Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
May 31, 2015
Isaiah’s vision and calling is one of the most foundational spiritual experiences in the history of religions. We have the Buddha sitting under the Bodi tree experience Nirvana, Moses and the burning bush, Jesus at his baptism, Mary and angel Gabriel, Muhammad in his cave, St. Theresa of Avila and her Interior Castles, Martin Luther King and what he called his kitchen experience, and Isaiah before the throne of God. I list these moments because these people went on to shape the history of religion and spirituality.
Beyond just reading Isaiah 6, we have tried to approach the experience through music. “Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty” echoes the words of the seraph announcing the majestic nature of the ineffable, incomparable God. Add in a soaring melody, solid bass line, a nod to orthodox Trinitarian theology and you have a hymn for the ages. Add in the choir anthem for “Here I Am Lord,” the words of Isaiah’s response, and together these hymns can put us in an elevated spiritual and emotional space to hear this scripture. But it is still second-hand spiritual experience.
What is perhaps missing from the hymns is Isaiah’s terror and bewilderment. For this we need something like HBO’s Game of Throne’s. Isaiah stands before the Iron Throne and God is like a larger version of Calisse, the Mother of Dragons. Isaiah is terrified watching dragons swoop around the room and shouts, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Just try to imagine one of the dragons coming at you with a hot coal ready to touch it to your lips. Is Isaiah paralyzed with fear? My instinct would have been to duck. This is why Isaiah is the Major Prophet of the Bible, he allowed a seraph approach and I wonder, even though this is a vision, did it still hurt? When God says “Your sins are cleansed, now who will go for us, whom shall I send?” did Isaiah have struggle to move his burning lips and form the words, “Here I am! And send me some lip balm, for God’s sake.”
I’m speculating here to make this point. Isaiah’s experience of God is beyond easy comprehension, impossible to totally explain or extrapolate theologically. It is more than the warm feeling of awe and wonder when we see a rainbow while standing on a hillside. God is certainly in the beauty and wonder of a sunset, but when you see a seraph calling out “Holy, Holy, Holy” we are into the realm of mystery, a “mysterium tremendum,” a God that cannot be fit into a box of our own making and understanding and comfort. Isaiah could not ever look at the world the same again, and I imagine his lips burned the rest of his life. This is that man who wrote, “The lion shall lay down with the lamb, and let the swords and shields be turned into plowshares and pruning hooks, there shall be blossoms in the wilderness and every valley shall be raised and every mountain caste down.” Can’t you imagine Isaiah rubbing his lips after writing these words? Jesus quotes more from Isaiah than anyone else, he is the Bible Jesus read.
And how many times did Isaiah think, “Did all that really happen?”
What makes a spiritual experience real? Was it God or, as Scrooge said to the ghost of Christmas, “You are just an undigested piece of beef causing this nightmare.” There is no simple answer because God is God and beyond our knowing and speaking, and there are so many various ways the Holy One is made known to us.
Our Monday lunch Bible Study is reading Marcus Borg’s last book, Convictions. We just finished a chapter entitled, “God is Real and Is a Mystery.” Borg describes the first and most important spiritual experience of his life. It came at a time when he was engaged in intense theological work for his doctorate and was experiencing the disequilibrium often felt at some point during seminary. Borg grew up a Lutheran in the Midwest with a clear set of moderate traditional doctrines about Jesus. His cornerstone beliefs were Jesus died on the cross for our sins and the point of church was to experience the forgiveness of sins and to get to heaven. And Jesus did not care too much about earthly problems or politics. Upon serious study and reflection Borg began doubt this theological synthesis of the church he knew and therefore he began to doubt God was real.
So one day Marcus Borg is driving across rural Minnesota in a MG roadster convertible (which sounds like a spiritual experience!):
The light suddenly changed. It became yellowy and golden, and it suffused everything I saw: the snow-covered fields to left and right, the trees, the yellow and black road sign and the highway itself. Everything glowed. Everything looked wondrous. I was amazed. I have never experienced anything like that before…At the same time, I felt a falling away of the subect-object distinction of ordinary everyday consciousness-that “dome” in which we experience ourselves as “in here” and the world as “out there.” … I saw the connectedness, experienced it. My sense of being “in here’ while the world was “out there” disappeared. Convictions, p. 37
I imagine Borg’s vision of light and connection shaped his theology. He was able to push beyond traditional doctrine and speak a fresh new way about Jesus with confidence because he had actually “seen the light.” He was not afraid to let go of old categories of theology, because he was not losing his God. It’s a very different vision than Isaiah’s throne, but both writer’s experienced a momentary sense of Holy presence and a loss of self-importance. Free of this burden, they did bold things.
As we shared about this in our group, some of us identified our own experience of God, which were of a very diverse nature. Two people spoke of moments singing in the choir, and being in the rapture of all the voices and harmonies together, losing the boundaries of self for a moment. Another person prayed in a time of loss and felt an arm of comfort from nowhere come over their shoulder. This week while thinking about Isaiah, I was out for a walk and the person I was with said, “God spoke to me last night.” And the next day Vanessa said I had a visitor, and the person said he had not been inside a church for 30 years, but something moved inside that he needed come inside and talk.
I am always moved by how many people have had a power moment of mystery in their lives and never spoken of it. Who would believe that they, average Christian in the choir or the back pew, heard God for a moment? And it has been the seed that has quietly grown and shaped their whole lives. Yet we all wonder, was that really God?
Someone asked, what if you have never had one of these experiences? Since a vision is by nature from the mystery of God, I can’t give any advice on how to have one. It is not something we control, though many try. But I would affirm that the core of spirituality is moving beyond and stretching the self, overcoming divisions and hostility, and connecting to others. When some of our travelers to Haiti speak of how they are touched by the others who are resilient in the face of poverty, isn’t that a spiritual experience? When we share liturgy together, when we march together for justice and peace, seeking to live in right relationship in our community, families and marriages, this is the core of spiritual practice. God is known in community. So the real question of faith isn’t whether you have had a vision or not, its whether you answer the call in scripture which all of us have read, “Whom shall I send?” You don’t need a vision to know the answer-“Here I am, send me.”