Sunday, March 3, 2013


It is Trinity Sunday. And one of my favorite stories about the Trinity goes like this.

The 3rd grade Sunday school class was doing a series on “Who is God ?”And they started at Christmas with the Incarnation of Godde as a baby. This continued through Easter and into Pentecost as they talked about Godde. The series wound up, conveniently at summer break, with the Sunday after Pentecost, which we know as Trinity Sunday. Jeremy and his Mom always talked about the Sunday school lesson on their way home from church. On this particular Sunday, Jeremy’s Mom asked him what he had learned today about Godde. Jeremy frowned, paused and said, “I thought I had this Godde stuff pretty good, but today she said Godde is really some old guy, his kid and a bird. I’m confused.”

When I was about 14 or 15, my brother and I were spending the summer with my grandparents. My grandmother’s brother, Uncle Ed, was coming to visit and we kids had never met him. But he was a legend in our family. He had been the National Secretary of the American Baptist Youth Fellowship for years, and was known for his affinity for young people.

He lived up to his reputation. He was intensely interested in us as teenagers, and respectful of our thoughts and ideas. We loved him. And I think his theological views had mellowed with age, as is often the case. After he left, I said something to my grandmother about how wonderful Uncle Ed was, and all she said was “I think Edwin is turning into a unitarian”  She didn’t mean he was changing denominations, and she didn’t mean it as a compliment. She meant that in his later years, the distinctions that she held dear between Godde the Creator, Godde the Redeemer and Godde the Sanctifier were becoming less important to Uncle Ed.

If you want a truly scholarly explanation of the history of the doctrine of the Trinity and its many conflicts, I would recommend Karen Armstrong’s History of God. It is very good.

So, why the Trinity ? I believe it has to do with the religious environment at the time Christianity took hold of people’s hearts and minds. Monotheism, as in Judaism, was the exception rather than the rule in the ancient Roman world. If fact, it was held to be a little odd. Many pantheistic religions were common at the time – remember the earlier gods of Greek civilization. And Rome at this point not only had multiple gods, but they were beginning to proclaim their emperors as gods.

In other civilizations that weren’t animists, pantheism of a different sort
could be found. The Hindus had multiple gods, AND multiple incarnations of each. For example, my oldest daughter is named Kapila, which is the name of the 7th incarnation of the god Vishnu. (Her father picked that, and fortunately she loves it.)

So the Christians of the early church had a dilemma. How could they express their experience of Godde as Creator of the universe, Redeemer of the world, a daily presence in their lives, sanctifying creation and Godde’s people ? How could it be explained that this wasn’t pantheism like the Roman’s religion, where emperors were added to the god collection; but it was a fuller revelation of Godde. A larger concept of Godde than the God of Ancient Israel.

They chose to conceptualize Godde as having three components, but as a whole as well. For the time, it was a way to keep humans from placing limits on Godde, or dividing Godde up. It opened up a new understanding of how transcendent, but also how present Godde can be.

Today, the Trinity is not a concept that keeps us up late at night arguing unless we are in seminary. But think of the importance of the concept in our lives.

My Grandmother had a special affinity for Jesus the Shepherd, Jesus the friend. Her relationship with her father was very difficult; and I suspect Godde the Father was a hard concept for her to imagine. This true for many people I have known who had very difficult relationships with their fathers.

We have all had some experience of the renewal movement. Think of the people you have known, or know of, whose lives have been touched by Godde the Holy Spirit. For whatever reason, that manifestation of Godde has changed hearts and minds in a singularly powerful way.

In our day, people have begun to think of Godde as Mother and Father, Brother, Sister, and Friend,  Wisdom and Spirit. This causes some Christians to practically have cardiac arrest. But why the fuss ? The concept of the Trinity, which opened up a wider understanding of Godde 2,000 years ago, shouldn’t become a weapon of heretic hunters in our day. It is indeed, a gift from ancient Christianity that continues to inform us, stretch our understanding, and call us to a fuller and more complete knowledge of Godde in our own time, and in our own place.  It is a gift to be celebrated and we do that today. Thanks be to Godde, the Creator, our Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Dives and Lazarus

The gospel reading for today has been the inspiration for numerous spirituals and gospel songs.  And why not ? Dives the rich man and Lazarus the beggar makes for a great story.  It is a parable that is straight forward and to the audience around Jesus, firmly based in Old Testament tradition. It also reflects their every day reality. Many, if not most of Jesus’ listeners were poor, and beggars were everywhere.  The resentment of those wealthy men who considered themselves to be sons of Abraham had to be common. And this story addresses that perception and more.

The first part of the parable goes as expected. Dives, as tradition calls him, is wealthy beyond measure and there is a beggar starving at his door. Even the dogs of the street have more compassion for Lazarus than the wealthy man.  And when they both die, as all humans do, there is a just turn around. Dives is in hell, and Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham – Lazarus is the true son of Abraham and Dives is in torment. That is a satisfying result for most of Jesus’ audience. Justice is done.

But then, there is more to be said and understood. The rich man has concern for his brothers, that they might escape his fate. And he asks that Lazarus return from the dead to warn them.

And here the story pulls the world to come – the world of Jesus’ death and resurrection – and the Old Testament law and prophets – together. If the wealthy do not heed the Law and the Prophets, they will not pay any attention either to one who has returned from the dead. With apologies to Charles Dickens and Scrooge, if their basic nature is not led by the Law and the Prophets to do what is right, encounters with the supernatural world won’t make any difference at all.

The parable takes this satisfying “justice is done” theme and brings it to another level. It is evident that a transformation of heart is necessary, and that if what one “knows” in one’s head about the Law and Prophets isn’t also in one’s heart, beggars returning from the dead won’t effect that change. Compassion isn’t forced by fear or guilt.

Now, what might this mean for us?

We are, to a one, very wealthy people, surrounded by a nation of unimaginable wealth. By the standards of the world, we want for nothing.  If you look at the pictures of the refugees in the Sudan, living in makeshift huts, in the rainy season, without food and clean water, the difference in our lives and theirs is absolutely unimaginable.

But this is not a guilt trip or an exhortation on how to acquire salvation. We are living here, in these circumstances, for some reason.  And as we look around us, we see that some people in our world who might be considered poor, have hearts full of compassion. And clearly, some around us of considerable means, also have hearts filled with care for others. It isn’t necessarily wealth related. 

So whether, by our present standards, we have disposable income in quantity, or just a bit, it is a matter of how we regard our wealth. And this applies to our wealth of education, insight, opportunity, talent – all of it. The rich man of the parable clearly had lost sight of the origin of his wealth – all things come from Godde. And we probably don’t know anyone who would be so crass as to ignore the starving at their doorstep. As Christian people pondering the tension of being wealthy but having hearts of compassion, we can’t really see ourselves as Dives. And we can’t see ourselves sitting in a tent in the Sudan. Who are we in this story?

Our immediate world isn’t neatly divided into the crass rich and dying beggars. And we all have some seeds of compassion planted in our spirit – Godde has seen to that. It is up to us to be aware of those seeds, tend them, seek ways to nourish them, to take the Law of Love to a deeper level. Not out of fear of hell, not according to rules of giving. This is a spiritual exercise of the heart. And we come to it both with wealth of opportunity and our personal poverty.

The Lord hears the cry of the poor.

In the name of Godde: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

Speaking the Obvious

In today's Gospel, Martha, sister of Lazarus, does something that therapists and counselors tell us is very important. It is to say what has been unspoken until now. In our families and work, it is often the truth that no one else will speak. In Martha's case, it is to speak the truth of the matter; Lazarus has been dead 4 days and the body is decomposing.

In "the Last Temptation of Christ", author Nikos Kazantakis develops this idea in his story. His Lazarus is risen, four days dead, with decaying flesh and an aversion to light. Villagers come to question him on what he saw in Hades, but he is too weak to satisfy their curiosity. Lazarus eventually heals, flesh becoming whole once again, after the careful ministrations of his sisters and mother. After the first time I read "the Last Temptation',  I decided it would be good Lenten reading every year. Alas, other things got in the way, but I have taken the time to reread the book again this year and am once again awed by Kazantakis portrayal of a Jesus who is at once fully human and fully divine. Lest anyone think that life as fully human and fully divine was a piece of cake, the author makes it very clear that the complete range of human emotions and desires combined with an overwhelming presence of Godde was a daily struggle.

As an aside, Kazantakis' book got him promptly excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church. The book was written in Greek and took some years to be translated, creating another storm once it hit English. The Eastern Orthodox Church tends to emphasize the divine nature of Jesus, and the novel caused a scandal. But is a portrait of what is meant by saying "What if Godde was one of us".

The messy details of the story, illustrated by Martha, can be a lesson, of course. Godde can restart the spark of life even in those who have been truly lost to death. But it is also an opportunity to get lost in details that may cause us to miss some of the forest while examining the trees. I'd like to look at this story from a much greater distance; backing up to consider its figurative meanings.

Our main character is Jesus, Emanuel, who is "Godde with us". Not Godde transcendent, but right here, in the flesh, bringing a message of Godde's presence among the people. Our main character enters the story in a belated fashion, if you are to believe the other players. Lazarus, whom he might have saved, is dead. His friends, Mary and Martha, believe that hope disappeared when Lazarus breathed his last and was consigned to the tomb. If only Godde-with-us had been there at exactly the right time. Timing is everything, right ?

We have all experienced the loss of hope. Perhaps it was with an illness, an addiction, depression, grief beyond imagining. Sometimes it was for ourselves, but more often for another. Lives that are precious to us that we cannot change, heal or direct. When we are powerless, we lose hope.

We have also seen what happens when someone is consigned to the tomb. It is so final. It is the end of our influence in the situation. We say "they are in the hands of Godde, now" – as if they may have better off in our care. But this is where Godde-with-us is forgotten. We do hand our loved ones off to Godde, although sometimes we wait until death to do that. But Godde-with-us is standing with us, an arm about our shoulder as we recognize our powerlessness and give power over to Godde.

As the psalmist says "Where can we go from your Spirit ? Where can we flee from your presence ? If we climb up into heaven, you are there. If  we make the grave our bed, you are there also."

Godde is so present, that we can be called from our tombs. And of course, many of our tombs are symbolic. Tombs of despair, sepulchers of illness and addiction. And they feel like bottomless pits, where death might be a welcome relief. There are observers as well, like Martha, some who care deeply, who say "she is dead…..let well enough alone". Even then, Godde-with -us can call us from our grave, when those attending us have given up, and more importantly when we have given up on ourselves.

For Lazarus, who was just plain dead, the voice was a familiar one. Jesus was his friend. The voice of Godde-with-us may not sound like what we think Jesus would sound like. It may be the voice of our child, our spouse, a friend, part of a song, a few words heard in our ears in a voice unknown. But the voice of Emanuel, with us and present always, can call us out of darkness. The coaxing or commanding voice can break into our tomb of despair, perhaps even into the tomb where we have become a bit comfortable, and call us to come out.

I have a dear friend with a history of anxiety disorders. She told me recently that when was much younger, she attempted suicide and very nearly succeeded. But as she was outside her body, watching the efforts of nurses and physicians, she was asked to return. She asked, in response, what she would have to do to live well. The answer came – just show up. She is once again, many years later, battling crippling anxiety. And she relates that the answer stays with her – just show up. When she wonders if Godde is present in all this, and can't focus on the ways that Godde has attended her in the present crisis, she calls to memory that episode from her teens. For Godde to be present to us, all we have to do is show up. After all, Godde has.

Christ the King

This morning’s readings, thankfully, do NOT reflect what Steve has mentioned before about the lectionary. You remember….sometimes you look at the readings and wonder what in the world they have in common ?? This week’s readings are all about Kingship, and this is the feast of Christ the King.

As Americans, we don’t do kings very well…after the Revolutionary War, many people asked George Washington to become king and he wisely refused. We had just fought to free ourselves from a distant king, and he understood the necessity of a new way. Our royalty now is either political or celebrity, or both, and we love to talk about their feet of clay. This keeps the media in business… no great kings to be found here.

The readings today talk about a new way of regarding kings, starting with the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a prophet for almost 40 years around 600 BCE. He lived in a time of continual upheaval, spanning the fall of the Assyrians and the rise of Babylon.  The line of kings that the Jewish people had through the period were either puppet rulers or hauled off to Babylon in exile. Ineffective, powerless or corrupt; a new way of thinking about kingship was Jeremiah’s message during this, the last years of his career as prophet to Israel.

Jeremiah’s theme is to pronounce the shepherds of Godde’s people as derelict in their responsibility. The flocks are scattered and no one goes in search of the lost sheep. Godde will gather the wandering remnants of the flocks and gather them under a leader who is reminiscent of the great King David.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

And since Israel and Judah had been separate kingdoms for some time, this new king would unite the kingdoms as had David.

The Canticle for this morning is also about the same theme…this is the song of Zechariah proclaimed when his son, John the Baptist is born and celebrates the process that brings forth the Messiah, and new kind of leader for Israel.

The section from Colossians that follows also is a re-imaging of kingship. There has been much debate for better than 100 years about whether Colossians is a letter of Paul or written by his disciples, but for our purposes, it is the hymn that is incorporated in the letter that draws our attention. There is equally as much debate about where this hymn came from…was it in use in the early church ? was it a proclamation of the Gnostics ? the words describe a king who:

… is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

This description of the king has nothing to do with wars and conquering and power. It has echoes of the opening lines of the Gospel of John and makes clear that this different king has been present from the beginning. This is a very different view of royalty than what the people of Jesus’ time saw…Caesars came and went, appointed kings came and went, but this king has been with us forever.

Then Luke takes the opportunity to truly turn kingship on its head, as Luke so often does. In the Kingdom of Godde, the ruler hangs on a cross between thieves and suffers as have the many thousands of people the Romans have put to death this way. He is with the most common and lowly of the world in this death and yet he is the manifestation of the Kingdom of Godde. Is this what kings look like ??

As we admire celebrity, gossip about the fallen royalty of our culture, and marvel at how far some people can crash, we are reminded of the lowly origins of the Prince of Peace. Jeremiah prophesied a new kind of king…one who was a true shepherd of the flocks. The hymn in Colossians celebrates a king who has been present from the very beginning of time. And finally Luke reminds us yet again that the Kingdom of Godde turns everything upside down…Godde’s incarnation in human form suffers, forgives, and is yet among us.
Because we do not have kings in our day and age, we forget how odd this king would have seemed to the people of Jesus time, or even for centuries later. But when we contrast this royalty with the celebrities that we admire or vilify, the contrast becomes apparent again. A good shepherd who gathers the flocks, present from the beginning of time, and here among the lowliest of us all. Still a radical idea !

In the name of Godde, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier