know that the response “Here I am, send me” does not fully explain what God asks of us as disciples; God does not expect us to move forward in isolation. “Here we are, send us” is a response more akin to what we understand as a response from the community of faith. Stewardship, in the congregation, is responding to God's call in unity: doing together what we cannot do on our own.
The gospel passage from Luke (5:1-11) for this Sunday helps here. When the harvest of fish is surprising and the nets begin to break, Jesus doesn't give the fishermen additional strength; they must call their partners to come and help.
As Rabbi Marc Gellman has written in his text Does God Have a Big Toe? “a partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up because your partner depends on you. On the day you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners.”
Surely stewardship is a partnership.
The collection of offerings makes a church budget—a group of faithful disciples who prepare the funeral reception. Many hands are required to stock the shelves of the food pantry—and many minds needed to struggle with why we have a need for food pantries in the first place. It is a gathering of elders that prays, listens, and studies—working together to discern the faithful path ahead, even (and especially) when we cannot see that path with clarity.
In the words of Thomas Merton, “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.”
God is our strength, indeed.
If you'd like to look past February 6, there is richness found there, too.
February 13 offers a passage from Jeremiah (17:5-10) that can easily be used to build on the text from Isaiah. What does it mean to trust God in uncertain times?
7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought, it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
February 20 brings us Genesis (45:3-11,15), Joseph's invitation to his family to come and live in Egypt. We know how the story turns out (and how it turns out after that), but on its own, it is an act of generosity.
6For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.
For February 27, we are presented with both Exodus (34:29-35) that tells of Moses' return from Mount Sinai with a shining face, as well as Luke's account of Transfiguration (9:28 – 36). These passages remind us that we cannot stay on the mountain; we cannot keep what we have received to ourselves.
23Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said.
Wherever you travel in these weeks and wherever you end up, know that you are not alone on the journey. God is your strength; this is not only a proclamation, it is an invitation, too.
Rev. Dr. Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in New Bern, N.C. A native of Charleston, S.C., she's served congregations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and now (for the second time) North Carolina. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and Wesley Theological Seminary.