Commencement

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few weeks ago, George W. Bush offered the commencement address at Southern Methodist University. At one point, he offered these words of encouragement to the graduating class: “For those of you graduating with high honors and distinctions, I say well done. And as I like to tell the ‘C’ students, you too can be president.” With this quip, our former president was employing one of the well worn conventions of the genre. Self deprecating humor is just one of those things people tend to expect from commencement addresses. But the element that everyone expects from a commencement address is an affirmation of the boundless potential of the graduating class. During the months of May and June, countless speakers tell the young women and men gathered before them that if they follow their passions, they can make the world a better place. The cynical among us might say that commencement speakers say this in order to assure people that the time, money, and energy they spent earning their degree was worthwhile. But I suspect that this vote of confidence for the graduating class stems from a genuine hope that by excelling in their chosen field, the members of graduating class can make a difference and change the world.

Isaiah son of Amoz was a man who excelled in his chosen field. Now, when I say “chosen,” I should make it clear that he was chosen by birth to serve God as a priest in the Temple. And when I say that he “excelled,” I should make it clear that Isaiah did exactly what was expected of a priest in the Temple. Isaiah was one of those charged with the responsibility of maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. He made sacrifices and offerings to God on behalf of his people in order to negate the effects of their sins.

We can assume that this is what Isaiah was doing on that fateful day in the year King Uzziah died. As he went about his priestly business, Isaiah experienced a vision of the LORD. He saw the LORD he had been serving as a priest for many years, the LORD whom he encountered in the exercise of his duties, the LORD he was supposed to know intimately. But Isaiah’s vision is anything but familiar. Instead of sitting in the holy of holies, the LORD is sitting on a high and lofty throne far above the Temple with fiery serpents swirling around him. The smallest part of his robe fills the entire Temple; this place that is supposed to be the dwelling place of God can’t even accommodate the tiniest part of his garment. The angels that attend the LORD sing a seraphic song that calls the LORD “Holy” three separate times, as if to say, “You have no idea who you are dealing with.” To top it all off, an earthquake shakes the very foundations of the Temple as the building fills with smoke. It is a terrifying and majestic vision, and Isaiah could have viewed it as an affirmation of his priestly ministry; Isaiah could have surmised that God was being revealed to him as a reward for his dedication. Instead, Isaiah has the opposite reaction. When faced with a vision of the living God, Isaiah loses confidence in himself, in his vocation, and in his people: “Woe is me,” he cries, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah is bereft and humiliated because he realizes that the God he supposedly has been representing is far more powerful, far more expansive, far more than he had previously imagined. This realization leads Isaiah to change his vocation completely. No longer can he serve God in the Temple that can’t even contain the hem of God’s robe. Isaiah instead understands that his prophetic mission is to proclaim the ultimate sovereignty of God: the fact that God transcends all worldly concerns, the fact that in the end, God will be God. All at once, Isaiah comes to the profound and startling realization that the only thing interesting about religion is God. And so, at the commencement of his prophetic ministry, Isaiah is not told to go follow his passion and change the world like the graduates of today, he is instead reminded of how very small he is, of how very parochial his experience of the world and his experience of God has been, and then he is told to go change the world.

This morning, we observe Trinity Sunday, which is one of the stranger feasts of the church year. Most other observances in our calendar recall events in the life of Jesus or celebrate the lives of the saints. Trinity Sunday, however, is the celebration of the Christian doctrine that the one God is manifest in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the doctrine of the Trinity has this unusual distinction. There’s no “Doctrine of the Divine and Human Natures of Jesus Christ Sunday” or “Filioque Clause Sunday.” Given it’s unique place in the calendar, it is easy to fall into the trap of using this Sunday as didactic opportunity to square the Trinitarian circle, to explain how 1+1+1 can equal 1. The greatest theologians of the Church, however, have argued persuasively that the Trinity is not meant to be understood in any human terms. The reason we celebrate the Trinity on an annual basis goes much deeper than mere instruction; in fact, it is the same reason that God appeared to Isaiah. Trinity Sunday is meant to remind us of how very small we are, to help us recognize how our understanding of God is limited by our prejudices, and to give us an opportunity to recognize the fact that God will be God.

Ten years ago, the great contemporary philosopher David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. Given the context, the most striking thing about his eloquent speech was that he never once told the graduating class to follow their passions. Instead, dfw-thumb-320x238he reminded them of how very small they are. The speech begins with Wallace giving voice to an assumption that the vast majority of people have: “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” This selfishness is our default setting as human beings, and Wallace argues that the task of education, the task of becoming part of society, is to deny this self-centered impulse. He suggests that the only way we can truly deny our selfish nature is by worshipping that which is life-giving. Whether we recognize it or not we all worship something. We are free to worship either that which encourages our self-centeredness or that which empowers us to deny our selfish nature and reach out in humility to others. True freedom, Wallace argues, involves making the correct choice and “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them.” This is the witness of David Foster Wallace, but it is also the witness of Isaiah son of Amoz, it is the witness of Trinity Sunday, and indeed, it is the witness of the gospel. It is only when we are humbled that we can begin to make a difference. It is only when we acknowledge that there is something greater than ourselves that we can truly change the world.

 

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