Transformative Relations

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, June

Isaiah 6:1-8; Rom 8:12-17

Emerging out of the smoke swirling from incense and burnt offerings, the winged creatures cry out, “Holy, Holy Holy is the God of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory!” In the awe-filled presence of God’s holiness, Isaiah is overwhelmed with his own inadequacies. He confesses his sins, “Woe is me, for I am lost; I am one of unclean lips.” In that sacred moment, the transcendent God, wholly other, unknowable mystery embraces Isaiah intimately, bestowing grace and cleansing. God’s attendants touch Isaiah’s lips, lifting the heavy guilt of wrong-doing, soothing Isaiah’s tortured soul with the lightness of forgiveness. It is then, in the clarity of mind uncluttered by personal angst, that Isaiah hears the word of God. God concludes by asking, “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” “Here am I,” offers the renewed Isaiah, “send me.!”

This passage from Isaiah outlines our order of worship. We usually begin our services with a hymn of praise, honouring the holiness of God. We move from there into a prayer of confession, followed by an assurance of forgiveness. We then hear the Word of God and respond with prayers and offerings of our resources and our talents in service to God’s ministry.

This passage has traditionally been used on Trinity Sunday. The question, “Who will go for us?” has been understood by Christians to imply a plurality in the Godhead. As we celebrate Trinity Sunday today, we “worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.” These words from the Athanasian Creed begin a complex and dense logic of the Trinity that have been used in the Western Church since the 6th century. But today I invite us not to walk through the western door of mental gymnastics about how God is one in essence yet three in person. Instead, let us walk through the eastern door that takes us into the mystery of one God in three persons, as portrayed by this Russian icon called “Trinity”. The Orthodox Church of the East introduces the Trinity not through intellectual argument, but invitation into the experience of holy mystery. The beauty of icons and stained glass, the curling smoke of candles and incense, the harmonies of choir and congregation, the warmth of human touch exchanging the peace of Christ, the bread and cup of eternal life—these all call us to a feast of the senses in the mystery of the divine. They invoke Isaiah’s vision of the holiness of God.

This Orthodox invitation into the divine mystery not only portrays God as wholly other; as unknowable. It also calls us into the mystery of God as intensely intimate, as Isaiah also experienced. The Eastern Orthodox remind us that the intimacy of God can only be experienced through relationships. The Orthodox understand the Trinity as three persons in relationship with each another: the Creator with the Christ with the Holy Spirit, sitting at table in communion with one another, as pictured in the “Trinity” icon. The Orthodox cannot understand the Trinity outside of relationship—and it’s not just a friendly relationship. The relations between the Creator, the Christ and Spirit are deeply transformative—as they encounter one another and the world, they impact each other.

The Greek word, perichoresis, describes this intimate relationship within the Trinity. It comes from another word meaning “to dance around.” As Bruce Sanguin describes, “Each of the members of the Trinity is encircling the others in ecstatic dance, a whirling dervish spinning off new worlds born of their joyful play.”

It is into this cosmic dance of joyful transformation that the Trinity invites us. We, as God’s church, are part of God’s intimate dance of life. It is this transformative relationship that is the basis of our Christian faith.

We have celebrated confirmation today by affirming our faith through the recitation of A New Creed. This is important. We need to know what we believe and we need to proclaim it. But our Christian faith is based on more than a set of beliefs. It is rooted in deep relationships of trust and respect, of struggle and celebration.

This is one of the reasons our confirmands each have a mentor from this congregation. Each confirmand also interviewed older members of our congregation to find out about their faith. Our hope and prayer is that these relationships won’t end today. As each of you finish school and move into your choices of careers and families, you will encounter some tough times ahead, as we all do. When you hit these bumps on the journey, remember your family of faith. We’re there for you—let us help you through those times. We also ask you to help us shape our future; help us be the kind of church that can be there for others. We need you, as I hope you need us.

Last Tuesday, I was one of the United Church volunteers at the Winnipeg chapter of the closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We watched Justice Murray Sinclair and Dr. Marie Wilson on live stream from Ottawa asking all of us—indigenous and non-indigenous to now begin the walk of reconciliation. It doesn’t mean being subsumed under the white guilt of paralysis for the Residential Schools. Rather, it means to have the courage to simply listen to stories, accept this part of our history and learn how to walk together with indigenous people in relationships of healing, of mutually giving and receiving. Stan McKay spoke at the Winnipeg gathering and he said that he is fed up with people asking how they can help. Indigenous people don’t need helpers—they need relatives, as our new Crest reads, “all my relations.” Lilla Watson, an Australian indigenous elder, once told white people, “If you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Our Christian faith is based on relationships within the Godhead, with God and with one another. Relationships are built on respect, not judgement. When we make mistakes, we are held and forgiven, not condemned. It is only within trusted relationships where we have the best chance of making lasting change.

We are not slaves who cower in fear of a harsh, judgemental God, but rather we are beloved children of God, forgiven and loved a thousand times and more. As the Spirit, the Christ and the Creator engage in a playful, gentle dance of love, they beckon us to join them and create a new dance of respect for all our relations.

The angels of the heavens cry out:
Holy, Holy, Holy One!
Holy Mystery, content us with the unknown;
Catch us up in awe that needs no why.

The angels of the earth cry out:
Holy, Holy, Holy One!
Holy Presence, embrace us in sacred relation;
Let us respect the holy in one another; let us respect the holy in ourselves.

The angels of time before and after cry out:
Holy, Holy, Holy One!
Holy Power, infuse us with compassionate strength;
Empty us of solitude, that we may be filled with grace.