Sermon: The Year Everything Shook

The theme of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness represents a life-long search. Yesterday the sermon below reappeared from a lost  thumb-drive. Like Be Still!’s first chapter, “Of Tides and the Ocean,” the metaphor is the shoreline. Here’s the sermon preached at Olivet Congregational Church in Saint Paul, MN in 2004 on the text of Isaiah 6:1-8. “On the Shore of Time” was the original title.

It’s not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes. Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina, nine years old than I, and the abundant, tangible evidence of my mother’s love.  Old Table represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

“The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.  His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “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!” – Isaiah 6:1-5.

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past”:

            Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

Then I thought I heard the Lord’s call to Isaiah in the temple, asking “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN,  January 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON THE SHORE OF TIME

Gordon C. Stewart

October 17, 2004

 

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 104:1-4, 24-35

Luke 12:22-34

 

It is not uncommon for people to have a favorite spot for peace and mediation.  Mine is a rock in Rockport, Massachusetts.  For as long ago as I can remember I have perched on Old Table Rock on Old Garden Beach.  The rock was large to a child’s eyes.  Big enough for my cousin Gina and I to saunter down the street to Old Table to spread out the feast of gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches my mother had made for the just the two of us.

 

In part, my fondness for Old Table Rock no doubt was the companionship of Gina and the abundant evidence of my mother’s love.  It represents a kind of safe place hard to find in this world.

 

But that memory is only one of many memories of sitting on the rock.  When I sit on Old Table I am much more alert – and, at the same time, peaceful – than is normal for my anxious soul.  As a teenager Old Table offered a familiar place that knew me when my body was much less complicated than it had become.  It was a place that never seemed to change in spite of the waves that lapped or crashed against it, secure on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s ever-changing tides and currents, protecting the creatures that nestled beside it in the tide pools but never keeping them from going back out to sea.

 

I would sit on Old Table and watch the world go by: the great sea creatures, the lobsters and the crabs, the star fish and the periwinkles, the seaweeds and the mosses, green and yellow and the waving red kelp, the seagulls hovering over a lobster boat returning to the harbor or a single gull perched on the rock next door, waiting in vain hopes that we would throw it the sacramental elements of peanut butter and bread the signified my mother’s love.  It was a magical place.  Actually, not magical at all.  It was a place to ponder reality as it was and as it could be.

 

If Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the Temple, I saw the Lord high and lifted up by the edge of the Atlantic.  It is as though the world had stopped.  And the vast ocean that reached farther over the horizon than my eyes could see or my ears could hear was a mere teacup in the hand of the Creator.  The whole earth was filled with God’s glory.

 

When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, it was the year that King Uzziah died.  It was a time of national crisis.  The people had lost their king.  After years of comfortable living, everything was in flux.  Everything was swirling.   But in that anxious moment for the people of Judah, Isaiah turned his eye to something else.  He turned his eye to the One whose throne is in the heavens, high and lifted up, the mere train of whose robe fills the temple.  Just the train, the outskirt of his robe, just the hem of his garment, completely fills the temples human hands have made.  This is no domesticated god.  This is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who spun the planets and put them in their places.  And Isaiah saw the heavenly creatures covering their faces from the glorious light of God’s holiness, hovering above the throne, singing in chorus a song of praise:

 

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

The whole earth is filled with his majesty.”

 

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

 

All this was in the year that King Uzziah died.  It was the death of the old earthly king that cleared the way for Isaiah to see the heavenly King, the Lord of hosts.  Perhaps it could have been said of Isaiah and his people that their lips were unclean because they had forgotten the King of kings and had relied instead on Uzziah for their peace and security.  Perhaps their lips were unclean because of Uzziah’s arrogance.  Or because they had not had the courage to speak their own truth to the old king.  Or perhaps their lips were unclean because no human mouth is ever quite capable of expressing the praise properly due God’s Name.  Perhaps Isaiah was thinking along the lines of Soren Kierkegaard who recoiled at the banality of his conventional Christian countrymen for whom morality was the highest virtue, but who never felt a even a twinge of awe or reverence.  Perhaps Isaiah could say of the lips of his people in the year that King Uzziah died what Kierkegaard would later say of his Danish countrymen:

 

Their ethics are a short summary of police ordinances; for them the most important thing is to be a useful member of the state, and to air their opinions in the club of an evening; they have never felt homesickness for something unknown and far away, nor the depth which consists in being nothing at all, of walking out of Norreport with a penny in one’s pocket and a cane in one’s hand…” (The Journals, July 14, 1837)

 

In the year that King Uzziah died, the state itself was in jeopardy.  There was a growing sense of homesickness for something unknown and far away, a sense of the depth of the threat of being nothing at all, of having nothing but a penny and a cane in one’s hand.  Everything was at risk.

 

It had been Uzziah who had mended the defenses of Jerusalem.  It had been Uzziah who had reorganized and reequipped the Judean army.  It had been Uzziah who had won and maintained control over the caravan routes to the South.  It had been Uzziah who had extended Judah’s frontiers at the expense of neighboring Philistines and Edomites.

 

When Uzziah had become king at the age of 16, a tutor named Zechariah had “instructed him in the fear of God” (2 Chronicles 26:5) and Uzziah had found favor in the eyes of God.  But somewhere toward the end of his 53-year reign, the king’s pride led to his own undoing (26:16).

Here’s how the Chronicler of Second Chronicles tells the story of how the great King Uzziah became a leper.

 

“But when (Uzziah) was strong he grew proud, to his destruction.  For he was false to the Lord his God, and he entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.”  Burning incense in the temple was the sole responsibility and privilege of the priests, whose role Uzziah now usurped.   His political and military grandiosity now spilled over into spiritual entitlement and boundless authority.  Uzziah no longer needed the priests.  Uzziah no longer needed anybody but himself, and perhaps the God whose blessing he could commandeer by offering the incense.  There was still a part of Uzziah that was homesick for something unknown and far away. But his habits as commander and chief confused him into believing that everything was within his control.

 

Well, as the king entered the sanctuary of the temple – the place where only the priests had authority to enter – to burn the incense, “Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense.  Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.’

“Then” says the Chronicler, “Uzziah was angry.  Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense.  And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead!  And they thrust him out quickly, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him.  And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper dwelt in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21a).

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah, by way of contrast, stands humbly in the temple.  He smells the sweet incense offered by the priests.  He sees the Lord high and lifted up.  He is struck dumb by the infinite distance between all human claims to power and authority and the power and authority of the King of kings and Lord of hosts.  He feels the foundations shaking, senses that he is lost and cries out “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

 

Who of us has not shared something of Isaiah’s and Uzziah’s experience?  Who of us, like Uzziah, has not confused God’s favor for a blank check to do our bidding?  Yet who has not sensed the imponderable distance between God’s holiness and our unworthiness?  Who of us has not been jolted and jarred by the infinite distinction and discrepancy between the majestic holiness and rule of God sung by the seraphim and our banality as thankless children of privilege? Who of us has not felt the foundations of the threshold shake?  Who of us has not smelled the smoke and whispered, if not cried out loud, with Isaiah “Who is me!”

 

Ours is a time like that.  No king has died.  But there is a sense that things are out of our control.  There is also the sense that those who would lead us and those who campaign for them have used religion to further their own political ambitions.  Where are the eighty priests who will call them up short to stop them from burning the incense on a national altar. And, if truth be told, we are as angry as Uzziah was the day he broke out in leprosy.  Anger eats away at our souls.

 

 

Troubled by the impending death of a dear friend and mentor, and angry about an election that seems to slay truth more often than honoring it, Kay and I recently welcomed the opportunity to spend a few days with some old friends on the shores of Lake Superior.

 

The days on Lake Superior were reminiscent of the days in Rockport.  The granite rock formations, the clearness of the water like the clearness of the North Atlantic of my childhood.  Walking to the point of rocks that reminded me of my favorite place to meditate, my eyes fell upon a fragment of jawbone, washed white by the lake that had washed onto the shore.  I picked it up and cupped it in my hand as if its life had been my own.

 

Sitting on the rock, the animal fragment and I sat in the gentle stillness and rhythm of wave on rock.  I held in my hand the tiny physical reminder of a creature once wild, searching, finding, running, pulsing with life, now long since gone, and contemplated what it was and how it went.

 

Did you love this vast lake as I?  Enjoy its calm?  Scurry for cover in a storm?  Did you once sit upon this rock in stillness and wonder?

 

Did you stare, transfixed, into the endless motion of this inland sea and wonder how it came to be, and who you are to be a witness to it all, a tiny, momentary witness to it all?  Did you smell the sweetness of the temple’s incense?

 

Did you ever watch the rock and waves, lost in wonder at the beauty and the miracle of having eyes to see it just for today, just for now?  Did you ever hear the seraphim’s song that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory?

 

Slowly as I meditated, the distress and importance of this election slipped away as insignificant.  The liturgy of lies and half-truths, of innuendo and character assassination gave way to an older hymn of the Christian liturgy, Isaac Watts’ “Our God, our help in Ages Past.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.

 

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Soon bears us all away;

We fly forgotten as a dream

Dies at the opening day.

 

 

Waves lapping,

Swelling, washing over Rock

Impervious, indifferent

To all change,

No dreams dying or forgotten.

 

Rock and water,

Yin and Yang,

Solid and fluid,

Changeless, ever changing,

Bear us all away.

 

One swirling, constant movement

Quarks on quarks in symphony,

Storm and calm, dark and light

Play each upon the other

All in motion without emotion.

 

On the shore of time

A jawbone relic of what once was

A creature of the movement

Lies in whitewashed stillness,

Inert, returning quark to quark.

 

Our God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Be Thou our guard while troubles last,

And our Eternal Home.

 

In the end, there is only the Holy One whose train fills the temple.  Therefore, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to your span of life?

 

“Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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