Saturday, December 29, 2018

What can we say June 7? Trinity Sunday

   As a young preacher, I would take a stab at explaining the Holy Trinity during my Trinity Sunday sermon. A fool’s errand. This is a classroom exercise. For the sermon, we do as we always do, explicating the text. The Holy Trinity is there, same as every Sunday. I think, during my sermon, I'll ask my musicians to help me with the best "explanation" I've heard, which isn't words but musical notes. Jeremy Begbie points out that if you sing a C, the note fills the whole room, no more in one place than another. If you add the E and then the G, each note fills the room, one doesn't crowd out the other - and the chord they form together are far more lovely than the single note. God the Trinity is like that. Same 3 first notes, by the way, of the hymn we'll sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

  We have great texts this week. I'll go Genesis 1, as looking to God as Creator, especially of all in God's image, is pretty basic - plus the idea that God gives us "dominion," which isn't lording it over, but taking responsibility for creation. Given racial tensions, people feel overwhelmed or ask What can I do? God in creation made us responsible, and endowed us with creativity and smarts to figure stuff out, however hard it might be. Karl Barth, for all the talk about him climbing into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, spoke out stridently against allowing the news to dictate your preaching (in Homiletic). I'd venture this: for sheer simplicity, seeing how a week's text speaks to the moment, check out Sarah Howell-Miller's sermon this past Sunday. Sheer genius.

   Pastorally, we have to bear that everyone is so edgy right now. We were before George Floyd. Now every little action, like a powerful magnet, attracts stray metal. On Sunday I went to an exceedingly peaceful, Christian gathering to express solidarity with our black fellow Christians - and got accused of fomenting violence against property. The Church can't remain silent. But how to say anything and have a chance of being heard - especially when the people aren't in front of you so you can read their body language, grimaces, nods, puzzlements?

   The Epistle, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, invokes not only the intriguing “holy kiss,” but also the formula I use many Sunday as my benediction at the close of worship. 
The whole idea of a “benediction” could merit a sermon: in my book Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I explore what it means to utter words of blessing over another person, upon people, in daily living. Words have this power. Could our worship on Trinity Sunday give permission, encouragement and empowerment to our people to speak words of encouragement, beauty and blessing to others all week?

   Jesus’ “last words,” his final blessing, in Matthew 28:16-20, offer an alluring peek into the heart of God and our task as the Church. It takes place on a mountain, as do so many crucial Bible moments. Moses on Mt. Sinai, Elijah on Horeb, Solomon’s temple on Mt. Zion, Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Jesus transfigured. We speak of a “mountaintop experience.” The air is thinner up there. I think of the physicist Alan Lightman’s quirky thought – that parents of young children should live on the tops of mountains, as the earth rotates a little faster there, and the theory of relativity teaches us that time passes more slowly where the earth moves faster.

   Mountains are beautiful – but in a different way than a pond in a valley or the seashore. Roger Scruton contrasts the serene beauty of a green meadow with a “wind-blown mountain crag… We experience the vastness, the power, the threatening majesty of the natural world, and feel our own littleness in the face of it.” This we call “sublime,” which isn’t super-beautiful, but a beauty that humbles, even frightens you a little. It’s thrilling and inspiring, but it underlines your finitude, your frailty.

   Isn’t God like such a sublime mountain crag? Was Jesus like one when he ascended? We are in awe. We are inspired. We tremble a little, and wonder if it’s safe. You can’t just jog to the top. You feel small, and yet drawn into the wonder.

   This text is major section in the Church’s charter. Fascinating: for all our talk about “making disciples,” our people just don’t spend much time or energy even attempting it. I suspect there’s some code language in there… Plus, I’ve never warmed up to that classic phrase, “Make disciples,” as if that’s something people have the ability to do to other people. The Greek is a single word, mathētoúsate, which means simply to “teach” (as in the King James!). We don’t make disciples. We teach. The would-be potential disciples have their own space to respond as they wish. And our teaching isn’t a tract or a Bible lesson at the office. It’s watercooler asides, and maybe how we live. What’s the story of the Amish man who was asked “Are you a Christian?” His reply was to point across the street: “You’ll have to ask my neighbor.”

   The "method" in that isn't showing a Bible. The disturbing (to many, although not all...) photo of President Trump holding a Bible in front of the St. John's Episcopal Church adjacent to the White House raises a question I'm not sure I possess the delicacy to ask well: Do we show Bible by holding one up? or by living in a way that you could comfortably say "Ask my neighbor"? How often do we (clergy included) wield the Bible as a weapon, as a shield to hide behind, or as a symbol to prop up my preferences or my frustrations? Maybe before I bore into my people with these questions, I'll ask them of myself.

   The magic in Jesus’ last words, his benediction, is that he creates a lovely inclusio around his whole life. At birth he was given the nickname, Emmanuel, God with us. Now, even as he’s leaving, he promises to continue to be God with us. Sam Wells poignantly suggests that the most important word in the Bible is with. God isn’t a divine fixer, and our mission isn’t to fix or do for others. God is with us. We are with others. For Americans, who want a fix-it God and want to be a fix-it church, we have to reiterate this constantly. 
My congregation’s Advent prayer back in December, which we printed on cards for everybody, was “Here I am, Lord. Here you are. Here we are together.”

   I plan to preach on Genesis 1:1-2:4a, and might even start a little summer series on Genesis. I’ve been reading Jonathan Sacks’s fabulous reflections in Covenant & Conversation. Just Wow! on every page, on a book I thought I’d understood quite well over many years. It’s easy on Trinity Sunday to say Creation happened because the inner relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit were so profound, so pregnant with divine love, that an outburst, an overflow made the universe happen; its goodness mirrors the love in God’s eternal triune heart (even though we know the plural in v. 26 didn’t originally intend the Trinity). I wonder if a more Jewish reading, which then might be a reading for non-pious, secular, even interfaith people, might do a richer work.

  My plan to preach Genesis 1 was confirmed the other day as my wife and I listened to episode 6 of the podcast, 13 Minutes to the Moon, which is wonderful. It narrates the moment the Apollo 8 astronauts circled the moon for the 1st time in history, snapped unforgettable photos of earth from the moon, and on Christmas day said "We have a message to share" - and proceeded to read Genesis 1. From space. Looking back to earth. The clincher in the podcast is this: NASA was swamped with notes. One was from a woman, noting how 1968 had been a horrible year, with riots, Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Her note said simply "Thank you for saving 1968." I'd say 2020 is another 1968... and the saving will only come from the Creator.

   I’ve expended time in sermons and classes defending Genesis 1 as a theological declaration, not conflicting with science; check out my blog on this from yesteryear with wisdom from Francis Collins, C.S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, Stephen Hawking, and even the Russell Crowe “Noah” movie. I was struck by Sacks’s alternate approach, citing Max Weber (the 19th century sociologist) who pointed out that Genesis 1 was “the necessary prelude to science: it represents the first time people saw the universe as the product of a single creative will, and therefore as intelligible rather than capricious and mysterious.” Boom. Ancient people were nervous nellies, feeling warring, sophomoric deities were messing with them arbitrarily. Genesis said No, it’s ordered, there’s one God with one plan, and it’s good.

   Sacks ponders the daily blessing that what God made is “good” in light of his experiences visiting youthful offenders in prison. “They, like you and me, had dreams, hopes, ambitions, aspirations. Their tragedy was that they came from dysfunctional families. No one took the time to care for them. They lacked a basic self-respect, a sense of their worth. No one ever told them that they were good.” This is Jean Vanier’s entire project, or Fr. Gregory Boyle’s, or any number of people who get God’s work in creation: to say to people You are beautiful, you are good, I see wonder in you, and in the world. It’s good. You’re good.

   I do believe I’ll spend time on what is at the heart of life in creation: Sabbath. Rest, joyful time with others, a day for and with God, stepping away from the frenzy of busyness. What greater invitation could I give to my people? Of many stellar books that explore the beauty of the Sabbath, most adore Abraham Heschel – as do I. But two others are rivals. I have savored Christopher Ringwald’s riveting A Day Aparta rich, personal exploration of Jewish, Christian and Muslim habits and joys derived from a sacred day: “The Sabbath remains the dessert most people leave on the table.” What are we missing? 

   Ringwald’s Jewish friends, the Kligermans, do not drive on the Sabbath, since making a fire was prohibited by God on Mt. Sinai, and an automobile engine requires a spark. So the Kligermans stay home, or they walk, kids gambol, the adults visit. “It’s a joy derived from a restriction.” After listening to the Kligermans describe their Sabbath, Ringwald hung up the phone, and told his wife their observance of Sunday had gone awry; so they turned the TV off, played with the children, and had dinner with neighbors. His clinching remark? “Thus the Jews save another Gentile family.”

   “A God of love invites us into the day. We are admitted by our humanity, not our perfection. The day calls us to a banquet of time, not a prison of gestures and abstinence. An omnipotent God needs not our perfection.” A Day Apart is replete with history, from Pompey’s invasion of Palestine to Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch in the World Series. “We fight for the Sabbath: against ourselves, perhaps against other believers, and certainly against the claims of the world. The day apart pits the believer against all his or her worldly intentions.” “I now see the unfolding opposites of the day. We do less and are more, we stop earning and grabbing and have more, we cease from making and make more, we let Creation be and in our repose we see it to be more than we ever knew.” 

   And then we have Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistence: Saying No to the Culture of Now (which might just be his best book ever…), a profound and provocative, deftly moving from sabbath as devotional practice to social, political and economic implications; a short, holy, prophetic wonder. Some nuggets: “Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness.  Such practice yields a divided self.” “It was the deities of Egypt for whom work was never done.” “God isn’t a workaholic, God isn’t anxious, creation not dependent upon endless work.” His verbal and visual capture of Scripture itself can be breathtaking: “It is not accidental that the best graphic portray of this arrangement is a pyramid, the supreme construction of Pharaoh’s system.” But then who is the most anxious person of all? The one at the top of the pyramid!

   If you think he’s making too much about “Keep the Sabbath,” Brueggemann points out that this commandment gets the “longest airtime” of then ten, and does explore property and economics. Claiming the Sabbath as the “linchpin” of all the commandments, he suggests it is no different from the first (“No other gods!”) and the second (“No images,” life is not about objects and commodities). Coining the felicitous, memorable phrase, Brueggemann avers that “YHWH is about restfulness not restlessness.” Sabbath breaks all the interlocking cycles. Parents don’t have to rush their kids into ballet, you don’t have to buy the newest gadget, you aren’t compelled to get prettier.

  Let me commend my new book, in the "Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well" series: Birth: The Mystery of Being Born. I loved researching and writing this, and hope you'll enjoy. Glad to do a virtual signing of the frontispiece for you!

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