Sermons That Work

That Passage From…, Trinity Sunday (C) – 2010

May 30, 2010

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out

That passage from today’s reading in Proverbs invites us to consider wisdom, understanding, and mystery.

In 1968, the crew of the Apollo 8 circled the moon time and again, scanning its surface for possible future landing sites. Needing to gather their bearings and recalibrate, they lifted their view (and their camera) to catch what has become an iconic image: Earthrise. A crystal blue drop, hovering in the blackness of space, it peaks over the horizon of a desolate and grey lunar landscape, its leading edge flooded in light, glinting off the surface of the water, the lower half disappearing, seemingly melting away into the blackness that surrounds it. With the snap of a shutter, our image of the world would never be the same.

Groundbreaking images of our world: like this one they come from time to time, seeming to shake the very earth on which we stand, to move it significantly. The soil and streets beneath our feet, the societies, habits and bodies in which we live become foreign and unfamiliar. The world no longer is what it once was. Or at least what we believed it to be.

Bill McKibben recently released a book called Eaarth, with an extra “a.” McKibben is the same author who wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience on climate change. In that early work, published in 1989, he warned us that in order to save the world we inhabited we must act, and act swiftly, to curb our consumption of fossil fuels.

In his latest book, McKibben relays a different message: It is too late.

It is too late to save the planet. Scientists have agreed that 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the maximum level that will sustain the conditions that created the world we now inhabit. For the 10,000 years of human history, the atmosphere has maintained nearly constant levels around 275. We have been raising that number by just around 2 points every year since the industrial revolution began, putting us now at right about 390. At current levels, the coral reefs become unsustainable due to the rising acidity of the oceans. At current levels, oysters have trouble forming their shells. At current levels, the arid subtropics push outward, spreading wildfire and drought while the expanded tropics bring more insect-borne illness. Two years ago the northwest and northeast passages opened for the first time in human history, and in a decade or two, a summertime spacecraft will see only open water at the north pole.

It is too late to save the world we knew or thought we knew.

McKibben continues to say that having glimpsed the world as it truly is, it is not only foolish but damning to pretend we live on the world we once knew, no matter how safe and comfortable that fiction may be. He writes:

“We need now to understand the world we’ve created, and consider – urgently – how to live in it. … Which doesn’t mean that the change we must make – or the world on the other side – will be without its comforts or beauties. Reality always comes with beauty, sometimes more than fantasy. … But hope has to be real. It can’t be hope that scientists will turn out to be wrong, or that President Barack Obama can somehow fix everything. Obama can help – but precisely to the degree he’s willing to embrace reality, to understand that we live on the world we live on, not the one we might wish for. Maturity is not the opposite of hope; it’s what makes hope possible.”

We call today Trinity Sunday. It is a day that strikes fear into the heart of many a preacher, their pulpits becoming platforms for their particular Trinitarian theology. Endowed with weight they have not asked for, they approach the mystery of the Trinity with fear, trembling, and perhaps a bit of frustration.

We often are encouraged to see mystery as antithetical to knowledge, or wisdom. In fact, the very roots of the words “wisdom” and “mystery” are opposed; the one “to see,” the other, “to close” or “to shut,” as in the lips or the eyes.

And yet, today we are invited to enter the mystery within wisdom, to the possibility that like maturity and hope, there is something cyclical to their relationship, wisdom begetting mystery begetting wisdom.

In today’s reading from Proverbs, Wisdom cries to us, her “cry to all who live.” She claims to underlie the foundation of the earth, bearing witness to the limits of the sea, rejoicing before the Lord, delighting in humankind from their creation and yet unknown to them. Wisdom in herself represents a mystery whose revelation is slow, cyclical, process-driven. Wisdom is not birthed of easy answers, it is uncovered little by little through sight, through searching, through peering into the eternally unfolding world of creation.

A young woman in the Pacific Northwest left the church for several years after having endured the judgment and self-righteousness of a particular congregation. As her children entered pre-school, her husband said to her, “Well, I know very well what it is you don’t want in a church, but tell me, what do you want from a community of faith?”

She responded, “I want help finding the mystery in all things, embracing that mystery, not trying to explain the mystery out of it.”

Our human tendency is toward categorization, toward hyperbole and absolutism, not out of narrowness of thought, but often out of distraction and exhaustion. The ability to embrace mystery is not the rejection of wisdom, but the opening of a space for a slow, unraveling, ever-incomplete revelation, the willingness to sit with the reality of a world more complex in each revelation, more detailed and ever new.

Paul explains that the life of faith is also a slow and laborious process and that hope is born of character, character is born of endurance, and endurance is born of suffering. At each moment the world must be understood in its momentary revelation in order for the greater truth to emerge. Unless we allow ourselves to experience suffering, not shying away, we will not know endurance. Only by giving ourselves over to a self that values endurance will we be of character, and only for those of character does hope endure, allowing us to live with and through suffering. The cycle begins again.

Jesus, likewise, invites us to a life of faith built on slow growth, on timely revelation, saying, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot hear them now.” Wisdom in God also is revealed according to the concreteness of our experience, its place in time, inviting us to see clearly the age and the faith we inhabit, to witness its limits, knowing that only in that full knowledge does continued and renewed revelation emerge.

The disciples look on in bewilderment. “We cannot hear?” they wonder, examining themselves for their own unreadiness. What is it in us that cannot hear, what in us prevents us from looking at our faith with open eyes, stepping into its mystery, its slow unfolding, patiently examining its details so that when God reveals himself anew we might know the difference?

Mystery presents us with the opportunity to glimpse the world recreated in every moment, the possibility that, like Bill McKibben’s new “Eaarth,” with two “a”s, we live more fully when we give ourselves over to the experience of embracing the world as it reveals itself to us, not as we “know” it to be. In mystery we give ourselves over to the possibility that a world, fragile and interconnected as we now understand our own to be, held in the mystery of climate change and global warming, can be life-giving. It calls us to look, truly look upon that incarnational reality, that sacramental life: this world, this table, invites us into unending wisdom.

This day we are invited to stand in faith, to stand precisely where we are, in the mystery of the Trinity, in the mystery of a God revealed to us in this moment, this age, this life and this faith, a mystery that we explore, unravel and receive together, knowing that in seeing more truly, with each new revelation, we step into greater hope, greater joy, greater love, greater knowledge and communion with the three, the one.

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Christopher Sikkema