Sermon for Brent House
May 30, 2010
Texts: Prov. 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
We have this tradition at the Divinity School that for our last Wednesday lunch of the year, we have a barbeque outside, and we book a bluegrass band from downstate to provide music. So we’re all sitting around on Wednesday eating and having a good time, and occasionally somebody got up and sang along with the band. Towards the end, they started playing some old time religious songs. A good half the people there weren’t religious, but they’re fun songs. So they start playing “I’ll Fly Away.” Now whether one is a Christian or not, whether or not one finds the theology of that hymn problematic, I consider it immoral and impious not to sing along with it. When someone starts playing “I’ll Fly Away,” whether you’re in church or anywhere else, it is your categorical duty as a rational agent to sing and preferably to stomp your foot. So I start singing, the woman next to me sang, and one of our cooks got up and sand with the band. And then I looked around, and saw that we were the only ones. It was a disgrace! While the song is still going on, I catch a rather cynical and somewhat snide discussion from the end of my table. One woman is complaining to another about how alienating the experience is, and how hymns like this are so individualist, and how they celebrate death and hate this world. And that’s when I realized something about many of my colleagues, something I probably should have known long ago. Namely, these people just have something wrong with them. I should be more sensitive, of course. Who knows what experiences this woman had with religion or churches or whatever that made this an alienating experience for her.
But she totally missed the point! Now, to be fair, she was right. American hymns of the generation typified by “I’ll Fly Away” do indeed tend to have an individual and other-worldly focus in their lyrics. But first of all, what that means in her context might be quite different from the context in which other people sing them. And second, in any hymn, the words are only the surface of what’s going on. Singing the hymn, if it’s a good hymn anyway, is one’s way of either expressing or getting into an experience that is not expressible in words. It’s how one gets caught up in a… you could call it a current or an energy, though neither is adequate. It’s a certain reaction to one’s not entirely conscious awareness of the depth of things. The words of the hymn are certainly part of it, as are the beliefs they express. But one could find the words problematic, and yet fully sing the hymn. Now this depth of the hymn may not present itself to our awareness every time we sing it. Sometimes it’s more like rote repetition, sometimes just an enjoyable community or individual experience. But it’s a practice that sets the conditions for something to appear, though the appearance can’t be forced.
I’d try to speak of this with greater clarity or at greater length, but I wasn’t lying when I said it can’t be expressed in words. Across the street at school this would be very bad form, but it’s the honest truth that you either know what I’m talking about, or you don’t. And if you don’t, and you want to, the only way is to sing hymns. Just as the only way to find out what prayer is about is to pray. Sing and pray with faith if you have it, and with openness if you don’t yet. I figure I’m mostly preaching to the choir here, but it’s often the same if you want to understand so called secular activities. I used to never understand running, at least if no one was chasing me. I certainly understood the physical benefits of it, but since I’ve always been in good health and had a high metabolism, it was unfathomable to me that anyone would enjoy this. If you’re not used to it, you start going, and then within a few minutes, your legs feel like led, your chest is burning, and your gasping for air, and then you’re sore for the next 48 hours. And people claim to like this! They claim that it gives them energy. They say it’s an almost religious experience, and sometimes they drop the almost.
I confess, I thought they were lying until I started doing it a little over a month ago and by some miracle have managed to stick with it. And it got more and more tolerable, with some ups and downs, and then last night for the first time, I think I had one of those runner’s highs. And it was pretty sweet. I never got dancing either, until I was in Germany two years ago, and I fell in with a group of Spaniards who persuaded me to go with them one night to—well, I wasn’t all that clear where we were going, but it turned out to be this club. Now I was terror stricken. This was not my scene, I didn’t know what to do. But there was nothing to do except get into it, “just dance,” as Lady Gaga says. Since you can’t actually hear anyone to talk to them, and standing there watching is boring, I decided I was going to fake it. So I had a beer or two and started doing what everyone else was doing, and within a few songs, I had forgotten I was faking it. And it actually was a religious experience, because it was like there was some sort of rupture in space-time or something, and the place was infused with this primal energy, and I recognized it, because it was very similar to what happens when you sing a good hymn, and I realized dancing in this club in Germany with a bunch of crazy Spaniards, that this was what Proverbs 8 was about.
“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up, at the first,
before the beginning of the earth….
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in the inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”
So you see that there are places where this power, force, energy, dynamism, whatever you want to call it really, shows itself and we get caught up into it. And I believe Proverbs here has given us the vital clue we need to know that this thing originates in the very life of God. Wisdom is God’s delight, God’s rejoicing. God’s being is ecstatic. But note that it’s a creative rather than a destructive ecstasy. It’s somehow both ecstatic and rational. It measures. It builds.
So the being of God is ecstatic delight. And it’s ecstatic because it’s relational. Traditional Christian exegesis identifies this figure of Wisdom with the Son and finds here in Proverbs a revelation of the Trinity. I can’t quite get on board with that. But we can certainly say that believing in the Trinity as revealed in the incarnation of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit, we can look at Proverbs and find that it takes on a new resonance. The delight of the life of God is the delight of the Father begetting the Son, and the Father and the Son sending the Holy Spirit.
Our confession of the Trinity is our fullest verbal expression of what we experience God to be. It shows up unnamed in German dance clubs and lunchtime bluegrass concerts, unanticipated and usually unrecognized. Here it has a name, and a face even, in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, beheld though the medium the Holy Spirit in radiant darkness. I say the confession of the Trinity, because I don’t mean just believing in it and occasionally thinking about it, but standing up every week and saying “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, etc.” Or perhaps I should use the words of our hymn and say the invocation of the Trinity. But of course the words, or even the beliefs they express, are only the surface. We live in an openness to the life of God that forms us into God’s likeness, into the likeness of the ecstatic delight that created us.
It does this by giving itself to us and drawing us into itself. “Hope,” the apostle says, “does not disappoint us, for the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us.” And that’s what this has all been driving at. The love of God. This rational ecstasy I’ve been talking about is love. And maybe I should have just said so from the start. The Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son. The Trinity is the love of God. And this means that God is nothing other than the love of God. No words or concepts can grasp it, our creeds and even our actions can only hint at it. But what God is revealed to be, love, is all that God is, and what we are to become.
I said that the confession and invocation of the Trinity is the fullest naming of what God is. And I think I’m right about that. And like singing or running or dancing, it’s a practice that you have to actually do in order to understand. But the only purpose of understanding it is to do it better. And there is a little bit more to it than saying the creed. As part of that confession, if you want to understand the love of God, you have to actually love. And you have to actually someone. I can’t explain it any better than the greatest theologian of the church, St. Augustine of Hippo, so why bother trying. He writes, and I ask you to pardon the gendered language:
“There you are, God is love. Why should we go running round the heights of the heavens and the depths of the earth looking for him who is with us if only we should wish to be with him? Let no one say ‘I don’t know what to love.’ Let him love his brother, and love that love; after all, he knows the love he loves with better than the brother he loves. There now, he can already have God better known to him than his brother, certainly better known because more present, better known because more inward to him, better known because more sure. Embrace love which is God, and embrace God with love. This is the love which unites all the good angels and all the servants of God in a bond of holiness, conjoins us and them together, and subjoins us to itself. And the more we are cured of the tumor of pride, the fuller we are of love. And if a man is full of love, what is he full of but God?” (De trinitate VIII.11-12).
So that’s it then. The Trinity is the love of God, and is the love with which we must love God by loving our neighbor. There are plenty of details to be worked out, but this is a sermon, and not my dissertation. And if you don’t get it yet, I’m not going to make you understand it. I’m done. Say the creed, sing the hymn, love your neighbor. And then you’ll either get the Trinity, or you won’t. Either way, you live in it, and will become it. So glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.