Sunday, June 07, 2009

"National Bad Preaching Sunday”

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Today is the day in the church year which I like to refer to as “National Bad Preaching Sunday.”

Officially, this is Trinity Sunday, and everything, at least in theory, has to do with the Trinity in some way, shape, or form.

One definition I have heard for insanity is the doing of the same thing over and over again in the hopes that the end result will somehow be different. I believe this is the case for Trinity Sunday because many a preacher every year falls into the trap of trying to explain the whole of the Trinity, and as is often the case when one tries to define something that is infinite into a finite sermon of ten minutes or so, the preacher will always fail.

I realized as I was researching for this sermon that this fixation that clergy have to try and explain the whole of the Trinity in single sermons goes back for centuries. I read one such sermon from a monk named Evagrius of Pontus, of whom I had never heard of, who lived in the 4th century, the whole text of which can be found online, that went on for page after page, all of which was about the Trinity.

I bring this up because, after perusing most of it, I was amused to find that Evagrius, after going on for what much have been a sermon that lasted well over an hour, and apparently feeling that he was not getting anywhere with his audience, abruptly ended his sermon (no doubt to the great relief of his congregation) by saying,

God can simply not be grasped by the mind, for if God could be grasped, he would finite and

therefore God would not be God.”

But, in all seriousness, this aspect of wanting a quantifiable definition of God (especially when it involves the concept of the Trinity) is not just a modern idea or fixation; Christians have been wrestling with this issue for centuries.

Although we of all people, as modern Americans, like scientific rationales for things, things we can look at under a microscope or can test with the old “scientific method” with hypotheses and clinical trials. Unfortunately, as our new friend Evagrius of Pontus finally stumbled upon after much pontification so many centuries ago, God simply cannot be fully grasped, controlled, dissected, or defined in a neat little definition or an equation that balances out nicely.

Instead of falling any further into the homiletic trap of trying to explain the entirety of the Trinity if 10 minutes or less, I believe it is more helpful for us to examine one of the many attributes of God that we learn from the readings that we have today in the lectionary. This aspect seems on first blush to be almost completely contradictory in the way God is presented in the Old Testament and Epistle Readings.

On the one hand, the image that is used in Romans, and to an extent in the Gospel, is that of loving father. Paul in Romans describes God as Abba! Father! You might even translate it as Daddy! A God so immanent that he cares and loves and is so involved with every human being so much that they are his very own children.

While this is certainly true, God does love us as his own children, many people these days mistake this image of God as completely benign, dare I even use the 1990's slang of my youth "a big, warm fuzzy:" something more akin to a hamster than a God.

There is a wonderful little line near the end of C.S. Lewis' book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, (the sequel of which came out in the theaters last year). In the scene after the 4 Pevensie children have been crowned the Kings and Queens of Narnia, the youngest, Lucy, is suddenly distraught because she has realized that the lion, Aslan, has suddenly disappeared without Lucy getting the chance to say goodbye. (If you are not familiar with the books, Aslan is the Christ figure in all 7 of the Narnia novels).

To console Lucy, Old Mr. Tumnus, the fawn, responds, “One moment, you'll see him, and another you won't. After all...he's not a tame lion.”

C.S. Lewis never really carries that metaphor about Aslan much further, but I have always found that to be a very interesting description of God because what is insinuated, though not directly stated, is that Aslan (that is to say God) is, in fact, an untamed lion, dare I even say, a wild lion.

Perhaps that idea that God is more like a wild lion than a tame lion is shocking to you. Contemporary,

mainstream Christianity loves to portray God as akin to a teddy bear of your childhood or the mellow family hound dog or even in some contemporary Christian artwork especially in those cheesy e-mail forwards that people feel they must unleash upon unsuspecting clergy, the picture of the cute, peaceable-looking lion with a lamb cuddled neatly in his mane.

But is God really nothing more than a big, domesticated cat that sits in your lap and purrs on occasion when you want to lavish some attention upon him? Is that really the God of the bible, that unexplainable mystery which we call and understand as the Trinity?

We also have readings this morning from the Psalm and more poignantly from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that show us a different element about the nature of God. In the Isaiah reading, Isaiah has a vision of the Holy of Holies, the very throne upon which sits the almighty God with winged angels flying around and crying out the words that we hear in some form every Sunday in the Eucharistic prayers, ""Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."

Paradoxically, this is also the image of God that a lot of people in the West want to over exaggerate, as if God is some almighty being with lightning bolts in his fists like Zeus on Mt. Olympus; a being the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers liked to refer to as the "infinite other." A being so completely unlike humans, emotionless, all knowing, unchangeable, the Ages of Ages."

How can both of these images of God that we are presented from the scripture readings today be accurate? Can God be both personal and transcendent? That is the conundrum we are faced with this Trinity Sunday.

There are many ways we could discuss this seemingly fundamental paradox of God. Perhaps the most helpful this year is to look at a line of thought that I saw discussed in an article in the latest edition of the Living Church magazine, and some thoughts on which I have permission from the author to pass along in my sermon.

The author quoted noted author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner (pronounced Beekner) as saying in explaining the Trinity:

"From our necessarily limited human perspective, we experience the Father as the God-beyond-us, the Son as the God-beside-us, and the Holy Spirit as the God-within-us."

As I said a moment ago, some people's entire view of God is that very God-beyond-us. The bearded old man in the sky with the stern face, who is clothed in "dreadful majesty" as Charles Wesley describes God in one of his famous hymns we sing in Advent.

That view, in itself, is not entirely wrong. Such a view of God does foster a reverence for the greatness of God which in turn elicits our worship and obedience. That is the reason we bow or genuflect and generally be reverent when we come up to the altar to partake in Communion. However, relating solely to God as the God-beyond-us can foster a relationship of fear, if we are so reverent that we are constantly afraid of God.

On the other end of that spectrum, some Christians only want to relate to God as the God-beside-us. I am likewise reminded of the old gospel hymn, "What a friend we have in Jesus..." Jesus as the tame lion, our schoolyard buddy, someone to whom we want to view more as our friendly family therapist or business consultant, and not as the Saviour of the World who might actually want us to change or to grow.

There are also people these days very much into the "I'm spiritual but not religious" scene. I have never been able to get anyone who firmly believes that to give me a substantive definition to my satisfaction of what that means exactly.

It would seem to me that solely going on some inner quest to focus on the God-within assumes that whatever we find there within ourselves is of divine origin and there is no way to discern whether what we find "deep down in ourselves" is truly the God-within-us or is our own unhealthy opinions, impulses, or drives, that we have turned into deity form, a strawman divinity dressed up in our own likeness with our own self-centered desires.

My best educated guess is this "spiritual but not religious" need that people seem to have and want to flaunt is the very same need that the Holy Spirit fulfills in people's lives: the need for the God-within-us. The Holy Spirit being that fire we celebrated last week on Pentecost that works for the renewal and transformation within us to bring us ultimately to the perfection for which God has created us.

The beauty and danger of the Trinity in that God can be both personal and transcendent for God is both the God-beside-us, the God-beyond-us, as well as the God-within-us. We all have times in our lives where we can better relate to God in one of those facets and not so much the other two.

When we are lonely, God is there beside us.

When we think we have it all figured out, God is there beyond us.

And when our batteries have run down and we feel God is not there, God is there within us, refreshing us for the work he has given us to do.

But it is the whole Trinity, one God, that is always there for us, even if we can never fully comprehend the whole, never fully grasp the God that is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That same God can relate to us where we are, in a form that we can understand.

This Trinity Sunday, may that same wild lion, that God-beyond-us, that God-beside-us, and that God-within-us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bless us and be with us all evermore.


1 comment:

The Underground Pewster said...

Thank you for rescuing National Bad Preaching Sunday.

A stranger with a dead battery I helped yesterday told me that the correct description was "wrong preaching."