The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday – May 31, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.
I can’t hear that first reading from Isaiah without singing that song. Musically it’s not a great song, I admit. But as a teenager, that song could move me to tears: ‘I will go, if you lead me.’ Somehow those lines got at an existential part of my sense of God. I had no picture in my mind of what that leading would look like; but there was something God was going to want of me, and it scared me a little to wonder where it would take me. And it’s been that way ever since: in the truly significant decisions of my life, I have listened, and felt nudged and directed. Sometimes I’ve pretended to rational reasoning, but really it’s not been my lead. Where are you leading me now, God? Where are you leading all of us?
Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘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.’ And Nicodemus hears this, and freaks out. And so do we.
There’s a famous icon of the Trinity attributed to Andrei Rublev, that shows the Godhead as three angels seated around a table. On the table is a cup, which the three figures are gesturing toward. We, the viewer, fill in the fourth side of the table – the idea is that we are invited into that community and invited to drink of the cup that they share. The community of God’s self has room for us. It’s a rich image. But sitting around a table drinking with God is only a part of what God invites us into. There’s a few wonderful technical words used to describe the relationship of the Trinity – the Greek perichoresis, and the Latin circumincession. Both words imply movement, stepping toward and around the others, like in a dance. The essence of God, the Trinity shows, is movement and community, containing and dancing around the others. And we are invited to participate in this dance.
See, and you thought theology and the doctrine of the Trinity were boring and obtuse. Drinking and dancing with God – what’s not to like about that?
And yet we hold back, because who knows just where such behavior might lead. What’s in that cup, anyway? And just where are we going, God?
There’s a significant loss of control implied in this whole invitation. Which is what bothers Nicodemus so much. He’s a grown, mature man, a scholar, a leader in his community. But he steals quietly in to see Jesus because something about what Jesus is doing and saying intrigues him and draws him. And Jesus tells him he has to be born again, born from above. Start over, like a baby, and let God lead you. This is outrageous. Of course Nicodemus has trouble with that – and so do we.
I spoke some weeks back about the Christian idea of stewardship, that we are stewards, caretakers, of what God gives us. Everything we have and are comes from God, and our job is to take care of it well – our bodies, our community, our resources, our time. It’s a reminder to be grateful even in the worst of times, to realize that all is gift, and to give freely of what we have because we don’t need to hoard it for ourselves. To realize that there is more than enough instead of worrying over scarcity, and that we don’t have to have it all right, because there’s more at work than just us. I don’t know about you, but I hear those words as a balm for my anxious soul.
But again, the invitation to see the world this way requires a significant loss of control. If what we have does not actually belong to us, then in some basic way, we don’t have final say over what is done with it. If the wind is blowing where it chooses and sweeping us along with it, if the Trinity is dancing and we’re not in the lead, if what we think is ours actually isn’t – crikey! There go all of our foundational assumptions as Americans. The idea that we’ve made ourselves what we are today, that what we have earned in pay is ours, that it’s nobody’s business but our own what we do in our private time. That we can vote with our feet and keep to our own kind. This ‘Here I am, Lord’ flies right in the face of our ideals of free enterprise and the pursuit of happiness.
Because, of course, if we are stewards, then we are not the owners. If we are stewards, then we are servants of the owner. Which means we are bound to obey what the owner asks us to do. And obedience does not always sit easy with us. It is one of the three vows monastics take, who willingly place themselves under obedience to the superior of the order. As St Benedict writes in his Rule of Life: ‘The first degree of humility is obedience without delay. This is the virtue of those who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ…’ In the monastic community, part of the way of life is to submit and obey, even when – maybe especially when – you think you know better than your superior. Only when you have demonstrated long years of obedience are you invited into leadership, or allowed to go out on your own as a hermit. Obedience is one of the hardest things; and yet Benedict knew well that it is also one of the best things for us. It is healing for our souls.
And it’s not just for monastics. Obedience is a part of the Christian path for all of us. Because when we act as though we are charge, we tend to put all the wrong things first. We tend to screw things up. It doesn’t take a huge effort of the imagination to see this: just take a personal inventory, or ask your friends and neighbors. How happy are we with how much time we have in our lives? Do we feel like there’s enough of it, or are we stressed and pressed, doing all we think we need to do? How at peace do we feel about our achievements – or isn’t there really something gnawing at us that we haven’t done? How well are our relationships going these days – are we being the friend or spouse or parent we should be, or maybe not? How at ease do we feel about our money? Is there enough of it? Do we give enough of it to those in need? Ask a few questions like this, answer them honestly, and it is clear that left to our own devices and governance, we don’t really make ourselves – or others – happy. We can pursue happiness all we like, but we seem to have a hard time actually attaining it.
So obedience makes a whole lot of sense. But obedience isn’t just about submitting to another’s way of doing something. Obedience is hearing with our hearts, listening to the other – listening to the spirit and how it is blowing. Obedience really is part of any relationship with another person – we don’t do just as we want to all the time. We listen and change, we bend and flex, we learn and grow. Like in a dance – we don’t just make up our own steps, unless we want to dance all by ourselves. Partner dancing goes much better when we tune in and attend to the movements of the one we’re dancing with. And if God as Trinity is God in community, then that kind of listening obedience is at the very heart of God – the very essence of the dance that we are invited into.
A church community like ours is an opportunity to try out the dance. To listen to one another carefully and attentively, to notice which way God is leading and to adjust ourselves accordingly. But it’s tempting to bring into this community all the ways we avoid listening in the rest of our lives – to act as if we’re the ones making up the steps, or as if we already know what the other person is thinking before they speak. As if we know exactly what way the Spirit is going to blow. So we worry over there not being enough – enough money to keep the place going, enough people to run the barbecue or teach the classes. We make decisions based on fear and anxiety, and lose our ability to trust each other. We huddle in our like-minded groups and fret over the other people. Every church does this. We do it too.
But God’s invitation to us is to let that mode of behavior go – remembering how it doesn’t really work so well anyway. Here we can practice the obedience of stewardship. None of us owns the place, but each of us is a trusted steward of this community, called to carry the rest of God’s people in our hearts. Each of us is called to listen to where God is sending us. When we try to control it and pretend it’s ours, or that we’re in charge, there really isn’t enough to go around, and so we fight over it. When we allow that this place, and all of us, are God’s, then we can be free to dance, to grow and learn and listen all the better for the Spirit, blowing where it wills. It turns out we don’t have to be so afraid after all – because there is enough, and we are enough, and the community is enough. There is plenty, plenty for the Spirit to work with here.
So here we are, Lord. We know you’re calling us, because we have heard you, each of us in our hearts. And we have seen you at work here in this place. So lead us, God. Free us from our fear and help us to listen. And may your Spirit move us where you will. Amen.