behold our God!

a sermon, based on Genesis 1.1-2.4 and Matthew 28.16-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

A story is told that Voltaire,[1] that French Enlightenment philosopher known, among many things, for his complicated relationship with religion, once doffed his hat at the passing of a funeral procession. A friend, surprised, said, “I thought you did not believe in God.” Voltaire replied, “We acknowledge each other, though we are not on speaking terms.”[2]

We, declining to share Voltaire’s sensibilities, claim the annual grace of Trinity Sunday (if not on any other day, then surely this day!) to acknowledge and speak of the threefold nature of God: alway transcendent, beyond all things, immanent, with all things, and spiritually in all things.

The Trinity - Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina

The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. Still, the Bible, in one sense, is our record of our religious ancestors’ encounters with what 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto[3] termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans; that mystery called “God” before which we, in fascinated reverence and fear, tremble. Therein, we behold their attempts to make sense of that mystery, putting into language their experiences and perceptions.

Through the lens of this understanding, let us see what our spiritual forebears have to tell us about God and about us.

Before we do, I share a word about words. Words are symbols. Whether spoken or written, they are meant to conjure up the in the minds of the speaker and hearer, the writer and reader the realities to which they point. Hence, the word “God”, as a symbol, is not God, but only the term we use in our attempt to communicate our understanding of the reality of that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And, as God is mystery (not a riddle to be resolved, but that which, in its totality, is beyond the reach of our reason), try as we might, we never can comprehend God completely. In a word (pun intended!), we never fully “get”, grasp God. Yet, in our continued quest for understanding, we hope, we believe that what we do get is fully God. For that reason, through prayer, study, and worship, we keep trying, remaining steadfast in the quest to behold our God!

Now, back to the Bible!

The first Genesis creation story is a rhapsodic Hebrew poem testifying that God is almighty! For through the agency of “wind”, in the Hebrew, ruach, Spirit, “sweeping over the face of the waters”, God creatio ex nihilo, creates out of the nothing of “formless void and darkness.” Whenever we humans “create” we always must take things that already exist to fashion something new. God begins with nothing and, through word, “Let there be…”, comes light, sky, earth, and sea, suns and stars, flora and fauna, and humankind. And this unfolding differentiation continues unto this day. Our God always is creating and we, made in God’s image, are called to create, not destroy. Our dominion over the earth is not, is never to be domination, but rather creative caretaking, loving stewardship.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Jesus declares unto his first disciples the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” As important as this mission of baptizing and teaching has been and is for the spread of Christianity, the most important word Jesus says is “therefore.” Jesus can  (is able to) command his disciples because “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus claims the authority, the right to exercise power, of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the God of whom Genesis speaks as the almighty Creator.

It is this God revealed in this Jesus who, in the Spirit, is “with (us) always, to the end of the age.”

Behold our God!

 

Illustration: The Trinity, Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina (1475-1536)

Footnotes:

François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778)

[1] Voltaire, the nom de plume of François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his attacks on the established church, and his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state.

[2] Recorded in David Head’s He Sent Leanness: a book of prayers for the natural man (The MacMillan Company, 1959), page 36.

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[3] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian and philosopher.

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a Good Friday faith

a sermon, based on John 18.1-19.37, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Good Friday, April 14, 2017

Jesus, according to John the evangelist, was not a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, even miracle worker. Jesus was the divine logos, the divine word. The creative, animating power of the universe. The cosmic intelligent designer incarnate. Jesus was the human enfleshment of all that is holy; all that is greater, other than everything else. Jesus was God’s son, verily, God.[1]

Words fail us, as they failed John, in attempting to articulate this mystery (not a riddle to resolve by reason, but a reality beyond the reach of fullest comprehension) of a God who creates, who is life and who dies a death that we, this Good Friday, gather to contemplate.

Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

I wonder. As Jesus was God’s Son (if he was only a prophet, preacher, healer, rabbi, or miracle worker, I wouldn’t wonder!), why did he have to die?

Why didn’t legions of angels come and rescue him? Satan, during the wilderness temptations, posed the possibility; suggesting to Jesus that God’s angels wouldn’t allow any harm to come to him, thereby proving he was God’s Son.[2] Jesus refused to put God to the test.[3]

So, if not that, why didn’t Jesus supernaturally, triumphantly dislodge the nails in his hands and feet and come down from the cross; astounding the soldiers, electrifying the crowds, gladdening the hearts of his mother and disciples? If Jesus, with a cosmic flourish, had leapt from the cross that would have been a story worth remembering and retelling, rivaling the church’s two millennia-old proclamation of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection!

Imagine! What if that had happened? What if, in response to the contemptuous catcalls of the crowd (“He saved others, but he can’t save himself. Let him come down from the cross, so we may see and believe”[4]), he had come down? There would be no ambiguity or uncertainty, no doubt about his identity. Therefore, no need for faith.

Ah, that’s precisely the point. The need, our need for faith.

Jesus’ death was an act of faith. His faith in God expressed, enfleshed in his life and ministry of seeking the outcast and oppressed, siding with the least and last as first in the heart of God. His faith that inevitably led him into conflict with secular and religious authorities, whose insatiable political appetites for the mutual appeasement of quid pro quo and the maintenance of the status quo could not tolerate Jesus’ radically revolutionary message. His faith that compelled him to follow the course of his chosen destiny all the way to the end: Death. No half steps, back steps, or side steps. No cheap, even spectacular theatrics like coming down from the cross. No. Death. Only death.

On this Good Friday, as we contemplate Jesus’ death, let us read his story as our own. As Jesus needed faith, so do we. There is much in life beyond our control. We need faith. There is much around life’s proverbial corner, in the next day, hour, moment that we don’t, can’t see. We need faith. There is much about ourselves we don’t, can’t know. We, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “look into a mirror dimly.”[5] We cannot always, perhaps ever be sure of who it is we see. We need faith in something, Someone greater than we.

Still, we do know that we are creatures with a consciousness of our mortality. Like Jesus, our lives, our journeys to Jerusalem, include a Golgotha – that moment of our dying. Thus, though we gather this day to reflect on the death of Jesus, let us contemplate our own. For our awareness of the inevitability of death means that dying always is present in our living. As such, what difference can, does that make in how we live?

If our consciousness of our dying can be more than an occasional haunting reflection, more than a sudden, unbidden and unwanted flash of recognition, more than a momentary reminder that life in this world is an inherently terminal reality…

If our awareness that each passing moment brings us nearer to our dying is a sign of our acceptance that we share in the universal experience of all humankind…

Then perhaps we can live with greater, more faithful purpose. Like Jesus. Less selfishly and more selflessly. Less for ourselves and more for others. Then we can reach our life’s end like Jesus, saying, “It is finished.”[6]

If that is so, then I believe that our “Fridays”, our dying days, will be good.

 

Illustration: Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)

Footnotes:

[1] See John 1.1-5, 10-14, 16-18: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

[2] Matthew 4.6; Luke 4.9-11

[3] Matthew 4.7; Luke 4.12

[4] Mark 15.31-32

[5] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[6] John 19.30

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 24, Tuesday, March 28, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On words and prayer: O Lord, daily and day-long, I employ audible speech and written text to journey across the landscape that separates me from others; and they, too, with me that we might meet and communicate. So, also, in prayer, I set out to trek the terrain betwixt this earth and Your heaven, betwixt me and You with words spoken and scripted, as are these. (Yea, even when I seek You in the hushéd appeal of my heart, my call, my cry takes shape in human language.) Yet, surely, I need such not to address You Who dwells in the sheerest silence of the immenseness of eternity, You Who are the Silence of Everlasting Mystery. Yea, then, O Lord, in Your Love, teach me to speak in the tongues of angels.[1] Amen.

Footnote:

[1] My reference to 1 Corinthians 13.1a (my emphasis): If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels

an Advent meditation – more musing about mystery: a correction?

I believe, mysteriously, for this knowledge is beyond my reason’s reach, that…(we) are bound together whene’er we, in a spirit of compassion, share the experience of life’s labor, whether wrestling…with our difficulties…appreciating…life’s beauty, or…savoring the wonder of being alive.

This is where I ended yesterday’s post. Today, another thought.

Bound together in compassion sharing life’s experience one with another. Hmmm, offering compassion, being compassionate is not so mysterious, rather relatively easy for me to do with those who share my beliefs and values, and, I admit, those I like. Equally without mystery, it is not so easy for me to do with those I don’t like.

This came to mind in the fresh light of a new day as I mulled over an encounter late last evening with someone with whom I’ve had a long-running disagreement and share (if I can call it sharing) a mutual dissatisfaction, a personal dislike. My morning’s contemplation, I might have predicted (and not necessarily gladly!), stirred the remembrance of Jesus’ counsel, no, his command to love my enemies.

This is not mystery, but madness; straining compassion and common sense! Undeterred by my judgment, Jesus calls his disciples, calls me to repudiate reciprocity as a primary arbiter of my behavior: If I love and help those who love and help me, what credit is that to me?

Jesus implicitly demands also my rejection of retaliation: If I hate and hurt those who hate and hurt me, what credit is that to me? Yes, lex talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21.24) may be at the foundation of the system of law. Yet my reaction to those who have wronged me is not to be in kind (as someone once said, if all followed this path, our world would be populated only by the blind and toothless!), but rather I am to be kind; again, loving my enemies.

Here, love is not an emotion, but an action. Jesus does not call me to feel good about being hurt, much less about being hated, or about those who hurt or hate me. Rather to the extent that I can discern it and decide to do it, I am to act in my enemy’s best interests.

Taken by itself, this principle advocates the wildest imprudence. I think of the heroic and extravagant acts of nonviolent resistance of Mohandas Gandhi, Václav Havel, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Malala Yousafzai – all peacefully challenging their oppressors who continued to wield with relish the weapons of repression.

Yet what Jesus, calling me to love my enemies, hints at is a new quality of life. Life with a renewed spirit of connectedness to others wrought out of our shared experience of redemption – being brought back, bought back from a life always uneasily balanced and easily tipped on the scales of reciprocity and retaliation. Life in which compassion can be offered mutually one to another, for each has a deep sense of having received it.

This – compassion – is mystery. Beyond the height of my reason to conceive. Beyond the depth of my feeling to create. But not beyond the embrace of my experience. And if, when experienced, then known. And if known, then capable of being shared.

Question. Can I recall an occasion of compassion, a moment when someone shared my suffering? Yes.

Question. Having known that experience, can I imagine offering compassion to another, even an enemy? Yes.

Hmmm, today, to the one with whom last night I shared the pain of yet another run-in, I will reach out. With compassion.

an Advent meditation – more musing about mystery

Earlier this month (December 2-4), I posted a series of three blogs – musing about mystery in Advent…continued…concluded. I find myself fixated on (or, being fond of alliteration, mired in) mystery. Again, as I define it: Not a riddle I can resolve by reason, nevertheless a reality that I can encounter, experience, therefore know.

One of my favorite biblical stories (because it’s all about mystery and liberation, and perhaps, too, because I may be a closeted pyromaniac!) is Moses and the encounter with God in the burning bush.

Moses beholds a bush that is aflame, but not burned. God calls, “Moses, Moses”, proclaims the moment holy (that is, an experience of “otherness”, something wholly apart from the natural realm or earthly norm), then as mystery with a recognizable identity, declares, “I am the God of your ancestors.” God continues: “I see…hear…know my people’s sufferings.” God, though holy mystery, is compassionate; not indifferent to the human condition, harkening to the cry of human travail and speaking a word of hope: “I have come to deliver my people.” What is God’s instrumentality? God’s delivery system of choice? Cosmic portents? Cataclysmic earthly upheaval? An army, mighty in number and power? No. God tells Moses, “I send you.” Moses, mindful of his insufficiency, cries out, “Who am I that I should go?” God, again in compassion, utters a comforting word of unwavering intention, “I will…”, and enduring union, “…be with you.”

Compassion. The shared experience of suffering. An essential element of encounter, whether divine or human, with mystery. An encounter in which one beholds a true, trustworthy reflection. An encounter through which one finds kinship of true affection. An encounter by which one discovers afresh communion and thus knows that one is not, is never alone.

This morning, as a companion to this story of Moses’ encounter, union with divine mystery, I reflected on the poem, The Tuft of Flowers, in which Robert Frost speaks of the human bond. In the experience of a common task – mowing grass and scattering it to dry – one discovers a profound kinship with another. The grass has been cut, but the mower, long gone, has left a tuft of flowers, the gift of a patch of beauty, through which the poet discerns anew that no one is ever alone.

I believe, mysteriously, for this knowledge is beyond my reason’s reach, that I am bound to all others. We are bound together whene’er we, in a spirit of compassion, share the experience of life’s labor; whether wrestling nakedly, painfully exposed, with difficulties (where largely, these days, I find myself), appreciating with passionate embrace life’s beauty, or even amidst struggle humbly savoring the wonder of being alive.

musing about mystery in Advent, concluded

Mystery, not a riddle to be resolved, but reality beyond my greatest knowing, which (because it is real) constantly calls to me, “Come.” Advent, that church season of preparation for the coming of Jesus, the grandest mystery of all of God in flesh, bids me to answer, “Yes.” In answering, “yes”, seeking, looking at mystery, though light is my desire that I might see more clearly, darkness is my need.

There is a biblical figure who, for me, personifies the courageous search for light in the darkness of mystery. Nicodemus.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus, though a living, breathing repository of God’s law, a virtual embodiment of enlightenment, cannot see clearly. Nicodemus has heard about Jesus, the marvelous words, the miraculous deeds, but, not knowing who this strange rabbi is, it’s all mysterious.

Nicodemus (who must hale from my home, Missouri, “the show me state”) must see for himself; seeking out Jesus at night (the darkness of night being a metaphor, I believe, for uncertainty and unknowing in the face of mystery).

Nicodemus and Jesus speak, but not the same language. Jesus talks of spiritual things, telling Nicodemus that he must be born again. Nicodemus, comprehending only the physical nature of things, replying as a cold literalist, wonders how he might climb back into his mother’s womb! Jesus persists, pointing to the verity, the truth about God, about life, about Nicodemus. To live in God’s kingdom, to touch Life that is life is granted only by and through spirit, for it is beyond the power of flesh, human intellect or intention, to grasp. Verily, to be born again is to dwell in a state of conscious awareness of a connection with something greater. Eventually, apparently, Nicodemus sees.

mystery - Hubble telescopeTo walk into darkness, hoping to see light. This is what my “yes” in response to mystery’s call looks like. I will strive to remember this when (not if) I find myself in the darkness of my uncertainty, my unknowing:

To answer with a courageous “yes” to mystery’s call, which because of my uncertainty and unknowing is always fearsome…

To know, having said “yes”, that I might look, must look (keep my eyes open and not veil them in fear) in the hope of seeing light…

To believe that when the mystery is the darkness of my uncertainty and unknowing (meaning that mystery is not, perhaps is never wholly external, but always, at least in part, internal), then it also is the source of light; for always harbored in my uncertainty and unknowing is the seed of faith, that assurance, my assurance of the presence of the One who is greater, for the love of whom I can sing:

Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen, Who thy glory hidest ‘neath these shadows mean;

Lo, to thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed. Tranced as it beholds thee, shrined within the cloud.