Sermon - 11th June 2017
Trinity: Understanding God
Scripture -Isaiah 55:6-13
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today is the day in our Western Christian calendar when we seek to do the impossible - we try to understand God. We know this is a task which is beyond us, and yet our human inner sense of not being comfortable with a mystery leads us to keep trying to determine and to understand the boundaries of God’s existence.
Dealing with our need to understand God is a personal journey of exploration: no-one else can make this journey for us. We have no proof: we just have faith, insight and discernment to help us journey into the mystery of God, and it is a different experience for everyone. God’s touch in our lives is deeply personal, and so I can only speak about it today from a personal perspective.
My house is on the flightpath of a flock of wild geese. I regularly hear their distinctive honking sound as they begin their descent into a large water meadow in the valley of the River Tame which runs alongside the estate where I live. They are a regular reminder to me of something spiritual, and they catch my attention when I’m doing things at home.
Whenever I come to events in the city centre, I drive to a park-and-ride area at a Metrolink stop on Ashton Moss and take the tram. Alongside the tram stop is a pond in the middle of a small patch of open land - and there are wild geese there. These may be part of the flock who fly over my house, or they may be an entirely different community, but they also are a regular reminder of something spiritual, and they catch my attention when I’m starting my journey towards the city.
Just before the tram reaches Piccadilly station, it passes through a patch of grassland alongside the canal in Ancoats. There are often geese there, grazing on the grassland and wandering around the open areas, usually claiming right of way across the tram tracks whenever they want to move to another patch, and frequently causing the trams to slow down and stop for them. They also are a regular reminder of something spiritual, and they catch my attention when I’ve almost reached my appointment in the city.
Why are wild geese spiritual reminders for me? - because in the Christian tradition of the Celtic church, the wild goose was a symbol of the Holy Spirit. When the Iona Community came together as a renewed community following a broadly monastic model, based around the restored Abbey on the Scottish holy island of Iona, they adopted the wild goose as one of the symbols of their community. The music they wrote was attributed to the Wild Goose Music Group, and their worship resources were published by the Wild Goose Publications company.
In one of the Iona songs which we sing here from time to time, we say of the Holy Spirit ‘She sits like a bird brooding on the waters’.
So, when the wild geese fly over my house, or honk at me at the pond on Ashton Moss, or bring the tram to a halt in Ancoats, my mind makes the connection with the spirit of God riding on the wind as at Pentecost and brooding on the waters as at God’s creation, and prompting me to make its presence felt in my very ordinary life.
I can’t see the Holy Spirit, and I can never fully understand God who sends the spirit into our world and our lives, but I can be aware of symbols and insights from my faith tradition which speak to me in some spiritual way, support my faith, and lead me forward.
Most of my trips into the city centre these days are concerned with giving time to make the world a little better for people who need help. One of the beauties of retirement is that much of the pressure to fight for your own status and interests tends to disappear, and you find you have time to follow those calls on your time, your skills, and any wisdom you may have acquired over the decades of your working life, to do other things.
I had made very few plans when I retired, but slowly I became aware that the values at the centre of this congregation were beginning to take hold on where my time was being called upon.
My understanding of God moved forward as I learned more and more about Jesus’s own understanding of God which shaped his message and his mission.
I found that when I looked at the humanity of Jesus, and understood more about the political context in which he lived and died, and when I stripped away all the filters and biases which were applied to the bible texts that have come down to us, I knew more than ever before that Jesus drew me towards God.
The guidance and encouragement of friends, the teaching of scholars, the pastoral care of various ministers over the years, and the love which is the hallmark of this congregation, all led me to find my own response to how we journey towards God’s kingdom of justice and peace and drew me into greater involvement in the mission and ministry of this church.
I can’t have a direct experience of the historical Jesus, and I can never fully understand God who inspired Jesus with such a life-giving gospel of love and inclusion; but I can be aware of symbols and insights from my faith tradition and from within the Christian scriptures which speak to me in some spiritual way, support my faith, and lead me forward.
Our Christian tradition stretches back into ancient history and holds within it ways of thinking which are equally ancient. The Hebrew scriptures stretch back even further and cover a vast period of time during which a Jewish religious culture slowly emerged. The Jewish tradition is rich with images and interpretations of God, and these underpin the images and interpretations which Jesus and the gospel writers used as their religious language when the Christian tradition was beginning to take shape.
The interpretations within the Hebrew scriptures of God’s relationship with humanity, their collections of wisdom and songs of praise, anger, blessing and lament, their prophetic voices which spoke God’s truth to the secular powers of the day, all help me in my journey towards God.
But I can never fully understand God from what is revealed in the ancient texts and ancient ways of thinking of my faith tradition. I can, however, be aware of the symbols and insights from that tradition which speak to me in some spiritual way, support my faith, and lead me forward.
The various patterns and structures of my faith tradition do give me a framework for my personal journey of faith and my experience of God as creator, God in Christ, and God as spirit. But my experience also tells me to look beyond our human attempts to determine, to define, and to understand the boundaries of God’s existence. Our 21st century capacity to embrace new knowledge, to gain new insights, and to re-form our beliefs, is also a gift of God and something we should explore.
I hope some aspects of my personal journey also resonate with you in one way or another. Our Western tradition invites us today to move forward from our Easter experience, to live with purpose in the power of God’s spirit, and to celebrate the glory of God in today’s world. The traditional framework for our celebration is the familiar perception of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or as our opening hymn said, ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity’.
But let’s also remember that our human theories are always exceeded by our own experience of God which invites us beyond the boundaries of our human understanding, beyond our theories and doctrines, beyond our certainties, and challenges us to journey into the mystery of God - the One, in Isaiah’s words, whose thoughts are not like ours, and whose ways are different from ours.
That journey is also to be celebrated today and every time we move forward in our experience of God.