“Pick Me, Pick Me!” / Isaiah 6:1-8 / 10 February 2019
It sounds like the crazy dreams you have when finally fall asleep at 2:00am after hours of insomnia—a fitful, shallow sleep with bizarre dreams. It almost sounds like a drug-induced state, this vision of the Prophet Isaiah. He was in the temple, just sitting in his regular pew on the Sabbath day, maybe drifting in and out as the preacher droned on. Or perhaps he was there all alone, the prophet in the half-lit church at night, saying his solitary prayers. Then something happened. In the dark corners of the holy place, all of a sudden, the shadows drew back like a curtain. The darkness hides in its depths another world that only now appears: a lofty throne, a robe that fills all the living world, a voice like a trumpet, a tremor that makes the universe dance, and angels with not two but six wings on their backs, crying out, “Holy, holy, holy! The whole earth is full of God’s glory.” Reverence! Isaiah stands in awe. He’s dumbstruck by a mystery, a marvel. And when the mysterious voice, like a thousand waterfalls, asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” What does Isaiah say? He says what we all say when we’ve brushed up against wonder, and beauty, and power. He says what we all say when we catch a vision of something greater than ourselves. He says, “Pick me! I’ve been waiting all my life for a chance like this, though I didn’t know it till now. I’ve waited years for some purpose to serve, some meaning to fulfill, some job to do. Here I am. Pick me!”
Last August, I strolled alone through the California redwoods, and it was truly humbling to walk among these living creatures, these grand trees, that were thousands of years old, and so commanding and lovely. Next to these ancient trees you feel like you’re about as big as a squirrel and as old as a gnat. Or maybe it was traveling with my wife’s extended family—“Clan Hanna”—that made me feel like a squirrelly gnat. We had gone to the West Coast all together, seventeen of my in-laws, nieces, nephews, and a few distant relatives whose relationship to us I wouldn’t quite know how to name. Second cousins once removed? Twice removed? Completely removed? I don’t know. In my family, either you’re a cousin or you’re not. We don’t know how to “remove” them. And as much as I love my family-by-marriage, they don’t travel like us Snyders either. In the family where I grew up, we would travel to one spot, usually a lake. We would stay put, stare at the water for one week, try not to get into arguments, then come home. But Clan Hanna travels—well—a little bit like squirrels, zipping around from place to place, chattering constantly, always chewing on something, never standing still.
And frankly, they travel a little like gnats; they like to swarm—descending noisily on quiet restaurants in San Francisco and Seattle and demanding tables for seventeen. They got stuck in an elevator in Seattle because they refused to take the stairs and refused to separate long enough to travel a single floor. It was a great vacation, but I was frequently horrified. I would hang back, smile a little dumbly, try to look like I’d married in.
That’s what I was doing out there among the redwoods that day—introverting,
taking it to the trees, as I’ve forever done. Nothing is so good or so bad that trees can’t make it better. We had been driving through the redwood region of Northern California, a whole caravan of us, piled into five vehicles. We didn’t have cell phone service, so we had to keep stopping and waiting for each other, checking our phones, trying to get a text through, shouting into those phones, getting cut off. We had gotten up early and driven through a car-sized tunnel carved into one of the trees, everyone laughing and taking pictures. Now the Clan had just stopped, all of us along a roadside deep in some lesser-traveled spot in some spectacular forest, and they were all trying to take pictures of the whole group holding hands around the base of some gigantic tree. I didn’t think they’d miss me. I took the car keys and slipped away into the woods alone.
Somehow, I’d always believed that the redwoods were a single stand of trees, a grove, kind of like Cook Forest. But they’re not. The redwoods grow all over that area, majestic and serene, even standing gracefully in people’s back yards. There is no word for what they are: beautiful, enormous, old. Some of these trees are fifty feet wide at the base, three-hundred feet tall, hollow in the middle, and full of strange little dens, and warrens, and caverns. Here were living creatures that have been growing, and thriving, and getting sick, and recovering, and putting down roots in just a single spot of earth since long before Jesus walked upon it. Everywhere you looked, you’d see a living thing, without plaque or nameplate, a life without sorrows or woes, just standing in some sunny spot in the forest, a spot where it has presided contently since before Genghis Khan drew breath, before or Cleopatra, or Mark Zuckerberg. These trees had seen empires rise and fall, the collapse of whole civilizations, the creation of the Internet, and superhighways, and KFC. And most of all! Most of all, they will still be standing there, peaceful and powerful, long after I have passed from this world and after my name has passed forever from all remembrance. Who knows, they might still be there when the sun burns dim and flickers out, taking all the things we know with it—including the redwoods. It doesn’t matter. For when you stand in the presence of something so awe-inspiring, it reminds you of your smallness, but not in a scary way, in a comforting way. It makes you to know that though you are small, in the grand scheme of things, you’re still a part of a meaningful whole. The very fact that you get to be a part of all this—the living, the breathing, the feeling, the relationships, the thinking and growing—it’s enough. It makes you want to do your part while you can, to add something good to the bigger life of the world. There’s a pleasure, there’s a thrill, there’s a beauty in abandoning yourself to something beyond your power: a wave, a current, an emotion, a tree. It’s called reverence, and our souls need it!
When the Prophet Isaiah brushes up against something mysterious in the temple, a vision or an impression of something bigger, and older, and wiser than he is, suddenly he knows his place in the family of things—as Mary Oliver said. He’s visited by a sense of reverence that’s bigger than his doubts and fears, bigger even than his own ego, bigger than all that he wants and knows. And he responds to that odd and holy reverence by saying, “Here I am. If you’ve got a higher purpose in this world, I’ve got the time. Pick me! Pick me!” For that’s what reverence does: it calls us to serve a bigger purpose than just ourselves. And so let me ask you this: Where and when have you felt a real sense of reverence? When has a feeling of “the holy” accosted you, stymied you, claimed you for something nobler and longer-lasting than yourself? Staring out at the rolling breakers of a vast ocean, gazing at the endless stars overhead, on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or in a place of worship like this one, when has a sense of wonder drawn back the shadows like a curtain, just for a moment, to reveal to you the marvels of the life we rarely see, the bigger life of God’s world, and caused you to want to do your part in making it good? Put down the cell phone. Put away the iPad. Computer screen, TV screen, overhead screen—get away from every manner of screen, and find something that causes you to marvel at the mystery of life and love, the mystery of it all. If we’ve never knelt before something, how can we stand for anything? Let us rediscover ourselves, our world, and our place in it by rediscovering reverence.
When the other kids were yelling at the coach, “Pick me, pick me,” I was doing my best to make myself invisible. I would try to disappear behind the guy beside me. It’s not that I hated sports. I just hated doing things with an audience. But do you know what you learn when you live long enough? You learn that only the hard things are worth doing in this world. And the best things of all are the ones that scare you at first. The world is like an unpredictable coach. It will find you no matter where you’re hiding. It will call you out and assign you to tasks that you may or may not desire. Some of them will be good, and others will be awful. The world will call you to take care of yourself: get an education, find a good-paying job, choose a career path, make a name for yourself in your field. Yes, the world will call you to look after you, but then it will ask you to look after other people, too. Not everyone, but most will find a spouse, have kids, take on a mortgage, get a timeshare in Orlando, get a big flatscreen, so the kids can watch sarcastic Disney shows, and make sure they have cellphones by the time they can tie their shoes. Yes, the world will call you to look after yourself and those you love, and you’ll respond easily to those calls. Even a robin finds food for its young. Even a possum carries her babies on her back. Even a penguin falls in love for life. At least the film March of the Penguins, back in 2005, had all the romantic souls believing that they do. What animal, aside from fish and reptiles, allows its offspring to fend for themselves? Who but a snake bears children only to let them slither away to feed on whatever bugs and spiders they can find? We may say that someone was “raised by wolves,” but in reality, wolves care for their young. Wolves teach their children how to hunt, and how to find shelter, and how to get along with each other. It’s only natural for us to do the things the world calls on us to do—to care for ourselves and those we love. The call of the world is the call to survival, the call to self. We all have to heed it. But harder by far, and better and more meaningful, is to throw our lives’ additional skills and energies into the greater causes of goodness, truth, and beauty; to invest ourselves in things that do long-term good for the world, but personally cost us much in the short term. After heeding the call to survival and self, let us heed the higher call of reverence.
Well, at this point in the sermon, I usually drop in a not-very-funny joke. I looked for Boy Scout jokes online, and there were plenty. But sadly, they were all really long and even less funny than my usual stuff. Let me close only by saying this: It’s fine to seek wellbeing and advancement for oneself and for one’s family. But into every life there comes a sacred moment when something beyond us calls, something nobler than the rat race. You might hear that call in a piece of music, a waterfall, a night in the woods. It could be a painting or a dance, a river or a grand old tree—any of these can pull back the curtain, if only for a moment, on a deeper truth, a higher call, revealing to us that beneath the surface of these workaday lives, there’s another life that’s also ours, another world to which we also belong, an eternity present in every living hour. Every once in a while, we are reminded that life is good, love is real, and dreams are worth pursuing. And when reverence calls to us, let us never hesitate to throw our lives into its service. What this world has always needed is men who will treat women with dignity and respect. What this world has always needed is people who will tell truths even when they’re hard and unpopular. What this world has needed, since before the oldest of the redwoods began to sprout, is men and women who will resist the call to make money their first priority, but who will seek first to honor God and neighbor, and to live in honesty, in community, in tolerance, and in service to others. Reverence is what brings all this about. Let us live humble, reverent lives, respecting the holy mystery in our neighbors, in nature, in science, in art, and in ourselves. And then when reverence calls and gives us a job to do—which it will!—let us respond by saying, “Here I am. Pick me! Pick me!” Amen.