Sunday, June 17, 2007

Proper 6C

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Psalm 32:1-8; Galatians 2:11-21; Luke 7:36-50

Summer officially begins in a few days, a fact hardly worth noting since we’ve had our shoes off and the air-conditioning on for weeks now. I’ve lived nearly all my life in the South, and while I love ice cold lemonade and fresh peaches, I really don’t like hot weather or sweet tea, and so I spend my summers searching for and sitting in the shade. Still, some of my favorite summers were spent at my grandparents’ house over in Spartanburg, SC.

My brother and I were little then, and we spent nearly every hour of every long summer day playing together, even when we were supposed to be resting after lunch, that hottest part of the day when our shadows disappeared beneath our feet and even the blue sky burned in the sun. Summer is the season when the afternoon shadows grow impossibly long and daylight lingers in the air well past bedtime. We played then, too, chasing fireflies round and round the shadows of trees and grown-ups. We played after we were tucked in the two giant-sized beds in the room we sometimes shared upstairs. A nightlight bathed one wall in a soft glow, more than enough for us to create an entire arkful of shadow animals with our fingers.

The shades and shadows of summer were always part of our play…except when they didn’t seem playful. On rainy days we played inside that big old house, from the attic all the way down to the basement. The staircase to the basement turned several corners before it reached the bottom, and every flick of a lightswitch illuminated just enough of the long way down and around that you could almost see the next lightswitch in the shadows. Piles of old books and rolled up posters and maps and dusty pillows became spooky shapes in the dim light. At night we laughed at the shadow animals we made with our fingers, but the shadows behind the closet door and the shadows under the bed were no laughing matter.

These are the sorts of shadows, the kind in which lurk real and imagined dangers, these are the sorts of shadows that we borrow when we speak of having shadow sides. They are the shadows we wrap around ourselves to hide the real and imagined parts of us that hurt and that cause hurt. Like piles of old books and posters and pillows, perhaps if we shove these parts of us into the shadows, they will be forgotten.

This morning’s readings flip a lightswitch for us, challenging us to see an all too real part of us that causes all too real hurt – we are challenged to see our sinfulness. Individually and as a community of faith we prefer to push the reality of our sin into the shadows, to politely say the confession and receive our absolution and then not to talk any more about sin. But this morning we are asked to face our fear of sin’s darkness and learn how to walk in the light. In our readings this morning we hear the stories of men and women who have done just that: David, Paul, and an unnamed woman, sinners who overcame the shadows of their past and welcomed the bright sunlight of God’s forgiveness.

As king, David should have protected the lives of his people. Instead, David gave orders that poor Uriah be killed so that his beautiful wife Bathsheba might become David’s queen. Of course none of this dark plan was hidden from God, who sent the prophet Nathan to confront the terrible shadows of David’s life. As king, David recognized immediately the sin of the rich man in Nathan’s parable. As a sinner, David couldn’t see whose shadow the rich man cast. Do you see this man? Nathan demanded. You are the man! The story is about you. You, upon whom God has lavished gracious care; you, whom God has always protected; the story is about you, to whom God gave the responsibility of caring for and protecting others. You are the man!

And so David was illuminated. I have sinned against the Lord, he acknowledged humbly, and though he would still suffer the consequences of his actions, he would not suffer the darkness of separation from the Source of his life, the Source of all life and light, who lavished forgiveness upon him not for the first time, and not for the last.

As chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus Christ, Paul (known then as Saul), should have carried out his orders to arrest any who proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior. Instead, in a brilliant blinding flash of light, Paul was thrust into deep inner darkness where lurked the sinfulness of his life. When his eyes were finally opened, he could see beyond a shadow of a doubt the way that he would follow. The life I now live, Paul wrote, the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

As a Pharisee, a keeper of God’s law, Simon should have known that the law was given to teach people how to live in relationship with one another and with God, who had long ago promised, I am the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. Instead, Simon used the law as a lens through which he could see shades and shadows, judge the depth of darkness in a person, and crop them out of his picture of salvation. When a woman began weeping at the feet of one of his dinner guests, Simon saw through his trusted lens only a sinner and a fool. As a Pharisee, Simon recognized immediately the picture in Jesus’ parable – the greater the debt that is canceled, the more gratitude the debtor displays. As a debtor, not in denarii but in sin, Simon couldn’t see that the parable cast a shadow over himself. Do you see this woman? Jesus demanded. Do you really truly see her?

For just a moment, let us hold this picture before us as motionless as children barely breathing, barely containing giggles under their covers when their mother’s shadow appears in the doorway of their bedroom late at night. Do you see this woman? Jesus demanded. Do you see? In the picture, Simon sees a sinner, a woman whose life is unclean and so whose touch would make others unclean. When she takes down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet, Simon sees a fool, a man who could not possibly be the teacher and prophet he is reputed to be. In Jesus and in the woman, Simon sees the shadow side of the law that is his guiding light, his torch.

Do you see this woman? Jesus demanded. Do you see? In the picture, Jesus also sees a sinner – in fact he sees two sinners. He sees the woman, who has dragged herself and her sins into the light and poured them at his feet, making his weary feet clean just as his touch has made her life clean. And Jesus sees Simon, who is blind to the light of the world at his own table, who withholds himself from his sisters and brothers and, though he cannot see it, from God as he waves his own torch and works his way to salvation.

Do you see this woman? Jesus demanded. Do you see? In the picture, the woman sees a savior. She sees the one who has invited her to the table, welcomed her as an honored guest, and forgiven her before she ever knew to ask. She sees the one who loves her despite her sins and shades and shadows. She sees the one who has shown her how to be in relationship, how to invite and welcome others, how to forgive, and how to love. Another preacher writes, “The woman’s extravagance is a picture – [a bright reflection] – of the extravagance of God’s grace.”

Do you see? With God, our sins are forgiven even before we ask, even if we never ask, even if, like Simon, we never realized we needed forgiving in the first place. Our sins are forgiven. God has let them go. And yet, our sins will continue to overshadow us if we are not able to confess them, to acknowledge our inability to stay in relationship with God without God’s help and grace and love and forgiveness. Do you see? Jesus demanded. The woman’s sins, which were many, have already been forgiven by God’s deep love and dazzling grace; therefore, she is able to show great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, who knows not how he needs God, loves little. Our sins are forgiven, we are washed and anointed and given a seat at the table. The only thing required of us is the openness to receive this lavish gift of grace, God’s cancellation of every debt, God’s forgiveness of every sin, God’s welcome of all people.

When we open our eyes and see the grace that bathes us from head to our own weary feet and toes; when we face our fear of the dark and reach deep inside ourselves to offer our shadows, our sin, our hurt, all that separates us from God and from one another, we are saved. And yet salvation is not so much a prize we earn or a destination we can ever reach as it is a way of living that may be perfected beyond our life in this place but is lived in part here when we allow God’s grace to illuminate our lives and all the lives and all the world around us. Salvation is lived in part here when we in turn carry that light not to cast shadows around others but to see how they, too, shine. For forgiveness is not restoration to what we were before – it is newness of life, and it carries with it a charge to walk in this way: to walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.

As we are able to receive forgiveness, as we are able to receive grace, as we are able to love in response, as we are able to welcome all people to the table, as we are able to work not for salvation but because we are already saved, so will we hear the words spoken to us that were once said to David, This story is about you. So will we hear the words spoken to us that were once said to an unnamed woman, Your faith has saved you. Go in peace. Amen.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Trinity Sunday C

Isaiah 6:1-8; Canticle 13; Revelation 4:1-11; John 16:[5-11]12-15

“In that direction,” the Cheshire Cat said, “lives a Hatter: and in that direction…lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

So the preacher feels when she steps up to the pulpit on Trinity Sunday, the bejeweled and lightning-bright air still full of six-winged seraphs singing Holy, Holy, Holy, the words of Jesus still echoing as though across the sea of glass in that heavenly throne room, I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…So the preacher feels when she steps up to the pulpit on Trinity Sunday to say something, anything, about God who is Three in One and One in Three…I must be mad, she feels, as she starts in to preach.

It’s not that Episcopalians don’t believe in the Trinity – we proclaim our belief in the ancient doctrine week after week in our saying of the Nicene Creed: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit…We invoke the Trinity at the end of psalms and prayers: O Father, who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever…Sermons begin in the name of God who has made us, who loves us and keeps us (or some other Trinitarian formula)…We enter this community of faith when we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…More than 500 Episcopal churches are named Trinity, making it one of the three most common names for our parish communities.

We even have at the back of our prayerbook, in a section titled “Historical Documents,” a proclamation of faith in God the Three in One: We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. The Athanasian Creed, dating back to the 4th century, goes on and on like this. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible…to which Dorothy Sayers added, “The whole thing incomprehensible!”

The Athanasian Creed is just one among many documents and diagrams, metaphors and models, ideas and images by which Christians have tried to explain the Trinity, Creator, Christ and Comforter who are yet one God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Cloverleaves, triangles, overlapping circles, fish swimming round, fleur-de-lis, abstract formulas, countless combinations of three names – Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Lover, Beloved, Love – they all point toward who and how God is, but lead us ultimately deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole where none of the usual rules or categories apply. Three and one. Trinity and unity. Separate and undivided. It’s incomprehensible. It’s madness.

While writing his own work on the Trinity, St. Augustine dreamed he was walking along the seashore. He came upon a boy engaged in the curious task of scooping up water from the ocean and pouring it into a small hole he had dug in the sand. The sand soaked up each bucketful, so that the hole was empty every time the boy returned with more water.

When Augustine asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, “I am going to pour the entire ocean into that hole.” Augustine laughed. “That’s impossible,” he said. “The ocean is too big, and that hole is too small. You cannot do it.”

Suddenly, the boy became an angel, and said to Augustine, “I have a greater chance of pouring the entire ocean into this hole than you do of understanding the Trinity.”

The beginning of understanding the Trinity, the first drop of the first bucketful of hope, is not in our heads, in finding the right rules and categories, the right images and words. Such an attempt is as incomprehensible, as mad, as trying to pour the ocean into a small hole in the sand. We cannot understand the One who is seated on the throne, whom creatures both earthly and heavenly worship and adore, casting their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” We cannot understand the One who is beyond any word or thought or image or name we could ever name.

But we can and do experience in incomprehensibly intimate ways the One who is so far beyond ourselves. God, from whose throne come flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, is also God who breathed life upon an infant creation, who breathed air as one of us, who is the breath that sustains our lives and prays for us with sighs too deep for words.

In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich experienced a vision of this divinely inspired and initiated intimacy, and in this relationship between God and creation, she came to know something of the Trinity. “[God] showed me something small,” Julian writes, “no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: This is everything that exists. It lasts and always will because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.

“In this little thing I saw three properties: The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, and the third is that God keeps and preserves it.”

God has been revealed to us in scripture and tradition as a God who not only acts in loving ways but who is in fact Love. As a God who not only calls us into relationship but who is in fact Relationship. As a God who not only permeates our lives but who is in fact Life.

We don’t have to jump down a rabbit hole to find the wonder and madness and mystery of the Trinity, for we experience love and relationship and life here, now, in this place, among those gathered here, and out there, in the vastness of the world, among friends and family and strangers. We experience something of the connectedness, the community that is the very essence of God who is Three in One and One in Three.

This connectedness extends far beyond those whose hands we can shake at the peace, those we tuck into bed at night, those to whom we can make phone calls when we have news to share. It extends beyond the woman we pass each day walking the same road we drive to work, the child at whom we smile when we wait behind him in the check-out line, the homeless person we see sleeping under the bridge every morning. This connectedness extends beyond the people on the coast who received the toiletries and shoes and notebooks we sent, beyond the people who live in harm’s way for whom we pray each Sunday, beyond the people world-wide who share our way of common prayer but not our way of living out the good news.

This connectedness extends also far deeper than our handshakes, our voices on the phone, our eyes upon the world, deeper than our skin that so easily separates us from others. One preacher marveled at what have learned from particle physics, that the atoms within us, as microscopically small as they are, are made up of particles littler still, and that around them is vast empty space. “Matter is not solid, but open,” she writes. Matter is not static but fluid. Perhaps Julian of Norwich was ahead of her time, a particle physicist when the smallest thing she could imagine was a hazelnut. Matter and energy last always, she might have written, because God made them and loves them and preserves them. And now in our time we have learned that the littlest parts of who we are were once in other places in this vast creation – matter and energy last always, and they dance through life, connecting all things to one another over time and space.

Perhaps because they, too, intuited something of the vastness within and around us, some theologians early in the life of the church began to speak of the Trinity as a dance, Three in One and One in Three going round and weaving through and rejoicing in a divine dance of perfect love, perfect relationship, perfect life. We cannot understand its motion, but we do experience it, for the divine dance does not take place in some far away throne room but all around us. One poet writes, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.”

The beginning of understanding the Trinity is knowing that it is not a thing to be explained but, rather, a vast place in which all of creation is contained. God who made us loves us, and has taught us to love; God who loves us keeps and preserves us, and has taught us to dance. The beginning of understanding the Trinity is understanding that we are intimately connected to one another, to every other, in life and relationship and love. We are called to honor those connections, to nurture them, to keep and preserve them, to be not static but fluid, not solid but open. To the world, in which we separate ourselves, it sounds like madness, an incomprehensible calling. To God, in whom is perfect community, it sounds like a song.

Shall we dance?