Invited to Participate

Sermon on Matthew 22:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon can be found here.

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This was the only moment during the trip that Muir wasn’t pouting.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt invited John Muir, the famous naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, to accompany him on a trip to what would ultimately become Yosemite National Park.  Though this trip was the catalyst for the creation of more than a dozen national parks during Roosevelt’s presidency, Muir was not terribly excited about the prospect of guiding the President through the California wilderness.  He initially wanted to decline the invitation, but a friend told him that one must always accept an invitation from the president.  While this offended Muir’s populist sensibilities, he eventually relented, allegedly quipping, “I suppose I shouldn’t refuse just because he happens to be president.”

As John Muir learned, there are apparently specific rules around when it is permissible to refuse a presidential invitation.  According to a guide published in 1880, one should only refuse such an invitation when one has reasons that are sufficiently “grave.”  In 1988, Miss Manners herself cautioned, “Only illness, a death in  the family, or hardship in making the trip are legitimate excuses for declining such an august invitation.”  The expectation is pretty clear: if the president invites you to go somewhere, you go.

The reason for these stringent rules about presidential invitations is that it is so very easy for refusals to be construed as political. A handful of people from history have famously declined opportunities to spend time with the president.  Nearly all of these individuals intended their refusal to broadcast their personal dissatisfaction with the president or their disapproval of his policies.  In other words, refusing a presidential invitation is less about one’s availability and much more about what one thinks is important.

Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel intimates that there are consequences for declining more than just presidential invitations.  Matthew uses the phrase that ends today’s reading (“weeping and gnashing of teeth”) several times during the course of the gospel narrative.  In most of these cases, the punishment appears to fit the crime: those sent to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness are wicked, unfaithful, hypocritical, or disobedient.  It is only in this parable that someone is sent into the outer darkness for wearing the wrong outfit to a party.  This is a terrifying proposition.  Is there anyone here who hasn’t misinterpreted “business casual” and ended up wearing a polo shirt while everyone else was in a suit?  The way this parable is constructed, it seems as though this kind of faux pas could have eternal implications.  It doesn’t seem fair at all.  This guy didn’t even know he was coming to the wedding feast until he was dragged from the side of the road and brought into the hall.  How on earth was he supposed to be appropriately attired for this event?  But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, given this king’s track record of overreaction.  In the first part of this parable, he literally orders the execution of those who decline his invitation to the wedding banquet.  Sure, they made light of the invitation; sure, they mistreated his slaves; but did the king really have to destroy the whole city?  It seems as though the message of this parable is that we had better be on our toes, because God is capricious and willing to consign us to hell for offenses that most would regard as merely impolite.

Part of the challenge of this parable is that it is easy to become distracted by the king’s overreaction (as I did a moment ago); the punishments are so unreasonable.  If we remember, however, that this story is a parable, we can recognize that the punishments are not the point of this story; they’re simply intended to make it more vivid.  When we recognize this, we can pay attention to the other details in the parable, particularly to those who refused to attend the wedding banquet.  I think our assumption is that these people were simply unavailable, that they had too much going on and would have loved to attend the wedding but could not fit it into their schedules.  But the text tells us that the king sends his slaves to call those who had already been invited.  They had already agreed to attend; they had already committed themselves to participating in this celebration.  Nevertheless, Matthew tells us that they kept refusing to come. Even in the face of this obstinacy, the king sends another set of slaves who are instructed to say “Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”  In other words, “this is what you have been waiting for; why on earth would you reject this offer?”  Once again, the guests refuse the invitation.  Like those who refuse presidential invitations, these guests made a profound statement about what was important to them by saying “no” to the king.  These guests affirmed that their own petty concerns were more important than God’s call.  Their self-centeredness led them to stay on the periphery instead of experiencing the fullness of God’s redemptive love.  Their refusal to participate led them to turn away from God and consign themselves to self-destruction.

The same dynamic is at play with our robeless friend.  There is some scholarly division about the reference to the wedding robe in this parable.  Some scholars suggest that in first-century Middle Eastern culture the host was expected to provide a wedding robe to his guests, while others contest that there was no such thing as a wedding-specific robe in the first place.  In either case, it’s pretty clear that the man is not to blame for his robelessness.  What he is to blame for is his failure to participate.  Notice that when the king asks him “how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” the man is speechless; he refuses even to answer the question, in spite of the fact that “what are you talking about” would apparently have been a legitimate response.  Ultimately, this man is consigned to the outer darkness not for his failure to wear a wedding robe, but for his refusal to participate in the banquet to which God has invited the whole human family.

A few years ago, the Pew Research Council released a survey about religion in American life, the results of which were alarming to those who are part of religious institutions.  In short, religious engagement and participation in this country have taken a nosedive during the past several decades.  Perhaps the most striking statistic to emerge from this survey is the rise of the so-called “nones,” those who profess no religious preference whatsoever.  These are not people who necessarily deny the existence of God; these are people who, when asked if they had any religious conviction, could muster no more than a noncommittal “Meh.”  It seems to me that a significant reason for the rise of these “nones” may be our failure to engage with the gospel proclamation.  As a community, we have been called to live our lives in light of the fact that God has redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And yet, we have behaved like the people invited by the king: happy to have an invitation, but not particularly interested rearranging our schedules.  Or we have acted like the robeless wallflower at the banquet: willing to attend the wedding, but uncertain about participating.  We have been invited to a wedding banquet, yet too often we live our lives as though we have something better to do.  If the gospel doesn’t matter to us, how can we expect it to matter to anyone else?  This parable reminds us that God calls us not to be spectators, but participants.  We are called to engage with the gospel and allow it to transform our lives.  We are called to participate in the life of the Church and help it to reveal God’s glory.  We are called to embrace what is truly important: to accept and share the invitation God has extended to each and every one of us.

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Sainthood

Today is the day the Church commemorates the feast of St. Michael and All Angels.

imagesOn one level, it makes perfect sense to take time during the liturgical year to celebrate St. Michael.  Like many saints, Michael demonstrates considerable devotion to God’s will during the course of his prominent, albeit fleeting, appearance in Holy Scripture.  On another level, however, the inclusion of Michael in the calendar of the saints is downright bizarre.  After all, St. Michael is an angel, a heavenly being appointed by God to carry a message or accomplish a specific task.  “Saint” is a designation that seems as though it should be reserved for human beings who are particularly attuned to God’s will for creation.  Sainthood implies a certain moral fortitude and a capacity for doing good and obeying God’s will even in the face of overwhelming difficulty.  Angels don’t have a choice about doing God’s will; they are created to do so.  Moreover, saints are generally held up as moral exemplars, people who share our struggles but show us that it is possible to persevere even we experience the limits of our human finitude.  It is all but impossible for us to pattern our lives after angelic beings specifically created to be messengers of God.

This confusion about Michael’s presence on the calendar of our saints raises a broader question about our understanding of sainthood.  While I gave a definition of “saint” in the previous paragraph, the reality is that the Church has never been settled on what a saint really is.  The word comes from the Greek hagios, which literally means “holy,” i.e. set apart for God’s purposes.  In the early days of Christianity, therefore, the term was applied to everyone who had been baptized into the body of Christ, since the Church was set apart from the world.  The Church was, quite literally, the community of the saints.  As the Church grew, however, “saint” was applied more specifically to individuals whom the community considered particularly holy and worthy of emulation, like those who had been martyred.  Gradually, the Church began to regard these individuals as fundamentally different from everyone else.  If you think about it, this notion that a saint is a different kind of person persists today.  Most frequently, “saint” is applied to someone who is preternaturally well-behaved or long-suffering: “her husband is so hard to deal with; she’s a saint!”  Given this popular assumption that saints are different from you and me, the inclusion of Michael makes perfect sense; what could be more different from a mere mortal than an ageless and deathless divine messenger?

I wonder, however, whether we are missing the point when it comes to sainthood.  All of the definitions that we’ve explored assume that saints are special because of something that they have done, whether that is dying for their faith or tolerating a boorish husband.  But what if sainthood is less concerned with what we do and more concerned with what God does?  What if the holiness of saints has less to do with their good behavior and more to do with their ability to be in touch with the boundless grace of God?  If you think about it, there is no way you could apply the conventional definition of “saint” to some of the Church’s most celebrated holy people.  St. Paul, for instance, was a judgmental, misanthropic persecutor of the Church and St. Peter denied that he ever knew Jesus.  What these two pillars of the Church had in common was that they each had an experience in which they came to know the radical and transformative power of God’s grace.  The saints are saints not because they are fundamentally different from normal human beings, but because they reflect and radiate the grace of God that is available to each and every one of us.  Ultimately, Michael the Archangel is a saint because his example helps us to remember that God’s grace is more boundless than we can possibly imagine.

Breaking the Rules

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon can be found here.

rachel_mcadams_mean_girls_20080813_02In 2004, Paramount Pictures released Mean Girls, a comedy about the perils of attending high school during the first decade of the new millennium.  Starring Lindsay Lohan before she became a tabloid headline, Mean Girls is, in many ways, a typically trite teen comedy; the protagonist succumbs to the temptations of cliques and cattiness only to realize that the coolest thing she can be is herself.  What sets Mean Girls apart from other films in its genre is the writing.  The movie is endlessly quotable, and nowhere is this truer than the scene in which Lohan’s character eats lunch with the popular clique known as “the Plastics” for the very first time.  One of the other girls, Gretchen, explains the rules that members of this clique must follow: Plastics wear pink on Wednesdays, Plastics can’t wear tank tops two days in a row, Plastics can only wear ponytails once a week, Plastics can only wear jeans or track pants on Friday.  After reciting this litany of requirements, Gretchen warns about the consequences of violation: “If you break any of these rules, you can’t sit with us at lunch.”  This scene is meant to show the audience the superficiality of the Plastics; the ludicrousness of excluding someone from a group for wearing sweatpants is supposed to make us laugh.  And yet, if we’re honest, every group establishes rules that members must follow in order to remain part of the community.  Establishing such rules is a way of ensuring that the community can function properly, a way of reducing conflict, a way of understanding who we are.

We see an example of a set of such rules in our gospel reading for today.  These rules deal with the management of interpersonal conflict among the group of first-century Christians to whom Matthew wrote his gospel.  Now, Matthew’s was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted.  With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable.  As we all know, it is difficult for a community to function when members are clashing with one another.  There are a variety of different strategies that leaders use to deal with this kind of conflict.  As the leader of a church community, Matthew, like the Plastics, seems to assume that those who persistently and unrepentantly disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community, though he is concerned with offenses more significant than not wearing pink on Wednesday.  The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, our Lord spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it.  If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him.  If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Jesus, in other words, seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful.  Far from the pettiness of a high school clique, this whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community.  Not only that, excommunication requires a rigorous due process: the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right before they are shunned by the church.  In Matthew’s community, people are not excommunicated for light and transient causes.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

There’s a level at which I think we can really understand this.  We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community.  There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, who piggybacks on other people’s successes and shifts blame when he is at fault.  There’s the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships and somehow manages to make every gathering a symposium on her personal problems.  There’s the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him.  Often, these people will continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg.  It seems that Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues.  In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can live and work in harmony.

But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Now, this seems like a fairly definitive condemnation.  After all, for a Jewish audience, Gentiles and tax collectors are among the most hated people in first-century Palestine.  Labeling someone as a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel.  But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles.  Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Chapel-window Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enjoins the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.”  Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.  For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there is always an opportunity for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors to be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s body.

Who are the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives?  Who have we excluded because of their repeated failure to meet our expectations?  Is it the lazy coworker, the selfish friend, or the shameful family member?  Or is it someone else?  Have we excluded ourselves because we believe that what we have done cannot be forgiven?  The gospel calls us to look within ourselves, to discern who we are excluding from our lives, and to reach out to those people and open ourselves to the possibility of reconciliation.  We may not get anywhere, we may be rejected for our efforts, but we worship a God who reached out to us while we were still sinners, while we were rejecting God.  We are called to be persistent, to remember that Christ does not willingly exclude anyone from the fellowship of his body, to live our lives deeply aware of how inclusive God’s love really is.

Remembering we have been Redeemed

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on July 6, 2014.

At Quarterman Ranch in Amarillo, our former diocesan camp and conference center, there is a sidewalk covered in names that leads to nowhere.  During Quarterman’s final years, each camp session ended with the addition of another slab to the woebegone sidewalk.  Campers, counselors, staff, and clergy would sign their names in the wet concrete, leaving a permanent reminder that they had been present in that place.  imgresSome campers acted as though they were outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; they would leave their handprints and sign their names with the flourish of budding movie stars.  Others would immortalize the romance that they had kindled that week by writing that so and so and what’s his name would be together forever.  Still others would correct the professions of eternal love and devotion that they had made in previous years and indicate that what’s his name was, in fact, a jerk.  I always loved this moment in the week.  In spite of the self-indulgence of some of the contributions to the sidewalk, the act of gathering together and writing our names was an opportunity to recognize that we had been in that place together.  As we mixed concrete in the hot panhandle sun, we were reminded for a moment that we were more than individuals floating through life alone, that for the past week or so, we had been a community.  Each of those slabs of concrete was a sacramental reminder that we were called to be in each other’s lives, that we were called to love one another.

Today, we heard one of the stranger passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Out of context, this passage looks more like an entry from the diary of a teenager with low self-esteem rather than an excerpt from the letter of a self-possessed apostle who writes letters of advice to people he’s never met.  Normally, Paul’s letters are dripping with self-confidence, so much so that one New Testament scholar says that Paul’s most obvious attribute is his “robust conscience.”  This is, after all, the same guy who, in the letter to the Philippians, tells his audience that he was “blameless” in regards to righteousness under the law.  In other words, this vacillating, uncertain passage from Romans is out of character for its author.  It is unusual to see  Paul saying things like “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” or “I know that nothing good dwells within me” or “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  What is the reason for this change?  Why is it that Paul focuses so thoroughly on his struggles with being a sinful person?  On one hand, it could be that Paul is saying that all of us, including him, can fall victim to the power of sin, that we must remain vigilant at all times and not allow sin to exercise dominion in our bodies.  On the other hand, there could be something very different happening in this passage.  Before we delve directly into that possibility, it would probably be helpful for us to remind ourselves what Paul has been doing so far in this letter to the Romans.

Romans begins with Paul addressing a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles he has never met.  Immediately after he dispenses with the traditional pleasantries at the beginning of the letter, Paul apparently lays into the Gentiles, saying that the wrath of God is being revealed against those who disobey the Law of Moses.  Rhetorically, this is meant to encourage the Law-abiding, Jewish members of the congregation to think, “You tell ’em Paul!  Tell those Gentiles just how sinful they are.”  But, just when it seems like Paul is going to say the Gentiles in the Roman church are destined for perdition, Paul turns it around, saying at the beginning of chapter two: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are…because you… are doing the very same things.”  Paul explains what he means by this when he comes to the crux of his argument, asserting that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul is saying to this congregation: no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, all of you have fallen short of God’s commandments.

The good news, however, is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, Jesus Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been justified, or made righteous, apart from the law, in spite of the fact that we have failed to honor God and God’s commandments.  Through the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ, we have been empowered to live a new life of righteousness and peace.

This is Paul’s main purpose in the first chapters of Romans: to tell the congregation that regardless of who they are, they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But Paul has another purpose in these first chapters.  He wants to explain that while the law is valuable, it is no longer necessary to follow the strictures of the law.  One of Paul’s biggest rhetorical challenges in all of his letters is to make this case, the argument that the law, which he believes was ordained by God, is good, but no longer necessary.  In the first part of chapter seven, he does this by saying that sin used the law to bring death into the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God destroyed the power of sin.  In other words, the law no longer applies, not because God nullified the law, but because God defeated the power of sin.

All of this brings us to the passage we read today.  While it might appear that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to illustrate how difficult it is to be good, there is something much more important happening, something that is informed by where we’ve already been in Romans.  Paul has been saying that the power of sin has been destroyed and that the law has been rendered unnecessary, only to launch into this prolonged, self-loathing, legalistic complaint about how hard it is not to be sinful.  If this is all this passage is about, it doesn’t to jibe with where we’ve come in Romans (or where we’re going, for that matter).  But if we look at the very end of this passage, we see that Paul has a very different purpose.  After complaining tediously and self-indulgently about his struggles with sinful behavior, Paul melodramatically writes, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Without missing a beat, he immediately answers the question by reminding himself of the redeeming work of God that he has been discussing for the last six chapters: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  You’ll notice that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in this passage is pretty similar to what he does at the beginning of the letter: he draws us in to the point that we also begin to wallow in self-loathing until he snaps us out of it, smacking us over the head with the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation.  This passage is not a meditation by Paul about his sinful behavior; it is a pointed and powerful reminder that we should not be distracted by our apparent failures, that we should not wallow in our supposed sinfulness.  Instead, Paul insists that should live our lives in assurance of the fact that we have been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why does this matter?  Why would Paul be concerned if people wallow in a sense of their sinfulness?  Isn’t there a certain nobility in trying to do everything right?  There are two problems with being preoccupied with our sinful behavior.  On one level, if we believe that the power of sin has indeed been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then focusing so intensely on our sinfulness devalues what God has done through Jesus Christ.  On another, even more significant level, focusing on our sinfulness means that we become completely and destructively self-centered.  Paul is trying to build relationships between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.  But if they are totally inwardly focused and completely self-centered about their behavior, there is no way that they are going to be able to recognize themselves in the other members of the community.  Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “I” in the passage we read this morning?  If we truly wish to be part of the Church, it is impossible to be that “I”-oriented.  If we value being part of a community, it is impossible for us to be entirely consumed with our own behavior.  If we truly trust that we have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, then we must look outside ourselves and reach out to those around us.

If you walk toward Heavenly Rest on the south side of Sixth Street, you will notice that someone has etched words into one of the paving stones on the sidewalk.  Unlike the concrete slabs that comprise the Quarterman sidewalk, however, this block doesn’t include petty recriminations, professions of eternal love, or Hollywood dreams.  Instead, written in block letters are two simple words: “Look Up.”  347914039_5954ef24c5_mWhen you do, you are greeted by the soaring majesty and beauty of the Heavenly Rest bell tower.  I have no idea who carved those words into the concrete, but it might as well have been Saint Paul.  Because those words are a pointed sacramental reminder to all of us.  Those words remind us to look up from our preoccupation with everything wrong in our lives and pay attention to the reality of beauty and possibility.  Those words remind us to look up from our assumption that must go through this life alone and recognize that we are part of a community that has been shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those words remind us to look up from our self-centered, self-indulgent perspective and remember that we worship a God who looked up at the world and redeemed creation through Jesus Christ.

Who We are Meant to Be

Sermon on Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

As many of you know, my wife and I are cat people.  We have two adorable kitties that give us an incredible amount of joy, even though they can frustrate us at times.  Neither of us grew up with animals in the house; our foray into pet guardianship began when my wife somewhat arbitrarily decided to adopt a cat from the animal shelter in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  Gradually, we became so enamored of Winnie (who is named for Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire) that we decided she needed a feline companion.  This led us to adopt Abby (named for her hometown of Abilene) from a parishioner’s backyard.  We are, to put it mildly, smitten.

imagesNow, when some people find out that we are cat people, they are inclined to explain that cats aren’t nearly as cute and cuddly and innocent as we think they are, that they are, in fact, “evil.”  Now, I’m not particularly disposed to use the word “evil” for human beings, let alone animals that presumably have a limited understanding of morality.  Nevertheless these feline detractors will enumerate the reasons that, in their mind, cats are selfish, duplicitous, and unworthy of our affection.  For instance, they will explain that when cats nuzzle you, they aren’t showing affection, but are actually claiming you as their property.  Being a devoted cat guardian, I am familiar with this behavior and I’m fine with it.  Cats are territorial; they mark the things they want in their lives, whether they are scratching posts, food bowls, doorframes, or their human guardians.  But what really bugs me is what the anti-cat party thinks is the most damning evidence against cats.  They explain that unlike dogs, cats do not do anything useful.  Now, I love dogs, but dogs are bred to do useful things like retrieve and point and follow scents.  Cats weren’t bred to do any of these things.  As a civilization, we decided to keep cats around because they hunted and killed disease-carrying pests.  We developed a symbiotic relationship with these animals, benefiting from their natural instincts.  The anti-cat folks, in other words, tend not to like cats because they are not enough like dogs, and I don’t think that’s fair.  They need to be reminded that cats are not dogs, and that that’s okay.  We can’t fault these creatures for doing what they have evolved to do; we should celebrate cats and dogs and other animals for being what they are meant to be.

imgresToday is Trinity Sunday.  In the words of our Collect, it is the day we are called “to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of God’s divine Majesty to worship the Unity.”  Put another way, it is the day we are reminded that as Christians, we have a truly unique understanding of monotheism.  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that though God is one and there is but one God, God is made known to us as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Now, if this sounds wacky to you, you are not alone.  Adherents of other monotheistic traditions like Judaism or Islam smile to themselves whenever they hear us talk about the Trinity and claim to be monotheists.  Skeptics roll their eyes when Christians talk about the Trinity, thinking that we simply cannot count.  Even some traditions that claim Jesus Christ have eschewed the doctrine of the Trinity: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was adopted as God’s son and is not part of the Godhead, while Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct godlike figures.  Since its inception, in other words, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the more challenging elements of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons the Trinity is so difficult for us to understand is that we have to deal with a substantial language barrier.  The Church fathers who first articulated Trinitarian doctrine used the Latin word personae to describe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  While “persons” is an accurate translation of this word, personae refers less to individual people and more to the ways that we experience people, kind of like the English derivative “persona.”  In fact, another way to translate personae is “masks.”  The early Church, in other words, was saying that we experience God in three very particular ways: as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit.  Now, we are currently bordering on heresy; the Early Church would never say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mere masks of God.  Then again, when you talk about the Trinity for any length of time, you are almost always bordering on heresy.  In any case, this leads us to wonder: what was it that led the Early Church to affirm that we experience God in these very particular ways?  Why didn’t they simply say that God manifests God’s self in a variety of different fashions and leave it at that?  After all, the word “Trinity” never appears in Scripture and the references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are few and far between.  What was it that made the Church fathers reconsider the very nature of monotheism?

Part of the rationale is for this change is made clear in our gospel reading for today.  Matthew tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus gathered his disciples on the mountaintop, where he gives them the Great Commission.  Of course, he tells his followers to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but this is not the most important Trinitarian moment in this passage.  That comes two verses before, when the evangelist tells us that the disciples worshiped Jesus.  To our ears, this does not sound weird; Christians have been worshiping Jesus for almost two thousand years.  For devout first-century Jews, however, this was an astonishing statement.  One of the foundational confessions of the Jewish faith is the Shema, the affirmation that God is one and is the only one worthy of worship.  But for these disciples of Jesus, something had happened to persuade them that Jesus Christ was also worthy of worship, that Jesus Christ manifested the presence of God.  The Early Church saw this trend among the earliest followers of Jesus, saw that they recognized the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and began to wonder how exactly this was possible.  They began to wonder if Jesus Christ was somehow also God.

imgresBut perhaps the most compelling rationale for the doctrine of the Trinity is illustrated in the creation account from Genesis.  We are intimately familiar with this story: God speaks into the empty void and calls creation into existence.  The author of Genesis tells us that a wind from God swept over the waters of chaos prior to God saying “Let there be light.”  In Hebrew, the word for “wind” is ruah, same as the word for “Sprit.”  In other words, even before creation began, the Spirit was present in the chaos.  But this is not the reason the creation account points to the Trinity.  That comes later, six days later according to Genesis, when God looks around and says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Theologians have wrestled with what it means to be made in the image of God for generations.  Does this statement in the creation account mean that God looks like a human being or does it mean something else?  Artists throughout history have interpreted this statement somewhat literally: God is depicted in many great works of art as a bearded man (just think of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel).  To my mind, however, when the Genesis account tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” there is something deeper at play, something that I believe the Early Church recognized.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates woman from the rib of Adam.  But in the first chapter, God creates woman and man at the same time.  God creates a micro-community of human beings, as if to say, “Human beings are meant to be in relationship with one another.”  I suspect that the Early Church looked at this story and said, “That must be what the image of God is.  If God created human beings to be in community, then community must exist at the very heart of God.”

Ultimately, this is why we take a Sunday every year to remember the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s not so we can brush up on our fourth century theology.  Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to remember the divine community that grounds our very being, to remember that relationship exists at the very heart of God.  We celebrate the Trinity every year to remember that we are created in the image of that God, to remember that we are meant to be in relationship with one another.  The Trinity, in other words, reminds us who we are meant to be.  And just as cat detractors need to be reminded that it’s okay for cats to be cats, we need to be reminded that we are created in the image of God, because it is so easy to forget.  We live in an age when abusing strangers anonymously behind the keys of a message board has become commonplace.  We live in an age when selfishness seems to be the order of the day.  We live in an age when we are too scared to admit we are vulnerable and so we wallow in loneliness, uncertainty, and despair.  The Trinity is a reminder that we are not meant to go through this life alone.  The divine community is a reminder that we are called to share what we have with others who have been created in God’s image.  The relationship at the heart of God is a reminder that we are called to see ourselves, to see God in those who are different from us.  As we gather in community this Trinity Sunday, I pray that we will reach out to those in our midst and those outside of these walls as we celebrate who we have been created to be.

Competition

Over the next few days, I will be reflecting on finding grace at the gym, namely Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.

As I mentioned yesterday, I have been trying to make it to the gym more regularly over the past few months.

These are ergs.  They hurt.  A lot.
These are ergs. They hurt. A lot.

The last time I spent any significant time at a gym, I was rowing crew.  In that context, all of the people exercising were ostensibly working toward the same goal; we were all trying to make the boat move as fast as possible.  In other words, we were pushing each other to be the best that we could be (just a warning: there will probably more clichés than usual in this post).  As a result, we tended to compete with one another.  Coaches would place people with similar erg scores (an erg is a torture device designed to simulate the movements of rowing) near one another so that we would push each other to the next level (cliché #2).  For the most part, I thrived in this environment.  I am a naturally competitive person, and I found that competing against my fellow athletes effectively motivated me to improve.

Since I’ve returned to the gym, however, I’ve had to overcome my inherently competitive nature.  The main reason for this is that unlike at the gym where I worked out with my teammates, each person who works out at the Abilene YMCA is at a different level and has set different goals.  It is unproductive for me to compare myself to the person who is working out on the next elliptical because they have a totally different objective than I do.  It is foolish for me to race the person in the next lane of the pool, because more often than not they will beat me and I will be embarrassed.  My exercise time is far more productive when I set goals for myself and attempt to meet those, rather than making comparisons to everyone else at the gym.

We live in a culture that is preoccupied with competition.  Whether it is the newness of our smartphone or the size of our house or the level of our education or the difficulty of our Lenten discipline, we tend to be obsessed with comparing ourselves to other people.  We must recognize, however, that God does not care if we keep up with Joneses.  God’s relationship with us is not contingent on any criteria except God’s abundant love.  Our objective for our relationship with God should not be to be holier than anyone else; our goal should be to discover ways that we can be deeply aware of how much God loves us and how much God loves our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Fragments

Today’s post is going to be brief, as I not only have to put the finishing touches on a sermon, but also need to watch (need!) a very close national semifinal game between the Florida Gators and the Connecticut Huskies (go UConn!).

imgresThough I’ve been watching the game on TBS, I’ve noticed that there are two other broadcasts available: one for Florida fans and one for UConn fans.  Presumably, the Florida broadcast will include commentators with a rooting interest in the Gators, while the UConn broadcast will feature people transparently supporting the Huskies.  It occurs to me that the existence of these team-specific options is symptomatic of a wider trend in our culture today.  Our society has become fragmented; we tend to spend time only with people we agree with and listen only to people who share our worldview.  This is part of the reason for the proliferation of news networks that cater to people of a particular political bent.  We would rather pretend that everyone agrees with us than engage in the challenging work of listening to people who do not share our views.

This is not a new issue.  The early Church had to deal with a huge variety of perspectives and understandings about how to be faithful to God: Should Christians be required to keep the Law of Moses?  Who has the authority to speak for the Church?  What should we do with people who have committed notorious sins?  Much of the New Testament is devoted to dealing with these questions.  In some cases, like in the letters of John, the solution is to exclude those who do not share the majority view.  In most other cases, however, we see the Church struggling to hold a variety of perspectives in tension, to include as many people as possible, and to recognize that unity can exist even with diversity.

In the Church (and the world) we must remember that we can be in relationship with one another even when we disagree or root for different teams.  Ultimately, we are called to recognize that our unity is grounded not in anything we have done, but in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.