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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when free speech ain’t free

This past Wednesday, February 1, Milos Yiannopoulos, the editor of Brietbart, a conservative news and opinion network, which some describe as trafficking in right-wing propagandist and, equally purposefully, incendiary misogynistic, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric, was scheduled to speak at the University of California Berkeley. Demonstrators gathered to protest his appearance. Outside agitators unaffiliated with the university committed acts of violence. A number of people were hurt and multiple thousands of dollars of damage done to buildings and grounds. University administrators, citing the concern for public safety, cancelled the event.

Speaking always and only for myself…

For nearly 65 years (and, blessedly, day by day, I continue to count!) I have slogged through the twilight and, at times, illumined trenches of my thinking, the fetid and, at times, fecund furrows of my feelings. I (in addition to being unabashedly alliterative!) am a theological existentialist and a socio-political progressive with dyed-in-the-wool-of-my-soul-and-spirit pluralist and inclusive leanings. In all this, I recognize, indeed, respect “the other”; all those who think and feel differently. In this, I believe in the freedom of speech, even when it offends my sensibilities and sensitivities.[1] I believe in the free exchange of ideas, even those that provoke my anger. I believe in granting others, through the courtesy of civility, a hearing, even when I disagree and, perhaps especially, when I disagree strongly.

Why?

Because I live to seek truth; that which I consider “real” that allows me to make meaning for my life, to make sense of my existence. And my quest for my truth is constant. And, as I cannot think and feel all things and as I share this planet with countless folk who think and feel differently, I strive, sometimes with ease, sometimes with difficulty, to remain open to what I might, indeed, can learn from others with other worldviews, and

Because, though I constitutionally do not agree, verily, viscerally cannot agree with Mr. Yiannopoulos, to prevent him from giving air to his views eventually, inevitably restricts the right of free speech for all. For to deny any one the occasion for expression, at whatever time and for whatever purpose or cause, is to promote an atmosphere where another at another time for another purpose or cause can be denied that opportunity, and

Because I think that an environment characterized by fierce animus toward “the (whoever and whatever) other” encourages the identification of persons chiefly by their perspectives or positions on issues, which, in turn, nearly inexorably leads to the denial, dismissal of their essential humanness, and

Because I feel, I fear that in this fractious time in the history of a fractured America a climate of the demonization of “the other”, especially those who dwell on the far reaches of either side of the philosophical-political continuum, will compel moderate voices to withdraw from the public arena of engagement and debate, thus impoverishing our civic discourse, and

Because, then, freedom of speech won’t be free…

But perhaps it never is. Freedom of speech bears the cost of the sacrifice of those in ages past who offered it as bequest to their heirs of future generations and of those in this day and time. Again, speaking always and only for myself, freedom of speech bears the cost of my sacrifice of the security, even sanctity of my worldview by having occasion to listen to those whose words do not substantiate or justify my truth.

 

Footnote:

[1] I also recognize that freedom of speech (indeed, any freedom) is not absolute. And though there are historically, legally accepted limits on human expression (e.g., libel, slander, obscenity, and sedition), my taking offense is not one of them!

war zone?

preaching a sermon, based on Galatians 5.1, 13-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016

thinking

(Note: On occasion, I preach what I term “a theological sermon” – though all sermons are innately theological as they speak of God and address the relationship between God and creation – in which I take a concept I find in scripture and reflect on it, proverbially “run with it”, rethink it to see whether I see something new or, at least, new for me!)

Philosophy, the age-old love and pursuit of wisdom, and Christian theology, for two millennia the philosophical engagement with doctrine, seek to interpret and make sense of human experience.

On many matters, they diverge. On one, they agree.

Within the human soul there is a war between competing, conflicting forces; for the Apostle Paul, flesh and Spirit, which “are opposed to each other.”

Paul wasn’t the first to recognize an inherent human inner conflict…

Centuries earlier, Jewish phenomenology identified within us a good nature calling us upward and an evil nature pulling us downward…

The Great Flood (1864), Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Some ancient rabbis, reading the story of Noah and the ark,[1] interpreted God’s lament for creating humankind leading to the decision to flood the world[2] (in effect, to start over) as a divine admission, confession, a heavenly “Oops!” for having implanted evil in the human soul…

Chariot-CharioteerIn Greek thought, Plato described the soul as a charioteer struggling to control two horses; one noble, named reason, running skyward; the other, called passion pulling the chariot to earth[3]

Recall, too, the dramatic scene of Jesus’ forty-day wilderness journey; on one  side, beleaguered, bedeviled by Satan’s incessant temptations and on the other, bolstered by the ministrations of angels.[4]

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

The idea of the soul as a playground, a war zone between good and evil is ancient and seemingly universal. As Christians, in our quest for understanding, let us turn again to Paul’s “flesh” and “Spirit.”

Flesh, from the Greek sarx, points to our mortality. As Janis Hoffman, a dear friend 95-years young and one of my favorite practical theologians, oft says, “Once you’re born, you’re done for.” Once, at birth, we “begin”, we can experience the joys and are exposed to the sorrows creation holds until we “end” in death. Even more, flesh signifies that we are susceptible to the sway of temptation and ruin, abandoning God’s way and following, as the prayers laments, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”[5]

Spirit (whether with an upper or lower case “s”) is that life-giving, animating power within us most akin to God, who is Spirit.[6]

Reflecting on Paul’s dualism of flesh and Spirit, I see the sense of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion that we are not so much human beings seeking to become spiritual, but rather spiritual beings immersed, enfleshed in earthly experience.[7] Through the lens of this viewpoint, which rejects that dominant idea in Greek thought that the body is evil, I look beyond a standard interpretation of Galatians that considers flesh as bad requiring subjugation and spirit as good.

Indeed, I reinterpret Paul!

Yes, the spirit is inherently good, yet the flesh is not innately bad. Both are essential. Spirit needs flesh in order that its fruit, principally love, has a body through which it can be revealed, literally become real. Flesh needs spirit for self-control to restrain, even transcend, if only on occasion, our selfish self-interest, our impulsive passions that make vice more appealing than virtue.

Paul makes a case for war. This Paul calls for a ceasefire; that we, as spirits working not against, but through flesh, call a truce so not to be at war with ourselves. If, as Paul says, the whole law is fulfilled in loving neighbor as self, then for us to share,  spread the fruit of the Spirit, each of us first must know it, taste it, savor it ourselves. We, in the Spirit, are empowered to love ourselves, to find joy in ourselves, to be at peace and patient with ourselves, to be kind and good to ourselves, to keep faith and to be gentle with ourselves.[8]

Good idea. It’s the implementation that’s hard. At least, for me. I often am at war with myself whether it’s a clash between Paul’s flesh and spirit or my values of love and justice and my sometimes very conflicting desires to be and do otherwise. Yet I behold one saving grace: I can choose. It’s no accident that when Paul speaks of the fruit, the outer manifestation of inner Spirit, he begins with love – not merely emotion that feels kindness toward another, usually because of shared experience and perspective, but rather active unconditional goodwill that does kindness for another however different. So, even when I am most at war with myself, I still can choose to do love and to do justice for the sake of others whether I like it (or them!) or not.

 

Illustrations: The Great Flood (1864), Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 6.5-8.22

[2] Genesis 6.6-7

[3] Plato’s Phaedrus (246 B)

[4] See Matthew 4.1, 11 and Mark 1.13

[5] From the Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62

[6] John 4.24

[7] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), French paleontologist, Jesuit priest, philosopher, and mystic.

[8] A reference to Galatians 5.22-23 and our bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives