Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trinity Sunday, Holy Trinity Church, Benalla

Better preachers than I have gone down in flames on Trinity Sunday: not from Pentecostal fire but trying to describe and draw out the models and theories that are around this Christian dogma and doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Ever since the leaders of the Christian churches gathered in Constantinople early in the fourth century to hammer out the definition of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there have been so many inadequate teaching sermons. I hope this is not one more.

But in the end we are not here to understand the Trinity but to experience it: to evidence in our lives what we say we believe with our tongues, to let the daily motions and ministries of our days be manifestations and messages of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. So that the Holy Trinity might finally be less of a doctrine and more of a dance.

But how do you move to the motion of the Trinity, how do you get there here?

I want to share something called Spiritual Directions; which started out as three questions, moved into a design and  curriculum for quiet days and retreats as well as parish-based program, and now one diocesan model for Group Spiritual Formation, something you might want to consider using in this parish. Here are the three questions:

Who sits at the table in the middle of your life?
Where are you taking a faithful journey?
How do you find fresh air on the way?

First, who sits at your table? Picture a round table in the middle of your head; 12 people, more or less, sit there and try to run your life. They are probably not always the same people, and maybe you don’t even know who they all are. Speaking of my own table, my mother and father are often there, good friends, heroes and teachers and characters from books and stories I’ve heard: the Bible is there as well as the BCP, T.S Eliot and Thomas Merton have seats, as well as occasionally advertising slogans and songs I know. Sometimes people show up who don’t like me very much. Some I know well, others surprise me.  Everyone thinks it is a board of directors meetings and they are the ones in charge, so it gets noisy at times

I started inviting people to this table when I was a little boy: other people’s ideas of good or bad or right or wrong, popularity or principles, what was worth working for, who I could trust. And this population can be a very mixed bag. But where do they come from?  I think they are our God given participation in creating, building and naming a world. It starts in the first chapter of Genesis and it continues to the present day: the creativity of God moves, from a disordered world to have balanced creation, from Chaos to Cosmos, from an anomalous mess to a world that matters.  And this ordering impulse continues within the way we order our worlds. I think we all do it!

For our table-building is part of our creative life with God, our attempt to make the world makes sense, to hold together; but generally it isn’t a lively enough, it falls flat because, as Moses says, we are a headstrong people, and because it is only a child’s exercise. So we come to know that we need the help we can only get by going beyond the table.

So, where are you taking a faithful journey?

I think the most essential motion of being human can be seen when we’re walking along and the path comes to a corner, the road takes a curve, when we can’t see the way ahead, and we have to go on by faith. This happens all the time: a child starting the first day of school, beginning a new job, falling in love, getting married, getting divorced, dealing with illness, the death of a loved one, facing our own death -- any failure or success or surprise; life turns corners and in that time we must travel blindly with whatever faith we can find.

This morning’s Gospel comes from John, where Jesus always speaks with ultimate authority. But in Matthew, Mark and Luke, we can see another, sometimes subtler picture of this human being, full of the glory of God, being as surprised as we are by chaos and community and gift and grace and life and death and all the rest: There God in Christ is wholly on the human way, where open-ended quandaries and questions take us in new directions, make us new people in a new world.

And here is God’s good news, as Lord and Savior and friend meeting us on the journey, walking towards that unfinished frontier, to bring us home at the last.

In our human lives, there’s always tension between the Table and the Journey. The table argues from history and for tradition, what other people said, what has worked before: but the experience of the journey calls us to give up our lives as a committee meeting and take it up as pilgrimage, as kenosis, as a self-giving offering to God. Just like Jesus; dying to the demands of old laws so that we may rise up in new love. Do you hear the tension between the two? The table is worried it might be incomplete, the journey learns to rejoice that by God’s grace it is unfinished. These two motions seem worlds apart and there seems to be no way they can dance together, perhaps no way they can help but suffocate each other.

How do you find fresh air on the way?

The only chance to bring these two together is the place where we meet the spirit, in the middle of our daily lives, where, Augustine says, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, in a breath of fresh air. For God’s fresh air is the same spirit-breathing the words, “Let there be light!” at the start; the same breath calling “Repent” by the Prophets all those times when Israel starts worshiping money or power, or religion for that matter; The same breath-spirit in the angel speaking to Mary and the same breath in Mary’s, “Let it be to me according to your word.” The same breath in Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor”, the same breath saying, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”

Throughout the Hebrew scripture. Israel usually doesn’t know what to do with God’s breath and God’s word in the middle of daily life, and neither do we. Like them lie Jesus, we have to let God’s breath breathe us day by day, here and now, with all our living and our dying, with all glory and gall that Jesus found on the way, so that we all share in his resurrection. The fact is that we can’t get there from here on our own: the good news is that we don’t have to.

This does not save us from uncertainty - there are no shortcuts here - but it assures us that God breathes us, inspires us, now and always, and that there is no place where we can be separate from the love of God, from the creativity of the father, the compassion of Christ, the indwelling of the spirit, whether we know it or not.

So these three things: just as God creates a world, we build a kind of table and usually get it wrong. Then Jesus joins us in our journey, calling us to take the pilgrim path where nothing is certain except that everything can be a gift from God; joining us right though the middle of life to learn the crucial difference between being incomplete and unfinished.

And  finally, the spirit, inspiring and indwelling in our bodies, sends us to speak and serve good news, to feed every table with the bread of life and the cup of salvation; to make the whole world a community called to take the pilgrim way where the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit, the most Holy Trinity is with us all, now and always. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pentecost 2011

Let me confess first that I spent too many years in school some years ago,, And though I loved it, in spite of a lot of time as a student, I often found it very difficult to speak up in class. Usually, when I was asked to answer a question or, more infrequently, when I raised my hand to ask one, my voice would break and I would either go over the top and talk too much or go down in flames by saying too little. Anyway it was not easy. But it was the worst when trying to learn a foreign language. I avoided it for a long time, but in my early thirties, after years of moving between working full-time in our family printing business and attending several tertiary institutions part-time, I was finally finishing my bachelors degree at the University of California. Except that I needed to pass one year of a foreign language and I couldn’t do that.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried: I’d enrolled more than once, tried Spanish, French, even Latin, and I’d attend for a while but I just couldn’t speak: so I’d drop the class or, if I waited too long, I would simply fail.

To make it worse, I had been accepted for a Masters degree in religion. So I remember, early in the summer of 1980, talking to the Seminary Dean, asking for a postponement into the program so I could have more time to finish my bachelors degree, then coming home and walking into the back yard and looking up at the sky and saying, “I am doing the best I can, and it’s not good enough, so I am giving it all to you.”

And the air and the light and time and my life seemed to change just for a second, in some very subtle, indescribable ways, and though I still didn’t know what the end would be, I felt better for it, ready for some unknown door to open. And six weeks later, I remember sitting in the back of a another Spanish classroom with some anxiety, but with a growing excitement that that I might learn to speak a new language after all.

And I did. I finally graduated that year, with encouraging friends, good teachers, a wonderful counselor, and a growing sense that God’s grace would keep me going, that God’s love, God’s breath, could keep my mind and my mouth open, give me good words, that God would keep me from going down in flames.

So today I think of those gathered followers of Jesus, that day in Jerusalem when the spirit came upon them like flames and they spoke to strangers, in languages they didn’t know they knew, of the mighty acts of God. What must that have been like for them? Were they scared? Did they wonder, “How do you speak God’s Word in a different language?” And how do you speak to people you don’t know?

Actually we do it all the time, and language is always situational. I don’t talk to a 10-year-old in the same way I’d talk with a 60 year-old or use the same vocabulary with a new acquaintance that I will with an old friend. Geography makes a difference too: my accent and idiom change depending on whether I’m talking to someone from California or Australia. Over there my father’s sister is my ant, here she has become my aunt. I move from “good for you!” to “good on you!”, from “no problem” to “no worries.” For words and language depend on where we are and who we’re with; because they are grounded on something deeper than words.

But there still must have been a moment of tension and grace for these early Christians at Pentecost: committed to walk the way of Jesus, realizing they were called to tell the world of their experience of God’s power, God’s mercy, God’s light, which they knew in the life of this Jesus and in their own lives. To take up the call to to speak this Gospel with the grace of God’s breath and in the particularities of their own voice, and in a new tongue. That must have given them pause, made then wonder where they were going and what they would say. That hasn’t changed much.

Listen: there are two sides to every message: first, what you need to say from within your own heart, and second, how it is heard by the person you’re speaking with. I bet we’ve all listened to speeches and lectures and  sermons where we’ve wanted to go up and ask the speaker, “Who in Gods name are you speaking to?  Because it wasn’t anybody here!” I think we’ve all had times like that (though, hopefully not too recently!).

So I finally learned to speak enough Spanish to graduate from University, and then seminary and, except for learning a little Biblical Greek, I haven’t taken a foreign language class since. But I still had to deal with the task of translation when I took a job as a Resident Minister working with students at the University of San Francisco.

For I had learned about Scripture and theology and ethics and pastoral care and all that stuff in an academic setting; and now I had to speak naturally about these concerns to young people who were just away from home, living in a dormitory in a new city, learning so many new ways and things that they didn’t need a long-winded lecture from me or anyone else.

So I prayed, I talked to friends and people who knew more, and I realized I had to learn to speak to these students in words and terms, phrases and images, that they would understand. We’re back to the Bible: “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”.

And I learned to speak to them by listening to them. By listening to their concerns and questions, to what they feared and what gave them joy, made them laugh or cry.  Then I might speak something of my understanding of how God created, redeemed, played and stayed in the world, using terms and phrases and images and hopes that came on our ongoing conversations. It took time to do this, but we came to love each other in the process. Through the grace of God and Facebook, I am still in touch with many of them. They are now in their mid-thirties, sometimes married with children, making money and mistakes and living wonderful lives. The conversations continue and I give thanks for that.

One other thing happened some 15 years ago. A student-friend told me he had been diagnosed with a “language phobia” and the University said that he did not have to take a foreign language in order to graduate. So there was finally a name for it. If only I had known, I might have gotten through those language classes a bit easier. But looking back I saw that what had seemed a liability was merely the wrappings of a difficult gift of love; a gift I needed to receive, a gift I needed to learn to give.

We are now living in a time when we need to learn to speak the Lord’s word, sing the Lord’s song, in new languages. Because the world is changing, and those of us who’ve been around for awhile are all living in a foreign world: and this renewed evangelism, both in the church and in the world, might be frightening, might cause us to break into a sweat, or catch our breath, and want to hide, and it might grow us up more than we want, but it needn’t be that painful.

For St Francis said that we should “preach the Gospel at all times: if necessary, using words”. That’s part of the life in Christ we are called to today; just like those disciples and apostles starting conversations on the edge of the Roman empire. And that conversation continues here and now; with the friend, the neighbor, the stranger, our young; preaching at all times, with words if necessary, but often in silent and eloquent actions, by holding them in our hearts and listening to them in the light of love; and only then in reaching out to meet them using words and phrases, metaphors and meanings, found in our common lives and love. That’s what friends do. That’s even what God does in Christ, meeting us where we are with love. And that’s our gift and our glory, our call and commission and our part in the ongoing conversation in the spirit which we celebrate today in this feast of Pentecost.

In the name of Christ.