I wonder if you are ever struck by the strange things we say and do here on Sunday morning—the silence before the service, the dressing up in vestments and processing, the singing, sitting and standing, the saying certain repeated phrases such as, “The Lord be with you…And also with you.” It’s all pretty elaborate. ‘Why all the fuss?’ you might ask. Why all this formal business called worship?
And there are words we use all the time here that I’m guessing most of you would be hard put to define. Take, for example, the word “holy.” “Holy” is a word that speaks of the mystery, the strange otherness and beyondness, of God. It goes back almost to the beginning of the Jewish faith. “Be holy, for I am holy,” God says in the Book of Leviticus. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” one of the Psalms says. “You are the holy one of God,” Peter says to Jesus centuries later. Just a few minutes ago we sang that old standard hymn, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” What is all this holiness about?
Now let me guess…For some of you your hearts may be sinking, at least a little. Maybe you came here this morning looking for practical advice—three steps to better behaved children, four ways to get over a broken relationship, five steps to closing the gap between the rich and poor. And if that’s what you’re looking for, then chances are that hearing a lot of talk about holiness may not sound so exciting.
But Christian faith is not first of all about being practical and useful. It is about encountering an immense, overwhelmingly mysterious God. It’s about glimpsing something so deep, so rich, so grand, that it makes our words seem like tin cups thrust under Niagara Falls, overwhelmed by the reality they are trying to contain.
That’s why what is happening in the prophet Isaiah’s vision in the Temple in our first lesson is so important. There inside the vast, smoke-filled temple, the veil between this world and eternity parts, and Isaiah sees into the heart of reality itself. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty,” he says. He sees six-winged angels, calling to each other in the words we call the Sanctus, which we sing every week in our Eucharist:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the heart of reality, the vision tells us, is an endless song of joy and praise. The whole temple shakes at the sound of the words. Who knows what exactly Isaiah saw, except that it was a shattering experience? He saw into the holiness at the heart of everything. It was as if he had looked away from the trees and stones shining brightly around him in the day’s light, and gazed directly into the sun itself.
Isaiah encountered God. It was an experience of awe, wonder, and adoration in the presence of a reality vastly greater than any he had thought or imagined. Sometimes we catch glimpses of that holiness in moments of awe and reverence—walking on a beach, or listening to a Beethoven symphony, or holding a new grandchild. My guess is we’ve all been with people in times of great joy or terrible loss when we knew without a doubt that we were standing on holy ground.
To be holy originally meant to be set apart, to be wholly other. The scriptures were clear that God’s ways are beyond our ways, and so the holy things of God were set apart things, and increasingly they were seen as mysterious and even powerfully sacred. Moses stood on “holy” ground when he encountered God. “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him,” another Psalm says. And God’s people came to be called a “holy nation” and a “holy priesthood.” All these came to possess some of God’s own sacred power.
Just last week I heard a firsthand description of an encounter not so different from Isaiah’s. Stuart Kenworthy, who is Rector of Christ Church in Georgetown and our close neighbor, spoke in an address to our Diocesan Convention about his first experience walking into this Cathedral. He was then a Methodist minister serving an inner city congregation in Philadelphia, and he and his wife had come down for the day just to visit this place. He said he remembered wandering around in a state of awe—at the grandeur of the building, the beauty, the arches and the play of light. It was overwhelming, he said. And he remembers standing over near the Holy Spirit Chapel and saying to his wife, “This place is so holy. I would love to be part of a church that knows this as home.” And he went on to say that his predecessor at Christ Church, Sanford Garner, another dear friend of this Cathedral, was himself converted as a boy of 12 or 13 by simply standing in this nave, at a time when there wasn’t yet even a roof over the place he stood. But there, gazing up at the vast, unfinished arches, he experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s presence.
But for all the depth and holiness of the God of Christian faith, we are living in a time when there seems to be a conspiracy against holiness. In the place of the God Isaiah encountered in the temple we are seeing a steady stream of nice, comfortable, domesticated versions of God. Our age seems to have been on an earnest quest to shrink God down to manageable size.
In a recent book called Soul Searching, which is about the religious lives of American teenagers, the authors describe what seems to have become the predominant religion of our time for teens certainly, but also for adults. It’s called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Its beliefs are simple:
- A God has created and watches over life.
- This God wants us to be good, nice, and fair to each other, which is what the Bible is really about.
- The goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.
- God doesn’t need to be much involved in your life except when you need God to resolve a problem.
- And finally, good people go to heaven when they die.
That is the religion of a nice God who wants us to be pleasant, respectful, responsible people ourselves—a flattened out, lifeless, harmless God, who will never call or confront us with a grander, more demanding vision for our life than we had imagined. Religion is mainly about feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace. And happily God is easy-going, since his job is to solve our problems and help us feel good about ourselves. As the authors put it, “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: [who] is always on call, takes care of any issues that arise, helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
At one time Christians were clear that the purpose of life was to “glorify God.” Now the tasks seem to have been reversed. Increasingly it has become God’s job to glorify us, to help us find the fulfillment, the success, the happiness we seek on our terms.
We also see God co-opted these days—as the god of the conservative agenda, and the god of the liberal agenda. There is a provocative new book that wants to get us to see how subtly God is being co-opted in an array of ways. The long title says it all: God Is Not…Religious, Nice, “One of Us,” an American, a Capitalist. The holy God we meet in our scriptures and in our worship cannot, the authors say, be counted on to endorse the ways that we arrange our lives. God’s righteousness, compassion, and justice stand in judgment over every dimension of our lives.
That is why worship is so essential. We need regularly, steadily, to be brought into the presence of this awe-inspiring, strange, even fearsome God. We need to gather in a place that stretches our worldview and opens our eyes to the depth and glory around us. We need to learn and relearn how to adore, to open our hearts in awe and wonder; how to praise God for the beauty of the world and the depths of God’s unshakable love; how to offer thanks for every breath we take.
And that is why we need this odd business of worship, even with its strange formality. When we worship here we are on holy ground, and so we are careful how we speak and what we do. We bow in reverence, we make the sign of the cross to dedicate ourselves, we greet the holy in each other when we pass the peace. This is brash behavior, this dealing with the ultimate power in the universe, so we shouldn’t do it lightly. Annie Dillard once wrote that if we really acknowledged what was going in church, we wouldn’t come here without crash helmets.
For all the intensity of Isaiah’s encounter with the holy God, the story doesn’t end with his ecstatic vision. Just the opposite. “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.” To look into the holiness of God, to see God’s endless love and beauty, is immediately to be struck by how far short we fall from the perfect love he is seeing.
But the story doesn’t end there. God acts to close the gap between divine holiness and human brokenness. An angel holding a burning coal touches his mouth and cleanses his sin. And then God speaks to him and says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!”
The same thing happens in our gospel story today. When Peter sees the immense catch of fish comes from being with Jesus, he has his own experience of being overwhelmed by holiness. He throws himself down at Jesus’ feet and exclaims, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” And then Jesus reaches toward him saying, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” This God encounters us as holy, which then exposes our fear and inadequacy. And then God reaches toward us to forgive, to heal, and to call us and send us.
I don’t think there has ever been a time when our world has more needed to rediscover holiness and all that comes with it—awe, reverence, adoration, and praise. In this country holiness is becoming increasingly rare. The more busy, driven, and self-absorbed we become, the more we lose the sacredness of our lives. And without a keen sense of a holy God, we lose our capacity to see the holiness in each other, in the world around us, and in the most vulnerable.
Human sexuality, for example, has become increasingly a transaction in which two consenting adults provide pleasure to each other. But that is far cry from the holy vision of sexuality as one sacred human being giving the supreme gift of himself or herself to another in the context of a lifelong commitment. Or, think of the level of violence in our entertainment, and the degree of violence in our culture. Increasingly it seems that nothing is sacred. And according to Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, in the Bible destroying nature isn’t just bad stewardship or foolish economics, it’s blasphemy. It is flinging God’s holy gift of this earth back into God’s face as of no worth beyond maintaining our wasteful lifestyles.
Our whole world is suffering because of a loss of holiness. As Andrew Harvey, a contemporary mystic put it:
There is a worldwide famine of adoration, and we are all visibly dying in it. The desolation, nihilism, meaninglessness, tragic and brutal carelessness and perversity we see all around us and in us is the direct result of living in a spiritual concentration camp in which we are starved, and have starved ourselves, of just that food our hearts, minds and souls need most—the food of worship, of love, of gratitude, of praise, the bread and wine of adoration.
Both of our lessons show us a holy God. And then Isaiah and Peter have a decision to make. Will they follow and learn more and go deeper? Will they say yes to their call?
Why not ask the holy God to speak to you? Why not listen to the words of scripture, sing the hymns, receive the bread and wine, and let God’s holiness reach through them directly to you. Perhaps here in this temple you will catch a glimpse of the Lord high and lifted up, calling you by name and sending you out to serve this world in Christ’s name.
The scientist-theologian Teilhard de Chardin once said that in the end there are only two options for humankind: adoration or annihilation. Either we honor the holy, and the Holy One, in our midst, or nothing will be sacred any more. The choice is ours.
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”