Tag: St. Augustine

A Way That We Will Not Always Understand

Photo by Jeremy McKnight on Unsplash

Welcome to a reflection on the 5th Sunday of Easter. Today’s Gospel begins with words we long to hear in this time of a pandemic. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus. Let’s spend a few minutes seeing how that might be true for us – even now.

The apostle Philip interrupts Jesus. Now Philip is a saint but this was not one of his finer moments. He says, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” In other words, “show us the Creator of it all. Show us the one who gives us all the answers. Why do we suffer? Why do we die? Why is there evil in the world? Give us those answers and we will be satisfied.” Throughout history we have asked those questions. Maybe we are asking them in this pandemic.

Four hundred years after Philip, St. Augustine will become one of the greatest theological minds of all time. He is in the theologian Hall of Fame. He was obsessed with the big questions and the big answers. He wrote seven books about the Holy Trinity. One time , when he was writing still another book on the Trinity, he was walking along the beach on the Mediterranean and saw a child running back and forth from the sea to a hole he had dug in the sand. The child carried a bucket, filled the bucket with seawater, dumped it into the hole he had made and did this over and over again. Augustine asked him why he was doing that. The child replied, “I’m trying to put the sea into this hole.” Augustine responded, “You can’t do that. It won’t fit.” The child, who was an angel in disguise, said “Neither can you put the Mystery of God into your mind. It won’t fit.”

Philip was like Augustine before that encounter with the angel disguised as a child. Show us the Father, show us all the answers, and we will be satisfied. There is another apostle in today’s gospel. It is Thomas. Unlike Philip, he asks a humble question: “How can we know the way?” Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” The way of sacrificial love – compassion, mercy and hope – is the way. A way that we will not always understand, a way that is greater than anything we can fit into our heads, it is a peace that passes all understanding. And that way will emerge everywhere and forever because love is stronger than death.

I was blessed to come across a poem recently that says this truth far more powerfully than I can articulate it. It is called, “A Coming Alleluia” by The Rev. Erika Takacs. One should never explain a poem before it is read, so don’t tell the bishop, but here is something to keep in mind. The poet will refer to the “old mother hen.” This comes from Luke 13:34 when Jesus uses this maternal image of himself and says this: “How often have I desired to gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

Here’s the poem written for our Easter Season, written for our season of a pandemic.

“They say there will be no Easter this year.
No hats.
No hunting.
No hymning.
No lilies to fill a bright room
with a fanfare of pollen.
No garden, no angel,
No victory.

They say that our journey
Born in sackcloth and ashes
will lead us at last to nowhere.

And so we sit worried
that the tomb, this year,
will be found, for once,
still full.

That Mary and the others
will leave with their spices
and come back home with nothing.
That this year the women will finally end their work- anoint and then leave empty.

Ssh. Be still.
Do you not hear her?
Clucking close by like an old mother hen, brooding and sighing and stretching her wings?

Fear not, she says,
for I did it before
In the silence
in the dark
in a closed and locked room
In a world that had known
only death.

Did I not prove
once for all
that there is nothing you can do,
no decision you can make
(for good or for ill)
that can stop
me rising?”

The Rev. Erika Takacs

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Jesus is rising. Even now. Especially now.

Amen.

+Doug

Trinity Sunday

Sermon given at St. Andrew’s, Longmeadow on June 15, 2014

What a great blessing it is for me to be at St. Andrew’s on Trinity Sunday and what an honor it is to baptize Derek’s and Jaimie’s baby – the beautiful Mari.

There is an old Episcopal Church in Kentucky that has this listing in its baptismal registry: Willard Jones partially baptized.

Here is what happened. As an adult Willard went to the church and asked to be baptized. Even though it was an Episcopal Church, Willard wanted to be baptized the way other churches did it – full immersion in the river. The priest consented and on the day of the baptism the congregation gathered at the river. It was cold that day and the priest and Willard were both shivering as they stood in the water. The priest dunked Willard once, holding him under the water saying “I baptize you in the name of the Father” and then bringing him back up. Willard is really shaking now. The priest puts him under the water again saying, “and of the Son.” Willard pops up and he is terribly cold now. He runs out of the river saying, “I have had enough!”

Willard Jones, “partially baptized.”

We are not going to immerse Mari but we are going to fully baptize her in the Trinity on this Trinity Sunday because God as Triune is crucial to our faith. Now I am going to ramble on for another ten minutes about this. If you take away anything from this time, let it be this: We speak of God as Trinity because we are always grappling with a God who goes beyond one dimension. We are involved with God who is always more. God is Creator (Father). Yes, but God is more than that. We meet God in Jesus (Son). Yes, but God is more. God is still with us (Spirit). And even then we don’t have the fullness of God. The Trinity is not an explanation of God. It is a description of our experience of God. A good one, the best we could come up with. But even this is inadequate. There is always more to God.

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine wrote 15 books about the Trinity. 15! And he did that while writing many other books and being the bishop with thousands of people in his care. Now here is my question: when did he have time for golf? Augustine could have written 12 books on the Trinity and it would have been good enough for us. But he was still grappling with the God experience and how to describe it.

Here is the simplest way to understand the Trinity. For a couple of hundred years the church struggled with the more of God. Finally someone had a profound insight while watching a Greek play. When the Greeks performed plays, the actors would wear masks. Often one actor played more than one part, so he would go back stage and come out with a different mask on. The Greek word for “mask” is “persona.” One actor might have several personas. Early church leaders wisely decided this is a good way to describe God. One God, three “personas” (which we inadequately translated as “persons.”) One God coming to us in three ways.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton

God is more and God is more than we are. We are not peers with God. Thomas Merton, a great spiritual writer of the last century, wrote “When we deal with God, we are necessarily in over our heads.” God is always more. God must be deep and complex – even more than we are.

Theologian John Shea tells this story. Three people arrived at the door of a spiritual teacher hoping he would take them in as students. He asked all of them the same question: “did you come to me because others sent you or because of yourself?” The first answered he had been sent by others. The spiritual teacher dismissed him. The second answered that he came on his own accord. He was also dismissed. The third stammered that he had heard of the teacher from others and yet he came on his own- partially out of curiosity, partially out of frustration, partially because he was addicted to searching, and probably out of a host of other motives of which he was not aware. The spiritual teacher said, “You’ll do.” The multi-layered mind was accepted.

Yes, we are complicated and multi-dimensional. Of course, God will be – gloriously so. It is true of Jesus. The early church was not satisfied with one gospel. One gospel can’t tell the whole story of Jesus. The genius of the early church was to preserve four different accounts and hold that multiple reality together.

Our description of God as Trinity is not an abstraction. Right there in today’s text from Matthew, the Trinity is connected to mission. The disciples are to go forth and baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Some translate “all nations” as “the ends of the earth.” Actually, scholars of the Greek language tell us the word used here in Greek just means “other.” Go to the other and baptize…

To go to the other, to go to the ends of the earth, means going to specific places to bring the more of God. Here is an example and it comes from the ministry of Michael Curry, the Bishop of North Carolina. Back in the 1980’s he served as a priest in a church in Baltimore. That was the era of the crack epidemic with all the gang warfare that went with it. Baltimore had the highest homicide rate of any city in America and the area where Curry’s church was located had the highest homicide rate in the city.

Bishop Michael Curry

Bishop Michael Curry

The son of one of Curry’s parishioners was killed in a gang warfare drive-by shooting. On the day of the funeral, the congregation gathered was not like the typical Episcopal congregation that prayed together on Sunday. Gang members from throughout the city were entering the church. The ushers came back into the sacristy and said, “Father, these people are not sitting where we tell them to sit.” Michael said “Let them sit wherever they want.”

The church was overflowing. Michael came out and began the service but quickly realized the traditional service was meaning nothing to this crowd. He ditched his prepared sermon and tried another approach. He invited the crowd to shout out the names of all those who had been killed in gang violence. Name after name was shouted out. Then Michael said, “All that killing. You know what? Those people are not heroes. They died because of stupidity and greed. You all want to be The Man. Let me tell you who The Man is!” He went on to talk about Jesus, the Man who used his power for healing. The Man who rejected violence and had tremendous courage. Jesus who showed us that a real man, a real woman, trusts in God. Curry ended the sermon with these words: “I’m going back to that altar to pray and in a few minutes we are going to have an altar call. You are going to come to this altar rail and you are going to kneel down and you are going to open your mouth like a little bird and I am going to pour Jesus into you. And you will never be the same.”

That is bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. That is bringing the more of God to “the other.”

It might not be so dramatic for you and me. But the mission is still ours. Who is “the other” in your life who needs the transforming power of God? Where are “the ends of the earth” for you? It might be a troubled teenager. Or a person in the nursing home. Or someone at work.

Or maybe it is you. Maybe you feel like you are at the ends of the earth. Maybe you need to remember God’s saving power for you. The saving grace that will never run out because there is always more.

At Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer we say “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Not “God, working once in a while out there, can do a little bit now and again.” No! It is “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Let’s go baptize Mari into a Church who believes that. Amen.

+Doug