Saturday, May 21, 2016

SERMON: 'TOO DIFFICULT TO HEAR'...Reflections on Trinity.. May 22, 1916

                                                    John 16: 12-15, Prov. 8: 1-4, 27-31

I don't preach often and it seems  like a dream now that I preached most Sundays, usually twice, for 40 years. Preaching is a sober assignment for me yet also I try to not take it  too seriously. I know how long most sermons are remembered.*  I owe so  much to the United Church Of Christ for its encouragement of my formal ministry. I ask that you hear my sermon as 'thinking out loud' with you. This is Trinity Sunday. Aren't I lucky for this assignment? So I will reflect on that and attempt some application of today's two texts. There are exceptions but for most the idea of Trinity is hardly something at the center of faith though we sing every Sunday 'Praise Father, son and Holy Ghost.' (I hope you are not bored already. ) I'm thinking Trinity may be one of those teachings that once was felt strongly but has lapsed pretty much into irrelevance ? The idea of God being 'three in one' was not official in the church until the third century, after the Roman emperor made the previously persecuted Christians the Empire's religion. He needed the church to be a uniting factor in the Roman Empire so persuaded Church authorities to make clear that Christianity had one God , not many like the other religions. Some heard the Christians speak of three Gods- Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So the Emperor pushed strongly for the Trinity and got it. But there were I suspect also barely conscious spiritual and psychological factors present in people then that were behind the Trinity idea becoming a growing need for the Christian religion and Roman Empire.

Trinity  Mandala  Symbol

Humans then as now had a fear of disorder in human affairs. Like today whether church, government, or even athletic teams we know that order is preferred to chaos. But we also are uncomfortable with imposed rigidity for it stifles creativity and the human need for  freedom. So we are forever looking for balance between Chaos and tyranny.    And the idea that there may be chaos within the depths of the very foundations of reality, within God, is not comforting. If there are several gods there will be competition, instability and potential chaos in the outer world also. But if the primary factors that make up God are defined and experienced being united as One, not three competing ones, this would help calm the collective soul. So the idea of three aspects of God in one arose to clear consciousness in both Church and Empire. This, for good or ill, became the foundation of our Western Civilization. As a result we say we are Trinitarian this morning. I don't know how many persons still experience the Trinity as a genuine symbol of security today? To the extent a person does the Trinity is still a living symbol and not simply a stale relic.

Alchemy Trinity  Symbol

The Trinity symbol not being strongly experienced today is likely because it no longer carries any strong emotion. Symbols to live and support life must evoke emotion. Most of us Americans still have a wave of emotion when the American flag is presented. Well the Trinity symbol once surely must have generated a powerful emotion of harmony and well being in the soul. Trinity came to be understood not only as a religious symbol but as something that under-girded many natural situations. For example the German philosophy of Hegel in the 18th century was trinitarian. He explained history as a serious tension of opposite competing pairs, he called thesis and anti thesis , which through much suffering struggle, eventually unite in a third called the synthesis. So the trinity idea is used to explain many things. Anytime we experience personally or collectively colliding opposite attitudes we experience anxiety and discomfort and a need for a third thing to help harmonize the warring two. The Christian example of this is the Father Son relationship which has forever in human experience been a highly charged relationship. It's not always smooth and sometimes filled with strong unpleasant tensions. This relationship by nature is competitive for it is not at first mutual at all. Father is superior. The Father- Son relationship is the very definition of patriarchy which, though apparently necessary for social evolution, has led males to disregard the value of both children and women for millennia. Famous Biblical fathers and sons are shown often in conflict. No relationship is genuinely harmonious as long as there is not some equal sharing of power and voice... whether it be the opposites of Father - Son or husband -wife or corporation-union. In recent decades we have seen an unprecedented revolution in the potential of man and woman, Husband and Wife finally moving in human history toward being a mutual relationship … but most all couples will confess 'we are still working on it.' The creative tension of it sometimes sadly becomes too much.

So if the factors within the Godhead are competing uncontrollably then all creation is not grounded in peace and harmony and we are threatened with chaos. The human question becomes, is there order in the very depths of reality?   Before the Trinity doctrine,  the Godhead was envisioned as a hot and fiery place of discord and strife. The  creator Yahweh god of the Old Testament is often angry, unpredictable and volatile. Where as Son is a symbol of obedience and reason. Yet both exist as parts of God. The God and Son relationship needed to be brought into harmony or union. So the Christian Trinity is a symbol of how a third factor , the Holy Spirit, works to calm and transcend the destructive potential in the Father -Son relationship. So you can see how for many persons in the third century the Trinity was experienced as a powerful healing symbol that brought order to an otherwise chaotic Godhead.

I'll try to illustrate the general kind of living emotion originally involved in the Trinity idea. I had an experience of the clash within a natural trinity situation last month. The trinity consisted of me, a large garter snake, and the natural environment of the pond in my yard. All was going well in this trinity until one part of that trinity decided to over use its power. That was me. I surprised the unsuspecting snake, usurping its role by holding it to the ground in an attempt to capture it. At that moment there was a chaotic hell so to speak. I had my stick on the snake . It was thrashing and trying to bite me sensing I wanted to kill it. There must have been gallons of adrenaline flowing in that little trinity. Chaos reigned. I'm sure I was just as scared as the snake and nature just waited to pick up the pieces and bring calm again. I managed to capture the snake , take it a quarter mile to the river and relocate it in another natural setting. Then all was calm again. Order restored. Those strong emotional dynamics which the participants, and any bystanders, experienced was a small but troubling chaos. Such a dynamic among god factors would represent cosmic chaos.

In our day of being so painfully aware of the powerful and threatening tensions in life and the world we may again sense a need for the Trinity symbol to calm ourselves. Maybe as you now hear John's gospel speaking of the Son and Father being one you are less likely to hear it as just the nice, sweet, sentimental way things are with God, but as speaking of the highest levels of creative tensions seeking reconciliation so that chaos does not take over the world. This is the psychological dynamic of the Trinity symbol. There are surely many real outer parallels to this in private, church , community life and in national/world politics. The Holy Spirit was once felt and trusted as creating a dance of harmony between the opposite dispositions of Father and Son, thus bringing quality life and order out of potential chaos.
Celtic Quaternity

Now turning to the passage in John. This was the last gospel written, some sixty years or three generations after Jesus' tragic death. This is long before the movement   became  the state religion but about the time that this new interpretation of the Hebrew religion had run into harsh conflict with the Jewish Father religion. For a few decades the Jewish community was able to accommodate these Jesus Jews, but after Rome destroyed their city and Temple  and sent many of them into captivity the Jews were in no attitude to argue about Jesus being the Messiah. So they threw the Jesus Jews(Christians) out of the worship places and an unrivaled hate was now blooming between the Father religion and in the totally off the track Jesus(Son) movement. John no longer refers to the religious leaders that supported the death of Jesus as accountable but he assigns this same treachery to 'the Jews' in general. So we are right back to more real life threats of chaos that , if the parties involved do not find tolerance,  all hell could  break loose. So here also we see an urgent anxious need for  healing of the Father-Son relationship being experienced among Christians and Jews, a need for a Third uniting factor , thus a Trinity.

If we read this gospel as mere history, which we are so inclined to do, we can get involved in someone else's story(Jesus and his friends) . The same as if we were reading about Alexander the Great. But if we believe these stories and symbols contain not just some possible historical reference but timeless patterns of human reality we can ask, ' what are the things in our family, schools, church or nation that are being 'hard' but that we must now try to hear?' When we do this we use the gospel not as history to read but as a tool to ponder our actual present situation. Then we potentially use the Sacred text to enter real paths of spiritual improvement? For example, it may be a hard truth that churches like ours can no longer expect persons out there to come here and do what we do. That what we say and do may seem irrelevant to them or they find other ways to meet their spiritual/psychological needs.  Perhaps our reason for being at present is not to attract others directly but to focus more on how we ourselves are being transformed as we take in those things that are hard to hear? That is hard to hear and leaves us wondering, but we trust that chaos will not overtake us. It may be that what scientists are telling us in growing detail about our earth's changing climate which we can and should take corrective action is very hard for us to hear. It could be hard to hear that having a President of color has shown us just how much our nation is not yet healed of the wounds from our forefathers institutionalizing slavery for very selfish interests. Yet we trust chaos will not overtake us. And so the list goes. All such things threaten us with  chaos winning over order and so remind us of the importance of Trinity. John's images taken as symbol imply there are still truths we, not just those first Christians, need to know and will be led to know by the Holy Spirit. Some important things we do not yet know because they are still unknowable or because we lose trust and decide we know enough and no longer need to be open minded  learners.

The Proverbs reading speaks clearly about something which many find very difficult to hear for it still runs counter to our traditional God images. So it tends to stir the fear of social Chaos in our present times. When people fear the threat of chaos they will fight violently against it. We witness this in daily news stories. Proverbs, contrary to our religious and social traditions, tells us of the eternal feminine aspect of God. The orthodox Trinity- Father , Son and Holy Spirit has left us with an outdated very masculine image of God, but is not the feminine principle just as necessary and needed , especially in our times? This ancient writing about God's nature involves a feminine principle at its center. Proverbs 8 speaks symbolically of a fully female component of God and she is given the ancient Greek name Sophia meaning wisdom. We are told that she was with God at creation, nothing was made without her, that she is God's daily delight and that she has the ear of the male principle of God in all things. This still surprising, and somewhat threatening at first, Goddess image of true wisdom found its way into the Hebrew Bible. Parallels to Sophia in secular cultures are seen in statues of Lady Justice, the official image of Justice Departments in Washington D.C., many states and foreign countries. Hopefully we find this an exciting spiritual awakening, whose time to be fully heard has come, and we can be grateful to integrate it into our view of God. This feminine image of deity is already molding our male- female relationships into genuinely more mutual and cooperative experiences. This bodes well for greater peace and harmony in the world. A close parallel of this in the New Testament is Mary the mother of Jesus. Our Catholic friends have for centuries felt there is something most special about the Mary symbol , even to the point that they mention her in prayers. It is quite astonishing that in 1957 the Catholic church pronounced that Mary be considered as assumed to heaven much like the NT pictures happening with Jesus. This seems to imply nothing less than a fourth person in the Godhead, like the Proverbs imagery says of Sophia.
Quaternity Mandala

So I'll end this reflection on the Trinity with the idea that we may have already entered an age when we are hearing things which before have been difficult and unimaginable, and are learning things we never expected to learn --- that a new symbol of God, far more able to guide and harmonize a new millennium against threatening chaos, is evolving. This symbol appears to be : Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Mother or simply woman. Three is becoming   four, the Trinity is transforming naturally into a Quaternity. Could such a single symbolic change in the collective God image be the natural path to increased peace and love in the world? We can hope so. And we can see that such a possibility is supported, even initiated,  right here in the Bible.

*This blog post edition  is a third longer
than the sermon actually given for the church service.

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