Sent with Holy Fire
No one knew how carefully I was listening. I was a little girl in a wet bathing suit a summer picnic with church families. My ears perked up when one of the men at the table asked another, “Have you heard the news? Our new Bishop is a woman. Can she do it?” Bishop Judy Craig been a Christian Educator for 20 years before her ordination; and after many failed ballots, she arose from ‘nowhere’ to be elected Bishop. And then the conversation continued, some wondering if women could even be clergy according to Paul. Some thought ‘yes,’ others were less certain.
A few years later, our confirmation class traveled to meet hundreds of other students in Lansing for ‘Confirmands Day.’ Bishop Craig greeted us warmly and preached for opening worship, later she mingled with each group and asked if we had any questions. With the picnic table skeptics still on my shoulder, I asked, “Has anyone ever questioned you because, because you are a woman?”
Deep down I knew the answer, but I wanted to know how she would respond to those voices. I don’t remember her words. I remember her knowing smile, and the way she leaned in. I remember the holy fire in her spirit.
Later I would come to know her skill at leading annual conference, her guest preacher from South Africa during Apartheid, her confrontation of clergy misconduct, and the rumor from a camp friend, that her mother told her, Bishop Craig was dismantling the good old boys’ network, and they weren’t happy.
Long before I knew Duane Townley, my father-in-law, Bishop Craig visited Duane for the dedication of the “Million for Mission” campaign he had led at Midland First United Methodist Church. While there, she gave money towards the “Second Million for Mission,” and said she’d gladly return to dedicate that too. Duane had had no plans for more, until she gave that challenge. Return, she did. Celebrate, they did.
During Bishop Craig’s time with us, I became the Conference Youth President and claimed my own voice and call. When she left, United Methodists gathered again in Lansing, and she blessed us, singing that the “ground between us would always be holy.” I have wept at the recent news of her death. That holy space expands between heaven and earth.
The scripture we read this morning is Isaiah’s call story. The story takes place ‘in the year King Uzziah died.’ He had reigned from the throne for 52 years. 2 Chronicles[i] tells us that he died as punishment for arrogantly insisting on his own way. The whole country mourned King Uzziah’s passing and wondered what was next.
It was during that time of fear and uncertainty when Isaiah was in the temple, and he beheld the presence of the Lord sitting the throne. Seraphs, fiery creatures, flew around, calling to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The foundations shook and smoke filled the room.
And Isaiah replied, “Woe is me, I am not worthy to see God. Even my lips are too unclean to speak.”
Then one of the seraphs carried holy fire from God’s presence into Isaiah’s presence. The seraph touched Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal. The fire burned away Isaiah’s sense of inadequacy. And the fire of God’s being filled Isaiah’s being.
Then Isaiah heard God saying, “Who shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!”
What God was asking Isaiah to do would be hard. He was asking Isaiah to name the emptiness and desolation in the land that Yahweh loved—to people who couldn’t or didn’t want to hear it. “For how long, Oh God?”
Isaiah would go with the people into exile. Isaiah would need that holy fire to illumine and guide him—just as Moses and the Israelites had used so long ago when they wandered in the wilderness. Israel’s beloved Jerusalem and holy temple were desimated, and they wandered in despair. Yet, Isaiah would still sense the fire of God’s Holy presence, and repeat, “The whole world is ablaze with God’s glory.” (not just Jerusalem)
The book of Isaiah spans nearly 200 years, from the death of King Uzziah in 742 BCE, through exile, and finally to when the first Israelites began to return from Babylon in 530 BCE. Scholars believe there was more than one Isaiah, prophets who shepherded God’s people through the valley of the shadow of death, and who gave voice through years of pain, waiting, and finally restoration.[ii] The call story of Isaiah has inspired the hearts and imaginations of Jews and Christians for centuries. We give thanks for a long lineage of people who have answered God’s call as Isaiah did. They led through uncertain and chaotic situations, and radiated God’s holy presence.
Over the holidays, three generations of my family watched the Fred Rogers documentary.[iii] Seeing Mr. Rogers again in the show seemed like a reunion with a very dear one, and at the same time I learned much about his sense of call.
Television was new when Fred Rogers was home from college and saw it at his parents’ home. He was studying early childhood development and lamented how dehumanizing the programs for children were. He saw clowns throwing pies in faces, falling, hitting, and laughing. He saw violent shooting scenes used as entertainment. This was counter to what his faith taught him about the sacredness of people and relationships. After graduation, he decided that with books and some free filmstrips he could start his own TV program for kids, “The Children’s Corner.” But free film strips are brittle and on one of those early shows, it broke, and Fred had no plans for the remaining time. Looking around, he grabbed Daniel the puppet and began, “Well hello there.”
Fred went on to seminary and was ordained in The Presbyterian Church as a ‘television evangelist.’ He understood the space between himself and the children who watched his program as holy. He felt called to companion children through their questions about the world and through difficult emotions and experiences. He kindled love for neighbor and love for self. He understood love to be at the root of all things, all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Mr. Rogers put it all into songs, “It’s you I love,” “Won’t you be my neighbor?” While other TV programs got faster and louder, Fred might sit in silence, watching a turtle walk, or peeling an apple.
His puppet collection expanded from one quiet and shy Daniel, to a whole neighborhood that included the bossy King Friday. As the Vietnam War raged and protests grew, King Friday built a wall to keep out change and all those other people he was superior too. Over the wall floated balloons with messages of compassion and peaceful co-existence, and King Friday’s heart softened. And that was week one. In 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Fred Rogers did a special show to speak to families about grief so that children would not be left isolated. In 1969, when newspapers were full of outcries over blacks and whites swimming together, Mr. Rogers invited Officer Clemens to share his pool on a hot summer day. Their black and white feet were shown cooling in the water side by side as the men sang a tender duet. Mr. Rogers had serious nay-sayers, and jeers. Many times, he even doubted himself, and whether he could come up with yet another program or make any difference. “How long O Lord?” And yet, he kept showing up and kept trying.
Indeed, the call story of Isaiah has inspired the hearts and imaginations of Jews and Christians for centuries. We give thanks, for people like Fred Rogers and Judy Craig and others that have been part of that ongoing lineage of Isaiahs. Ordinary people who have found themselves in uncertainty and challenge. Ordinary people who had doubts and inadequacies named not just by themselves, but by those around them. Ordinary people who experienced the fire of God’s spirit. Ordinary people who have shepherded through exile and restoration. They teach us that God’s presence and invitation is also with us, “Now who will go for us? Now whom shall we send?” May the fire in us be rekindled and may we renew our desire to be disciples.
In one of his last shows Mr. Rogers said,
“No matter what your particular job, especially in our world today, we are all called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation. Thank you for whatever you do, wherever you are, to bring joy and light and hope and faith and pardon and love to your neighbor and to yourself.”[iv]
[i] 2 Chronicles 26:1-21
[ii] Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 6: 1-8 (9-13), “The Working Preacher,” for February 10, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3965
[iii] Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Universal Pictures, 2018.
[iv] Fred Roger’s Special Program after 9/11, as shown in Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Universal Pictures, 2018.