Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ways of Knowing God: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

From Holy Trinity Parish, Alberta

Scripture can be found here...

How do we come to know God?

This is not a rhetorical question. This is a real, non-hypothetical, not-necessarily-one-obvious-answer question. For people of faith, it is a highly practical question. For the church that was born in Pentecost wind and flames, it is a burning question, a question that blows right into our hearts and stirs things up.

How do we come to know God?

For me, one of the first and most persistent answers is, we look up.

This takes time. Little babies can’t ‘look up’ right away, because they can’t yet tell the difference between ‘me’ and ‘not-me.’ As a tiny human grows and learns and separates from his mother or father or other intimate caregiver, there comes a time when he sees the moon or a star and he wonders. What is that beautiful, far away thing, and how did it get there? I see it. Does it see me? In order to have an inkling of anyone or anything like God, we have to get to that point where we look up, look around, that point where we can be overwhelmed by a sense of wonder. This is the kind of thing that got some ancient peoples worshipping the stars and the moon, and it makes sense. The sun and the moon and the stars and the sea are so obviously outside the realm of human ability to create or to have an effect upon. So there dawns in the human heart this persistent notion that there must be some other explanation. For many people, the one that soon makes the most sense is that there is or was some great intelligence or force that did the creating.

How do we come to know God? Well, for many of us, the people who first love us teach us about God, whether they are our parents or our grandparents or some other beloved guides or guardians. They sing us lullabies that later we realize were actually hymns. They teach us to pray, as they tuck us in for the night: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Or, “Now I lay me down to sleep” (but please, with the words that don’t scare the poor kid into not sleeping at all).[i] But our caregivers teach us in other ways, as well. When a baby cries from hunger, and someone tenderly picks him up and holds him close and feeds him, he is learning about a world in which we are held and nourished, sometimes, in ways we can’t understand, which later becomes an inkling that God provides for us. When a child is crying because she skinned her knee or because another child was unkind, the teacher who consoles her or the school nurse who applies a bandage with kind words is teaching her about a world in which we are cared for when we are distraught, which later blossoms into the idea of a God who weeps when we are weeping.

Even as adults, it is possible that our own minds can lead us to greater knowledge of God. The person who realizes it would be quite easy to tear up the parking ticket from their Florida vacation, or to swipe the laptop computer that was left unguarded at the coffee shop, but does not do so, may be responding to the pragmatic notion that they could be caught and punished. Or they may be responding to an inner voice that tells them, no, that is not the person you want to be. And at some point they may realize with a start that, the voice did not originate with them, that the voice is not their own, but the voice of some Other.

John Calvin has a name for all these ways of knowing. He called it “General Revelation.” According to Calvin, we can come to some understanding of God through the observation of nature, or through the workings of the human mind, or even through the sense that some mysterious force is directing events. As the psalmist says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the divine handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

But, Calvin goes on to say, we need more. And that “more,” for Calvin, is scripture, what he goes on to call “Specific Revelation.” We can’t really get to God, much less Jesus and the Holy Spirit, without the guidance of scripture to open up our minds and hearts and lives.

And I suppose that’s what we’ve been doing since September. We spent nigh on forty weeks with the Narrative Lectionary, the “I Love to Tell the Story” project, sharing the highlights from the story of God and God’s people, from creation through the early church.

We began by hearing stories of God as the one who creates the world and all there is, and who looks upon the human creations and decides to enter into covenant relationship with them. We saw God intervene in history to save the people from their captivity in Egypt, God as savior, and also the One Whose Spirit was present with the people throughout all their wilderness wanderings, who encouraged and sustained them. And we encountered God as the One who forgave and forgave and forgave all the times those same people stepped out on their relationship with the Divine, God as the one who is “kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Imagine. The people of God came to know God as Creator, Savior, and Sustainer… and all before a particular young woman gave birth to a particular baby while on a road trip to Bethlehem, before the Holy Spirit came sweeping in a particular upper room in Jerusalem. All this before Jesus, all this before the church.  And because today is “Trinity Sunday,” the only day the church celebrates a doctrine rather than an event, the church seeks to provide us with passages that allow us a way in to that mystery… but let’s take note. The word “Trinity”, used in relation to Christian theology, is found nowhere in scripture, and seems to have been coined by Tertullian in the third century. And the question persists… How do we come to know God?

In our reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he describes ways of knowing God, and ways of knowing Jesus Christ, and ways of knowing the Holy Spirit, that are thoroughly intermingled and difficult to separate. The passage speaks of our being “justified by faith,” but remember, another translation is possible: “justified by [his] faithfulness,” the faithfulness of Jesus.  To be “justified” means, very simply, to be restored to right relationship. So through faith in—or the faithfulness of—Jesus Christ we are restored to right relationship with God. And then Paul describes what that that relationship looks like, boots on the ground.

First, Paul acknowledges something that is no less true today than it was when he was a citizen of ancient Rome: there is suffering. For nearly a month the world looked on as the death toll continued to rise in the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh, settling at last at the staggering number of 1,127 souls. Last Monday a mile-wide tornado ripped up Moore, Oklahoma, killing two-dozen people in the process. Tomorrow, we observe Memorial Day, remembering those who died while serving in the U. S. armed forces. Suffering is a regular feature of life in this world, not only in the life of Christian faith.

But there is always the possibility that out of suffering, something else will be born:
“suffering produces endurance,” Paul says, “and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” This right relationship with God is the foundation for an approach to living, even to suffering, in which all our outcomes are God-infused, the daisy-chain leading from hopelessness to hope in just a few short steps.

I feel obligated to interrupt at this point to acknowledge: it doesn’t always work this way. I’ve spoken to you before of Elie Wiesel, the concentration camp survivor. As a child in Auschwitz, witnessing the brutality of his captors and the deaths of countless other children, his faith in God was annihilated. For Wiesel, suffering produced, for a time, the death of hope. There are countless others whose suffering has produced similar results.

And yet, this same man could write, years later, “… the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of [my] childhood was lost… We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word belongs to him.”[ii]

The Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts, says Paul. And even the unfathomable, the unacceptable, the irredeemable torture that is the Holocaust can, at least for this one survivor, endue his life with meaning and purpose and help him to find again the faith of a child, and to enlarge his biography to include writer, peace-activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

How do we come to know God? From the eyes of a child that are drawn to the moon in wonder, to the eyes of a child that look in horror upon human suffering, we take it all in, we amass evidence, for and against. We are given the witness of scripture, not to replace our human experience, but to meet it in honest dialogue. Scripture doesn’t diminish or dismiss the reality of suffering, but offers instead one possible path, not around it, but through it. And that path is navigated in the company of God, who in God’s innermost nature, values and demonstrates the reality that we are meant to be in community.

Paul describes ways of knowing God, and ways of knowing Jesus Christ, and ways of knowing the Holy Spirit, that are thoroughly intermingled and nearly impossible to separate, not only from one another, but from our own experience. The witness of the church is that the Lord our God, the Lord is one, and at the same time that we know God as Parent-Creator, and as Lord-Savior, and as Sustainer-Spirit. There is a threefold nature to our understanding of God that we refer to as “the Trinity.”  At the heart of that understanding is the sense that God is always in relationship, that God prefers relationship, even within the Divine nature, and that relationship is what God wants for us—relationship with God and relationship with one another.

In the end it may be that this is the “Trinitarian” way through suffering. Suffering produces endurance… maybe because we can turn to one another and say, “I am hurting,” and know that someone else will say “I am with you.” And so we will be able to go on. And endurance produces character… maybe because in community we are able to look around us and see those whose character has been forged in the crucible of their struggles. And character produces hope… maybe because as we find our feet under us once again, after the wind dies down we will see that the helpers have arrived. “Always look for the helpers,” Mr. Roger’s mother told him. And when we see them we know: the community is there, the community will always be there, to help to lift our burden. And hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…maybe because, this is how we come to know God. Suffering shared. Hope found. Hearts open to love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Angels watch me through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.
[ii] Elie Wiesel, “Foreword” to Night (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958), xix.

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