February 10, 2019, Woe Is Us – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000119
When was the last time you were filled with awe? By “awe” I mean that sense of wonder – that joy or delight that is so intense it’s almost a kind of fear, because the thing or the person or the place we encounter is so far above and beyond our normal day-to-day human experience.
I remember when I visited the St. Louis Cathedral a little over a year ago, I literally gasped in wonder. I couldn’t help myself. The immensity of the space, the beauty and intricacy of the mosaics that cover the walls and the domed ceilings, the silence, and the holiness of that place, all those things together, filled me with awe the second I stepped in the doors.
Sometimes I feel that kind of awe looking up into the sky on a cold, moonless night, when the stars are burning so fiercely, and there are so many of them, more than you could possibly count, and I am suddenly fearfully and joyfully aware of just how big this creation is that we live in, and how very small a part of it I am.
I have found the experiences of birth, and of death, to be moments of awe, as well, though obviously in very different ways. Experiences of awe and wonder take us out of ourselves. We forget ourselves, we get lost in the joy or the solemnity of that moment.
But it is a little different to be struck with awe in an encounter with a person. In our day and age it’s very seldom that we encounter a person who fills us with awe. For the most part, we are acutely aware that all people, no matter how much we admire them, are still human beings like us. The nearest I could come to thinking of people who would fill me with awe if I should ever have the great good fortune to meet them might be people like Pope Francis, or Bishop Desmond Tutu, because not only are they good and holy men, who have done things I admire very much, but they are also public symbols and representatives of the kingdom of God on earth.
If we can imagine coming face to face with one of these great men, our awe would feel a little different than the awe I felt, when I stood in wonder to look at the night sky. And there is one obvious reason for that – because when we encounter a person, we don’t only see them, we are also seen by them. And so, at the same time as we are filled with awe at their greatness – we are also struck by our not-so-greatness. We find ourselves, in fact, in an agony of self-awareness. We wish we were wearing something more appropriate, or at least, less silly-looking. We wonder if our hair is sticking up weirdly as it so often does. On a less superficial level, we suddenly recall something we recently said or did – some nasty remark, some small dishonesty – but now it seems so much bigger and so much uglier in the presence of this person who just radiates goodness and godliness.
In the presence of a genuinely awe-inspiring person, unless we are people of incredible humility or insufferable pride, all our petty self-consciousness and all our perfectly reasonable shame comes crashing down upon us, so that along with our joy and wonder at being near them, we are also filled with dismay and self-loathing.
But now, imagine that instead of a human being, instead of Pope Francis or Bishop Tutu, the person you had come face to face with was God himself. Because that is exactly what happened to Isaiah and Peter in the readings today.
Isaiah tells us about a vision he had one day in the Temple. In his vision he saw God seated on a huge throne, so huge that the hem of God’s robe filled the whole Temple. And he saw six-winged angels, Seraphim, flying above God, and singing. These were not your collectible-type angels, with their fluffy nightgowns and sweet voices and pretty faces; these were terrifying creatures of immense power. The whole Temple shook with the sound of their singing, like an earthquake. And in the vision Isaiah was filled with awe, by which I mean he was scared witless. And he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”
We might have always imagined that if we came face to face with God we would be filled with joy and lost in ‘wonder, love, and praise’, but Isaiah is here to tell us, it’s not what you might think. We have only the dimmest notion of the glory and the power and the goodness and the holiness and the sheer immensity of our God. And unless we are very silly indeed, the truth is that our reaction, if we were to come face to face with God in all his glory, our reaction would be a lot like Isaiah’s: sudden terror, and overwhelming shame. We would almost certainly fall on our faces, and just like Isaiah, we would cry out, “Woe is me!” Or something very similar.
In the gospel reading today, when Peter saw the miraculous catch of fish breaking the nets of his boat; it dawned on him, like a clap of thunder, that this man, Jesus, was something much more than a mere preacher or prophet, (though he didn’t yet know exactly who or what Jesus was). Still, just then, with even that smallest glimpse of the reality of who Jesus was, Peter was suddenly filled with terrified awe, and he fell on his knees at Jesus’ feet, and he cried out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Most of us have heard this story about Peter a billion times, starting from our Sunday school days when we colored in pictures of fishing boats, and played fishing games, and our teachers told us that being fishers of men meant inviting our friends to church. But how often have we stopped to think about, and to really consider, Peter’s reaction of terror? “Go away from me, Lord!” What was that all about?
Our experience of God is generally a comfortable and pleasant thing. Our worship every Sunday is filled with beauty and solemnity. Our sanctuary is a lovely and holy place. We savor the richness of familiar hymns, and prayers that have been handed down to us from generation to generation. We handle the holy and beautiful things of the Eucharistic meal – the silver and brass, the bright candles, and the pure white linens. It is a wonderful and holy experience, every time we come together to worship God.
But if we were to catch a glimpse of the reality beyond the comfortable and familiar holiness of our worship; if we heard just a snatch of the eternal worship that is offered continually before the throne of God, just as we pray at communion when we join “our voices with angels and archangels, and all the company of Heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name, ‘Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!’”
If we did hear those angelic voices singing in chorus with us, it would shake the walls of this church, and we would be cut to the heart. We might even fall on our faces in terror. Because in our day-to-day existence in this world we have only the dimmest and flimsiest concept of how fearfully good real goodness is. We have only the most feeble understanding of the boundless grace of our Father in Heaven – what G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God”. There is a reason why angels and messengers of God in the Bible are forever telling people: “Fear not!” The mere goodness of God is way more than we can handle with our feeble human comprehension.
I could certainly have preached a more “practical” message this morning. It is surely important to notice that both Isaiah and Peter were sent out, fresh from their cataclysmic encounter with the divine reality, to bring God’s good news to a world in shadow. Your Sunday School teacher knew what she was talking about. But this morning I wanted to meditate together, just for these few minutes, on the breathtaking goodness and power and majesty of our God, who is so much bigger and better than we will ever fully know. My hope is that this morning we can share some small part of the awe that Isaiah and Peter felt in the presence of the Almighty God.
Because this is the great mystery of our faith: that the eternal, almighty God of fearful majesty and awesome power and perfect holiness is the same God who chose to be born as a helpless baby, to live among us, to suffer all the sorrows and limitations and indignities of our human condition, and to lay down his life out of his great love for us. And it is that same God whose Spirit has come to make a home in our hearts. Now you are the Temple of his glorious presence.
I’d like to invite you to pray with me now, in closing, Canticle 21 on page 95 of the Book of Common Prayer:
You are God: we praise you;
You are the Lord; we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
All creation worships you.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you;
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
you did not shun the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting.