Sunday, May 27, 2018
First Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Holy God, the earth is full of the glory of your love. May we your children, born of the Spirit, so bear witness to your Son Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, that all the world may believe and have eternal life through the one who saves, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
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!"
All readings for this Sunday:
1. Have you ever had a glimpse of God's majesty and power and awesomeness?
2. What image of God did you grow up with? Has it changed over the years?
3. How does your worship service convey both the transcendence and the nearness of God?
4. When has the light of hope grown brighter in your life and the life of your community, and the world beyond?
5. Where are the times and occasions of that light growing dim? What is our response?
by Kate Matthews
Perhaps the current over-use of the word "awesome" has diminished the power we once gave to the word "awe." We usually say something is "awesome" when we're impressed or enthusiastically approving of or appreciating it, but are we truly struck speechless, or suddenly and painfully made aware of our inadequacy, our smallness, let alone our brokenness and our sin? Hardly.
For this week's observance of Trinity Sunday, our text from Isaiah marvelously brings together a portrait of a majestic and truly "awe-some" God, limited as these words may be, and yet it also portrays a God seeking assistance, or at least seeking an agent to do God's will and to carry God's message, a message that will turn out, in this case, to be one of judgment. We always say we're called to share, to live, the good news, but this text reminds us that God's judgment is, at times, part of that message.
An opportune moment
Scholars don't agree on the significance of the timing mentioned (in verse 1) in setting the scene for Isaiah's vision: "In the year that King Uzziah died..."; however, James Newsome suggests that the powerful king's death explains why "the prophet is roused to activity by the Spirit of God" and "may have been a signal to perceptive persons that changes in the fortunes of the nation were on their way and that, in significant ways, Judah would stand in special need of God's grace in the years ahead."
If we think about it, we stand in need of God's word in every time, in every condition, but in this particular moment, it seems that the people needed to hear a particular word of judgment. Isaiah was chosen, and even volunteered, to fill that role.
Beginning with prayer
We might reflect on this text by drawing on the beautiful prayers of Walter Brueggemann in Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, where he acknowledges God as "holy...unutterable, dread-filled, beyond us...so unlike us"--and yet, we are called by this same God, "sent" and "authorized...to hard places, to tough times, to resistant circumstances."
In another book, Brueggemann describes the importance of the setting in which this holy and unutterable God sits: "We are here at the core of holiness from which is decreed all that happens everywhere in creation....The throne room of God is the policy room of world government. There is business to conduct. There is creation to manage. There are messages to be sent. The government of Yahweh....needs a carrier."
God, sitting on a throne
That's one way to look at this story: God is sitting on a throne, mighty and adored, ruling the world and attended by fearsome creatures who have to cover themselves and their eyes because they are in the presence of the Holy One. There is sound and size, shaking, smoke, and spectacle, flying seraphs and fiery coals. Now, that's awesome! And yet this God, unspeakably holy and great, asks a simple, practical question: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"
This is the story Isaiah the prophet provides to justify his call as a prophet. Prophets need call, or vocation stories, just as we do today. When a person presents himself or herself before a church committee, claiming a call to ordained ministry, for example, they had better be sure to have a clear sense of call. They might acknowledge that they've resisted the call, but that's okay. Isaiah and many other prophets did the same.
Who will go for us?
Still, lay and ordained people alike share a sense of a God beyond their words, beyond their imagining, this God who nevertheless has a task, a word, a path for them. This call seems far less like a command or authorization than a question, a wondering, an invitation. Who will go for us?
Isaiah's answer is immediate and clear, but first he faces a woeful recognition of his unworthiness before God: R. Michael Sanders notes that the prophet's reaction doesn't reflect fear for his safety so much as a deep awareness of his sin: "Isaiah seems not so occupied with death as he is with how he has lived life." The mark of a burning coal on his lips, ironically, conveys healing and reconciliation and preparation for the work ahead. We could say that in his "purification" for service, Isaiah experiences transformation.
Quiet or dramatic?
Some folks experience God's call as a quiet, intuitive experience, while others would describe it as dramatic, even fearsome, one that shakes them to their core. It's a paradox of our faith that the God of power and might is also the intimate, close-at-hand God who speaks to us in our loneliest need and fretful questioning. How eager has your response been to the opportunities God has given you to speak a word beyond yourself?
This text from Isaiah speaks to us, as individuals and as communities of faith, when we are prone to complacency and to the simple maintenance of respectability and even to just plain survival, rather than thinking of "glory"--the glory of God, that is. Brueggemann, in his prayers, notes the inclination of religious people, faithful people, to "arrange our lives as best we can, to keep your holiness at bay, with our pieties, our doctrines, our liturgies, our moralities, our secret ideologies, safe, virtuous, settled."
Still, God's "insisting, demanding" call, to which we may or may not respond well, is not simply one of commanding us as servants; rather, Brueggemann says that we are by God's "holiness made our true selves." So Isaiah's call, or rather, God's call to Isaiah, and Isaiah's fearful but faithful and humble response, leads him to his true identity as God's servant, God's creature, God's child.
Immanence or transcendence
Perhaps a church will stress immanence or transcendence, one over the other, or even neglect one entirely. Scholars note the similarities between the scene before God's throne here in this text and the order of many worship services, with praise ("Holy, Holy, Holy," we often sing) and confession and forgiveness, along with the charge to take God's message out into the world. If you stop and think about each part of your church's worship service, do you experience God as both transcendent and near at hand, present within your life personally and yet so far beyond anything we might describe?
There is a foundation-shaking reality behind our words and our actions in worship, an utter holiness beneath our feeble attempts to pray and praise such an awesome God. How do our liturgy and the beauty of our sanctuaries even begin to touch the hem of such a robe, a robe so great that it "filled the temple"? I remember many filmstrips from my Catholic religion classes that included this scene, with God (presumably, God the Father) portrayed as a king on a throne (often, God was a represented by a triangle with beams of light emanating from it, appropriately for Trinity Sunday).
Expanding our images of God
Even though that filmstrip picture of God as a king (old, male, and white) was obviously drawn from this text from Isaiah (as well as texts in Revelation), I found it difficult for many years to expand beyond those childhood images of God. So I wonder how the text speaks to those in our congregations whose minds will stick on that image of an old, white, male King on a throne and not hear whatever may be said about it; visual imagery, after all, is usually more vivid, more impactful, more compelling, than words.
I also wonder how this text is heard by those who are beyond our walls, those not--or no longer--part of a community of faith, who have experienced God's holiness and God's nearness in other ways and other images. Indeed, how much is God a part of our everyday thoughts? How much time and energy have we given to expanding and deepening our understanding of God, our images of God, our experience of God?
Too little of God?
According to Henry G. Brinton, "Our problem today is not that we grasp too much of God, but that we experience too little of God. But if we expand our hearts and minds so that we can encounter God in fresh ways, then we discover a Lord who is extraordinary, not ordinary." What are those "fresh ways" that we encounter God?
James Newsome beautifully ties together the notions of God's holiness, and God's call to each of us, for this holy God is "a God of justice and love [who] summons the people of God to live lives characterized by the same persistent principles." This God is no tyrant, no ruler by whim or temperamental tantrums: this God of majesty, of holiness and goodness and grace, is the same God who formed us in love, in God's own image, and set us in this beautiful garden to care for it; this is the transcendent God of the universe who holds us close and knows us by name. That is the "awesome" truth at the heart of our faith.
Art and transformation
I was pondering all these things when, fortuitously, a friend shared a post by Mary Chapin Carpenter on Instagram with a photo from the nave of Canterbury Cathedral. The musician/artist acknowledged that she mostly belongs to the "Church of Nature" but also loves to visit church buildings. She shared a picture of a work of art by Arabella Dorman that hangs in Canterbury Cathedral, with the appropriate title, "Suspended."
Chapin Carpenter and the notes on the display convey that paradoxical blend of an ancient holy site and the sacred contemporary reminder offered by "clothes and shoes salvaged from the [beaches and the camps of] Lesbos and Calais, having been discarded by refugees when they were offered clean, dry clothes." She evokes the suffering endured by those desperate travelers, "having survived multiple threats of hunger, thirst, hypothermia, drowning and unspeakable fear on their sea crossings." (Can any of us ever forget the devastating photograph of the toddler whose body "washed ashore" during his family's flight from danger in their own land?)
Take notice of the suffering
Mary Chapin Carpenter delivers a powerful message, just as the artist, Arabella Dorman, does--modern-day prophets who call us to repentance and transformation, awareness and action: "By bringing the hidden wearers of these garments into our immediate presence, you are invited to contemplate the real individuals behind the politics and the human stories behind one of the most defining issues of our time."
She also describes the light within the arrangement that shines with hope but also dims to urge us not to let these suffering sisters and brothers slip from our sight, our awareness, our commitment to justice and compassion and generosity and hospitality--all words that describe that holy, transcendent God and the call that we have been given. How will we respond, in our turn? May we say, too, "Here I am, send me!"
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles), with additional reflections on John 3:1-17, is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Huston Smith, 20th century
"Might we begin then to transform our passing illuminations into abiding light?"
Richard Bausch, Peace, 21st century
"He turned in a small circle and looked at the grass, the rocks, the river, the raining sky with its tatters and torn places, the shining bark of the wet trees all around. He could not think of any prayers now. But every movement felt like a kind of adoration."
Annie Dillard, 21st century
"I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you."
Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 21st century
"Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am."
Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island, 20th century
"For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God's will, to be what God wants us to be."
Albert Einstein, 20th century
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
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