Common Good

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

May 25, 2013

Proverbs 8

John 16

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day in the church calendar where we acknowledge the Trinity, the threefold nature of God, commonly proclaimed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  How do we proclaim God is one, while also proclaiming God is three as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

Most days I’m okay living with the mystery because I remember this quote from Augustine:
“If you comprehend something, it is not God”.

In other words, the mysteries of our faith should, to some degree, remain mysteries. Yes, we keep seeking to understand, but we also recognize that it is in the seeking that we see God.

The doctrine of the Trinity—one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not spelled out clearly in Scripture. But there are many passages that make reference to the relationships of God. Our Scripture passages this morning are just two of many passages that suggested the Doctrine of Trinity to our early church mothers and fathers.

In our passage from Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman who stands on the street corners and in the market place, sharing her knowledge with anyone and everyone who will listen.

Wisdom, which is closely connected to God’s identity, is not limited to the temple or to the religious realm. God’s Wisdom calls to us from places that are accessible to all of God’s children. So, while we do believe that God is in this place here today, we shouldn’t believe that God is only in this place. God is also standing out there at the corner of Cole and Overland, calling out as Wisdom.

And we’re told that her cry is to all that live.

Clearly not everyone chooses to listen to Wisdom as she cries out, but it is not for us to determine whom God may be calling.

Perhaps my favorite verse from this passage is at the end, “and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Wisdom delights in humanity. Wisdom rejoices in God’s world. Wisdom and God really enjoy each other’s presence, Wisdom is, daily, God’s delight.

Whenever you think that church, or faith, or God, is all about rules or judgment or seriousness, remember this passage. In God’s own relationship there is delight and joy and enjoyment.

If that is how God exists, then shouldn’t we consider that it is how God wants us to exist as well?

How often do we take the time to delight in each other’s presence? I confess, not enough. And I apologize that it is something about which I need to be reminded.

I am doing my physical therapy for my knee at the Orthopedists office located in the Boise State Football stadium. So while I’m on the exercise bike, I look out at the blue turf from field level.

The view from my stationary bike

The view from my stationary bike

And this week a field trip of first graders walked on to the field. At first, they were holding hands in their buddy system, and there were looks of awe as they craned their necks to peer up into the top of the stadium. And they listened to their teacher as she gave them instructions.

And then they were off. And they were so excited. They ran up and down that field. And they threw footballs and didn’t really care if they caught them. They’d just pick them up off the turf and keep running.

Everyone in the PT room came over to the windows to watch them, because their joy was contagious. We couldn’t hear them, but we knew what it must have sounded like because their mouths were wide open in laughter and squeals. They tackled each other. They cheered on touch downs in the end zone.

And they reminded me of this passage from Proverbs.

“I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
This is how Hildegard of Bingen, a wise woman, nun, mystic and street preacher in 12th century Germany described Wisdom.

“I am Wisdom. Mine is the blast of the resounding Word through which all creation came to be, and I quickened all things with my breath so that not one of them is mortal in its kind; for I am Life. Indeed I am Life, whole and undivided — not hewn from any stone, or budded from branches, or rooted in human strength; but all that lives has its root in Me. For Wisdom is the root whose blossom is the resounding Word.”

Let’s hear it for 12th century mystics. That woman could turn a phrase!

Some people think Wisdom in this Proverbs text is a stand in for the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps they think Old Testament Wisdom stands for Jesus. I am okay with letting Wisdom just describe herself, without her having to be a code for something else.

She was the first act of God’s creation. She is literally older than the hills and is not to be confused with any of God’s later works of creation because she was there first and saw some things that you and I can only imagine.

    “When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”

So, this passage on Wisdom may not help clarify the doctrine of the Trinity—we don’t, after all, say “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and of the Wisdom”.
Maybe we should.

But this passage does call us to remember the importance, joy, and love of God’s creating acts. As we look at the world around us, we should remember that God created this world in love and with care. As we continue to watch the climate changing and the ozone layer disappearing and our carbon footprint increasing, perhaps Trinity Sunday should remind us to be more mindful of God’s creation entrusted to our care.

We aren’t just connected to each other, we are connected to this world in which we live, and which God created with joy.

The personification of Wisdom in Proverbs also makes me think of the diversity of God. God is Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Wisdom, Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, the Word. Last week, on Pentecost, we considered the idea that unity in our diversity is God’s intention for humanity.

When we think about following a triune God, we need to consider that there is diversity within God’s very being.

Think of the diversity of God’s expression to us—

as a peasant from Nazareth named Jesus,
as a voice from a burning bush,
as a pillar of fire for the Hebrew people to follow as they wandered in the desert,
as Wisdom calling out in the market place,
as the voice that spoke our world into being,
as the Spirit that blew through the gathering of disciples at Pentecost,
or
as God the Father of Jesus.

None of these expressions of God are complete alone, but each of them contributes to what we know of God and how we experience God.  God’s very nature is diverse.
And God’s very nature is a relationship.

We see another piece of that relationship in the passage from John’s gospel. These few short verses are taken from a rather long section toward the end of John’s gospel where Jesus gives final instruction to his disciples and where he also talks to God.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

While John’s gospel is my favorite, I confess this section is somewhat long and rambly. And this particular conversation might fairly be called odd or strange by some people. Because John is very comfortable with this idea that God is a relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

He sees no apparent problem to recording a conversation where Jesus is talking about two characters that none of us have ever seen. It isn’t the same as me telling you about what Kay and Bruce said to me this week—because you know them. You can go up to them later and verify my story.

But we can’t do that as easily with God and the Holy Spirit. And John seems to be okay with that. Because for John, everything you want to know about God, you can learn from Jesus. And here we see that Jesus does not see himself as a solo act.

The Spirit will glorify me because she will take what is mine and declare it to you.
All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The implications of following a triune God, one who sees God’s own self as a team effort and a relationship, is that we need to model our lives in Trinitarian terms. If God—who could certainly have flown solo had God chosen to do so—chooses to be in relationship, then we should reconsider how we relate to each other.

A few years ago, I shared with you a Zulu proverb—

‘A person is a person through other persons.’

This idea is called Ubuntu.

I don’t think this means you need to be in crowds all the time. But I do think this means that we only know what it means to be human through our relationships with others.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks about this African idea like this.

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

I think this is a good reminder for us, on Trinity Sunday, of what it means to live in relationship with others. Yes, we as individuals seek to be good people and to succeed in our lives. But if our individual pursuits are in opposition to the common good, I don’t think we’re living triune lives.

There are voices in our culture telling us that our Christian faith should be only about what we do as individuals, and Trinity Sunday reminds us to question those voices.

Yes, our faith is personal—what we each do matters. But that doesn’t mean our faith is private—or only our individual concern. In other words, we shouldn’t be seeking a relationship with God just to benefit our individual selves. Our relationship with God should lead us to live lives that benefit those around us.

As Alden is approaching his Senior year in high school, he is actively discerning where he should apply for college. This week, we went to a presentation by 4 liberal arts colleges. One of them, (which sadly for this mom, is 2800 miles away in Maine) shared about their Common Good program.

At the opening of Bowdoin College in 1802, President Joseph McKeen declared that:

“…literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education, and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good.”

I love this idea.

Listen to this quote again, but with church language substituted at the appropriate sections.

“…churches are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for faith development. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their spiritual gifts may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no one should live to themselves, we may safely assert, that every one who has been aided by a church to acquire faith, and to qualify themselves for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his or her talents for the public good.”

God calls us into community because God’s very nature is community. And God’s Wisdom is out there standing on the corners, calling us to live lives of connection with each other and the rest of God’s creation,
in community,
with delight in our brothers and sisters,
and with joy that we follow a God so mysterious that our lives are filled with the journey of discovery.

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