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Everything is never as it seems…

February 7, 2010

The hard work of covenant community…

February 7, 2010 (Epiphany 5 C)


Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Song: Owl City, Fireflies (butcher paper) What is the feeling of this song? What’s it about?

I think it is about dreams…perspective…

Vision and the stories that inspire vision are powerful drivers for human beings. It was so for Isaiah, Peter and Paul—it is so for us.

Isaiah has a transcendent vision that transforms his life.  It is a vision which peels back the curtain of separation between heaven and earth…between time and eternity.  It is a vision of the Lord. In seeing the Lord, Isaiah also sees the earth in a new light.  His own humanity—his unclean lips…and “where he is from”—a people of unclean lips…the earth full of God’s glory…

Think of a vision that has changed your life.  Have you had one?  I have.  There wasn’t smoke or seraphs, wings or a throne.  The scene was quite ordinary—the back steps of the Philadelphia YES training center.  A conversation…  Out of that conversation on the back steps began to unfold a vision (of love) and a story that has transformed my life.  Visions have a way of doing that. Visions and dreams pull us in with a power that transcends comprehension.

Isaiah and Peter tell us the same story—the transforming power of encountering the holy. In Isaiah the story is told in the idiom of vision. It is liturgical language—involving seraphs, wings, smoke, the throne of God. In Luke’s gospel it is narrative—involving ordinary fishing boats, nets…the sea.

We are working on vision as a LT and as a congregation. These texts provide valuable orientation as we think about a God-centered vision for worship and mission that integrates the physical and the spiritual. Our vision is not just about getting people to heaven. It is about bringing heaven on earth. That’s why we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We tend to think about these two realms as being separated somehow through time and space. Isaiah and Peter tell us a different story.

Isaiah sees a picture of heavenly worship already happening. The temple is filled with the acclamation: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The scene is the liturgy of heaven ascribing holiness to God, yet even the earth is full of the glory of God. Revelation 4 recapitulates this heavenly liturgy. Verse 8 describes a scene where “four living creatures, each with six wings, full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’”

This heavenly worship is reflected in the shape of the liturgy that is the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church every Sunday—gathering to do the work of the people through the divine liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the Trisagion Hymn the Priest says: For You are holy, our God, and to You we give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever… The Deacon responds: …and to the ages of ages. The People respond: Amen. Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us (3). Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen. Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

This is the liturgy Sunday after Sunday, not because it is what market-driven Christianity is looking for, but because they are attempting to synergize with the worship of heaven here on earth. Visions…liturgy where we enter into communion with the holiness of God are not about us. Isaiah 6 is not a formula for seeker-sensitive…relevant worship. This is not java-jacket God packaged in ways that is palatable to our modern consumer sensibilities. It’s just not. This not even about being inspired…it’s about being changed.

Encountering the holy God of heaven is a fearful thing, because it threatens our small constructs of God which usually validate ourselves, our tribal stories, the idolatrous scripts we have bought into.  If we truly see God, we too will say:  Woe is me!  

The liturgy of heaven is about God-centered worship.  The worship we see here is not about an “experience”… it’s about God.  So, along with Isaiah, are invited to get our eyes off ourselves and contemplate the holiness of God.  As we do so, our vision (our nous) is cleansed over time and we are able to see ourselves and the world around us more clearly.

No doubt Isaiah 6 describes a nous-cleansing experience for Isaiah.  The nous–cleansed by encounter with holy God–is able to see glory all around us in the earth.  The glory of the Lord in snow covered trees and houses.  The glory of the Lord in neighbor helping neighbor clear driveway and sidewalk.  The glory of the Lord in meaningful work.  The glory of the Lord in the exquisite mastery of the guitar…. The glory of the Lord in 10,000 fireflies…in sexual intimacy between husband and wife…  The glory of the Lord in butternut squash soup.

When we don’t regularly participate in the liturgy the eye of our soul remains closed…clouded.  We remake God into our own liking…one who accomodates our consumer needs—our preferences for worship.

Without a vision of the holiness of God—sex is just sex, food is just food, relationships are just something we use as long as they benefit us, the earth is just resources we use to turn a profit, even worship is just something to meet our needs.  Everything becomes mundane, cliche, profane…fleeting vanity.  There is no glory…no transformation. 

The Good News we see in each of our texts is that God who is holy comes to us in our weakness. God allows us to see our uncleanness, God meets us on a Damascus road even when we have persecuted the church, God takes the futility of our fishing efforts and allows us to experience the grace of full nets. And when we experience this grace, we are transformed over time.

Yet, we see that encountering God—the holy—and having our unholiness exposed is never easy…and it is never something we do on our own. It requires a willingness to reject independence…and embrace the humble, vulnerable, messiness of covenant community.  The organic…relational context for encountering God is both implicit and explicit in our text from 1 Corinthians.  But, first back to the story of the vision that emerged on the back steps of the Philly YES Center.

Called to Covenant Community (implication)

There is a second picture that tells the continuation of the earlier picture. The vision of love unfolded and eventually took Heather and me from a backsteps conversation to an altar in a rural Louisiana church to make covenant. For any vision centered in God to mature we need to learn what it means to be covenant community.  Whether in the covenant community of marriage or church–this takes hard work. 

The hard work of submission to another, a willingness to learn where another person is from and how our stories can weave together in a way that reflects the glory of God.  It takes “buying in” as a fully committed member of a God-centered communal story.  

We live in a culture that wants the vision of Love and the encounter with Jesus without the exacting demands and drudgery of covenant community.  We settle for cheap counterfeits rather than submit to covenant community. Because this is so, we see much that does not express the glory of God in every aspect of human life.  We see much that expresses the vanity of pursuing the passions.

I Corinthians 15 witnesses to what it means to participate in covenant community…to place ourselves within the community that witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul says:  For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ…” and goes on to name the specific (organic) community within which that witness took root and spread.  This was not just a “spiritual” vision, it was grounded in a particular historical community that encountered Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection.  

The question is this:  How are we like Paul placing ourselves organically/relationally in covenant community?  And how is our community not just driven by market-Christianity and cultural reductions of Jesus?  How are we in relationship with the community Paul names?

Covenant community involves mutual submission to each other in ways that will not just move on to the Next Thing when relationship is painful.  It will mean that we are willing to be in relationship with others who stretch us and make us feel uncomfortable for many different reasons.

Covenant community is the people we gather with (and those through whom we have received the witness–Paul) for worship.  We gather as a covenant community to join with the worship we see in Isaiah 6.  In the process, the live coal, the living bread, the stone that crushes us together so that we can be bread for the world…  The liturgy sends us back into the world.  We see this in our texts as well.  

Whom shall I send?  Fishers of men and women…  Authentic encounter with the holiness of God sends us into the world. Encounters with the holiness of God along the lines of Isaiah 6, Luke 5, or any given Sunday at SMC should not produce a movement toward isolation from the world.  Rather, we are sent back into every nook and cranny of creation to embody that which we have experienced in worship. We go with renewed compassion and mercy because we have seen our own brokenness our own limitations in seeing what Jesus is up to in the world. 

May our response to the God who calls us into covenant community of love be one of humility.  And may our encounter with the holiness of God in covenant community shape us for our ministry of presence and hospitality with Others in the world.  To God be the Glory. AMEN.

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