Monday, June 27, 2011

Tested: Sudan, Abraham, Us

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

The worldwide Anglican Communion has been called to make today a day of fasting and prayer for the people of Sudan. The timing of this call relates to several things. July 9th will mark the official separation of southern Sudan from the north. In these days leading up to that milestone, United Nations commissioners are making strategic decisions that will affect the transition, and UN peacekeepers are being put in place to monitor that transition. All of this is against a background of growing tension over unresolved disputes, not the least of which is who owns the oil that lie below the land, especially along the border between north and south.

So we shall pray, and at least symbolically honor the call to back up prayer with fasting by serving at our coffee hour today only that cup of cold water mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. That may seem such a token effort, but let it remind us that we are in fact one global family: how the independence of Southern Sudan gets realized matters to all people, as does the resolution of disputed land, and oil, and water, and human rights, in all places.

What is being tested in Sudan is what can be built of hope and courage and a passionate desire for those basic freedoms that we in this country will recall and gratefully celebrate in just a few short days. Perhaps if we pay attention to what July 9th means to the people of Sudan, we will find our July 4th observance more meaningful than ever.

Elizabeth Williams tells me that displaced southerners—like Anglican Deaconess Mother Raile Daffala, who visited us years ago and gave us this powerfully apostolic bowl that keeps gathering our gifts for the world—as she and her extended family and the millions of southern Sudanese who have fled the violence in their homeland now consider returning, they face the grim fact that there is virtually nothing there. It is said that in an area as large as Alaska, not a building remains standing. Roads are in severe disrepair, agriculture disrupted, institutions gone.

This moment in the lives of displaced southerners is not so much an entrance into the promised land as it is their standing in the shoes of ancient Abraham and Sarah, hearing the call to leave whatever they now have and set out on a desert journey into the unknown. This is not exiled Israel returning to its homeland with the blessings of the government where they had resettled; northern Sudan is hostile to division. Nor is it in the mold of our own revolutionary story, patriot farmers and tradesmen and established householders defending their homesteads from tyranny: the people of south Sudan have little, and those who will return will return to nothing but the land and its resources, their rights, and their responsibilities. And, they trust, the support of the free world.

What can be built will be found through the testing of these days and months and years.

In our first lesson today, a famous, even infamous, passage, Abraham is being tested.

The Bible trains us to think of Abraham and Sarah as pioneers, founding figures like George and Martha Washington, representatives of the new. But in fact Abraham and Sarah also represent the truly ancient. They go back to times when people believed they were required to ritually sacrifice their children to ensure the success of some great venture or the security of a new settlement or the building of a new defense tower.

We could hear this difficult story as telling how Abraham’s obedience to God was being tested on that mountain, whether Abraham valued, loved, feared God enough, with an undivided heart, enough that he would follow through with this dreadful call to sacrifice his only child, whether Abraham believed and trusted God enough to keep taking one desperate step after another up that grim path. Another way of seeing this testing is that God was designing an experiment to learn if Abraham was ready to sever himself from that primitive culture of child-sacrifice, and so prove himself worthy of his being chosen to lead God’s yet greater experiment of forming the heart of a nation to listen for and treasure the mind and will of God.

This second way of hearing this grim story is reinforced by the unmistakable message that it is Abraham’s obedience that is being tested. Obedience to what? To the prevailing culture of the day, or to the mind and will of God? At the root of our word obey is a form of the Latin “audire”, to hear. To what is Abraham listening? What message is he hearing?

By the story’s end, he hears and finds the good news of the free gift of God. An unfortunate ram caught by its horns in a thorn thicket provides the life that is to be sacrificed. The demanding nature of God that drove him up that mountain is transfigured, revealed to be a gracious nature that in and of itself provides the way to freedom and new life. This outcome is so close to the heart of the Christian Gospel that this story is one of those appointed for use at the Easter Vigil, when the Church catches its breath at how far God goes on our behalf: in Christ God is the sacrificed victim. The earth shakes on Good Friday not as special effect, but as sign of the profound shakedown of the old order as the new creation takes hold and fills the void.

Poets have taken an interest in this story of transition between old and new. Delmore Schwartz in his poem “Abraham” has the patriarch say,

“…the boy (Isaac) was born and grew and I saw
What I had known, I knew what I had seen, for he
Possessed his mother’s beauty and his father’s humility,
And was not marked and marred by her sour irony and my endless anxiety.

Then the angel returned, asking that I surrender
My son as a lamb to show that humility
Still lived in me, and was not altered by age and prosperity.

I said nothing, shocked and passive. Then I said but to myself alone:
‘This was to be expected. These promises
Are never unequivocal or unambiguous, in this
As in all things which are desired the most:
I have had great riches and great beauty.
I cannot expect the perfection of every wish
And If I deny the command, who knows what will happen?’”

That’s as far as I’ll read—enough to suggest this poet’s view of Abraham cynically arguing himself into an obedience that sounds superstitious… not a high view of a hero. More like a self-interested man, a frightened man.

Our hearts are with Isaac, as the story goes dark around him. He was rescued from death, but not from trauma. That is caught in a poem by another 20th-century American, Bink Noll:

“When Isaac watched his father strain back
the ram’s head, its throat separate and bleed,
evisceration, and fat turn to smoke,

not he had heard any angel speak
but felt sharply where the rope still cut,
how his own neck cracked, his own flesh burned…

Then the poet appears to say in his own voice,

“How we sons lay awake to ponder
the misery of such divided men
to whom the patriarchal lies come true.

My son shall not watch me in a fury
of faith take fire to the altar where
I sacrifice nothing I cherish.

Then, as premonition and description of what the poet dreads,

“He may feel my hands grab like priest hands,
his eyes may die in the brightness
that I have meant obedience entire.

So much I walked with my mad Abraham.”

I think we’re meant to catch the message that, as indignant as it makes us, we are not above repeating what this poet calls the madness of Abraham.

One last poet drives this home, Wilfred Owen, himself a sacrificial victim in World War I, about which he writes in “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Owens imagines Abraham failing the test, refusing to listen, perpetuating the violence. And this Abraham is the governing power of each war-making nation that refuses to sacrifice its own pride.

No wonder we struggle with this story. It puts us squarely in the ancient sandals of Abraham.

We have seen how he is tested. How the peoples of Sudan are tested. We all are tested, day by day, to see what can be built of us, by us, set upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. May it be a holy temple acceptable to God, shaped not by prevailing culture but by the mind and will of God that we are called to hear.

(The poems quoted can be found in Chapters into Verse: Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible, Volume 1, edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder, published by Oxford University Press, 1993)

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Knottie Trinity

Scripture for Trinity Sunday includes Genesis 1:1-2:4a; II Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

Let’s see: Trinity Sunday… Fathers’ Day… Trinity Sunday… Fathers’ Day… ? Trinity Sunday and Fathers’ Day?

Sure, both can be our subject today, and this is eased by an overlap with that first member of the Holy Trinity: Father.

And a father—any father—will serve as an illustration of what the doctrine of the Trinity says, and doesn’t say. Dan, for example, is a father. He is also a son. And he is also a friend.

I know you rounded those first two corners with me: Dan as father, and as son-- both identities echo the first two natures of God. You were expecting something to parallel the Holy Spirit, and what I gave you is friend. Three weeks ago, when I last preached, I brought to our discussion of the Holy Spirit, third person of the divine, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the traditional names Advocate or Counselor, his preference: Friend. One who knows you so well that it comes as second nature to stand up for you, champion you, guide you with the personal attention, affection, and fearlessness of a natural coach.

So the same man stands as a father, a son, and a friend. These are three of his natures, and each helps make him who he is.

To further the analogy between the multiple identities of Dan and those of God, we’d need to speak of those three natures of his as three persons, for that is what we say of the Trinity.

And that’s where some mischief creeps in. Take “three persons” literally and you not only make God sound like a committee, but also wrap the whole of God in flesh and blood, reducing the spiritual to the physical. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity invites us to see God enfleshed in Jesus Christ, but the personhood of God the Father and of God the Spirit is not about fingernails and hair follicles. That God has three persons takes us into the realm of metaphor, which is the province of language.

For this, I needed a classics consultation. So I emailed both partners of our parish classicist couple, Amanda and Chris, with this question: Do I recall correctly that the Latin word “persona” has a special use in theater? Within hours, Chris emailed from Kansas, where they’re visiting family. His answer was Yes: In Roman theater the masks (worn by actors) were called “personae”, and very early that Latin word takes on the meaning of “character”. Chris offers to help us out here, so I’ll quote him: “Without looking into the history of ideas about the Trinity, I would guess that the term personae was used to communicate that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different appearances/aspects of the same unitary divine nature—three characters played by the same actor. But I dimly recall that the Church fathers spent a lot of time arguing about the doctrine of the Trinity…”

Indeed they did. And if you want to sample what came of those arguments, our Book of Common Prayer has in the wayback a section titled Historical Documents. And there you’ll find the late 4th-early 5th-century Creed of Saint Athanasius. Let me give you a taste of it.

“…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 Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.”
That’s not the whole of the Athanasian Creed, just 14 of its 44 verses, well more than twice the length of the Nicene Creed, perhaps five times the length of the Iona Community Creed we will use today. Yes, there’s a reason you may have never heard of it. But it’s worth hearing this ancient text insist that what the doctrine of the Trinity does not say is that we worship three Gods.

What it does say is that there is one God engaging humanity in three ways, three ways-in to the character of the divine, three ways to relate to God.

One way is best expressed by the creative love that gives life as does a father, a mother, and binds that life in covenant love, compassion, mercy, and justice. To relate to this first person of the Trinity is to open ourselves to those same powers being formed in us.

A second way is best expressed by the Word made flesh, love enfleshed in the one who walks with us, Jesus the Christ, the Son of man and Son of God. To relate to this second person of the Trinity is to dare grow up into his likeness.

And a third way is best expressed by the Spirit that animates and transcends the physical, freeing creation to enjoy, worship, and serve its maker and redeemer. To relate to this third person of the Trinity is to entrust ourselves and one another to the wind that fills our sails, and to trust the still calm when for a while our sails are empty.

To say that these three personae are like the character masks of Roman theater could be misleading. The purpose of the Holy Trinity is not the masking of God, but the revealing of God, each revealing something more of the essential character of God. On the other hand, perhaps the notion that there is one actor behind these three character masks of God, one reality that each expresses in its distinct way, honestly says what we know: that God is often experienced as a hidden presence, is always a mystery to be known in mystical ways, and, when all is said and done, there’s an awful lot we do not know.

The one God engages us in three ways. Three ways-into the divine. Three ways to relate to God.

The Holy Trinity speaks to our minds, and seeks our hearts.

I was reminded of that as I prepared this sermon, and kept hearing a fragment of a poem: “Batter my heart, three-personed God…” was all I could remember. I looked it up, and there it was: one of John Donne’s nineteen Holy Sonnets.

I was drawn into three of those poems, and will print them here. You who love the King James Version of the Bible may enjoy the Elizabethan language of these poems—and, when a word stumps you, just wonder over it.

For example, in the third of these sonnets Donne calls the Trinity “knottie.” Isn’t that a wonderful word? It echoes his prayer in the first of these poems, that God would break the knot that ties us, betrothes us, to false gods. Christ frees us, then binds us to the one true God by tying the knot between our souls and the Holy Spirit in baptism.

So, if you’ll read these poems now, you’ll bring this sermon to its close. Notice that in the knottie language of the third sonnet we’re told what comes of God being made like man: by his Passion, Jesus Christ gives us the spiritual wealth by which we reclaim life that would otherwise be lost to us.

From John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”


Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend,
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd , and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.


Wilt thou love God, as he thee? then digest,
My Soule, this wholsome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by Angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy brest.
The Father having begot a Sonne most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne'r begonne)
Hath deign'd to chuse thee by adoption,
Coheire to his glory, and Sabbaths endlesse rest;
And as a robb'd man, which by search doth finde
His stolne stuffe sold, must lose or buy it againe;
The Sonne of glory came downe, and was slaine,
Us whom he had made, and Satan stolne, to unbinde.
'Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.


Father, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdome, thy Sonne gives to mee,
His joynture in the knottie Trinitie
Hee keepes, and gives to me his deaths conquest.
This Lambe, whose death, with life the world hath blest,
Was from the worlds beginning slaine, and he
Hath made two Wills, which with the Legacie
Of his and thy kingdome, doe thy Sonnes invest.
Yet such are thy laws, that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfill;
None doth; but all-healing grace and spirit
Revive againe what law and letter kill.
Thy lawes abridgement, and thy last command
Is all but love; Oh let this last Will stand!