Sunday, August 21, 2016

Diving through waves, and other perspective-changing endeavors

August 21, 2016
Luke 13:10-17

We came home yesterday from a week at the beach in Delaware and the theme of the week for me was perspective.

It began the very first night, when I took the kids down to play at the beach.  Holden had to drive separately, so it was just me.  3 kids, 1 adult, lifeguard off duty, and a whole lot of waves.  That was when I realized two things about waves.  Number 1 - Apparently waves look much bigger and scarier to parents than they do to kids.  I remember when I was a kid and the bigger the wave, the better.  I'd ride them to shore, sometimes getting swooped but just getting back up again and running back into the waves.  Now, as a parent, the waves just keep rolling in and all I can think is that every single wave is a potential drowner of my children.  Parents and children have a different perspective on waves.  And Number 2 - when you look out into the vastness of the ocean, It is very hard to tell the actual size of a wave.  I would see these gargantuan waves in the distance and yell “Watch out! It’s a big one!” gesturing madly at the wave about to crash behind them.  And pretty much every time a few seconds later the wave proved itself to be not much more than a ripple.  And then when I thought everything looked calm and safe, suddenly there would be a wave twice my tallest child's height menacing behind them.  
It’s hard to get perspective at the ocean.  

  The theme of perspective continued the next day.  The kids are good swimmers, but Maya hadn’t yet learned how to dive through the waves in order to make it safely through a sudden big one.  And so I began to teach her, starting with the little ones until just a little while later she was diving through the bigger ones like a champ.  She learned that even though it feels counterintuitive at the time, if you dive into what feels like an overwhelming wave, you can flow through that roaring energy rather than being toppled and crushed by it.  Learning to dive through waves changes your perspective of the ocean - it helps you to look at the ocean with respect rather than fear. 

I guess since the idea was already on my mind, the importance of perspective was what stood out most strongly with our Gospel reading from Luke too.  And so I want us to experience the perspective of this woman in our story together just for a moment.  

We’re going to take a little walk around the church.  But a few instructions first.  We’re going to try walking like the woman in our story for today.  So as you walk, I want you to hunch your back over and put your head down as much as possible and keep your eyes down.  As you walk quietly, pay attention to what you see and how you feel.
 After circling, we talked about what we noticed.  Dust and imperfections on the concrete floor.  Only feet all around us.  We felt isolated.  We couldn’t tell who other people were.  We felt vulnerable, not sure what might be just out of our small circle of sight.  We felt discomfort and pain.

Now circle around again, but this time with your back straight and your head up, feel free to look around and look at the people around you.  Again, as you walk quietly, pay attention to what you see and how you feel.
After this walk, what we noticed was very different.  We felt more positive, we saw the leaves blowing in the breeze and the sunlight shining through the windows.  We felt like part of a community.  We were laughing and having fun.
Now you can sit down.

We were bent over for just a minute.  Just imagine what it must have been like for this woman, bent over and unable to see beyond the floor in front of her for 18 years.  For 18 years, straining and twisting to avoid possible dangers in her path.  Probably in incredible pain.  Seeing only the dust and dirt beneath her feet.  Unable to look up at the stars or watch the leaves rustle in the trees.  Unable to look into the faces of the people around her.  Unable to play with the children in her life.  Unable to help as much as she’d like with things that needed doing.  Everyone either staring at her in horror or pity or fear, or else just completely avoiding her.  Marginalized and devalued.  Invisible.

And then Jesus saw her.  He didn’t just notice her in the corner of his eye, or look at her with sympathy.  Jesus saw her whole being, not just her outward disfigurement.  Jesus saw her with love and compassion and invited her over.  Invited her … whom no one wanted to see or touch.  Her … whom everyone avoided like a leper.  Jesus affirmed her as a daughter of Abraham, part of God’s very own beloved creation, and put his hands on her.  Something that maybe no one had done in love for more than a decade.

And her perspective changed completely.  After 18 years of pain and loneliness, she had stopped imagining healing was possible.  Had stopped even hoping for a kind word or a loving touch.  She was resigned to her miserable plight.  But suddenly she straightens up, her eyes meet Jesus and she knows that she has seen God.  She feels known and valued.  She sees the beauty of the world again, feels a part of the community again.  And she is overcome with joy and thankfulness.

And she wasn’t the only one with a new perspective.  When Jesus disrupted her status quo, it surprised everyone.  The community that had ignored and belittled her for 18 years, now was able to see her as well.  And they rejoiced right along with her.  Together, they’d had a taste of how things can be in the Kingdom of God.  No one broken or unseen or excluded.  The world repaired.  They’d all gotten a new perspective, a God’s eye view.

I wonder how our perspective could stand to change?  Maybe we have been standing hunched over in some way, isolating ourselves from God and the people around us and we need to lift our head just a bit.  Or maybe there are people in our lives that we are devaluing or walking past and we need to learn to see them differently.  Or maybe we need to look out into the waves in our lives and began to see them as they really are.  Or maybe there really is a huge, scary wave in front of us and we need to learn how to dive into it and see how we come out on the other side rather than running from it in fear and anxiety. Maybe a change of perspective could transform everything. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Flipping through God's photo album

July 31, 2016
Hosea 11:1-11

My dad and stepmom are in the early stages of organizing in order to downsize from my childhood 
home.  
It’s a good decision for them and will make their lives simpler, but I’ve found myself getting a little sad thinking about that place no longer being part of my life.  No longer having a connection to the spot where so much of my formation happened and where so many memories were made.  My bedroom where I had sleepovers and listened to music and talked on the phone for hours.  The porch where I’d go to read with my mom under the fan in the summer.  The family room where I’d spread out with the funny pages and throw Christmas wrapping paper into the fire.  The kitchen where my sister and I did dishes together.  The dining room where we had so many family discussions and debates.  The basement where I learned how to do 14 double-unders in a row so I could get on the travel jumprope team. 
Probably because of the rising up of those bittersweet memories, yesterday I found myself with a photo album of pictures that span my time in that place. 
 I think I wanted to be reminded of all that happened there and be comforted that those memories were still safe.  And as I looked through the pictures, I realized that while that house is definitely an important location in my family story, at the end of the day, it’s just a background to the relationships that happened there.  The closeness and love and humor and understanding are what shine through the pictures, no matter where they take place.  If you looked through the album wondering what my family was like, I hope those would be the things you would come away with.
And so I am particularly thankful right now for the hard work my husband puts into creating a photo book every year with our important family memories.  We have a stack of these beautiful books that show our family’s life together, beginning from the year we got married in 2001.  
Sometimes we sit down and look at them all and get a overview of the years.  There are beautiful moments I never want to forget, like each kid’s birth, holiday celebrations, and family vacations.  But there are also reminders of some rough times.  I have trouble opening the 2002 book that shows my mom’s physical decline so starkly.  And there are photos that bring me back to times of kids’ misbehavior.  Like the one of 2 year old Maya with her face painted in sparkly magenta paint that she’d sneakily discovered when she was supposed to be napping.  When I look at that, I remember the shock of turning the corner and finding her, and everything around her, covered and thinking at first that some horrible accident had happened.  The albums show how our family has made it through good and bad, changing and maturing as we go.  When I look through them I’m filled with love for my kids in each stage of their lives.  And I hope that someday, if my kids or my grandkids look through these books wondering what our family was like, what will shine through will be the love and humor and understanding that we’ve shared, even in the times when things weren’t particularly smooth or easy.
It seems like something similar is happening in our Old Testament reading.  Hosea lays out God’s memories of life with the people of God — the good and the bad — like a family photo album.  
We flip through a few pages and it is so heart-warming.  So full of promise, just like the garden of Eden.  There’s God the loving parent, completely engrossed in the vulnerable children, self-giving and adoring.  Turn the page and see God holding the children and lifting them to God’s cheek.  Turn again….  There’s God teaching the children to walk.  And look there, God squatting in front of them feeding them.
But we’ve read this story before, right?  We know what comes next.  A big clue comes from the fact that it’s set in the context of a parent-child metaphor, and all of us, either from being children or parents ourselves, know that that relationship can be both incredibly loving and fulfilling — and also incredibly demanding and fraught.  
And sure enough, turn the page again and we see the children in their terrible twos, wayward and unappreciative.  God remains tender and patient, but it sure looks like God is taking deep breaths and trying to remember that the children are too little to understand what they’re doing.  Keep flipping ahead and we see the children become surly and unruly teenagers, completely disloyal to God, rejecting God’s love and care.  We see God beginning to look frustrated and exhausted, beginning to wonder if there is anything more God can give, if God can bear any more grief.  The people are scheming and militaristic and bent on turning away.  God is miserable because of their betrayal, and because of the catastrophe that has befallen them.  God wonders if maybe tough love is need.  Maybe it’s time to stop answering when the people call so that they have to face the consequences of their actions.
And then comes what I think is the most interesting page of the photo album.  The one where we see God pause and ask agonizingly, “How can I give you up?  How can I hand you over?  How can I treat you badly?”  This is God’s inward conversation here.  We’ve caught God in the most private of moments - a moment of reflection as God struggles over the people’s future. 
And it’s a moment that we’ve probably all found ourselves in to some degree, when we’ve been overcome body and mind by our anger and disappointment and are just about to make a horrible, relationship-ending decision.  
But instead of writing off the people of God, we turn the page again and see a new look in God’s eye.  God is replaying those moments of closeness and love with the people and is reminded of the great depth of relationship and commitment God has for them.  God has flipped through those old photos and remembers who God is: I am a warm and tender parent; “I am God and no mortal.”  And the outcome of this remembering is compassion.  Continued reaching out in love and forgiveness despite the behavior of the people.  The outcome is nothing but grace.
There has been no change in the people; they continue to act badly and refuse God.  They have taken no initiative to be reconciled with God.  The change is completely within the heart of God.
I think maybe that is the answer to the question we had in the back of our minds when we started flipping through the photo album.  The same question that might be brewing when we come to church, or when we venture in prayer, or when we look out at the world around us and wonder: “What is God really like?”
And the answer Hosea gives is this: Our God is one who never gives up on us.  God doesn’t wait to embrace us only when we realize how wrong we’ve been and seek forgiveness.  Instead, the photo album tells the story of a fiercely loving God who, despite heartbreak and anguish and rejection, resolves to continue seeking out the people.  Over and over from the beginning God has kept reaching out even when the people — even when we — can’t be counted on to notice or understand or reciprocate. 

And in just a minute, we’ll add another memory into the photo album that depicts the ongoing relationship of God with the people as Landon is baptized.  Today Landon joins the throng of faithful that have made our vows to be the people of God and have been dunked into the waters of God’s creation and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Today we claim Landon as one of the people of the God-who-never-gives-up.  Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The biggest and best sermon prop of all

July 3, 2016
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

If you know my great love for sermon props, you can thank me later for not bringing in snakes and scorpions this morning for us all to tread on.  
Instead, the prop today is either completely intangible, or maybe the most utterly tangible thing possible, depending on how we look at it and whether we are paying attention: the Kingdom of God.
In our story from Luke today, Jesus sends out ambassadors far and wide.  We are told he appoints 70 of them to prepare the way, but that is really intended not so much as a descriptive number as it is a reminder of the 70 descendants of Noah’s sons listed in the book of Genesis.  In Genesis, we get an exhaustive and largely unpronounceable list of the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth, and are told that “from these, the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”  
So the number 70 is Luke’s way of telling us that all of humanity is represented in Jesus’ choice of messengers, and that the message Jesus is sending about the Kingdom is meant for all the world.
And what is the message?  Don’t get lost in all the talk of wolves, snakes and scorpions.  The message is simple:  The kingdom of God has come near!
This is the word Jesus wants his people to spread:  “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”  In that context it is a beautiful and assuring promise.  The kingdom of God is right here! 
But the message is the same even when the people refuse to listen:  “Whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you.  Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”  In that context it sounds more like a foreboding warning.  The kingdom of God is right here and you missed it!
But maybe in both instances it’s just a statement of reality.  God’s kingdom is right on our doorstep, a gift so close we can touch it, glimmering with promise and possibility.  And every once in a while, we have the great joy of noticing it.  But even when we don’t, it’s still there all the same.
Jesus’ disciples all had their moments of noticing.  Nathaniel understanding himself to be truly known by God when he heard that Jesus had seen him under the fig tree.  Simon Peter recognizing the abundance of God’s love in a huge catch of fish.  Matthew the outcast tax collector recognizing the radical inclusion of God when Jesus called even him.  
The Kingdom of God came near them.  And they noticed.  And the Kingdom of God continued coming near holy people.  And holy people continued noticing.
I love the story of how Dorothy Day noticed it.  
Dorothy Day, recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church, was a social activist and one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, seeking to care for the poor and homeless during the Great Depression and beyond.  But her work stemmed from something that happened when she was 8 years old.  She was living in Oakland, California, during the huge earthquake in 1906. There was destruction and death everywhere.  But what struck her was the way the adults around her reached out to each other — speaking with kindness, helping take care of each other, sharing food and water, aiding emergency workers and clearing rubble.  Dorothy said the spontaneous selflessness was a shocking revelation since she was accustomed to busy and distracted self-interest from the adults around her.  “They’ve known how to do this all along!” her 8-year old self realized.   And she wondered why they couldn’t live this way all the time.  For Dorothy Day, the kingdom of God came near in that time of crisis.  And she noticed.  And she was forever transformed.
The Kingdom of God continues coming near us regular people too.  And every once in a while, we notice.  
The other day I was sitting in my office, surrounded by carefully constructed stacks of things I needed to work on.  One for my sermon, one for youth group, one for Godly Play, one for EYOA, one for youth group, one for Kay Brill’s funeral, one for acolytes, one for liturgy ideas, one for our Shrine Mont parish retreat.  You get the idea.  I couldn’t figure out where to start and was feeling a little overwhelmed.  And then I looked out my window.  I used to look out pretty much at just the parking lot.  But then Peg Bartel planted some things around the mailbox and has been expanding it ever since.  She plants with an eye toward butterflies and birds, and so there are lots of beautiful colors.  But what caught my eye at this moment was the gorgeous goldfinch perch on top of the coneflowers.  Tiny and bright yellow and patiently sitting on a flower while it worked to get to the seeds.  
And it was a reminder to me that the stacks on my desk represent the wonderful, bountiful gifts of God that are my ministry in this moment.  That each one of them is worthwhile and good.  And that it is ok to choose one at this moment to perch atop and work through.  A small thing, I know.  But a glimpse of the kingdom of God coming near, nonetheless.

Now it’s your turn.  Where have you have seen the kingdom of God come near you recently?  Or maybe, can you look back and see in retrospect where you might have missed it coming near?  It doesn’t need to be big; God works in ways big and small.  

    The kingdom of God has come near!  Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Eyerolls and rebukes

June 26, 2016
Luke 9:51-62

Early on in my parenting ventures, I discovered that kids tend to see things as white or black, yes or no, good or evil.  And so I would often find myself trying to soften their play.  When games involved killing bad guys, I suggested that instead of execution we find ways to redeem the offenders. When sticks became weapons, I suggested that instead of shooting out fatal bullets or lasers we could send out bubbles of love that would surround the intended recipient.  
As you might guess, there is a fair amount of eye-rolling that results from such parental suggestions.
But when I look at the news  - the mass shooting in Orlando, wars and refugee crises, the Brexit vote, vitriol and inaction in American politics - I can’t help but wish I could employ my imaginary love-producing weapons pretty much everywhere. 
But recently, I was reminded of my own tendency to assign labels of good and bad, right and wrong, when I was brought to a screeching halt by my own failure to employ bubbles of love rather than bullets.
It all started in the course of defending my kid.  I heard that one of my children was mistreated by another student at school. 
That’s usually how these things start.  With some instance of wrong done against us or someone we love, either real or perceived.  And that’s where it begins for Jesus and his disciples in our story this morning too.  Jesus has sent messengers to go ahead of the rest of the crowd to a Samaritan village and the Samaritans do not receive Jesus.  We aren’t told exactly what happened.  Maybe the Samaritans slammed the door in the faces of Jesus’ representatives.  Maybe they insulted them or denigrated Jesus.  Maybe they even forcefully repelled them from the village.  All we know is that, at least from James and John’s perspectives, it was uncalled for and unjust.
And so, James and John, like little children sword fighting with sticks, react with fervor and righteousness.  “Let’s command fire to come down from heaven and consume them!”  
Wow!  They’ve turned in their sticks for nuclear weapons!
Even Jesus’ closest friends don’t seem to be buying what Jesus is selling.  James and John have been right next to Jesus hearing him talk about love and forgiveness.   They’ve been sent out by Jesus to preach the kingdom of God — to heal the sick and provide hope for the hopeless.  And the first thing they think of when their leader is slighted is payback.
But they aren’t alone in that very human instinct.  
When my kid was mistreated, I was broken-hearted.  I couldn’t stand seeing my child so sad — afraid that this would happen again, not wanting to go back to school.  But I was also angry.  This could not be allowed to happen!  This could not happen again!  It didn’t help that it had been one of those stressful, schlepping days that wear me out and that Holden was out of town so I had no one to vent to.  And so my mama bear instincts came out in full force and I jumped into our Gospel story this morning, and not in a positive way.  I sent an email (which definitely has potential to be a destructive weapon) to the parents of the other student.  It was not, I am sorry to say, an email asking for their help with the situation or seeking understanding.  It was righteous and accusatory.  Maybe not quite consuming fire, but awfully close.
And so, unsurprisingly, I got an email back that was equally righteous and accusatory.  Because that is how these things tend to go.  But this email also accused me of being unchristian and mean-spirited.
This email rebuked me, just like Jesus did with James and John.  
This word “rebuke” means to express sharp disapproval or criticism of someone because of their behavior or actions.  The Greek word also includes a sense of the authority of the rebuker to bring to light something that has, or is about to, go terribly wrong. 
I wish we knew more about how Jesus rebuked James and John.  I’d love to know what Jesus said to them, and I think even more I’d love to know what they were thinking and feeling afterwards. Whatever the exchange, it made James and John go silent.  That was the end of their stick waving, at least on that front.
When I got my rebuke from the other parents, my first instinct was to react again.  To continue escalating.  But that “unchristian” part of the email had really landed on my heart.  And so for several days, I was a little bit paralyzed.  I kept going back over what had happened, justifying myself.  But I finally realized that while maybe I had been “justified” or even “right”, I had not been kind or loving.  And so I finally couldn’t stand it anymore.  I got out a note card and wrote to the parents, in longhand this time — no more email for me.  

It went something like this: “… Please forgive my rash email.  I was reacting as a parent to the hurt of my child, and it sounds like you can relate to that as well.  Please accept my apologies….”  As soon as I stuck a stamp on the letter and put it in the mailbox, the weight lifted from my heart.  I had no idea if my letter would be read or appreciated on the other end, I had no idea if my kid would be free from another bad experience, but at least I had recovered from my own slide into ugliness.  And a few days later, I got an email from the other parents, thanking me for my letter and offering their own apology for their harsh response.  We were all just parents, loving and protecting our kids, in pursuit of what we thought was “right” and “just”, but going too far out of fear and pain.
And who knows what was going on in the minds of the Samaritans that wouldn’t receive Jesus.  Maybe they distrusted people like Jesus because of the way they’d been mistreated in the past.  Maybe they were afraid of opening their hearts to something new.  Maybe they had lost their generous spirit because of scarcity and fear. 
It reminds me of a wise quote that has been attributed to several people, among them an ancient bishop, Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle.”
We are all capable of acting and reacting out of fear and anger and despair.  We are all fighting our own battles — big and small, known and unknown.  Which is exactly why understanding matters.  Open hearts matter.  Listening matters.  Forgiveness matters.  About small things, like issues with our kids.  And about bigger things, like how we treat people that are different from us, how we help people in crisis, how we share resources, how we listen to others, and even how we vote.
Jesus exemplifies understanding, open-hearted, forgiving love in the midst of his own pain and struggle.  
Here he is: marching headlong toward the betrayal and torture and death that he knows await him.  And yet, Jesus continues encouraging the people who gather around him to love even those who hate them, to turn the other cheek, to forgive not just 7 times but 70 times 7.  Soon enough, even on the cross Jesus will call on God to forgive everyone involved in his execution.  Jesus consistently makes clear that judgment and wrath are not in our human purview and that the Kingdom of God has no room for revenge.  Like James and John, our purpose as Jesus’ disciples is to bring life and healing, not death and judgment.  
After this episode, Jesus and his disciples went on to another village.  The pain of what had happened in Samaria subsided.  The instinct for vengeance was gone.  James and John were able to put down their sticks and continue in the life-long venture of learning to follow Jesus, step by step.

This is a long haul, being disciples of Jesus.  With more opportunities that we’d probably like to learn how to act, and react, out of love in the midst of heartbreak and wrongdoing.  May we all find the courage and strength of mind to put down our sticks and learn instead how to employ the ultimately undefeatable weapon of love.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Prayer Stations for our Ordinary Lives

Prayer Stations for Ordinary Time
May 29, 2016

The Church calendar is strange -- all the big things happen in one half of the year.

We begin the Church year with Advent, when we get ready to enter the mystery of Christmas.  Then Christmas, when God came among us as Jesus.  Epiphany, with it's stories of light.  Then before you know it, Lent and time to get ready to enter the mystery of Easter.  We go through Holy Week, living inside the events of Jesus' last week.  Then it's Easter, and we are celebrating his resurrection and hearing about how he was with his disciples in new ways.  We hit Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit like fire to enliven and empower the disciples and the Church.  Finally Trinity Sunday last weekend, which ties some of these other pieces together.  

But now through November we are done.  For the next 20-some weeks, we are in what the Church calls the "season after Pentecost".  Which, to me, does not seem like a very descriptive or romantic name.  In the old days, the Church called this "Ordinary Time," and I, for one, much prefer that.  This is the season when we figure out how to incorporate all that we've been hearing for the first half of the year into our ordinary lives.  In Godly Play, this time is called "the great, green growing season.  I like that too.  This is the time when we are growing into the People of God we are called to be.

And so instead of a sermon, I set up prayer stations around the room.  Prayer stations that hopefully will help us to ponder and pray about how we live our ordinary lives in this Ordinary Time.


Candle Lighting
We join our prayers with those of the community, lighting a candle as we pray.


Labyrinth
We walk the labyrinth, a symbol of our life of faith, with it's twists and turns.
 


Scrabble Prayer
We add a word about our experience of God to an image that the community forms.
Pray for the World
The Prayers of the People become visible as we pray for the cares and concerns of our world, so racked with pain and violence. 


Praying our Day
Considering how we spend our ordinary days, we think about whether there might be pieces we'd like to change, and invite God to be part of every hour.

The Story of Our Lives
Viewing our life as part of God's story, we think about the big events.  What might we call those "chapters" of our lives?  We look back to think about how God might working in our lives during those times.


Faith Conversations
The community engaged in discussion about some of the big questions of faith, knowing that we have a lot we can learn from each other in our lives of faith.

Praying in Color
Coloring becomes a meditative practice as we transform blank circles into our prayer mandalas.

Remembering our Baptisms
We can dip our hands into the baptismal waters and make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, a reminder that we are marked as Christ's own forever.  Prayer books are marked to think through the baptismal promises made at our own baptisms that we reaffirm at each baptism in the Church.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Trinity: More than Bad Math

Trinity Sunday 
May 22, 2016

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Or, wait, I speak to you in the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  Or how about in the name of God: Rock, Redeemer, and Friend.  Or maybe God: The One to Whom, the One by Whom, and the One in Whom we offer our praise.  Or should we just keep it simple: I speak to you in the name of the Trinity, one God.  Whatever that means.  Amen.

If you didn’t see it on the bulletin you’ve probably caught on by now that it’s Trinity Sunday.  The only day on the Christian calendar devoted to a doctrine rather than an event or person.  Today we celebrate that the Christian Godhead is one God in three persons: traditionally termed Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  In other words, 1+1+1=1.

This week my clergy friends on Facebook have been bemoaning their sermon-writing.  As one put it: “The Trinity Sunday sermon is like the story of the three bears and you are Goldilocks trying to explain the mystery of why they left their food out to get stale and cold. Or maybe it’s like the three little kittens who lost their mittens and you are the mother who must reconcile their behavior.”

Interestingly, the word Trinity never appears in the Bible.  Jesus didn’t talk about it, in that way and neither did Paul, the Church’s first theologian.  And yet it’s all over our liturgy.  Later this morning, we’ll baptize little Zoe Hahn in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  We’ll end our Eucharistic prayer in a similar way.  And my blessing after that, too.  We throw the Trinity around as if we know what we’re talking about. 

But do we? 

Mostly, the doctrine of the Trinity seems to leave us with questions.  Like, how can God be both one and three?  How can God the father be his own son?  If Jesus is God, who is he talking to when he prays?  I’m sure you all could come up with some of your own.

That we are left with more questions than answers when we think about the Trinity is no surprise given that the doctrine was created completely out of controversy.  The doctrine of the Trinity is often seen as a defense to heresies.

Like Arianism - the belief that Jesus was created by God rather than being God himself and therefore is a lesser God.

And there’s Modalism - the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit aren’t three distinct persons of God but rather are 3 forms in which God expresses God’s self.

And Partialism - the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three parts of God that together make up one whole, rather than three distinct persons that are all equally God.

And so, in the 4th Century, at the Council of Nicea, the Nicene Creed came into being.  “We believe in one God.”  “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… of one Being with the Father.” “We believe in the Holy Spirit” who “with the Father and the Son … is worshipped and glorified.”  Later, a Creed called the Athanasian Creed, which we, thankfully do not say, made it all even more clear: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons; nor dividing the essence.”  In case there was any question about the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity, this Creed added forebodingly, “Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”  Yikes.

Maybe this is why I’ve never preached on Trinity Sunday.  Apparently, the risk of heresy and everlasting damnation are real and present dangers!

Lots of Latin and Greek words get thrown around when the Trinity comes up in theological circles.  It tends to feel very remote and academic.  Until, that is, people whip out their metaphors to help explain how three distinct things can really be fully one thing.  Like the trinity of H2O - ice, gas, and water.  Or the trinity of an apple - flesh, skin, and core.  Or the trinity of the Sun - star, light, and heat.  Or the egg - Egg yolk, egg white, shell.  Or there’s always St. Patrick’s 3 leaf clover.  Of course, all these metaphors come crashing down on closer inspection.  They mostly fall into one or another of the heresies I mentioned earlier.  And besides, do any of those make you feel closer to God?  Do any of those strengthen your faith or improve your spiritual life?

It’s hard to feel like the doctrine of the Trinity really matters very much.  It makes the ending of our collects longer.  It confuses our syntax and frustrates our pronouns. It makes Jews, Muslims and Unitarians think we’re just making stuff up.  But it doesn’t seem to affect our lives very much.

The pieces matter, certainly.  I’m pretty sure we understand and can relate to one or more of the three persons of the Trinity.  Maybe we’ve experienced God as a Creator and loving parent figure who provides for us.  And/or, maybe we feel closer to God who came among us as Jesus who demonstrates unconditional love and shows us how to live.  And/or, maybe we’ve felt the power of God as Wisdom or Spirit who enlivens the Church and the people of God.  

But the doctrine that tries to pin down how these three are all equally God and still all one — that can feel a lot like counting the angels dancing on the head of a pin.

And yet I understand why we do it.  Like so many of our theological discussions, the doctrine of the Trinity stems from our very human longing to understand God.  And it comes from our well-intentioned trying to put into words our experience of God who is diverse and yet still one.

Maybe we’ve just been looking at it all wrong! 

For centuries we’ve seen the doctrine of the Trinity as something something abstract and academic, describing the unknowable inner workings of the Godhead.  Something we have to believe to be in.  We picture, maybe, a tight group of 3, unreachable, unattainable, isolated from creation.

Maybe it would look something like this: 


But what if instead of being something to fight about, a litmus test for who is in and who is out, we let the doctrine of the Trinity transform us?  What if the Trinity has nothing to do with definitions and dogma and arcane, unknowable theology but is actually all about relationship?  Maybe what the doctrine of the Trinity captures is that because God is love, God cannot be self-contained and solitary.  Instead, from all eternity, God has existed as diverse, unique persons united in a love so powerful that the three persons are utterly one.

My favorite theologian on the subject is Catherine LaCugna, who describes the life of the Trinity as a sort of divine circle dance – the three persons of God engaged in life together, without beginning or end, joy beyond all telling; no hierarchy or confusion.

Maybe it would look something like this:
But this relationship doesn’t end with God.  It is always outstretched.  The Trinity isn’t just about who God is in God’s self, but who God is with us and who God wants us to be with each other.  God isn’t just in communion amongst God’s self – God is in our midst, longing for communion with us also.  We are invited to enter into the divine circle dance - the beat echoes in our ears and runs through our veins - the circle breaks open and draws us in.

Maybe that would look something like this. 

But it doesn’t stop there.  We are created in God’s image, and therefore created for relationship.  We aren’t just invited into the dance.  We are called to dance with others that are already part of the swirling motion and to invite others in as well.  Some of whom will be, undoubtedly, as unlike us as we can imagine.  Loving each other is how we participate in the life of God.  Just like God, we aren’t meant for isolation or self-centeredness; relationship with God and each other is at the core of who we are too.   It isn’t what we “know” or “believe” about the Trinity that matters, it’s how we enact it in our lives.

I wonder what that could look like?


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Are you ready to be blown away?

Pentecost
May 15, 2016

When I was in college I spent a long weekend with a group camping by a lake house that somebody’s parents owned.  One night we all lay on their deck on our backs and looked up at the stars.  I even saw my first shooting star that night.  

I think the new surroundings, and the darkness, and the infinity of the sky opened us up to speaking about things we might not have ordinarily broached in the midst of the library shelves or the dancing bodies at a frat house.  We wondered together about God and we wondered about how all that we’d learned from our religious backgrounds fit into what we’d discovered about the world since we’d left home.  And one guy admitted that he thought he felt tugs from God, thought God was going to be really important to him at some point, but he had decided not to do anything about it yet because he wasn’t ready to change his life or to start living differently.
At the time, that made no sense to me.  I’d been brought up to pray and go to church and love my neighbor.  But my religion didn’t really challenge me.  I was perfectly able to reconcile my ordinary life and my faith without much spiritual effort.  I’m not sure why, but when I read the Pentecost story for today, that evening’s starlit conversation came back to me.  I hadn’t appreciated at the time how honest that guy was being or how deep his insight was into God.
Today the disciples are all gathered together in one place.  Jesus told them to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit, the Advocate that God would send in Jesus’ name.  And so there they are.  I wonder what, if anything, they expected.  Maybe another visit from the resurrected Jesus?  That would be great - even if they didn’t recognize him at first.  Or maybe angels like their ancestors had entertained in the stories of old?  That would be neat too - to be part of that line of holy visitation.  I’m guessing that whatever they expected, it was someone or something that would comfort and encourage them.  Someone or something that would make things clear and help them to better understand what they should be doing.  Someone or something that would keep them safe.

That’s one way, and I think maybe the most common way, we have of understanding the Holy Spirit.  As the Comforter, symbolized as a dove of peace and joy, that glides around us and abides with us to bring us hope and comfort and stillness of mind.  This is the Holy Spirit that most of us know and love.  And that is certainly one way scripture talks about the Holy Spirit and one way many people experience Her.  But today’s story gives us a different glimpse of how the Holy Spirit works.
This Holy Spirit didn’t come gradually or give the disciples time to prepare themselves.  She came suddenly, without warning.
This Holy Spirit wasn’t calmly and quietly gliding around them.  She filled the entire house with a sound like the rush of a violent wind.  
This Holy Spirit didn’t appear as a peaceful symbol in the distance that could be mistaken for something more mundane.  She was tongues of fire, up close and personal, touching each one of them.
This Holy Spirit wasn’t something they could quietly keep to themselves, pondering in their hearts what it might mean for their own individual spirituality.  She made a scene, affecting everyone around them.
This Holy Spirit didn’t make things clear and easy.  She left people bewildered, amazed, astonished, perplexed.
This Holy Spirit wasn’t something gentle and inoffensive.  She caused people to sneer and accuse the disciples of drunkenness.
This Holy Spirit wasn’t something that could be cross-stitched on pillows.  She involved last days, visions and dreams and prophecy, portents and signs, blood and fire and darkness.
We try to tame the Holy Spirit, either to turn Her into our own inner stuff, or to institutionalize Her and confine Her to the Church.  
But this Holy Spirit was an unruly intrusion into the disciples’ lives.  That violent wind was the breath of God that hovered over the waters of creation, this time re-creating the disciples.  After experiencing this Holy Spirit, they would never again just go back to life as normal.  They would be forever changed - disrupted, disoriented, unsettled.  Nothing would ever be the same.

No wonder that guy at my campout wasn’t ready to go there.  He must have had a better vision than I did of how risky and unpredictable the life of faith could be.  Taking this stuff seriously can ruin us for life.  It will shape us, change us, make demands on us.  The breath of God will re-create us too.
Like Annie Dillard writes:  “On the whole, I do not find Christians …sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

That’s part of this Pentecost story too - being drawn out to where we can never return. Like those disciples, we gather here - to rest and reflect, to worship and be inspired, to listen and to wait.  But then we go back out — out those doors into the world — to do the disruptive, tumultuous, and life-giving work of our God who will not stop breathing that violent wind of the Holy Spirit until all people enjoy abundant life.  We go out, called to turn the world upside down.
Am I ready to be changed, to be set on fire?  Are you?  Probably not.  I’m not sure we can ever be ready.  But willing?  Maybe.  Maybe that we can be.

So Come, Holy Spirit. Come. Come and blow the doors off of this place.  Come and blow away the boxes we build around you and around ourselves.  Re-create us.  Make us open to your wild intrusion into our lives and ready to ride your breath into the world.  Amen.