053021 Trinity Sunday Encounters with Holy Love
The service begins at minute 2:15 and the sermon at minute 17:55 of the video
Isaiah 6:1-6; John 3:1-17
Last Sunday, I unpacked the Spirit’s unmasking of our false beliefs about sin, righteousness, and judgment. It was heady stuff. But my own life has taught me that simply learning about our errors at an intellectual level does not achieve permanent changes in behavior. So, today I want to move to the heart to reveal where transformation to liberating truth and love happens. In order to make lasting commitments to life projects at every level of life, including at church, we must have encounters with holy love to nurture those commitments.
In the first lesson, the Hebrew Scriptures say that in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah encountered the holy. God sat on a throne, surrounded by seraphs who said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory. Then, in what the Gospel calls the favorable year of the Lord, Nicodemus had an encounter with holy mystery in Jesus: what is born of the Spirit is spirit; you must be born from above.
These were foundational experiences of holy awe for Isaiah and Nicodemus. They provided a sense of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world – the kinds of encounters that enable us to become instruments of love & liberation. They open the cracks in our hearts where, according to Leonard Cohen, the light comes in. But those cracks open at a cost. Whenever anyone encounters holy love, they unavoidably become aware of their guilt and inadequacy. It’s not God who sends the message; it’s our conscience. But in our discomfort, our first response is to tell the source of holy love to go away.
Isaiah said, Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. When the seraph touched his mouth with hot coals of forgiveness, Isaiah was opened up to awe, and could hear God’s call and respond, Here am I; send me! John doesn’t tell us what Nicodemus did; but the last statement we read from a man who began his interview with Jesus saying, we know, was, How can these things be? Jesus teased him by asking Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t understand these things? Nicodemus’ heart was cracking open, and his brain was sinking into his heart. Like Isaiah, he was facing his inadequacy and allowing awe to enter.
So, our first response to an encounter with holy love is to sense our guilt and inadequacy and turn away. If we aren’t assured of love at the same depth as we are convicted of sin, we keep walking away. Moralism doesn’t work at a level deep enough to touch that wound. Only when we are wooed by love will we stick around, even when it’s uncomfortable. In the presence of a holy love that puts our lives in perspective, we cannot help but see our guilt and unworthiness. But, from that cracked -open place, the only reasonable response is to offer up our best selves and say, Here I am. It is almost impossible not to sign up for God’s agenda.
Most of the toxic religion I described last week comes from people who have intellectual knowledge of God’s agenda, but either they’ve never had encountered holy love, or it has been buried under so many layers of morality, guilt, and blame, that truth and love can’t shine through. They’ve learned the content of religion, but they missed the heart. We can’t be agents of God’s love and liberation unless we stay connected to these encounters with the holy.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we must make the same journey. We must face the sin and inadequacy of war as a response to conflict. But we must also let our hearts crack open in grateful love for the soldiers who gave their lives in the best way they knew to resolve those conflicts. The life and teaching of one of the great Quaker thinkers – Rufus Jones – offers a picture of that two-part journey. In 1927, Jones wrote: Nations are not thugs. They are bodies of intelligent people. Their claims and causes and charges are either just or unjust. They would practically never push their claims, causes and charges to extreme issue if they were met with kindness, intelligence, and wisdom by the nation with whom they are in dispute. In any case, fighting will not settle whether the claims were just or unjust. It will only settle which nation can mobilize and handle its fighting forces and its economic forces the better.
Rufus Jones didn’t learn that in school as head knowledge. He wrote about a childhood incident that cracked his heart open to that truth. One day his parents told him to stay home and weed the turnip patch while they were gone. He had just started to weed, when some friends came along and persuaded him to go fishing with them, promising to help him weed the garden when they got back. But they lost track of time, so it was after dark when Rufus returned home.
His mother was waiting for him. Silently, she led him to his room. He knew what he deserved, so he made no excuses. He was sure his mother would throw the book at him. He tells us what she did instead: mother put me in a chair, kneeled down, put her hands on me, and told God all about me. She interpreted her dream of what my life was to be. She portrayed the boy and the man of her hopes. She told God what she had always expected me to be and then how I had disappointed her hope. ‘O God, take this boy of mine and make him the boy and man he is divinely designed to be.’ Then she bent over, kissed me, and went out and left me alone in the silence with God.
As attractive as it must have been for that boy to have avoided punishment, being left alone in silence with God forced him to do some difficult & powerful work. He points to that moment as his encounter with holy love, a turning point in his spiritual journey, when his heart cracked open to let the light come in. He did not need his mother to tell him how wrong he was, and give him some punishment so he would remember. He already knew his mistake. Like Rufus’ mother, biblical faith does not offer a God who constantly points out our guilt and inadequacy; nor does it encourage religious leaders to point it out on God’s behalf.
War is an awe-generating event that merits, and should evoke, reflection. January 6 was another one. But after last Friday’s vote, it’s not going to be easy for our nation to do that reflection. But we can, and must, still do it. Even with all the propaganda they bombard us with, we must see ourselves and our contemporaries as inadequate and sinful – not because anyone is teaching us that; but because we can see it for ourselves. Into that self-reflective space, holy love comes and addresses us from the future: Whom shall I send? You must be born from above. Take this boy of mine and make him the boy and man he is divinely designed to be.
Remember: awe-generating moments give a sense of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world. It can be positive or negative. Our world is currently living through multiple awe-generating events. We witnessed yet another mass shooting in Santa Clara this week. On the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, the pace of police killing black people has not let up. The Senate voted NOT to form a commission to examine the January 6 insurrection. St. Athanasius is living its own awe-generating moment. We were approved to become a mission congregation last week. We learned that the Koreans, who have been part of this congregation for almost 30 years, are leaving. Each of us individually is also living awe-generating moments in our own lives; I know I am.
We may want to brush these moments under the rug. But they will only transform us, and lead to lasting change, if we expose ourselves to holy love deeply enough to be able to look at them and face both the pain and the possibilities they hold. We will never persevere in our commitments without these encounters. All we need to do is be open to them. God is the one who finds and loves us.