May 18th Homily by Michael Shapcott
Good morning. We may be somewhat diminished in numbers today in the midst of this holiday weekend, but we gather as participants in a Christian communion that stretches back some 2,000 years and circles the globe.
I am four and one-half months into theological studies at the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto where I am seeking to deepen my understanding of the profound connections between universal human rights and fundamental faith values. My goal is not simply more knowledge, but a more effective rights-based practice when it comes to fundamental issues of justice and equity such as housing, homelessness, poverty and hunger.
One of the most startling discoveries for me, as I start my theological education, has been to learn about all the rich and diverse varieties of beliefs and practices that have been denounced as heresy by our fellow Christians.
Before I launched into my first course in systematic theology, I was generally aware of the major fault lines of our faith. But it is quite overwhelming to see how quickly our Christian sisters and brothers invoke differences in words and practices to viciously turn against each other.
For instance, there was the fever that gripped many branches of the church, roughly coinciding with what historians now call the Middle Ages and following, that saw Christians hurl accusations of heresy at each other and inflict acts of horrific violence – including burning their fellow Christians at the stake.
An historical footnote: Christians had themselves suffered as victims of being burned alive during the great persecution unleashed by the pagan Roman Emperor Diocletian at the start of the 3rd century of the common era. His goal had been to cleanse the Roman polity and military and restore what he saw as the traditional values that had made Rome a great empire. So, it is more than a little tragic that Christians generally invoke that same rationale – defense of traditional values – to reach the same bloody conclusion – the removal of the “impure”.
The Diocletian persecution abated considerably after Christians received some modest recognition under subsequent Roman rulers. But no sooner had the external persecution eased than the emerging church turned inwards with darts and spears. The first great ecumenical council in Nicea in 325 was called to settle the horribly divisive question of the nature of God that was literally splitting the church and dividing Christian against Christian.
Of course, Christians do need to ponder the nature of God. We are told in Matthew 22 that the “greatest and first commandment” is to “love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind”. So, it would seem like a good idea to gain some measure of understanding of our faith in this supremely transcendent being.
Which brings me to the title of today’s homily – ‘oh you are so big’ – drawn from those great thinkers of the 20th century, Monty Python. I know that citing the British satirical troupe in a Sunday homily is almost certainly an act of heresy for some. And, to compound the sin, the schoolboy sexual innuendo adds insult to injury.
But bear with me a moment as we set the scene from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life”: A group of English schoolboys sit in bored silence through an almost indecipherable lesson from the Old Testament, and then the priest rises to lead a prayer of call and response.
“Oh, God, you are so big”
“So absolutely huge”
“Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you”
Set aside the obviously naughty bits, and consider that the Python lads might be on to something quite important. If we are really believe that God is fully transcendent, then even the smartest and most highly polished brains – such as those that gather here weekly at Holy Trinity – will be challenged as they plumb the meaning of the nature of God. And, inevitably, we will sound like babbling blather as we attempt to wrestle with the transcendent and mysterious using mere words.
Some of you may be familiar with the story about the blind people and the elephant that originated a few millennia ago in the Indian subcontinent. This story has been adopted into a number of faith traditions including Jain, Buddhist, Sufi and Hindu.
A group of blind people gather around an elephant. Each reach out and grab a part of the beast that is closest to them and then describe what they believe is the true essence of the elephant – a smooth, tapered tusk; sinuous trunk; a floppy ear; and so on. Each person insists their experience of the elephant as a spear, a snake, or a fan is the true one. The 19th century poet John Godfrey Saxe puts a Christian spin on this ancient tale in the final verse of his poem as he concludes:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen
The Bible tries to help us to cut through some of this fog by offering analogies about the nature of God. In today’s readings, we are told that God is like a “living stone” or a “cornerstone”. God is a “wonderful light” and “pure spiritual milk”. A couple of verses before the ones we read from Acts, we are told that God is so big that “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.” The Bible is littered with references to God as bread of life; chief shepherd; dayspring; door; horn of salvation; lamb; lion; rock (which apparently is theologically distinct from being a stone); morning star; rose of Sharon; and, true vine – to name just a few. In Psalm 84:11 God is called both a sun and a shield – imagine that!
We are not meant to believe that God is literally a stone and a rock, an actual lion or a bright and shiny shield. Like the blind people struggling to understand their experience of the elephant, we use this expressive vocabulary to fill out our understanding of a truly transcendent God.
Which takes us to the Gospel reading, in which we are told that God is “the father”. It is not surprising that in the patriarchal societies where our Christian faith took shape, and in the still patriarchal society that we live in today, the image of the dominant father figures prominently. Humans always will be creatures of their times and their culture. We can rise above sexism, colonialism, homophobia and other culturally-induced hatreds, but we still swim in the waters of the times.
While few people are foolish enough to reduce God to being a literal vine or an actual shield, too many people put God into the confined box of the male gender. At Holy Trinity, we seek to avoid this by adding “mother” in our prayers. We don’t actually think God is a mother and a father, but it seems to help us to widen the lens to include the fullness of that primary relationship of parent to child.
By refusing to narrow God to a single gender, we are part of a Christian tradition, often suppressed, that goes back to the beginnings of our faith – a tradition that seeks to ensure that the feminine is celebrated with the masculine. Fragmentary texts survive from the first decades of our faith that offer important insights into the female divine. This tradition continues with feminist theology today.
A many great Christian thinkers have tried to move beyond crude gender delineations. Even the great Augustine tells us:
The triune God can be represented respectively by three aspects of human consciousness: “The mind itself, its knowledge which is at once its offspring and self-derived ‘word’, and thirdly love. These three are one and one single substance. The mind is no greater than its offspring, when its self-knowledge is equal to its being; nor than its love, when its self-love is equal to its knowledge and its being.”
Well, that’s pretty elegant for a fourth century theologian: Augustine asks us to see God as mind, Jesus as knowledge and the Holy Spirit as love.
If that doesn’t work for you, let me introduce you to my concertina – which is a member of the accordion family. In simple terms, the concertina includes the bellows, the reeds (which are connected to the keys), and the beautiful and melodious sound that emerges. All three are discrete, all three are necessary, and all three are intimately linked. What a wonderful metaphor for the Holy Trinity!
Please don’t think that I am saying that God is a concertina and that we should bow down in front of this fantastic little instrument. That would almost certainly be a burning offence. But perhaps this little analogy will help draw you into a deeper contemplation of the infinite and almighty that avoids the gender trap.
Or not, as the case may be.
After spending all this time to lead you through some thoughts about the nature of God, please forgive me if I now tell you that I don’t think the primary message from the Gospel reading is that you have to believe in God as an imposing male paternal figure in order to be a proper Christian.
We read, at the start of our Gospel passage, that Jesus tells us that God’s house is a place with many rooms – a sure clue that this passage is about right relationships. I’m reminded of the story of the “world house” from Dr Martin Luther King Jr. In his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech, Dr King said:
“We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other… This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighbourly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all people.”
Dr King is reminding us that Jesus didn’t end after he said that loving God is the first commandment. Jesus was being scrutinized by the religious scholars of his day, who hoped to trick him into a heretical admission, went on to say that the second commandment is “like the first”: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And that, surely, is a critical clue to what it means to be a true Christian.
In today’s Gospel reading, Phillip challenges Jesus to reveal God. Jesus doesn’t pull back the curtain to reveal the great and powerful Almighty – as he surely could if we actually believe that Jesus is one with God. Instead, Jesus says “believe me because of the works I do”. In other words, look at his life and his relationships to the people around him – that is the truest test.
A couple of weeks ago, Keith Nunn stood in this place to deliver the homily. He spent rather less time than I have done discussing the nature of God. The essential truth that he brought forward is one worth holding up – and that is what defines our communion here at Holy Trinity. Keith said:
“We are a community of the Christian church. We are a community of Holy Trinity. We are, at times, certain to the point of smugness, at other times lost and confused… We are not a community with a clear single purpose. We are a community that has supported and engaged with the work of its members… We are still involved in many things through our members.”
Keith described this as being “lost together” – a wonderfully evocative phrase. Building on Keith’s words, I would like to proclaim that challenging ourselves and others, standing up to oppression, struggling to bring justice and peace and love into a conflicted city and a conflict world – none of these are marginal activities, nor are they something that Christians do when they can’t find the right words to talk about God. These are exactly the “greater works” that Jesus says we are capable of performing as we lead the lives of Christians. These are what it means to live faithful, just and Christian lives in our times and in our Toronto.
Alan Jones, the former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, writes in his book “Common Prayer on Common Ground: A Vision of Anglican Orthodoxy”:
“What sometimes infuriates non-Anglican Christians (and, to be honest, a new breed of Anglicans) is that traditional Anglicans don’t see much of a distinction between Christians and non-Christians because they see many Christlike non-Christians and many unChristlike Christians. Our take on religion is very practical and we believe that we have more in common with other human beings than anything that could possibly divide us. As Anglicans, we are united by a vision of Christian humanism.”
So, yes, God is so very big and indeed is huge, and we have great challenges in grappling with all that means. In the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, we are told our journey as Christians is like that of a young child who is growing up. At a certain point, we need to put aside childish reasoning. We are told “love never ends”. It’s a pretty tall order to figure out what it means to live a loving life as true Christians but, thankfully, we have lots of friends here in our community and lots of saints that have gone before to help guide us.
And to all that, I say, Amen.