Trinity Sunday 2021, by the Reverend Martin Elfert

This is a Billy Collins poem. It is called Introduction to Poetry. And it goes like this.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

I love that poem for a lot of reasons – one of them being that it works just as well if you swap out the word poem and swap in other words. Like, say, the word Bible.

I ask them to take the Bible
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into the Bible
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the Bible’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of scripture
waving at the authors’ names on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the Bible to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

We could try out other words, including other words of our faith.

I say drop a mouse into the Creed…

Or walk inside salvation’s room…

or

Hold the resurrection up to the light.

Today is Trinity Sunday. And under the Canons of the Episcopal Church, there is a joke that every preacher is required to make on this day. The preacher is required to look around in exaggerated exasperation and then say: How did I end up preaching today? Or, if they are seminarian or a guest preacher, they are required to offer a variation on the joke and say, Of course, the rector scheduled me for today. Either way, the premise of the joke is the same:

Preaching on this day means that you have drawn the short straw. It is the homiletical equivalent of being ambushed by the child who demands that you explain where babies come from, except that explaining the Trinity is not merely awkward, it is also impossible.

And the premise of that joke is probably right if our plan is to tie the Trinity to a chair and beat it with a hose to find out what it really means, if our plan is to explain it, much as we might explain the operation of lever or a pulley or a non-fungible token. We can get out that famous diagram of the Trinity (do you know the one: Jesus is God; the Holy Spirit is God; the Father is God and Jesus is not the Father; the Father is not the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is not Jesus) and find out that the Holy Trinity makes less sense than it did when we began.

If explaining the Trinity is the assignment, of course folks dread preaching on this Sunday.

But what if that isn’t what this Sunday is about at all? What if, on this Sunday, we are invited instead to waterski on the surface of the Trinity?

Early on in my time as a Christian, maybe a year after I had been baptised, I encountered some arguments against church and against faith more broadly. Maybe you have encountered some of these arguments yourself. The one that I remember in particular went something like this:

The explanation that the Bible offers for the world and its workings made sense to our ancestors because it was the best explanation they had. They didn’t know any better. But we have better explanations, we know better. And so we don’t need those explanations anymore. Much like Paul growing up and putting away childish things, it’s time for us to put aside the childishness of faith. We’ve outgrown it.

I was fascinated by that critique. Because, prior to that moment, friends, it had never, ever occurred to me that I was in church looking for an explanation.

I had always been in church looking for poetry.

I had always been there looking for holy stories, symbols, and practices, proclaimed and enacted within community, that would give me a structure and rhythm within which to respond in wonder to the mystery of this life.

So.

I kind of adore Nicodemus. He is unique to the Gospel of John. And there he is a recurring character. Today we hear about his first appearance. Nicodemus has heard about Jesus, heard about the amazing things that Jesus says and does. And even though Jesus is totally unpopular with both the church and the state, two institutions in which Nicodemus is pretty heavily invested in his role as teacher, theologian, and leader, Nicodemus decides he has to see him anyway.

He’s not reckless though: he sneaks out to see Jesus at night.

And no sooner has he met Jesus, no sooner have the two of them shaken hands, than Jesus drops one of those inspiring and confusing lines for which he is famous. Jesus says:

I’m telling ya, Nick,

No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

To which Nicodemus’ brow furrows so hard that you could plant potatoes in the creases. He says:

It seems to me, Jesus, that I am quite large. And these days, my mother is fairly small – I’m actually taller than her. I just don’t see how I could get back into her womb, not even with a running start.

And Jesus is like,

Dude, are you seriously a teacher?

Because Nicodemus is trying to tie up Jesus’ words and beat them with a hose. He is trying to reduce Jesus’ words to something explainable and, therefore, something manageable and quantifiable and domesticable.

But Jesus’ words aren’t an explanation. They are holy poetry that points us to God. And like all poetry, his words will not be managed or quantified or domesticated.

Now, I want to stop and throw in a serious caveat here. Because when we realise that scripture itself warns us against reading scripture at a crudely literal level, when we realise that Jesus himself warns us against reading Jesus at a crudely literal level, there can be a tendency – and I reckon this tendency is especially prevalent within the Episcopal church – to replace a crudely literal reading with a crudely metaphorical reading.

And what I mean by “crudely metaphorical” that, is that is that we can succumb to the temptation to announce that everything that happens in scripture which defies our understanding or falls outside of our experience is “just a metaphor.” This is especially true of embarrassing things, like miracles. So, the resurrection is just a metaphor for what happened in the disciples’ hearts after Jesus’ death, Christmas is just a metaphor for how special Jesus later proved to be, the transfiguration is just a metaphor Jesus’ brilliance as a leader.

No!

This crudely metaphorical reading is nothing more than fundamentalism with a mirror held up to it. It is the very same mistake as crude literalism, but in reverse. If the fundamentalist is threatened by the possibility that scripture might be anything other than literally an inerrantly true, the crude metaphoricalist is threatened by the possibility that anything in the Bible actually happened. In this mirror-image mistake, we are still beating the Bible with a hose trying to find out what it really means, still trying to manage and quantify and domesticate Jesus.

And Jesus won’t have that. He way too wild and free and holy.

You can’t explain Jesus. Well, that’s a dangerous thing to say. Let’s try this: You can attempt to explain Jesus – or the Creeds or the Trinity – and the trying matters, the exploring matters, the searching matters. But even as you understand one layer about God, there will always by further layers that are out of your reach. One of my favourite profs put it this way: He thought his search was like climbing a mountain and, when he reached the peak, he would know everything. But as he neared the peak he looked around and realised that there were all these other mountains – range after range – that he had yet to climb.

While you cannot explain God in an intellectual way, you can know Jesus, know him in your gut, in your heart, in the way that you know that a certain piece of music is beautiful and that a certain joke is funny and that someone is telling you the truth when they speak those staggering words, I love you. You can know that Jesus is showing us what God is like. And you can know that, in imitation of Christ, the creeds show us what God is like and the doctrine of the Trinity shows us what God is like.

In the Trinity you know that each of these three persons are one – each of them is God – and you know that they retain their individual identity. Speaking of love, this is what happens in love, isn’t it? You are something together and yet you remain you, you remain yourself, you remain free. And here is another thing that you know in the Trinity.

You know that you are invited to participate.

Listen to Paul: You are children of God. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery. You received a spirit of adoption. You are a full member of this family.

The Trinity is not something that you can explain that you can manage or quantify or domesticate. It is not something that will ever make any sense if you tie it to a chair and beat with a hose to find out what it really means. But if you waterski across its surface, if you walk inside its room, if you hold it up to the light, you might just find that you get born into something new.

Palm Sunday and Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Lessons:

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

The gospels don’t make clear what Jesus thought he was doing when he went up to Jerusalem in the last week of his earthly life. John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus had a master plan from God and knew exactly what was going to happen, but the other gospels are more ambiguous.  Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, which seems to signify peaceful intentions. Does he think, as many of his followers apparently did, that God would use this moment to sweep away the current power structure and bring in God’s kingdom? When Jesus makes his prophetic assault on the temple, does he anticipate that it will inspire the ruling elite to plot his death? It’s hard to know.

If we step back a moment and contemplate what actually happens in the days leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, it looks a lot like utter chaos. Picture the scene: Jerusalem is packed with the faithful come to celebrate Passover, Pilate and the Romans are nervous about popular unrest, and Jewish leaders are nervous about the Romans’ tendency to use violence to solve problems.

Enter Jesus: he’s initially hailed by many as a powerful prophet but within days is scorned as a pathetic fraud by the Passover crowd. He hides outside of town to avoid the authorities, only to be betrayed by one of his closest lieutenants. Jewish leaders scramble to find a way to get rid of this troublemaker in order to protect the city. Pilate is uncertain who this man is, initially quarrels with Jewish leaders about what to do, but finally gives in to their demands just to be on the safe side. Jesus’s followers, confused and fearful, don’t understand why things are unfolding as they are.

Experts on the human mind tell us – as if we really needed to be told – that we humans, for all our intelligence and rational capacity, are really terrible at predicting the future, of seeing what’s going to happen, even though we often think we’re good at it.

Think back to this time a year ago: I thought, well, there’s a new virus, it’s problematic, we’ll shut things down for a few weeks, maybe a month or so, then things will get better.

Did any of you anticipate – I certainly did not – that in a year’s time a half million of our fellow Americans would have died of the virus, that tens of millions of people would have lost their jobs and businesses, that schools would be mostly shut down for a year, that wearing or not wearing face masks would become a political issue, that we would now be busily trying to vaccinate the entire population against the new virus, or that thousands of Americans would have physically stormed the U.S. Capitol trying to overturn a national election? It’s almost like a script for a science fiction movie. And yet, here we are.

Paul, in the Letter to the Philippians, writes that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (2:5-7) In other words, he wasn’t like one of the Greek gods with supernatural powers who could appear in human form; he was truly and completely human, subject to all of the weaknesses of humans, including doubt, pain and mortality. And, I would say, unable to accurately predict the future.

When I think of Jesus on that donkey entering Jerusalem about to face the Passover crowds, the nervous Roman authorities, the city leaders who just want to maintain the peace, I think he couldn’t have known what was going to happen. To my mind, it’s the moment at which he is most human, most like us, not being able to see the future but still holding on to what he knows is God’s call to him, set on the actions he feels compelled to take, no matter what. Like his friends and followers, he is determined and hopeful – but the future is unknown territory.

When I retired from teaching a couple of years ago, I didn’t have a very clear idea what retirement would look like for me. I did have some modest plans: I was going to do some volunteering, I was going to take some classes, I was going to continue to be engaged with folks at church, I was going to do some traveling with my wife, spend time with my kids. I was hopeful everything would fall into place.

HA! There’s a Yiddish saying that I love: “Mann tracht un Gott lacht.” Man plans and God laughs. Or if you prefer a Scottish version, courtesy of Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”

Man, have my plans “gang aft agley.” There have been moments this past year when my life, and the lives of so many others, have seemed like utter chaos: things happening over which we had no control, little choice, events that threatened not just our plans but our work, our education, our families, our very lives. Our streets and our civil life in turmoil. My anxiety has sometimes frozen me in place. Perhaps yours has as well. We have asked ourselves questions: What is the path forward? How can we make it? How do we get out of this? What’s next? Why?

By the end of that chaotic week in Jerusalem, it’s easy to sense the despair in Jesus’ friends, as whatever hopes they had, have been buried in the tomb with their leader. But then at the dawn of a new week, they rediscover hope in the empty tomb. Now they can begin to look back and to reframe the terrible events of the week. Now they can begin to make meaning out of them. To find a new purpose. They still don’t know what lies ahead, but they know just enough to move forward.

In a sense, this is what we do every Holy Week as we retrace the events of Jesus’ last days in our worship together. We take the chaos of these events and use them all – the fear and suffering and pain and despair and then the vision of Jesus alive again – all of it, to make meaning. And we can use this week as a template for our own lives and experience, to take the chaos and suffering we have experienced and, through the lens of Holy Week, rediscover meaning and purpose for ourselves. And we can do that because the paradox of the Cross is that it is not the final word but actually the sign of God’s  promise to transform suffering and death into new life and new hope.

Jesus’s death scatters his friends into hiding, until they receive the call to come together again, to return to Galilee, to find new community and new purpose together.

When we are able to emerge from our own hiding, to come back together as a community, we don’t know what that will look like. Like the disciples, we will discover that it’s not just a return to our old lives, but an invitation to transformation, to move forward on new roads, new ways of worshipping and being in community,  to new ministries and ways of serving God and God’s people.

 

Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Lent by the Rev. Richard Schaper

Lessons:

The Reverend Richard Schaper studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

He also studied philosophy and religion at Colgate University, theology at the University of Chicago, ethics at Yale University, financial planning at Golden Gate University and the management of nonprofit organizations at the University of San Francisco.

Growing up Lutheran, then worshipping with Quakers and zazen training with Zenki Shibayama Roshi prepared him for nine years as a Benedictine monk at Weston Priory.

Richard’s experiences as a monk, hospital chaplain, parish pastor, and certified financial planner have prepared him for a pastoral and spiritual perspective in financial and estate planning.

His wife, the Reverend Anita Ostrom, PhD., is a psychotherapist.

Richard comes from a seafaring family and enjoys fishing and sailing.

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28
Psalm 111

What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?

And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?

We are early on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest Gospel, it is probably the oldest, and it is the one that tells the story of Jesus with the most urgency. It has this driving, and then, and then, and then quality to it. Mark does not give us a nativity, he does not give us a genealogy, he does not give us the cosmic preamble that we have in John.

What Mark gives us is John the Baptist foretelling Jesus and then baptising Jesus; Jesus being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness; Jesus calling Simon and Andrew and James and John; and then the scene that we witness today. (We’re still in the first Chapter!) This is a scene that offers a possible answer to our opening questions: What do we expect it to be like when we meet Jesus? And what is it like when we actually meet Jesus?

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. If we feel like imagining this scene in the present day, maybe we can picture him standing at the front of our church. He is teaching. And people are amazed – because, the text says, he has authority. There is something about his words, his stories, just who he is, that tells people that he is telling the truth.

And no sooner has Mark set up this scene than conflict or crisis shoots into the middle of it like a lightning bolt. Someone with an unclean spirit shows up. Unclean spirit is a category that we don’t know much about in 2021. It assumes a fundamentally different worldview than I have and, I’m guessing, than you have. If you haven’t seen the person who lives next to you for a while and you ask another neighbour what happened to them, you’d probably be surprised and confused if your neighbour said, “Oh, Doug has an unclean spirit.”

Even if we don’t have a common vocabulary, however, we do know what it is like when someone is in distress. And this man person shows up all of a sudden in this scene is in profound distress. They are hurting in a big way.

Something fascinating happens then, something that will repeat throughout Jesus’ ministry: the hurting person or, to use the language of Mark, the unclean spirit within the hurting person recognises Jesus right away. Sometimes the disciples are slow to figure out who Jesus is and what he must do. And someone like Pilate never figures out who Jesus is. But this unclean person, this hurting person has no question:

I know who you are,

he says,

You are the Holy One of God.

And maybe this makes sense. Because it is often in our distress, in our pain, in our loneliness, in our lostness that God shows up to us most clearly. When I speak with people in hospital or hospice beds, they will regularly tell me that their prayer life, that their conversation with God, has a clarity that it never had before. I don’t think that’s because God is any more present when we are suffering than when we are washing the dishes or when we are in a moment of jubilation. But I do suspect that, in our suffering, it’s sometimes easier for us to notice God.

Now, pay attention to what else this hurting person says next:

Have you come to destroy us?

While being possessed by an unclean spirit may be outside of our experience, I want to suggest that this next part is not, that these words are not. Many of us have inherited this idea that, when we stand before God, what we will encounter from God is disappointment, condemnation, rejection, and the harshest kind of judgment. Many of us suspect that when we arrive at the gates of heaven, Saint Peter won’t have a room ready for us. We wonder, we fear, in other words, that what we can expect from God is violence.

We ask Jesus:

Have you come to destroy us?

But what Jesus offers is healing.

Come out of him! Jesus says to the unclean spirit. And the man is healed, he is set free. And maybe – I don’t know if this is a weird idea – the unclean spirit is also healed and set free. The two are no longer bound together in pain.

Alleluia.

If your answer to the question, What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus? Is I expect pain and rejection and violence then this story is for you.

There is an old and beloved hymn called There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The words were written by a guy by the name of Frederick Faber. And one of the verses goes like this:

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

That hymn is about the whole earth. And it is about you in particular. We all fail. I sure do. And what we can expect from Jesus, what Jesus promises, is kindly judgment. Again, Alleluia.

What do you expect it to be like when you meet Jesus?

And then: what is it like when you actually meet Jesus?

Whatever you may expect from Jesus, know that meeting him is always, always a joy that is more than we can ask or imagine. Know that when you meet him you will find kindly judgment, you will find freedom, you will find love.

 

Second Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

My public school career began a handful of years before the video cassette became commonplace. And so my early experience with watching films in a classroom featured a member of the AV Club rolling a cart with a projector on it into the room. Those projectors had a particular smell: cellulose and frayed vinyl and burnt dust. And they made a particular sound they made as they fired up.

A second or two after that sound began images would flash onto the screen, the first few featuring numbers, some of which counted you down into the film and others of which served a purpose that I have never learned. The numbers were accompanied by holes burnt into the film by misadventures gone by.

And then the film began.

Some of the films were educational: here’s what it’s like to work at a factory where they manufacture a certain kind of product; here’s what it’s like to be an Olympic-level swimmer or diver; here’s what it might have been like to live in a cabin in the 18th Century. As many or more were whimsical or goofy. I remember a film that featured a bear chasing a bunch of people (I don’t know any more why the bear wanted to catch them; it wasn’t especially angry). It included a scene in which the bear strapped on a pair of skis and followed its chasees down a ski slope.

It was after the film ended, however, that the part that my classmates and I really looked forward to began. We would beg our teacher to play the film that we had just watched backwards. I don’t know if you can play a videotape backwards; I imagine that there is a button or an app that would let you play a YouTube video backwards. But with classroom projectors it was easy. The teacher would turn a switch and:

Boom – reversal!

Back at the factory, the product would get unmanufactured, so that the finished items were unsealed from boxes, workers undrilled holes in metal, and a saw took two pieces of wood and cut them into one. At the pool the water started to boil and then a diver went ballistic, shooting feet first up, up, up thirty feet into the air until they came to rest on the diving board. And the bear – wonder of wonders – skied backwards up the ski slope.

My classmates and I laughed hard.

I’m not exactly sure why we found these backwards movies so wonderful. I guess that we loved them because they broke all the rules of the world in a delightful and mischievous and freeing way. I guess that we loved them for the same reason that folks love Lewis Carol and Gilbert and Sullivan. Here was a world of topsy turvy. And, like a lot of things that make us laugh, we sensed something holy in it.

When I first started reading the Bible one of the many things that drew me to it was that this too was a place where I found holy reversal. Jesus is constantly telling stories and creating miracles in which the first are last and the last first, in which those who mourn are blessed, in which there is a divine undoing of what was done before.

A particularly profound example of this reversal is to be found in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus’ passion, Peter denies Jesus three times, even though he has promised to follow Jesus to no matter what. It is one of the most painful moments in scripture. So what happens in the resurrection when Jesus and Peter meet on the beach? Jesus gives Peter three opportunities to say I love you.

In the resurrection, the film gets played backwards.

Jesus is rooted in what we call the Old Testament. For Jesus and his friends, the Old Testament as we more or less know it is the Bible in its entirety. The Old Testament is the well that waters Jesus’ theological imagination.

And so I guess it ought to be no surprise that holy reversal is found there too.

Today we hear from the Book of Jeremiah. It’s a book that we don’t read from too often in church. Jeremiah these days gets less time in the pulpit than his fellow prophet, Isaiah. And maybe that is because Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books to read in all of scripture. Scholars reckon that it was written over as long as a 200-year period. It contains this jumble of ideas – at times you have the sense that the pages that make up this book were accidentally knocked off of a table and hastily reassembled in random order by a guilty student. And many of Jeremiah’s ideas concern loss, self-doubt, and grief.

Jeremiah centers around Israel’s defeat by the Babylonian Empire, by this time in which Jerusalem was sieged and destroyed and an enormous number of its citizens were sent into exile in Babylon. It is a time of massive society-wide trauma.

And in the passage we hear today, God promises reversal. In words that perhaps inspired the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ promise that those who mourn are blessed for they shall be comforted, God says:

With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back

The weeping is reversed.

To those who are exiled, God says:

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth

The exile is reversed.

And one more:

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord

The fear that, maybe, the people have been abandoned by God is reversed.

Here’s the thing about reversal, about the film being played backwards. It’s something different than the things in the film never happening. There is still the work in the factory, still the pool and the diving board, still the bear on the skis. There is still the exile, the suffering, the grief. God doesn’t make these things go away.

What God does it to transform them.

Remember the story of the bereft disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The two friends are gutted by what they have just witnessed in Jerusalem. And Jesus doesn’t make anything that they have seen or endured vanish. What he does is something harder and more complicated and more beautiful. He explains what they have endured – he takes them back through it, here’s that reversal – in a way that makes it new, that invites them into resurrection.

If you’ve ever heard me speak at a funeral, you have probably heard me say that the more I live the less time that I have for the notion of closure – closure being this strange modern idea that we can just seal grief away in a box or in a closet. It doesn’t work. It never works. And so we listen to talk of closure and feel confused and maybe even guilty that our own grief has not been sealed up, that it is still with us day after day and year after year.

We feel this way because closure is a lie. It was never possible. Our griefs don’t go away like that. And God has never promised that our griefs will go away like that. What God has promised is that God will be with us in our grief and that God will, in the fullness of time, transform our grief into resurrection. The grief, the presence of absence, remains. And something new and holy abides there with it.

How much grief and loss and loneliness and disappointment have we endured this past year? If 2020 were a movie it would be a kind of awful one, one that get one star out of five, one that would get destroyed on Rotten Tomatoes.

And so as it ends, we say, Please.

Please, we all say to Jesus, please play this film backwards! After this year we need your holy reversal.

Thankfully, this is the sort of request to which the Son of God always says yes. The old projector is sparking into life once more. And something new is beginning.