"Holy holy holy"
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
May 27, 2018—Trinity
Isaiah 6:1-18; John 3:1-17
Since his “star turn” at the Royal Wedding last week, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has been the focus of a whole lot of attention, and it’s been very interesting to see the scope of reactions. Many, clearly, were almost insultingly surprised to hear a sermon they found engaging and positive. But there were also voices that dismissed his sermon about the saving power of love as “Christianity Lite.”
I’m not actually sure what “Christianity Heavy” would be for those people. Did they want to hear more about sin? That is, do they feel the message can only be preached from the “Don’t do this” angle, rather than the “DO do this!” perspective? Do they perhaps think that everlasting life can only begin after death, and aren’t interested in our current world transformed by people choosing to follow the ways of Jesus? Or maybe there wasn’t enough emphasis on Jesus as the one and only way to achieve salvation, and to hell with everyone else?
It occurs to me that these possible concerns all boil down to one underlying question: What is the purpose of Religion? I have this very conversation all the time, as you might well imagine. And it can easily turn ugly, especially when someone has a stake in a particular answer to the question.
With the non-religious, the battlefield often rests on what it takes to “be a good person.” They’re belligerent in insisting that someone can be moral, honest, and compassionate without the aid of scripture, savior or deity. And they’re almost disappointed when I agree that yes, of course they can. None of us succeeds entirely, and I certainly think it’s harder by yourself, but still: it’s possible.
Frankly, I think their question is trying to make religion too small. It supposes that the purpose of religion is to control behavior: to provide convincing models and consequences for what you are supposed to do and not do.
Religion does indeed provide a grounded framework for individual and corporate sin and righteousness. But to completely reduce it to that ignores the ways in which the religious impulse has been within us since the dawn of civilization. Before we were writing codes of law, we were already reaching and wondering. Seeking answers and explanations for things that are beyond us. Attempting to construct protection against things that frighten us.
And so we imagine ways in which things might have come to be the way that they are. We imagine how the world was created, and in that mythology we express deeply held beliefs about the value and purpose of all things. We contemplate the sun and the moon and the stars; we experience the seasons of growing and lying fallow; we encounter disease and death, healing and birth; and we try to make sense of them all. These things are beyond our control and sometimes our comprehension. They are powerful and mysterious, and so we write stories to explore and teach the ways things work.
And when the stories aren’t enough, when accepting that these things happen doesn’t feel like enough in the face of things that terrify us, we seek protection. Like an amulet. Like a spell or incantation. We offer gifts to whoever might have control over these powerful forces of death and destruction. We offer promises and prayers. We offer unwavering allegiance and unswerving loyalty.
It makes sense. There is so much we can’t fully understand, and WAY more than that which we can’t control. And so we do what we can to make sense of it all, and we allow ourselves the illusion of some small measure of control. Do this, and this will happen. Don’t do this, and you’ll avoid that result. By this, we make it possible to exist in an extremely complex world with a fairly complex brain.
We survive, mostly, by telling stories. And frankly, we never stop. Humanity finds its way through life by telling different kinds of stories, over and over again. So we tell stories about being in love and stories about being abandoned, stories about being brave and stories about being devious, stories about confronting good and evil impulses within ourselves. We tell stories about sin and repentance, stories about death and resurrection, stories about being cut off from and re-connected to God and others
We tell stories, because stories are the means by which humans explore and make sense of things, and because they are the most powerful way to pass that understanding and insight on to those around us, and to future generations. Stories work on us somehow, entering our hearts and minds not just to explain but to form us. Through those stories, we touch something beyond our own individual experience, beyond our own needs and interests. Through the stories, we reach through the veil toward some larger context, purpose and direction.
We tell stories. And it must be admitted that some of those are about what happens after we die. Why? Because like the planets, the seasons, the world, and the weather once were, death is a thing that lies beyond the reach of our human knowledge and experience. It scares us and it fascinates us, and so we wonder about it. We imagine what it might be like, and just maybe we attempt to protect ourselves against it.
So yes, religion has always been concerned with what happens after we die. But our fear and wondering about death is not religion’s only purpose. What happens after we die exists alongside all the other fear and awe and making of meaning that comprise religion. Like that earth-shaking, heavenly vision we get in Isaiah today, in which the very angels cry out HOLY HOLY HOLY.
This vision is an attempt to put words to one of the central purposes of religion: the sensation of the Divine touching the human, of having been brought into the presence of total and utter Sacredness, brought to the foot of the throne, brought to full knowledge of your smallness, your brokenness, your createdness, your belovedness.
Holy. Holy. Holy. Echoing the overpowering reality of something so far beyond our senses that it intoxicates us. Holy, holy, holy. Expressing our longing to reach out and explore and wonder. Holy, holy, holy. Ushering us into the mystery, into the delicious human desire to touch the More that lies beyond the This, and to feel that More reach back.
It is a hunger that lies at our very bone and sinew. It is an admission that this universe is beyond our full comprehension. It is an exploratory spirit that leads us ever further and further out … and further and further in.
Because we are a wandering and a wondering people. Because we yearn for holiness. And because we know that the very best way to touch holiness (to come to the foot of the throne) is by continuing to live in relationship with God and each other, and to keep writing and telling the stories.
This is the core of the religious life, from which all other aspects spring. And what has any of this got to do with the Trinity, you may ask? My friends, I have to tell you: this hunger for relationship IS the Trinity! And may we never stop feeding that hunger. Amen.