Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5,10
Mark 8: 14-21
All of the world’s major Story traditions contain epic cycles of creation, the flourishing of life, decline, death, and renewal. Myths – stories that resound with the ring of Truth, whether or not they are based on factual events – mirror the processes of nature and the work of time. These stories enlarge what is small but also condense what is vast. This process allows the storyteller and the story-listener to make meaning of the cycle – which would otherwise remain too large to handle. The portion that is visible to us at any one moment – birth, growth, suffering, or death – would overwhelm us with its magnitude. Stories sift, sort, and distill until symbols cohere from the chaos: the waters of a great flood; a boat designed by God; a bit of yeast; a single loaf of bread.
When decline and death become the predominant experience of a culture or group, these stories become vital life-lines to a sacred past. “We have been here before,” the people can confidently say. “Let us remember; let our remembering bear us forward.” Some of the Psalms are almost entirely sustained acts of remembrance. Foundational memories recorded elsewhere in the Torah are set to psalmody not to be redundant, but to place them in the mouths of each praying generation. Including ours.
For the people of Israel, there is a power, a force, a God outside of nature and time. “The LORD sits enthroned abovethe flood,” the Psalmist sings. The Holy One is transcendent.
Preached at St. Stephen’s Church, Pittsfield MA
Isaiah 6: 1 – 8
Romans 8: 12 – 17
John 3: 1 – 17
Growing up in the Church, as I did, I often found myself, in those moments waiting for the service to begin, exploring the Prayer Book that I held in my hands. I would flip though it, as perhaps you have done, and read the interesting bits. I liked to look at the The Calendar, and wonder who some of these people were: Bede, Dunstan, Dominic, Stephen. Over the years I have stopped wondering who they were, or even their place and role in history. I have come to know them as friends. As our Rule of Life says, in a somewhat different context: we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.
Or I would make my with through the Table of Kindred and Affinity, where I would read: A Man may not marry his Mother, his Sister, his Grandmother, his Aunt. As I worked my way through the list, and picture the people I was not allowed to marry, I would wonder, not so much as why I may not marry them, but why on earth I would want to marry my mother, my sister, my grandmother, or my aunt, in the first place!
The other place that gave me endless hours of entertainment was the Creed of Saint Athanasius. I would read and ponder what this riddle that is our Faith, is actually about.
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.
Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals, but one eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one incomprehensible.
All this was pretty heady stuff for a teenager, but now that you know that about my teenaged self, is it any wonder that I ended up where I have in life, as a priest and now a monk?
At one point in the life of the Church, parishioners were expected to plough their way through the Athanasian Creed several times a year, but now it is relegated to the back of the Prayer Bookin the section referred to as Historical Documents of the Church. But while the text itself may be an historical document, the Faith it proclaims is anything but. For the Faith it expounds is nothing less than what Christians over the centuries have come to know to be true about God’s very being.
What Scripture proclaims, what the Creeds declare, and what Christians have affirmed about God over the last two millennia, is not some mathematical riddle the tells us that 3 = 1, but that God is a God who communicates with the creation; that God was revealed to us in the person of Jesus; and that God continues to be known to the people of God, even today.
For us as Christians, God is not some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life. Rather for us, God is known and experienced, not only in history, but in the tiny moments of daily living. We see God in the wonder and beauty of creation, and the awe of worship; we touch God, in the person of Jesus, and the simple elements of bread, wine, water, and oil; we know God, who is closer to us even than our own breath.
We see and touch and know God, not as three gods, but as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is this knowable, loving and sustaining God whom we describe as Trinity of Being, and Unity of Substance. But it is so easy to become lost in the math, and ignore the reality of our experience.
Father Benson, the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, in a letter dated 10 November, 1875, once said this:
I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church —the Sacraments —Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology —have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.
I think what Father Benson was trying to say is that when people lose sight of their personal experience of God, and cloak God in unmeaning jargon then God simply becomes mumbo jumbo. For many people today, and perhaps even for some of you, all this god-talk is nothing less than meaningless mumbo jumbo.
For the Church to reclaim a vision of God which is not shrouded in mumbo jumbo, we need to feel God as a power, and love God as a reality. I believe that the world is desperate for the witness of the Church to a God who can be known, loved and felt.
We say, again in our Rule, that: our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God. If we are true to our calling as a community, our Society will be a revelation of God.
The heart and example of Christian community, whether that be household, parish, or monastery, is the heart and being of God, who is community. Unless we live, and are known to live, in communion and community with one another, our witness to a God who is first and foremost community, will fall on deaf ears.
Our witness to a God who can be known, loved, and felt, stems from the witness of the way in which we live together with one another, not in our ability to decipher mathematical impossibilities.
If we are true to the mission of God, which is our mission, then God will be known, loved and felt, in our midst, not as some distant, uninterested and unknowable, divine being, far removed from human life, but rather as one eternally creating, redeeming and sanctifying God, who is knowable, loving and sustaining and whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today as we rejoice in God as Trinity, we do so not to confound people with mumbo jumbo, but to proclaim to a world hungry for the good news of the eternal reality that God can indeed be known, that God is indeed loving, and that God is indeed forever present. This is our mission. This is our purpose. This is our call.
SSJE, Rule of Life, Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition, chapter 3, page 6
BCP, Canada, 1962, page 562
Ibid., page 695
BCP, Episcopal Church, 1979, page 864
Ibid, page 864 ff
Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson, page 187
Ibid., page 187
SSJE, Rule,The Witness of Life in Community, chapter 4, page 9
Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord: The First Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 43: 1 – 7
Acts 8: 14 – 17
Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
Grandmothers are some of the most important people in the world, at least in my world. I adored my two grandmothers, and I think it is safe to say that they adored me and my siblings. Both of my grandmothers were knitters. One of my grandmothers, whom we all called Grandma, kept us well supplied with mittens. I am proud to say that a red pair Grandma made for me while I was at university, complete with idiot string, became a fashion trend setter as over the winter more and more of my fellow students, seeing me with mine,began showing up on campus with homemade mittens and idiot strings. My other grandmother, whom we all called Nanny, made a series of Cowichan sweaters; a heavy, patterned, zippered sweater made popular by the Cowichans, a First Nations people of Vancouver Island. We wore these sweaters in the late fall and early spring before the winter coats came out or after they were put away. Nanny made several of these sweaters, and as we outgrew one, another larger one, would be passed down by an older sibling who had outgrown the next one up.
What’s the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you? The thing which made your stomach turn over and your heart to race? For me it was having to start a new school halfway through a term. By then everyone had already got their friends, and sitting next to them. I can remember that first day, walking into a class full of children, all staring at me, and none of whom I knew. I did make friends pretty quickly, but what I suppose I remember above all, was the awful feeling of not belonging.
The first day I went to university I had the same sinking feeling in my stomach. I remember walking through the college looking for my rooms. It was staircase V, I remember. Eventually I found the door, and then…I saw it…painted carefully in small white letters above the door: G. R. Tristram. My name. I felt so happy. I really belong here!
Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Isaiah 42: 1 – 9; Psalm 29; Acts 10: 34 – 43; Matthew 3: 13 – 17
I don’t know if I actually saw it the first time. I think I did, but I can’t swear to it. It was on my first visit to Jerusalem and the course I was taking at St. George’s College had spent a few days in and around the Old City. We had then departed for Egypt and had been to Cairo and then on to St. Anthony’s Monastery and to St. Catharine’s in the Sinai. We had crossed the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea and had visited Madaba, Petra and Nebo in Jordan. We were finally heading back to Jerusalem and had just passed through the border crossing into the West Bank and were driving over the Allenby Bridge when our course director announced that at that moment we were crossing the Jordon River. Luckily I had a window seat, but even in the moment it took me to turn my head and look out the window, we were over the river and all that could be seen as we drove off was the lush growth of trees, scrub and brush that outlined the river bank. I remember seeing that, but I don’t actually remember seeing any water, much less anything that passed as a river, at least to my mind.
Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord: The First Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14 – 17; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
Did you notice it? Did you notice something different this past Christmas? There was something palpably different with our Christmas celebrations this year and I believe it had to do with the crèche.
It’s not, I think, that the crèche itself that was especially unusual. We have had unusual and thought provoking crèches in Christmases past. Some of you may remember the year we had the Holy Family as street people seeking shelter from the wind in the back corner of the chapel with Mary looking like one of the bag ladies we often see in Harvard Square. There was also the year that Mary was faceless, and in place of her face was a mirror so that when you gazed at her you saw your own reflection and somehow you knew that you too were meant to bear, and carry and give birth to the Incarnate Son of God in our world today. You may remember the year we had the almost life sized iconographic depictions of the Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child with the ox and ass peering over the stall. And last year we had that wonderful shadow-box Nativity scene carved from a single piece of wood. No, we’ve had unusual crèche scenes before, and oddly enough the crèche we had displayed this year was not all that unusual. No, what was unusual about this year was not the crèche itself, but rather how it demanded you to encounter it.