I started a new sermon series last week called “In Search of the Holy,” and I started with that wonderful passage from Isaiah 6, where he “saw the Lord, high and lifted up.” It isn’t always like that, I admitted, but when worship is at its best the experience can be unforgettable. And then I shared my own experience of unforgettable worship.
It happened to me on Thursday.
I was in Washington for a national preaching conference called the “Festival of Homiletics” when I heard that Michael Curry was going to be in town. Do you remember Bishop Curry, the preacher who wowed the world at the royal wedding? He is part of a movement called “Reclaiming Jesus” and there was an event scheduled for 7:00 on Thursday night at National City Christian Church, right next to my hotel. I decided to go. But so did 1,800 other preachers who were there for the festival and a whole lot of other people who just wanted to see Michael Curry. I had to squeeze past a whole lot of knees to find a place on the pew, but as soon as I sat down I knew it was going to be special.
The Howard University Gospel Choir began to sing, and, mercy, those children could sing! Within a few minutes they had the whole place rocking, and I looked around me at all those introverted preachers from the Mainline Protestant tradition—Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians—and they had been transfigured. Their faces were shining! They were clapping their hands and singing along. But then the speakers for the evening filed into the room and it was like watching the gods assemble on Mount Olympus. There was Bishop Curry, wearing his purple shirt, but there, also, was Tony Campolo, Walter Brueggemann, Jim Wallis, Barbara Williams-Skinner, Ron Sider, James Forbes, Sharon Watkins, and Richard Rohr, just to name a few: the Elders of the Ecumenical Church in America: Episcopalians standing side-by-side with Evangelicals.
But then they began to speak, and it became clear that they were calling for a re-calibration of our nation’s moral compass, and they were doing it by taking us back to the clear and uncompromising teachings of Jesus. “We are living through perilous and polarizing times,” they began. “We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are at stake. It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else.” And then they said:
- We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God in some of the children of God.
- We believe we are one body. In Christ there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class.
- We believe how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself.
- We believe that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
- We believe that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. And finally,
- We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples. Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to see first narrow nationalistic prerogatives.[i]
I tell you, as one person after another climbed the steps of the pulpit to speak I was seized by the Mysterium Tremendum. “The pivots on the thresholds shook,” as Isaiah says. “The house was filled with smoke.” And I remembered that on Sunday I had asked [my congregation] to pause at Noon every day during the week and pray that God’s Holy Spirit would come and I thought, “Oh, my goodness! It worked! Those Baptists can pray!” It was like Pentecost all over again. And no sooner had that thought occurred to me than Jim Forbes said from the pulpit, “I don’t even know how to describe what’s going on here except to say (quoting from Acts 2) that this is what the prophet Joel was talking about: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy!'”
And the crowd went wild.
I’m telling you last Thursday night I was in church…and I saw the Lord. He was high and lifted up, and his holiness filled the sanctuary. The words of his Son Jesus were lifted up, and offered as the only way of bringing in God’s Kingdom. The Holy Spirit was poured out on every man and woman in that room, and they went out prophesying, dreaming dreams and seeing visions of a brighter future. That’s what can happen when you search for the holy. Sometimes, when the conditions are just right,
You can find it.