Three Spheres of Religious Life
Trinity Sunday, Year B – Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and, I note, that we, too, like Nicodemus, may need the cover of darkness to safely approach God. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, zealously observing a tight, rule-based faith. But notwithstanding the discipline of his piety, down in his soul, his intuition tells him that Jesus holds a truth that he is seeking. So he comes to visit, but in their conversation it seems that he and Jesus are talking past each other. Their statements and responses don’t connect. Jesus talks of rebirth, not rules. How can this be, asks the bewildered Pharisee.
There are many lessons for us in this Gospel reading. I would like to focus on two: rebirth and communication. To be born again in Christ has become a mantra of evangelical Christians. I was once challenged: “have you been born again,” and ever since I have pondered on my honest response to that question. Today I would say, “Yes, I have been born again in Christ and, in fact, I am reborn every morning when I climb out of bed.” Rebirth in Christ is a continuous journey, a path of ever more amazing revelation.
We have been a band of occasionally happy pilgrims, making our way together through a forest along a shadowed path. The road ahead at times was hidden in the dark. Today we are emerging into a new light. It is a moment of rebirth and you will be blessed with a new guide – one more suited for the next stage of this pilgrimage. I was your guide in the forest: now you will have a guide in the open country as you move along ridge lines and through rich valleys. But whether in forest or open country, communication is essential for this passage.
This is the second lesson of our Gospel lesson and I want to leave you with an understanding I have evolved about communication in church. (This is not something you might learn at business school.) Like Nicodemus and Jesus, we often seem to talk past one another. One reason for this, I believe, is that we have each come to worship and to seek God’s truth for very personal and different reasons. These differences fall into three basic spheres. (You may think of this as Fr. Rod’s theory of religion.) One sphere is not better than the other and they all overlap.
The first sphere I call the tribal/totemic sphere. This is the realm of tangible symbols that we embrace because they define who we are as a people. For primitive people, they may be carvings of animals or pillars or other specific structures. Every religion has its collection. For Christians, our worship spaces and their contents carry this defining significance: our Sacramental implements – chalice and paten, our altars and gilded Gospel Books, our images of saints and historic heroes, our prayer book –and the specific words found therein are our totems.
They signify not only our sense of the holy, but who we are as a people. Any effort to take them away or modify them may be perceived as a threat to our very being. Think of how fiercely national identity can be linked to religious identity, whether Northern Irish Presbyterians, or Greek Orthodox, or French Catholic. Think of the contention between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Think of the passion around our 1928 Prayer Book, or about your favorite hymn. Young seminarians are told not to move the candlesticks in their first year in a congregation, because moving the candles may be messing with sacred totems and trigger a surprising backlash.
Our Anglican tradition is rich in totemic identity. We are quite similar to Roman Catholics in this regard and so provide a safe home for many Catholics. We are, by the same token, attractive to persons from many Protestant traditions who are starved for such potent symbolism. I came to this church from a Presbyterian background that was highly suspicious of any tangible symbol, fearful that it might become an idolatrous object of worship. I have never, for a moment, desired to return to that austere, clinical religious world of my youth.
The second sphere of religious life is the life of the mind, the intellectual world of religious study. This is the realm of theology and Biblical scholarship. It is the arena of ethical and political debate. It is a world of words: long sermons, thick books, and intense schooling for clergy. This is the dominant sphere in American Protestantism given our Puritan heritage on the one hand and skepticism of emotion-based faith on the other. Episcopalians have embraced this sphere with a passion. We are notorious for our openness to theological and ethical exploration. Anglican priests are more likely to be scholarly than pastoral; more likely teachers than evangelists.
The third sphere of religious life is the mystical. It is here that we seek to discover the presence of God in our inner-most self. It is the least evident, least structured sphere of religious life. The hunger for God is deep and real, but our capacity to respond to this hunger is stunted. Our culture, for the most part is in deep denial that anything can be sacred or holy. We are, for the most part suspicious of Pentecostals and their frenzied worship. Our youth have been raised without any language of spirituality. At best, people proclaim that they are spiritual but not religious. Unfortunately, it is extremely hard to be spiritual without embracing religion at some level. Religion provides us the pathways to spiritual experience: it connects us to the mystical. The monastic life, contemplative prayer, music and art, tamping down the demands of our egos and need for control, learning humility, all enable the mystical awareness of God’s pervasive presence.
As you may perceive, in the end, the spheres overlap. Our Sacramental practices contain both intellectual understanding and mystical experience. Our theologies help define us as a people: they have tribal significance. And our mystical experience draws us into a love of God that activates our ethical sensibilities. As the contemplative Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, taught, the true mystic is also a social activist.
Each sphere also has a dark side. The tribal/ totemic sphere can devolve into true idolatry – remember the battles of the 1928 Prayer Book. The intellectual sphere can become a tight realm of crushing, controlling dogma. And the mystical sphere can decay into a self-indulgent lotus land. In each case, the ego takes control of our religious expression rather than humbly honoring God’s love as it comes to us through centuries of religious wisdom.
We need a balance. We need to appreciate each of these realms of religious life, and when we meet each other, we need to learn and honor what draws each of us to this common life. I encourage you to share more of what it is that draws you to this church. Pause and reflect on where another person’s faith seems to have its center: is it with our totemic symbols, in our intellectual discourse, or in a mystical realm. Seeing this in the other is how we show love for the other. Try to understand one another by appreciating the different roots of our calling to be in this place. Ask how our religious experiences feed each of us: we will each be enriched by these conversations.
This is Trinity Sunday when we celebrate a triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Today think of God as coming to us through symbol, thought and spirit. We have one, tri-dimensional God: we have one tri-dimensional church. Love is what holds each in union.
This is my last Sunday with you as your priest. It has been just one year since I came into this role and while many of you have thanked me for my work among you, I, in turn, thank you for what has been a transformational year for me. Old dogs can learn new tricks and among you I have experienced the grace of God and have learned to actively trust where God calls me every day. From the moment I read Fr. Matt’s e-mail on my computer screen announcing that he was looking for a supply priest for his sabbatical last summer, I have followed my intuition. I was not in the practice of doing supply work, but at that moment I knew that I needed to respond. It has been a full year now and at every step I have learned to listen to my heart. I will never be the same again and that is a good thing. Many of you have been very helpful to me and patient with me, often when I was not even aware. This congregation is blessed with an abundance of gifted and loving members who treasure this church and know what it has been and can be in the future. Thank you for this brief and beautiful time as your priest.