This past weekend, I spent four days in Death Valley, homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone. We were celebrating the 80th birthday of a dear friend, who said she wanted to go somewhere where she could gaze at stars. And so I googled, “Where is the best place to stargaze in California?” and Death Valley National Park instantly came up. So, off we went to Death Valley, nine hours each way by car. As we drove into the park at around 5pm on Thursday, with sore backs and hips from so much sitting, we couldn’t see much. It was very windy and the views were obscured by veils of dust. I think we may have all been wondering if it was really worth the drive. Surely there were stargazing spots a bit closer to the Bay Area?
But the next morning, the sky now clear, all such thoughts were dispelled. We marveled for the next 48 hours at the vastness of the desert, at the mountains of rock that the light painted on with different colors all day long, at the sheer glorious grandeur of the place. Years ago, I heard someone describe Death Valley as “the bones of the earth,” and that seemed so true. In Death Valley, everything falls away but the rocks that give our landscapes structure but that are often obscured by vegetation and soil. These rocks, now revealed, were formed up to 1.7 billion years ago. 500 million years ago, Death Valley was a warm, shallow sea, and about 250 million years ago, the mountains began being formed by the shifting of tectonic plates. How can our puny brains even take in such vast stretches of time?
In such a landscape, things take their rightful size. Whatever problems or pains we were experiencing personally in our lives or collectively in our political and economic lives were relativized as we contemplated the eternity of those everlasting hills. There, it was so clear that we were a part of something so much more vast than our individual lives. Something so much more vast than even our human species. That land, those bones, would endure, even if we would not. As our prophet for today, Isaiah, says: “The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8) And what is God’s word? “Let there be light.” And: “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together in one place, and let the dry land appear.” (from the creation story in Genesis)
One thing that Scripture reminds us of over and over again is our rightful size. We are creatures, not the Creator. Wonder of wonders, we were made in the image of this Creator. But we did not form the rocks from the ancient seas, we did not cause mountains to rise nor the rain to fall, rain that erodes and carves those mountains of rock. We are creatures, utterly dependent upon a creation not of our own making.
In today’s Scripture, Isaiah is given a vision for his people — and it is a vision that restores them to their rightful size. This is something that prophets do again and again. As one Bible commentator said, “Prophets are often called to speak the word of God to those who have forgotten the distinction between holy and human,” to speak the word of God to humans who are getting a little bit too big for their britches, as we used to say in my day, who think they are “all that.” To speak the word of God to those with what psychologists called “inflated egos” — people who think they are bigger, better, more grand, more powerful and more in control than they are. People who think they are not creatures who must abide by the Creator’s law but who can just make up their own laws and do whatever the heck they want. (Biblical commentary is by Michael H. Floyd from Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3.)
Like, for instance, King Uzziah. This passage begins with: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Uzziah was made King of Judah when he was16 years old. His reign was a very successful one by the standards of his day (and, really, our own) — he was successful in war, he increased the territory of Judah, he made improvements to agriculture, he amassed great wealth. But then, Uzziah became too big for his britches. He grew proud — his ego got inflated from all his success — and one day he decided that he could waltz into the temple and make an offering on the altar, a role that was reserved for the priests alone. 80 priests tried to dissuade him from doing this, but to no avail. For this, he was brought down to size, stricken with a skin disease that caused him to have to quarantine for the rest of his life. When he was died, he was buried separate from the other kings, so that even in death, the pride that led to his downfall served as an object lesson. “You may be king, but you are not all that. You are not above God’s Law.”
So those few words — “in the year that King Uzziah died” — would have called to mind this story of the prideful king and of how God brought him back down to size. With that as context, Isaiah goes on to describe his vision. He is in the temple, the place where heaven and earth were thought to come together, the place that is the symbol of political and religious power — sort of like the U.S. Capitol and the Vatican rolled into one. It was the biggest, most glorious structure his people had ever known. In this temple, Isaiah sees a divine being so grand that the hem of this being’s robe fills the entire temple. He sees a divine being so glorious that the seraphs — angelic beings believed to inhabit the temple— must cover their eyes with one of their three pairs of wings because God’s glory is too much to bear. And the seraphs, in voices that crash like thunder, voices that cause the foundation of the temple to shake, cry: “Holy, holy, holy is the Creator, the God of hosts; the whole earth is full of the glory of God.” Like: You think what you’ve built here is so grand and glorious, but it’s nothing compared to the Creator, and in fact, the whole earth — not just your puny little temple here — but the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
I think this experience must have been like our Death Valley experience on steroids. How can the puny brain of a mortal human take in such grandeur, such glory?
In the face of such an experience, Isaiah realizes his smallness. And he realizes his and his people’s sin. I will remind you once again that sin means “to miss the mark.” It doesn’t mean that you are an abject, horrible worm. It means that you’re not on the right path. In this case, the particular sin, the particular mark missed, is one of “unclean lips.” In other words, speaking falsehoods, lying. According to one Bible commentator, the nation of Judah seems to think that it is “all that,” that it is now so strong, powerful and wealthy that it cannot be destroyed; in fact, it believes that its political and religious structures have “unconditional divine approval,” and people go around talking up this falsehood. “Oh, God has particularly blessed us — see how prosperous and powerful we are!” “Our religion is the true religion!” “We worship God the right way.”
The nation, like King Uzziah, has become proud, wrong-sized. Isaiah keenly realizes he has been complicit in this falsehood. His vision shows him how inflated they have all been. The temple becomes a place like Death Valley — a place where the truth is revealed, where one becomes right-sized again. But in becoming right-sized, Isaiah is called to a vocation even bigger than he could have imagined — to be a prophet called to speak God’s truth to his people.
It seemed appropriate that on the way back from Death Valley, I listened to a podcast in which the author Michael Pollan was interviewed about his book How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. The book is really about our brains and our consciousness and it’s fascinating. And, I would argue, it’s also about realizing the falsehoods in which we participate and about becoming more right-sized as a result.
First of all, brain science is revealing that our normal waking consciousness is less a window on actual reality than the product of our imaginations. I don’t have time to go into detail about how this is true — listen to the podcast. But what we call consensus reality not only varies from person to person but from species to species. Our human consciousness is not the most exalted among all the rest of creation; it has no special purchase on the truth. Why is what we perceive or understand about the world more true than what a dog or octopus is perceiving or understanding? This podcast will call that rather inflated belief — that speciesism — into question.
But there’s more falsehoods than that in which we participate. Those of us who are a product of the dominant Western culture are trapped in a particular illusion. This is how one psychologist, Matt Johnson, puts it: “We’re trapped in the story that sees ourselves as independent isolated agents acting in the world, but that self is an illusion. It can be a useful illusion when you’re trying to escape from a cheetah or do your taxes. But at the systems level, there is no truth to it; you can take any number of more accurate perspectives: that we’re a swarm of genes, vehicles for passing on DNA; that we are social creatures through and through, unable to survive alone; that we are organisms in an ecosystem, linked together on this planet floating in the middle of nowhere. Wherever you look, you see that the level of interconnectedness is truly amazing, and yet we insist on seeing ourselves as individual agents.”
I think the pickle we are now in — this pickle where our global capitalist society is destroying our earthly home, and where we are getting further entrenched in our tribalisms — this pickle was created by this false story that we are isolated individuals locked in competition with each other for the good things of life; isolated individuals with no dependence upon or relationship with the more-than-human world, which is just dead matter, something for us to use up; isolated individuals who think of ourselves as the only subjects in the world while everything else — often even other people but especially the more-than-human world — are objects. What a cramped, unhappy, lonely, egotistical lie.
One of the things that happens almost universally for Western people who take psychedelics in a ceremonial or therapeutic or research setting — I want to emphasize those settings, because taking psychedelics outside of a safe container like that can be pretty dangerous — these people see the truth. Their sense of being an isolated, individual self is dissolved or softened. They realize that the boundary between themself and that plant or that person or that rock isn’t hard and fast. They have a sense of merging with other humans, with the more-than-human natural world, with the cosmos, with the Divine. They experience that everything is alive and is in a dance with every other thing. For people who have these experiences, they become right-sized again. They see that they are not “all that” but that they are also even more than what they could have imagined — a part of a grand, glorious consciousness that pervades everything. Of course, this is what Indigenous cosmologies and mystics of almost every religious tradition have been saying for a long time.
I do not think you need to take drugs to tune into this vision. I do not think you have to have a grand mystical experience. I think this vision is what we try to practice here in this community. I mean, every Sunday, we come together to worship. Isn’t that an odd thing to do, according to that Western mindset? The very name — worship — admits there is something bigger, grander, more glorious than us and that we come together to acknowledge dependence on that Bigness. And in small, humble ways, we serve each other and we serve the world. And in doing all so, we live out a different vision — one based in interdependence, in connection, in relationship, in right-sized-ness. As my son grows up, I see more and more how this community has shaped him in ways that are different than many in his peer group. He is growing into a right-sized self because of this community. Thank you.
I am not suggesting we are perfect and that we don’t have sin to acknowledge — ways in which we miss the mark. But I hope that we can see ourselves as Isaiahs. That we can see ourselves as people who have received the right-sized vision. And that we can receive the burning coal that allows us to release our guilt over the falsehoods we have been complicit in and that empowers us to say “yes” when asked to be messengers of the Divine vision. May it be so. Amen.