In the Name of our Living, Loving, and Magnificent God! Amen.
Our first two readings today speak of visions. They paint frightening pictures, even for those of us who look at them from a distance of almost two thousand years, in one instance, and more in the other. Isaiah gives us six winged creatures tending a sovereign the hem of whose garment—just the hem—fills a temple. John of Patmos tops that with his four living creatures whom an earlier passage tells us looked like a lion, an ox, an eagle and a human being, only with lots of wings. Which were covered with eyes.
Visions are a kind of language. They are the way writers help us glimpse truths that are beyond what any of us has seen or even imagined. Christians have resorted to visions throughout our history, and in its way, the language of vision is an admission that our minds can neither comprehend nor communicate the fullness of God’s majesty and mercy.
If you listen to the gospel closely—and you kind of have to listen to this Gospel closely—you will see that even Jesus has a hard time using language to speak about the nature of God. The sentences keep twisting back on each other: I am in you, you are in me, they are in us. Put these sentences in front of someone who hasn’t been listening to them their whole life and they’d have a hard time telling you what they mean.
His language is bursting at the seams. In a metaphor that probably has fresh relevance for you after your journey to Salt Lake City, the suitcase of human comprehension is not big enough for the concepts Jesus needs to stuff into it in this passage.
Throughout Christian history, mystics and visionaries, like John of Patmos, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich, have resorted to forbidding and ecstatic language to tell us about divine experiences that ordinary prose just can’t contain.
And yet, here is the thing about visions, as Joseph and Daniel and Ezekiel knew: they have to be interpreted; they have to be rendered sensible to the people who credit their authenticity but who aren’t seeing them themselves.
It’s appropriate then, that these readings celebrate the feast of Isabel Florence Hapgood. She was among other things, a translator. We celebrate her for the 11-year project of translating the Service Book of the Holy-Orthodox Catholic Church into English. But she also gave readers of the English language Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, a magnificent gift, although I expect my 16-year-old technology assistant, who has to write a paper on “Anna Karenina” by the middle of next month, doesn’t think so.
I’d like to think that each of us is involved every day in the act of translation, of living and speaking in ways that try to put an every day wardrobe on phenomenal beings with wings covered with eyes.
As Christians, it is our job to take the ecstatic, frightening, demanding dreams of our great prophets and seers, and make them sensible to the people around us. It is our task to speak and act in ways that make it obvious what we believe and why we believe it. It is our task to give people some sense of the incredible power of the magnificent, living God whom we worship.
It may seem that there are few human enterprises further from visions of spectacular garments with hems that fill a temple of creatures with eyes on their wings than General Convention. I am not a digital native. I was born well before computers and online culture transformed the world and transformed the church, but I know what a mashup is and I’ve wondered what would happen if John of Patmos ran headlong into the House of Deputies. I think it might sound something like this: I saw the temple filled with deputies in shimmering raiment and a creature with six arms and a voting device in each one said, “I rise to a point of personal privilege during which I would also like to amend the amendment on the previous motion and immediately end debate and refer the resolution back to the legislative committee on eschatology for further consideration.” And the Lamb, in a voice that caused all to tremble said, “Sit down deputy. You are out of order.”
But listen: ours is an incarnate faith. We believe that the Word takes flesh. Our faith is transformative. We believe that the Word having becomes flesh redeems the world. We do not believe in untethered visions, but we also don’t believe in reality untethered from vision.
We don’t seek solutions whose only virtues are that they save us time, save us energy and save us money. We seek solutions that serve the kingdom.
The work of disciples is spinning the golden threads that tie the ecstatic vision of a loving, powerful God to your life, to mine and to the life of the church on earth. We weave these threads when we study scripture to understand the source of visions, when we delve into our history to learn about mystics and seers and the societies that produce them; when we act in ways that make it obvious that we are inspired by a God of breathtaking power and love, when we tend the sick, feed the hungry and advocate for the voiceless.
And we weave those threads between holy vision and ordinary life when we gather to order our common life, to discern what God is calling us to do and how God is calling us to do it. It isn’t easy to spin these threads, and it isn’t necessarily exciting every minute. Reading resolutions, testifying in hearings, finding yourself frustrated because people are disagreeable, or conversely, finding yourself frustrated because people avoid conflict, is all part of bringing God’s vision to rest in the church. I ask you to count it all as blessing, to understand that the labor required to see and then serve a shared vision is holy work.
We will fall short. Visions exist because the God we serve can neither be fully understood nor perfectly served. And yet, and yet—to invoke another seer and another vision—if we wrestle this angel, it will bless us.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings on Friday, June 26 at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.