Sunday, June 11, 2006

Farewell Sermon at St. Francis of Assisi

Trinity Sunday – Year B
Exodus 3:16; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-16
Sunday, June 11, 2006 – St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church, San Bernardino

There is a scene early in the musical “The Sound of Music” in which the Mother Superior and the other nuns are discussing some issues surrounding Maria, a novice at the abbey. Maria appears to be unruly and unpredictable, not abiding by the expectations and norms of the community. She is always late for chapel services, is never where she is expected to be, and does not always perform the duties that are expected of the members of the religious community. Maria clearly lives life on her own terms. This is not to say that she is not religious or that she does not have a solid relationship with God. Quite the contrary. As the musical unfolds, it becomes obvious that Maria, despite her apparent disregard for human authority, does answer to a higher authority. She is prompted by a spirit that others in her life just do not seem to comprehend. It is in contemplating this enigmatic situation, this enigmatic young nun, that the older, seemingly wiser nuns break into song, singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

As I contemplate the enigmatic entity we know as the Trinity, I am tempted to break into song, along with those Austrian nuns, “How do you solve a problem like the Trinity?” As a lay person, I often heard a number of clergy persons comment that they really do not like preaching on Trinity Sunday. They tend to find it difficult to prepare sermons on such a complex topic, at least in such a way that makes the concept of the Trinity readily understandable to people who do not have formal theological education. They would just as soon have someone else bear the burden of attempting to edify their congregations on the subject. Now that I am a member of the ordained clergy, I am beginning to see why my colleagues feel that way. Even for those of us with formal theological education, who have spent three or more years studying such concepts as the Trinity, it is difficult to get our minds around the subject, let alone to actually articulate any coherent thoughts on the matter.

The primary problem, at least as far as I am concerned, is that the concept of the Trinity is just too mysterious for our human minds to comprehend, at least in its totality. Yes, we can look at the various Persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and attempt to describe what we know of each. Holy Scripture provides us with some insight into each Person of the Trinity. But what is contained in Scripture does not provide a complete picture of the Trinity in its entirety. In fact, other than the Trinitarian formula of baptizing a person in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, there is not unified reference to or explanation of the Trinity. What we do know, we have to piece together from various references to the individual Persons in the New Testament. For 2,000 years, theologians have been pondering, debating, and arguing over the specific nature of the Trinity, and the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity. In the early church, various sects of Christianity were formed because of differing understandings of the Trinity. Each sect considered the others heretical for their beliefs. Church councils were convened to resolve the heresies. And while we have come to some common understandings within Christianity, there is still disagreement on the subject.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There is an answer for every complex theological issue, including the nature and relationship of the Trinity. And that answer is, “It’s a mystery.” My theology professor, Ellen Wondra, always hated when we used that answer in class discussions. But she was the one who provided us with that answer. Of course, to prevent us from using it as a cop-out, to prevent us from avoiding struggling with difficult issues, we were only allowed to use “it’s a mystery” in the last ten minutes of class.

But when it comes to the Trinity, I firmly believe that it is a mystery. After all, how can the three Persons of the Trinity also be one Person? How can the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be separate entities, but at the same time be one God? How can one Person also be three Persons? How can we believe in one God, who also breaks down into three separate Persons that are complete in and of them selves? It’s enough to give you a headache. If the best theological minds of the last 2,000 years have not solved the issue, it’s no wonder we struggle with the concept. And why? Because it’s a mystery.

But I don’t want to use that as a cop-out. It is a fact. There are just some things about God, and by extension, the Trinity, that we cannot know in our limited human existence. Even though we cannot know all there is to know about God and the Trinity, we still experience the actions and movement of the Trinity in our lives, both individually and communally. Through those actions and movement, we can get some sort of understanding of the Trinity. We may not have answers about the existential nature of the Trinity, but we can and do have insight into the experiential nature of the Trinity.

Our lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans provides us with some insight. Paul tells us in verse 14 that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. In verses 16 and 17, he goes on to explain that “When we cry, ‘Abba, Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and if children, then heirs, heirs to God and joint heirs with Christ”. The thread that runs through these references is that of relationship – the relationship among the various Persons of the Trinity, and our relationship to them. We know that Christ is the Son of God, the Son who is sent by the Father to establish direct human relationship with us, and to be our redemption. The Son is sent to reconcile God’s beloved creation, us, to God’s-self. In so doing, we are made God’s children by adoption. But there is just one tiny problem. While Christ provides the human connection between God and humanity, Christ is no longer physically present to provide that direct connection in an ongoing way. The Father and the Son are in direct relationship. But something more is needed to extend that relationship to us, to God’s creation, so that we may be in direct relationship with the Father and the Son. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in.

According to the Nicene Creed, the profession of our faith that we pray nearly every Sunday, the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Father and the Son are in direct relationship and together, they send the Holy Spirit. Gail Ramshaw, Professor of Religion at LaSalle University, notes that “For Paul, the Spirit is the power of the resurrected Christ alive and operative in the community of the baptized: the Spirit of God is nothing other than the Spirit of Christ” (Ramshaw, 375-6). The Holy Spirit, at once the Spirit of God the Father and the Spirit of Christ the Son, allows for a direct connection, a direct relationship between God, Christ, and us.

While we cannot directly know God, nor can we be in direct contact with Christ because of his death, resurrection, and ascension, we can know and be in relationship with them through the power of the Holy Spirit. Like any relationship, the parties involved have an ongoing, transformative affect on each other, if they allow such transformation to occur. We cannot know how we might affect God or the Holy Spirit, but we know the Holy Spirit certainly affects us, if we let her. As Ramshaw states, “The passage in Romans 8, in which Paul writes of Christians calling God Abba, Father, stresses our life as led by the Spirit of God. Because the baptized people now embody the Spirit that Christ once embodied, we stand before God in the same relationship that Christ enjoyed. The verses 15-16 suggest that Paul is not laying down a law about the church’s address in prayer as much as explaining the ongoing power of the Spirit of God among the baptized” (Ramshaw, 377). That power of the Spirit, operating among us, is the force that provides the bond that allows us to experience relationship with the remainder of the Trinity, with the Father and the Son.

The power of the Holy Spirit, operating in our lives, is also manifest in another important way. Again, we turn to Gail Ramshaw, who notes that “In some of the biblical images of inspiration by the Spirit, the recipient is an individual. However, many passages of the Old and New Testaments describe the Spirit as alighting on the whole community (Ramshaw, 377). “It is in the baptized community that we experience most fully the Spirit of the Creator, which for Christians is the same as the Sprit of the resurrected Christ” (Ramshaw, 377-8). For me, this is one of the most important functions of the Holy Spirit, to provide the energizing force that makes possible community, particularly the community that is the Body of Christ. Now that is not to say that community is not possible without the Holy Spirit. Rather, the type of community that occurs in the Church is only possible through the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is understood by the church to be “the mysterious power or presence of God in nature or with individuals and community, inspiring or empowering them with qualities they would not otherwise posses. The term ‘spirit’ translates Hebrew and Greek words denoting ‘wind,’ ‘breath,’ and by extension, a life-giving element.” The Spirit, which is the Sprit of the Creator and the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, provides the unifying force that connects us with both the Father and the Son, providing us with life inseparably bound together with that of the Father and the Son. The Spirit makes possible our life with God and with Christ.

Because the Spirit infuses the community and the individual members of the community with the life-giving connection with God and Christ, the members of the community, by extension, have a special bond with each other. This is a bond empowered by the Holy Spirit, as inseparable and as intimate as is the bond between God and Christ. It is just such a bond that we enjoy here at St. Francis, a bond that is intimate and inseparable.

One of the key aspects of the Holy Spirit is her unpredictability, particularly in the way she influences our lives. In our Gospel lesson, John tells us that “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). “The divine Spirit is a mysterious wind, which we realize without seeing, which we honor without understanding. The good news is that the Spirit of God is always higher, always lower, more powerful and more pervasive, than we have yet imagined it to be” (Ramshaw, 378). So it is with everyone who lives in community energized and made possible by the Spirit. The Spirit moves us, influences us, in unexpected ways. And being a community energized by the Spirit, we influence each other and are transformed by each other in unexpected ways, in ways we have yet to imagine.

If you question this, think about times when a member of this faith community has reached out to you in a time of need; or said a kind word when you were down; or challenged you to do something that you might not otherwise have tried. The ways in which this community and its members have influenced each other are numerous, and in many ways, unintended, unexpected, and unimagined. While I cannot speak to how each member of this community has influenced and transformed other individual members or the community as a whole, I can speak to its impacts on my life, to your impact on my life.

I came to this community nearly 16 years ago, on St. Francis Day of 1990. Having just moved to the area, I was searching for a new church home. I walked in late, because I thought the service began at 9:30. Being St. Francis Day, there was only one service beginning at 9:00. So I walked in right in the middle of Father David’s sermon. The place was packed, so I stood in the back of the church. After a couple of minutes, Ken Mann noticed that I was standing back there, got up, came to me, and took me to sit with him and Mary. I was a stranger, but I was made welcome, to feel like a special guest. I knew in that moment that this was a place in which the Spirit was obviously active, energizing the community to be the Body of Christ. I knew this was a place that I could call home.

Over the last 16 years, this community has been an integral part of my life. You have provided me with opportunities to grow in my faith. You have provided me with opportunities to explore and participate in leadership, teaching, liturgical, and pastoral roles. You have challenged my views and beliefs. You have challenged me to take on roles and responsibilities that I didn’t think I was capable of or ready for – roles and responsibilities that you knew I could handle and was ready for. You have supported me, prayed for me, and nurtured me. And through all of this, you were slowly and systematically lifting me up to God’s service. You were helping me to discern and realize my true calling. And with your gentle yet pervasive and persuasive encouragement, I finally made the ultimate leap of faith – to give up my career and embark on the journey toward ordained ministry.

And now, after all these years, your work is done. I have accomplished that which you have challenged me and lifted me up to do. I walked into this place 16 years ago a lay person seeking a church home, and I walk out today, an ordained member of the clergy, seeking to do God’s work in the world – work that you have helped prepare me to do.

But even though I may be leaving, your influence will still be with me. For me, this is vividly illustrated in a story told by Peggy Tabor Millen, in Mary’s Way. She writes:

“I was on a train on a rainy day. The train was slowing down to pull into a station. For some reason I became intent on watching the raindrops on the window. Two separate drops, pushed by the wind, merged into one for a moment and then divided again–each carrying with it a part of the other. Simply by that momentary touching, neither was what it had been before. And as each one went on to touch other raindrops, it shared not only itself, but what it had gleaned from the other. I saw this metaphor many years ago and it is one of my most vivid memories. I realized then that we never touch people so lightly that we do not leave a trace.”
This is how the Trinity works in our lives. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, which blows in, mysteriously touching our lives, we are transformed and inseparably bonded to the Father and the Son, even though we may not be able to touch them or see them. As a community, we are inseparably bonded to each other. We transform each other in unexpected ways. And even when we may mo longer be together, we are still part of each other, still influencing each other, still transforming each other. And we go on to touch the lives of others, and when we do so, we share with them a part of those who have previously touched us. And the process continues, extending the web of connection among us, all because of the power of the Trinity, made manifest in our lives by and through the Holy Spirit. How does this happen? It’s a mystery—a mystery of relationship, made possible by God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit—a mystery of the relationship of the Trinity, and of our relationship with the Trinity. But thanks be to God for that mysterious power of the Trinity which binds us to God, to Christ, and to one another.

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