Sunday, June 24, 2012

Forecast: Stormy, With a Chance of Calm

Texts:  Job 38: 1-18  and Mark 4: 35-41

Hurricane season started early this year, and we are currently under a Tropical Storm Warning with Tropical Storm Debby due south of us. Not a bad time to recall the story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee.   But before we can appreciate what calm feels like, let’s recall the feel of a storm. 

Tori Murden McClure knows more than most of us about storms at sea.  In 1999, she became the first woman to row across an ocean.   Yes.  I said row.  Without a motor.  Without a sail.  Without a companion.  In a wooden row boat, she rowed across the Atlantic for over 3 months straight, 10 hours, 12 hours, sometimes 16 grueling hours a day, each and every day, except during the most violent of weather. 

Tori had attempted this feat the previous year but had to be rescued some 900 miles shy of the coast of France after a 3-month voyage that included arduous exertion and deprivation, equipment failure and total isolation; injuries and narrow escapes from catastrophe; the failure of her long distance communication system and the assault of two hurricanes.  In her memoir, A Pearl in the Storm,[i] Tori McClure describes her first realization that the storm (which she later learned was Hurricane Danielle) would be more fearsome than anything she’d previously endured:

“Sept. 5.  The wind generated by the storm was stronger than anything I’d ever experienced, and the waves were bigger than anything I had imagined.  I’d been through some nasty gales, and I considered anything over 25-feet really big.  These waves went well beyond really big.  They were the size of buildings.  . . .  Huddled in the dark, I reached for [and then spoke to] the video camera:  “I’m in by far the most violent storm that I’ve been in so far. . . .  I’m not sure I’m going to make it through this one’” (155).

By that time Tori was jammed into her coffin of a cabin.  Only a few feet high, the cabin gave her barely enough room in which to lie down but not enough to sit upright.  She could, however, close the hatch overhead to seal in oxygen for herself  and to aid the little boat’s ability to right itself when capsized—which happened more than a dozen times over the next two days of violent weather. 

Tori’s narrative continues: “By sunrise, the water in my cabin was several inches deep . . . The waves hit with so much force that pinhole leaks sprayed like fine water jets.  Because I couldn’t sit upright, the water sloshed around my back and shoulders.  . . My boat felt like a bathtub toy in the hands of an angry 2-year-old.  As much as the earsplitting wail of wind terrified, the periodic silences were worse.  The wind was quiet only when an approaching wave was tall enough to block it out. Like ghostly fingers, the quiet moments pointed to the walls of water that were about to hammer me.  The lull never lasted more than a few seconds” (156).

“At around 7:00 am, I heard the rumble of an approaching breaker.  An avalanche of white foam was followed by the slam of a wrecking ball.  I clawed at the walls and ceiling trying to get a grip.  The only things louder than the roar of that wave were the yelps of my pain.  The boat rolled, and I flipped head over heels.  The boat spun on its bottom and rolled again, tossing me heels over head.  Wood, fiberglass, flesh, and bone interacted in unnatural ways. . . . The boat shook for a moment and then flipped upright so quickly I didn’t have time to think about landing.  My body spun in the air, and my twisted torso landed on the floor with a harsh thwack. It was my first capsize of the day, and this was just the beginning” (157).

Soon McClure was a mess of blood, bruises, and broken bones.  She wanted to set off the 406-megahertz international distress beacon by then—but she refused to put potential rescuers in harm’s way.  So she rode out many more terrifying hours.  At one point she again spoke into her video camera:  “I have a strange sense of peace at this point.  I don’t know what it means.’” More hours later, having gone into and out of and back into and out of the path of Danielle, the worst was over.  But with the boat listing heavily toward starboard and nearly in pieces, Tori at last set off the distress signal.  Rescue was finally on the way.

By comparison, the disciples of Jesus seem a little wimpy and a tad premature in setting off their “distress signal.”  Of course, Mark’s terse Gospel relates few details about their ordeal at sea, so it’s hard to work up much sympathy for them. 

Here’s what we are told. After teaching large crowds about the realm of God, parable by parable—including the parable of the mustard seed we read last Sunday—Jesus suggested to his disciples that they get away from the crowds by sailing across the Sea of Galilee.  Unfortunately, some of the crowd followed in their boats.  So maybe Jesus would not get much peace and quiet on the opposite shore either.  And, as it turned out, the sea would not be peaceful either. As happens on the Sea of Galilee, a storm came up suddenly.  Great waves were swamping the boat.  Yet the distressed disciples found Jesus snoozing in the stern.

Biblical commentators don’t know what to make of this.  Some speculate that Jesus sleeping through the storm signals how utterly depleted he was from the demands of the crowds.  Some wonder if Jesus feigned sleep to test the disciples’ faith.  Some think Jesus’s nap was not a factual detail but a literary device, specifically an allusion to Jonah, also discovered sleeping in the hull of a ship during a storm.  You’ll recall that Jonah saved his traveling companions by volunteering to give himself up to the sea.  In contrast, Jesus saved those in his boat by speaking the sea into calm.  Further, the 3 days Jesus spent in the tomb have been compared to the 3 days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.  You’ll also recall God had told Jonah to bring good news to the Gentiles in Ninevah.  In today’s story Jesus was sailing from primarily Jewish territory to the primarily Gentile territory on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee. Mark therefore may have added the detail of Jesus sleeping through the storm to remind us of Jonah, who may suggest to us that Jesus is that line of other prophets called to continue God’s universal care for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. 

Of course, the disciples in the story interpreted Jesus’ sleep to mean he did not care a flip about them. But by now Mark’s readers should be skeptical of the disciples’ point of view.  After all, the writer of Mark never misses a chance to show the disciples’ cluelessness.  Therefore, careful readers of Mark suspect that it just seems to the disciples that Jesus doesn’t care.  Maybe once again Jesus’ closest companions and leaders-in-training misperceive the situation or misperceive him.  In fact, Mark’s Gospel is rhetorically successful in part because you and I are able to identify with the imperfect apostles who consistently misunderstand Jesus.  In this instance, I suspect you and I can easily think of times in our own lives when it has indeed SEEMED that God didn’t care.  We know how that feels.  But now we have to wonder if our perspective was skewed.  Might we—like Job—be limited in our ability to judge that which is ultimate and beyond human knowing?  Might we—like the disciples—be misunderstanding Jesus?

After all, maybe we have embarked on this voyage with Jesus with expectations about the journey based on misunderstandings about the ways of God.  Maybe like Job we assumed God was a superhero booming boasts from the whirlwind.  Maybe like the disciples we have assumed that God works through might and magic.  Maybe our expectations of Jesus are about as primitive as those who believed that lightning bolts are hurled down from the heavens by the gods above.  So maybe this story tells us that the God we come to know in Jesus is not Thor or Zeus or even some biblical portraits of Yahweh.

It’s understandable that humans first conceived of God in those terms, of course. Most early cultures imaged a God of he thunder and lightning who was often the chief god in their pantheon.  The Greeks had Zeus; the Scandinavians had Thor; the Hindus had Indra; the Lakotas, Haoka.  Of course early people imagined that lightning was the superior weapon of the greatest god. Of course warrior cultures conceived of their gods as ruling by might and domination.

But Jesus’s power doesn't seem to work that way.  Jesus’s upends our expectations.  His power is of a different sort.  He does not impose his will upon others.  He does not use force.   He does not exact homage.  He does not demand tribute.  Unlike most earthly rulers and mythological beings, Jesus wields power from love alone.  Jesus’s power is nonviolent and noncoercive.  Jesus’s power springs from and leads to peace.  Jesus power is at the core of who he is.

If we interpret the story of Jesus calming the seas like the childish disciples, we may see Jesus working a magic trick and think the seas “obeyed” Jesus’s command.  But if we can instead appreciate the love and faith Jesus lived and taught, we see this story as yet another parable, an enacted parable, about the kingdom of God.  God’s way is revealed through a man who has such reservoirs of trust and love within him that calmness ripples out from his inner core like a quieting countercurrent against the waves of fear. Thus, he stills the hearts of the frightened.  He sleeps undisturbed by the storms of life.  He speaks words of peace—to human hearts and into creation’s chaos.  This is the dramatized parable of one man so imperturbable that his sheer presence neutralized the anxiety striking his disciples like wave after wave threatening to overwhelm them.  No thunderbolts needed.  Jesus rescued his fearful followers by the sheer calm he carried within.

If Christian theology says anything it is this: that Jesus is the very picture and parable of God’s love.  The God we know in Jesus—in this enacted parable on the raging seas or in the spoken parables he continually told the pressing crowds that would have threatened anyone else’s composure—this God is no hurler of thunderbolts, no zapper of sinners, nor manipulator of mortals.  The disciples expected Jesus to outzap the storm gods, to DO something.  Instead, Jesus WAS something.  Jesus was a presence of Divine Compassion.  We don’t have to grovel for that compassion; we don’t fight or strive for that calm. When we live in the oneness we call Christ, we are grounded in that which is unshakable.  We carry it within us across the seas, stormy or calm. 

Sometimes like Tori McClure we face terrors from which we think we won’t survive.  Yet even in moments of despair we hear a voice saying, “Peace.  Be still.”  It is the sheer presence of Jesus with us that is the essence of divine power.  Even within the storm we can experience, as Tori McLure said, “a strange sense of peace” even if we “don’t know what it means.” 

PRAYER:  God who quiets our hearts and stills our racing minds, we don’t know what it all means.  Like Job, we want to challenge you.  But we actually are challenging our feeble idea of you.  Like the first disciples, we want you to smooth out all the rough seas that lie before us.  But we actually need to find the calm within.  In Christ Jesus, in whom we live and move and have our being, we find that resting place.  But like the disciples we still wonder who Jesus is. Help us see how you work through love alone.  Help us forsake the God of Power and Might for the God of Love and Peace.  Amen

[i] Tori Murden McClure, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). 

See footage of McClure's voyage:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Guided Meditation: Choosing and Using the Unchoosable and Unusable

                                               Van Gogh's "The Sower," 1888
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13       
Mark 4: 26-34
He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

God’s ways are not our ways.  The full force of love breaks into this world when, for instance, the very least and last of eight sons of Jesse becomes the king (1 Samuel 15:34-16:13).  God’s way materializes before our eyes when a tiny seed becomes a large plant (Mark 4: 26-34).  God chooses the littlest, the lowliest, the least.  

If God were the team captain in a playground game of kickball, she would choose her team by passing over the biggest kid in the class and overlooking the fastest runner and being unimpressed by the most popular boy and caring nothing about who’s wearing the coolest running shoes.  Instead—if God were a ten-year-old choosing a kickball team on the playground--she would shout the name of Herman as her very first choice.  “Herman!” she’d yell as she’d wave that stunned and scrawny thing  to stand next to her.  Yes, Herman: the kid everyone else expected to be chosen last, the friendless oddball who just moved from Podunk, Mississippi.  And here’s the “kicker” to my kickball parable.  Although Herman, the runt of the playground, would look confused at first, and would stumble over his worn out tennis shoes to stand with the growing line of the misfits on the God Team, Herman would blossom into the MVP for his team, thanks to some excellent coaching by God. Like the tiny mustard seed.  Like little David, the shepherd boy.  Like Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Like Jesus.  Like you and me.  Herman would be walking proof that God’s greatness is made known in our weakness.

God chooses and uses the unchoosable and the unusable.  God even chooses and uses those who actually downright unwelcomed and unwanted.  God is like those artists who transform recycled old tires and tin cans into gorgeous sculptures. 

The problem with my kickball analogy is that it implies that God’s realm has an orderliness contradicted by our Gospel reading for today, the parable of the mustard seed.  The irony of that parable is lost on us if we’re not aware that the shrub produced by the mustard seed was an invasive weed.  The sower is planting the Middle Eastern equivalent of kudzu.  About the same time the Gospel of Mark was written, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History that "mustard, [which] is extremely beneficial for the health, . . . grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once."   

The realm of God that Jesus preached was being compared to the potentially health-enhancing and shade-producing mustard plant, but the mustard plant tends to take off and take over and then, well, who knows how the landscape might change?  The kingdom of God grows in just that way.  Health and healing may come from it. The wild birds will find shade in it.  Vulnerable creatures will be protected through it.  But something unpredictable and untamable might be set in motion.

Isn’t that what we fear about the realm of God?  I mean, it’s one thing to let Herman on the team.  We might even get to feeling patronizingly fond of him as sort of a mascot.  But surely you can’t build a whole team with a bunch of misfits.  Surely you don’t want to intentionally plant mustard seeds.  After all, the kingdom of God could threaten the borders and boundaries of the kingdoms of this world.   We’ll tolerate a bit of diversity —as long as the old guard remains in a clear majority.  But what if those other folks flourish here and outnumber us?   Surely no one actually plants mustard seeds, right?

Maybe they do.  In God’s kingdom.  Which shelters some and annoys the heck out of others.

Isn’t that what you’ve secretly feared about participating in or—for heaven’s sake—becoming a member of Open Table?  You came here first out of pure curiosity.  Then you started showing up once a month or so, a habit that seemed harmless enough.  You might have helped us host Family Promise one night and saw a little more about God’s kingdom there.  Before you knew what was happening, you started caring, deeply, about the beautifully varied people who are part of this little piece of God’s realm and about what they were doing.  Now you’re serving on the church council, a puzzlement to your friends and to you, too.  And although there’s something salubrious and sheltering about these churchy experiences, there’s also something subversive and invasive and unsettling.  As if the inner landscape of your life is getting rearranged.  As if some kind of spiritual kudzu is growing greenly in your life and reaching out its branching arms into the world around you.  The kingdom of God is like that.

With that creepy and comforting image of how God works in the world, let’s meditate on two aspects of Christian spirituality:
1)     Let us first consider our chosenness within God’s realm
2)     Let us next consider the wildness of God’s realm.

So try to recall a time when you were chosen to contribute lovingly somehow, somewhere.  Maybe someone saw in you something you had not yet seen in yourself.  Maybe someone noticed a quality within you that made you feel a bit more responsible for using that gift for good.  Maybe someone trusted you with a task that you executed well, or that you failed at but you learned from in the process.  Maybe someone chose you as friend.  Something as simple as that.  Think about that one specific occasion of chosenness.  Now ask yourself:  Where was God in that experience?   Did you perhaps experience God’s love in the relationship that developed or through the selflessness evoked in you when you allowed yourself to be used for love’s sake? 

Take a moment to give thanks for that particular occasion when you were chosen for good.  I know there are many such moments, but choose now one moment of chosenness.  Recall it with gratefulness.  Give thanks for being chosen for Love’s purposes.
. . .
Think next about what new opportunity is presenting itself to you.  Are your gifts, experiences, insights, and time being summoned to use here in our faith community?  You may not feel equipped for the job but are nevertheless feeling chosen for it.  You may feel you’re at an age when you don’t have much left to give any more, yet God chooses you again and again because the realm of God still has need of you.  Or you may feel you are too young to be used by God.  But children have special gifts God uses.  Remember the smallest is sometimes the very one God chooses.  Children and adults alike need time to consider what God might be preparing us to do in this world.  This is a question we should regularly take time to consider.  There may be a prophet Samuel coming to you with oil to tap you for lead out in some way.   And remember that in God’s realm, a movement of many can get started from a tiny seed.
 . . .

Let's also admit that sometimes it feels as if we've been chosen for a task that is unfair, that is too hard.  Although we may believe the Spirit of Love would never "choose" to bring suffering, it may still feel, at times, as if God has selected some people for tragedy or hardship.  We may never understand why pain or heartache enters our world, but we can continue to live in ways that trust that God's choice is always love.

So let us meditate now on God’s lovingly invasive spirit that can take root in our lives and spill out into the world.  If God’s greening love is rooted within you, where might others start seeing evidence of it in the world?  Picture sprouts of green leafing out in particular places in your life.  Where is that happening?   If God’s greening and growing love has taken root here in this community of faith, where are other places in our city the offshoots of that love are in evidence?  Picture your influence as mustard plants in and around our city.  Where would you like to see them start cropping up?  Where specifically can you extend God’s love and care, God’s shelter and healing?  Picture one of these specific places.
 . . .
And listen.  Your name is being chosen:  Susan.  George.  David.  Linda.  Chloe.  Bart.    You have been chosen:  Jerry. Ann.  Karen.  The kingdom of God is within you and within those like you: Peter.  Ryan.  Mattie.  God’s work begins like a seed planted in your imagination.  Listen,  Open Table.  You are the mustard seed of churches.  Small.  Seemingly insignificant.  Maybe a bit annoying to some folks.  But something is taking root here.  A new church has been planted.  God only knows what might develop!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

First and Last Sermon On Sin

Text: Genesis 2:15-3:21

              Bart, Jenni, and I returned last night from the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ.  We will share later some of the highlights from the workshops and worship services.  But for sermonic purposes, I’m going to quibble about one tiny typographical error in a worship bulletin that caught my eye on Friday.  One prayer of confession included a phrase that was meant to read “forgiveness of sins.”  Instead, it read “forgiveness of sims.”  Since Sims is my last name, I felt a little singled out.  For a nanosecond it felt as if everyone at the meeting was praying for or about me, that I—though perhaps there was another Sims or two present—needed to be forgiven.  How gracious of them.  How embarrassing for me.
               Although I'm being facetious, the word sin can have powerful associations. Sin is a word we rarely use at Open Table. Not that we are sinless here.  Not that we deny the existence of sin, if we were ever to employ that antique term rather than words like wrongdoing or injurious behavior or immorality or injustice.  But sin is a word to speak sparingly and warily since it is usually wielded in ways that do more harm than good. Even people who wish the best for another can do unintended harm when they use the word sin, and that word creates terrible injury when used to scapegoat, judge, vilify, or dispirit someone.
               But the lection from Genesis today, a story often used to explain how sin entered the world, gives us a chance to consider that word in ways consistent with a healing theology.  Although sin was the subject of every sermon I heard as a child, and “forgive our many sins” was included in the prayers I heard and said growing up, this is the first sermon I’ve preached on the topic, and it may be the last.  So listen up!  You may have only one chance to hear me preach on sin.
               Ironically, I’m jumping into the topic of sin from the diving board of a biblical story that is not really about sin. Contrary to what you’ve been told, sin is NOT the subject of the Adam and Eve myth and the word sin is not to be found there.  When we read Genesis 2 through 3 afresh, without the layers added by St. Paul or St. Augustine or John Milton, for instance—when we try to hear the story divorced from the impressions that high art and popular cultural have left—we recognize that a whole history of interpretation and extrapolation has skewed our understanding of this myth.  For instance, we’ve been told this story teaches that woman was created in a way that subordinates her to man.  We’ve been told this story instituted marriage and explicitly authorized marriage only between a man and a woman, not between Adam and “Steve.” We’ve been told that the serpent was the devil in disguise who tempted the humans to disobey God.  We’ve been told that the fruit of the forbidden tree was specifically an apple, that Adam and Eve’s shame for their nakedness connects the first sin to sex, and that God cursed the first humans for sinning before expelling them from paradise.  These details are simply not in the story as we’ve received it from Genesis.   
               In fact, many scholars instead see within this story an affirmation of the equality of woman who was created, like the male, in God’s image and as partner for the male. They deny Eve is depicted as a sexual temptress and suggest woman is instead presented in the story as the pinnacle of creation since Eve was created last in the list of created beings.  Many insist that while the story is a strong affirmation of the universal need for connection and communion, there’s nothing in this story about marriage; furthermore, only extremely dysfunctional families can be found in the remaining chapters of Genesis, and none of those families could serve as a model for “family values.”  Many believe the talking serpent is a mythical creature with no correlation to the Satan figure and certainly there was not yet a concept of a devil-ruled hell that served as the destination for sinners. Finally, many believe this myth tells us how we grow into human maturity as we test boundaries and exercise curiosity, independence, and self-determination.  Therefore, the story of “man’s fall from grace” is really the story of humanity’s rise from brutish ignorance or childish naiveté into an adult perspective on the world. Genesis 3 does say God cursed the serpent, but God does not curse Eve and Adam.  Rather, God sends them forth to work by the sweat of their brow and bear children through great labor--which seems the price one pays for adult responsibility. One could argue that sin occurs when those capable of doing so do not move into adulthood. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th Century Eastern father of the church, said, sin is “the refusal to keep growing.”
               Many note the Eve and Adam story is bookended between Genesis 2: 15 (which says the human was created to till the fields) and Genesis 3:24 (which says the human pair is sent out of the garden to till the ground).  Thus, the myth also stresses that humanity’s adult vocation is caring for the earth.  
               Many argue the doctrine of Original Sin is harmful and unbiblical and should be replaced by the more “original” and biblical concept of Original Blessing, heard repeatedly in Genesis 1 as God approves each created thing as “good.”  What a difference that shift in perspective can make for the ways we love ourselves, one another, our planet, and our God.
               You and I can use this artfully told tale most responsibly if we read it on its own terms, appreciating the richness of its meanings.  Let us at least consider that this story may not tell us how sin entered the world but rather how humans grow into a maturity and into an awareness of their mortality—with all the attendant risks and potential consequences.
               Of course, even if Eve and Adam don’t teach us about sin, that doesn’t mean the Bible is silent on the subject.  It’s just that what gets translated as sin or transgression or iniquity or evil is really a variety of ideas that include ancient purity codes and morals specific to certain cultures plus concerns about social/economic/political injustices .  The psalmist lamented his individual sins. The Hebrew prophets exposed the sins of entire nations that built their empires on the backs of the poor.  Jesus consorted with sinners and forgave sins profligately in ways that angered religious authorities.  The Bible even explicitly defines sins at times, as when St. Paul says that “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.”[i]  Sin, many would argue, is “the Bible’s central plot.”[ii]
                So we want to be aware of the various meanings of sin in the Bible and in Christian theology. Since this word remains in the Christian lexicon, progressive Christians probably need to decide if we can retain the word for our theological and liturgical purposes, or if we need to cede its use to others and employ for our theological  conversations some other word or words. 
               Probably the most common understanding of sin locates it in the body, but sin is not mainly a sexual or bodily transgression, contrary to popular culture. As Frederick Buechner says, “Sex is sinful to the degree that, instead of drawing you closer to other human beings in their humanness, it unites bodies but leaves the lives inside them hungrier and more alone than before.”[iii]  Sin is doing what harms ourselves and others.
               Sin is not even entirely a personal act or attitude. Sin exists on an individual level but also on a systemic level.  Sin is both a discrete action and also ingrained patterns or systems of thought and action.  When any human system (economic, religious, educational, political, familial) is oppressive, then that institution, group, nation, or family is a complexly organized force of sin.  Sin operates in structures and implicit cultural codes that demean, harm, or subjugate those God made equal, free, and loved.  Racism, for instance, is a systemic sin.  Both societies and individuals can share complicity for sinful systems.  When we forget these broader meanings of sin, we find it easier to use morality codes to turn certain groups of people into scapegoats and to distract ourselves from our own role in sin’s harm.
               The consequence of sin is death, St. Paul said.  The consequence of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is death, the Genesis story imagines God saying to the humans.  But what kind of death?  Eve and Adam do not drop dead after eating the fruit as God’s prediction might have implied.  Initially the serpent seems right and God wrong about that. But death entered their realm of consciousness.  The human pair came to understand their mortality.  Unlike all of the other creatures, humanity had evolved to realize their days are numbered. 
               The natural consequence of sin is death.  Systemic sin is right now poisoning our waters and heating up our planet and exterminating species that the Creator called “good.”  The consequence of sin is death.  But I don’t believe in a death-dealing God who exacts our lives or punishes us into eternity because early literary characters disobeyed a quirky rule. Rather, this story tells me the natural consequence of neglecting or poisoning the garden we were created to tend is that the garden will die.  
               Systemic sin is also widening the gap between the uber-rich and everyone else. Systemic sin is telling female children in many cultures that they are less valued than male children, though the Creator has called them good.  Systemic sin is inciting war among people created to live as the human family, all of whom God called good. The natural consequence of refusing the role of caring partnership with one another is death.
               The consequence of sin in our own private souls is also a kind of death.  We don’t live as fully mature and authentic human beings.  We let parts of ourselves shrivel into nonexistence through neglect.  We kill off pieces of our history and personality and physicality with lack of self-love and self-care and honest self-awareness. 
               One particular consequence of the misuse of the sin story is that we sometimes hang on to the guilt rather than moving ahead into transformation.  Sometimes we accept guilt for things for which the culture condemns but God’s spirit within does not.  Sometimes we’re happy to lie to ourselves and pretend that our actions are not harmful to ourselves or others or that we’re not really responsible. Sometimes we do realize and deeply regret our mistakes but get mired in the guilt and never move forward into God’s grace and forgiveness. 
               I think one reason we can’t shake the guilt is that we find it easier to keep berating ourselves rather than doing the hard work of change.  We accept guilt and all the hurt it causes because it’s our unconscious bargain to punish ourselves with endless self-accusations rather than ask for forgiveness for a past mistake or change the path we’re on now or take a good hard look at our lives. 
               I suggest the church has at least 5 roles in the cycle of sin and forgiveness:
  1. The church gives us gracious and compassionate space and time to contemplate our inner lives and our outer actions.
  2. The church gives us a community that helps us discern what are the good and healthy and life-giving choices and supports us in growing into our best selves and creating our best communities. 
  3. The church gives us language and liturgy to lead us into spiritual health and wholeness.
  4. The church gives us interpretable stories from the past that illuminate our own human predicament in terms of the larger human story.  These sacred stories offer varied metaphors for the central human dilemma. Sin is not the only word for the human predicament.  The Bible also speaks of unawareness, estrangement, exile, blindness, disease, lostness, etc.  Therefore, the way out of our predicament can be expressed and imagined differently, thanks to scripture’s varied pictures of our paths to spiritual growth.[iv] 
  5. The church teaches Jesus’s hopeful way of love.  Love lures us home to God and makes us at home in the world; love reconnects us to those from whom we’ve been estranged; love forgives; love breaks our hearts to see the harm we cause or condone and therefore leads us to repent (which means to change our whole mindset).  Jesus’ commandment to love God, neighbor and self is the simple yet complete antidote to sin.
               Marcus Borg said a Buddhist friend once observed, “You Christians must be very bad people—you’re always confessing your sins."[v]  Yeh. I think there are ways we can regularly and honestly examine our individual lives and our systems—without wallowing in guilt.  My hunch is that the word sin sends us too quickly into a position of self-defense or shame or simply causes us to shut down emotionally and spiritually.  I am looking for words that are better than sin. But I’m interested in your thoughts.  I’m interested in ways we can continue to forge together a language that facilitates our growth and healing.  Amen

[i] James 4:17
[ii] Frederick Buechner, “The Good Book as a Good Book” in The Clown in the Belfry (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) p. 44.
[iii] Frederick Buechner, “Sin” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) p. 109.
[iv] See Marcus Borg, “Sin and Salvation” in The Heart of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) pp. 167-171 especially.
[v] Borg, p. 165.
See also Walter Brueggemann, Genesis.  Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982) pp. 40-54 and  Alice Ogden Bellis, "The Story of Eve" in Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994) pp. 45-67.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

To the Trinity . . . and Beyond!

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8;  John 3:8

               For those who define Christianity as fourteen unbelievable things to believe before breakfast, the Trinity might be at or near the top of the list of unbelievable beliefs.  The lack of explicit scriptural references to the Trinity keeps the doctrine on the defense. The Trinity’s arithmetic is confounding: 1 + 1+ 1 = 1?  The begotten-but-not-made, true-God-from-true-God wording of the ancient creed fails to clarify. The 4th Century councils that funneled all those questions about Christ’s divinity and humanity into a three-personed container labeled monotheism did not seal the lid on the matter.
               But I suspect 21st Century Christians are neither particularly interested in nor entirely stumped by the three-in-one-ness of God.  We have a more general problem with the Trinity. God as a personal being is what snags some of us.  Feminist theologians, for instance, are troubled that God as a male being (Father, Son, and neutered Spirit) enshrines patriarchy and elevates men over women.  But more basic than concern about God’s gender is our skepticism that God even has gender or personhood or personality. 

               Conceiving of a too-human God might cause us to imbue our concept of the Divine with our own human limitations and prejudices and lock God in some physical realm in the sky that modern science says does not exist. Always imaging God in concrete and creaturely ways comes close to violating the second commandment against making graven images of God.  If we consistently name God as Father or King, for instance—we erect a metaphorical monument to a part of God that we eventually will mistake for God’s essence and totality.  We then worship an idol and not the living and evolving and Still Speaking God.  Whether God is one being or one being with three personas is less the issue, for me, than whether God is best imaged in any exclusively human form. 

               But that’s not to say that Isaiah’s vision of a human-like God, for example, lacks truth.  Given Isaiah’s culture, it’s understandable he experienced the Divine as a gigantic Eastern potentate, an emperor on steroids, attended by 6-winged creatures. Isaiah’s God is such a superhuman figure that the mere hem or edge of his robe completely filled the temple.  Isaiah begins describing his vision by explaining it came to him in the same year that King Uzziah died, so perhaps Isaiah was comforted to realize, through this dream, that God wields a power that earthly rulers do not.  Such a critique of earthly empires was also one of Jesus’s themes.  And especially at a time of political instability after the death of Isaiah’s king, it would have been reassuring to picture God as the ultimate and enduring ruler.  Isaiah’s emotional response to the divine—his awe—is palpable.  His specific image for God, however, may say more about the prophet’s own circumstances and values than about any essential characteristic of the Divine.  Likewise, our own images for God express partial truth without ever capturing the fullness of God.

               Last Sunday, when we celebrated Pentecost, we focused on a very different and still incomplete understanding of the divine as holy spirit or breath or wind. From John’s Gospel we hear again today that God’s movement in the world is like the invisible and uncontrollable wind that blows where it chooses (John 3:8).  John says God interacts with the world not like a person of power but like a force of nature.  Do you see how different are these 2 images of God? Which is correct?                

               We don’t have to choose.  We experience the Holy in many ways.  The perfect words or images for the sacred will always be just out of our reach--even for poets like Mary Oliver, who expresses the illusiveness of the sacred in her poem “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where does it end?”. 

There are things you can’t reach.   But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away.  The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
               from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
               as though with your arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some
               shining coil of wind,
               or a few leaves from any old tree—
                              they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
fluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.[i]
               How do we ever hope to fathom God if poets and theologians admit they fail to find words and pictures for awe-filled experiences of the Holy?   For Christians, the human Jesus who became the eternal Christ is the best revelation we have of the divine. I’m not ready to give up all human-like mental pictures of God!  No.  Jesus remains for me the very best depiction of the Divine, and Jesus’s way of self-giving love is the very best way of enacting the Sacred.

               For that matter, the Hebrew creation story, the opening narrative of our scriptures, insists that we were created in the image of God.  So God is a part of us and, as Christian scriptures say, the Christ dwells within our very human hearts. 

               But increasingly, Christians also see a bigger God.  Not in Isaiah’s terms of a supersized human but more abstractly. So Tillich named God the Ground of All Being, the foundation upon which all that exists has being.  Others use the term Ultimate Reality because God is that which has ultimate value and is that which is really real.   I like Marcus Borg’s term The More.  Yes.  God is MORE than we can know or experience and that which is always becoming even more.  But it’s no wonder our Jewish friends do not presume to speak God’s holy name. Maybe verbs rather than nouns get us closer to saying Sacred things.  I like the Gospel of John’s active image of the blowing wind.  I like the Force of Life or the Source of Love.  Yet when we name God through activities, we’re still stuck with nouns:  Creator.  Redeemer.  Savior.  Lover.

               But here is where Trinitarian theology offers us so much more than we had assumed.  The Trinity pictures not three gods and not really even three persons as we think of persons and not so much the actions of persons—but the interactions of a "a communion of persons" (LaCugna 84).  God IS relatedness and mutual interdependence, says the Trinity, and this communal existence is what we aspire to.  To be fully human is not, according to the Trinity, a matter of self-sufficiency but instead requires mutual, self-giving communion with others[ii] (LaCugna 91).  The Divine is recognized in the actions of love.  Self-emptying love among a community of equals is the kind of love for which the Trinity is the prototype.  If I’m losing you here, let me say it again as you learned it long ago: God is love.  God is the One who gives love, and the One who receives love, and the love itself flowing between them.  God is what happens between and among loving human beings. God is loving energy and process and connection.

               The Trinity says further that love is not exclusive but is ever-enlarging.  God’s love does not close off the possibility there are new ones to love. 

               Before we turn our attention to an artistic rendering of Trinitarian love, I want to describe a more mundane example of that love.  I’ll do that by first introducing you to Julie and John, two of our daughter’s childhood Sunday school teachers, who co-taught children in ways that made everything fun and made every child special.  Actually, John was in charge of the fun; Julie was in charge of John, whose methodology the parents sometimes questioned, but whose loving influence on the childlren was undeniable.  For instance, John taught the children a not-so-secret signal to use during the worship service.  When John, a choir member, adjusted his glasses during worship just so, the children in his Sunday school class understood him to be saying “hi” to them, and they were told to reply to him by rubbing their noses. Of course, the children never knew when John would send them his signal, so his devotees probably paid more attention to his eye glasses than the pastor’s sermons.  But I think John was signaling more than “hi.”  He was saying, “You are special.”  He might have also been implying: “And I have my eye on you.”

                John and Julie made the children feel empowered when, for instance, they encouraged the children to come up with a name for their class.  For weeks they debated in secret before announcing to the church that they had become the WLSTPTWA class.  No one outside the class knew what those initials stood for. Eventually the children disclosed, with broad smiles, they were the “We’re lots smarter than people think we are” class.  At our daughter’s wedding three years ago, the former members of the “We’re Lots Smarter Than People Think We Are” class gathered for a photograph with the bride and with their adored teachers, Julie and John.

               But John and Julie had created more than enduring friendships among that group of children.  Knowingly or unknowingly, the class had practiced being the Trinity.  The opening ritual on Sunday mornings began as John greeted the first child to enter the classroom that day by offering his chair to the child. The chairs were arranged in a circle, and John sat near the door, so when the first child entered, John in effect gave up the nearest chair for that child’s convenience. When the next child entered, the first child would greet that friend by name, get up, and insist that the new child take the special chair.  If the peer politely offered to sit elsewhere, the ritual required that the one offering his or her chair would, in mock seriousness, reply, “But I insist” and gesture with a flourish. Whenever the next child entered the room, the person in the closest chair at that time would rise, welcome their friend by name, and give the best chair to them.  This was a joke, of course.  This is not how children interact.  It was a game. The children laughed at the ritual. But they also loved it.  And think about the way they came to embody in that ever-enlarging circle the self-giving love of the Trinity, which is best defined as a loving community of persons.

               The Trinity’s loving community is pictured perhaps most insightfully by the medieval icon painter, Andrei Rublev.  Study again that image of Rublev’s icon on the front page of your worship bulletin.  The 14th Century iconographer gets it right. What his three figures capture is loving and ever inclusive interaction.  See how they incline their heads to one another in conversation.  See how they gesture as they talk.  See how their postures remain open to one another, no figure being excluded.  And see how they remain open to us, making room for the next person to join their circle.  God is not one person or three persons.  God is communion that connects us and enlarges us.  God grants space for us to enter.  The Trinity’s circle is perfect—and yet not closed, not completed.  God’s power is not through imperial commands but through gentle invitation, not for the purposes of adoration but for communion and mutual love and self-sacrifice.

               The Trinity is best understood as a picture rather than a doctrine.  It invites us not to believe certain things are true but to live out that truth.  The Trinity makes a hospitable place for us to inhabit and imitate.  In fact, “The Christian community is supposed to be itself an icon of God’s triune life” (LaCugna 106).  We are baptized into this inclusive, equal community so that we become its living icon. If we can save the Trinity from those who would turn it into a math problem or a doctrinal test, it will picture for us the community we embody. 

               I love the picture of the Trinity.  Do I believe in it?  I am living within it.  There is an infinity within the Trinity.  “To Infinity and beyond,” is the catchphrase of Buzz Lightyear.  I say, “To the Trinity—and its infinity—and beyond!”  May that circle remain open! Amen 

[i] Oliver, Mary.  “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?”  Why I Wake Early.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2004, 8-9.
[ii] LaCugna, Catherine Mowry.  “God in Communion With Us: The Trinity” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective.  Catherine Mowry LaCugna, ed.  New York: HarperCollins, 1993.   See LaCugna's interpretation of Rublev's icon.