Sunday, May 31, 2015

Heresy and Humility

Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

In the year that King Uzziah died, 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. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

How big is God?
If you were going to put God in a box, how big would it be?
It would have to be bigger than the biggest flat rate Priority Mail box.
Bigger than a refrigerator box.
Bigger than the Post Office, actually.
Bigger than this sanctuary.

In Isaiah’s vision, God is so big that only the hem of God’s robe fits in the sanctuary.
The bigness of God, the enormity of God’s presence, is beyond any thought our minds can contain. We need a combination of imagination and awe to encounter it, and when we do, we are at a loss for words, overcome with humility. There is simply more than we can take in.

This bigness, this overwhelming expanse of God calls to mind the experience of many a first-time visitor to the United States. Often, the tourist from Japan or Norway arrives in New York City, and, having seen the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty, then asks, “Tomorrow, can we drive over to Dallas, Texas?”

A man from Lebanon told the story of his grandmother’s visit one summer. Remember, Grandma's reference for distance was Lebanon, You can drive the length of that country in a day. After Grandma arrived at his home in Seattle, he asked her,
“Grandma, is there anywhere in particular you would like to visit?”
His grandmother replied, "I'd like go to to Washington, DC."
"Okay, Grandma. Let me buy some plane tickets."
"No, let's drive."
"You want to drive all the way to Washington, DC?
Here, let me show you on a map how far away it is."
Grandma replied, "Let's do it."
The man said, "Okay, Grandma, we're going on a road trip!"
So the family packed up the car, and set out early one morning. The first day, they had made it as far as Idaho, and stopped for the night.
Grandma asked, "Is this Washington, DC?"
"No, Grandma. Washington, DC is still very far away.
Here, let me show you on the map where we are." Grandma was unconvinced.
“If you'd only stop and ask for directions, we would have been there by now.”[1]

We humans, finite beings that we are, tend to measure by our own frame of reference.
Isaiah is overwhelmed by the enormity of God. He stands in a presence so vast that the temple cannot contain it. God is so big that there is space in that holy temple only for the bottom edge of God’s robe. Isaiah is speechless, small, humbled.

By God’s grace, even now we can experience this. In worship, as we encounter that overwhelming largeness, that inexpressible presence. Even as our hearts swell and our souls thrill to the embrace, we feel small, humble, unworthy.

We cry out with Isaiah, “We are a people of unclean lips!”
It’s a baffling and overpowering experience.
At the end of it all, Isaiah can only say,
“Hineni!” Here I am!

Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday of the church year that the Lectionary texts are pointed to preaching about a specific doctrine of the Christian church. Lots of preachers – including me -- avoid that challenge by taking a vacation or choosing another text.

Because the Trinity is complex. The Trinity is mysterious.

The Trinity, is ….well, it’s big.

There’s no way to talk about it without using imagery and metaphor. We can chart the trinity in diagrams, but they are merely ink on paper. I can show you a map of the Trinity, but you won’t know its vastness until you start traveling into it and experience it. One way to do that is through imagination – encountering holiness through art or music or poetry. Another is through metaphor and story. The Gospel reading in today’s Lectionary comes from the Gospel of John, the third chapter, verses 1-21. Rather than clarify the idea of the Trinity with logic, this story introduces more images and metaphors.

It’s the story of Nicodemus, coming to Jesus at night.
Nicodemus is a leader in the synagogue, a Pharisee, a man of influence.
He comes to Jesus, recognizing that Jesus is a man sent from God.
Jesus says to Nicodemus that he needs to be born from above.
And Nicodemus is puzzled. How can this be – born from above?
So Jesus uses a metaphor of birth – water and spirit.
He says to Nicodemus:
“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Who knows what Nicodemus made of this?
Jesus continues, contrasting the things of earth and the things of heaven,
describing how the son was begotten from the love of God,
to bring life to all people,
to let God’s grace be born in them.

It is a conversation full of symbols and metaphor.
There are signs and symbols, but Jesus’ words are not a road map to heaven.
Jesus’ words point to God, a God big and glorious who fills the heavens. a God free and strong to blow like the wind, wherever it chooses, a God so close and intimate, that we are birthed and healed in the only begotten son. Such conversations require poetry and metaphor, especially when we are talking about something like the Trinity.

It seems that almost any symbol we choose to represent it turns out to be a heresy.
If we represent the Trinity as water, ice, and steam, we fall into the heresy of modalism –
that God is just one, but in three forms. If we represent the Trinity as an apple – core, peel and flesh, or an egg –shell, white, and yolk, we commit the heresy of partialism, that none of the three are God unless all of them are together. If we try to describe God the Father as the main identity, with the Holy Spirit as God’s partner and Jesus Christ as a human brought into the divine scheme, we’ve committed the heresy of adoptionism.

In our efforts to talk logically about how big God really is, big enough to be three persons but still one God, we hit a dead end. Trying to make sense of mystery takes us right off the map. Even when we simply say what we believe about the Trinity as it is expressed in the Athanasian creed, we can lose our way. This creed, rarely used in the Western church, was attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria The story goes that Athanasius composed the statement while he was in exile, and then gifted the creed to Pope Julius, in order to demonstrate that he was an orthodox believer. However, the story is questionable, and probably whoever did write it put Athanasius' name on it so the statement would have more credibility.

In any case, it is as clear a statement as can be made about the Trinity.
And even it sounds a bit circular and confusing. (Let me reassure you however, that our struggles with the doctrine of the trinity are probably not going to be a source of eternal perishing because these words are simply an effort to describe the indescribable.) We use this language of neither blending or dividing, to speak of mystery. We talk of co-eternality, of distinct beings who are still one, as if these terms make sense, but the Trinity is really a mystery. We describe one uncreated being who is still three distinct beings in an effort to get our minds around this huge, uncontainable God.

We speak of birth, of water and spirit of angels with six wings singing “holy, holy, holy” to express that which cannot be expressed. This God in three persons is bigger than our language.

This indescribable, uncontainable God
comes to us as a gurgling infant
and in the flame and fire of Pentecost,
and as an unreachable being soaring above us beyond our grasp.

God is one, and three, a relationship and a love supreme.
God in community, the holy in one,
is an uncreated, immeasurable, almighty love.

Our God is love -- love that dances in relationship with the beloved –
Father, Son, Holy Spirit, whirling around each other,
hands joined in a glorious dance.

The Trinity is love that sits at table with bread and wine,
leaning in toward each other, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,
savoring the sweetness of the cup, the delectable bread.

The triune God is love that opens its circle to invite us in,
lifts us spinning and laughing in the dance.
This God is love that sets a table for us,
fills our plates with good things and bids us eat.

This glorious, uncreated, dancing, party-throwing God
fills the room and fills our hearts with awe,
to make us joyful in our living,
to make us generous in hospitality,
to make us humble in our claims,
to make us alive, fully alive,

Holy, holy, holy!

Thanks be to God for the Trinity!



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