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Sermon: 5/27/2018 Trinity Sunday

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Sermon, Trinity Sunday – God Talk                                             Jeffrey B. MacKnight
27 May 2018                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

What’s a metaphor?

  • I’m over the moon about my new shoes! 
  • She’s so worried she’s walking on eggshells. 
  • That office is a snakepit! 
  • I’m afraid the spider bit the dust. 
  • That nurse is such a Good Samaritan. 
  • He got that project done in the twinkling of an eye. 
  • All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
  • A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.  (That one’s Groucho Marx.) 
  • It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. 
  • I am the good shepherd.  Those are from Jesus. 

Metaphor is our common way of adding interest and emphasis and fun to our speech, and describing things that are hard to find words for.  You can do a lot with a metaphor, but you can’t take it literally.  That will kill it – dead. 

Metaphor is hugely important in religious language, because so much of what we want to talk about, to express, is beyond the power of literal language.  How does one describe a God of infinite goodness and love?  A God who is love itself?  A man who is God incarnate?  A Spirit who is in us, among us, and leading us, all at the same time? 

So we resort to metaphor.  The Trinity is an amazing metaphor for God, because it points us toward God’s inner being of love, God’s many ways to reveal Godself to us and be with us.  Father, Son, Spirit.  Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  Three, yet one.  Amazing! 

But if we press a metaphor too far, it will cave in, it will collapse like a bridge which has been asked to carry too much freight.  (That’s a simile, describing a metaphor….) 

So we need to let religious language – Godtalk – breathe and suggest realities to us, without trying to pin it down to details.  Sometimes the creeds make the mistake of trying to push these things too far.  A good example is the Athanasian Creed, which purports to explicate the Trinity.  It’s in the Prayerbook on page 864.  Try reading it sometime when you can’t sleep.  It goes on and on about what the Trinity is, and is not.  And to emphasize its self-importance, it ends its diatribe with a helpful caution that if you don’t believe it all, you’re doomed to eternal hell. 

That kind of thing doesn’t help the preaching of the Gospel.  Jesus didn’t seem to care all that much about the intricacies of belief.  He cared about love – loving God, and loving our neighbor and ourselves.  He cared about truth, about treating each other with respect.  He cared about poor people and sick people. 

Today, we hear the call story of the prophet Isaiah.  It’s an amazing scene right out of high-tech movie: six-winged angels in a smoke-filled chamber, which shivers with holiness.  Isaiah feels small and insignificant.  But an angel – a seraph – flies to him and purifies his lips with a red-hot coal from the altar.  Isaiah is now clean – he is anointed to speak God’s word. 

This vision is quite a metaphor.  Do we need to take it literally?  Absolutely not.  It points to the indescribability of being in God’s presence.  And the wonder of being known by God, and called by God to perform a sacred mission.  Six-winged seraphs are just special effects! 

The Gospel story about Nicodemus is less dramatic, but still metaphorical.  Nicodemus – call him Nico for short -  is an interesting character: he is a Jewish leader, but he’s fascinated by Jesus.  He doesn’t know what to make of this young man who preaches such a compelling message of love.  He goes to see Jesus at night, so he won’t be seen.  Nico starts with pleasantries: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God….”  Jesus cuts to the chase: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  That’s an odd response!  Nico mistakes metaphor for something literal: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”  This is a rookie mistake.  Jesus has to explain he’s talking about a spiritual rebirth – not returning to the womb. 

We don’t know if Nico ever actually got it.  But Jesus’ invitation is clear.  I identify with Nicodemus so much.  Fascinated by Jesus, but hesitant to take the jump, to commit all to follow him.  I’m too invested in my worldly security.  But still Jesus calls – he leaves the door open – he calls my name. 

And he calls your name.  Maybe you share my fascination, and my fears of total commitment.  Christian faith is not something to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly.  We have to be willing to give up our self-centeredness if we are going to be centered in God.  Isaiah did that, and he became perhaps the Hebrews’ greatest spokesman for God’s love and mercy. 

Did Nico ever come around?  I hope so.  We have one clue about him.  After Jesus died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea asked for his body.  And Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of spices to embalm Jesus’ body.  So I think Nico got it in the end – he was there to honor Jesus at his death. 

Answering the call of God is not for sissies.  It’s often difficult and unpopular.  We may be subject to anger, ridicule, or even violence.  I am very proud of our own Episcopal Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, and many other Christian leaders, for answering the call to speak out against unrighteousness and injustice in our political system in America right now.  As you know, I believe the Gospel of Jesus is not just personal, but societal – and that means we judge our politics by the standards of Jesus.  Jesus’ values always put compassion before personal gain.  Jesus values truth.  Jesus teaches us to respect every single human being as a child of God. 

These leaders have issued a statement called “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.”  I hope you will take a copy from the Welcome Table and read it.  We’ll discuss it here at St. Dunstan’s on June 10 after service. 

After you read it, I hope you will ask yourself what God is calling you to do, to say, to be, as a disciple of Jesus.  Isaiah answered the call.  Nicodemus answered the call.  Now, it’s up to us.  AMEN. 


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