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“What Happened There Happens Here”
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
If you take away the billowing smoke and trembling pillars, what happened to Isaiah, in the temple, happens to us, in the church. Subtract the flying seraph, scalding lips with glowing coals, and, what happened there happens here; the worship of God, the confession of sin, the assurance of forgiveness, and, at the close of Isaiah’s hour, and ours, a time of response, when the question comes, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” to which the answer rises, “Here am I, send me.”
What happened there, suddenly, happens here, slowly; our lives formed and shaped, not all at once, or once and for all, but week by week, year after year, across a lifetime.
As my old friend Cecil Sherman once said, “A lifetime in church is more sandpaper than dynamite.” Dynamite changes everything all at once, in a single big moment, while sandpaper changes things slowly, slowly, little by little; rubbing, rubbing, shaping, shaping, gradually, eventually; what happened there, for Isaiah, in a single, big dynamite moment, at the temple, happening here, for us, across a sandpaper lifetime, in church.
Of course, careful speech requires us to say that our lives can be, and often are, formed and shaped, for God and the gospel, in places other than the church, especially in today’s world, when so much theology, good and bad, is a livestream, blogpost or podcast away.
But, still, there is no substitute for gathering, with the people of God, for the worship of God. Being in the same space at the same time, week after week, year after year, with people we love and care for, many of whom do not think, vote or believe the same, but all of whom sing the same, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and pray the same, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” is its own kind of life-lifting miracle.
Not to mention what may be the deepest mystery of the worshipping community; the strength we draw from, and the courage we find in, one another’s presence when we are together in the sanctuary. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, there’s nothing in all the world quite like the strength we draw from, and the courage we find in, the people of God gathered for the worship of God.
Strength and courage which we find in here, and take out there; coming in here, over and over again, so we can go back out there, over and over again, to let the love which has come down to us go out through us.
We live that way beyond these walls, partly because that is the life for which we have been formed within these walls. We live lives of kindness, courage and clarity beyond these walls, partly because we have learned, within these walls, to read all scripture, and see all people, through the lens of, and in the light of, love; our hearts and minds, formed and shaped, across a lifetime, in the Children’s Department, the Youth House, Sunday School, Adult Studies; and at Wednesday evening suppers and Sunday morning worship, to know and understand that what matters most is what Jesus said matters most; that we love God with all that is in us and that we love all others the way we want all others to love us.
As a result of hearing that said and sung, week after week, year after year, within these walls, we have become people who, when we are scattered beyond these walls, live thoughtful, mindful, prayerful lives of kindness and courage, because our church has formed us into people whose God is love, whose creed is kindness and whose default position is empathy.
Unlike Isaiah, in the book which bears his name, that does not happen for us all at once or once and for all. For us, it’s more sandpaper than dynamite. And, even after all these years, we still fail at it.
But, that’s why we keep coming back; because what happened in one big moment for Isaiah, in the temple, happens, across a lifetime, for us, in the church.