Archive for May, 2016

“Transcending Transcendence,” (Trinity Sunday Sermon, May 22nd 2016)

Note: This was a sermon I preached at the 8am service on Trinity Sunday. I used two of the assigned readings, which you can find here and here.


One of my favourite online resources for sermon help is a Lutheran website called “Working Preacher,” and my favourite contributor is David Lose, current president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

When I checked out what he had to say on Trinity Sunday, David wrote not to preach on the Trinity. His advice was to preach on hope instead, because it would be more accessible, since the Trinity was a doctrine, and preachers today preach to post-doctrinal people.

I don’t know if I’d go that far. And if he’s right and we are, should we be?

Now don’t be alarmed. We Christians have argued for generations about how a God can be Three-in-One, and I’m not about to twist us into knots for an hour for the sake of proving David Lose wrong. But I do want to talk about the Trinity, specifically because of something else that Lose says later in the same essay, which is that we need to talk more about hope because, living in a secular world, we suffer from a loss of transcendence. Well what better way to regain transcendence than by reflecting on the one God who transcends divinity, omnipotence, and one-ness?

The world in which we live is strikingly materialistic. I’m not speaking of materialistic in the usual sense of being overly concerned with material objects; I mean in the philosophical sense. The pendulum of Western civilization has swung from the dualistic privileging of spirit over physicality back to a more Aristotelian “What you see is what you get” worldview. We still retain echoes of that dualism – think of every diet, fitness, and beauty commercial you’ve ever seen which promised the latest elixir to help you control, maybe transcend your fragile aging flesh – but I have also perceived a struggle for the immaterial, the spiritual, in our age: a dismissal of the subjective in favour of being objective; a denigration of alternative cosmologies (many of which are, tellingly, non-Western) that proclaim unseen but very real dimensions in which spiritual and emotional energy has weight and can interact with the physical; and an almost primal focus on living in the here-and-now over and above the future which may or may not exist if we don’t get our act together.

I think this pendulum swing is necessary – even Spirit-guided – and I think we are beginning to swing back. Balance, however, is the key that we always seem to be searching for. And this is how God, transcending the image of the absent clockmaker so popular for the last five hundred or so years, becomes prophetic in our time.

Lady Wisdom (Tiziano Vecellio)

Think of the image of Wisdom in our first reading. This is no airy, abstract, academic portrayal. This is a woman who stands on the street corner shouting for people to come to dinner. Everyone in the world knows what that looks like! If you read the whole chapter, you will see that she does not privilege any one people or philosophy, other than careful speech and good relationships. That last one is key. She loves company, and sings rhapsodically of her intimate relationship with the Creator, which is characterized by playful skill-sharing instead of competition. She is not to be grasped and hoarded as a treasure, because she is anything but passive. Not for her cages or pedestals, which are both dehumanizing as they deny agency on the one hand and vulnerability on the other. No, this is biblical proto-feminism at its finest. She’s an agent. Like the woman in the Song of Songs she is active in her pursuit of lovers, not because she needs them in order to be whole or loved but because she is by nature invitatory. She has an identity and life completely independent of any who would seek her out, and yet she chooses to do so because why would she not share her joy and strength with all? She is the anti-Hollywood hero: rejecting proud solitude, dominant posturing, and bootstrap thinking for open arms and an open table.

No wonder biblical commentators believe that the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as a cipher for Wisdom. God transcends solitary magnificence, transcends transcendence, even, for stuffy upper rooms, crisp roasted lamb, and barrels of cheap wine.

And that’s what Trinity Sunday is all about. The hypostatic union, the nature of natures, metaphors, similes, heresies – let’s leave all that aside and focus on this mind-blowing truth: that even as we poor, frightened, fragile creatures born from dust have sought to transcend our fleshiness through any means necessary, up to and including the eating of the one forbidden fruit in the whole garden, God is transcending perfection, transcending divinity, through the creation of something utterly unlike Godself; through freely offered invitation; through entering into time and flesh in Jesus; through the continued breathing of wisdom, truth, and love upon the earth; through the constant and evolving interaction with the cosmos. God in God’s infinite wisdom and recklessness sought to transcend omnipotence, and when that invitation was rejected, God, loving the world as recklessly as a child and as fearsomely as a parent, dug in deeper. God transcended transcendence to become immanent, and in resurrection gives us the power to transcend immanence and evanescence and become transcendent.

How can we possibly respond to such a momentous gift?

Well, in the spirit of that wild, untamed, and boundary-destroying love, in the spirit of the one who scatters our foolish boundaries like toy blocks and laughs with joy at the birth of stars, in the spirit of the one who is somehow three, I commend to all of you the following slightly edited piece of wisdom from Angel Silvermain Strange, a witch and friend of mine from my days in the Vancouver Goth scene:

“Love people unabashedly, without imposing expectations on their behavior, without the necessity of being loved in return, without the requirement of labels, with the joy of giving in your heart. Do it like a child would. Get raw. Be kind. Be unembarrassed. Forgive. Tell them you love them. Dig the **** in.”

“Ring them Bells,” (Sermon, May 11th, 2016)

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17:11b-19

Some of you may remember our Lenten Bible study in 2015, where I taught you about how the Gospel of John was written in code, and how in seminary we learned to spot the lines of code with the use of a bell, which we rang every time one of those code words came up.

Well, that’s not what I’m using this bell for today, mostly because this passage is so loaded that ringing it would leave us all with migraines. But I did want to talk about bells in general, and why I thought of them when I read this passage.

This is a small bell but still has many of the parts of a larger church bell. It has a crown, a shoulder, a waist or skirt, a sound bow, and, of course, a mouth and a clapper. Church bells, of course, can be mounted to beams to swing back and forth, although the largest ones must be struck, because they are so big that swinging can damage the towers.

Bells are complicated to make. Two molds are made using a stone model – one for the outer bell (called the cope) and one for the inner bell, or core – and, once they are fitted together, are laid in a casting pit, and finally liquid bell metal is poured in and left to cool. This requires much care, since too much moisture can leave the bell susceptible to cracks. Some large bells can take up to a week to fully cool! Once it has cooled it can be lifted out and put to use. Since we have not always had trucks, the largest bells once had to be made on site, with casting done inside the church itself or outside in a pit in the earth. Sometimes the bell tower was built on top of the pit!

Learning all this, I think the Fourth Evangelist might welcome the bell as a metaphor for the Jesus the Word’s journey into and out of the world. I think the Evangelist would love that image of those huge Medieval bells lowered into a hole in the earth. Talk about descending to live among us. Talk about incarnation. Talk about an empty tomb and a rising again once the work is completed.

The incarnate Word as church bell: a heavenly thing calling us to worship, telling us what time it is – remember that Johannine refrain, “The hour has come!”

And a bell is the perfect metaphor to illustrate the paradox of Jesus’ life, proclamation, and death.

In today’s reading, we hear Jesus’ words as he prays for his disciples. These verses are at the heart of his long farewell to the ones he loved. And he asks God to do three things.

First, in the verses just before our reading, Jesus asks God to glorify him, in order that he might glorify God. Second, Jesus asks God to protect the disciples, “so that they may be one.” Third, Jesus asks God to sanctify the disciples in the truth.

If we believe that God will give Jesus whatever he asks, then these three commandments can interact with each other in a highly intimate way.

Remember there are two molds required to craft a bell, because a bell has the outer cope, and the inner core. What if the cope was our glory, the glory with which God glorified us, Jesus’ beloved disciples? And what if the core was our sanctity, a space held open for God deep within us, like how the hollow emptiness of a bell is, paradoxically, the necessary ingredient for sound?

For the Evangelist, glory and sanctity are intimately tied up with sacrifice, with a pouring out. They are the things that clothe sacred emptiness. In Pentecost we are clothed with fire and wind. The metal must be molten, and must rest in the earth before it will be ready.

Once it is lifted up, even mere wind howling through a big bell is enough to make a song. But it needs more than just wind or breath to do its true work.

So, finally, what if the clapper was the tongue of every Christian, who, having received protection through Christ, has now been made one, and is commissioned to call out to the world, in order that the whole world can be made one?

What if all Christians, fashioned by the unending love of God, cast with molten sacrifice, laid in the earth and risen again in baptism, have become bells?

If that is so, friends, with apologies to British rock band The Kinks, I say to you:

“Shout out, ring the bells. Shout out, tell the world you’re in love.”