“A Vision in the Temple” / Isaiah 6:1-8 / 27 May 2018
A vision in the temple, a vision in the night, a vision at a time of national upheaval, with the death of a beloved and long-reigning king. This is a vision that becomes a calling for the young Isaiah. It’s a horrible vision in some ways, with these flying monsters of the six wings and their otherworldly voices. It’s a frightening vision with its enthroned God whose very fabric—the hem of whose garment—fills all the living world. It’s a dream, an apparition, a revelation of holiness, and indeed that’s the earthquaking song of those horrific beasts: “Holy, holy, holy!” “Other, other, other: set apart, sacred, not to be taken for granted.” For holy does not mean morally pure; it means “other than what we know or think we know, transcendent, ineffable.” And how do we get to the holy, to the other, if our hearts and minds are always stuck on the same? How do we arrive at other (holy) possibilities, other (holy) truths, other (holy) ways of seeing our lives and our world except in Isaiah’s vehicle of imagination?
As you might know, in May when I’m putting in the vegetable garden, I listen to old podcasts of the NPR radio show “This American Life.” It’s easily my favorite radio show, now that Garrison Keillor has gone the way of whitewall tires. I listened recently to an episode in which an accomplished professor and researcher in some scientific field told about his escape from Bosnia as a child during the genocide and war in the 1990s. His family had been ethnic Muslims, though they were avowed atheists. When the Croat militias came after them, they escaped, except for his father, and they ended up coming to the US as refugees. He arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, with nothing but a library book that he had borrowed back home and intentionally stole, a novel in Serbian called The Fortress. He remembers life in Atlanta as a waking hell. He and his mother were made to live in public housing. He attended a school where, he claims, he was mocked and picked on and bullied for being a foreigner and for being white. He had only one friend, another Bosnian kid with whom he had nothing in common, but they banded together for sanity and safety. His best comfort was the book he’d stolen from the library back in Bosnia. It was lyrical and soul-stirring. It strummed on the cords of his imagination. And though his life at school was a torment to him and a source of constant anxiety, he would come home each evening and do his best to translate this wonderful novel into English.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to recover this episode, so my details about this fellow’s life are fuzzy. I can’t even recall his name. But he talks about this public school as if it were the worst of all possible places. There was no discipline. The teachers didn’t care. The other students were hostile. He was one of only ten white kids, and constantly under assault. But one day he arrived in English class to find that the regular teacher had gone away on leave. The temporary teacher was a young woman with an imaginative approach to teaching. This teacher only stuck around for a week or two. But in her short time there, she gave them all pictures from magazines and told them to write essays about the pictures. He got the photo of a sad-eyed young man with a faraway look in his eyes. And because his English was still pretty basic, and he didn’t know what to say, he plagiarized a section of his favorite Serbian book, The Fortress. It was a sad and an eloquent passage about the sameness of life, the dread dullness, the endless expanse of November gray, the cold chill of knowing that there’s no hope for change. He turned it in. The temporary teacher thought it was brilliant and told him, “You’ve got to get out of this school!” She arranged for him to get financial aid and admission to a prestigious private school, which enabled him to go to Yale, and become a great success. And he owed it all to a Serbian novel and a temporary teacher who disappeared into the folds of history.
Of course, nothing is impossible for the editors of This American Life, and though all they had to go on was her last name, they did eventually find the teacher, living now in West Virginia and long-since retired from teaching. She remembered the student; he was the most brilliant kid she’d ever taught. And without telling her his version of the story, they asked her to tell hers. The differences were uncanny. She did not remember any outstanding essay—the thing on which his whole story hung. All she knew was that this kid was very motivated and smart. He could diagram sentences with mathematical precision, and understand literary themes, and pick up on the subtleties of language and style. More than that, she said the public school where she taught wasn’t all that bad. Many kids had gone on from there to attend Ivy League universities. There were more than ten white kids. It was 40% African American, 40% Asian, and 20% white. (The radio show editors checked, and she was right.) And she wasn’t just there for two weeks. She was his English teacher for a whole school year.
Of course, This American Life arranged a happy reunion between teacher and student. The now-successful scientist and professor who attributed all his success to a stolen book, a plagiarized essay, and a kind angel of a teacher who came, rescued him then disappeared? To him, all his good fortune came from outside of him, despite his own failings. He was actually devastated to learn that the story he’d been telling himself for all these years was wrong. In fact, he didn’t believe the teacher. He thought maybe she’d gotten the details wrong, even though the few facts they could verify proved her right. She said, “Essay? There might have been an essay. But if there was, that wasn’t all there was. He was a smart kid, and he could have stayed in public school and gone just as far in life.” In other words, his good fortune had not come entirely from outside of him. He had the raw materials of it inside himself all along. And his story had to change drastically. He had to reimagine everything about his life, his ability, his worth.
That’s hard! It’s just that we tell ourselves things and soon enough, our stories take on a precious character, and we don’t want anyone messing with them. What if some divine narrator, some long-time observer, maybe your guardian angel (if such there be), could sit down with you for half an hour and tell you the true story of your life—not as you remember it and as you tell yourself it happened, but as it actually did? Our lives are at least in part the imaginings that we’ve built up around the things that happened to us. Our lives and the people we become are at least in part due to the power of our imaginations, and the stories that they’ve spun out of the actual events. For where logic fails us—as it often does—imagination comes fills in the gaps. I daresay, faith is in large part imagination, for imagination alone can see things that might be, rather than the things we always assumed were. It’s quite difficult to take when we learn that we’ve been imagining the wrong things, as in the case of the Bosnian immigrant. But still imagination is good, for it is the only thing that can take us from the same to the other. “Holy, holy, holy, other, other, other.” Here in our high-tech, low-tolerance culture in the West, where we hate everyone who disagrees with us or who tells a story different from our own, perhaps our great flaw is a failure of the imagination. We’ve got too little imagination to see the things that could and ought to be. We’re too stuck on all the sameness of the things that are—or that we think are. We’ve got so much invested in the things we’ve been telling ourselves for all these years that we are not able to reimagine other possibilities. Imagination can fool us, but it can also heal us. In these days of deep division and conflict and strife, let us open ourselves to new possibilities for ourselves and for our world. Let us use our holy imaginations to envision new things.
This is a starkly beautiful but also fearsome vision in the Book of Isaiah. “In the year that King Uzziah died,” [Uzziah was one of the few good kings, just and kind, who ruled for five decades; the people must have felt lost when he died.] In that sad year of uncertainty about the future, “I saw the Lord.” [No one ever saw the Lord; the very idea was ludicrous, maybe blasphemous.] “I saw the Lord high and lifted up, and the hem of God’s robe filled the temple.” [Is this to say the very fabric of God’s presence suffused the air that people were breathing? You won’t hear about the hems of garments again until the Book of Mark, when an unclean woman reaches for the one attached to Jesus.] And then, to me, the most horrible thing of all in this haunted vision: “Seraphs were in attendance” [Seraphs? Not cherubs! These things are not exactly pretty.] “Each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet,” [which is a euphemism for their netherparts], “and with two they flew.” [These gruesome creatures are flying around the temple blind like bats, with their eyes covered. They sound like a thing out of Dungeons and Dragons!] “And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory’.” And the whole place shook with the otherworldly power of their voices. The world trembled at the sound or the truth of their song. It’s a song we’ve been singing ever since—at least each time we take communion. “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might! Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. Hosanna in the highest.” But this word “holy” doesn’t mean morally pure, as most imagine—as in “holier than thou.” No, it means “other,” other than what we suppose, other than what we know, other than ourselves—mysterious, ineffable, sublime. And the only way to escape the sameness of what we think we know is in the vehicle of imagination.
Today is known as Trinity Sunday, which usually falls just about the time things go simple here at the church. The choir and bell choir are done till September. I’m flying solo up here on the chancel. It’s too hot for the big black robe. On one unhappy occasion I did try to preach a sermon about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday. That was a mistake that I will not soon repeat, for the concept of Trinity doesn’t fit well into a sermon. It’s more a matter of imagination than logic. When early Christians sensed something holy in the person of Jesus, they had to come up with some way of explaining it. God alone was holy, and in some mysterious way Jesus participate in the life of God in a special way; Jesus must be a part of God. The imagination reached for a thing the faculties of reason could not attain, and it gave us the Trinity: three ways we experience the mystery of the holy as Majesty, as Friend, and as constant Presence. But that’s just what the human imagination does. It fills in the gaps where our other faculties fail us. It creates possibilities where there would seem to be none. It sees things other than they are or appear to be. Isaiah had imagination! His night vision in the temple is a whole new and troubling way to understand God, the “Other.” The early Christians who came up with the word and the concept of the Trinity—they had imagination. But us with our noses pressed to glass screens at all hours, us with our two-to-four weeks of paid vacation, and our TV hospital dramas, us with our daily grinds and our routines and our false belief that things in this world must make sense! Maybe the crack that runs through all things in this world, and through our lives, dividing our world and breaking our hearts, maybe that universal crack is a lack of imagination. We want so badly for things to make sense that we’ll enforce a sense on them that could be altogether wrong. As people of faith, people of a different way of being in this world; as people who know that all human faculties are flawed, including reason, let us turn from time to time to our holy imaginations to find a way forward.
In the middle ages, the pope decided to evict all the Jews from Rome. The Jews challenged the pope to a debate. If the Jewish rabbi won the debate, they could stay. If the pope won, they would leave. But it was agreed that the debate would be entirely without words. And so, the pope and the rabbi sat facing one another. After a while, the pope held up three fingers, to which the rabbi held up one. Then the pope gestured at the air all around, to which the rabbi pointed at the ground in front of them. Then the pope produced bread and wine, to which the rabbi produced an apple. The pope said, “This guy is too good. The Jews can stay.” The cardinals later asked the pope what had happened. He said, “I showed three fingers to represent the Trinity, but he reminded me that God is still one. Then I gestured all around to say that God is everywhere, but he reminded me that God is present right here. Then I showed him the elements of Holy Communion to tell him that God forgives our sins. But he showed me an apple to remind me that we all bear the mark of original sin.” At the same time, the jubilant Jews asked the rabbi what he’d said to the pope. He said, “The pope showed me three fingers to say that we had to leave Rome in three days. I raised one finger to say that not one of us would leave. Then he gestured all around to show me that the whole city would be cleared of Jews. I pointed at the ground to say we’re staying right here. Then I don’t know. He pulled out his lunch and I pulled out mine.” (That is the only joke in existence that even mentions the Trinity.) The pope and the rabbi failed to understand each other because neither of them had any imagination.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Other, other, other. And the only way from sameness to otherness is on the wings of the imagination. There are possibilities for your life that you have not yet imagined. There are perhaps ways forward for our world that we have lacked the imagination to see. There are joys undiscovered, truths as yet untold, wonders yet unrevealed because we have trudged through life like oxen made to walk in an endless circle to grind grain on a stone wheel. Your imagination, too, is a holy thing, and it can open you to a deeper, richer, saner, happier life. In short, a holier life. But you have to exercise it. You have to put away the gadgets from time to time. You have to go to places that make you ask questions about things. You have to sit alone and in silence. You have to talk to small children. If your holy imagination is to help you makes sense of life where logic fails, you have to read poetry, or listen to music, or try your hand at a little art. You have to think about God—the bigness, the otherness, the oneness of God. You have to open your spirit to things that might be. “Holy, holy, holy, other, other, other.” And the only way from same to other is through the imagination. Amen.