The Case for Emptiness

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Isaiah 6.1-8 (9-13)
Luke 5.1-11

I love it when a lectionary text comes with parentheses. It’s a sign, a hint, code for “preach at your own risk.” As in, “Do you want the good news, or (the bad news)?” Or, “These first few verses are okay, but (these verses) are liable to get you in trouble.” This week’s reading from Isaiah is one such example. The first eight verses tell the tale of Isaiah’s calling, which unfolds in a dramatic scene of burning coals and six-winged seraphim. In the vision, the voice of God fills the air, “Whom shall I send?” To which Isaiah responds with unclean, yet very brave lips, “Here I am; send me!”

According to the parentheses, we could stop there. And likely as not, we would have a pretty good shot at a pretty good sermon. After all, we probably know a thing or two about preaching the word with unclean lips. But speaking of sermons, that’s actually what those parenthetical verses are all about; a summary of what the Lord has in mind for Isaiah’s first prophecy:
• Preach a word the people can’t hear, can’t see, and can’t understand (6.9)
• Preach a word that precludes hope and delays healing (6.10)
And keep preaching, God instructs, until the cities are desolate, the houses are vacant, and the fields are fallow (6.11); in short, keep preaching until “vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” (6.12) So no wonder these verses get the parenthetical treatment this week. I mean, that’s some assignment for Homiletics 101.

These preach-at-your-own-risk verses are full of emptiness. But does that also make them empty of fullness, as the parentheses suggest? Are they really better left unread and unsaid? I think not. And I think not because of a lone line in an old prayer John Wesley wrote for his Service of Covenant Renewal, excerpted here:
I am no longer my own, but thine…
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee…
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I first found that prayer cross-stitched and hanging in a dark-paneled hallway of a retreat house in Kentucky. I remember it so vividly because, when I found it hanging there some twenty years ago, it stopped me in my tracks. I could be empty for God? The emptiness that sometimes fills me and sometimes pains me could be a condition God could use, or even bless? It took my breath away, and then it began to take some of my despair away, too.

And I wonder if our text from Isaiah could possibly do the same. If the emptiness between the parentheses could be understood not just as a punitive measure for Judah’s sins, but as an integral and necessary part of their ultimate healing and redemption. Can we imagine emptiness (both Judah’s and our own) not simply as a sign of cosmic punishment, or as weakness on our own part, but as a necessary component of the spiritual life? Can we imagine that emptiness is not mostly to be lamented or endured, but a condition to be embraced and even cultivated?

Honestly, it’s going to be a tough sell in a culture where, as Richard Rohr says, “We are consumers and capitalists by training and by habit.” Here in America, the sun rises and sets on how productive we can be; we weigh our worth by how full our calendars, closets, and bank accounts are. We learn at a very young age: fill emptiness by whatever means necessary; erase space; avoid the void; and for goodness’ sake, keep those verses from Isaiah between the parentheses!

The trouble is, we have this week’s gospel to contend with too. Here, we are confronted not once, but twice with emptiness as a necessary precondition for the kind of fullness that can change a life. Luke tells us that word is out about Jesus, and crowds are stacked six-deep along the shore to hear him speak. But it’s hard to preach a sermon when you’re packed in like sardines. Jesus needed space, which he found in the form of Simon’s empty fishing boat (Luke 5.2); he pushed out into the water, and from that vacant vessel, began to teach.

Then, just to give that sermon a little oomph—to punctuate it with a little power—Jesus tells Simon to let down his nets into the water. But Simon says in effect, “We tried all night, teacher, and our nets are as empty now as they were before. But if you say so.” And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as those nets get let down in the water, ropes start fraying, sterns start creaking, and bows start breaking under approximately one metric ton of tilapia. And this moment—the one when Simon and his friends saw what Jesus could do with a little emptiness—that’s the moment they “left everything” to follow him.

This biblical case for emptiness actually gets a cultural assist from one form of emptiness enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame right now: Marie Kondō and her gospel of “tidiness.” What began as her 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is now a brand, a movement, and most recently, a Netflix Original Series. Essentially her message is that we have too much stuff, and most of it brings us no joy. One recommendation she makes is that a person keep no more than thirty books–a scandal and horror to many of my Facebook friends. This advice seems to have hit especially hard among seminary grads, all apparently aghast at the idea of letting go of our ten-pound, multi-volume sets of Calvin’s Institutes (which I personally have opened precisely zero times since graduation).

What makes Kondō’s method a little frightening is also what makes it compelling: that there is a connection between our external clutter and our internal lives, between our shelves and ourselves.
Our collective and general fear of emptiness is what keeps us clinging to clutter without and within. And take it from me, old ten-pound, two-volume sets of insecurity, prejudice, or privilege can be far harder to discard than a couple of books from seminary. Richard Rohr says this is when we must ask, “What am I afraid of? Is it worth holding on to? Grace will lead us into such fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them up, if we are willing to stay in the void.”

Which takes guts, and practice; so we start small. Maybe today we give away a couple of books. Tomorrow we try buying a little less. Next, we try closing our laptops, putting down our phones, and, for God’s sake, turning off the cable news. And then we look at the empty space created on our screens, in our carts, or on our shelves and practice entering the empty space within ourselves, and see what God can do. Because there is no life so empty, no exile so long, no boat so rickety, and no net so ratty, frayed, and flimsy that God cannot fill beyond what we imagine.

So this week, let’s preach in between the parentheses, and let us learn to see emptiness not as a sign of punishment, not as a sign of weakness, but as God’s preferred medium for transformation and grace. In the end, it may be best to allow emptiness to make its own case this Sunday. At the close of the sermon, perhaps we take an extended time of silence, step into the void together, with our rickety boats and flimsy nets, and stay there long enough to raise a common prayer: Let us be empty, let us be empty, let us be empty for Thee.

One Response to “The Case for Emptiness”

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  1. Randy Barge says:

    This is a wonderful reflection, thank you.

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