With No Words at All
sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Associate for Christian Formation
The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday/ May 30, 2010
Christy and Sarah and I recently spent a week in Kearny, Arizona, visiting my parents. One night at their house, Sarah threw a big temper tantrum, so we sent her to her room for a five-minute time-out. Now, the room that my parents had set up for her has its own exit to the backyard.
After her time-out was finished, Sarah Sophia returned to us refreshed and happy. She said, “Guess what, Daddy? During my time-out, I went outside, and I prayed to God with no words at all. And I didn’t hear anything back … except the wind blowing through the leaves in the trees.”
These days, Sarah is actively wrestling with a question we all wrestle with at one time or another: Why, when I talk to God, do I not hear an answer? We have explained to her that you may well hear an answer from God, but it probably won’t come in the form of an audible voice. So it seems that Sarah Sophia has chosen to meet God on God’s own terms … by praying without words. Who says kids that young can’t grasp abstract mysteries? “Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom.” I think Sarah understands in some way that the wind blowing through the trees was her answer—the Hebrew word ruach for wind, the wind of the Holy Spirit, the breath of Divine Wisdom.
“Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom.” That well known expression is not a direct quote from the Bible. We heard the original quote in today’s psalm: “Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.” That’s true too, of course. But I’m fairly certain that the word “wisdom” worked its way into the quote because, for centuries, the lectionary of the Church has paired this psalm with today’s
reading about Lady Wisdom from the Book of Proverbs.
This week I came across a prayer about wisdom:
You of the whirling wings,
circling, encompassing energy of God:
you quicken the world in your clasp.
One wing soars in heaven,
one wing sweeps the earth,
and the third flies all around us.
Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!
“Praise to Sophia” …. those are unusual words to hear in church. Are we worshipping idols at St. Thomas? Actually, no … this prayer comes from the medieval Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen. And “Sophia” is the Greek word for Wisdom, the Divine Wisdom personified in today’s reading from the ancient Book of Proverbs. In the original Hebrew, the word is Chokhmah, also a feminine name. Christian theologians see this
passage as a very early reference to what we now call the Holy Spirit, the power of God turned loose on the world. (If you’ve stood next to me while we recite the creed, you may have heard me change the gender of the Holy Spirit from “he” to “she.” This passage is one reason why.)
In this reading from Proverbs, I am most struck by the time in which it is set—that is, before time, or more accurately, outside of the construct of time. Lady Wisdom, Sophia, the Divine Feminine, the Holy Spirit, was there with God creating the universe! If you’re not that familiar with this reading, give it another look. Get out your Bible at home and read all of Proverbs chapters 8 and 9. It’s not widely quoted text, but it is beautiful and poetic, and I believe it speaks volumes about the nature of God as expressed in the Trinity.
So this is a wisdom Sunday. This is Trinity Sunday. This is the day when we make at least some faltering attempt to figure out how God can be one person and three persons simultaneously, and even both masculine and feminine. This is the Sunday when the rector invites a layperson to preach.
That’s OK—it really is useless to try to explain the Trinity, no matter who you are. One year on Trinity Sunday I was visiting Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Their dean, Alan Jones, was the preacher, and he opened his sermon with these cautionary words: “It is said that nobody can preach on the Trinity for more than 60 seconds without lapsing into heresy.” Yet every year at this time, each congregation sends another heretic into the pulpit to try to contain the Trinity in mere words. If that is my task, then so be it. I’ll do my best not to use too many words.
It may be tempting to believe that only the most intelligent theologians can understand the Trinity. But this isn’t true at all. For one thing, no human can ever understand the Trinity. It’s a mystery, and as such it doesn’t belong to the realm of intelligence. The Trinity belongs to wisdom.
Sarah Sophia asked me once what the word “wisdom” means. Struggling to create a definition suitable for a young child, I answered, “Wisdom means knowing a lot about what’s really important.” Wisdom can’t be confined to formulas. It can be experienced, but it can only be expressed in metaphor.
To that end, and in an effort not to reinvent the triune wheel, as it were, I’d like to quote early 20th-century English author Dorothy Sayers. She gave us a very helpful metaphor for the Trinity in her stage play The Zeal of Thy House. Here, she identifies creativity as primary evidence of the fact that we are created in the image of God:
For every work of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.
First, there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work
complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.
Second, there is the Creative Energy begotten of that idea, working in time from
the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of
matter: and this is the image of the Word [that is, Christ].
Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the
lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.
And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can
exist without the other; and this is the image of the Trinity.
In her book The Mind of the Maker, Sayers expounded this metaphor at great length. And her metaphor really works for me. I can observe the fact and the truth of it every time I create something, whether it’s in words, in music, or in physical form. Let’s say I want to write a novel. It starts with an idea, and contained in the idea is the whole work, but it isn’t fleshed out yet. So I flesh it out, expending energy and time and, in the old days, paper and ink, to create the work. The book has the physical boundaries of cover and pages, and the time of my work has a beginning and an ending. Finally, I can share the finished novel with others, and if I’ve done a decent job harnessing the energy to give birth to the idea, the story I have created has power to inspire others … idea, energy, power.
As created beings, we are products and images of the Creative Idea, Energy and Power of God, and while we can speak of the three aspects individually, they cannot really be separated. We are the characters in the Great Story. And as if that weren’t enough, the author, the originator of the first Creative Idea, has also become a character in the story!
That character, the Creative Energy in the world, said such wonderful things and did such amazing things as a human being that most of us here today have chosen to commit our lives to him. In today’s reading from John’s Gospel, the Creative Energy of God said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.” I can’t think of anything more exciting or more powerful than to imagine what these things may be that we can’t yet bear to know or to understand.
Oh, wow—look at my wrist. I’ve already been preaching heresy for several minutes. But let’s do one more thing.
In our house, one indispensable part of bedtime is Quiet Time, when Sarah and I share three minutes of silence. The silence isn’t always continuous: sometimes it shakes out something that Sarah wants to say before she ends her day. So something is said, we reflect on it, and we go back to silence. But usually it’s just Sarah and God and me in the silence, for three minutes.
As our brothers and sisters in the United Church of Christ say in all their literature, "God is still speaking, comma ..."
And not by words, but in silence can that sentence be completed …