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. 2Seraphs 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. 3And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And 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!’
6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The 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.’ 8Then 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!’
This is the only memory I have of my father’s conflict with my home town’s Nazi leaders. I was seven or eight years old; a girl in my class walked up to me and gave me some stamps in a small cellophane envelope. She asked me to give them to my father, saying it was a gift from her father.
I took the envelope home, but when I gave it to my Dad, he became upset and asked Mom to join him in his study. When I was old enough to understand, they told me that the “gift” had been a set of mint quality stamps showing the profile of Adolf Hitler.
It all started in November of 1963, when (on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Reichskristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass), my Dad told the “fathers” of Wesselburen (Dithmarschen) from his pulpit that their idolization of their “native son” Adolf Bartels had gone too far. Bartels, dead since 1945, had written novels rejoicing in the blood-and-soil mysteries of Dithmarschen as well as a mass of dreadful anti-Semitic propaganda.
The xenophobic farmer clans of Dithmarschen had quickly embraced the racial myths of the Nazis, fueled by the works of writers like Bartels, but a disturbing Bartels renaissance was underway now, in the 1960s. It wasn’t enough that Bartels, an honorary citizen, had a street named after him: now the officials erected a Bartels monument in the Christian cemetery, proposed to rename the primary school after him, and promised to re-issue his works for the edification of young people.
After Dad’s sermon (“A man who must bear far more guilt even than Adolf Eichmann and his henchmen is Adolf Bartels whose writings have fueled anti-Semitism all over Germany”), the war was on. When the town’s city council called for my Dad’s transfer to another parish, Dad called his dean; the dean, however, told him he was not going to get involved in such things and advised him to “leave those nice people alone”.
My parents told me how some of those “nice people” turned outright hostile and even dangerous. The episode with the stamps given to me for my father is just one of many. Here’s another one: One day Mom went out for groceries, with me at her hand and my sister in the stroller; as we entered a bakery, the owner walked up to her and said, “If you and your children ever come back here, something bad will happen to you.”
Even though my father didn’t have the support of the church hierarchy, he found allies in six young high school teachers and a history professor. Along with obscene anonymous postcards sent by his adversaries, long letters of encouragement from all over Germany arrived almost daily. A television crew came to our house to interview Dad. As the national and international press discovered the affair in Dithmarschen, Dad was interviewed more frequently; the magazine Der Spiegel and the newspaper Die Zeit wrote about him.
When one reporter asked him whether the intimidations and threats would ever stop him, Dad answered, “Could I betray the decent small people here who resent the ruling clique but dare not raise their voice?” The Social Democrats and unions threw their support behind the eight, and slowly the tide began to turn.
Eventually the mayor was removed from both church and synod council. When the leaders of the town finally talked about revoking the honorary citizenship of Adolf Bartels, the eight “rebels” had won. My father realized that even though much of his first assignment was a battle, God had looked out for his young prophet.
The OT lesson for Trinity Sunday talks about another young prophet; it describes the call of the Prophet Isaiah to the ministry.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne …” (verse 1). Isaiah, an official at the court of King Uzziah, is sad and upset. His beloved king, considered one of the greatest after David and Solomon, is dead; he feels deprived of the comfort and security he drew from his relationship with the king.
Then he has the vision that changes everything: “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.” (verse 1-4).
Isaiah is still in the temple physically, but his vision takes him far away. God is surrounded by seraphim, snake-like beings known for their deadly bites. As they face the overwhelming divine presence, they cover their faces with their wings, like little children who cover their faces with their hands hoping they might not be seen. They call “Holy, Holy, Holy” to each other.
As Isaiah witnesses this, his awe becomes fear … he is convinced that having been in God’s presence will mean the end of his life. “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!” (verse 5).
In the confrontation with God, he confronts himself as well. He chooses the unclean lips as metaphor for his sinfulness and that of the people. Isaiah knows that the dark secrets and shadows which we hide from each other are known to God. “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.’” (verses 6-7).
As his guilt and sense of unworthiness are taken away, Isaiah is transformed. Now that he has seen and experienced God’s presence, he is hearing God’s concrete question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Isaiah’s fear does not paralyze him. He walks forward in faith. He follows his heart and enthusiastically speaks: ‘Hineni’, Hebrew for “Here am I!”
‘Hineni’ is not a geographical term; rather, the word is a bold statement of presence in the midst of transition and change. It’s the response Abraham gives when God calls him to sacrifice Isaac; it’s the word the child Samuel uses when God calls him in the middle of the night. By saying Hineni, Isaiah opens himself to a new adventure, a commission by God himself.
Isaiah finds himself with a strange and paradoxical assignment: “God said, Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” (verses 9-10) To me, these words only make sense if I think of God as a worried parent. This is a warning of the kind, “Keep it up, and you’ll be miserable in no time”. Isaiah will feel the loneliness of a prophet’s life as his friends and contemporaries will experience him as the man on the street corner who unnerves them by telling them things they don’t want to hear.
If you remove the negatives from verses 9-10, you’ll get what God wants from the People of God: Listening, seeing, comprehending, turning, and healing. This is truly counter-cultural, for the world has other plans for us. It wants us to be concerned with identities and roles. In order to be “something” and “somebody”, we have to prove our worthiness by showing our props: credit scores and bank accounts, real estate and cars, stocks and bonds, our reputation and the friends we keep. When we get caught up too much in the games of the world, we act as though losing those props might mean losing our very lives.
Isaiah understands the idea of listening, seeing, comprehending, turning and healing—but only because he has been in God’s presence in the temple. His whole-hearted ‘Hineni’ was only possible because he spent time with God, because he tuned out the noise of his surroundings and experienced genuine awe. So it is with us: To connect with God, we must tune out the noise of the world; we need to embrace silence.
Once there, we discover that the props of this world mean nothing to God. The mystics describe an awakened person as one who has nothing, desires nothing, worries about nothing and plans nothing. To effectively hear and respond to God’s call, we need to ground ourselves in worship, meditation, reflection and contemplation.
Listening, seeing, comprehending, turning and healing—all those are activities that require communication, and a community. On this Trinity Sunday, we remember that early church leaders described the Trinity using the term perichoresis (literally a circle dance); as Father, Son and Spirit dance, they communicate and playfully celebrate being one. We are invited into this celebration.
Richard Leach’s hymn comes to mind:
Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun—
the interweaving of the three, the Father, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance. (ELW 412:1)
As our President recently referred to undocumented immigrants as “animals”, we clearly live in a world that cries out for prophetic action. When demagogues encourage people to “other” certain groups of people, as the People of God we must remind them that it is God’s intention for all creation to be one. Whenever and wherever someone is “othered”, we must stand up for them.
Grounded and strengthened by the mysterious presence of our three-in-one God, as we learn to tune out the demands of this world, each of us can respond to God’s call, “Whom shall I send?,” and heed it by saying ‘Hineni’—Here am I; send me!Isaiah had his call, my Dad had his, and you and I have ours. Listen! See! Comprehend! Turn! Heal! Amen.