Thought, Word and Deed. Lover, Loved, Love. Memory, Understanding, Will. Sun, Ray, Touch. Breath, Hearing, Laughter. Father, Son, Spirit…
Fear not, the sermon is not going to devolve from an inscrutable title into an unintelligible body toward an unfathomable conclusion. At least, we shall hope not. We will not try, with the fabled preacher, to “define the indefinite, explain the unexplainable, and unscrew the inscrutable”. We shall hope that the sermon, at least to one sense, does not approximate the peace of God, which ‘passes all understanding and endures forever’.
Rather, we shall meditate on a kindlier, clearer text. ‘Jesus said…love one another’. Some Christianity, more Religion, and much Life, strangely, sails adrift from such a word. ‘Jesus said…love’. Salvation depends upon the saying of things. It is not enough not to say. To tell the truth is to shame the devil. There is a crucial saving power embedded in the lowliest of creatures, a clear intervening word. Says the Apostle, ‘The Gospel proclaimed by me is not of human origin’. It is not gospel if it is not said.
I remember when George Gibbs was so saved in conversation, with Emily Webb who has ‘just got to tell the truth and shame the devil’.
On the way home from school, George offers to carry Emily’s books. When she gives them to him, he notices that she is peeved about something. When he asks why she is angry, she tells him that he is so caught up in baseball and other activities–he has just been elected president of his class while Emily was elected secretary-treasurer–that he hardly notices his friends anymore. He is stuck-up. George takes the criticism gracefully, saying he will strive to improve his behavior. When Emily tearfully regrets her criticism, George invites her to have an ice-cream soda with him at Morgan’s Drugstore.
.......In the drugstore, the stage manager–playing Mr. Morgan–fills George's order for strawberry sodas. Then–in a shy, roundabout way–they begin expressing their feelings about each other. George says he no longer desires to go off to college to study agriculture; he’d rather stay home and be with Emily. George says, "I think that once you've found a person you're very fond of . . . I mean a person who's fond of you, too, and likes you enough to be interested in your character . . . Well, I think that's just as important as college is, and even more so."
If Emily had not spoken then George would not have responded and she would not have wept and he would not have bought ice cream and they would not have admitted their love and he would not have taken the farm and they would not have married and she would not have loved and left and he would not have loved and lost and no one would know anything about Grover’s Corners. Sometimes you have to say something to somebody. A word fitly spoken is like an apple in the sun. Words, just the right word at just the right time in just the right way, do matter.
A federal in Chicago told us last month, with keen humor, about the importance of words. A young preacher was sent to a tiny congregation, deeply wise but formally untutored, off in the hills, or so she said. After three months he had visited everyone, written sermons ahead for a month, and edited the cradle roll. So, he decided to do something new and called a meeting. In the little packed church the minister announced, ‘what we need here is a chandelier’. Silence ensued. At last a kindly granddad from the back stood up. ‘Well, brother, we love you, we do. But as to this chandelier, I am against it. And for three reasons. First, there’s not one of us here who can spell it. Second, nobody around here knows how to play one. And third, what we really need in this sanctuary is more light!’. Moral: say what you mean and mean what you say. If you need more light, say you need more light!
Careful now: We are about to take a sharp turn into the past.
Eight letters, printed as today’s sermon title, broke the ancient church in half, east and west. To this day, our Orthodox and Catholic friends, with various Protestants strewn along the path like so much brush, divide over filioque, the Latin for ‘and the son’, or as the Latin teachers and students who recognize the ablative when they see it would add, ‘and from the son’. The Nicene Creed affirmed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. As time went by (I particularly like the maverick Spaniards and their role here), the church altered the formula: the Spirit proceeds from the Father—filioque—‘and from the Son’. What difference does it make? In 1054, along with concerns about the Pope, the eight letters split the church—eastwest, RomeConstantinople, popepatriarchs.
It is remarkable that just a few letters can make such a difference, that just a few words rightly or wrongly spoken can make such a difference. We find it hard to understand. Of course, we do understand what eighteen words, misspoken, can mean, in a speech in 2003. Of course, we do understand what a few letters, WMD, incorrectly identified at in 2003, could mean. Yet every single one of us, every last one of us, has at least eighteen words ill spoken to regret, and at least three letters to rue. For the preacher, you may multiply that by many thousands. So, on reflection, we can at least generally understand the power of eight letters.
We have a saying in American English: two is company, three is a crowd. The ancient debates about the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were about the way three relate to two, two to one, one to three, three to one. God is one and three, said the west. God is three and one, said the east. In our time, we have no doubt that Jesus was human. We wonder about his divinity. But the opposite was the truth for antiquity. They wondered about his humanity, but Jesus was divine, for sure. So they further thought about his relation to the other aspects of divinity, Father and Spirit. Augustine encouraged the expansion ‘and the Son’: “God the Father alone is He from whom the Word is born, and from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds. And therefore I have added the word principally, because we find that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also”. (Walker, 189)
Why ‘and from the Son’?
Here, libraries are full of full responses. Yet, in earshot of today’s lessons, one particular response resounds.
Why, ‘and from the Son’? Why from the Word? Why from the Logos? Why from the Word of God? Why Spirit proceeding from Word?
Because spirit proceeds from word. Spirit emerges from Word. You have to say it. The deed is the child of the word as the word is the child of the thought. ‘In thought, word and deed…’, we pray. There is a profoundly experiential, spiritually existential dimension to filioque. In other words, the divine dimension of life is really three dimensions: thought, word and deed. In the beginning was the Word, with God and God. It is not enough to think. Thinking alone does not create. It takes utterance, speech, word. Spirit proceeds from God the Father and from God the Son: from God the Creator and from God the Redeemer: from God the Mind and from God the Voice: from God the Ground of Being and from God the Word made Flesh. Filioque is at the heart of hospitality, and of communion, and of service.
Ten years ago two friends were walking on a Saturday along a River. They strolled along the river bank, looking out across the River at the window of a Chapel. They were on the other, not to say lesser bank. They shared a profession, and a friendship. It was a natural thing. They walked and talked and fed the geese. An engaging woman and a personable man strolling along a beautiful river. After a while, inspired, she simply told him about her church, across the river—its minister, its time of worship, its personality, its quirks. She invited him to come. She spoke a word. She said it. Now both have a church home to enjoy and a church family to love. Word—God the Son—filioque—is at the heart of hospitality.
Some years ago, you may have heard on audio tape Frank McCourt’s hymn to words, Angela’s Ashes. It contains one of the most beautiful accounts of being in love, being delivered in Christ from our otherwise one-dimensional time and world. Two ten year old hospital patients, Frank and Patricia Madigan, become friends. She calls him ‘typhoid boy’. She has a poetry book, and reads to him, as he heals. Or is it that he heals as she reads to him? He hates the owl and the pussycat and says so. She says she will not read to typhoid boy. But she relents, and reads another poem, and makes him memorize it.
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor
And the highwayman came riding
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin,
They fitted with never a wrinkle, his boots were up to his thigh.
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky. (Angela’s Ashes, 196)
Of course Frankie, typhoid boy, falls in love with Patricia Madigan, whom he cannot see behind the curtain of the next bed, but whose voice carries him to health. And of course he waits every day for her to come back from therapy and recite another verse of the poem. And of course he memorizes the verse with the feverish attention of first love. And of course he learns, there, then, in sickness, the power of language. And of course he waits so he cannot sleep for the excitement of it, he waits for the voice behind the curtain, and for the ongoing poetry of life, and for the next installment of the Highwayman. And of course Patricia dies. And of course you see, no you hear, no you feel, no—filioque—you know that spirit proceeds from word.
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down in the highway,
Down like a dog in the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.
Word—God the Son—filioque—is at the heart of communion. Like Patricia Madigan’s, the body of the historic church in the north is wasting away. Yet, in all our affliction, we may still whisper a saving word to the future world. Yes, a love a God. Yes, a love of language. Yes, a love of the Word. Yes, a love of words. Yes, in our time and place, particularly, the language we shall most need, going forward, the spiritual language of lament, compunction, contrition, confession, regret, and the longing therein for pardon, and the hunger therein for peace, and the witness therein to a better day, some day.
Howard Thurman as a hundred years ahead of his time, fifty years ago. Fifty years from now we may catch up to him. Thurman’s was not a high Christology. He knew, though, the power of speech, as well as of silence. His well remembered silences, lengthy and deep, were themselves full attestations to the power of love proceeding from speech, spirit from word. Something must be said. You need go no further, no further, than the first page of his autobiography.
Thurman has finished one year in seminary, here in Rochester, NY. He has been offered an internship in Roanoke VA, at the First Baptist Church, to care for the church while the minister is away on vacation. On the first night in the parsonage, the phone rings: May I speak with Dr James? Dr James is the hospital chaplain. There is a patient here who is dying. He is asking for a minister. Are you a minister? Yes, I am a minister. Please hurry, or you will be too late.
Thurman is anxious, ambivalent about life and calling. He rushes out, forgetting to bring his Bible. He approaches the dreaded curtain around the dying man.
The sick man’s eyes were half closed, his mouth open, his breathing labored. The nurse leaned over and, calling him by name, said, ‘the minister is here’. Slowly he sought of focus his eyes, first on her, and then on me. In a barely audible voice he said, ‘Do you have something to say to a man who is dying? If you have, please say it, and say it in a hurry.
I bowed my head, closed my eyes. (There were no words.) I poured out the anguish of my desperation in one vast effort. I felt physically I was straining to reach God. At last I whispered my Amen.
We opened our eyes simultaneously as he breathed, ‘Thank you. I understand.’ He died with his hand in mine. (With Head and Heart, 3).
Beloved, speak the good words.