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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Letting God be God: a sermon on Trinity Sunday

‘Great music’ said the pianist Artur Schnabel ‘is music that is better than it can ever be played’.  That fits my faltering attempts to play Bach or Mozart at the keyboard. I know that I am touching a mystery here. It lies within the notes I stumble over, and in a sense, I am releasing that mystery as I play. Yet somehow it is always beyond the notes themselves, beyond even the most perfect performance of them imaginable.  Worship, too, is something that is performed. The words we say and sing this morning – the gloria, the creed, the readings, the intercessions, the eucharistic prayer, the hymns, even this sermon – they are like a musicical score: only in the performance, in the doing, do they come alive.  And we realise that however good the words, however honest our intentions, our worship always falls short of what it proclaims, always points beyond itself.

On Trinity Sunday, we realise the impossibility of ever doing God justice by talking about him. We ask too much of language when we expect it to carry this deepest mystery of all:

                       words strain, / Crack and sometimes break under the burden,
                       Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place.

says T.S. Eliot.  For how can we speak about the God who is both high and deep, beyond us yet within, encompassing all that has been, and is, and is yet to come?  ‘To whom then will you compare God?’ asks the prophet.  I can barely comprehend the mystery of another human being, my own self even, let alone the mystery of God.
                        For one like me / God will never be plain and
                        out there, but dark rather and / inexplicable

writes the Welsh priest-poet R.S. Thomas. Perhaps what the preacher on Trinity Sunday should be saying is that there is nothing he can say. ‘Of that whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent’ said the philosopher Wittgenstein.  It’s holy ground that we tread today.
Trinity Sunday should make contemplatives out of us; people who are not afraid of silence, who are as ready to be as to do, who are at home not only with earthquake, wind and fire but also with the still small voice. Religion, if it is anything, is about the practice of the presence of God, about discovering and discerning the signs of that presence in life. It is about exploration and awareness, about finding meanings and making connections, about celebrating what is yet to be in the face of what already is. To do that, we need to learn how to be quiet, become more present and attentive to life, to see what is there, and love what we find. Pascal said that all our troubles derive from one basic fault: our inability to sit still in a room.  That is what the contemplatives and mystics down the centuries have always understood. They teach us that when the words run out we become open to God in a new way, because he is nearer to us than our own souls. In a church of ‘fresh expressions’ that are often busy, hectic and loud, I believe people are looking to some of us to create contemplation-shaped churches that are pools of quiet awareness where ordinary people can reconnect with the gift that is in them to know the mystery of God.  This is one of the gifts of Trinity Sunday.

But those who are most practised in contemplative ways of prayer tell us that we cannot stop there. The Quakers, for instance, whose worship is a weekly celebration of the sacrament of silence - what Christians have been more active in politics and social concern than they? Prayer is not passivity. Trinity Sunday means more than what we can’t say.  This ‘more’ is about what we can do, indeed must do, if we are to live as Christians. In the Trinity, we see a pattern of relation­ship that speaks of how we are to be towards others and towards the world. The threeness of Trinity means community, a society of persons moving constant­ly out towards one another in self-giving, living and being in that perfect oneness we call by the name of ‘love’. 

‘Love’, as the New Testament understands it, is not so much a matter of the passions as the will.  ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments’. To be a Christian is to acquire the habit of living and loving in this commanded, costly way that Jesus acts out historical­ly, and that Trinity embodies eternally. So, Trinity Sunday calls me to the life of active love: love for my neighbour and community, love for my nation and for the world. There is no other way of being a Christian, no other path shown us by Jesus than this if we are to embody God's Trinitarian life in the world.  So contemplation and action belong together, as indivisible as loving God and loving my neighbour. The more I practise God's presence, the more I find myself caring about the world and the society I am a part of. I need to do more more than just pray. ‘What matters for praying is what we do next’ said Alan Ecclestone.  
Today, with people across the world, we are all in silence at events to which there are no words that can do justice.  I mean of course the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China.  It may be the silence of helplessness: we think there is nothing we can do that will make a difference apart, perhaps, from giving what we can towards the relief of those who have suffered and are suffering so terribly.  But the kind of silence I am speaking of is not helplessness.  It’s the same as the silence of contemplative involvement with God the Holy Trinity.  As we gaze on him who is love, who has taken the manhood into God, we take into that gaze all of creation, all God’s world, all the human family, all who cry out of pain and distress.  Our attentive silence embraces them all, and perhaps does for them far more than ever we can know or imagine.  For we can’t pray for our fellow human beings without by that very act committing ourselves to re-make the world as Christ would have it.  To be rooted in scripture, sacrament and silence is to be rooted in God’s mission for the healing of the world.  But in the same way, what matters for action is what we do next.  Prayer, silence, reflection, being aware and attentive to the miracle of God’s presence in life, this both begins and completes the circle.

In this morning’s gospel, the risen Jesus says farewell to his disciples with the words: ‘all authority in heaven and on earth is given to me’.  It is the climax of the gospel, the culmination of all that St Matthew’s story has been leading up to.  ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’.  It ends as it began – with the angel’s promise to Joseph that the child would be called Immanuel, God-with-us. The narrative has travelled far since then.  But the promise is the same: that Yahweh the high and hidden one, who is beyond all words and images, the creator of the world and the holy one of Israel, is in our midst, present to us forever as grace and truth.  This is God the mighty and eternal who calls worlds into being and loves us into life.  This is God the compassionate and merciful, who bears on his heart for all time the sorrow and pain of the world.  This is the God enthroned in majesty who answers the longings of the ages and shows us his glory.  This is God who is Trinity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to whom be all might, majesty, dominion and power now and to the end of time. 

St Chads College, Durham, Trinity Sunday, 18 May 2008.  (Matthew 28.16-end)

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