June 20, 2011

June 19, 2011 Sermon


Sermon for Trinity Sunday
June 19, 2011
Michael Coffey


We long for it, your know,
our spirits sing for it,
our hearts pine for it,
and our minds search for it.
Even when we don’t know it is what we are searching for,
drawing closer to God is our journey and goal.
But how, and with what resources,
and in what direction, and with what guide?

Trinity Sunday is a time to look at the whole biblical story
of God and humanity,
and celebrate that the mystery of God
is none other than the mystery of love,
celebrate that the searching for meaning,
is none other than the journey of life with God and each other.
We celebrate that in Jesus we have been drawn into
the story of God’s mercy and compassion
that could not happen apart from his life, death, and resurrection.
We celebrate that the Spirit that dwells among us now
keeps us close to God’s love throughout life.

So why is it that so much history of Christian theology
and teaching about God
is about as warm and loving and compassionate
as calculus.
Not that I didn’t love learning calculus.
I did. I thought it was fascinating.
But we have approached our Christian experience of God
too often as if it were a mathematical puzzle
which, like calculus, many of us don’t love very much.
Well, since I can’t find a more appropriate word to use on Sunday morning,
that is just rubbish.

I have not kept it a secret over the years that Trinity Sunday
is on my short list of least favorite Sundays of the year.
It’s not because I don’t like or accept the doctrine.
It’s because I don’t like the way the doctrine gets used
and analyzed, and mulled over, and too often
turns faith in God into belief in a doctrine.
When it comes to talking about God
and even more, forcing belief in doctrines about God,
we fall severely short of the mystery that is God.
Not that we shouldn’t do it,
this talking and theologizing and doctrinizing,
but we shouldn’t assume that these words and theories
and mental maps of God
are the same thing as the mystery that is God
and our experience of God.

It’s like the poem by Billy Collins called “Introduction to Poetry,”
which sounds a lot like a college freshman course on poetry:

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

You can hear the frustration in the professor
at freshman trying to figure out a poem,
instead of enjoying the words, and the sounds,
and the images and the experience of the poem.
Collins knows that the truth of a poem
is only expressed in the poem itself.

There is a famous quote that no one seems
to be able to trace to an original source.
I’ve heard everyone from Elvis Costello to Steve Martin.
In talking about music criticism, someone said:
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
Now I kind of like the thought of someone
walking up to the Chrysler Building in Manhattan
and doing a little dance that tries to capture the elegance and beauty
of that iconic skyscraper.
But still, only the Chrysler Building can capture what it is,
just as only music can express the truth that it is.

This morning I heard an interview by Krista Tippett
with the singer Bobby McFerrin
on her radio program called Being.
They got to a point where they were talking about
the spirituality in McFerrin’s music.
She said: It’s hard to talk about it.
He said: Why?
She said: It’s hard to find adequate words to express it.
He said: Yes it is.
She said: Can we try anyway?

That’s what we’re doing when we talk about God:
We are doing something like dancing about architecture,
writing about music,
or forcing a confession out of a poem,
when all you need to do is let the thing express itself.
And yet, appropriately, we try anyway,
because the words are one way to get a little closer.
And as long as we don’t confuse the words and concepts and doctrines
with the mystery that we call God,
as long as we keep humility about our calculus of God,
then we’re OK.

In the text from Matthew we just heard,
Jesus ends his time on earth with his friends
by sending them out.
He says: Go. Make. Baptize. Teach. Obey. Remember.
Well, those are the verbs anyway,
but sometimes the verbs do a better job than the nouns
and the adjectives at getting at the matter.
This text is often called The Great Commission
which drives me kinda nuts.
It got the church so caught up in a Christian conquering of the world
by assuming Jesus wanted us to convert everyone to Christianity.
We often ended up oppressing or killing them if they didn’t.
But the text says nothing about that.
The text says in my humble paraphrase:
Go and make disciples out of every nation,
which really means every ethnic group,
and create a unique community of compassion and love
that includes every kind of person
so that God may be known and experienced in this community,
so the story can be continued.

To make disciples is to form people in the story of God.

To baptize is to take people deeply into the story
so their old story of selfishness and fear dies
and the new, compassionate and loving story of God in Jesus
becomes their whole life.

To teach is to connect people to the life of Jesus
so that the way of compassion and love,
the way of the cross,
becomes their own way even when it is costly.

To obey is to joyfully give one’s self over to this Jesus way.

To remember is to constantly reconnect ourselves to the story
even after we have forgotten, or strayed, or failed,
or been distracted by the old story.

Go. Make. Baptize. Teach. Obey. Remember.

The language of this Matthew text is one of the most Trinitarian sounding
in all of Scripture,
even though, of course, the word Trinity does not appear here
or anywhere in Scripture.
Jesus says to do this in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But what is the thrust of this Trinitarian language?
It’s about getting people caught up in the story of God,
forming people in the story of God’s compassion and mercy
which Jesus embodied
and the Spirit empowers.
Getting caught up in the story of God is the mission,
not forcing belief in the doctrines about God,
because this story is the mystery of life itself,
which is experienced before it is reduced to words.

The story of God’s compassion and love
is the story of God,
and God is the mystery of that wonderful story
that we mostly only experience through sharing in the story,
not by forming words or doctrines.
Words and doctrines are helpful,
but they often only get as far as dancing about architecture,
or beating a poem to death.
First and foremost,
we are invited to share in the joy of experiencing God
as the story of compassion and love
embodied in the story of Jesus
and empowered to live today by the Spirit.

Trinity Sunday is often a day to recite creeds about God.
There is a long tradition of reciting the Athanasian Creed
on Trinity Sunday,
that rather long and laborious statement of faith.
Even though it is one of the three historic creeds we Lutherans
include in our statements of faith,
it is not very pretty, it is severely lacking in compassion and love,
and it leaves one with the impression that believing doctrines about God
is how we are saved and is the main thing about faith.

It is a curious thing
that none of the three great, so-called ecumenical creeds,
Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian,
is accepted by all of the major Christian traditions in the same form,
and only the Nicene is accepted by the Orthodox traditions,
but again, in a different form than in the West.
And yet,
we claim that they above all other statements
unite us in the church as one in Christ.
I’m not speaking against creeds,
I’m just challenging their ability to unite us,
and even more so, to draw us into the mystery,
the story of compassion and love that is God.

I have for a few years used the Masai Creed,
a modern African creed,
on Trinity Sunday because it is very Trinitarian,
but it also talks about beauty, and love, and compassion,
and poverty, and being on safari,
and sharing bread together.
It is much more attuned to the story of God’s love and compassion
in Jesus than are the orthodox statements of faith.

So today,
we are not going to recite the Athanasian Creed,
and you can thank me later.
We’re not even going to say the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds,
even though we use them often.
We’re going to try to come closer to the mystery,
through a musical meditation
that does a pretty good job of telling the story,
the Trinitarian story,
the story of God,
whose compassion and love was embodied in Jesus,
whose Spirit of power to live the same compassion and love
surrounds and fills us even now.
And more than believing any single thing in this creedal song,
we are called, over and over again,
to delight and rejoice in God,
who is the very mystery which we sum up best
with one word that is endlessly rich,
and need only be experienced and not explained: love.

I Delight and Rejoice in Your Love (Taize Song)

The assembly sings the refrain after each line,
and may sing the “O” part while the cantor sings.

Refrain: I delight and rejoice in your love

God, Creator of the world
You are forgiveness and goodness
Our life is in your hands
You sent us Jesus Christ
All sing on “O”

Jesus, Son of the living God
Gentle and humble of heart
Our help and our refuge
Jesus, our peace
Jesus, you came for all people
You proclaimed the kingdom of God
Jesus, brother of the poor
Jesus, goodness without measure
All sing on “O”

Jesus, you carry our burdens
Jesus, you know our trials
You suffer with those who are in sorrow
Jesus, you heal our wounds
All sing on “O”

You loved your disciples to the end
You gave your life on the cross
For us, you rose from the dead
Always offering your forgiveness
You are with us until the end of time
You send us out to proclaim the good news
You prepare us a place close to God
You send us the Holy Spirit
All sing on “O”

Holy Spirit, our comforter
Spirit of the Father, source of all life
You remind us of all that Jesus said
You gather us into the love of God
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Amen, amen!

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