“Is it Math? Or is it Mystery?”
A Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Year B; preached May 27, 2018, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
I’m curious… when you walk in to this space on a Sunday morning as we gather for worship, what do you notice? What do you first notice or most notice? Even for any of you who have come here for the very first time today, what did you notice as you entered into this space, this place?
<time for responses>
<talk about the SCC space, as appropriate based on responses>
Physical space has a pretty big impact on me. This is something I’ve noticed about myself over the years—both in general and more specifically as it relates to churches and other religious spaces. The exact same worship service—the words, the music, the actions—will likely feel different to me in different spaces. What feels grand, uplifting, and soul-stirring in one space might—to me—feel tiresome and dreary in another. Likewise, something that feels intimate, friendly, and engaging in one place might feel to me awkward, trite, or even embarrassing somewhere else.
A little over a month ago, some of you gathered together with me over in the Parish House Lounge—many thanks to our Women’s Fellowship for organizing the event—and we spent some time talking about space and its different aspects. Style, size and proportion, layout, light, symbols, sound, and so on. We looked at a whole bunch of pictures of different churches and worship spaces I visited over the course of my sabbatical leave this past fall, places as close to here as Hebron and Manchester and as far as London, Geneva, and Berlin.
One of my favorite parts of that conversation was when we were looking at a few different worship spaces of our own very same tradition—United Church of Christ congregations of Congregationalist heritage here in Connecticut. You compare this room we’re in right now to some of our sister congregations near by—we looked at pictures from the Gilead Congregational Church in Hebron, but you could make some of the same observations about First Church just down the road in Mansfield Center, or about the Congregational Church just a couple towns over in Bolton… you step into these different spaces, and they feel different—even though they’re of the same tradition and are inhabited by similar congregations. In fact, in this case, they even have the same basic style—a stereotypical New England Puritan Meeting House aesthetic, with clear glass windows and most everything painted white. Nevertheless, what feels fitting and at-home in the relatively grand proportions, formal layout, and elegant decoration of this Meeting House here in Storrs is different from what feels fitting and at-home in the intimate—or perhaps even ‘cramped’—proportions and even-more-plain design of the Gilead Church in Hebron, for example.
Now, I know that not all of you here today have seen this other church over in Hebron, but you can use your imagination, I hope, perhaps based on the various other church buildings you yourself have seen or worshipped in over the course of your life. Or, if Storrs Congregational Church is the only place you’ve had experience with Christian worship, maybe you’ve been here on one of those Sundays we’ve had to move our worship from here over to the Auditorium due to cold temperatures—it usually happens at least once each winter. Inevitably, even though many of us have experienced it at least a few times before, I always hear comments from people about the different feel of worship in the auditorium—with its different proportions and with our usual habit of arranging seating in a semi-circle rather than straight-on rows.
Anyway, seeing all of the different spaces that I saw this past fall left me wondering about the different experiences of God that people have, simply based on the realities of the spaces they inhabit for worship. Does the intimacy and simplicity of a space like the Hebron church or our Parish House Auditorium make for a different experience not just of worship, but of God, than the grandeur, formality, and elegance of this space does? Do we understand where God is differently if seats are arranged in straight-on rows versus a more in-the-round setup? Do we conceive of what God is like differently if windows are clear or they are colorful, if sounds reverberate or they don’t, if the “Word of God”—and the words about God—get proclaimed from upon high or from down within our midst?
Particularly for those of us who usually worship in traditions and spaces like ours, the sort of experience of God that Isaiah speaks about in his vision tends to be a bit of a challenge, I think, for many of us to imagine. A celestial, heavenly temple with high and lofty throne; flying angels in attendance, singing back and forth to one another songs of glory; thunderous sounds and billowing smoke… Sure, we here in this Meeting House get treated to some thundering from our organ, but otherwise our typical liturgy in this place—regardless of how formal or not it may feel on any particular Sunday—probably feels a bit removed from the truly rapturous transcendent experience Isaiah seems to be describing.
It’s hard to say how lined-up this vision was with any of Isaiah’s previous experiences of God. On one hand, perhaps the sort of ritual performed in the Temple in Jerusalem—King Solomon’s Temple, in all its renowned glory—gave Isaiah a framework for this vision. On the other hand, though, as we heard just now in the reading, when Isaiah was confronted with this vision, he feels… lost. “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!”
How would any of us feel if we were greeted by this kind of vision and experience of God ourselves? Would we feel awestruck or fearful? Would we feel at home or lost? Would we feel comforted or challenged?
Whatever set of feelings we might have as we experience such a vision of God, such a vision hopefully stands as a reminder to us that God refuses to be boxed in. In whatever ways we conceive of God as being like us, the truth is that God is the “Holy Other”. And, at the same time, whenever we think of God as being distant and hidden and inaccessible, then God invites us, even us, into the temple to see the glory and feel the presence.
That is, in fact, part of the good news I hear proclaimed in the voices of those six-winged seraphs. Do you remember? In the midst of this transcendent, ecstatic vision of a grand and lofty temple, the seraphs proclaim an even grander and loftier reality: “the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.” The whole earth(!). We might try to separate God out of our lives and out of this world, up in “heaven” somewhere—wherever that may be—boxed in and walled off. But the truth is, God’s glory fills the whole earth. In the quiet rains and the whirling winds. In the whispers of comfort and the shouts of protest. In the rustle of leaves in the woods and in the bustle of people in the city. The whole earth—full of God’s glory. Full of that “holy, holy holy” energy that causes the thresholds to shake and the angels to fly. Full of the force that causes lift itself to be, and to become, and to be renewed.
And in the midst of that holy temple that is—as it turns out—the whole earth, there we find ourselves, bathed in the glory of God’s presence. And even in our awestruck trembling, that very presence calls us—even such ones as us. God welcomes us, invites us, calls us… the God who refuses to be boxed in, and yet chooses to enter into us. And that, my friends, is worthy of our greatest praises.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.