Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Dance of Three

sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Curate
Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

When I was about eight years old, I learned about the Ten Commandments and thought they were the greatest discovery ever. If we would all just agree to keep these ten commandments all the time, God would be happy with us, and we would be happy with each other, and peace would bloom all over the earth. I couldn’t yet bear the thought that maybe we human beings simply can’t keep the commandments all the time—but then, a more mature understanding could not come to me until I myself grew in experience and wisdom. As Jesus suggested in today’s Gospel reading, I have experienced my faith as a continual unfolding, an ongoing revelation of truths that were always true, but that I couldn’t bear before now. Sometimes this unfolding means that I have to let go of understandings that no longer work. And so I followed a path from being an attempted “do-gooder” to discovering myself to be a hopeless sinner, and then relaxing into God’s forgiveness and redemption of me and finding hope again in Jesus.

Today is Trinity Sunday—one of the seven principal feasts of the Christian year, but an odd one, because we are not honoring a human being or commemorating an event, but seemingly sacralizing a doctrine. There are two dangers here for the preacher. Alan Jones, the former dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, once said, “It is impossible to preach on the Trinity for more than sixty seconds without lapsing into heresy.” He’s probably right. The other danger is that the seminary-educated priest can delve deep into the notes from his systematic theology class and assault people with terms like perichoresis and Sabellianism and hypostasis and mutual indwelling. And the danger of doing both at once is probably far greater than we’d like to admit. So before I go any further, I want to stress a couple main points.

photo by SoAngela Hardt, El Salvador, 2007
First, all human beings are theologians. You are a theologian when you ponder, even for a moment, the mysteries of the universe. When you do what country singer Lee Ann Womack once suggested and “still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,” you are engaging in theology. And when, for instance, you go out of your way to show love to someone who is of no use to you, you are applying your theology and continuing to develop it as well. Theology is the study of God, and it happens in everyday life, whatever else you might want to call it.

Second, the Christian life is not something you can think your way into. Don’t get me wrong—I identify as an intellectual. But postulating things about God is not likely to help us fall in love with God. Sitting in an ivory tower, well-fed, privileged, and content can be terrible for one’s faith. I know lots of people who believe intellectually that there is a God, but for whatever reason, they feel no need to let God affect their lives in any way. In other words, faith is caught, not taught—and it comes not in isolation, but through participation in community.

We might well wonder what the Trinity has to do with any of this. For many people, the Trinity might seem to be only a theologian’s intellectual game, irrelevant to our faith in any real sense. But what if I told you that the Trinity is not just an idea about God, but an experience of God and an invitation to a dance? What if I told you that the Trinity is a great example of the continual unfolding of things we couldn’t bear before now?

It all started when a small group of Jews found themselves worshipping a human being. This tendency became much more pronounced after Jesus’ death, when dozens and then hundreds of people claimed to have seen him alive and talked with him and eaten with him and learned from him. But Jews believe in one God, not two. How, then, to make sense of this new reality? Must there be two gods after all?

No, they realized over time. There is but one God, and Jesus is a manifestation of that one God. He referred to himself as the Son of Man, a metaphor steeped in the Old Testament, but it became obvious to them that this also meant Only Son of God—a person in unique, eternally loving relationship with the same God who had given them the Law and the Prophets.

But wait: there’s more. God the Creator, after receiving the Son back into Godself again, sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Are there three gods, then? No—still just one. And the Holy Spirit may also show up in the Old Testament: we heard about Lady Wisdom today—in Greek, Sophia—in Hebrew, Chokhmah—feminine in both languages. The Book of Proverbs tells us that Lady Wisdom was there at the beginning, working alongside God the Creator as the first of God’s creations—an Old Testament image. But as Trinitarian theology developed over the centuries, the church came to an understanding that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are not created but have always been. And now we are into deeply poetic language. Theology must be poetic, I think, in order to be worthwhile. If you think you fully understand God, then by definition, you don’t.

Christians have experienced the Trinity in so many ways. Karen Armstrong writes that since God invented mathematics, the divine being is not limited by the construct of number—such is the Trinity for someone who finds poetry in math. St. Augustine wrote that our every thought contains a Trinity: the thought process is informed by our memory, experienced in our understanding, and manifested through our will. We can be Trinitarian theologians, too. We can mine the Old Testament for poetic hints of the Trinity: in the three strangers who visit Abraham in the desert, for instance. Or we can look for the Trinity in other mythologies, such as the Greek Muses of literature, science, and the arts. Three is a magic number, as they used to say on Schoolhouse Rock! And no metaphor is out of bounds as long as we recognize that all metaphors do break down.

Dorothy Sayers
In her play The Zeal of Thy House, renowned British author Dorothy Sayers explored the Trinity using a metaphor of creativity. Here’s a quote:

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.

Idea, Energy, and Power: Sayers further expounded this metaphor in her book The Mind of the Maker. And her metaphor really works for me. I can observe 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 as God created the universe. The book has the physical boundaries of cover and pages, and the time of my work has a beginning and an ending, as did the earthly life of Jesus. 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 Holy Spirit-like power to inspire others … Idea, Energy, Power. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. They are all separate persons, but they work together with unified purpose at every moment for the sake of the finished work—and we can call this finished work love.

It’s hard to conceive of the Trinity without leaning in the direction of one of two heresies: the absolute unity of God at the expense of the Three, or the absolute diversity of God at the expense of the One. In the West, we tend to lean towards too much Unity, as with my preferred metaphor, the fact that I can be a father, a son, and a husband all at the same time. The problem here is too much Unity: I am not in any way three persons. But Diversity reigns in the East; there’s a classic icon by Rublev showing the three persons of God sitting at a table and inviting the viewer to come and eat with them. The metaphor breaks down instantly when we seem to see in front of us three gods rather than one—but it’s still beautiful, and it still contains a part of the truth.
As beings that God has created, 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!

Oh, wow—look at my wrist. I’ve already been preaching heresy for several minutes. Maybe it’s time to stop. But I will drop one seminary word on you: perichoresis, the Greek word for rotation. This analogy emerged in the 4th century with the Church Fathers of the East, but it has been revitalized in recent years by theologians like J├╝rgen Moltmann and Miroslav Wolf. Whatever one person of the Trinity does, the other two are doing as well, with unity of purpose. The three persons of the Holy Trinity are forever engaged in a dance of love, always giving love, always receiving love.

If we are made in God’s image, we can see in ourselves the family resemblance. God is creative and innovative, and so are we. God cares about the material world in which we live and move and have our being. God is compassionate, and this compassion bursts out in human beings at the most surprising moments. At our best, we love in spite of our fears. We can be brave and principled and altruistic. And we are hard-wired to be in community with others. We are not solitary because God is not solitary. God is One, but that One lives in community, even all by Godself. That One is not sitting still, but dancing, forever and always.

A dance doesn’t feel at all like a dogma, does it? In this dance, we move from stale certainties into new curiosities and questions. When you wonder about the Trinity, don’t be terrified of heresy. Rather, enjoy the dance … the dance of creating, redeeming, and sustaining … the dance of idea, energy, and power … the dance of life in this created universe, created to love and to be loved in return. Amen.

photo by SoAngela Hardt, El Salvador, 2008

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension Day

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
Ascension Day, May 5, 2016

Salvador Dali, The Ascension of Christ
What a puzzling feast we celebrate today! And yet—this is important—Ascension Day is one of the seven principal feasts of the church year. Who can name the other six? (Hint: They’re listed on page 15 of the prayer book.)

Easter Day
Ascension Day
The Day of Pentecost
Trinity Sunday
All Saints Day
Christmas Day
The Epiphany

Add to these the fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and you have a list of the most important days of the year.

We’re right in the middle of a string of four of these principal feasts that land rather close together. Ascension Day is the 40th day of the season of Easter, which means it is always observed on a Thursday. Despite being a principal feast of the church, many churches don’t get around to observing it. I hope we would do so every year even if we didn’t have a regularly scheduled Thursday Eucharist!

What makes Ascension so important? The first thing that comes to my mind is this: We talk a lot about Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection. But if Jesus had never ascended, he’d still be hanging around in resurrected bodily form. I’ve never seen him in this way … have you?

It seems that Jesus came and went for a while after his resurrection, always surprising the disciples when he did appear under consistently mysterious circumstances. He was the gardener, except he wasn’t. He was a stranger, except he wasn’t. He was breaking bread, and then he was gone. As I said in another sermon recently, I find the confusing nature of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to be among the very best evidence of their truth: hucksters would have tried to put forth a cohesive attempt at a conspiracy. Instead, we find that the resurrected Christ is elusive, but no less physically solid for it.

And then, one day, he goes away for good, or at least until some other time. Two mysterious figures in white robes tell the disciples that Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Unlike a lot of Christians, I have no interest in making a pronouncement about what this means. Actually, I fail to see how end-times predictions are helpful to anyone. They keep us staring up into the sky. They distract us from the fact that God has moved on, and it’s time we moved on as well. There’s nothing to see here.

So, for ten very strange days, there is nothing to do but wait. The disciples dutifully go back to Jerusalem as instructed and wait to see what will happen next. And we’ll get to the Feast of Pentecost a week from Sunday—another principal feast, and the fulfillment of this entire cycle of divine movement.

Adventures in missing the point ...
Of course, this whole scene starts with the disciples still not understanding what Jesus was always about. Now that Jesus is back, they’re ready to resume their original plan of gaining political power at the expense of their oppressors, the Romans. The disciples about ready to hold up signs shouting, “Jesus: Make Israel Great Again!” But Jesus shuts down all that talk, saying, “This isn’t for you to control. You’ll get power, all right—maybe not the kind you wanted, but instead, the kind you’ve always needed. You’ll get power to be my witnesses to the end of the earth.”

In Greek, the word “witness” and the word “martyr” are the same word. Some power! Power to die? Yes indeed. The disciples will receive the power to die, both metaphorically and literally. Power to proclaim? In spades. They will change from disciples, who are followers, to apostles, who are leaders of a movement. But in order for them to do that, Jesus needs to get out of their way. If he hung around, they’d always be depending on his physical presence to tell them what to do. They need to begin to rely on God’s Spirit at work within them.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once wrote that the resurrected Christ is “the light we see by; we see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes.”[1] In other words, in the Ascension, Jesus stops being somewhere in order to be everywhere.

The blueprint of creation is not just birth, death, and resurrection. It is birth, death, resurrection, ascension, sanctification. Sanctification means the ultimate state of holiness, theosis, being raised to the full stature of Christ—this is the direction in which we are headed. It is the course we set from the very beginning in our baptismal vows. What might this look like for us? God has made Jesus eternal; what, then, does God plan for us?

Paul writes to the Ephesians:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

So it’s about coming to know God—becoming God’s friend—in order to understand a hope to which we are called. What is the hope to which God has called you? Surely it involves not staring up into the sky, but going back to town, to the front lines. It might involve some waiting—patiently or impatiently. It might involve trusting that power will come to you from the One who made you, who loves you and treasures you. And it will most certainly mean that the power you are given is to be used in the service of love and reconciliation.

It is impossible to be a solo Christian; all of our lives are wrapped up in each other’s. And since Jesus Christ has ascended and fills all things, that means that all things and all people matter. Nobody is disposable. The eternal welcome of everyone into a process of sanctification sure fills me with hope, even as I look around at a fearful, broken world. Evil is real, but it is also a defeated rebel. We are all ascending, and while that theological truth may not make itself known in any sort of scientifically verifiable way in our day-to-day lives, it is a place to hang our faith.

So while we come here once or twice a week and stare up into the sky, as it were, praying to the God whom we come to know better and better throughout our lives, today is about remembering to turn away from the sky and go down the hill into the world. God is not in the sky; God is right here among us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Let’s go find out what the Holy Spirit is doing and join in that work joyously. Amen.

[1] Rowan Williams, “Ascension Day,” in A Ray of Darkness (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Press, 1995), 69.