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Sunday 10 February 2019

Unclean lips are the best kind

Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

By Rob Esdaile

Parish Priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church, Thames Ditton, Surrey


Context: Sunday Eucharist for a largely middle-class suburban congregation of about 150 people of all ages, including a number of young families

Aim: to get people to reflect on how God calls us in our imperfection


S.W.A.L.K. or I.G.U.L.?

Are you planning on sending a Valentine’s Day card on Thursday? Perhaps you might want to write ‘S.W.A.L.K.’ on the back – assuming you still know the meaning of that old acronym (‘Sealed With A Loving Kiss’) in our post-postal society. But an alternative could be to misquote the Prophet Isaiah: ‘I.G.U.L.’ – ‘I’ve got unclean lips.’ That might carry a certain romantic frisson – although it might simply mark you out as an infection risk.

But banter apart, I think that many of us Christians live our whole lives under that banner: ‘We are a people of unclean lips’: not quite ‘good’ enough for God, not sufficiently prayerful or holy, too weak in faith; disqualified by past mistakes, present doubts or ongoing flaws. Best leave all that ‘Building the Kingdom of God’ stuff to others better qualified!

However, if that’s our mindset, then we’re in very good company – the company not only of perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament Prophets but also of both the first apostle and the last and the least of them: ‘What a wretched state I am in … Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man … I hardly deserve the name apostle ...’


More Wow Than Woe

There seems to be a theme emerging here! But their response isn’t dictated by low-self-esteem or poor self-image. In each case it’s the fruit of an encounter with God. It’s actually more about a ‘Wow’ factor than a ‘Woe’ factor. As for Isaiah, ‘My eyes have looked at the King, the Lord of Hosts, so for Paul, ‘Christ appeared to me too; it was as though I was born when no one expected it.’ And Peter, too, was simply overcome at the miraculous catch granted after his own fruitless night-long slog. We all meet Christ differently, experience God differently, pray differently. But I would suggest that some little element of ‘push-back’, a note of ‘Oh God, please, not me!’ might be a healthy sign that we are dealing with the real God and dealing with a real calling.

That little note of resistance is there in our liturgy. Each time we prepare to receive the Lord in Holy Communion we Roman Catholics say: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof …’ However, fortunately that honesty is balanced by hope: ‘But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’

Just saying the word! That’s precisely what has happened in each of these lives, and it transforms them! Isaiah expresses it in his vision of the seraph touching his lips with the live coal plucked from the altar fire; Paul experiences it as an unexpected new birth; Peter’s angst is met by Jesus’ response, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on it is people you will catch!’

That Word sets Isaiah free from fear to volunteer, ‘Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying: ‘Whom shall I send? Who will be my messenger?’ I answered, ‘Here I am, send me’.’ It changes Paul from persecutor of the Church to its chief witness among the Gentiles: ‘The grace that he gave me has not been fruitless. On the contrary, I, or rather the grace of God that is with me, have worked harder than any of the others.’ It transfers Peter from sea to shore and then overseas again to an eventual painful death in pagan Rome.


Called Then, Called Now

Which is all very well, of course, but that was then and this is now! As a general rule, we don’t have many visions of heavenly throne-rooms. We’re not apostles or fishermen. We probably haven’t done any persecuting of the Church of God recently, either. No one has come along and invited us to take indefinite shore-leave. And, anyway, leaving everything behind to follow Jesus just isn’t feasible in our day and age ... Or, in other words, we’re really quite good at putting together explanations as to why the stories in today’s readings don’t need to change our lives.

The objections to imitating Isaiah and Paul and Peter are fine and dandy and very sensible. We can safely ignore each of them, unless we’ve somehow come to suspect that the Almighty isn’t always very sensible; unless we’ve got wind of the awesomeness of God (‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts!’); unless Paul is right, ‘Because the Gospel will save you only if you keep believing exactly what I preached to you … that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; and that he was raised to life on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures …’; unless the memory of that encounter on the Galilean shore is correct and Jesus ignored Peter’s protests ‘Leave me, Lord!’ and hung around regardless.

So, here’s the surprising thing! The only people who are any use to Christ and to the Gospel are people of unclean lips, people who know their need for God; people who know that they are loved in their unloveliness as well as in their beauty. Isaiah, Peter, Paul, you and me – what a team! Just as soon as we listen to that voice: ‘Whom shall I send?’ and hear another voice, our own, respond, to our surprise: ‘Here I am, send me – a person of unclean lips.’

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