Again, I’d like to look more closely at the passage we heard from the Old Testament – this week from Isaiah 6. It is a bit reminiscent of a “good news, bad news” joke about a conversation between a lawyer and her client. She told him, “I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” Her client replied, “Give me the bad news first.” “The bad news is that the DNA tests showed that the police found your blood all over the crime scene.” “Oh, no,” her client mourned, “What could possibly be good about that?” “The good news is that your cholesterol is down to 130!”
If we’re listening carefully, we know that the Scriptures contain both bad news and good news, sometimes referred to as both “trouble” and “grace”. Even most specific texts contain elements of both. So, when we hear God’s word, we need to be listening carefully to find, discern and pray about both. The Scriptures’ good news, after all, makes little sense until we recognize their bad news.
Today’s bad news is that when the living God graciously stoops to meet us, we realize that we’re sinners. Some believe that “human history is the history of sin.” Surely a quick look at the stories contained in any news source demonstrates that. And it seems to me that sin has no favorites – priests – politicians – parents – the famous and the private – lawyers – lovers – leaders – no matter what category of life we fall into – we are all sinners. Even Pope Francis said about himself, “I am a sinner, I am sure of this.” It’s the common trait that we all share, as much as the blood in our very veins.
But is the bad news that is the doctrine of human sin really so self-evident? People can, after all, almost always identify someone who’s worse than we are, whose done worse than we have. Not many of those who hear the words of Isaiah 6 have committed mass murder or greedily triggered a financial meltdown, but all of us who hear God’s word today know that we always have room to improve.
In this week’s Old Testament passage, a young Isaiah is in church, perhaps in a worship service, not so unlike all of us here this morning and those tuning in. In the midst of great national turmoil, God gives the prophet a vision that even now has the power to blow our minds.
After all, it’s almost as if God tugs the curtain between heaven and earth open just far enough so that the prophet can peek into the heavenly realm. In it he sees “the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted”, whom he also calls “the King, the Lord Almighty”. Isaiah also hears heaven’s angels crying out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory”. The prophet reports that it’s all enough to shake the temple almost to its foundations.
How does Isaiah respond? Isaiah’s vision of heaven overwhelms him with a sense of his own sinfulness and that of his contemporaries. When the prophet catches a glimpse of God, he sees himself as well as all people for what we really are: those whose sin has put our lives in danger. He, in other words, sees the bad news.
It might be helpful for us reflect on similar experiences. While I have never had a glimpse of heaven, like Isaiah, I have been exposed to people and situations that have so deeply touched me that they shake me to do better, to be better, to serve better. And I’m sure you have experienced the same.
One of those experiences I had recently was when I attended a session hosted by the New Jersey Prisoner Re-entry program, who invited Sr Normal Pimentel to speak.
Norma Pimentel is a Sister with the Missionaries of Jesus. As Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley for over 15 years, she oversees the charitable arm of the Diocese of Brownsville, providing oversight of the different ministries & services in the areas of the Rio Grande Valley through emergency assistance, homelessness prevention, disaster relief, clinical counseling, pregnancy care, food program(s), and the Humanitarian Respite Center.
Sister Norma chairs the local Emergency Food and Shelter Program that distributes federal funds to local agencies providing assistance to the area’s poor. She leads efforts in the community that respond to emergency needs and provide relief in times of disaster and crisis in the Valley. She was instrumental in quickly organizing community resources to respond to the surge of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States and setting up the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.
These efforts captured the world’s attention, drawing news media from around the globe to the Rio Grande Valley to cover the plight of the countless and distressed refugee individuals and families, thereby compelling thousands from this country and others to contribute their time, talents, and treasures to serve and support the cause.
A most special moment was captured on September 2015 via satellite broadcast to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in which Pope Francis recognized Sr Norma for her work with the immigrants and asked her to come forward so that he could see her. He thanked her for her humility and her efforts and encouraged her to continue.
Sr Norma inspired me because she was able to show me in her words, in her actions, and in her life, that her work, and our work too, must be about people – caring for, loving, and serving people – especially the poor and most vulnerable. Sr Norma will come to our parish on Sunday, March 27 – I hope that her reflections will inspire you too!
I know that we come to church hoping to be comforted and encouraged. Some come seeking to be entertained, to hear Father’s joke of the week, to laugh and catch up with friends - looking for a kind of Catholic Disney World. But that’s not Church. When we come here, sometimes church thrusts us into a deeper understanding of the reality of our sinfulness, of our shortcomings, of our need to change … I know that it does so for me.
But then there’s the other side of being here … that’s that context in which Isaiah 6 speaks of as the good news: that is, sin doesn’t disqualify us from being God’s servants. In fact, it shows that God longs to make servants out of sinners. More pointedly, that God desires to use you and me, sinners among people, to bring his message, to do his work, to build up his Kingdom. Because after all, if God relied on saints, not much would really get done, would it?
So, as we heard today, one of the angels touches Isaiah’s mouth with a burning but cleansing coal. God’s messenger then announces the good news, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for”. Yet even then God isn’t yet done. Beyond the part of Isaiah 6 that we hear, the rest of the story says later that the Lord also commissions the forgiven prophet to “Go, tell this people …” .
He does the same for us. We have to stop hoping and pretending that God uses perfect people to do God’s work … nope … he uses us … look around. It started with the Apostles, to the disciples, and down through the centuries, now to us … broken, needy, sinful and imperfect people … called to the best of our ability to do God’s work here and now, without judgment, sarcasm, or hesitation
Listen again carefully to what’s really happening in the Gospel today:
Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
Their partners in the other boat came to help them and they filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
Then the magic moment, LISTEN:
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,
Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.
In other words, you don’t want me Lord, I’m a sinner and not qualified to do your work. And what does Jesus say to that honest, humble, self-assessment:
Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.
In other words, despite your sins, your incompleteness, the many things you need to improve, I will love you, I will use you, I will work through you and I will be with you.
So, let’s stop disqualifying ourselves, and perhaps more importantly here, let’s stop disqualifying and judging others whose sins and faults we see. Instead, let’s work together, all as patients in this hospital of sinners, to bring health, healing and hope to our world … in the name of Jesus, the Son of God we come today to worship, to love and to emulate.
February 6, 2022
Photo Credits: James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (La pêche miraculeuse), 1886-1896. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 6 3/4 x 9 11/16 in. (17.1 x 24.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.87