“The Year After”

Sunday sermon from May 31, 2015
Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

Last week my wife and I went to see the new movie Tomorrowland, because I have an old love affair with the director. It’s the guy who made The Incredibles and Ratatouille and even the best of the Mission: Impossible movies, and now he’s doing this weird retro-futuristic thing, a movie where George Clooney gets transported to this place where all of our best and brightest go to live out all of our best hopes and dreams for what science and progress and human ingenuity might bring. I have really vague memories of actually being in the Tomorrowland section of DisneyWorld, which, at least when I was there, in about 1985, was even then pretty clearly dated, a version of what we thought tomorrow might look like twenty years earlier. I think there were a lot of monorails. Something out a bygone World’s Fair, locked in time. Yesterday’s tomorrow, today, so that somehow visiting Tomorrowland ended up being just one more glance back into the past, one more glimpse and who we used to be. At Disneyworld, Tomorrowland is how we used to think the future would look like, and being there says a lot more about who we were then than it does about what lies ahead.

But Brad Bird wants a lot more from his movie than this kind of retro nostalgia. He doesn’t want to make a movie based on what Tomorrowland represents now; he wants to make a movie based on what Tomorrowland represented when it opened, this glistening beacon of the future. And I admit to having mixed feelings about the movie. Being a sermon illustration is not necessarily an endorsement. Sarah liked it a lot more than I did. Partially because the more I think about it, the stranger it gets. The movie has an absolute faith in the power of these visions of the future. The whole idea of the original Tomorrowland was that we believed in the possibilities that lay ahead, and somehow along the way we let them go, and now we look at the future with so much dread and apprehension. It’s like he’s saying: okay, enough with the zombie disaster movies, let’s make something optimistic. Let’s give folks a good vision of what might be.

But then, he never does it. This is my complaint. The movie’s set in 2015, but all we ever see of the world of Tomorrowland is still rooted in that old version, it’s still what we thought tomorrow would look like fifty years ago. There’s no update. It’s still just monorails. There’s no sense of digital life. There’s no sense of connectivity. Nobody has a cell phone, nobody has a smart watch. It has no roots in the real world of 2015, it’s just another time capsule, another fragment of who we used to think we were going to be. It so wants to be about tomorrow. But it’s just one more glimpse, back into the past.

It seems like tomorrow is a much harder place to get to than we give it credit for. And not in the sense that you can’t go home and sleep and wake up and it will be tomorrow. But to envision in. To proclaim it. To dream a little bit about tomorrow. It’s harder than it sounds. Something always gets in the way.

Our story this morning finds Israel on the brink of tomorrow. “In the year King Uzziah died,” it begins, which is no small matter. King Uzziah was one of Judah’s great Kings; he presided over one of the longest sustained periods of stability in the history of the Kingdom. Fifty-two years on the throne. He was beloved. He was revered. Heck, at fifty-two years, he was assumed. He was the foundation. He was an institution. And we know a little bit about what happens when those institutions die. The year King Uzziah died is the year everything fell apart.. It’s the year Kennedy was shot. It’s the year the planes hit the towers. You know where you were. It’s the year everything fell apart, and nothing gets to be the same, and tomorrow’s coming, like it or not.

And Isaiah does not like it. Not one bit. Thrust into the apocalyptic vision we see in today’s text; thrust into some sense of the world beyond the one he knew so well; Isaiah wants no part of it: “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!”

Now, there’s some truth here. Uzziah was a good king, but he wasn’t a perfect king. He was a powerful military leader, and conquered more than a few of Israel’s enemies (always a very popular option). But he’s not a perfect King. He got in a little trouble with God for arrogance, got himself some divinely-appointed leprosy as payment. Not that Jerusalem wants to talk about that. Not after he’s gone. You can imagine the obituaries. He was a saint. He was a giant. Look at all the people we conquered. Look at all the prosperity. Never before has Jerusalem seen a king of his greatness in stature. Nobody wants to talk about the dirty stuff. Don’t speak ill of the dead.

But now Isaiah is face-to-face with the Lord Almighty, and all those six-winged seraphs, and he thinks, well, if tomorrow’s coming, I mean, if this is the future, if it’s happening, at least I’m going to be honest. Let’s clear the palette. Let’s have confession: Forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned, I am a man of unclean lips. I’m talking up the guy like he was a saint but I knew better. And you should see what my friends say. I live among a people of unclean lips. Isaiah’s coming in for the reckoning. He’s ready for the judgment. He’s not going into tomorrow until we clear up all the mess that went down yesterday. He’s not going into the future without a clean slate and a clean bill of spiritual health. He is repenting. He is making his confession. He’s having his come-to-Jesus moment, you know, eight hundred years early. He is doing everything that good disciples are supposed to do.

But here’s the twist. God hardly cares. God’s not interested.

Isaiah’s on his knees, and then one of the seraphs brings down a hot coal and touches Isaiah on the mouth, and says: alright, you’re all set, you’re ready to go. The world is falling apart, Isaiah can’t wait to talk about it, he is all in on repentance, but God just sends a minion down to take care of it. It’s trifling. It’s nothing. Here, take two of these. You’ll feel better. God’s got more important things to do than hear your confession. Namely: then, Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord. Finally, in this story, God has something to say. But it’s not about King Uzziah. It’s not about all the slings and arrows that led up to this moment. It’s not about the sins of the country past, or even about the sins of Isaiah himself. God’s not looking backwards at all. God’s got eyes on tomorrow: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And Isaiah says: “Here I am; send me!” And so we read this story like a sweet little call story, and in some ways it is a sweet little call story, and we say that Isaiah’s call starts with his confession, and so we too start our own calls with confession and we start our worship with confession and we lament, we, a people of unclean lips, in a land of unclean lips, and we spend so much time on all the brokenness of the past. And what I want you to hear is that in this story confession is at best a momentary diversion from the real action, a side-show happening down here at the hem of God’s garment. Meanwhile, on center stage, God’s not hearing confessions. God is storming into the future: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

I have a deep love of the old NBC Presidential drama The West Wing. It’s not always the most nuanced treatment of American politics, and there’s not always a lot of subtext, but I still love those characters, even the ones I don’t always agree with. I just like the way the dialog sounds. You’d almost have to, if you were gonna like this show for very long. They talk a lot. They explain everything. It’s exposition and explanation, 100 beats per minute. But the president on that show, President Jed Bartlet, has this one little phrase that he brings out when it’s time for the explanations to come to an end, when it’s time to move on. He just says “What’s next?” “What’s next?” Sometimes it’s just a scene cue, like, okay, let’s cut to something else. Sometimes it’s a little more commandeering. Sometimes he’s cutting off his staff entirely. Sometimes he’s shutting them down. Sometimes it’s almost condescending: “When I say what’s next, it means I’m ready to move on to other things,” he explains, early in the second season. “So, what’s next?”

And by time the show comes to an end, this little phrase has wound its way throughout most of its central characters. Almost everybody says it by time the whole thing wraps up, because of course it’s not just a turn of phrase, it’s a whole sensibility. Not that the past doesn’t matter. Not that history doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t get far in Jed Bartlet’s White House with that attitude, I promise. But in his White House, even more important than the question of how we got here is the question of where we go now. Confession is good. Confession is important. But confession’s also just a little self-centered: it’s what we need so that we can hear what God has to say.

So listen up, because God’s not talking about confession. God’s talking about deliverance. God’s talking about restitution. God’s talking about resurrection. God’s talking about “what’s next?”

Everybody in this room, to some extent or another, has followed the spiraling tragedy that is the closure of Sweet Briar College. We are friends of the college, faculty, staff, alumnae, we are community members whose lives have been shaped by the work and wonder of that campus. There is nobody in this community whose life goes untouched by the prospect of Sweet Briar closing its doors, especially this weekend, when we are joined by so many alumnae here for reunions, so much more bittersweet joy and sorrow, almost more than Amherst can bear. It’s been a hard year. It feels like we’re watching so many things fall apart. It feels like we are watching King Uzziah die all over again.

And of course we have no shortage of Isaiahs eager to point out the sins and shortcomings that brought us to this moment. What began as an exercise in grief has evolved into a parade of interrogation and litigation. King Uzziah has died, and we want to know how. Natural causes? Self-inflicted wounds? Or something more sinister? Who stands to gain? Who had the means, motive, and opportunity? Every day the papers are full of theories of his demise. Every day the community sets its sights on new suspects and new theories, for we are all people of unclean lips and we live in a land of unclean lips and none of us is fundamentally incapable of whatever mistakes or mismanagement has led Sweet Briar to this moment. And I don’t meant to sound dismissive. This matters. It matters what went wrong. Uzziah wasn’t a perfect king, and we have to tell the whole story, so confession is the order of the day. Confession is how the past makes sense. Confession is what we’re after, and if it has to be our confession, fine, but if somebody else would confess, that would be even better.

But what I want you to hear this morning is that God’s not talking about confession. God’s talking about what’s next. God’s talking about what’s next because Sweet Briar’s future doesn’t lie behind her. That may sound obvious, but it bears hearing: Sweet Briar’s future doesn’t lie behind her. If the #SaveSweetBriar movement has its way — and truly, God only knows — then the real challenge of this moment won’t be an exact accounting of how we got here, as important as that is. The real challenge will be rebuilding a school and a community that has been dismantled over the last three months, brick by brick. Saving Sweet Briar doesn’t just take an honest examination of the past. It doesn’t just take confession. It takes a faithful willingness to jump into God’s uncertain future.

And the same is true even if Sweet Briar can’t be saved. Even if Sweet Briar can’t be saved, her future still lies ahead of her. When all the dust settles, when all the litigation winds up, when all the money is gone and all the debates are won and lost, no matter who confesses to what, no matter what we know and what we don’t know, the future of Sweet Briar won’t be contained to piles of evidence and correspondence and how many spreadsheets and budget reports. The future of Sweet Briar is now what it always has been, which is the future into which God calls each of us who have been marked and formed by that community. The future of Sweet Briar is what we do and what God does with the gifts of courage and conviction and character that Sweet Briar has bestowed upon us.

You will look back. You will ask “What happened?” It’s right and good to ask. We need to know. Just remember, while you ask “What happened,” God’s asking, “What’s next?”

And God’s asking a lot. Tomorrow is a much harder place to get to than we give it credit for. Fortunately, God is already there, waiting for us. Fortunately, God is already there, preparing a place for us. Fortunately, God who has already crossed the threshold of death itself waits expectantly for us on the other side of tomorrow. We cannot find our way into a future where God hasn’t already been. So have a little faith. All we can do is put one trusting foot in front of the other. All we can do is take one faithful step at a time. All we can do is to be willing for what comes next. God sees the days yet to come. God ushers on ahead.

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God beckons, from high atop creation.

And Isaiah says, “Here I am, Lord. I may not be much. I may not be worthy. I may not be perfect. But I’m ready. Send me. Here I am, Lord, ready, for what’s next.”