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The First Sunday after Pentecost - Trinity Sunday
May 31, 2015
The First Lesson: Isaiah 6:1-8
Sermon: "Perceiving God"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
The First Lesson:
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!"
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"
Have you ever heard these metaphors: he was so mad he was spitting fire; that music sounds so blue; she looks green with envy? For some people among us, those aren’t literary metaphors; they are real-life experiences. For instance, when Carol Crane was a child in first grade, she mystified her teacher and her classmates when she wondered aloud why the number five, displayed in a row of other numbers above the chalkboard was yellow, when it should be green. To everyone else in the room, the numbers were just black lettering on white cards.
Her question sounded silly to her classmates who laughed, and was vaguely disturbing to her teacher who felt that it didn’t make any sense. Carol learned to keep her mouth shut about such things. She didn’t know then that there were others like her for whom the sound of a doorbell looks like a series of triangles, or a dog bark causes a circle with dots around it to appear in her vision.
Today, she knows that she is blessed, or afflicted depending upon the perspective, with synesthesia, a condition that causes about 1 in every 25,000 persons to synthesize emotions with colors, and sounds with objects, and sights with tastes. Synesthetes, as they’re known, tend to see sounds, smell colors and taste shapes. When a synesthete hears the sound of a truck backing up, making a beep-beep-beep sound, he or she might see the beeps as a series of red dots. In a string of numbers, the 5’s may be experienced as a different color from the 2’s. Circles smell different from squares, and sour foods sound different from sweet foods.
People like Carol are hot-wired to join several senses together as altered building blocks of perception. I learned about this ability because our daughter, Meghen, is a synesthete. The condition is seven times more common among artists, novelists and poets. If you consider that most of the metaphors we use in our language came originally from artists, musicians, and poets, we might suspect that much of what think of as clever metaphor only, was first literally experienced as reality by those folks. People with this ability seem to experience the world with more intensity, and they make unexpected connections between things they see, touch, smell, taste and hear, all of which is a real asset to people involved in creative work.
But this isn’t an experience that is limited to synesthetes. To some extent, the majority of us can approach this at times. For instance, when you close your eyes and look at the year behind you or ahead, do you experience the seasons or months in particular colors or shapes? That one’s pretty common. Some have suggested that the color-coded liturgical year may have been the creation of such experience. Even whole groups of folks can experience mixed sensory perceptions together when under great emotional stress. Last week’s lesson about the experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit recorded a highly emotionally charged event where all the disciples saw tongues on fire as they felt the powerful wind. Here’s a thought…just because such perception is altered from the norm, doesn’t mean that the norm is correct. Just a thought!
So, consider, this morning, the prophet Isaiah. When God commissions him to “Go and say to this people” (6:9), he experiences a riot of sensations that trigger emotions of both fear and awe. He sees the Lord “sitting on a throne” (Isaiah 6:1). He hears one seraph call to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” (v. 3). He smells the smoke that fills the house of the Lord, and feels the pivots on the thresholds shake (v. 4). He even tastes the live coal that the seraph puts on his mouth to blot out his sin (vv. 6-7).
Granted, this may have been a vision rather than synesthesia. The voices of the seraphs didn’t appear to him as the shape of triangles, nor did the coal on his lips evoke a sense of sound. But Isaiah’s perception of God lifts him into such a heightened state of sensory awareness that he contracts what we might call a case of spiritual synesthesia!
This is clearly a more sensational encounter with God than most of us experience on a given Sunday in church. Our perceptions of the Lord are usually on the level of quiet stirrings, not thundering spectacles. And yet, we cannot dismiss the experience of the prophet Isaiah, a man who grasps new dimensions of God’s power and purity and grace and love through his expanded sensory perceptions.
Our contemporary problem is not that we grasp too much of God, but that we perceive too little. In America today, God is seen as marching in step with our political parties, with controlling social agendas, and with our national interests. God is understood to desire our prosperity, and to support, in the words of the Prayer of Jabez, the enlargement of our territories. It is these perceptions of God that are causing so many of our young people to turn to other sources than the church for spiritual food, if they don’t walk away from God altogether.
Even when God is perceived as a calming presence, a supportive friend, and a healing helper, even these truths can be worked together to pacify and simply maintain the status quo. While there is great truth to these latter characterizations of God, they are not the whole truth. They certainly don’t match the experience of Isaiah in his moment of spiritual synesthesia.
With his sensory perceptions racing on overdrive, Isaiah sees a Lord who is holy, high and lofty; on a throne, lifted up. He is far above all political parties, and much more pure and perfect than any human institutions. The one true God cannot be shoehorned into a particular earthly program, or forced to get in line with our personal or national interests.
In fact, the opposite is true: Our goal should always be to get ourselves in line with God. For that to happen, we need to have a synesthetic perception of God, one that may be baffling but blessed, perplexing but powerful.
And so, this morning, we come to the ultimate, synesthetic perception of God: the Trinity. Isaiah’s experience actually points us to the triune God. The “Holy, Holy, Holy…” of verse three has traditionally been regarded as a theological marker of the triune nature of God; a new, synthesized perception of God. Here, God is a divine community of persons. This perception is of a single God, one single being, but in this case God is one single community of persons in that one being. This is certainly a mixed sensory perception. Within this community, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit work in concert to harmonize the work of creation, redemption and sanctification. Within this community, God shows both almighty power and suffering love, reveals grace and truth in Jesus Christ, and offers inspiration and new life in the person of the Holy Spirit.
This perception of God is so powerful, that it changes our understanding of what it means to be us, singly and together. If God is community, united in mutual love and shared purpose, then we, who are created in God’s image, can be a close-knit and cohesive community as well. If God’s community is creative, then ours has power to be also. If God’s community is full of grace and truth, then these are qualities that we can show. If God’s community offers inspiration and liberation and transformation, ours can be no less.
But, how do we get there? How do we become the reflection of this image of God in which we have been created? First, Grace! When we enter the Triune God’s presence, we not only perceive a community of persons, but we also encounter a God of grace. Isaiah’s first response to his encounter with God is: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (v. 5). He perceives a burning coal pressed to his lips as he hears the words, “Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (v. 7). The progression is clear: He sees God, he sees himself, and he receives absolution.
It’s a multisensory journey to spiritual wholeness. When we see God, we cannot help but see ourselves. In our cry for deliverance, a God of grace touches our hearts with burning coals of love and forgiveness. (Burning coals of love and forgiveness…now, there’s a synthesized mixed-sensory experience!) But, now, in that touch of forgiving grace, we are never the same. Grace draws us to become a community that reflects the image of God in which we have been made.
There’s one thing more that gets us there in becoming this reflection of the image in which we are created: Service! Forgiveness sets us up for service. The voice of the Lord calls to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!” (v.8). Isaiah knows that forgiveness has freed him to go in a new direction, not to return to his former ways. He believes that new life is being given to him so that he can serve God, and so he offers to go in whatever direction God will send him.
What do you think God has forgiven you to do? The world still needs prophets, of course; those courageous souls willing to deliver the message “Thus says the Lord” to a society that is quick to block out divine words. But, the world more often needs teachers and counselors, healers and helpers, and people of vision and energy and integrity in every line of work and endeavor that is being performed today. So, be a computer technician with compassion; a business person with Godly vision; a politician with a heart of self-sacrifice; a school administrator with a mission to build community; a retiree with a sense of discipleship.
These qualities may not seem to be an obvious or predictable fit. But that’s spiritual synesthesia. That’s our challenge: to expand our perception: to catch the vision of the Triune Communal God; to experience God’s grace, and answer God’s call to serve.