Our reading today is Psalm 8
“What is man, that you should be mindful of him?”
This is a question about humanity, a shared common human identity.
I don’t know about you but as I have watched the news this week I have felt more and more depressed. We have been tragically reminded of racial division and mistrust. The Psalmist reminds us we are not different races, we are one race, the human race, created in the image of God. We have seen people careless for the safety of themselves and others. The Psalmist reminds us that in God’s sight humanity is created just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour. We have seen crowds flocking to beaches and beauty spots and leaving them covered in litter and rubbish. The Psalmist reminds us that humanity is given the works of creation, all sheep and oxen, the wild beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea.
This is a very high vision of humanity and of our place in the universe. Yet when we watch the news it sometimes feels like we are nowhere near where God wants us to be.
Today is Trinity Sunday. I know you are hoping for a detailed theological exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity. I am afraid I must disappoint. We shall have to save that treat for when our churches are reopened. Instead let me focus on the simple fact that Christians know God as a community of persons. We perhaps know this best as the expression of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But human language is a poor tool when it comes to speaking of divine truth so it pays to allow our imaginations to be explore. Some would refer to Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Others would argue for an expression which includes the motherhood of God. When Rembrandt painted the Return of the Prodigal he shows the father embracing his son with both hands. One hand is the large rough hand of a working man, the other is the smaller gentler hand of a woman. God has more aspects than we can imagine.
Sometimes art speaks in ways that words can’t. If you look online for Rublev’s Icon you will find the most famous piece by the 15th Century Russian artist Andrei Rublev. Also known as The Hospitality of Abraham it portrays the encounter between Abraham and Sarah with the Lord at the Oak of Mamre. You will find the story in Genesis chapter 18. The Lord is encountered a three figures, Rublev paints them as distinct yet also forming a unity. The shape of their bodies reflects the shape of the chalice in the centre. There is a sense that they form so a unity so perfect that together they hold and offer the wine of life.
It’s worth mentioning that icons are not just works of art, primarily they are prayer. To paint an icon is an act of prayer. To look at an icon is an act of prayer. In western art the focal point of the painting is within the picture. The lines of convergence go into the painting, so things in the foreground are larger, things in the background are smaller, this gives an impression of distance in a two dimensional representation.
Icons work the other way round. The lines of convergence come out of the painting to focus on the person standing before the icon. The person looking is part of the picture, which is why to look at an icon is prayer in itself. When you look at Rublev’s Icon you are not looking at God, God is looking at you.
In these days when the news has been so depressing I am reminded of the old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel. People sometimes excuse bad behaviour on the fact that someone else did it first and they got away with it. Which is why one or two bits of litter lead to many more. One person driving too fast seems to encourage others. One person acting above the rules results in others doing the same. If we think this is something new and caused by those in power we’re kidding ourselves. Those in power can only get away with standards we have already accepted for ourselves. We a community for better or worse. There is much to celebrate in our life together through these difficult times, but much also to lament.
It seems perverse that a generation so resolutely individualistic can still be conditioned to behave by how others behave first. And that so often leads into a downwards spiral. The Psalmist proposes a different perspective, to take our lead and our direction from an alternative starting point. That humanity, our shared common humanity, is the stuff of glory and honour. That our world is gift entrusted to our care. That everything and everyone is known in relationship with God. Therein lie the seeds of different kind of community.
Which brings me down to earth in how we make sense of this. If we are made in the image of God who is community then relationships matter. It is why we invest in friendships and commit ourselves in marriage. It is why we are missing so very much the people we cannot share life with. It is why we must mourn when we lose someone we love.
Our relationship with others and our relationship with God matters. We need to invest good time in both. Maybe you have pictures of family and friends around your home, why not add a copy Rublev’s Icon. Look daily at God, and know God is looking at you.
And I want to thank all those people who have over these past few weeks added names and hopes to our tree of prayer in the porch at St Mary’s. Having an open porch has been valued and I know people have come into the porch and left a mark of their prayers. These are valued as gifts and our prayer tree will remain in the porch for as long as the church doors have to be closed.
The Psalmist reminds us to hope for better, and aspire for better. So too do those neighbours who visit our churches and churchyards and leave us a sign that they have been here, a place, as TS Eliot says, “Where prayer has been valid.”