Sunday, June 3, 2012

How can we keep from singing?

Text: John 3 1-17 (born from above)

Before worship, I provided the following preamble to the service, which I reproduce here:

"We turn to the lighting of our Christ Candle. But before that, I have a few words about today's sermon, about Trinity Sunday, and about some current events.

So far in my fledgling career as a minister, I believe that my sermons have sometimes suffered from a lack of stories. Stories are a common and effective way to make the message of a sermon more memorable, perhaps stories from everyday life, the life of the preacher, or the life of the community. Like all of us, I am drawn to storylines in movies, in books, and in conversation. It is by telling our stories that we come to understand our own lives. And the Bible contains a wonderful richness of stories. And yet so far in my sermons, I am more prone to write about history than about a story; and to write about ideas rather than narratives.

Trinity Sunday -- which, for some obscure reason, is celebrated in most churches today -- is one where I feel more justified to prepare a teaching sermon than a story-filled sermon. The Trinity is a doctrine or teaching of the church, and today is the only Sunday in the whole church year that is dedicated to a doctrine rather than to a story from the life of Jesus or the life of Israel.

As I rolled these ideas around in my head this week, I wondered what stories might be at the top of mind in our communities this week. Unfortunately, the answer is probably the media reports of three murders in Canada this past week: the murder-suicide of a young woman originally from Assiniboia and her son by her husband, a young man from St. Walbourg Saskatchewan; the lurid murder of a student from China by a man in Montreal; and then just yesterday a third murder in a seemingly random shooting in Toronto's Eaton Centre Mall. In an average week, about 10 Canadians are murdered. But this has not been an average week, and these three crimes stand out for lots of reasons.

My hope is that some good might come from reports of tragic murders and suicides. Many of us have suffered tragic losses in our lives, and perhaps the discussions dominating our media this week might help us continue to work through our own losses. Many of us also live in families dealing with mental illness. And now this week, we have the stories of three very troubled men in the public eye.

On the other hand, I am disturbed by much of the media coverage. The alleged murderer in Montreal clearly craves attention more than anything else and he is doing a brilliant job in getting that attention. But should we give it to him? The world is filled with terrible problems and no end of tragic deaths. So I question why some violent and tragic deaths are considered more newsworthy than others.

I believe that a different preacher would be able to weave these three terrible stories into a sermon based on our Gospel reading today. But I did not feel up to that challenge. By Thursday, I had already drafted a sermon on the Trinity for the monthly service at Rolling Hills Lodge, which seemed to work OK, and it is a version of that sermon that I will offer today.

But having now mentioned these three heavily reported murder cases in Canada this week, I want to acknowledge our wishes, hopes and prayers inspired by these cases as we prepare for worship . . .

Today, we will pray that the families of the victims receive the community and spiritual support they need to wrestle with their terrible and painful losses. We will pray that all of us who have been horrified by the reports of these crimes or thrown back into our own grief by them will feel the presence of God's Spirit supporting and comforting us. Finally, we will pray that better systems for identifying and treating people with terrible psychological wounds might be developed . . .

So as I light our candle today, I imagine that its light could represent the Spirit of Christ which guides all the many victims of violent and painful deaths home to God's Love from which we have all come. So be it. Amen."


Where do our ideas about God come from? And why do these ideas sometimes sound so strange?

In doing research on Trinity Sunday, I learned that many congregations around the world recite a 5th Century Creed called the Athanasian Creed today.

Here is a bit of that Creed: "We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit."

That was just the first 75 of the 600 words of this long creed. I am reminded of a song from the musical "My Fair Lady" which says, "Words, words words! I'm so sick of words. Don't talk of love, show me!"

I prefer the simpler and shorter United Church Creed written in the 1960s. In one sentence it describes the Trinity as follows:

"We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Spirit." It might not be as impressive as the Athanasian Creed, but I find it more useful.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible, though some passages in the Bible contain hints that might lead to it. Take, for instance, today's Gospel reading. In it, Jesus tells Nicodemus about a second birth, a birth from above that is born of water and the Spirit. In this passage, Jesus as the Son of God tells us how God gives us new life through the power of the Spirit in the many baptisms of life. The passage, which is one of the most important and best loved passages in all of Bible, mentions all three aspects of God.

Despite such hints, the doctrine of the Trinity does not come from the Bible. Rather it comes from the worship life of the first Christians. They had experienced Jesus risen from the dead. As devout Jews, these first followers of Christ believed in One God. Yet they also found themselves worshipping Christ as God. So if Christ was God, and his Father was God, were there two Gods or still only one? And what about the the Holy Spirit, whom God sent on Pentecost, and who gave them power to worship and serve?

It was their experience of worshipping Jesus as God through the power of the Spirit that led early Christians to think of God as both One and Three at the same time. The experiences of new life and worship came first. The fancy words came later.

The same is true for us. We don't believe in God because of ancient creeds. Nor do we believe in God just because of the stories in the Bible. We believe in God because of our life experiences: experiences of brokenness followed by new life; experiences of love; even experiences of loss and grief. When, with grace, we remember our deepest values, we are aware of how much in life we hold sacred. And from the heart of experiences of the sacred -- within, between and around us -- we develop our image of God.

Our sacred moments might include the pure joy of being physically alive. They might be experiences of working with others to try and make the world a better place. They might be experiences of falling in love, getting married and raising children. And as for the first Christians, these sacred moments can be seen by us from different angles.

Some of these moments are internal: quiet prayer; walking alone on a wooded trail; or reading an inspiring book. Some of them are communal, such as joining our voices in song in church. Still others might feel cosmic: being aware of how vast and intricate the universe and the web of life are within which we live and move and have our being.

And so as Christians, we both gratefully accept the stunning vision of our Jewish brothers and sisters that God is One and Almighty; and we also experience new life in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Together, these insights lead us to understand the Sacred, the Divine, or God as a unity within diversity; a unity that might best be described as a One in Three, or a Trinity.

Here is yet another way to speak about the Trinity from a 2006 United Church statement of faith. It is called "A Song of Faith," and it begins:

"God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. Yet, in love, the one eternal God seeks relationship . . . With the Church through the ages, we speak of God as one and three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; God, Christ, and Spirit; Mother, Friend, and Comforter; Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love; and in other ways that speak faithfully of the One on whom our hearts rely . . . We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love."

I recommend the entire "A Song of Faith." I like the fact that it uses the metaphor of song as both the source of our beliefs and as a way to express our beliefs.

We often experience the sacred when we sing together. Sacred songs lead us to feel what we believe; and such feelings are more important to us than our attempts to articulate the Holy Mystery, which we name as God.

"A Song of Faith" several times repeats the line: "And so we cannot keep from singing." This refrain is taken from the great 19th Century American Hymn, "My Life Flows On," which we will sing at the end of this sermon.

Now of course, not every hymn sung in church will connect us to the sacred, any more than will every moment with our children, every moment volunteering at a food bank, or every walk in the woods. But we know that by God's grace, sacred moments occur again and again. In those moments, we are able to remember that our lives are supported by God, the Holy One and the Holy Three: and this support comes from the God who is within, between, and beneath us.

Our Gospel reading from John today reminds me of a African-American spiritual that I once sang in a choir in Toronto. This spiritual is called Witness, and it includes the following lines:

"Nicodemus was a man who desired to know how a man can be born when he is old. Christ told Nicodemus as a friend, “Man, you must be born again." He said, marvel not, be wise, repent, believe and be baptized.” Yet another song of faith.

All of us here today have gone through many baptisms by God's Holy Spirit. This is one of the reasons we are confident that we have come from God's Love, we live by the power of God's Love, and we will return to God's Love.

God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that the world might be saved, and so that you and might be saved as well.

And so we cannot keep from singing.


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