Diversity Without Division, Unity Without Uniformity

Sermon for Sunday, June 11, 2017 || Trinity Sunday, Year A

If you look to the back of the church, you’ll notice we have a window missing right now. The good folks at Cathedral Stained Glass in New London are currently restoring our Trinity window, which has deteriorated over the years to the point where it could have shattered during a blustery storm. Today is not the most opportune Sunday of the church year to be lacking the Trinity window. Today is, after all, Trinity Sunday, and in years past I’ve enjoyed directing your attention to the window at the beginning of my sermons on this particular day. I can’t do that today. Instead, I can only direct your attention to the lack of the Trinity window.

But such a lack of the window stirs up some new thoughts; specifically the following question: Who would we be without the mystery and revelation of God as Trinity of Persons and Unity of Being? This question jumps to mind because, in recent years, many faithful Christians have wondered if we really need the encumbrance of the Trinitarian notion of God. Isn’t it just unnecessary baggage weighing down an already weighty topic, they argue. With fewer and fewer people finding God in the Christian church in the United States, wouldn’t it make sense to streamline our beliefs a little bit, make them easier to apprehend? Continue reading “Diversity Without Division, Unity Without Uniformity”

God and Not-God: A Short History

Sermon for Sunday, May 22, 2016 || Trinity Sunday C || John 16:12-15

GodandNotGodThere’s a group of folks at St. Mark’s that meets every Thursday morning for Bible study. The class is called “Genesis to Revelation,” and as its name implies, we set ourselves the goal of reading the entire Bible. We started last autumn and should finish sometime around next winter. It’s a daunting task to read the whole thing, but very worthwhile too. A few weeks ago, we were working our way through a particularly thorny section, and one member of the group said something to me that made the whole group double over in laughter. She said, “Well, I thought I understood this until you started explaining it.”

So with that humorous word of caution in my mind, I turned my attention to Trinity Sunday, traditionally one of the thornier preaching days of the year. Continue reading “God and Not-God: A Short History”

To an Unknown God

(Sermon for Sunday, May 29, 2011 || Easter 6A || Acts 17:22-31)

I wonder what Paul was thinking as he walked the streets of Athens. I’m sure that the many-columned Parthenon was looking down on him from atop the Acropolis, as this temple of Athena had for nearly five hundred years. But no matter the goddess Athena’s appeal, down every street, Paul sees another crumbling monument to one deity or another. He studies them carefully. I imagine he finds statues of all the Greek gods and perhaps other ones from far off places, considering Athens’ booming tourism trade.

At one point on his walk, however, Paul comes across something he doesn’t expect. He stumbles upon an altar with an odd inscription: “To an unknown god.” Now, Paul is no stranger to being run out of town, but he is also never one to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So, after seeing the inscription, Paul stands up at a gathering of the local scholarly elite and proclaims to them just who this unknown God is.

God, he says, is not like the gods of these gold, silver, and stone monuments. God is Lord of heaven and earth. God isn’t bound to set roles like your local gods. God breathes life into all things. God doesn’t live in a special house somewhere. God is not far from each one of us everywhere. And yet, while Paul’s sermon is full of stirring and magnificent images of God, I can’t help but wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, I’m going to warn you that we are about to wade into particularly deep and boggy theological waters. I confused myself thoroughly trying to write all of this down, so if your brain starts to hurt, you’re not alone. However, I have confidence that with some help from our friend C.S. Lewis and a stiff breeze from the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel, we will all come out on the other side of the bog with our minds intact. Are you with me? Good.

The Mythbusters try to pull apart two interlocked phonebooks

So two extremes play tug-of-war with this concept of our “knowledge of God.” In the case of the first extreme, I claim to have captured God, strapped the Divine to the operating table, and figured out what makes God tick. When I’m done with the exploratory surgery, I stuff and mount God on the wall just like a prize twelve-point buck. With my experimentation complete, I know just what button to push to make God act in my favor, and oddly enough, God disagrees with all the same people I do. This is the extreme where I have God pegged. Now, you might have spotted the flaw in this point of view. (Remember – we’re talking about extremes, so flaws are more common out here.) The flaw here is, of course, the delusion that God is small or mundane enough for me to figure out what makes God tick.

The other extreme is, naturally, the complete opposite of the first. In the case of the second extreme, I claim to have absolutely no ability to comprehend a God who exists for eternity in infinity. When I try to get a handle on God, I am at a complete loss for words and I must conclude that God is so unsearchably unknowable that I might as well give up. I’m an amoeba trying to read Shakespeare. But I make peace with my teeny-tinyness, and I go about my day trying not to have delusions of grandeur, in which I might rise to a level of intelligence that allows me to comprehend even a shred of what God is about. Of course, there’s a flaw here, too. The flaw in this extreme is the faulty thinking that God is too big and majestic to bother with an amoeba like me, no matter the evidence that God has been surprising humanity for millennia by encounters with the Divine, including one in which God sent his only Son to be an amoeba like me.

Now, each of us exists somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes. When I really need something to happen – to get a job or pass a test or receive successful treatment – I might trend toward the first extreme, in which God comes at my beck and call. When something really terrible happens in the world – a huge earthquake or massive flooding or a category five tornado – I might trend toward the second extreme, in which God may exist in the ether of eternity but surely can’t be bothered with things here on lil’ ol’ Earth.

Do you see what’s happening here? My experience of God changes depending on my needs in the moment. I slide along the spectrum between the two extremes. The unique mixture of my appetites, yearnings, successes, failures, doubt, and faith paints a picture of the God to whom I address my prayers. And whatever else that painting may be, there is one thing that the picture surely is not. And that is an accurate portrait of God. This is why I wonder if the phrase “unknown God” still applies more than any other.

Now, as I tried to wade out of my confusion while writing this sermon, two questions struck me after that whole bit about the extremes. They might be on your mind right now, as well. First, if the God I’m worshiping isn’t really God, but rather my conception of God, then what’s the good of praying? And second, if I’m not really worshiping God, doesn’t that make me an idolater? This is when we need to call in one of the heavyweights.

C.S. Lewis wrote an incredible poem called “A footnote to all prayers.” He begins:

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable name, murmuring thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing thou art.

These Pheidian fancies are works of the Greek sculptor Phidas, the very statues of gods and goddesses that Paul saw in Athens. Lewis knows that, even when he tries to call upon God, the best he can do is some symbol that could never do God justice. He continues:

Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts…

Lewis poetically describes the same predicament we were in a minute ago: in prayer, we address the gods of our own “unquiet” thoughts and thus we blaspheme. But the poem is only half over, for Lewis continues: [we blaspheme]

…unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully…

Even someone of C.S. Lewis’ verbal skill aims his prayer-arrows unskillfully, always at some conception of an “unknown” god than at the one, true God. But, in the end, our story isn’t really about you and me. Our story is always and forever about God working in, around, and through us, no matter how unknown God may be to us. And God’s story is all about God’s “magnetic mercy,” by which God pulls our prayers to God, even though we shoot them far wide of the target. Lewis concludes:

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

As we slide along the spectrum between the two faulty extremes of our conception of God, we can only speak in “limping metaphor.” But the true God, according to Lewis, speaks in “great, unbroken speech.” This is the speech that voiced light in the beginning and continues to sustain creation. This is the speech that speaks each one of us into being everyday, no matter the degree to which the speaker is unknown to us.

To tell you the truth, this unknown quality of God will be with us until God takes us fully into God’s glorious presence. Indeed, the unknown quality will keep us searching and reaching out and finding God in even the unlikeliest of places. And I believe that God redeems our lack of knowledge through God’s magnetic mercy. God translates our limping metaphor into the leaping speech of abundant life (even the words I’m speaking right now). Here’s the good news. In the end, our knowledge of God places a far distant second to God’s knowledge of us. As Paul says to the church in Corinth: someday “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Be-ing

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a Confirmation class recently, and the lessons keeping popping up here on the blog. Here’s 1000 words on theology, using three phrases from the Nicene Creed as a framework.

nicaea…of all that is, seen and unseen

What I’m about to write ignores the fact that the Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek and then translated into Latin and then translated into English. Don’t panic – the following is about the current English grammatical structure of the phrase, which is influenced by, but not chained to, the original language.

Do you see that little comma between the words “is” and “seen”? Yes? Good. Now, think back to all the times you’ve ever heard the Creed recited during church and ask yourself if anyone has ever acknowledged that comma. No? Didn’t think so. The sentence usually sounds like this: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that-is-seen-and-unseen.” But the sentence actually reads: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, [slight pause] seen and unseen.” I imagine you are now rolling your eyes at my disconcerting attention to inane details.

This detail may seem inane at first, but I assure you, it’s not. For now, let’s ignore the phrase “seen and unseen” because it gets entirely too much attention when Creed-speakers unwittingly barrel through the defenseless little comma. With what are we left? “Maker…of all that is.”

Maker…of all that is. This “is” is the most important linking verb in the history of linking verbs, and probably other verbs, as well. We believe that God made all that is. Put another way, we believe that God is the very ground of our “is-ness” – or, to use a not made-up word, our “being.” [Disclaimer: The rest of this section assumes the reader knows the unwieldy conjugation of the verb “to be.”] In Exodus 3, Moses asks God what God’s name is. God responds: “I AM WHO I AM.” This awkward English rendering of the Hebrew preserves the root of God’s divine name, which is the verb “to be” (hayah in Hebrew). When Moses asks God what God’s name is, God responds with something like, “I have being and I bestow being and that’s all you need to know.” Look at the word “being.” Now add a hyphen: be-ing. The noun “being” is disguised as a present participle verb, a verb of continuing action. This points to the eternal continuity and abiding presence of God, who is the very ground of be-ing.

All grammatical gymnastics aside, the point is this: God created all that is, and creation’s existence depends on God’s continuing presence. As small bits of that creation, we receive our be-ing, our identity, our life from the foundation of that be-ing, the Holy One we call God.

Through him all things were made

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… Through him all things were made.” Okay, since I failed to return to the original Greek in the last section, I feel I must make up for it. John begins his Gospel account with this poetry: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

You’ll notice that word be-ing from the last section crops up several times in just these few sentences. We said that God is the foundation for be-ing, and now we discover that the “Word” is responsible for translating that be-ing into life. Here’s the Greek bit.

The “Word” is the translation of the Greek word logos, from which dozens of English words take their root. Every time you see –ology at the end of a word (zoology, biology, epidemiology), that ending comes from the Greek logos. “Logic” also springs from this root. When something is “logical” it is ordered, it makes good sense. This is a good entrance into one understanding of logos. John says that the Word was in the beginning with God and through the Word all things were made. This “Word” is the “logic” behind creation, the “organizing principle” through which creation has come into being. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being (“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”). God uses words to organize creation, and John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ.

So, the “Word” is creation’s logic or organizing principle. Creation, therefore, is not haphazard or accidental. You might be tempted to ask a question about “Creationism vs. Evolution.” But the unhappy dichotomy between these two positions breaks down when we see creation as both organized and continuous. My college chaplain was fond of saying: “If God stopped speaking, the world would stop turning.” The implication is this: the “Word,” the logic of creation continues to underpin and give life to all that is.

…he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man

As I said above, John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ. “Incarnate” means “become flesh” (the –carn in the word is the same root as in the word carnivore, “meat-eater”). John’s use of “Word” connects to a strain of thought coming out of the Hebrew Scriptures. The “word of God” appears whenever a prophet is granted a new prophecy (The word of God came to so-and-so…). The Hebrew word for “word” (davar) means much more than the stuffy English equivalent. We think of “word” as something on a piece of paper or something spoken aloud. In Hebrew, however, the “word” is something that happens to people. It is an event, an action that calls for further action. When John uses the Greek form of “word” (logos), he purposefully links it back to this Hebrew understanding. The “Word” becoming flesh and dwelling among us is the ultimate example of the “Word” happening.

Here’s the thing to remember: the “Word,” through which God speaks creation into be-ing, is life-giving. Without the “Word,” life would not exist. When the “Word” became flesh in Jesus Christ, God gave us the gift of seeing how life is meant to be organized, meant to be lived. This means that the words Jesus speaks provide for us the means by which to organize our lives in order to be in deeper touch with God. The “Word” became flesh and lived among us. And now the “Word” continues to speak life into the world, disclosing the glory that is full of grace and truth.

The trapdoor in my gut

(Sermon for February 8, 2009 || Epiphany 5, Year B, RCL || Isaiah 40:21-31)

When I am engaged in a mundane activity—say, brushing my teeth or counting the bleary-eyed seconds until I hit snooze again or watching the digital numbers flick by on the counters at the gas station—the activity itself occupies only a tiny portion of my brain’s processing power. So the rest of my mind often wanders into other sections of my body. Sometimes, my mind meanders past my throat and lungs and finds its way down through that trapdoor in my gut. And I begin to ask those questions that make my gut twinge and pulse, like the feeling you get after narrowly avoiding a car accident.

I’ll be wrapping the floss around my fingers or anticipating the snap of the nozzle that signals a full tank of fuel, and I’ll look up at the sky and say, “Why do you care about me, Lord?” Then the cars will collide in my gut because, in that moment, everything I’ve ever believed is branded with a big red stamp of the word “FOOLISHNESS.”

Why do you care about me, Lord? This gut-twinging question doesn’t necessarily speculate on God’s existence. The question isn’t: “Do you exist, Lord?” There’s no reason to ask God if God exists. That would be like asking all the absent people in a classroom to raise their hands. Instead, the question acknowledges that God does, indeed, exist, but wonders why the heck God would ever care about an insignificant, messy, little thing like me. Of course, there’s no reason why God should care. This is truly first-rate foolishness.

The prophet Isaiah doesn’t help matters. He says, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing… To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.”

There’s a tension in our scriptures — a twofold presentation — about how God relates to us that feeds the pulsing in my gut. The dual stories of creation in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis illustrate this tension. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” says the first verse of Genesis. The narrative goes on to tell how God spoke creation into being. Creation was ordered: light separated from darkness, day from night, land from sea from sky. God orchestrated the emergence of life and proclaimed the creation “good” and, indeed, “very good.” This ordering, this filling the void with matter and energy and life and light, speaks of the Cosmic Creator, whose voice and arm stretch into the vast expanse of eternity. This is the understanding of God that Bette Midler promotes when she sings: “God is watching us from a distance.” This is the understanding of God that the Enlightenment era Deists caricatured as a great Watchmaker, who set the gears running and then left well enough alone.

The second chapter of Genesis presents another view of this same creative God. God is not standing at the podium, waving a baton as the performing forces of creation harmonize the music of life. In the second story, God, rather the being the conductor, is the instrumentalist: God plays each violin and French horn and clarinet. “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” says Genesis, God bent down in the dust and formed a human being. Then, into his nostrils, God breathed the “breath of life.” When the human became lonely, God put him to sleep, and out of the man’s own flesh God created another human being. As the story continues, the man and woman heard God “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” This movement and participation in the creation, this intimacy, speak of the God who eventually becomes incarnate as the word made flesh, Jesus Christ. This is the understanding of God that Joan Osbourne wonders about when she sings: “What if God was one of us…just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?” This is the understanding of God that the old hymn describes: “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”

The tension between our understanding of God as “Cosmic Creator” and as “Intimate Companion” brings us back to the gut-twinging question: “Why do you care about me, Lord?” In those moments of existential angst, the Cosmic Creator easily trumps the Intimate Companion because the former seems so much bigger, holier, more powerful. When my gut compares the two, the latter seems somehow lessened by my own shabbiness.

And this misguided transfer of shabbiness is difficult to suspend. Human nature dictates that we narcissistically use ourselves as the measuring sticks by which other things are evaluated. Our ability to reason, manufacture tools, and put our thoughts into speech elevates us above other animals. We then use these factors to order other species by “intelligence.” Chimpanzees eat using rudimentary utensils. Dolphins communicate with their cackling code. Therefore, based on the anthropomorphic scale, these creatures are closer to our presumed preeminence.

But the scale works the other way, as well. Our penchants for betrayal, mistrust, indifference and our well-rehearsed disregard for the welfare of others knock a bleaker set of notches into the measuring stick. When the gut-twinging question surfaces – “Why do you care about me, Lord? – these regrettable attributes emigrate from our world and narcissistically modify our understanding of God.

Having thus remade God in my own lamentable image, the collision in my gut worsens. The Cosmic Creator looks down and sees a bunch of tiny grasshoppers, so why should that God be bothered? The Intimate Companion is probably just as apathetic and self-centered as I am, so why should that God care?

Do you see the twisted, oxymoronic reasoning that leads to these conclusions? The gut-twinging question appears when I notice my own laughable insignificance. At the same time, I use myself as the measuring stick for which to assess God’s motivation to care about me. This logic definitely deserves the red FOOLISHNESS stamp.

You see, when the prophet Isaiah expounds on God’s greatness and ineffability, he is not extolling God’s distance and isolation. Instead, he is warning people not to engage in the foolish business of looking for God in the mirror. The Holy One says, “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal?” The answer is quite obviously a resounding “NO ONE!” When you escape the twisted logic that seeks to anthropomorphize God, you are one step closer to resolving the gut-twinging question – “Why do you care about me, Lord?”

God as Cosmic Creator, who “stretches out the heavens like a curtain,” did not need a reason to speak creation into being. I might need a reason to build a bookcase or compose a letter, but God doesn’t need to share my motivations. If God did not need a reason to create, why would that same creator need a reason to care about us insignificant grasshoppers? God’s very greatness subsumes the “Why” question into God’s eternal being and renders it irrelevant. With the “Why” expunged, the gut-twinging question becomes a glorious statement of faith: “You care about me, Lord.”

You care about me, Lord. When I finally realize this, I notice that God as Intimate Companion has been whispering these words in my ear the whole time. Then I realize that God’s care for me (another word for which is grace) enables and enthuses me to care for others. The penchant for betrayal and disregard for others’ welfare, once unfairly plastered onto God’s being, now fall away as God continues to make me in God’s own image.

Our world is vast and full of questions. We are insignificant. We are messy. We are little things. But God’s vastness stretches into eternity. In staggering showers of grace-filled generosity, God both answers and removes the need to question. In those same showers falls the gift of sanctifying love, which removes our insignificance and scrubs us cleans. As we discern the Cosmic Creator and Intimate Companion in the same loving face of God, more words from the prophet Isaiah resound: “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”