The Rev. William C. Redfield
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NY
The Second Sunday of Christmas—January 3, 2016
Lord, how beautiful you are;
how radiant the places you dwell in.
My soul yearns for your presence;
my whole body longs for your light.
Even the wren finds a house
and the sparrow a nest for herself.
Take me home, Lord; guide me
to the place of perfect repose.
Let me feel you always within me;
open my eyes to your love.
Happy are those who trust you
and merge their will in your will.
They let go of all desires
and give up everything they know,
until they finally enter
the inmost temple of the heart,
where there is no self, no other,
nothing, but only you.
(Ps. 84—trans. Stephen Mitchell)
Psalm 84 begins, “Lord, how beautiful you are; how radiant the places you dwell in…” While I know there are certainly many—maybe even, infinite—places wherein God dwells, I am utterly certain that God especially dwells here in this place, in this church, and in this parish community. Like many of you, I have sensed this for many, many years, but I have especially felt it this past week. It was not just the deaths of Bill Grabau and Katy Donohue that I am referring to; it is also that surge of tenderness that has arisen in the wake of those events. Whether you knew Bill or Katy or not, you can no doubt sense that spirit of love and tenderness—God’s presence—in this place this morning…
“Lord how beautiful you are; how radiant the places you dwell in.” God dwells in this place—of that there is no doubt. But I suspect that the depth of this truth goes much deeper than just the fact that this church has been officially sanctified through rite and ritual. There is that, of course; but there is also something deeper. And to name that deeper truth and to savor its implications takes us to the very heart of the Christmas mystery as well as to the purpose and goal of human life in this earthly pilgrimage. It is that trajectory that I would like to trace with you this morning.
Since we started with Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Psalm 84, perhaps it can guide us a little further in this inquiry. “My soul yearns for your presence; my whole body longs for your light.” You feel that yearning, don’t you…? Of course, we have to get down beneath our ordinary our insecurities and compensatory strivings, but when you scratch down below all of that, you will very likely find a certain dynamic urgency, a certain heartfelt longing, that desires for something deeper and more lasting—something that takes us out of ourselves and out of our smaller self-defensive concerns and self-promotional strategies.
Maybe you could say that this is a desire to know and to be fully known in this life. Maybe we could say it is a yearning for connection, for intimacy. But whatever it is, there’s something in you—there is something in each one of us—that longs for something more—something that is intimate and at the same time ultimate—something that is unconditional and at the same time utterly personal.
But there’s something incredible about this yearning, something our conventional theology overlooks: Our yearning for God and God’s yearning for us are of a piece; they are neither separate nor actually different. Maybe you could say, they are two different sides of the same coin. That’s because our yearning has its both its source as well its end-sight in the infinite. This yearning for the depths of life reflects our very DNA and shows how we are created in the divine image. The divine, then, is manifest in the yearning for intimacy and the desire for self-disclosure and connection. Yes, we are that…
But all of that may sound a bit conceptual and theoretical. So let me make it more concrete and tangible. Look around you. Really, swivel your head around and allow the eyes of your heart to take in the folks who are present this morning. What you see—if you allow yourself to view what is before you with fresh eyes and an open heart—is more than an aggregate of people.
Theologically we have been taught that what you are seeing is the body of Christ. OK, that’s nice, but what does that really mean? Again, let me try to make this as concrete as I can. What you see is the divine in finite form—the divine in many different finite forms—each person a manifestation of God trying their level best to express their essential divinity through the authenticity of their individual lives and personhoods.
And with this we have stumbled on the very meaning and depth of our Christmas mystery. For Christmas is about incarnation. And while incarnation certainly can be directed toward the very human birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is also meant to include all of the rest of us as well. Each one of us is an integral piece of the divine wholeness, living in such as way as to make manifest the deepest truth of our being. And that is…?
Well, that is our homecoming—the invitation to each of us to live into our own deepest authenticity and truth. Thus, as the Psalmist says: “Take me home, Lord; guide me to the place of perfect repose.” That place of repose is not a five-star luxury hotel in the Bahamas. It is that deep center of authenticity in each one of us out of which we are invited to shine forth.
Obviously, this is not about posturing, impressing, or even succeeding in the ways of the world. All of our culture’s dictates and imperatives about standing out from the crowd and above your fellow human competitors have no place here. Instead, it’s about honoring your essential nature and allowing yourself to be in loving relation with all of life and with the rest of the God’s people—whether they be Episcopalians who look like you or those who seem on the surface to be markedly different.
Fundamentalist Christianity may call this being born again, but that distinction been used too much as the means of dividing who is supposedly in and who is unfortunately out. And that rests wobbly on belief. I am talking here about experience; I am talking about seeing rightly and accurately.
I prefer, instead, to refer to all this as “waking up.” We begin to wake up when we can step out—even if only temporarily—of the self-absorbed drama of our smaller selves—our conditioned selves. It is only then that we can see things as they really are.
And what is it that we see when we “wake up”? We see that all of the seeming brokenness and fragmentation on the surface of life actually make up a coherent and compassionate whole. When we can wake up, we can see the compassionate coherence of life and we can recognize that we are integral parts of it. This homecoming of waking up, then, means that we belong, and that there is no way we can possibly fall out of the picture. This significantly deflates anxiety and fear.
Thus, the Psalmist can say: “Let me feel you always within me; open my eyes to your love.” This intention is that we might more and more see ourselves as united with God and that this union might be expressed in our self-giving love for others.
And this, then, brings us back to where we started, yes? That is what I deeply sense in this place. There is a tenderness here that has been lived out and expressed for the twenty years that I have been associated with you, and I know it goes way back beyond that. It is the intention on every person’s part to love and honor each other, however we might in surface ways be different. And by this experience most all of us have had our hearts stretched to become more open, more forgiving, more inclusive, and more accepting. In this we are coming home to ourselves.
That brings me to this icon you have presented to me. “The Trinity” (also called “The Hospitality of Abraham”) is an icon created by the Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. It is his most famous work. In fact, it is the most famous of all Russian icons and regarded as one of the highest achievements of Russian art. The Trinity depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-8), but the painting is full of symbolism and is interpreted as an icon of the Holy Trinity. Not only is it the expression of spiritual unity, harmony, and mutual self-giving love; in a very directed way, it manifests the very purpose of human life on this planet.
You see, while the Trinity unquestionably represents the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, on an even deeper level it depicts the relational nature of life itself. It also expresses the yearning and the homecoming that I have been talking about this morning—that yearning that lies beneath all of our ordinary posturing and strivings—that yearning for deeper love and connection.
As a postscript to this sermon, you might wonder where this interpretation comes from and how I got to this understanding. I am happy to disclose this: I learned it here in this place; I learned it with you and from you. And that is why the self-giving love and compassionate interaction among the three in this icon is so perfectly fitting. I will treasure it always, and I will recall our magical time together.