God Is With Us (in the little things)

Do you ever get scared?  I get scared sometimes.  I get scared of all kinds of things:

What if I get sick?  What if we run out of money?  What if I lose my job?  What if my marriage falls apart?  What if something happens to one of my kids?

What if this election doesn’t turn out the way I think it should?  What if the stock market crashes again?  What if essential relief and education programs get their funding cut by policy makers?

We live lives surrounded by fear.  The famous philosopher (and sometimes crankyperson) David Hume once went on a rant about all the things in this world that scare us.  First, he said, there are our natural enemies: those things that threaten our physical existence (i.e. predators, disasters, diseases).  Then there are our societal enemies: tyranny, oppression, injustice, inequality, violent rebellion.  Next you have our internal enemies: guilt, shame, fear.  Finally, as if all that weren’t enough, we have our own imaginary enemies that we make up ourselves: superstitions, taboos, mythical monsters.

Surrounded by so many enemies and things to be scared of on all sides, life hardly seems worth living, says Hume.  Why then do we go on?  Why don’t we just end it all?  Well, says Hume, because we’re scared of that too.  Death is the ultimate enemy to fear because no one knows for sure what lies on the other side of it.  And so, because we are ultimately afraid of death, Hume says, “We are terrified, not bribed, into the continuance of our existence.”

Now, this is a pretty dark portrayal of reality (David Hume was kind of famous for that), but I think he has a point in noticing that we live our lives surrounded by fear.  There’s always something to be worried about or afraid of.  This is the way it’s always been.

Way back in the 8th century BCE, there was a Jewish king named Ahaz who had a lot to be scared of.  His reign had been fraught with constant conflict.  Two of his enemies, the Ephraimites and the Arameans, had joined forces and were threatening to lay siege to the city of Jerusalem.  Ahaz was understandably scared out of his gourd.  The most sensible thing he could think of to do was to seek out support from a bigger, meaner bully down the block.  Back then, the biggest, meanest kid in town was the Assyrian Empire.

This, by the way, is the same rationale that leads some people, especially teenagers and young adults, to join gangs: they’re looking to garner a sense of safety when they feel like no one else cares about them.  But, as is so often the case with these kinds of things, there is a hefty price to pay and very little safety after all.  In King Ahaz’s case, he and his people would pay dearly for whatever protection they received from Assyria.  Having sacrificed freedom for security, they were no longer in charge of their own house.  The people of Judah paid tribute to the Assyrians and owed them allegiance, even to the point of worshiping Assyrian deities in the place of the Jewish God.  Because of fear, Ahaz lost sight of who he was and what he was supposed to stand for in the world. 

It didn’t have to be this way.  Isaiah the prophet, who was a pretty insightful dude, saw the bad end coming and tried to warn Ahaz.  He said, “These troubles are only temporary.  It’s not worth selling your soul in order to ensure your survival.  Have a little faith!”  He pointed to a pregnant woman and said, “You see this young woman?  By the time her baby grows up and is old enough to walk and talk, these conflicts will be nothing more than a distant memory.  Look at this woman and remember her.  Let her baby be a sign to you that God is with you, therefore you don’t need to be afraid.”

This was a powerful message.  And it’s one that has endured for thousands of years, even though its intended audience didn’t listen to a word of it.  Isaiah told Ahaz to look for God, not in grandiose displays of power or guarantees of success, but in the little things of this world.  The sign of God’s presence was that little baby, whose name would be Immanuel, which is Hebrew for “God is with us.”

Over seven hundred years after Isaiah first spoke these words, the early Christians would look back at them and say, “Hey, you know what?  Isaiah’s prophecy kind of reminds us of Jesus!  He wasn’t very powerful or successful by this world’s standards, but when we looked at him, we got that hunch that maybe “God is with us.”  Besides, Jesus taught us to look for God in the little things as well: in the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, in farmers sowing seeds and bakers baking bread. Jesus got us looking at all those little things in life that most people never pay attention to.  Because of him, we know that God is with us, just like Isaiah tried to tell Ahaz with that little boy Immanuel.”

I love that.  God is with us in the little things.  As we live our lives, surrounded and overwhelmed by fear, we often forget to pay attention to those little, everyday signs that God is with us.  Like Ahaz, we can sometimes be quick to lose sight of who we are and what’s really important, especially when we’re afraid.  It’s in those moments of overwhelming anxiety that we most need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look… really look at ourselves, our lives, and our world.  We need to pay attention to those little things, the things we’re too busy for, the boring, ordinary things that happen every day, the things that don’t seem all that important: babies, bread, birds, flowers, seeds… because those places are the places where God meets us.

There may be no grandiose sign, no light from heaven, no singing angels.  There will be no guarantees of security or success.  Just the little things, little signs of Immanuel, that God is with us.  All we are promised from these encounters is a renewed perspective on who we are what life is all about.  The strength we find in these encounters is the strength to stand by our core values and central beliefs, come what may.  God is with us in the little things of this world to remind us that some things in life are more important than success or survival, therefore we don’t need to live in fear.  Fear is not the foundation of reality.  Deeper than fear, deeper still than the natural, societal, internal, and imaginary enemies who surround us on every side, at the very heart of reality, we have a friend who is always with us… a love that will not let us go.  My esteemed, late colleague, the Rev. Fred Rogers (host of the children’s TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said it best:

“I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”

With a God like this on our side, what do we have to be afraid of?

Immanuel, God is with us, even (especially) in the little things.  This is the message that Isaiah tried to deliver to King Ahaz, although Ahaz wasn’t willing to hear it.  This is the message we are meant to take with us from the Christmas season.  The question for us is: are we willing to listen?

Immanuel, God is with us.  Do not be afraid.


Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island
Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island

When I was in seminary at Regent College, there was a professor there named Loren Wilkinson.  Loren was famous for regularly inviting students to join him and his wife Mary Ruth at their farm on Galiano Island, just off the coast of British Columbia’s lower mainland.  This trip to the Wilkinson farm became one of the central hallmarks of the Regent College experience for many students, myself included.

Now, this trip was no mere vacation, mind you.  No, when you went to Galiano Island, you went there expecting to work.  Loren got you up early and gave you a task to complete somewhere on the farm.  There was always something to be done, and with groups of students visiting almost every weekend, there were usually enough hands to get it all done.  Many students, like me, came from urban or suburban backgrounds, so we had never experienced life on a working farm before.  Loren made sure that we got our hands dirty and broke a sweat during the day.

And then, at night, the real treat came: dinner.  After work, the other thing you were expected to do at Galiano Island was eat.  And, oh my goodness, did we eat!  Homemade delicacies of every imaginable variety were set out before us in abundance.  Nobody left that table hungry.  And it wasn’t just the quantity of food that was abundant, it was the quality as well.  Everything was organic, homemade, and delicious.

Loren and Mary Ruth lived very simple lives on the island, but the main thing we learned during our stay with them is that simple need not mean austere.  Visitors never got the sense that these people were sacrificing or going without the creature comforts of life.  They live in abundance.

I thought about my trip to Galiano Island and the abundance I discovered there when I read this week’s scripture passage from the book of Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price…

…Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

Later on in the passage, the prophet compares the word of God to the life-giving qualities of rain:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Finally, at the end, the prophet leaves the people with a promise of even more abundance, which is yet to come:

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The power of these images is undeniable.  The earth itself is veritably bursting at the seams with life and blessing.  More than just “the way it is”, to this Jewish prophet, the abundance of creation is a divine revelation: it tells us something about God: the Ground of all Being, the core nature of reality itself.  We humans live, move, and have our being in a vast ocean of abundant blessing and amazing grace.

Why then don’t we see it?  Why don’t we believe it?  Why don’t we live our lives as if this was the most central truth of our existence?

It can be hard to embrace the abundance of creation when we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices and circumstances testifying to the contrary.  Every time we change the channel, it seems like there’s one more voice reminding us how close we are to the brink of Armageddon.  Politicians and advertising executives make their livings off of our fear that there is not enough to go around.  Popular media would have us believe that poverty and starvation are problems too big to be solved.  We tell ourselves there’s simply nothing we can do.  However, according to the World Hunger Education Service, the earth produces enough food to provide every man, woman, and child with 2,720 kilocalories per day… that’s over 1,000 times the amount of calories needed for a healthy diet.  Regardless of this fact, people all over the world (mostly in Asia and Africa) are dying of starvation while Americans are dying of an obesity epidemic.

Is the problem really that there’s not enough to go around?  Or is it that too much has been hoarded into one place?  Could it be that powerful, fear-mongering politicians and executives are holding the rest of us hostage with delusions of scarcity?

What makes it worse is that the powerful people who propagate these lies have come to believe in them so strongly that they are making decisions for the rest of us.  They lob their ideological grenades at one another on TV, meanwhile the children of God line up outside soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Senators and CEOs drive around in bullet-proof limousines while the people of this country stand in unemployment lines.  Friends, I daresay this is a sin against heaven itself.  Something is radically wrong with our collective worldview if we truly believe the lie that there is simply not enough to go around.

This morning’s scripture reading calls us to change this worldview.  First, the prophet gets our attention:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.

And then warns us:

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

The details of this passage are worth paying attention to: the problem, according to the prophet, is not the bounty of creation but the small-mindedness of its inhabitants.  Presumably, they want to live and live well.  What is needed then?  We must forsake our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts.  The problem is not with the world itself, but with our way of thinking and living in it.  Average people are envious of those who have more than they need, so they run roughshod over the rights and needs of the poor in an attempt to emulate the powerful.

The prophet gives us the remedy:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live…

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

In other words: it’s high time to change our stinkin’ thinkin’.

It’s time for us to stop shouting at the sky about how big our problems are and start shouting at our problems about how big the sky is.

Instead of looking out for number one in our small-minded, self-centered little worlds, we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and sharing.  The abundance of creation is a free gift to all.  We lose it when we try to keep it all for ourselves.  It’s time for us, as people of faith, “to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  I borrowed that phrase from our neighbors in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The simplest answer is that it’s time for us to learn how to share.  I’m not just talking about opening our wallets on occasion; I’m talking about opening our minds on all occasions.  We have to expand our definition of the word family.  We need to nurture global family values, but that’s a tall order, so why don’t we start with local family values?  When we hear about that sickness, that layoff, or that foreclosure for our neighbors, let’s not harden our hearts or turn our backs saying, “It’s not my problem.”  Because it is our problem.  When we live in community with one another, not just proximity to one another, options, possibilities, and resources begin to open up.  All of a sudden, we don’t feel so desperate or alone anymore.  Together we find hope, strength, and courage to overcome adversity and make it through the darkest night.  In short: we begin to manifest the freely given abundance of creation that is our collective birthright.  We start small and work our way up.  As they say, “Think globally, act locally.”

Coming up in a few weeks, on Easter Sunday, our congregation will be participating in a single, unified manifestation of abundance for people all over the world.  It’s called One Great Hour of Sharing.  This ecumenical effort was begun over sixty years ago to pool the efforts of multiple denominations in the fight against global poverty and hunger.  Our forebears realized they could do more together than any of them could do apart.  To date, we have raised as much as $20 million annually to assist with disaster relief and development projects around the world.

Throughout the season of Lent, you will notice inserts in your bulletins that outline a different project each week that is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.  Take these inserts home with you, pray for the project highlighted that week, and please consider pooling your resources with ours on Easter Sunday so that we might collectively manifest the abundance of creation for the good of the whole.

These are our global family values.  This is our faith-based alternative to the politics of fear and the economy of scarcity.  It has nothing to do with the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street.  The kingdom of heaven-on-earth doesn’t belong to the powerful; it belongs to the little ones of this world, it belongs to the local communities of average Janes and Joes who reach out to care for one another in the midst of good times and bad.

In a few minutes, we will gather as a church around the Communion Table to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In this feast of the abundance of heaven and earth, all people are invited to come, eat, and drink without money and without price.

I pray that the message of this feast will not return empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent: bringing forth life and growth, manifesting the abundance of creation for the common good.  May the meaning of this mystery take root in the soil of your soul, and as you go out from this place today, fed and filled with Word and Sacrament, may you go out in joy and be led back in peace, may the mountains and hills burst into song before you and the trees of the field clap their hands.

May you know the abundance of creation as you share it with everyone you meet.  May you be blessed and be a blessing in the knowledge that I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.


A Sermon About A Sermon

I imagine there must have been some excitement in the air that morning as people entered the synagogue, dressed in their Saturday best.  Perhaps some of the regulars were shuffling to find a new place to sit, since their usual seats were taken by the folks who normally only show up at Yom Kippur and Passover.  But they came to synagogue that morning because they heard the news about the new guest preacher.  One of their own, a local son, was returning to Nazareth for the first time since he began to make a name for himself in the region of Galilee.

Many of them remembered Jesus as a small boy, running around and playing with his friends while the adults made small-talk after the service.  Now, at age thirty, he was beginning to garner a reputation as an itinerant rabbi, a teacher of the Torah.  There were even some astonishing reports of unexplained, mystical healings associated with his visits.  If even a few of these rumors were true, then surely he was about to save the best for them, the people of his hometown, the very ones with whom he had grown up and lived.

They were good-hearted, hard-working, small-town folk who came together Sabbath after Sabbath to honor their Jewish heritage and listen to the wisdom of the Torah.  They knew Jesus and he knew them.  They were the ones who taught Jesus those old stories of Moses and the prophets.  Now, Jesus was the one who would preserve that history and pass it on to yet another generation, as it had been passed down to them by their ancestors in that very same synagogue.  This was a very big day indeed.

The service itself, like every Shabbat service, featured the singing of the old psalms, praying prayers, and of course reciting the ancient Shema, Israel’s oldest creed: “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.”  This faith formed the core of their tradition, preserved and passed on from generation to generation.  And now, they were proud to welcome one of their own, Jesus, as the newest defender of the faith and guardian of the tradition.

After a reading from the Torah, there was usually another reading from one of the prophets.  That week, it came from the book of Isaiah.  Jesus read out loud: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Heads around the room were nodding in agreement as the old familiar words washed over them for the umpteenth time in their lives.  They knew the story behind the words as well:

The prophet was writing to a community of Jews who had just returned from multiple generations of slavery in Babylon and Persia.  It was in that place and time of tribulation that their religion had taken the shape it now held for them.  They had come to believe that their God, Adonai of Israel, was the one true deity and all others were mere pretenders to heaven’s throne.  In Babylon, alienated from the land of their ancestors and the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made daily, their Jewish ancestors had turned their attention to prayer and the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis.  As strangers in a strange land, their ancestors had proudly struggled under oppression to preserve their faith and culture.  The very existence of this synagogue in the small town of Nazareth was a testimony to their success.

Finally, after three generations of Jewish children had grown up under a Babylonian whip, the Persians invaded and conquered Babylon.  These more open-minded Persians allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild, so long as they promised to remain loyal and subservient to the Empire.  The prophet writing in this section of the book of Isaiah directed his words toward these newly returned exiles.  They were faced with the task of rebuilding their country from the ground up.  How would they even start?  What values and ideals would shape this new society?

This particular prophet, writing in the name of another ancient seer, Isaiah of Jerusalem, who had lived and died centuries before, reminded the people of the ancient tradition of the year of Jubilee, a special holiday that came only once every fifty years.  In this year, every debt would be forgiven and every slave set free.  The land and the people would rest and then emerge with a fresh start, a new lease on life.  The onset of this holiday was certainly “good news to the poor” for it brought release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and forgiveness to the debtors.  It was a fresh start.  The future was suddenly wide open.  Liberated by the pronouncement of divine forgiveness, a new generation of people was free to rebuild the world anew.  This is why they called it “the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It seemed to them like heaven itself was smiling.

Back in the Nazarene synagogue, the old men heard these ancient words with tears in their eyes and smiles under their beards.  God had been faithful, their people had survived, rebuilt, and passed on their heritage to another generation of Jews.  And now, here was Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the little kid who used to play in their streets, now grown up tall, ordained as a rabbi, and preaching his first sermon in his hometown.  The people survived.  Their tradition lived on.  God be praised!

Jesus finished his reading, rolled the scroll back up, and handed it back to the attendant.  Then he sat down in the rabbi’s chair, which is what they used back then instead of a pulpit, and began to preach.  He gave them the main point of his sermon with his opening remark: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wait… what did he just say?  Fulfilled?  Didn’t he mean to say Honored, or Remembered, or Preserved?  What does he mean by ‘Fulfilled’?  If those ancient words were being ‘fulfilled’ ‘today’, it would mean that the story of our people is not yet over.  It would mean that the journey home to freedom is not yet finished.  It would mean that the task of rebuilding a new community is up to us, not our ancestors.

Even more importantly, it would mean that the year of Jubilee is now.  All debts are off and all slaves are free.  A fresh start for us, not just a bunch of people who lived once upon a time.

Jesus brought their tradition to life by showing it to be unfinished.  A new world was being brought to birth by the age-old values of forgiveness and freedom.  The same Spirit that animated the ancient prophets like a fire shut up in their bones was ready to set hearts on fire in that synagogue.

By appealing to this passage, Jesus deftly drew from multiple layers of tradition in order to make his point.  Present, prophet, and Torah each represented different strands woven into a single tapestry in this sermon.  Jesus appealed to the very deepest parts of who they were and what they valued as loyal, faithful Jews.  He called them toward their higher calling through a fuller vision of who they were.  He opened their eyes to the presence of a dynamic reality that is still unfolding, still working in their lives in order to bring fulfillment to the prophet’s ancient vision.  Like any good preacher, Jesus brought the past into the present in order to shape the future.  He opened their minds to possibilities that boggled their imaginations.  He showed them a vision of what this world could be like if it were remade along the lines of these Jubilee values instead of the exacting cruelty of the loan shark and the slave driver.

Jesus introduced the people of his home synagogue to a living tradition, a prophetic tradition that reveres the memory of the past by trusting the promise of the future.  Jesus invited his neighbors to follow the trajectory of the prophets rather than standing by their writings.

I believe that same invitation is now extended to us, the people sitting in this church today.  We too can best honor the heritage left by our forebears by tracing the trajectory of their lives, rather than dogmatically hanging on their every word.  To quote the Buddhist poet Matsuo Basho: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

Like those members of the Nazarene synagogue, we have our own tradition that we would like to preserve.  Beginning with Jesus, we might follow our tradition through the likes of the apostle Paul, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, and Karl Barth.  Each of these voices (as well as many others) is worth paying attention to.  But it is always a dangerous thing to make an idol of history.  None of these voices carries the last word in matters of faith and ethics.  Every generation of believers is still responsible, as heirs of the tradition, for continuing to interpret spiritual truth (as we understand it) in its day.

Our church tradition has a slogan that reflects this conviction: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda.  “The church is reformed and always to be reformed.”

The Reformation never ends.  The story is not yet over.  The Christian faith begs to be interpreted and applied in our day, just as it was in Calvin’s and Paul’s.  Our interpretations will not match theirs exactly.  John Calvin, for example, would shudder to learn that we now ordain women to preach in the very churches he founded.

There are some who argue that we have departed from “the faith once delivered to the saints” because of these and others of our practices that differ from our forebears.  I say that we are not heretics but pioneers, reformers, maybe even prophets.  Our task is not to blindly adhere to the words written on a page, but to critically follow the trajectory of the values expressed in those words.  Following the image of the Jubilee that Jesus used: what does it mean to forgive debts and liberate slaves in 2013?  Following Paul and Calvin, what does it mean for us to be reformers of church and society today?

As we stretch our minds to answer these questions, we continue the living tradition that was handed down to us from our ancestors.  We honor our history by moving it forward, trusting in the guiding light of the Spirit to lead us home to the One from whom all blessings flow.

The Question is the Answer

Krishna revealing his universal form to Prince Arjuna.
Image found at bhagwangiriji.com

Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory.
Image found at artloversonline.imagekind.com

Listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is Trinity Sunday: the holiday in our church calendar when we’re supposed to talk about the Trinity.  Trinity is our name for the traditional Christian idea that we worship one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is three.  God is one.  That’s the textbook Sunday school answer.  Are you confused yet?  Is your head hurting?  Good.

I had lunch this week with my friend, Mother Linda Logan, the priest at Trinity Episcopal Church, and she joked that Trinity Sunday is typically the Sunday when most clergy try to schedule their vacations.  Who can blame them?  The idea of the Trinity is so bizarre and abstract, it’s hard to preach about in a way that feels relevant to everyday life.  Alas, I seem to have miscalculated this year because my vacation doesn’t start until next week.  Don’t worry though, I’ve given it some serious thought this week and I think I’ve found a way to spice it up.

You see, people didn’t always think of the Trinity as an academic theological concept.  There was a time when people would literally start riots in the streets about it.  They said that, during the early 4th century, you couldn’t even ask a baker about the price of bread without getting into an argument about theology.

The debate got so heated that the Roman emperor, Constantine (himself only a recent convert to Christianity), convened a conference of bishops at his lake house in a town called Nicaea.  They argued back and forth ad nauseum until the emperor decided that enough was enough and promptly put his foot down in favor of the position that we now refer to as the Trinity.  Shortly thereafter, the Nicene Creed was adopted as a trophy for those who had won the debate.  Needless to say, it’s not a very noble beginning for this idea that most orthodox theologians now regard as central to the Christian religion.

Obviously, you won’t find the Trinity mentioned anywhere in our scripture readings for today (because it hadn’t been invented yet).  The idea of the Trinity, as such, does not appear anywhere in the Bible.  Nevertheless, most Christians for the last 1,700 years have kept the Trinity as their main idea about who God is and how God works.  Something about the mystery in this incomprehensible puzzle has compelled Christians to hold onto the Trinity for almost two millennia.

Mystery is a troubling word for folks in the modern era.  We’re not so good at mystery.  Modern people much prefer concrete facts and figures.  We like being able to find the answers and solve the problems.  To the modern mind, then, the Trinity is infuriating.  By its very definition, it can’t be figured out.

Ever since the Enlightenment in the 18th century, our species has learned how look farther and deeper into the nature of the universe than our ancestors ever dreamed of.  We have accomplished feats of strength and intelligence that boggle the imagination.  Looking through his telescope at the moons of Jupiter, could Galileo ever have imagined that we would one day send spacecraft to see them up close?  Yet, in spite of all our achievements, human beings have also managed to discover new ways to systematically inflict death and destruction on each other with ruthless efficiency.  Hitler’s holocaust, two world wars, and the nuclear arms race have opened our eyes to that reality. Reason has not purged the animal from our collective being as we had hoped.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the baffling presence of mystery, our species would have given up hope long ago.

Thankfully, there remains something within our subconscious minds that spurs us on toward an encounter with that which is unknown and unknowable.  We get the sense that, in the darkness of ignorance and uncertainty, we are not alone.  Our scripture readings from this morning, while they mention nothing of the Trinity, have quite a bit to tell us about mystery.  In each passage, someone comes face-to-face with the infinite mystery of the divine and is permanently transformed by it.

In the first reading, the Jewish prophet Isaiah has an ecstatic vision of God’s glory.  The prophet tells his readers how his senses were overwhelmed,

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

I love the dramatic imagery in this story.  It reminds me of a similar passage in a classic Indian poem called the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord”.  In this poem, a prince named Arjuna is having a philosophical chat with his chariot driver named Krishna.  Slowly, it dawns on the prince that there is more to this chariot driver than meets the eye.  Krishna, it turns out, is actually a divine messenger who was sent to teach the prince eternal wisdom.  At one point in the story, Krishna allows Prince Arjuna to see his true form:

with many mouths and eyes, and many visions of marvel, with numerous divine ornaments, and holding divine weapons.  Wearing divine garlands and apparel, anointed with celestial perfumes and ointments, full of all wonders, the limitless God with faces on all sides.  If the splendor of thousands of suns were to blaze forth all at once in the sky, even that would not resemble the splendor of that exalted being.  Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.  Then Arjuna, filled with wonder and his hairs standing on end, bowed his head to the Lord and prayed with folded hands.  (Bhagavad Gita 11.10-14)

I love how similar these visionary experiences are, even though they come from very different cultures and religions.  In both stories, human beings are left standing in awe before the eternal mystery.  In Isaiah’s story, the one that Christians are more familiar with, even the angels cover their eyes and sing, “Holy, holy, holy”.  That word, holy, is one that we use in church a lot.  People use it outside of church too, sometimes combined with an expletive, in order to express amazement.  No one is more famous for doing this than Burt Ward, who played Batman’s sidekick Robin in the 1960s TV series.  Robin had all kinds of unique exclamations: “Holy Hallelujah, Batman!  Holy Fruit Salad, Batman!  Holy Uncanny Photographic Mental Processes!”  Holy was Robin’s catchphrase.  Given the startling nature of what Isaiah and Arjuna were experiencing in their respective visions, I can just imagine Robin standing beside them, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy, Batman!”  But, in Isaiah’s case, it was the angels who were saying it.

The word holy, as we tend to use it, typically means sacred or blessed.  However, on a more general level, it literally means special or different.  Something is holy when it is other than what one would expect.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Robin to use it as an exclamation when he is caught off guard (which seems to happen a lot).  In the Isaiah passage, it seems that even the angels are amazed at the appearance of God’s glory in the temple.  They repeat “holy” three times as a way of communicating ultimate emphasis: it’s not just holy, it’s not just holy holy, it’s holy holy holy!  Special, special, special!  Different, different, different!  Amazing, amazing, amazing!  If we’re not caught off-guard by God’s presence like Isaiah, if we aren’t filled with wonder with our hairs standing on end like Arjuna’s, then we’re not really paying attention.

In our New Testament reading this morning, Jesus intentionally confuses a religious scholar named Nicodemus.  The latter comes to Jesus in private with an honest question: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  And what does Jesus do?  Does he take this opportunity to clarify himself and maybe even start a theology class?  No, he alienates Nicodemus and leaves him with even more questions than he started with.  Beginning with a cryptic statement, “You must be born from above” (or “born again” as some translations say), Jesus finishes with an outright insult: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”  The philosopher in me feels indignant on Nicodemus’ behalf!  Can’t Jesus see that this is an honest and intelligent person who is simply trying to make sense of things in his own mind?  But rational understanding is not what Jesus is after in his conversation with Nicodemus.

Instead, Jesus seems to be giving Nicodemus a koan.  For those who are unfamiliar with that term, a koan is a Zen Buddhist riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking.  Zen masters will often give their students a koan to fuel the students’ meditation and spur them toward enlightenment.  The most famous Zen koan is one we’ve probably all heard before: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  If you immediately started thinking about your hand just now, then you don’t get it.  When it comes to the koan, if you can answer the question, then you haven’t answered the question.  Why?  Because the question is the answer.  The question itself is the point of the exercise.  Let it take you beyond the realm of what you think of as normal reason.  Sit with it a while.  Let it free your mind and expand your consciousness.  Only then will you be able to appreciate the mystery.

Neither Isaiah nor Nicodemus knew anything of the Trinity.  That wasn’t yet part of their culture or religion.  The Trinity is a human idea that tries to express the mystery of God as we have experienced it.  Like a Zen koan, the Trinity is a riddle that cannot be solved by rational thinking.  But if we sit with it and meditate on the mystery, we might just find ourselves in the state of holy confusion that some might call enlightened.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna, “You are not able to see Me with your physical eye; therefore, I give you the divine eye to see My majestic power and glory.”  With that “divine eye”, it says that the prince “saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One in the body of Krishna, the God of gods.”  This is not all that far off from Isaiah’s vision, wherein the prophet realized that “the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.”

If you’re confused about the Trinity, that’s a good thing.  It means that you’re paying attention.  Confusion is the first step on the path toward a free and enlightened mind.

I see confusion as a virtue at this point in the modern age where absolute certainty has become an idol.  We find ourselves these days surrounded by the cacophonous voices of politicians and advertisers, all of whom claim to possess the secret that will bring peace, security, and a successful end to our “pursuit of happiness”.  Vote for this candidate!  Buy that product!  That’s the key to lasting joy!

In this environment, even religion and spirituality themselves become products for consumption.  Fundamentalist preachers and cult leaders assure us that, if you simply sign on their dotted line and accept their dogmas without question, you too can secure your place in heaven for eternity.  In spite of their claims to possess “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as revealed in ancient times, the fundamentalist commitments to absolute certainty and biblical literalism are very recent and modern ideas.  They only came about during the last one hundred years or so as a reaction to developments in science and philosophy that led some to question and/or reinterpret parts of their faith.  Their fear is understandable, but we don’t have to look hard to find the dark side of that kind of religion.  The September 11th attacks and the Jonestown massacre, where almost a thousand people died after willingly drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at their pastor’s insistence, demonstrate what can happen when religious fanaticism goes unquestioned.

Under circumstances such as these, confusion is a virtue that provides us with humility and reverence for the mystery of it all.  The spiritually enlightened mind is one that can comfortably say, “I don’t know!”  Zen masters call this “beginner’s mind”.  Taoist sages call it “the uncarved block”.  Jesus called it “faith like a child”.

When it comes to the koan of the Trinity, there is no answer because the question is the answer.  The question leads us to confusion, confusion leads us to humility, humility leads us to reverence, and reverence leads us into a deeper experience of that great eternal mystery wherein we begin to see “the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as One” and “the whole earth… full of [God’s] glory.”  Only then can we truly join with prophets, angels, and saints from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation under heaven who forever sing: Holy, holy, holy!  Amazing, amazing, amazing!

Paper Armor

One of the most impressive things about our society is the efficiency with which we armor ourselves from one another.  Yesterday, I had a run-in with an SUV at an intersection in Utica.  Thankfully, no one was injured.  What’s even more remarkable is that when we got out to inspect our vehicles, neither of us could find any damage on our cars.  On this occasion, efficient armor was most welcome.

Later in the day, I encountered another kind of armor for which I was not so glad.  A disabled veteran informed me that his social security check had not arrived since December.  His shoes had worn through so that his feet were getting soaked as he limped through the snow, but there was no money in his account for new shoes.  After some bureaucratic wrestling, it was determined that the checks were being sent to his previous address.  His previous caseworker had quit and paperwork had been lost in the shuffle.  The error has been corrected, but he still won’t be able to get money for shoes until Tuesday.  I hope the weather warms up this weekend.

Later still, an elderly woman showed me a letter she received from an insurance company.  She was in the hospital last month and the company just now decided that her visit would not be covered.  The letter was so full of jargon that neither of us could understand it.  We had to call someone in North Carolina to serve as interpreter.

Our healthcare and social service systems seem to be designed to isolate the rest of humanity from the suffering of the weak.  Whether the system is privatized or government-run, red tape will still protect the person holding the checkbook from the person who needs help.  Their paper armor is thin but impenetrable.

I could pontificate about bureaucracy all day, but if I’m truly honest with myself, then I have to admit that I share the desire to run and hide from the suffering of others.  I sat with someone today whose perspective on reality is all but lost in a fog of alcohol and insanity.  I try to listen attentively, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand.  The better part of me wants to believe that I can still be an effective pastor.  The rest of me wants to dump him in rehab and come back when he’s sober.

Sometimes, I think it would be so much easier to recite a biblical passage and then be on my way.  Who knows?  I still might do it.  There’s something to be said for the pastoral rites of the church, but they’re not meant to be used as cop-outs.  What I want to resist in myself is the desire to put on my own paper armor: whether it’s a bureaucratic form, a liturgical service, or a biblical passage.  I want to stay engaged with the real suffering of those who live in the darkest corners of this community.

What I need is for the love of the Suffering Servant, who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, to flow through me in fresh ways.   His love gave him the strength to stand in solidarity with outcasts, to touch lepers, and to do all that without hiding behind the paper armor of bureaucratic systems.