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June 16, 2019

Give It Away Now

Passage: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Service Type:

At the start of my final year of high school, I went to my first big concert. It was the Red Hot Chili Peppers, at the height of their success, playing a sold-out show in the Golden State Warriors arena. I imagine the youngest and oldest ones may not know the Chili Peppers, but for a 90s kid in California, they were as good as it gets. I remember cheering with my two buddies at the show, waving around a lighter we somehow found during their ballads, breaking that lighter so it would shoot flames a foot high, and the usual high school drama on the ride home. My sermon title comes from one of the Chili Peppers' early hits, whose title and chorus read: “Give it away, give it away, give it away now!” When I first heard the song on the radio, the words were too fast for me to understand, but the beat was cool, so I liked it. As a young adult, I thought the lyrics to Give It Away Now were dirty. But eventually I learned the lyrics had hidden depths.

The lead singer of Red Hot Chili Peppers was addicted to heroin as a young man. When visiting a friend, he commented on her “really cool” jacket. She immediately replied: “Keep it.” The singer was shocked. Growing up on the mean streets of Los Angeles, he always took what he needed, knowing no one else would look after him. But here—giving away her jacket—this woman explained: “If you have a closet full of clothes and try to keep them all, your life will get very small. But if you have a full closet, someone sees something they like, and you give it away? The world is a better place.” Looking back, the singer said: “It was such an epiphany someone would want to give me her favorite thing... Every time I'd be thinking 'I have to keep,' I'd remember 'No, you gotta give away instead.'” And when he sobered up, he made “give it away” his approach to recovery, viewing his sobriety was something he gave to fellow addicts to help them stay on track. Years later when Red Hot Chili Pepper's bassist tested a funky new groove, the memory of how that woman changed his life caused the singer to pen the lyrics to Give It Away Now. And so the lyrics aren't nonsense and certainly aren't gross. They're about how giving changed his life, or as the song says, “Realize I don't want to be a miser / Confide with sly you'll be the wiser / Young blood is the lovin' upriser / How come everybody want to keep it like the kaiser / Give it away, give it away, give it away now!

So what does my first rock concert have to do with the Trinity? In classical Christian theology, our Greek-speaking ancestors in faith used a word to explain the workings of God's innermost self. Describing how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons yet also one Being whom we call the one true God... our ancestors described that relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “perichoresis.” Can we all say that word together? Perichoresis. So what does that mean? You may recognize “peri” in perimeter or periscope. It means “around”. And “choresis” shows up in the word choreography. It means “yield space,” “go forward,” or “contain.” Put them together, the word perichoresis means “yielding around” or “containing around”. This perichoresis is the idea that each Person of the Trinity yields itself and its power to the others, that each Person of the Godhead dwells within the others, that they don't create each other but rather flow out of one another. Perichoresis means God the Father gifts his glory and power to Jesus Christ the Son, who bestows them upon the Holy Spirit, who in turn gifts them to the Father, and round we go. Perichoresis is the idea that God's most primal nature is a mutual dance among the Persons, where each gives itself away to the others. And now we're back to my sermon title. If someone asks you what Christians believe is God's nature, you can get into the technical theology of the Trinity, all the nuances of perichoresis I'm leaving out for time. But if you want an easier way, you can sum up the Trinity's internal relationships by singing Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Give it away, give it away, give it away now!” In essence, the ancient Christian idea of perichoresis is that God's inward pattern is give-it-away-ness, a selfless and sacrificial love, a dance of mutual yielding and mutual indwelling within the Godhead.

This is my personal adaptation of an ancient Christian symbol celebrating God's Three-in-One nature.

This is my personal adaptation of an ancient Christian symbol celebrating God's Three-in-One nature: the Shield of the Trinity. Within the shield I have set three of God's most pivotal acts as a reminder that all three Persons of the Trinity work together in creation, salvation, and the creation of the Church.

Our lectionary reading for this Trinity Sunday is Proverbs 8. If you're wondering why I only now touch the scriptures, it's because preaching Proverbs 8 on Trinity Sunday is hard. The Trinity is a term Christians have used since the earliest days to explain how they see God's nature revealed across all of scripture. But no single Bible passage reveals the entire idea all at once. Proverbs 8 in particular is tricky because nobody agrees on what it means. Some say it's a poem celebrating wisdom as a virtue, with the Lord as the greatest example of wisdom. But many argue Proverbs 8 is about Jesus Christ. Just as John's gospel calls Jesus the logos of God, Greek for either the “word” or the “reason” of God... many say Proverbs 8's talk of “wisdom” likewise refers to Jesus—just with more feminine language here—since Proverbs 8's wisdom and John 1's reason are related ideas. In this interpretation, Proverbs celebrates how Jesus was active in the creation of the world; how before an atom was spoken into being still was there a relationship of love within the Trinity; that creation was not God the Father acting alone but rather Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working together in creation like hands working in unison to swing a baseball bat. But again, there's debate over what Proverbs 8 means. On top of this, it's tricky preaching this text on Trinity Sunday because—as I often say—the more you talk about the Trinity... the more likely you're wrong. No human metaphor describes God accurately, and most are heresies (click here for a fuller explanation). Even one iota's difference can make the most precise philosophy of God fall apart. Add to it the fact that I'm a sinful mortal trying to describe a perfectly holy immortal, a small creature talking of an infinite Creator... and you realize how even our very language fails to express God's nature. I can call God “good,” but God is far gooder than I can ever know. I call God “love,” but even that word “love” is adequate for what God's love is like. How dare we talk of God's own self?

We just celebrated Pentecost last Sunday. Pentecost when the Church was born. Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and was said to dwell within all Christians evermore. Did you catch that? On Pentecost—and in your baptisms—the Church declares that the Holy Spirit enters into you! Just as the Holy Spirit is said to dwell within the Father and Son in the cosmic dance of the Trinity—that give-it-away-now perichoresis—in your baptism the Church declares that God's Spirit is now within you! Since before time began, there was a dance of love, self-giving, and joy within God's very Being. And the miracle of Pentecost is the declaration that this dance of give-it-away now has drawn you into the circle! And therefore although Proverbs 8 is hard to interpret, although the Trinity is a divine mystery one can never fully explain, although we are limited mortals talking of a limitless God... since the Holy Spirit dwells within you... and since we're told that the Persons of the Trinity contiuously give up themselves to and dwell within each other... then we can say God is love to his very core, even before and apart from all creation. We can indeed claim to know and know about the Lord even though we are tiny specks of dust in the cosmic scheme! If the Holy Spirit is within us, then we are drawn up into the dance of eternal life and joy that was there before creation ever was. And this is why Proverbs 8 goes on in verse 35, where Wisdom—whom again many read as Jesus Christ—declares: “For whoever finds me finds life, and obtains favor from the Lord!

So as I said... the Trinity, the Godhead, the Lord's internal relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit... it's really hard to grasp. But it's the best summing up of God's nature we've been able to come up with yet... or perhaps I should say it's the least bad summation. And rather than get mired down in theology today, I invite you to reflect on why the Trinity matters, why it's good news for you personally. The Trinity we celebrate this Sunday is a God who has loving relationships at the core of his identity, a God who is defined by giving-it-away both internally among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and externally as God gives himself to us in creation, on a cross, in the gift of the Holy Spirit within each of us, and so much more. The Trinity means every one of us in salvation is drawn up into a cosmic dance of love, of giving-it-away. And it means that our ethics as Christian, our way of living here on Earth, must be an embrace of give-it-away, for that is our redemption, our eternity, the very thing we're all drawn up into as God pulls us to himself.

Today is Father's Day. Not everyone has the best parents, and not everyone has kids. On this day when our nation honors Fathers, as we Christians celebrate the Trinity of God, beyond the Hallmark cards and whatnot... I hope today we see this holiday as a chance to remember that true love—whether it be the love of parent-child, the love between partners, among friends—true love is ultimately a reflection of God's love, a give-it-away love always pouring itself out into others, always being filled up in turn, always yielding, always receiving back in kind. That is the ideal of love we celebrate within God's own self. That is the love we see reflected on the cross of Calvary. That is the love that flows into and empowers us through the Holy Spirit. That is the love the welcomes us home in death. That is the dance of love which predates time yet into which we are drawn into through Christ. And that is the love we are called to make our way of life, as we reflect God's kingdom on earth as it already is in heaven. So my advice? “Give it away, give it away, give it away now.” It's not just a Red Hot Chili Pepper's song. It's God's way of Being, our way of life, and our hope for eternity. Praise be to God. Amen.

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