Monday, May 27, 2013

Trinity Year C

I don't know why those in charge decided to designate one Sunday as "Trinity Sunday." Shouldn't every Sunday be "Trinity Sunday"? A celebration of the great mystery of the three-in-one, one-in-three God? 

As Christians we confess God to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three-persons, co-equal, co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will. It's basic to what we believe as Christians.

But do we really know what that means or know why that's important? To the outsider it might look like a lot mental gymnastics. We have to become theological contortionists, in order to justify a contradiction. 1+1+1 does NOT equal One. Volumes of books have been written trying to sort out the math. How can God really be three distinct persons, yet one God? It simply doesn't add up.

Other than Christ the King Sunday, Trinity Sunday is the day when we feel most tempted to keep God at a philosophical distance. We muse about the mystery of the Trinity. We try to do make the math work. On no other Sunday do most preachers do a weaker job connecting God to peoples' lives.

I think that's because we don't really know how to talk about the Trinity without resorting to mind-numbing philosophy. As fun as that may be for some of us, it can hardly be called "proclamation" and it certainly isn't good news. At best it's a self-indulgent exercise in theological gratification. At worst, it keeps God at an unhealthy distance, unconcerned about the world God created.

We talk about the nature and so-called "Problem of God” which is theological shorthand for saying that we have NO IDEA who God is.

We confess the inner-unity of the Trinity. We debate whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son. We discuss the fine points of the Greek. We wrap it up air-tight.

But whatever it is that we wrap-up with suffocating efficiency, it certainly isn't God. God will not be so easily contained, no matter how hard we try. We Christians don't believe in the god of the philosophers.

We believe in the God of the bible. Be believe that the God of the bible gets up close and personal with us. We believe that God refused to be relegated to the realm of abstract thought and flighty spiritual imaginings.

As Christians we believe that God became flesh. That God has a face and a name. That God - somehow - touches us.

I think you know this already. This is not new to you. That's why you're here this morning. You’re here in church not to hear me ramble on about the philosophical problem of the Trinity. You’re here hoping to meet the Word Made Flesh. You’re here to encounter the God of creation. You’re here to be encountered by the God who knit you together in your mother’s womb, then claimed you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in the waters of baptism. You are here to bask yourself in God’s love. You are here to truly worship.

True worship, in the name of the God we call "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is always incarnational, personal, and embodied. True worship takes us by hand and grabs our hearts. True worship makes a home for God in our lives, because that’s where God finds rest, and we find renewal.

But in theology, oddly enough, we tend to take our lead from the ancient Greeks. The gods of the Greek philosophers were distant and aloof. God is high, lifted up, and unapproachable. That's who they believed god to be, because that's what they needed from God, that's what they valued and that’s what they aspired to.

And they're not wrong. But that's only part of who God is. The God who meets us in Jesus shows us God's nearness, approachability, and humanness. This God has sleeves rolled up and muddy boots. This God demands to get personal with us. Maybe too personal for our liking. An incarnate, embodied, God who knows us with an intimacy that we often find unsettling.

But here I go again, resorting to abstract philosophy to talk about the God who more interested in getting dirt under divine fingernails than worrying about the philosophical foundations of the sacred. 

For us, I think it's easier to talk about God in the abstract than in the personal because a personal God will actually do something with us, and we'd rather not have God intruding in our lives. We don't want God disrupting our carefully constructed existence. We want to add God to what we've already built on our own rather than have God leading the construction effort.

We want to keep thinking that we are in charge of our lives. We don't really want to consider that God is in our driver's seat. Because then God might take us to places we don't want to go.

A personal God will ask us uncomfortable questions about our politics, our business dealings, our family relationships.

A personal God asks us about how we spend our money, about that grudge we've been carrying for decades, about the gossip we shared that hurt someone.

A personal God will want us to let go of our anger, our pride, our selfishness. A personal God will want us to care for folks we don't like.

A personal God will sit us down and make us listen to the cries of people in pain and ask us to do something about it.

A personal God will confront our comfortable middle-class lifestyle built on the backs of poor children around the world.

An abstract God won't ask us to change. An abstract God won't stick it's nose where we say it doesn't belong. An abstract God will leave us alone to tend to our lofty thoughts and comfortably elevated speech.

But a personal God, the God of the bible, the God who is called Trinity, doesn't care about our comfort. The God who is called Trinity cares only about how we love each other and God. And that’s not always comfortable.

The God who is called Trinity is more interested in how we get along with each other than in what we believe about God. That's because God knows that we'll never get it just right. There will always be parts of God that we won't understand. And parts we will always get wrong.

That's why, on the one hand, God is a divine, transcendent mystery, and on the other, God is a personal, intimate being that is found in every facet of creation.

The ancient celts - early Christians in Ireland - knew what this meant. Finding God in creation was a big part of how they understood God. My favourite hymn, “I Bind Unto Myself Today” based on St. Patrick’s Breastplate (we won’t sing it today, but you can bet we’ll sing it at my installation!), has, in its third verse, a powerful expression of finding God all around us, living deep inside creation. 

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

The ancient celts knew that God the Trinity is everywhere in God’s unfolding creation, through God's love for everything this God has made.

Where life is being birthed, there is God the Trinity. 

Where lives are being changed from self-centred living to serving others, God the Trinity is at work. 

Where ever care for others emerges from the nastiness of human conflict, we see the Triune God in action. 

Whenever bitterness is over come by forgiveness, God the Trinity is there. 

Where ever there is love; messy, uncontrollable, transforming love, there we will find God, who is three in one, and one in three.

We know this because that's who God is. It's love that makes the math work. 1+1+1=1 only works because the love the Trinity has for itself is so strong that it glues them together as one, then that intimate, reconciling, sacrificial love spills out in the world, into EVERYTHING this God created, and continues to transform the world into the image of the lovingly One God.

God reconciles. God loves. God creates. That's who God is and who God made us to be as images of the lovingly invisible God. The God who is Trinity, whose math works in our lives.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost C

One thing I find troubling about the Christian church is that we too often seem to be facing in the
wrong direction. We look backwards in history rather than forward in hope. We look to the past for inspiration rather than to the future with expectation.

This is especially true when we talk about our beliefs. We trip over ourselves trying to prove that what we believe now is the same thing as what people believed 2000 years ago, or even longer.

We say that God is unchanging, which may be true, but we don’t know the whole of who God is. So we take our tiny bits of ideas about God, flash-freeze them in time, and present them as if, by their very nature, their un-embodied truths will speak to all people in every time and every place.

It’s as if we think that the glory days of the church were “back then” when the faith was fresh and the Spirit spoke with awesome clarity.

It’s as if we believe that today’s expression of church is a pale imitation of what God has done in previous generations.

I hear this all the time. People wax poetic about the primitive church, and how the early Christians were filled with fiery zeal, upon which we have poured cold institutional water.

Others point to the great church reformers, and the heroism that was shown in restoring a corrupt faith to the “purity” of the original.

Even the father of our Lutheran Church, Martin Luther went to great pains to demonstrate that he is not an original thinker, that he was just a mouthpiece for an ancient proclamation. Theological innovation in the church, we are told, is heresy. A fancy word that means, “really bad and really wrong ideas about God.”

So we ponder the drama of the Reformation story, and are inspired by the Christian heroes who stood up against the enemies of the gospel, and we think, THOSE -THOSE! - were the glory days of the church.

Still others look to the recent past with vivid memories of full churches and crowded Sunday School classrooms. They - and we - remember when committees had more members then they needed, when new church buildings were being constructed weekly, and the budget kept growing, and we say “Those were the church’s glory days.”

We think that God set the standard years ago, and we are not to deviate one iota from what we say God has created.

It’s as if we’re saying that, the more ancient the expression of faith, the more pure it is, since it hadn’t yet been stained by the messy fingerprints of human history.

And when we say that we are not totally wrong. We just don’t see the whole story.

The Day of Pentecost starts telling the rest of the story. When the Spirit descended upon the disciples there was no going back to where they started. So, for those whose eyes were fixed on their glorious past, the Day of Pentecost must have seemed impossibly chaotic.

It must have seemed like everything they knew to be true and good was crumbling around their ankles.

It must have looked like their ancient faith was being trampled upon, pushed aside in favour a dangerously innovative religious movement.

They were taught that salvation was reserved for God’s chosen people - Israel. Now people from all over the world were receiving God’s mercy and grace.

They were taught that a series of national laws and religious disciplines made them unique in their faith. Now those laws and disciplines were being replaced by new practices.

They were told they had to offer sacrifices in the temple and worship in the synagogue, Now people were praying in the streets and meeting in homes.

They were taught that people could come to God only through the mediation of a priest, that they couldn’t understand the bible on their own, that women had no place in leadership.

Now people prayed without the help of religious professionals, they could study the scriptures for themselves, and women took their place at the head of the table.

Those invested in an unchanging religious tradition must have met the Day of Pentecost with alarm or even scorn. It must have sent them into a panic. It must have seemed like the world was ending.

And they would’ve been right. Their world was ending. But out of something old and dying, something new arose.

But for those who trust in a God that makes all things new, Pentecost must have been like someone had opened a window to allow in the blast of fresh air they were waiting for. Something new had begun.

The Word of God was now spoken in all languages. God’s message of mercy and grace was now for everyone. People from all over the known world fell down and worshiped God. Now, ALL people were invited to God’s table.

Church folks like to call Pentecost Sunday “The Birthday of the Church.” And what do we celebrate on birthdays? The fact that a new person has arrived on this planet. We celebrate a birth, a new age of possibility.

I guess the danger and the worry is that people will diminish or dismiss the past as if what happened before us is irrelevant or unimportant, if we are to take the message of Pentecost with seriousness.

That the hard work of those who came before us will be lost in the dust of history. That we’ll fail to honour those who dedicated their lives to building Christ’s church.

That we’ll arrogantly forget the blood that was spilled to bear witness to the crucified saviour, which propelled the Church forward.

And that’s an appropriate fear. It IS good to honour what God has done in and through those whose names are now written in the Book of Life. It’s important that we remember the saints of the past whose sweat and toil has built Christ’s church and whose voices still echo in our collective proclamation.

But forgetting the hard work of past Christians is not the danger I see. The danger I see is that we cling too closely to the church of the past that we miss the opportunities for ministry that God has placed TODAY on our doorstep, opportunities that will take us into a faithful future.

A bigger danger is believing that our glory days are behind us, and in front of us is a ministry boulder that we’re being asked to roll uphill.

It’s tempting to turn our eyes to the past. It’s easier to look at earlier successes than to see what’s ahead of us. Especially when we’re honest about the challenges we face as a church.

But today, this Pentecost Sunday, this day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit into the church and the world, God is telling us that the glory days of the church aren’t just behind us, and the glory days of the church aren’t just in front of us, But the glory days of the church are NOW. TODAY!

Whenever the Spirit speaks words of mercy and grace through Christians just like you and me, those are the church’s glory days.

Whenever God is praised either with a smile or through tears, those are the glory days of the church.

Whenever the captives are set free, people’s eyes are opened to new possibilities, the oppressed find freedom, and the poor receive good news, THOSE are the church’s Glory Days.

Whenever the lonely find friendship, whenever the grieving are comforted, whenever the dying receive the promise of new and everlasting life, those are the glory days of the church.

Whenever the people of God gather to hear good news, to receive the holy sacrament, and go out into their lives bearing witness to God’s vision of peace, justice, mercy, forgiveness, love, and grace, those are the Glory Days of the church.

In other words, TODAY - TODAY is the Glory Day of the church. Right here. Right now. In this place.

Tomorrow is the Glory Day of the church.

Whenever the Spirit ignites faith,
Whenever the gospel is proclaimed in every language,
Whenever a sinner receives forgiveness,
Whenever the waters of baptism are poured over a child’s head, that is the church in its glory because God is glorified in what we do.

And this is GOD working within and among us. This is GOD working within and among YOU.

You have NOT been given a spirit of slavery to fear, but you have been given a Spirit of adoption into God’s family. You who have been named and claimed as God’s own child through your baptism into Christ bear witness to the Spirit that lives in you.

Despite what we see all around us, despite what we feel within us, God isn’t finished with us yet. The Spirit is still descending.

The Spirit is still hovering over the waters of the world’s chaos.
The Spirit is still descending upon the church breathing new life into old institutions.
The Spirit is still setting new fires of love and compassion all over the world.

The Spirit is still giving us tongues to speak God’s Word of mercy and forgiveness to anyone within earshot.

God won’t be finished until that glorious day comes when all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.

May we see this glory in all that we do. Today. Tomorrow. And into the future that God has prepared for us. Amen.

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Sunday, May 05, 2013

Easter 6C

“I’d like you to baptize my baby,” she said, on the other end of the phone.

“I’d be glad to,” I replied.

“What’s involved?” she asked

“Well, I’d like to meet with you and we can talk about that. When can you meet?” I asked

“How’s Sunday at 1:00?” she said.

“How about you come to church and see what we’re all about then we’ll meet in my office after worship,” I suggested.

“, I don’t think so,” she responded. “How about you come to my place at 1:00.”

“Umm...Okay,” I responded.

I arrived at her house armed with a hymnal marked to the baptism service, as well as a copy of Baptized We Live, a sort of comic book version of what we believe as Lutherans.

“So, why a baptism?” I asked her.

I ask this question every time I meet with a family who presents their child for baptism, not to jam parents into a corner, and I’m NOT looking for a “correct” answer. But because I’m genuinely interested in what parents believe about baptism.

“Well, I got done, my parents got done, and I should have my baby done,” she said. Her answer was pretty typical from what I get from parents. At least she was honest.

I opened the hymnal and turned to the liturgy for Holy Baptism, and I pointed out the section where she would be making some pretty heavy duty promises on behalf of her child:

“As you bring your child to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:

to live with her among God’s faithful people,
bring her to the Word of God and the Holy Supper
teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,
place in her hands the holy scriptures,
nurture her in faith and prayer,
so that your child may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.

Do you promise to help your child grow in the Christian faith and life?”

I couldn’t get through the rest of my spiel because she immediately burst out crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want to do any of that,” she said.

“I don’t understand, what’s your concern?” I asked.

“I don’t want to force any religion on my baby. I’m not going to bring her to church because I want her to make her own choice when she grows up. I don’t believe in church. I don’t believe you have to go to a building to worship God,” she said.

(“Then why am I here?” I whispered to myself)

“It’s not the building that’s important, it’s where God’s people gather to worship,” I replied.

“I don’t care!” she said, and stormed out of the room.


I always find it interesting that many parents see faith and spirituality as areas where they can raise their children with little or no guidance, yet still assume their children will make good choices about these when they grow up.

And I often wonder if she told her friends about the mean ol’ pastor who wouldn’t baptize her baby. But then I realized it wasn’t me who said “No” to her child’s baptism, it was her.

At an earlier point in my ministry I would have been furious at this encounter. I would have thought “How dare she treat the sacrament of Holy Baptism with such cavalier consumerism, as if I’m in the religious service industry! This is God’s activity in her child’s life, not the Sears portrait studio!”

But after a few years into this job I realize that she’s just doing what the culture taught her to do, to define life and faith on her own terms, rather than seek the wisdom of a community who lived and breathed their faith for thousands of years.

She was making it up as she went along, dogmatically asserting the infallibility of personal choice and the inerrancy individual spiritual preferences.

She’s so deeply immersed in the waters of consumerism, believing that she is swimming upstream, against the religious current, that she can’t see that most other people are floating in the same direction.

She is not as unique and radical as she probably believes herself to be.

She was probably worried that I was trying to jam her into a religious box that was not her own making, where she would gasp for air, rather than providing a doorway into new and abundant life that God wants for her and her child, offering her and her daughter an opportunity for participate in the world’s salvation.

And she was right about one thing. You don’t have to go to a building to worship God. That much is true. But you can’t be a Christian without others. We need the support, encouragement, fellowship, and prayers of others to grow into our faith. There cannot be any individual Christians, because there is no individual God.

God is a community. Three-in-one and one-in-three. Don’t ask me how this all works because I haven’t a clue. No one really knows.

But what I do know is that God is profoundly relational. In today’s gospel Jesus talked about The Advocate - The Holy Spirit - sent from himself and the Father, the small intimate community we call “God,” so that his followers would never be alone. And that’s typical of God. God-is-with-us because that’s who God is. And that’s who God wants us to be. We can’t be Christians without each other. That’s why God calls us into the church.

Some say that such a perspective coming from a guy like me, doing what I do, is just the theological justification for keeping my job, and it’s the religious rationale for propping up the church institution.

(I won’t deny that you folks coming to church helps pay my bills and puts shoes on my kids’ feet. After all, a guy’s gotta eat. And I really like my job.

But there are easier ways to make money than being a pastor. And more of it.)

When we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we baptize into a community - God’s community - where we are never alone.

As I thought about what that mom said I realized that at least she had the integrity to NOT go through with a ritual that she didn’t believe in. And it could be said that her saying “No” to her child’s baptism respected the sacrament and what we as Christians believe.

But still, I never say No to a baptism because God never says No. Even when the parents clearly have no desire or intention to follow through on the promises they make on behalf of their child at baptism, I still do the baptism, because God DOES follow through on God’s promises at baptism. Right to the end.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life,” John tells us in today’s second reading, “bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

That’s why we were brought to waters of life, and why we still bring people to these waters: to be washed clean of the curse of sin, to be fed by the tree of life, to be healed by its fruit, to live according to God’s vision of life for the world, to bask in the warmth of God’s light.

This is not our doing. This is not YOUR doing. This is God’s doing. This is future God has for you. This is the future God has for US. God’s future for the world has already been established, the future of healing and peace, the future of forgiveness and joy, a future where all will be fed by the tree of life, and we drink from the rivers of new life. The future when Jesus reigns over everything, and all people worship together in the presence of God.

And until that day comes in its fullness, our challenge - as a church - is learning how to live our promises in world that doesn’t believe in them, in a world that tries to make up faith and spirituality as it goes along, in a world that’s - rightly or wrongly - suspicious of formalized faith.

But whether we live up to that challenge or if we fail, God who is never alone will remain faithful to us and to the world, because that’s who God is.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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