“Holy, holy, holy”

This past week I attended a conference on preaching and politics in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III, of Trinity UCC in Chicago, defines politics as “how power is distributed among people for the common good.” Our scripture passage from Isaiah recounts the prophet’s dramatic call into politics.  “I saw the Lord!” he exclaims. Well actually, what Isaiah saw was just the hem, the very edge, of God’s robe, a tiny scrap of sacred fabric that filled up the whole temple. The seraph’s wings brushed against the prophet’s face. Their song trumpeted in his ears and reverberated in his body.  This song shook the very foundations of the temple: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”

Holy, holy, holy. No sanctuary can confine God.

Holy, holy, holy. God inhabits creation; God’s glory shines in all that has life and breath.

Holy, holy, holy. Because we each embody the radiance of God, God’s political priority is the common good, the good of us all as a collective.

At the conference I attended, legislators were invited to come and speak to us about how they understand the relationship between faith and politics. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey invited us all onto holy ground as he shared his own spiritual journey. As the son of prominent African American civil rights activists, Booker grew up in an affluent, nearly all-white suburb. He attended prestigious schools—Stanford, Yale, Oxford. After finishing his education, he decided to make his home in a struggling neighborhood of Newark, NJ, moving into Brick Towers, one of the city’s most troubled public housing buildings. More than twenty years later, he still lives in that neighborhood.

Everyone told Booker he had to meet an elderly woman named Virginia Jones, the leader of the tenants in the high rise. With a self-assured swagger, the class president, football star, and Rhodes Scholar climbed the many stairs up to her apartment. When Virginia opened to the door, he announced confidently that he was there to help her with her work in the community. She looked into his eyes with deep skepticism and ordered him to follow her downstairs and onto the street below. “Before you can help me,” she declared, “you need to tell me what you see in this neighborhood.” He described what he saw: abandoned buildings, drugs, gangs, poverty, graffiti, and violence. “You can’t help me” she responded, and began to walk away from him. He chased after her and caught her by the shoulders.

“What do you mean, I can’t help you?”

“If that’s all you see,” she replied, “you can never help me. You need to understand that the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. And, if you see only problems and darkness and despair, that’s all there’s ever gonna be. But, if you’re one of those stubborn people who every time you open your eyes, you see hope, opportunity, possibility, love—even the face of God—then you can help me make a change.”[1]

The prophet Isaiah also had to learn to see differently. Beholding God’s holiness, he cried out: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” But then, the seraphs touched his lips with a burning coal, and with God’s living fire burning in his heart, the prophet could see and could say “Holy, holy, holy” to a nation filled with corruption and greed, “Holy, holy, holy” to leaders bent perpetuating injustice instead of investing in the common good.  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God asked. Caught up in the joy and wonder and power of the moment, Isaiah responded freely: “Here I am, send me!” And this sounds like a happy ending, right? But actually, this is where things start to get tough. We have to keep reading to get the full story.

In the verses that follow today’s passage, God instructed Isaiah: “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.’” (Isaiah 6:9-10)

In other words, Isaiah’s prophetic work would be a failure. He would speak and act in ways that people would find utterly incomprehensible. “Holy, holy, holy,” he would sing. And his message would fall on closed eyes and stopped ears. “Holy, holy, holy,” he would pray. And hearts would turn away, and minds would harden. “Holy, holy, holy,” he would claim in his body. And in return, he would receive anger, ridicule, and threats.

This week, Daniel was arrested, along with seventeen others, for participating in a protest that blocked the light rail and roads around the Whipple Federal Building. The Whipple building is the place where immigration court is held, the place from which, every single day, van loads of people are deported. The purpose of the protest was to disrupt this deportation machine to expose and resist the evils ICE does in our name. Daniel’s participation in this protest represented First Church, embodied our commitment to be a sanctuary supporting church. We received a couple of complaints. One email said this: “So, the way you express your disfavor with ICE is to disrupt innocent people? To make people late for work? For job interviews? Perhaps for medical care? This is compassion to you? You should be ashamed. Truly.”

There is a cost to civil disobedience. We should not take lightly the consequences of blocking roads and trains. No doubt, it messes up people’s lives. Surely it could cause serious harm. But there is also a cost to us all if we choose not to protest. The practices of our immigration system violate the sacred worth of each person; they desecrate our shared humanity. We’ve heard that ICE is actively separating children from their parents at the border. This is nothing less than state-sponsored terror. This is what the system of slavery did to African American families. This is what our government did to native families, when children were torn away from their homes and placed in residential boarding schools.

Here is the story of one family. On May 24, the Houston Chronicle reported the following:

Esteban Pastor hoped U.S. Border Patrol agents would free him and his 18-month-old son after they were arrested for crossing the southern border illegally last summer. He had mortgaged his land in Guatemala to fund his sick toddler’s hospital stay, and needed to work in the United States to pay off the loan. Instead agents imprisoned the 28-year-old in July for coming back into the country after having been deported, a felony. They placed the toddler in a federal shelter, though where, Pastor didn’t know. Three months later, in October, the father was deported—alone. His child, he said agents told him, was “somewhere in Texas.” “I cried. I begged,” he said. “No one could tell me anything.[2]

None of us are, as the person who emailed us claimed, “innocent” of this brutality. We are complicit in a system that destroys lives and tears apart families. We have this blood, tears and trauma on our hands. We are responsible for the way our nation’s power is abusing people like Pastor, who face impossible, inhumane choices. Should he have simply let his child die without medical care? Should he have allowed his family to become enslaved because he couldn’t pay the hospital bill? Was it wrong for him to gamble and come here, knowing he might be able to ensure their survival? Would he have made a different choice if he had known he might lose his child forever? My friends, when the systems that distribute power fail to serve the common good, fail to honor the sacred worth of us all, then we must interrupt those systems, shut them down. We must proclaim, with our voices, with our bodies, with our lives: “Holy, holy, holy.”

In the tradition of the church, this day is known as Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a metaphor that declares God to be relational in her very being. Father/Mother, Child, and Holy Spirit, bound in mutual interdependence. This is a picture of God’s commitment to the common good. Augustine’s Trinitarian formula expresses this truth in a beautiful way. He imagines that God is the lover, God is the beloved and God is the very love itself that binds loved ones together. Lover, beloved, love.

In our reading from Romans, Paul contrasts life “in the flesh” with life “in the spirit.” In the flesh, which is the state of living in isolation from God and creation, we’re enslaved to fear. We believe that we are locked in struggle against one another, that there is not enough to go around, that even love and human dignity are a zero-sum game. When we share in Christ, in his suffering and glory, then we embody the power of our God, the power that gives us the freedom to be bound together in love the power that serves the common good.

Holy, holy, holy is our song.

Holy, holy, holy is our life.

Holy, holy, holy is all the earth.


[1] (Sources are my notes from Booker’s 5/23/18 speech at Metropolitan A.M.E. church and https://www.biography.com/people/cory-booker-20967497)

[2] https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Immigrant-families-separated-at-border-struggle-12938759.php