“If it’s not about love, it’s not about God”

A Semon for Trinity Sunday

Preached at the Parroquia Catedral de la Natividad

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

May 30, 2021

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the
people of this land], that barriers which divide us may
crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our
divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Un mandamiento, Dios nos ha dado, que nos amemos unos a otros

que nos amemos

que nos amemos

que nos amemos unos a otros

TRinity Symbol

Almost without exception, the important Feasts which we celebrate each year are taken from actual events which occurred in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We can name them, easily, as they unfold for us chronologically—the birth in Bethlehem of Judea, the Epiphany, the Presentation in the Temple, The Flight into Egypt, the Baptism in the River Jordan, The Transfiguration, the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, The Last Supper, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, The Appearances to the Apostles, and the Ascension.

In the Liturgical Calendar, though, there are two other great Feasts which have a different origin. The Feast of Weeks, of Shavuot, or of Pentecost, which we celebrated this past Sunday is a celebration of the baby Church. It celebrates that explosion of power which transformed those frightened disciples locked in the Upper Room and sent them out into the streets preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Solemn Feast of the Most Holy Trinity—which we celebrate today, is often thought to be a “doctrinal” Feast. That is to say that it does not commemorate a specific event from the Holy Scriptures, but rather, is usually thought of as an affirmation of the central mystery of our Faith as explained to us in the words of that Creed from the First Ecumenical Councils of Nicea and Constantinople which we profess each Sunday. In summary, we profess that God is one undivided Trinity. In that reality of One Loving God, we acknowledge three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit. Of course, we readily admit that it is impossible for words to ever fully capture the essence or reality of God. God is the ultimate mystery. Our words are limited, incomplete and fragmentary. Yet, we are reminded that theology is “faith seeking understanding.” It is, thus, the vocation of the theologian to assist us as we enter into the presence of that most sacred of mysteries—not only to make an attempt to comprehend, but, more importantly to love, to adore, to worship, and to serve.

The single most helpful theologian for me, is the late German Jesuit, Karl Rahner. Father Rahner wrote a more devotional work in which he presented his own understanding of the “ontology of the symbol.” When we were given the article to read in Seminary, I took one look at the title, and thought, “Oh no, I am NEVER going to be able to make sense of this!” To paraphrase (after thirty years), Father Rahner made a surprising statement, “Reality can only be truly real, present, effective, and actual if it reaches outside itself in love.” He then went on to give the best analogy for the Holy Trinity which I have ever heard. From all eternity, God the Father is filled with love. That love goes forth, outside of the one God and engenders, gives birth to the Son. Between the Father and the Son is an all-encompassing love. That reciprocal love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. Rahner suggests that there is only one way to understand the Trinity. God is essentially a Community of Love.

This God of Love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then reaches out in the acts of creation: of all that is seen and unseen, this world which is entrusted to our care, and humans who are created in beautiful diversity in the very image and likeness of God. God viewing that creation says of it that “it is good,” and that the humans who are created are “very good.” Perhaps this is as much God’s wish for us as it is a description of our origin. We humans are most like God when we love. It is in those acts of loving, caring, and nurturing that we most resemble our Creator.

Whatever theories we espouse about the more tragic events in the Book of Beginnings, the Book of Genesis, it is clear that we live in a world which has been wounded. Our relationship with God is damaged, our relationships with each other fail to reflect love, care, and concern. We have wounded and damaged creation, to a horrible degree. And yet, as our Eucharistic Liturgy reminds us, God never gave up on us. God has reached out to us, again and again. The Story of Salvation History is that in Covenant after Covenant, God reached out to us in love and invited all people into a loving relationship.

In the fullness of time, we are told, God chose to “pitch a tent among us” (as the Greek of the Prologue to the Holy Gospel According to Saint John reminds us). God became one with us, God became one in solidarity with us—God from God, Light from Light, True God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. And we are told that God became incarnate—out of love for us, for our well-being, for our health, for our salvation.

Those of us who have been incorporated into new birth through the waters of the Holy Sacrament of Baptism, like our Brother, Nolman, this past Sunday, were Baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Then we were then sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. In the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, we have been nourished and fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, the “Bread of Heaven,” and the Cup of Salvation.” And in the Sacrament of Confirmation, we have received the strengthening and empowering of the Holy Spirit to carry out whatever vocations God has given us.

What then does this mean for us as we seek to love and serve God here and now? First and foremost, it means that we are invited to be transformed by God. Through prayer, through our participation in the life of grace of the Sacraments, and through concrete acts of loving service to our sisters and brothers (and in our care for the gift of creation), we make God’s love real and present in our homes, in the places where we work, and in the lives of every person “whom we receive as Christ.”

The danger is that we allow superficial things to prevent us from viewing things as God views them. For that reason, we constantly need prophetic voices to remind us, to open our eyes, and to empower us to act for God.

The Scriptures make clear to us that God has priorities. God is on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the abused, and the excluded. God is especially concerned with widows, orphans, and “foreigners.” God loves every gender identity, each person of every race. God loves the beauty in every language, and culture. God joyfully receives the prayers offered by persons of any religious expression—or of those who attached to none.

If we wish to be like God, to be people of love, to know that “we have passed from death to life because we love,” we must make our love more than just an emotion which makes us happy. We must make God’s love real, active, present, and effective in the here and now.

We must work to respect the beauty, dignity, and worth of every single person—with no exceptions. We must denounce racism, misogyny, homophobia, Anti-Judaism, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, bigotry, and intolerance as forces which are in opposition to the love of God.

In our own time and place we must denounce, reject, and oppose, with all our heart, the sin of Racial Hatred—and especially against our Black, Indigenous, Colored and Asian Sisters and Brothers.

We must denounce, reject, and oppose, with all our hearts, the violence against, the abuse against, and the exploitation against women: mental, emotional, sexual, physical, and financial.

Our Lord, in particular, challenged us to show love and charity to the poor, to the hungry, to the naked, to the homeless, to the sick, and to those in prisons. He told us that when we loved them, cared for them, and ministered to them, that we did so to God, present in them.

We must become a loving, welcoming, and truly inclusive community. We must become a safe place in which everyone finds a home, a place at the table, and a voice. We must become a Beloved Community. And we must constantly assess, evaluate, and plan each act we undertake in light of a single criteria: does this make God’s love, real, effective, and present here?

Our Presiding Bishop often reminds us of this, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

The lyrics of the song with which I began this reflection today challenge us. God has given us a new commandment, “that we love one another.”

“Blessed be God, who has brought us to this Season.”

A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

May 16, 2021

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

 O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

This evening, at sunset, our Jewish Sisters and Brothers will begin the celebration of the Feast of Weeks, known in Hebrew as Shavuot. It commemorates that moment when, seven weeks or 50 days after Passover, the People of Israel gathered around the base of Mount Sinai as the Prophet Moses—at the height of the mountain—received the Torah, the Law, the Commandments from God.

In Second Temple, Judaism—at the time of Jesus and his disciples—there were three great Pilgrimage Festivals: Pesach (or Passover), Shavuot (or Weeks) and Sukkot (or Tabernacles or Tents). If at all possible, each family would make the journey to the Holy City of Jerusalem to celebrate in the Temple. Of the three festivals, Passover may have been the most popular, but it is quite possible that Shavuot may have been the most important.

Years ago, after having attended my first Seder, while I lived in the Bronx, I had an interesting conversation with a Jewish friend. I told him how deeply touched I had been by the Seder and shared my conviction that this, surely, must have been the transforming moment for the People of Israel. The delivery from slavery and oppression must have been the defining moment. He disagreed, and said that “No, it was the giving and the receiving of the Law which set Israel apart from all the other nations, and which made us into a unique and distinct group.”

Gary then shared with me his own experience of preparing for the Bar Mitzvah. He had been raised in a Jewish family, and had been circumcised and named on the eighth day. So, on some level he might be considered to be Jewish. But, there was something lacking, something missing, something incomplete. As he stood at the bema and chanted the passage from the Torah, he took upon himself the obligation, the commitment of following the Law. He literally became a “Son of the Commandment,” that is what bar mitzvah literally means. No longer was his family responsible for his faith and for his practice. He now took that responsibility upon himself.

Some Jewish mystical thinkers refer to the Sinai experience as the “Marriage between God and Israel.” We speak of “covenants” of the ways in which God enters into a committed relationship of love and compassion. There is a progressive revelation of intimacy and inclusivity as these covenants are revealed (Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses at Sinai, King David, and the Prophets). But notice that we do not speak of either Pesach or Sukkot as a covenant-only Shavuot.

In reality, the three Pilgrimage Festivals speak of one reality in three stages. The delivery from Slavery, the giving of the Law, and the time spent wandering in the desert. They speak of a disillusioned and hopeless people who are transformed by the emancipating love of God, who are then willing to take the risk of committing themselves to that God (even though they really have no idea what that will mean for them) and who then morph from freed slaves (with a slave mentality) into independent persons who are finally ready to cross the Jordan River into a land—which they are promised—will be “flowing with milk and honey.”

As an interesting aside, the tradition for Shavuot is to eat dairy products. It recalls the promised, milk and honey, the “sweet gift of the Torah,” and has been described as an unexpected surprise. After all, the kosher requirements and regulations did not exist prior to the giving of the Law. When Moses came down from the mountain and explained the Law, the people suddenly realized that the meat which they had been eating (and the pots in which it had been cooked) was not kosher and could no longer be eaten. And so, to celebrate, they had a dairy meal. Perhaps we could all eat cheesecake to celebrate tonight.?

Shavuot also celebrated an important harvest festival. It was the time when the “first fruits” were brought to the Temple. It celebrated God’s abundant—even extravagant—generosity. In love the Ruler of the Universe provided, from the earth, gifts of grain and fruit. Through human labor and cooperation, these would be transformed into the essentials for living.

Unique among the Pilgrim Festivals, though, Shavuot seems to recapitulate the story of the three primary relationships from Genesis: God, community, and creation. God enters into covenant on Mount Sinai with the People of Israel and then blesses them with the abundance of creation. In response, the People of Israel take upon themselves the project of “tikkun olam,” of working to heal, to repair, to lovingly restore wounded creation. In its own way, it is the celebration of a new creation, a new season of hope. Thus the prayer of gratitude is recited on this day, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”

On Thursday, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, with the Apostles and the Disciples, we gather in that Cenacle, that Upper Room in Jerusalem. Like their ancestors, they have been brought out exile—from death into new life—through the Paschal Mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. And yet, there is something missing, something lacking. They quake in fear in that Upper Room because Jesus has left them. They imagine that at just any moment, the Roman authorities or the Jewish political leaders will break down that door and haul them off to court.

And so, they do the only thing which remains for them—the only thing which gives them hope—they pray as Jesus instructed them to do for the coming of the Advocate, the Consoler, the Comforter—even though they have no idea what that means. And, in a city, suddenly full of Jews from all over the diaspora—almost fifty days after Passover, after the Resurrection—they prepare to celebrate Shavuot. However, influenced by Greek culture, and even the Greek language, they use another name to describe this Festival of Weeks, the Festival of the Giving and Receiving of the Law, the celebration of the First Fruits—they use a name which in Greek means “fifty.” They prepare to celebrate Pentecost.

This coming Sunday we will recall and celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost. We will celebrate the transformation of those frightened disciples who will open the doors of that Upper Room and who will run out into the streets proclaiming the Good News of Jesus the Christ. We will celebrate the birth of the Church. We will celebrate the incredible way in which that Good News will be proclaimed first in Jerusalem and then to the ends of the known world.

But we are not there yet. We live today, between the Ascension and Pentecost. Today, we pray for the coming of the Comforter, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. We pray that our broken, violent, and wounded world may be renewed and—with our help—recreated! We pray that all of creation, and all of humanity may be drawn into ever deepening relationship with God. So that we may become like that tree planted by the river which never grows thirsty. Like grain scattered on the hillside which produces an abundant harvest—and the tastiest of breads. Like grapes crushed and fermented into wine to gladden the heart and to bring healing.

Today we pray for a world overflowing with milk and honey. A world of abundance in which the needs of every person will be met. A world in which there will be safety, security, peace, and justice. A world in which no one will be excluded or treated as less than anyone else. A world of love, and hope, and joy. A world in which we will all be sanctified in truth by recognizing that every single person—without exception—is beloved and is claimed as “God’s own forever.”

And so, today, between Ascension and Pentecost, we pray. “Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.”