Monday, 31 May 2010

Trinity Sunday: Sacred Ordinariness

Proverbs 8.1-4,22-31, Romans 5.1-5, John 16.12-15

Those of you who work in schools or with children may know of a Christmas story called Papa Panov. It is actually an adaptation of a tale by Leo Tolstoy, but his hero is called Martin AvdĂ©iteh and Tolstoy’s original story is subtly different. It’s Tolstoy’s version I want to tell you today.

Martin was a poor man, a cobbler, who had lost his wife and all his children one by one to disease. Now, in old age, he lived alone in a basement room. His misfortunes had made him bitter and lonely. He felt he had nothing to enjoy, nothing to hope for. One day, though, a traveller suggested to him that he should read the Bible. Perhaps in that there would be something which would help him. So Martin began to read the Gospels. He read of Jesus’ love for others the poor, the sick, the lonely like himself. He read of his teaching that the last should be first, and that we should forgive as God forgave us. Gradually Martin’s heart softened. If only he could meet this Jesus! Martin read too about those who refused to welcome Christ, those who ill treated him. He wouldn’t have treated him so!

Then one night in the depths of winter he had a dream. He dreamed that Christ spoke to him. “Tomorrow, Martin, I will come to visit you.”
The next day Martin tried to convince himself it was just a dream, but nonetheless, he couldn’t help peering out of his basement window hopefully. All he could see, though, was an old street sweeper, Stephanitch. Stephanitch was even poorer than Martin. On this winter’s day Martin could see that Stephanitch was freezing cold and bone-weary. He called out to him to come inside. “The samovar is boiling – come and have some tea!” The street sweeper came in and gratefully drank several cups of hot tea, but he noticed that Martin kept looking out of the window. “Are you expecting someone, Martin?” Martin told him of his dream. “I know it is foolish, but perhaps it might happen as I dreamed.” Stephanitch shrugged – who can say what might happen in life if God wills it…? He went back out into the snow, thanking Martin for his kindness.

A little later Martin noticed a stranger standing outside his window. Was this Jesus? But no, it was just a young woman carrying a baby. Then Martin noticed, though, that her clothes were threadbare and she wore no cloak against the cold. The baby too, looked half-frozen. He went out and brought her in, gave her some soup and bread he had prepared for his own lunch, and listened to her story. Her soldier husband had died, leaving her penniless. She had no money, no food for herself and her child, and nothing left to pawn. As she rose up to go Martin gave her a little money, and an old cloak. He wished he could do more, but she was very grateful to him, and went on her way rejoicing.

But Martin still hadn’t had the visitor he longed for. As he gazed sorrowfully out of the window, suddenly a small drama began to unfold. There was an old woman selling apples from a basket on the other side of the street. She was laden down, not only with the apples, but with the bundle of firewood she was planning to take home with her. As Martin watched a hungry looking young boy came past her, snatched an apple from the basket and made to run off. But the old woman was too fast for him, and grabbed hold of him before he could start running. “You miserable thief” she shouted. “You will be punished for this!” She started to beat him severely. Martin ran outside. “Stop this! The boy has only taken an apple, one apple, and that because he is hungry – of course he has done wrong, but there is no need to punish him so brutally. If God were to punish us for our sins as you punish this boy – who could survive it?” The old woman looked at the boy and she thought of her own children, now grown – this could have easily been one of them and straight away forgave him. The boy apologised and seeing her struggle to lift her bundle of wood, he picked it up and carried it to her home for her. Martin watched as the two of them went off down the street happily together.

Martin was pleased to see peace restored, but he was still sad that Christ hadn’t come. He went back to his basement room as darkness fell, feeling a little foolish for having trusted in a dream. He opened his Bible to read again. But as he read he heard a voice behind him. “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”
“Who is it? “ Martin asked, peering round into the darkness.
“It is I” said the voice, and out of the corner of the room stepped the figure of Stephanitch, who smiled and vanished.
“It is I” said the voice again, and the woman with the baby came towards him and vanished.
“It is I” said the voice a third time, and the apple seller and boy emerged from the shadows before vanishing.
And Martin looked down at the Bible in his hands. “As you did it for one of the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me”, the words before him read. And Martin knew that Christ had indeed come to him that day, and that he, Martin had welcomed and cared for him just as he’d longed to.

And that is Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler.
As I said, it is subtly different from the tale of Papa Panov. For a start, Papa Panov is set at Christmas time, but Tolstoy simply says that these events take place on a cold snowy day, one among many in the long, dark Russian winter. It is a significant detail. Christmas is a special time; perhaps a time when we can all believe miracles might happen, when God might show up, when love and peace could suddenly break out. Get to the middle of February, though, and the world seems far more humdrum, far less hopeful. Tolstoy called his story “Where Love is, God is” and the point he was trying to make was that it is in the everyday acts of love, the ones that happen on ordinary days and don’t seem special at all – that God truly longs to be revealed and known. The other difference from Papa Panov is that it isn’t just the kindly street sweeper and the poor mother and baby who help Martin to see God in his midst. It is also the bad tempered apple-seller and the thieving child. Love doesn’t always look soft and gentle. It is also seen when we act courageously to set straight what is crooked in the world. That is something we might shy away from; who are we to interfere? But if we stand by while people treat each other unjustly this story tells us that we are missing God in our midst, missing the chance to be part of his work of reconciliation.

Today is Trinity Sunday, and you might be wondering what this story has to do with the theme of the day by now. Perhaps you think I’m just telling you a story to avoid having to deal with the confusing idea of God being Three and God being One. But actually, however much I might be tempted to do that, that’s not what I am up to. There is a link here. The doctrine of the Trinity was the early Church’s attempt at expressing their experience of God. They’d inherited the Jewish belief in him as a loving Creator, whose work could be seen all around them in nature. The Psalm we read today reminded us of that. They had come to believe that they saw him in Jesus. His love for those around him was just like the love of his Father. And then, when Jesus left them they discovered that through his Spirit he was actually with them still. They felt him to be close just as he had been before. It was their experience that formed their ideas about God, not something they’d read in a book, or heard in a sermon.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now…” said Jesus in today’s Gospel, speaking on the eve of his death. His point was that there were things they would only discover as they lived the life he’d called them to. There was no instant download of wisdom to be had. There were no shortcuts. We learn the way of Christ by living it.

God who is known in Creation. God who is known in Jesus. God who is known in the here and now by his Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the God we worship is both seated in majesty but also near at hand, present in eternity but present too in the here and now, this moment, the things we struggle with in our daily lives, the person next door, our workmates, the person in front of us in the traffic jam. Depending on how we regard them and treat them we will either see God in them, or not – and they will see God in us or not. The doctrine of the Trinity might seem like the most obscure and mysterious idea in the world, but actually it reminds us of the God who wants most of all to be known to us in the ordinariness of our daily lives.

Trinity Sunday marks the end of a long cycle of special stories. We have come through Advent and Christmas, the joy and the vulnerability of Jesus’ birth. We have come through the drama of his arrest, his death, his resurrection, his ascension. Special stories, special times, but it is in the ordinary times of our lives that their message begins to come home to us.

I encountered a phrase this week which seemed to sum all this up. It was the concept of “sacred ordinariness”, the idea that we need to regard each moment, each place, each person, each event, however dull or unlikely, as one in which we can meet with God. We should have our eyes open for him, and expect to meet with him there. I pray that, like Martin the cobbler, we will find that “sacred ordinariness” individually and together in the ordinary days that lie ahead.
Amen. - Lectionary essay for May 30th 2010

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