SERMON 9 OCTOBER 2016
Today, I should warn you, I am departing from the norm. I am being somewhat self-indulgent. Normally I follow the readings that are set down in the lectionary. I find that a good discipline because quite often I can read the biblical passages and think “What on earth do I say about that?” There follows a struggle, reading and reflecting to seek the relevance for us today. And if I am not learning as I prepare the sermon, than I don’t expect you would be either. However, sometimes I also have other themes running through my mind and today I am indulging in following my own meanderings. It feels a bit of a risk as what you will hear in the next few minutes may not be where you are at in your own thinking. I hope and pray that these ramblings may be something more communal in our personal and communal journeys of faith.
We always, all the time, hear and see the world and those around us through our own lenses. That is a given. We are each shaped by our own upbringing, our experiences as children and by what follows. It cannot be otherwise. A week past Friday I was at a conference in Canberra which was about Aging, Disability and Vulnerability – which confirmed for me the decision to reflect as I am doing this morning. One of the sessions was about Emotional and Spiritual learning. We were each asked to think about what was the primary message that we picked up, growing up within our families. People had very different answers. You might like to go away and think about it later – just don’t spent too much time dong that right now! But the answer you uncover will have had an effect on the way you live. So will the understandings you may have received as a child if you grew up in the church. What impressions did that leave you with? The man with whom I was sharing our answers was a psychiatrist from Melbourne. His father was a minister and, sitting in church, Sunday by Sunday, has left him with a feeling of obligation to be good. Sometimes we have to spend a long time growing beyond these early images. It is sad that so many people had childhood notions of a rather remote, all-seeing God who knew everything you did or even thought, and didn’t like what he saw. It is sad that so many people are never able to free themselves from these terribly lop-sided, if not downright wrong ideas.
How easily we say phrases like “God is love”! How easily we may sing “God cares for me”! Can we really take in the fundamental belief in God’s grace and all that God has done for people throughout the ages? Can we grasp the meaning of the offering of the life, teaching, death of Jesus and the power of the resurrection if we are still held captive to a background belief in a single, hard, powerful, unyielding and judgemental God? How can we really allow ourselves to be caught up in the life-giving flow of the Holy Spirit if we are more afraid of being blown away by a force that we feel doesn’t understand us and doesn’t have our good at heart?
Can we really take on board the three-ness of God, this extraordinary Trinity that is often referred to in our worship – and quite rightly so. Do you notice it in the hymns we sing, in the words of prayers? This inter-relatedness of God as three-in-one is a core to understanding that God is Love. It is easy to opt out of trying to make sense of the loving Trinity, given what I have said a few moments ago about the early impressions we have of God. I know I have said before that some of us will instinctively think of God as Father, others turn more to Jesus and others to the Spirit. But these are not choices. They are emphases. The three-ness of God invites us to understand how God is for us at a core level. This is God who embodies a love that gives and receives between Father, Son and Spirit, without holding back, without the jealousies and restrictions of our human loving. It is a relationship that has been described as “Flow” because there is nothing static or constrained about it. The understanding or misunderstanding of God as the immovable powerful figure has a lot to do with Graeco-Roman politics and the dominant society that inevitably shaped the church as it grew. And it is much easier for things to be controlled under such an image than with that of a dynamic God whose core is relationships of love. So, each Sunday, and every other day, we have a lot to unpack as we hear the words of Scripture and reflect on the gospel message for us as individuals and communities of faith, and, most importantly, for a world in pain.
In case you think this is some 21st Century liberal thinking that has strayed from the orthodox path, here is a quote from Meister Eckhart, a 14th Century German Domincan:
“Do you want to know
What goes on in the core of the Trinity?
I will tell you.
In the core of the Trinity,
The Father laughs
And gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father
And gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs
And gives birth to us.”
Now of course, that is not literal, but symbolic, and beautifully so, of a dynamic that may strike us as rather far removed from what we have grown up thinking and believing. This is so contrary to our notions of fear that we too often associate with God. As Richard Rohr says “God has done only one constant thing since the beginning of time: God has always, forever, and without hesitation loved “The Son” , “The Daughter” – understood in this sense as creation, the material universe, you and me. The quality of the relationship is the point, not the gender or even species.
God cannot not love God’s self in you. The “you” that holds the indwelling of the Spirit, which many of us call the soul, is always considered eternal and intrinsically good because of its inherent connection to God.”
Rohr goes on to say that the Trinity beautifully undoes all negativity by a totally positive movement that never reverses its direction. God is always giving, even in those moments when we experience the inaccessibility of love as if it were divine anger.
Here is another understanding of the “Flow” that is God. This is from John O’Donohue: “The Flow doesn’t have to do with you being perfect, right, belonging to the right group or even understanding the Flow. Jesus never has such a check-list test before he heals someone. He just says, as it were, “Are you going to ask for or allow yourself to be touched? If so, let’s go!”
The touchable ones are the healed ones: it’s pretty much that simple. There’s no doctrinal or moral test whatsoever. Jesus doesn’t check if the people he heals are Jewish, gay, baptised, or in their first marriage. There’s only one question that he asks in various ways: “Do you want to be healed?” If the answer is a vulnerable, trusting one, the Flow always happens, and the person is healed, usually on several levels. That is the real New Testament message, much more than miraculous cures.” That was all John O’Donohue.
Now maybe you are finding this all a bit much, but the main point, for me at least, is this image of a dynamic, always relational God who is indeed intrinsically Love before which all our hang-ups are irrelevant.
And that leads me on to the second aspect of our faith and our understanding. It relates to the apparently disconnected experience of vulnerability. I say “apparently” because, I think, this Trinitarian God deeply addresses the vulnerability that we all know. Vulnerability is not a comfortable thing to feel. We cover it up in all sorts of ways. We hate to feel we might make a fool of ourselves, be found out in some way, fail in many ways, love and be rejected, be overlooked and disregarded, lose our way, our sense of self and place. We are vulnerable all the time, though we don’t like to look at it like that. We are vulnerable because we are human.
Back at that conference in Canberra, we were given a very moving and authentic keynote address by Shane Clifton. He is the Associate Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College here in Sydney. He is now 46. Just before his 40th birthday he was on holiday with his wife and three young teenage sons when he had an accident that left him quadriplegic. He has written about his terrible journey from that moment, through extraordinary struggles of life and of faith. He had to deal with being vulnerable in the most basic ways: physically in the care of his body, day by day; emotionally in what it all meant for his relationships; professionally in the struggle to get back to work, and so much more. Yet, and this is the point, the key to all of this, for him and for everyone, is accepting the vulnerability – that which is forced on us and that which we try to push away. It is a paradox that Shane showed within himself: the acceptance of vulnerability is, in fact, a great strength. It takes away the need for pretence. Sometimes the pretence is taken away forcibly. Other times we have to surrender to it.
My most difficult pastoral moment of helplessness and vulneravility was being called out in the middle of the night when I was minister in Parramatta. It was a Wednesday night. On the Saturday I was to take the wedding of a woman and her long-time partner. Their family had gathered from around Australia and overseas. The phone call told me that the 16 year old daughter had committed suicide. They were asking me to go. I went to the house where I had had dinner with them a few days earlier, but it was now cordoned off with police tape and guarded by two police officers. The girl had been taken to the hospital where the whole family had gathered. I had no idea what to do. What on earth could I say? I did very little except pray at the dead girl’s bedside, sit with them and help pick the mother up off the floor when she fainted.
Can we trust enough to allow ourselves to be vulnerable? Can we let go of the things that we cling to as we try to create a feeling of safety, however flimsy those things may be? Sometimes there is nothing except God, and the belief that God is not remote and unfeeling but indeed is deeply relational and knows about vulnerability. After all, that is what Jesus offered us – complete vulnerability. Paul knew about vulnerability too and he wrote in his letter to the church at Philippi, as we heard earlier: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” Love and vulnerability.
Maybe this also is what Jesus himself meant when he told his disciples “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it. But whoever loses their life for me and will save it.”
We are all vulnerable in our humanity, but through it we discover the deeply relational love that is God. We discover that we can trust God enough to allow ourselves to find the paradoxical strength of that vulnerability as it is transformed by God. That is our journey of faith. May God be with us all. Amen.