Sunday, 27 May 2018

Different kinds of darkness: a sermon for Trinity Sunday

There are different kinds of darkness.

There is the darkness of Nicodemus. He came to Jesus ‘by night’. Under cover of darkness. In secret. Out of the public eye, that he, a leader and teacher, would be so conscious of in the daytime. Coming to talk to someone he could not afford to be seen with. By night. For the sake of his reputation, and that of his fellow Pharisees. There is fearfulness in this darkness – the fear of being found, exposed, found out. But it’s not unlike another kind of fearfulness that darkness can bring – the kind of darkness that a young child – and the young child in each of us – is scared of: the darkness in which monsters lurk, or burglars; the darkness that makes us quicken our pace when we’re walking alone.

And then there is the darkness of Isaiah. A darkness in the middle of the temple, as it filled with smoke. Filled with smoke, and angels, and a throne on which God himself was seated. God himself. Isaiah’s darkness is the ‘thick darkness in which God was’, as the storyteller describes another face-to-face encounter with God – Moses’ darkness, on God’s mountain, receiving the commandments. This is the darkness of the billowing clouds of God’s glory, a darkness that reduces even the most eloquent of prophets (let alone the church’s fire safety officer) to awe-struck silence.

And let’s not forget the darkness of the beginning. The darkness of before the beginning. When there was nothing. No earth, no sun, no moon, no stars, no universe. Nothing but God. The darkness before light ever was, before the first ever ‘let there be’.

There are different kinds of darkness.

But there is only one God. Something worth reminding ourselves of, on Trinity Sunday of all Sundays. Something our Muslim sisters and brothers can be forgiven for getting confused about Christians, because we are sometimes confused ourselves. There is only one God. Not three gods. One God. The mystery that we celebrate today though, is that God does not just love us, love the creation, the universe that she has made with her decisive ‘let there be’… The mystery is that in the darkness before the beginning of time; in ‘the thick darkness’ on the mountain, and in the temple, where God was; at the heart of God’s very being, God is love. God is community. Life, relation, love, longing, delight – are all within God.

But is it perhaps an even greater mystery, that from that thick darkness, from the billowing clouds of glory, the life, relation, love, longing, delight that is God – the community that is God – reaches out… stretches out her arms and touches us – with a burning coal, with word made flesh, with her Spirit, praying in us, yearning in us, opening us up to cry ‘Abba! Father! Here I am! Your child!’

Long before the acrimonious Councils of the Church insisted on trying to get our trinitarian grammar ‘right’, the 2nd Century theologian Irenaeus described the Son and the Spirit as the two arms of God, making the world, and reaching out to draw the world into the divine embrace. Like a parent pulling their children in close to them, out of love, protection, delight – in the two arms of God that reach out to embrace us and envelop us, we discover that we are nothing less than beloved children of God. That is the good news. For Trinity Sunday, for every Sunday, for every second of every minute of every hour of every day. God is love, and God embraces us as her beloved children. And as an African-American bishop who a week ago became in 13 ½ minutes quite possibly the most famous preacher of the 21st Century put it:

When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well … like we are actually family.”

There is a little ‘but’. For those of us sitting in this place – and the longer we’ve been coming here, the more dangerous this little ‘but’ becomes – for those of us sitting in this place the danger is that we think we know it. The clouds of smoke in the temple have cleared, the ‘thick darkness where God was’ has become as clear as day. We know God is love. We know “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. We know we are God’s children. We know we come to church every Sunday to find community, to hear God’s word, to meet God here. We’ve been so well-schooled in the mystery that – somewhere along the line it’s stopped being a mystery any more.

That seems to be where Nicodemus is at. “Rabbi,” he says, kicking off his pre-prepared speech to Jesus. “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” We know. We know how God works. We know what God-at-work looks like. But Jesus says No, Nicodemus, you must become like a little child. You must start all over again. The Spirit is un-pin-downable, un-tameable – like the wind, it blows where it wants to, and you don’t ‘know’, Nicodemus. You don’t know where it’s come from, or where it’s going. You need to let the Spirit help you begin again, Nicodemus – help you catch glimpses of the mystery of God at work, and follow where it leads – help you seek and search for the God who loves playing hide-and-seek with you.

Nicodemus came to Jesus, by night, with his little boxes all pre-drawn, ready to be ticked as he questioned Jesus. And Jesus blew his boxes wide open. For those of us who’ve been Christians for more than a little while, we have a pretty good idea of where, and how, we expect to see God to be at work. And God says to us, as he said to Nicodemus, No – you must become like a little child. You must start all over again. You need to let the Spirit help you begin again – help you catch glimpses of the mystery of God at work, and follow where it leads – help you seek and search for the God who loves playing hide-and-seek with you. There’s a good Latin phrase that we theologians have for this – we call it the missio dei, the mission of God – it means, simply, that God is getting on with being God in the big wide world that God made and that God loves and that God longs for. Beyond our church buildings. Beyond our community organisations. Beyond our denominations. Beyond our theological reading and PhD research. Beyond our plans and programmes and politics. God is getting on with being God. Not indifferent to us, but often in spite of us. Always reaching out to invite us to join her – but getting on with being God whether we respond to her invitation or not.

Today, we enter the season of the Christian year that we call ‘Ordinary Time’. The long stretch of the year from now until November when nothing much happens – no times of careful preparation like Advent and Lent, no wonderful festivals like Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Ordinary Time. Green time. Growing time. The time between the resurrection of Jesus and the liberation and redemption of all creation. The time when the new life has begun, but we aren’t yet living it in all its fullness. The time when ‘making new’ and ‘making do’ have to co-exist, alongside each other. The time, to develop the ecological image a bit further, when the Spirit helps us put down our roots deeper, helps us grow our branches up and out, helps us bud and blossom and bear fruit, helps all kinds of unpredictable cross-pollination happen between us and our neighbouring plants and flowers and trees and bushes.

What does this mean for us in our life here and now, in Hodge Hill? Our conversations over the next few weeks about different expressions of church, different forms of worship, are part of our willingness to follow the movement of the Spirit among us. The flourishing of our ventures of building community with our neighbours, through Open Door and The Real Junk Food Kitchen, Street Connecting, Knit & Natter, the Old Rectory and Coffee Mornings here, are signs of the Spirit bringing to life glimpses of God’s loving community, through the church, invitations to the church from beyond us, and sometimes springing up in spite of the church. In some of what we’re involved in in our neighbourhoods here, we’re learning new ways of being community, across divisions of nationality, ethnicity, faith, class and age. And there are places, and encounters, and moments where it’s our neighbours who are encouraging us to pray, and deepen and widen our prayers – rather than, as we might expect, the other way round. The Spirit is at work here in Hodge Hill, and that’s exciting, and encouraging – as well, sometimes, as it is challenging. ‘We know,’ we’re sometimes, like Nicodemus, tempted to tell ourselves. And then we encounter the free Spirit of God, and like Isaiah, we’re reduced to speechless awe and wonder.

This long stretch of ordinary time is a time to practise our faith, then – to renew our rhythms of prayer and bible-reading, of care and conversation, of deep hospitality and neighbouring well, of lament and justice-seeking. We, the church, are a community of practice: of living out our faith, and of seeking to do that more faithfully, more authentically, with more integrity than we did it last year, or the year before, or the year before that. But we must also, as church, be a community of discernment: patiently, painstakingly, sometimes painfully, seeking for what is God’s will, rather than our own agenda; seeking to listen for God’s call to us now, rather than what it was last time we listened for it; seeking to let go of our ‘we knows’ – so that we can be taught by God’s Spirit afresh. That is the work of ordinary time, as much as the doing. And God knows we’re trying to engage in that work here now, however much we might be hesitant or unsure about it.

Vincent Donovan was a missionary who went from America to the Masai peoples of east Africa. One day, after he had told them much about the story of Abraham and Jesus, one of the Masai elders asked him a question: “This story of Abraham,” asked the elder, “does it speak only to the Masai? Or does it speak also to you? Has your tribe found the High God? Have you known him?” Donovan sat there for a long time in silence, and when he finally spoke, he was surprised at how small his voice sounded. “I said something I had no intention of saying when I had come to speak to the Masai that morning: ‘No, we have not found the High God. My tribe has not known him. For us, too, he is the unknown God. But we are searching for him. I have come a long, long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together, we will find him.’”

Some months later, Donovan was challenged again. The Kiswahili word he’d been using for ‘believe’ was too weak, too distanced, too tied up with the head, said one of the elders. They needed better words for faith – faith that was like a lion going after its prey, using its nose and eyes and ears to pick up the prey, his legs to give him the speed to catch it, all the power of his body in the leap and his front paws to deliver the death blow. And as the animal goes down, the elder explained, the lion envelops it in his arms, pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is what faith is like, he said. But there was more. “We have not searched for [God],” he said. “He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.

So with Vincent Donovan, with Nicodemus, with Isaiah – may we be startled afresh by God’s reaching out to us. May we let ourselves be gathered up in God’s arms, the warm embrace of God who is love. And may we, caught up in God’s love, and life, and longing and delight, discover the courage to say, afresh: ‘Here I am, send me’.