In the Midst of a Cloud

Every now and then, if the door that leads from the cloister to the Parish House is not closed, and if we have an especially enthusiastic thurifer, and if smoke wafts from the church, through the cloister, past that doorway, into the Parish House, a loud alarm goes off (as happened here the other night).  It is a reminder to me that here at Saint Mark’s we have prepared ourselves (up to a point) for at least one aspect f the great vision of the prophet Isaiah, who sees God in his glory, seated on a throne, high and lifted up, and, Isaiah tells us… the ‘house was filled with smoke.”

To the dismay of protestants and asthmatics, we get close, every now and then, to recreating that one aspect of the scene in the prophet’s vision, in which he tells us that the many-winged seraphim are flying about and calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy!”  And, Isaiah says, the foundations of the thresholds are shaken at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics believed that this scene could be not so much re-enacted as evoked with the right kind of architecture, music, vesture… and with enough smoke.  They even went so far as to make reference to the more detailed and fantastic vision of the heavenly throne given to Saint John the Divine in his Revelation.  Unable to reproduce lightning strikes and thunder peals or a rainbow that looks like an emerald, they could at least hang seven lamps before the altar to evoke the seven torches we heard about in John’s Revelation today, which are, he tells us, the seven spirits of God.  And because they could, they did.

And you can be sure that they believed, in their 19th century, Anglo-Catholic Romantic innocence, that whether you could see them or not, the many-winged seraphim would and did, in fact, descend from heaven to hover over the throne of this altar, calling out to one another in tones too high for you and me to hear: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

It was not, I think, actually naivete on the part of those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics who built this place that caused them to think that with the right architecture, music, vesture, and with a bit of charcoal and incense, hey could evoke the image of the secret temples of God.  It was, instead, a conviction, an eagerness, that it is OK to try to enter into the mystery of God’s presence, his being, his love.  Indeed it was a conviction, even an eagerness, that it is helpful and necessary to try to enter into the mystery of God’s presence, being, and his love, especially if mere mortals were going to try to evoke not only the vision that Isaiah had, but his response to the call of God, the sound of whose voice causes the foundations of the thresholds to shake when he calls with grammatical precision, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Isaiah was no fool.  He was a Jew living in exile.  With his people he had been cast out of his land.  Like generations of Jews before and after him, his understanding of his community of faith was tied deeply to the land.  It was in a plot of land – a garden – that God first created man and woman.  It was to a piece of real estate – a promised land flowing with milk and honey – that God led Abraham and Sarah through the wilderness.  It was again to a promised land that God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  It was from that land, more or less, that Isaiah and the others with him had been ejected, and for which he now longed.

And if it was not to a specific piece of land that those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics felt called when they bought property on Locust Street, then it was at least to the temple of God that those ancestors of ours were drawn.  Knowing that God’s call go hither and yon was often anchored in specificity of one sort or another, they could at least set the stage for the sound of the One whose voice would shake the foundations of the thresholds when he calls out from the cloud, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Today, in many quarters, the belief in a God who calls to us – or any God at all, for that matter – is regarded with some derision.  God himself is regarded as a significantly less impressive figure than the one beheld in Isaiah’s or John’s visions.  A well-known writer is busily selling a provocative book called God is not great: meant to be an affront to those of us in any faith still foolish enough to proclaim that he is.  The New York Times Book Review gave that book an approving review a few weeks ago and I promise you sales are not bad.

And one can see why.  Fundamentalists from Lynchburg to Najaf and everywhere in between have done much, in my opinion, to give God a bad name.  The inane discussion (such as it is) about creationism versus evolution fuels sound bites in all the media, and makes people of faith sound like ninnies.  The internecine warfare in our own Anglican church sounds to many like just what it is: a struggle for power.  Why believe in God or participate in any of God’s religions if this is where it gets you?

Meanwhile, in Sudan, the slaughter that has taken a quarter of a million lives and driven millions of others into exile goes on – just to pick one on-going horror of the moment this morning.

And if we are going to gather in church on Trinity Sunday to assert that we believe in a triune God: three persons in one Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we ought to stop and ask ourselves what it matters.  About the doctrine of the Holy Trinity the church has had much to say: a lot of it confusing to most of us.  Even the prescribed creed that used to be said on this day to assert the truth of the three-personed God makes it clear that God in all his persons is “incomprehensible.”

So what are we doing here?

We are talking our cue from those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics, who were themselves taking cues from the fathers of the early church, who noticed how God spoke with plural personal pronouns.  More importantly, they took seriously the witness of the prophets, the deep connection to the land of Abraham and Moses that they read about in Hebrew scripture.  They did not turn aside from that witness when they embraced the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.  And they took seriously the gift of the Holy Spirit that they read about throughout the New Testament and that they experienced in the grace of baptism: life transformed by the love of God.

Those early church fathers taught about the Trinity – God in three persons – because it was the unmistakable way they encountered God in history, in scripture and in their own lives.  Yes, it all seems a bit incomprehensible, but after all it is God we are talking about here!

And we follow that lead.  We stand in the midst of a cloud of God’s mystery – believing that it is a good idea (if sometimes dangerous) to enter into that cloud.  We do it because we believe that in the thick obfuscation of that cloud there is not to be found an old, bearded man; nor is there an rejuvenated Jesus; there is not a swirling scirroco or a dancing flame – appealing as all these images may be.

In the midst of the cloud of mystery, there is, we expect, a voice that will shake the foundations of the thresholds that asks of us, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And we don’t know how to answer, except in dumb silence, unless we dare to stand for a moment at least in the presence of all that awesome Presence.

And when we do, do we allow ourselves to learn from those 19th century Anglo-Catholic Romantics something about the desire to know and love and praise as much of God as we are able to know and to love and to praise?  Do we want to know and love and praise, as I think they did, even the hidden parts of God (which I suspect is most of God)?  Do we want to know and love and praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit precisely because this is the way God has chosen to reveal himself to us… for reasons that we must admit are often incomprehensible?  Do we want to know and to love and to praise the aspects of God that we can only smell, or that we can only taste, or that we can only feel burning our eyes, stinging the backs of our throats, or tickling our noses till we sneeze?

God is great!  And there is more of God beneath a cloud of smoke than we could ever claim to see.

I am not qualified to explain to you the mystery of a three-personed God.  And the church has never regarded the mysteries of God in the same way as the mysteries of Agatha Christie: something to be solved.  We have instead regarded the mysteries of God’s love and God’s being as clouds that beckon us to enter in, even if the foundations of the thresholds shake.

It has to be said that it goes against the grain of our modern society to leave a mystery well enough alone.  It goes against the grain to create a cloud of obscuring smoke where the air is otherwise clear.  And it goes against the grain to answer that awesome question the way Isaiah answered it, without so much as a clue to where he was being sent: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

What did Isaiah know except that his eyes were burning with the presence of the Lord, his ears were ringing with the sound of seraphim’s winged song, his legs were trembling as the foundations of the threshold underneath him shook... what did he know?  Could he have even guessed that this was the voice of a triune God?  Would it have mattered?  Did he have any idea what he was saying or where he would be sent?  Wasn’t he scared and humbled and full of the sense of his own inadequacies?

And didn’t he stand there before the throne of God?  And didn’t he open wide as one of the seraphim flew to him with a burning coal to purify his lips?  And didn’t he surprise himself when he heard a familiar voice – one that sounded like his own voice – call out to the smoky Presence without any idea what his answer meant or where it would take him: Here am I, send me?

And what do we know except that the day could come when God could call us to help make peace in the world where the is none; God could ask us to bring the gospel of hope to men and women who have no hope; God could lead us to help end the sad divisions of our squabbling church…

… and should we have the grace, to answer as Isaiah did (Here am I, send me!) may we also have the grace to say when they ask us who sent us, that we come in the Name of the true and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Trinity Sunday, 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 3, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.