Doctrine, Shmoctrine … Where’s the Love?
A sermon preached by The Rev. Peggy Howland at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012
Isaiah 6:1-8 John 3:1-17
Since I first published this, Pastor Peggy has begun her own blog. You can find it here. It includes this and other sermons.
Our beautiful chancel window always reminds me of the story from Isaiah. Are you able to see the words? For those of you who sit in the back, the words tell the story: “To thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty!” (1)
The One in THIS window who is “high and holy and lifted up” is Jesus.
The angels you see at either side of Jesus in the window are clearly SERAPHS (or SERAPHIM in Hebrew), because you can see that each has six wings, like the description of the seraphs in our Reading from Isaiah this morning.
ISAIAH WAS DESCRIBING HIS EXPERIENCE OF GOD!
We can only TRY to imagine what that experience of God’s presence was like for him! That’s why Lynn carried the smoking incense down the aisle this morning – to get us thinking about what the young Isaiah, who was not yet a prophet – what he experienced:
“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; the hem of God’s robe filled the temple.” In his vision of God there were Seraphs (who were not like these angels in our beautiful window), but we think they were great creatures, huge sacred beasts, with wings …calling to one another: “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory!” The sound was so magnified, that the pivots on the thresholds of the great temple SHOOK at the sound of the voices calling like thunder, and the house of God was filled with smoke! We can only imagine what it was like….
What we DO know is the profound effect Isaiah’s experience of God had on him. In the presence of God’s majesty and holiness and power, he feels utterly unworthy and sinful.
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to him, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched his mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
DO YOU REMEMBER THE first time that YOU felt utterly unworthy and sinful, and what it was like to be forgiven?
Was it like a huge weight rolling off your shoulders?
Was it like the amazing sunshine of morning after a long and terribly difficult and dark night?
Was it like a nightmare that is OVER?
Was it like EVERYTHING had at last become new, and beautiful?
Did it seem like a NEW DAY for YOU?
Isaiah, now that he understands his sinfulness and unworthiness is gone, tells us: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
And it CHANGED THE WHOLE COURSE OF HIS LIFE.
Have you had an experience with God that changed YOUR life?
Some life-changing experience, when you found a new direction that affected where you were headed and what you were going to do… ordering your life in a new way? Has God touched YOU like that?
Our second story is very different. Quiet, intimate, at night time. Probably at night so that it could be a private meeting, and nobody else would know that the esteemed Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, NICODEMUS, was coming to talk to Jesus, to the young upstart teacher who was disturbing things around Jerusalem. The way John tells the story, in his Gospel… he starts right out at the beginning helping us see the confrontation developing between Jesus and the recognized religious leaders. This is the beginning of his 3rd chapter, and John has just told us at the end of chapter 2 how Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, and when he saw the moneychangers in the Temple, he took a whip of cords, overturned their tables, poured out their money on the floor, told them to get out of his Father’s house, and stop making it a marketplace, and drove them all out, along with the sheep and oxen and doves they were selling there. AND… he also predicted that the temple would be destroyed.
It is immediately following the account of this confrontation that John tells us of Nicodemus’ visit with Jesus. Nicodemus has seen Jesus at work, and he speaks respectfully to Jesus, calling him Rabbi, Teacher.
“Rabbi, 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’re heard this story many times – how Jesus zeroes right in, and says to Nicodemus,
“No one can see the kingdom of God without having been born from above, without being born anew.” Here these two men are discussing a life-changing experience with God, a spiritual experience with which Nicodemus seems unfamiliar but interested to learn more. “How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus. And they keep talking about it, with Nicodemus continuing to ask questions…
John never finishes the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus here in the 3rd chapter. Instead the story launches into that discourse we love about God’s purpose in sending Jesus…. GOD LOVED THE WORLD SO MUCH THAT HE GAVE HIS SON TO BRING THIS NEW LIFE, this change of life, this eternal life… to all who believe, to everyone.
We DO see glimpses of what happened to Nicodemus, indeed, the new life that was beginning in him, in two other places… in the 7th chapter of John, where Jesus is back in Jerusalem again, this time for the Festival of Sukkoth, and again he is teaching in the temple. The people are astonished at his teaching and love to listen to him, but the chief priests and the Pharisees want the temple police to arrest Jesus, because, unlike most of the people, they do NOT approve of his teachings. But Nicodemus speaks up on Jesus’ behalf, defending him, and the Pharisees ridicule Nicodemus for that.
We hear of Nicodemus just once more in the 19th chapter of John… after the crucifixion.
AFTER Jesus has died on the cross, and Jesus’ close friends have run away in fear, it is Nicodemus who comes with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph has asked Pilate for permission to take the body of Jesus, and they wrap it with linen cloths, with myrrh and spices that Nicodemus has brought, and they lay his body in a new tomb in a nearby garden, which was all there was time to do before the Sabbath.
What a difference from the Call of Isaiah!
Meeting Jesus was such a much slower, more gradual life-changing experience for Nicodemus than the overwhelming and powerful vision of God that Isaiah had. Nicodemus came questioning, seeing Jesus at work, hearing teachings that intrigued him, disturbed him, and left him hungering for more. But it also CHANGED HIM. From someone who did not want to be seen, coming to Jesus under cover of night, he became bold enough to speak in Jesus’ defense, when the chief priests and other Pharisees were saying, “What are you, crazy? Nobody pays any attention to this itinerant preacher, Jesus, … he’s from Galilee, of all places”. And they mocked Nicodemus for speaking up for Jesus. But cautious Nicodemus became sure enough and brave enough to lovingly care for the body of Jesus after his fellow Pharisees on the Council had demanded Jesus’ execution, and had him killed as a blasphemer and dangerous criminal. A powerful huge change in Nicodemus’ life and his loyalties. Yes, I think Nicodemus in his life discovered what it meant to be born anew, to be born from above.
Do YOU remember the journey of your own faith?
Do you recall the first stirrings of discovering God and God’s truth that spoke to you and began to change your life, to see things in a new way?
To discover God’s Spirit speaking to YOU, and your life and faith EVOLVING, your perspective on life taking you in new directions, challenging old beliefs, changing YOU and your loyalties. Making you no longer afraid of what others might think, as you came to know in WHOM YOU BELIEVE?
There are so many ways of meeting God, so many ways in which God comes to us.
I remember what I said when I came under care of the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a candidate for the ministry. It seemed such a BOLD thing to me to say that God was calling ME to be a minister. I had three reasons, which are STILL TRUE. The first is the overwhelming conviction of GOD’S LOVE FOR ME AND FOR ALL PEOPLE. The second is the desire to share that love with others. The third is the belief that God was leading me in that direction.
That is the message – GOD LOVES YOU.
God loves you and God loves me, NOT because we are good, but because GOD IS GOOD.
And our response is to love God and love our neighbors, and love one another. By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, said Jesus, because you have love for one another. Old and young, male and female, fat and thin, black and white, rich and poor, sinner and saint, wise and foolish, gay and straight. We are loved by God, and therefore we are to show love to all and seek justice for everyone.
This is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a doctrine. Words. (We are surrounded by the Banners of the Confessions on our walls. One of those banners is for the Nicene Creed in the 4th century, where the doctrine of the Trinity was put into words.) Words that are our inadequate human way of describing the God we know. God is our loving Father/Mother. God is our Creator. We have met God in the person of Jesus, as Nicodemus did. We have found God’s Spirit teaching us, refreshing our spirits, leading us through the dark valleys and the long nights, sustaining us and strengthening us.
But it is all the same God. One God. The doctrine of the Trinity tells that we do not have three Gods. We have ONE GOD, whom we meet and discover in so many different ways. God who bursts in upon us. God who sometimes overwhelms us. God who meets us in the silence.
Sometime, read through the Book of Isaiah, and realize what kind of prophet of God Isaiah became, after God encountered him and called him, saying “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah answered “Here I am, Send me”. After he became God’s prophet, he still needed encounters with God, to see that God was with him. There’s a very passionate prayer in Isaiah Chapter 64, expressing this need that is shared by so many people: He cries out to God, “OH THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS and come down!”
I want to tell you a love story. Because when you truly know that God loves you, you can live a life of sharing God’s love with others. This is a story about a minister, but anyone who knows the love of God in his or her own life, can love people into knowing that God loves them, too.
Today happens to be Gay Pride Sunday. More and more churches are observing it as a way of letting Gays and Lesbians, Bisexual and Transgender people know that they are welcome, and loved for who they are. And that GOD loves them.
This is the story of a queer hospital chaplain. Her name is Laura. She calls herself QUEER, as many gay people do. She does not normally tell people she is gay unless there is some reason to, but she does not hide it. She knows from bitter experience the pain and hurt that hatred and condemnation bring to gay people. These are her own words:
“While I live with a perceived and real threat about living as an openly queer chaplain, I also live with an incredible gift. I live as a chaplain in a profoundly different way than my straight colleagues. I am a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven. I have the privilege of conveying and testifying of God’s love in a way that no straight chaplain can.”
And then Laura tells us this story:
“I entered the small family conference room where Stephen sat, alongside a pair of doctors and a nurse. Introductions were made and then as gently as possible Stephen was told that his partner, James, had inexplicably gone into cardiac arrest and that, despite every effort, he could not be resuscitated. The sudden outpouring of grief made the medical staff retreat, leaving Stephen and me together. We sat for a long time letting the news sink in. When I asked Stephen if he would like to spend time with James, he pulled himself together enough to walk to the room. I offered him some private time, but he insisted that I stay and then asked if I would offer a prayer. Trying to sculpt a meaningful prayer, I asked what religious tradition Stephen and James came from. More tears streamed down his cheeks as Stephen told me that he was a Baptist and that James believed in God but hadn’t been to church in a long time. With prayers offered, I again asked Stephen if he wanted some private time but he insisted I stay. So I stayed silently by Stephen’s side until the coroner came to pick up James’s body.
With Stephen unable to think clearly and unwilling to call any of his friends, we decided to call a cab for him. As I helped him outside, Stephen asked me what denomination I came from. A perfectly good question but given the circumstances, I wanted to be careful of how I answered it. My denomination’s name is often confused for a very conservative, very anti-gay denomination. “I’m a part of the United Church of Christ,” I said, “But my wife is a Unitarian Universalist, so I tend to be pretty ecumenical.” He stared at me like I had twelve heads. “Did you say ‘your wife’?” I nodded yes, though found myself questioning my choice of outing myself. Out of nowhere he grabbed me and dropped his weight into my arms. “Do you think James is in heaven?” Stephen barely got the words out as he began to sob, “They say he won’t go to heaven. But does God love him?”
“The only thing I’m sure of,” I said, “Is that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God.” In those moments, standing on the sidewalk waiting for the taxi, I was so deeply thankful to be queer. I thought about how my straight colleagues could have offered Stephen just as good if not better pastoral care, but I could stand with him, as another queer person, in a much different way and assure him that both he and James are loved by God.”
Trinity Sunday is a day to celebrate God. We do this by loving others as God first loved us.
(PRAYER by Dom Helder Camara of Brazil)
Come, Lord: do not smile and say you are already with us.
Millions do not know you,
and to us who do, what is the difference?
What is the point of your presence if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives, shatter our complacency.
Make your word flesh of our flesh and our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus that other peace is made, your peace. Amen.
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 from the ancient hymn “Te Deum Laudamus” (“We Praise You, O God”)
 “Life as a Queer Chaplain” by Laura. In Kimberly Knight’s blog, “Coming out Christian” (Conversations about being Christian and gay in America), May 31, 2012
 Helder Camara, in “The Desert Is Fertile”(poems), 1974