"Home is the place where... they have to take you in": Trinity Sunday
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Isaiah 6: 1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8: 12-17; John 3 1-17
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
There’s a poem by Robert Frost called “The Death of a Hired Man” about an unreliable farmhand called Old Silas, who though no longer welcome, returns home to a certain farm to die. The farmer’s wife tells the farmer that Old Silas has come home—“’Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:/You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’” The farmer, sick and tired of being let down by Old Silas time and again over the years replies with single, rueful, gently mocking word, “Home.” The farmer is sick of being had. He’s tired of giving Silas second and third and fourth chances. He’s can’t see why Old Silas would even consider coming back to the farm, even if it’s just to die.
The farmer, if we want to think about his relationship with Old Silas in the terms of our readings for today, is a lot like Nicodemus. The Farmer is fixed in his views, and nothing Old Silas can do will ever change his mind. Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night, is in one sense a symbol of having everything already figured out. He knows who he is (a teacher of Israel who enjoys his status as an expert on all things “God”), and he thinks he knows who Jesus is. But notice that Jesus hardly lets Nicodemus get off his formal-sounding and rather rehearsed opening salvo than he interrupts him with a rather devastating pronouncement—“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” You don’t know me as I am, Jesus says, you know only your image of me. You are making me according to your own image.
The farmer doesn’t see Old Silas—the hired hand who reappears on his porch step after a long absence. Instead, he only sees his story about Old Silas. The farmer sees Old Silas through the veil of his previous disappointments, through the disfiguring lens of his label as an unreliable so-and-so whom he’ll never let himself get burned by again. Both Nicodemus and the Farmer need to be born from above. They need to have the lid of the box in which they placed God/the other blown off by the wind of the Spirit. That’s what John is getting at when he says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” If we want to see as Jesus sees, with eyes that seek and serve Christ in all persons, we have to be willing to have our preconceptions, our labels, our already-decided-upon images of ourselves, others, and God, called into question, and ventilated by the life-giving freedom of the Spirit.
The Spirit, the uncontainable vivaciousness and effervescence of the Living God who is present and active in our midst drawing us into deeper and deeper relationship with the source of beauty, truth, and goodness, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and doesn’t play according to our “all-too-human” requirements. To be born from above, to taste and live from the freedom of the Spirit demands an element of surrender, of letting go and letting be, of trust in something other than our habitual ways of securing our identities, those strategies we mistakenly employ in the well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided attempts to bring about our rather impoverished version of happiness.
Nicodemus, the expert insider, the know-it-all theologian who’s got an answer for everything, the one who enjoys a good amount status in the community as a “leader of the Jews” has to become like a little child. He needs to relinquish all those things that he thinks make him Nicodemus in order to be born again from above, to discover who he really is and taste the freedom that is his birthright. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Indeed, this encounter with Jesus ends without Nicodemus enjoying a moment of insight. He is baffled and bewildered. He doesn’t get it and we can imagine him slinking off into the night with his hunger for depth and meaning, his thirst for truth, still gnawing away at him. It takes a while for all those ways we’ve propped ourselves up to be revealed for what they are, and for a new way of being to emerge as the foundation of our life.
But at the end of John’s Gospel, something has shifted for Nicodemus. Remember, he is the one who helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare the tomb for the body of the crucified Jesus. It’s Nicodemus who brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes and taking the body of Jesus wraps it with spices in linen cloths and lays Jesus in the tomb. What a transformation! The one who first came to see Jesus by night and approached with a kind of intellectualism that wanted to contain and control the presence of Jesus within all-ready existing frameworks, is now the picture of ultimate devotion and intimacy with Jesus. He’s been born of the Spirit.
After the Farmer’s cynical quip to his wife about prodigal Old Silas—yeah right, “home” indeed!—the farmer’s wife says something that’s a lot like what Jesus says to Nicodemus by candlelight.
‘Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/they have to take you in. I should have called it/something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” The farmer’s wife, reminds her husband Warren, that Silas is more than just the sum-total of past deeds. She reminds Warren what unconditional welcome looks like. She invites Warren, in the Spirit of the living God, to see with new eyes. She reminds Warren of who he really is and why he is here. She reminds Warren of his true identity as love—the love that seeks to embody the unconditional love of God that has nothing to do with earning or deserving but is showered upon us as sheer, unmerited grace from above. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/they have to take you in. I should have called it/something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Paul tells us if we live according to the flesh, we will die. Don’t fall into the trap thinking that this is just Prudish Paul talking about sexual ethics and eternal hellfire. Living according to the flesh is about where we find our true identity, whether we live from the Spirit that prays within us with sighs too deep for words, or whether we live a cramped and claustrophobic life given over to pursuing what we think will make us happy—power, control, safety, security, affection, esteem—but disappoints. Nicodemus is saved from being a big-wig insider. The Farmer is saved by the Spirit speaking through his wife from the prison of his hard-heartedness towards Old Silas. Each of them realize that they are already children of God, heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ.
They don’t deserve God’s love. None of us do. That’s the definition of grace. It’s given as free gift upon those who have done nothing to merit it. Love has nothing to do with merit. The astonishing thing about the Christian life is that the Holy Spirit has already been given to us, it already prays within us, and already cries out to God with scandalous intimacy in the words of child—“Abba! Father!”. Pappa! Daddy! Those same words with which Jesus prayed to the Father in Gethsamane, that kind of union and communion with the Father, is given to us. We don’t need to be slaves of all those other fear-based ways of seeking happiness that only end up making ourselves and others miserable. All we need to do is open the gift, receive the love that is always showered upon us and that is already singing in our hearts if we let all our stories go, step away from the safety of our ideas, and allow the Spirit to show us our own belovedness.
In a way it’s about coming home. It’s about realizing all the ways we’ve sought happiness in all the wrong kinds of places and gradually coming to the realization that the very thing we have sought has been with us all the time. The pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, are buried in the field of the heart. When we learn to become simple, open, and receptive like a little child, when we descend into the heart and begin to acquaint ourselves with our own belovedness, and open to something beyond the stale old stories we tell about ourselves and others, we are born from above. The night of loneliness, despair, and desperation gives way to the simple recognition that home is “where they have to take you in” and that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has welcomed us since the foundation of the world. God’s taken us in. We’re unexpected and underserved insiders in the very life of God. And when that life-changing reality becomes the place we live from we find it in our hearts to welcome all the Old Silases in our lives home. Knowing ourselves to be already home is what allows us to say “Here I am Lord, send me” and live into our identity as a sent people who spread the message of welcome of and belovedness over the entire earth. Knowing ourselves to already home we can go, without fear, out onto life’s roads.
When all is said and done, when we put aside the tortured metaphors and the Greek-inflected metaphysics, that’s the basic message of Trinity of Sunday—that for which we seek is already poured into our hearts. The Holy and blessed Holy Trinity—God the Creator, Christ the Redeemer, and Holy Spirt as Sanctifier—is who we are. Love is God’s meaning, as Dame Julian says, but it is also ours. The journey is a return to where we have been all along, a place we return to as if for the first time and discover it anew. It’s like what we tell the kids when they cross the street—stop, look, and listen. When we do that, it dawns on us that we have already arrived and we can go forth as bread to feed, water to wash and oil to heal a broken world. Happy Trinity Sunday. Welcome home.