Vancouver is an “accessible” city. Accessibility is the accommodation of people who have mobility challenges, people on scooters or wheelchairs, people with walkers or canes, and so on. Much work has been done to address these needs in our city. Every curb corner has a ramp. Sidewalks are level. High points are ground down to smooth the way for wheeled and foot traffic alike.
The value of “accessibility” has taken hold on a global scale. Because of the advocacy of people like Rick Hanson, who heightened awareness when he rolled around the world in his wheelchair, the streets of Beijing, the sidewalks of Frankfurt and even the streets of Almaty in Kazakhstan now meet standards of accessibility.
Foot traffic and wheel traffic have benefitted from this effort. Our steps along the sidewalks are made much less treacherous. As we age, we appreciate more than anything, the ability to get around. Yet even with all these efforts, we can get tripped up and we must be careful. As we walk along, step by step, the toe of our shoes hits a root or an irregularity. We almost trip. We almost lose balance, but we regain our composure. We stumble, we stutter. We take a stutter-step. A stutter -step.
That’s the concept behind my sermon title. : “Another step— a stutter step.” As we walk, step by step on our faith journey in this season of Epiphany, today we stutter-step. Our regular rhythm is interrupted abruptly, we may almost get knocked down, but we don’t fall. Some kind of self-preservation instinct kicks in—instantly. We recover. And then, when we recover, we say, “Thank God.”
“Thank God, I didn’t trip. Thank God, I didn’t fall.”
Somehow, the demons, the phantoms, the poltergeists that are lodged in the root or ledge that cause us to stutter-step have been defeated. We feel safe. Our safety also brings us to an awareness, an understanding of our vulnerability, and we think about it. And we think about the grace. “I’m still standing.” We thank God. We pause for a moment. We may even rest and indulge our thoughts of grace. Perhaps we sit on a bench.
A bench like the ones outside our church. We catch our breaths. We begin to think and perhaps even ponder. We think about God. When we say, “Thank God!”, we might think beyond the moment. We may consider the nature of this God. What kind of God would we be thanking? The stutter- step causes us to pause and think.
That’s what we are doing this morning as we journey on, step-by-step through our Epiphany season readings. Today we pause for a moment. We’ve been going along step-by-step, but now we take a bit of a break, a rest. We look around. We look at what our true purpose is: to serve God. We examine the power and the providence of our God. And, more importantly, we are challenged to accept our place and our grace in God’s world, God’s universe, through the amazing love that was shown in God sending of his son, Jesus. We are called to follow Jesus as we walk our journey of faith. We go on step by step, but suddenly we stutter-step—and we pause, we reflect, and we are called to follow.
In the Isaiah’s passage we read, through the Prophet’s telling, and we experience what theologians call a “theophany.” We get to see God. In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne. (Isaiah 6:1) We get a picture of the power, the grandeur, the majesty and the mystery of Almighty God— a robe that covers the whole area, six winged angels, shaking thrones, smoke. What we get is an attempt to convey the mystery of God and the limits of human knowledge to comprehend this God. But at the same time, we get the notion of the willingness of this God to respond to the human condition. God, all powerful, all mighty, above all—condescends to listen and to instruct—to respond.
Isaiah admits his unworthiness to stand before this totally awesome God.
We overuse “awesome.” Everything is “awesome” nowadays. The grocery clerk asks if you have a quarter. You fish around in pocket or purse and find one. You hand it to her.
“Awe” is a word that ought to be used sparingly. This is one place when it truly fits.
And, Isaiah’s admission is a response to this immensity, this “awesomeness.” Woe is me. I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips: and I live among people of unclean lips. (v.5) “ I am unworthy.” See God is calling Isaiah to serve him as his prophet. And Isaiah’s response is an admission of his own sin. But also an admission of the sin of which he is part – his community. He represents people of unclean lips. He admits a collective guilt.
God is about to erase that guilt. God, through an angel, a seraph, brings a coal to the prophet’s lips . God cauterizes the unclean lips with a burning ember. Before antibiotics, this was the ancient form of cleansing a wound. To sear it. The burn removes all contaminants. A painful but effective method. Once he has cleansed him, God now calls on Isaiah to become his messenger. He asks him, Whom shall I send? Isaiah responds: Send me. And then God instructs the Prophet about what to say: Keep listening but do not comprehend. Keep looking, but do not understand.” (v.13) Wow!
God says, “Go tell the people that I am God.” But I am a God that they will not be able to categorize, or calibrate, or ever come to grips with. That is how “awesome” I am. That is the God that we lift our cry to when we stutter-step. When we pause, when we say, “Thank God!”
In Luke, our NT reading, we see this awesome God in action. We are walking with Jesus, and we come upon a scene of lakeside fishermen washing their nets and cleaning their boats in the morning after a long night on the water. Jesus is being followed by a huge crowd. He steps into a boat, without asking. He then asks that the boat be pushed off the shore so he can avoid the crowd. The boat happens to be Peter’s boat. He sits down in the boat. From this “pulpit” he teaches the crowd. What is he teaching them? He is teaching them about their relationship with God. “The kingdom of God is nigh.”
As if it wasn’t enough that he stepped into Peter’s boat without asking, Jesus now suggests to Simon Peter that he take him out fishing. Simon resists the “invitation.” “We’ve been out all night. The fish aren’t there. We caught nothing. There’s no point.”
Simon Peter is an experienced fisherman. He knows how to catch fish. He’s not going to let this “landlubber” from Nazareth tell him how to do what he knows, what he learned from fishing with his father. But he has witnessed the power and authority of Jesus. He even calls him Master. In deference to him, he says, “Okay, if you insist.” He goes to deeper water and lets down the nets.
When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. (v.4)
“Hey” they shout, back to the shore, “come help…” Another boat comes and both boats are loaded with fish. Loaded to overflowing.
And now Simon Peter has a “theophany. “ He sees the power of Almighty God revealed through Jesus, the one in the boat with him…Simon is “awestruck.” Like Isaiah, he admits his unworthiness. Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man. (v.8) He calls him “Lord.” He acknowledges his “Godness”, his divine nature.
And Jesus’ response is an acceptance of his confession of sinfulness, and an immediate dismissal of it. “Do not be afraid.” “Fear not.”
“You have been redeemed of your sin, simply through your faith. I have cleansed you. You will now be catching people, not fish.” Without ceremony, they bring their boats ashore. They left everything and followed him.(v.11) Awesome! Simon Peter’s “stumble-step,” his submission to go against his own better judgement, his knowledge, his experience, and traditions—that is what leads to a revelation and a complete change in vocation. “They left everything behind….”
We too have been journeying—step by step as people. I have been journeying my life’s pathway , step by step, for a long time.
Thinking about my life, I can see how my life’s journey was on a trajectory, moving forward, always inclined upward, moving smoothly. From the refugee camps in Germany, to the relative comforts of Canada, through the economic growth and opportunities in the fifties and sixties, through to the hippie and socially rebellious and unstable times of the seventies. All was going well, relationships, career, adventure, marriages, children, home ownership, a boat, a vacation place—all going well. Then crisis. A death. The death of my son in a fall. A stupid accident. A stutter-step. A pause. A time to reflect, to re-calibrate. A time to experience the love and embrace of good people. People of faith, people of no faith, people of different faiths—supporting, lifting, upholding. And a time to say, “Thank God!” A time to ponder. To think about my purpose. God’s purpose for me.
How has your journey been? Has it been all smooth “sailing” (to mix a metaphor)? Have you reason to think about a stutter-step and how you were given cause to pause.
How about the journey of our church? Have we not got reasons to pause, to say, “Thank God?” To think about that God, that awesome God, who has been guiding and sustaining us for years---step-by-step. But then, a stutter-step comes along. Today, through the Scriptures , we are reminded of what our true purpose is. To love and enjoy God. To forgive as we have been forgiven. To admit our sin. Accept our human condition. To submit to this awesome God. And let ourselves, our lips, be cleansed, cauterized. And respond to the call to follow Him.
We have been cleansed. We all who have confessed, again and again. We are assured again and again: “Do not be afraid… keep going , doing what you were doing , fishing , walking, but now differently, aware of the One who saved you, aware of the One who brought all of it .”
“You are still standing. You may have stumbled, tripped, a stutter-step, but you are “upright.” “Thank God!” You can move forward.
Thank the awesome God, whose forgiveness, whose abundance, whose love, whose promise, is beyond comprehension, who passes all our understanding. Thank that God, and move forward, to follow him in Jesus Christ, following another step