Outward Bound

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Year B – 3 June 2012

John Edward Miller, Rector


In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Then I heard the voice of the LORD saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

– Isaiah 6:1-8



The Collect


Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


 In the sixth chapter of Isaiah’s book, the prophet hangs out his shingle for all of Jerusalem to see. What we read there today is what the people of Judah heard in the eight century before Christ. It is his call vision, the mysterious moment when God commissioned him to serve as a prophet. The story contains his credentials. Isaiah’s awesome encounter with the LORD and his winged seraphim is the literary equivalent of a professional certificate. It’s like an official license authorizing him to speak for God.

On the basis of his call, Isaiah would become the LORD’s messenger. Henceforth he would say, “thus says the LORD,” and the people would listen. They knew that he was God’s official “mouthpiece.” It was an unpopular, but necessary job, because he had to say hard things to people who were out of line and at odds with God’s purposes. Isaiah would have to depend upon God’s strength to remain true to his task when he was tempted to quit. But he did the work; he was faithful to the LORD who called him.

In the mystical vision, Isaiah was bowled over by the holiness of God. He actually thought he was a goner, because he had seen the brightness of God’s glory. “Woe is me!” he cried. “My lips are unclean, and the lips of my people are unclean.” In other words, he realized that he was not worthy to stand before God or to speak for him. Any pretense, any trace of hubris was erased. By the grace of God, Isaiah’s sin was removed, and he was readied to prophesy. Then he heard the LORD call out, “Whom shall I send; and who will go for us?” And Isaiah heard a still, small voice within his soul reply, saying, “Here am I; send me.”

Isaiah stepped forward, and accepted his vocation. His voluntary response turned an ecstatic vision into a strategic plan. It activated his prophetic ministry. Like many before him, and the many who would step forward after him, Isaiah was sent by God to serve.

In Latin, the verb “to send” is mitto, mittere, missi, missus. That’s where we get the word, “missile” (the kind with the warhead), and “emissary,” and “dismissal,” and, of course, the word, “missionary.” All of these English terms are rooted in that old Latin action word. Literally then, Isaiah, the prophet whom God sent, was also Isaiah the missionary.

That may sound odd to you, but I assure you that was Isaiah’s identity. And his dual role was not unique. Remember the twelve disciples of Jesus? They are also known as the twelve apostles. The latter title fits their job description after the Day of Pentecost, when God’s Spirit activated their ministries of evangelism. The disciples got their marching orders that day in Jerusalem, and they went out as apostles. In New Testament Greek the verb “to send” is apostellein. That’s the origin of “apostolic” – a key term for the nature and essence of the Church.  The scriptures tell us that the original followers heard the great commission of Jesus, and they responded by going into all the world to preach the Gospel. In other words, they too were “sent.”

So it’s six of one and a half dozen of another. To be an apostle is to be a missionary. Both are sent to serve. Every ministry involves being sent – to a person, a community, a mission field. The church is eternally being sent (out). At the end of every Eucharist, there is a dismissal – “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” In the old Roman liturgy, which uses the Latin language, that same dismissal was, “Ite, missa est,” which means, “Go, [you are] sent.” Missa est. That is the origin of the word, “mass.” It’s an expression describing the path outward to sacred service in the name of Christ. It aptly identifies who we are. In fact, I know of a church that has a sign posted on the lintel of the nave’s exit door. It says, “You are now entering the mission field.”

On Easter weekend in 1878, Francis McNeese Whittle, the fifth Bishop of Virginia, consecrated what we now call Little St. Mary’s. The carpenter Gothic building and our forebears were dedicated and launched as a mission to the farmers and coal miners of Eastern Goochland County. Bishop Whittle noted in the diocesan journal that, “this is a very neat and pretty building, in a destitute neighborhood where our Church is hardly known at all, and has been erected and paid for entirely through the persevering and untiring efforts of a lady of the congregation. May God honor her who has thus honored him!”[1]

We’ve grown considerably from those simple beginnings. After becoming a self-sustaining (financially, that is) parish with its own rector in 1962, we expanded in 1992 and 2002, respectively, adding new buildings and more than doubling the size of our churchyard. Our population has grown from 100 in 1962 to over 2000 in 2012. Yes, we’re bigger; we’re better equipped, and financially sound. In a sense we’ve grown from adolescence into full adulthood in the last 50 years. But we remain a mission. Being sent – sent out to do what God calls us to do, namely to extend the love of God to our neighbors, is essential to our life as a Church of Jesus Christ.

Just as God’s nature is self-disclosive and outreaching, offering life and light to every corner of creation, we are charged to go forth and do likewise. You might even say that the doctrine of the Trinity is a description of a God whose being overflows with love for the world. The Creator’s benevolence fashioned a cosmos out of chaos; the Redeemer’s compassion offers us a clear picture of the lengths to which God will go to love us; and the Spirit’s inviting energy inspires us to accept the mission of seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

That is to say, to be a follower of Jesus Christ is to be outward bound, on the move. Discipleship is dynamic, enthusiastic, exploratory, and sharing. To be static, to rest on one’s laurels, or to retreat into the past, is to lose our reason for being, to suffer an identity crisis of tragic proportions.

During the parish meetings conducted by our building committee in 1989-90, much of the discussion was about our parish identity. Some were focused on the historic St. Mary’s. They were worried that changing those sacred structures would cause us to lose our identity. Others were certain that the core of St. Mary’s character was all about being small and simple. Making the church larger and more complex would ruin something that we cherish, they said. Still others argued that we could keep things the way they were since 1878 by recommending that all newcomers visit nearby All Saints Church, which was already large and perhaps had empty pews to fill.

At one critical juncture in the discussion, Phebe Hoff, a long-time, highly engaged member of St. Mary’s, looked up from her knitting when it appeared that the do-nothing option might be adopted. Phebe stood, and the people of the church listened. In her lovely English accent, she calmly, but firmly said what needed to be said. Phebe stated the case for expansion and growth, saying these words: “Too many of us feel that St. Mary’s Church is simply about familiarity and comfort. This mission was built to serve the Lord and the Lord’s people. That’s who we still are. So let’s take a risk, and grow and develop, and not just rest in our warm coziness.”

And so, the campaign to create New St. Mary’s commenced. The church was built by people who believe in being sent into the mission field, spreading the word of love to a world aching for renewal. One hundred sixty families and individuals, pledging an average of $10,000 paid over five years, gave the go signal to the building committee and our vestry. Bishop Lee celebrated the consecration of the new buildings in October 1992 – twenty years ago this fall. In his sermon, Bishop Lee challenged us to be a community that is sent to do what God would have us do. He said:

 “Jesus is not satisfied with a people who are silent, inert, like the ancient stones of Jerusalem. He calls us into a living, growing relationship with him and with one another. The images of the people he calls are organic and not static; living vines, a body with all parts essential for the good of the whole, growing, building up in love.

 “We gather today in this splendid new building because of who we are, and who God is. We gather in a spirit of reverence and humility more than in a spirit of triumphant accomplishment. This building is an instrument and no more. It is holy, not because we set it apart today, but because of the holiness of Christ who brings us together, who summons us together as his family, as his people. . . .

 “[When he consecrated Little St. Mary’s in 1878] Bishop Whittle described this area as ‘a destitute area where our Church is hardly known at all.’ Now another bishop comes to a community where there are destitute people, some still hidden in their material poverty, even more in their spiritual poverty, and like Bishop Whittle, I pray that God may honor those who have honored him with the new St. Mary’s Church as people reach out from the place with the immeasurable riches of Christ.

 My prayer for St. Mary’s Church is that this may always be a center of a holy people, respectful of one another, faithful in praise and prayer, in word and sacrament, united with your brother and sister Christians in this diocese and in the diverse church, reaching out always with the wide open arms of Christ, and most of all most of all built on that rock that is Christ himself, and growing together in him.”[2]    

 Thanks to God’s grace, and to your responsiveness to God’s call, we are living into Bishop Lee’s prayer for this church. We are outward bound; we are on the move; and we are empowered by the Spirit.

But we cannot be content to rest, and let our momentum carry us along. Sooner or later momentum abates, and forward movement diminishes. So our continued growth and development will depend on our attentiveness to God’s call, our discernment of God’s direction, and our willingness to act in accordance with God’s will. And it will take character to remain on track.

 William Willimon, a noted preacher and bishop in the United Methodist Church in Alabama, has been called “a peculiar prophet.” He has been a spokesman for God throughout his ministry, which has famously included his chaplaincy to the students and faculty of Duke University. In all of these roles, he has been faithful, attuned to God’s call, and an articulate messenger of the Word. Now, as he prepares to retire as bishop, and to return to Duke Divinity School as a teacher, Willimon is reflecting on his vocation. An interviewer for The Christian Century recently asked him, “As you leave the episcopacy after eight years, what do you consider your greatest achievement?” Bishop Willimon thought for a moment and gave this answer: “Perseverance. That’s a cardinal virtue for any form of ministry, including the episcopacy – the willingness to serve where one is sent with the conviction that God is present, working through your ministry to accomplish God’s purposes, even when one doesn’t get observable results.”[3]

Perseverance – remaining steadfast in a ministry of service, is a character trait of a people who know that they are sent out with a purpose. It means abiding in God’s love, and I can’t envision a better place to be. Amen.

[1] The Rt. Reverend Francis M. Whittle, Journal of the Diocese of Virginia, 1878, p. 43, as cited by Bishop Peter James Lee in a sermon for the dedication and consecration of New St. Mary’s, October 11, 1992.

[2] The Right Reverend Peter James Lee, XII Bishop of Virginia, “The People Beyond the Building,” a sermon for the consecration and dedication of St. Mary’s Church, October 11, 1992, as published in the St. Mary’s Newsletter, November 1992, pp. 9-10.

[3] George Mitrovich, “Sent to Serve — William Willimon on being bishop,” The Christian Century, May 30, 2012, p. 10.