Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
February 8, 2009
I always come back from meetings of the Trustees of Bangor Theological Seminary thinking about the call to ministry. Being in the presence of faculty and students, surrounded by books of theology, worshipping and working on strengthening the seminary as it prepares leaders for ministry, I guess it’s inevitable. Still, it seems that this profession is more prone to introspection than most. Ministers are frequently questioning call – our own or others’. We talk about the contours of our calling and question the parameters of our call. We wonder, or we should anyway, whether the call is from God or is it made up of our own psychological need or desire. I had a funny conversation with one of my fellow trustees yesterday. He’s a lawyer – about my age, I would guess - and I told him that some day I want to go to law school. He said, that’s funny – I want to go to divinity school. Then we talked about what it is for which we’re each looking. I’m looking for a sharpening of a blade. He’s looking for the nourishment of purpose. Are either of those desires the further shaping of call?
When I was ordained, an artist friend designed my invitations and bulletin cover. It is a pen and ink design of an eagle against a partial moon. I had given her a text from Exodus of God speaking to Israel – “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians – how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession and I will make you a nation of priests and a holy people.”(Exodus 19:4-6) I have always loved both the message of that text and my friend’s stark depiction of it. Even now, years later, it shapes my personal sense of responsibility to God, a responsibility that has been tested and renewed several times over.
Eagles were the image of strength and grace in the Hebrew Scriptures. Eagles swoop. They soar. They nest in seemingly unreachable places. They care gently for their young. There’s some confusion among the earliest writers whether they were looking at eagles or vultures with vultures having something of a more villainous nature. Still, poetically, eagles were strong bearers of the weary. The saved could rest against the wings of eagles and be carried straight to the heart of God. Who wouldn’t be drawn to that image?
But this is an image part of a larger and more significant chapter in the saga of God and God’s chosen. Chapters 41 through 49 of Isaiah are something like a transcript of a cosmic trial before the heavenly host. What is God’s relationship to the nations? What is God’s relationship to Israel? And why has it been so difficult for Israel to reap the rewards of its chosen status? If chapters 41 through 49 record the trial, then the words from today’s passage in Isaiah 40 are something of God’s opening statement. “Have you not seen? Have you not heard?” It is a familiar theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Let me remind you… Have you forgotten? Where were you when I did these things? You have seen what I did to the Egyptians… The words in today’s passage are a reminder of what God has already done for Israel when they were in bondage, when they were triumphant, when they were in exile. And because these are our scriptures, our story and the story that shaped the life and faith of our Christ, we are reminded of what God has done for us, when we experience oppression, when we are triumphant, when we are in exile.
If you read these chapters in Isaiah, you will discover that Israel’s complaint is that they are exhausted, bone-weary and afraid. Shouldn’t this be easier? Or, if not easier, shouldn’t we at least be seeing some progress? Or, if we aren’t allowed to see progress, can we not be at least reassured that one day, some day, God’s will will be realized on earth?
Perhaps you’re not feeling tired. Perhaps you’re feeling strong in your faith and in your progress toward living a life centered on God. Moreover, perhaps you’re looking around you and seeing a world that is living in peace, where the mountains have been leveled and the valleys lifted up so that travel is smooth. Perhaps you’re seeing justice for the poor – real justice. Perhaps, when you look around you, you see kindness, forgiveness, gentleness of spirit, understanding. People are not being judged for the way they tried to live beyond their means. Nor is an eye being taken for an eye or a life for a life. When you are looking around you, perhaps you see that the quality of relationships, not the biology of relationships, is being reinforced and supported. When you look around, you don’t know why such a text as this should have been read this morning, let alone written in the first place. Your relationships with all your children are good and strong and healthy because your children are all good and strong and healthy.
But, if you see the world in not quite that same way, if you feel as if you have come around to this same spot not just once before but many times, if you hear yourself saying the same things you have said before to your wayward son, your surly daughter, if you are not convinced that money is equitably distributed, resources equitably consumed, justice equitably administered, if you wonder if the world will ever know a day, just one day, when no bullets are sounded, no bombs exploded, no children exploited, no blood shed, no hatreds manifest in violent acts, then perhaps Isaiah’s words speak to you with a different authority and credibility. Living according to God’s will is tiring. Trying to shape the world according to God’s will is exhausting unto death.
One of my dearest clergywomen friends was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993. Her three children are the same ages as my children so at the time, they were 5 and 7. Her cancer is a slow growing type so her surgeries, chemotherapies and ongoing treatments have been the story of her medical life for 16 years. She has had many goals in these past 16 years, one of which is to stay alive, if at all possible, to see her children into adulthood. Another is to be an engaged and vital partner in her marriage to a brilliant, quirky Christian ethicist. Another is to remain an energetic, focused and effective advocate for children at risk. From the outside, it looks as if she has been successful in all those goals. But she is tired, deep down bone-weary. Over the years, I have asked her to preach at several big occasions in my ministry and she has been brilliant every time. She knows the significance of eagles’ wings in my heart and mind. So I think of her when I read this text. And when I pray for her, which is often, I imagine her being carried on the wings of eagles against the outline of a waning moon. I do not pray that her struggle be over or her burden lightened or the work diminished. Rather, I pray that when she is tired, she might feel the strength of eagles’ wings beneath her body. I pray this way for her because God did not promise us that the struggle would be easy. God does not promise that there won’t be boulders in our way. God does not promise that we won’t have to carry a cross or be nailed to its cross beams. Rather, God promises that when we are tired, we will be carried, as if on the wings of the strongest, soaring, magnificent eagle. As promises go, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Amen.