The Trinity Sunday Sermon Your Mama Warned You About (Genesis 1)

God is a hot topic.  Everyone seems to be talking about the “man upstairs”.  His name, or some version thereof, is on the lips of men, women, the young, and old.  I know this because I listen.  I’m not talking about news programs on television or the religious documentaries I’m forced watch when my family is out of the house.  No, God is an ever present reality, even beyond this Sunday morning (where we do talk about God a great deal) all over this island (and elsewhere).

If I walk out of my front door and turn left or right to walk down Howard Street (the direction doesn’t really matter), particularly on a weekend night, it won’t be long before I’ll hear someone talking to or about God.  In fact, if the wind is right, I might not have to leave my front porch, the sound may carry it perfectly.  I’ll hear Jesus Christ this, God blank that, and conversations galore invoking the first and second persons of the Trinity.  Someone asked me this week, “Is the Trinity a really big deal?  Do people care about the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit? ” You want to know what my first answer was?  “This starfish does.”

If the God the father is in the perpetual habit of being asked to damn this, that and the other and Jesus is that name you call on when the most unbelievable things happen during you’re day, I’d say, whether we realize it or not, the idea of the Trinity is alive and well, to paraphrase Bob Seger, in the bars, backrooms, alleys, and trusty woods of Ocracoke.  It’s not the right idea but it’s there.

Here’s the good news.  We need to get the wrong ideas about God out of those places before we send the reality back into the world.  We need God in the world.  We don’t need God damning things.  We need Jesus in the world.  Jesus saves people.  We need the Spirit to infuse the relationship between all aspects of God and the world with love.

The Trinity is one of the most complex ideas in Christian theology.  The convoluted arguments used by theologians to explain the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are that way because we’ve allowed them to become so.  I’m not going to pretend I can explain something that Christian theologians have debated for over two thousand years.   That’s not what we’re here for.  However, I will tell you this:  Jesus described his relationship with God as one like a son to a father.   He said, “If we’d seen him, we’d seen the father”.  He and the father were one.  Jesus also told his disciples to except the gift of a comforter and guide, whom he called the Holy Spirit.  We talked about the arrival of the Spirit during last week’s Pentecost service.

Since the beginning creation, God’s spirit has been integral to the process of creation and helping God’s plans for humanity become reality.  The early church, since the time of Paul, was comfortable speaking of God in ways that acknowledged God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Later Christians came along and gave more complexity and understanding to these relationships and a name:  the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity isn’t meant solely to be read and thoughtfully considered.  That’s one part of the deal.  Ultimately, the Trinity is something that’s social and organic, designed to be lived and experienced.  At its essence, the Trinity is about the expression of the relationship between God and humanity.  Jesus is one way God relates to us and the Spirit is another.  If you take nothing else home this morning, hold on to that.  The Trinity is a way to understand how God relates to us.

If that’s true, and I believe it is, what does that say about we relate to God (versus God relating to us)?  What do we see when we observe living Trinitarian relationships around us?  When we talk about God, it’s not usually in as positive, “I want to build a loving, life affirming relationship with you God” terms.

As I said at the beginning, we’re damning people on behalf of God we don’t really acknowledge.  We’re calling out to a Jesus Christ we don’t expect to answer.   What does it say about you we relate to God?  It says our humanity is bewildered and the further we go from real relationship with God the less we know who we are as people.  This kind of distance from God dehumanizes you.  When you start to dehumanize yourself and see God as instrument blunt force trauma, like any other tool in the back of your truck, it’s much either to start dehumanizing others.

The Old Testament Lesson for Trinity Sunday is the creation narrative from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  It is a story like no other in human history.  I don’t believe the Earth was created in six days but I do believe the underlying story of the creation myth is true.  God did something completely new in human history when this story began.  Humanity was created to be in relationship with the divine.  Our relationships with each other were to mirror our creator’s love for us.  Gods, as the ancient world believed in them, just didn’t do that kind of thing.

Read Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, “Let us make humanity on our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the live stock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”  God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

These are the most important verses in the creation story.  This idea is the most transformational idea in the history of political theory.  Those verses are the basis of western civilization itself.  This scripture is the underlying concept behind, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Who thinks it’s self-evident that man is on a level playing field with God?  Or that freedom is self-evident?  They are self-evident to no one.  Plato would have thought them laughable.  Aristotle thought some were born to be ruled and others to rule.  No one thought equality of any kind, especially with God, was self evident.  No one thought equality between rich and poor was self-evident.  Mesopotamian kings and Egyptian pharaohs thought themselves made in the image of God, not ordinary people.  But there in this story, God says over and over again, it is good that God’s people are equal and free.  From Genesis 1, God says, “I don’t do class, hierarchy, or caste based societies.  I do relationships.”

Our God and God’s creative spirit working across the vast deep, as it is written in Genesis 1, tells a story we need to hear.  Let us look and listen to the world around us.  Our neighbors are a reflection of God at work.  We are made in the image of God. What it means to be a human is formed by being in relationship to a God made visible in many ways. Do not deny your humanity nor that God given gift in others.

An Open Letter to My Non-Church Going Neighbors

Dear Neighbors,

I am that Christian guy living next door.

You might have heard I’m a preacher, a pastor, or something of the sort.

It’s true.  I believe in what Alcoholics Anonymous call a “Higher Power”.  We United Methodists call this power “God”.

I’m the guy who stands up front on Sunday mornings in the church down the street.  When people die, I cry with them.  When people get married, I laugh with them.  When children are born, I sprinkle water on their tiny heads.  I think rituals matter to the life of a community.  Rituals provide sanity when the world feels out of control.  Church gives our little corner of the world a place of peace when the chaos won’t let go.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the any of your other neighbors who hang out here.

Despite what you see on the news or read on the internet, all Christians don’t believe the same way.  We get painted with a broad brush.  In case you are confused, I thought I would take the opportunity to clear up the record.

I think you should know some important facts:

I’ll never say you’re going to Hell.

I will tell you that God is proud of you and loves you unconditionally. 

No matter who you love, I’ll welcome you to church.  I don’t believe God cares who you love or who you marry.

I believe science and religion have more in common than Bill Nye will ever admit.

Jesus is not an American.  He doesn’t speak English.

I don’t qualify my Christianity with adjectives.  I’m simply a Christian.  

Professional atheists are as annoying as professional Christians. 

If I believed in the God you believed in, I probably wouldn’t go to church either.

The Bible is full of inconsistencies and violence.  It’s also full of amazing tales of love and redemption.  It’s not a perfect Book but it’s the defining story of western civilization.  Let’s read it together.    

Your neighbor,

Richard (the preacher next door)

Confessions of A Part-Time Heretic: How to Mess Up Trinity Sunday

It is an impossible task.  On the Sunday after Pentecost the church is asked to devote an entire service of worship to the topic of the Holy Trinity.  Volumes have been written, gallons of ink spilled, and wars have been waged over this very topic.  Yet we, the good people of mainline American Protestantism are somehow going to answer the lingering questions from two thousand years of Christian debate in one hour of worship and a 20 minute sermon.  We will do this with weak and polytheistic analogies.  We will read ideas into the Old Testament which are not there.  With good intentions, we will twist the words of Jesus into a Trinitarian pretzel to make him say what we want him to mean.   We will be wrong.  The Trinity is not a fidget spinner to keep us occupied for a week until the blasé world of “ordinary” time rolls down the center aisle.   The Trinity is one way to talk about God and maybe God deserves better than our haphazard, folksy dissections this Sunday morning.

I once read that the surest way to venture into heresy when discussing the Trinity was to “begin discussing the Trinity”.  As a part time heretic, I recognize the irony.  Our language is limited.  We only have a finite number of words to express certain relationships and concepts.  The words we do possess are approximations of the reality we’re trying to represent.  Nothing we say, no matter how close we think it comes to the truth, is an accurate depiction of how the man we knew as Jesus relates to the Israelite God mentioned in Genesis.  With that being said, what do we know?  Using the Bible as a guide, we take Jesus at his word.  It’s something like a father/son relationship but yet it’s not.  The Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit.   God’s identity is known in (at least) three different ways.

Out of these attempts by the gospel writers to provide the early church with contextual language; the Doctrine of the Trinity was born.  From own Jesus’ words and greetings in selected New Testament epistles; the church shaped a complex theological doctrine.  As Paul writes in this week’s epistle lesson, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)

I don’t believe that Paul or the Corinthians believed in what we call the “Holy Trinity”.  Instead, I think this is how they talked about God.  Far from being a doctrine, this was their everyday language. The God-discourse of the early church demonized the language of the working class people.  It was not enough to speak of God but to speak of God correctly.  Even though God was already at work, we invented something and called it holy.

The Trinity (our word) is God’s prevenient grace on display.  Isn’t God already “Holy” without our labels?  When we write it up and try to explain grace with hokey analogies, it’s like we’re trying to take credit for things God has already accomplished.   I’m not sure that’s a good idea.  Give God the credit God is due.

Somewhere this week, somebody needs to speak.  Let them use their words.  We do not need to clean up or explain their language when talking to God.  There are no formulas, diagrams, or charts for making sure the right personage of the Trinity hears what we need to say.    When it comes down to it, God is God and God knows.

There’s No Such Thing As Normal

There is nothing more modern than groups formed as a response to the dying remains of colonial empires and asserting their desire for influence and power through acts of barbarism.  The terror on the streets of western European cities is not a throwback to a medieval interpretation of Islam.  The reassertion of the fundamental in religion, the dissolution of independent nation states in Africa and Asia, and the upending of “western” values is the Enlightenment project writ large.  History has not ended.  It is merely continuing, with a revolutionary like zeal, fueled not by French skeptics, but post-war Islamic theologians.

This is not a seventh century conflict fought with twenty first century social media applications.  The war is the world itself.  The war is global because the world is globalized.  The privatization of organized violence is the hallmark of the early 21st century.  This form of capitalism  easily merged with the disaffected bi-national youth of Europe’s Salafist mosques. Death became profitable.   Cheap oil, the proliferation of small arms, and thousands of angry young men provided the workforce of a global death industry.  While experts look for lone wolves; ISIS thinks of franchisees who are able to take violence global.  We ask, “Did they have help?”  ISIS realizes, in a globalized economy where death is a franchise business, no one needs help.  We are asking the wrong questions.

The reasons for this violence cannot be isolated to British youths with Pakistani roots being exposed to radical preaching via the dark web.  If only the answer to these crimes was as simple as to how the assailant was socialized as a child or their mental health.  Our world was radicalized with the Ottoman Empire fell, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, when Vladimir Lenin’s brother was executed by Czar Alexander III, when Theodore Kaczynski mailed his first bomb, and on and on.  One need not witness a single sermon by the late Anwar al-Awlaki to be radicalized.  Radicalism is a state of mind.  Modernity itself demands a certain degree of radicalism.  We are called to be radicals on the environment, the right to choose life, our tastes in music, politics, and beyond.  Radicalism is one of the defining features of modernity.  We applaud radicals who stand up for certain causes.    However, when my radicalism conflicts with the radicalism of another, the first casualty is freedom (and the illusion thereof).   Once the illusion of freedom is shattered, it’s much easier for those invested in death to divest themselves (and others) of life.

Like the late 19th anarchists who terrorized Russia and parts of Europe, this recent wave of terror attacks hasn’t dramatically altered the societies they inhabit.  We (I include myself) are dying in small groups.  A few of us here and there are being killed every few weeks.   We are mourned and missed.  Will we be conquered in small groups, worn down by the deaths of innocents over such a long period of time that we eventually surrender?  I wonder if this is their plan.   Even so, there is terror in the moment, a bit of fear, all while most of us go on as normal.  What does it mean to proceed as normal?

Modernity should be the epitome of normalcy.  For others, those who are hacking us to death, modernity is a prison. There is no freedom in modernity or the normalcy it provides.  Modernity, though it created the revolutionary movement they embrace, left them behind.  Going on as normal isn’t an option if there’s never been a normal.

While we tell ourselves the world must go on as normal and normal is the best way to fight terror, I’m not certain we know what normal is any longer.  I believe normal ceased to exist about 8:30 in the morning on September 11th, 2001.  For anyone who was five years old or younger on that date, they’ve never known normal.   It’s been so long since we’ve seen anything resembling normal, we wouldn’t know it if it hit us in the face.  So when we keep calm and carry on, what are we doing?  We’re doing the new normal but that’s abnormal.  The new normal has seen the erosion of our civil liberties, 16 years of war in Afghanistan, a general sense of economic and social malaise, and unease at home and abroad.  Freedom to carry on and fighting back against the terrorists is really a pale reflection of the normalcy and freedom we once enjoyed.

Modernity killed Lenin and Mao and will eventually find a way to discard ISIS in the dustbin of history.  This will happen much quicker if we start asking better questions and stop pretending to be normal.  These are not normal times.

A Letter to John, Chiefly Concerning Things Wesley

My dearest John:

For some time now, I have believed the time has come for us to renew our correspondence.  As we both prepare for a momentous season of Christian conferencing and gathering, perhaps this is the moment to put word to paper.

Fugit inreparabile tempus,”* writes Virgil.  With such haste in mind, what will our agendum be?  In days gone by we spoke at length on preaching, Plato, Milton, and salvation; all in a single sentence.  It is my suggestion to speak of covenants.  This quasi-legal and ancient term is now bound, like many words, to your name.  Did anyone covenant with you, personally, before creating the Wesleyan Covenant Association?  I am forever frustrated when my name, ideas, and legacy are used to advance agendas I may or may not agree with.

John, what say you, of Wesleyan Covenants?  Is such a thing possible or is it a semantic novelty?  I realize God made a covenant with the Israelite people.  I had hoped God transitioned from covenant making to relationship building.  Covenants have done a wonderful job up to this point, wouldn’t you say?

Are United Methodists what you envisioned?  Please excuse my presumption, I know this a broad question.  It’s my fear that something isn’t right, regardless of how one defines oneself theologically or politically.  Over the years, we’ve made being wrong into performance art.  Were we to preach in tents, as some of your 19th century American followers did, our tents would be many and small.  Our gatherings would resemble a circus instead of a revival.  I am reasonably well-informed “there is no big tent”.  Perhaps, we are a group of competing circuses (circuses use many tents).  Fitting, now that the Barnum and Bailey Circus has closed.  Children like circuses and they are entertaining.  This is something I would hope Methodists could hold on to.

We both share a fondness for Marcus Aurelius.  Do you remember the passage in his Meditations, Book VI, “What then is to prized?  The clapping of hands? No.  Then not the clapping of tongues either.  For the acclamation of the multitude are but a clapping of tongues.  So overboard goes that poor thing Fame also.”  Aurelius, in true Stoic form, cautioned against taking a popular position for the sake of fame itself.  In a divided nation and a polarized church; where do we find the least acclamation and the most despised place to stand?  Does the pagan prince not make a particularly Christian point?  Yes.  But who listens to dead Romans.  We do.  No one else does.   Everyone wants to famous.  I ‘m all for more emotive Twitter and Facebook outbursts among people of faith.  So called free speech will kill organized religion, one way or another.

When has being liked (or as Marcus Aurelius would put it, “seeking your own gain) mattered to Methodist Christians? I remind you so you may tell others:  when apportionments are due and in appointment making season.

I note with muted resentment you’re still praying for the opportunity to avoid schism and disunity.  Dear boy, remember your Dante!  All hope is lost!  Despair is our friend, anger our ally, and indignation the fuel of half-baked plans to tie up debate at conferences across the fruited plain.  Be of good cheer.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

*Fugit inreparabile tempus-It escapes, irretrievable time (Virgil, Georgics, Book III, Line 284)

Dude, Your Head Is On Fire (Acts 2:1-21)

You know those stories, don’t you?  Maybe you’re out at the bar or with a group of friends over dinner and someone starts to tell a crazy story.  It’s one of those outlandish, improbable stories that could only happen to this one person.  “So there we were, on top of the Empire State Building, with a beer in one hand, a machete in the other, and the cheetah was running at full speed toward us,” then they say “that when it started to get weird.”  You’re thinking, “It was pretty strange up to the point.  I can’t imagine how this might get any weirder.”  Somehow it does.  There’s always a person with those kinds of stories, the “that when it started to get weird” adventures.  I can see you picturing them in your brain.  You might even be that person yourself.

The Bible is kind of like that person.  The Bible will throw you for a loop.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the text does something you don’t expect.  In other words, when you think things can’t get any weirder, it usually does.  Pentecost is one of those stories.  When you believe you have a handle on the action, the narrative turns hard left, right, and then back to the left again.  So, if you found people speaking in tongues is a bit strange, “that’s when it started to get weird.”  That was only the warm up for the fire dancing over and on top of people’s head, others speaking languages they never took in high school, prophecies about young people having visions and older people having dreams about the end of the world.  I told you it would get stranger.   But what does it all mean?

It’s a fair question.  Once we start telling a crazy story, do you find yourself wondering, “Now where was I in the first place?”  Have you ever told a story and all of the sudden, you can’t remember why you started telling or how it fits back in to the larger conversation you were having five minutes earlier?  I think we’re all guilty of that.

I want to go back to the beginning of the Pentecost conversation; before we started telling the crazy story.  I think it’s important to pull back the layers of strange to try and understand what’s going on.  Because my gut tells me, it may not be as crazy as we think it is and there’s probably more happening than we realize.  Sometimes, in the Bible, crazy sounding stories are a cover.  They are a cover for God to do some subtle (yet amazing) things while we’re distracted by fire and speaking in tongues.

A couple of weeks ago we had graduation Sunday.  We honored our high school and college graduates.  Next Sunday is Ocracoke School graduation day.  One on hand, graduation is as an event, it’s a ceremony, a thing that happens on a day, at a certain time, at a specific place, and when it’s over, you’re graduated.  Graduation is something you can mark on a calendar.  But yet it’s not.  For the seventeen young men and women graduating this year, their graduation journey began when they entered kindergarten, whether at Ocracoke School or elsewhere.  Graduation began the day they started school. Once they leave school, they will still be graduating from new challenges.  Graduation never ends.  It’s an ongoing process.  Sure, the ceremony is a one-time thing.  But graduation started years ago and will not finish next Sunday.  It is a process.  It is a journey.

Are you with me?  It’s a process.  It’s a journey.  Pentecost is both a process and a journey.  Pentecost isn’t a single day on the church calendar.  Pentecost isn’t the first twenty one verses in the second chapter of the book of Acts.  Pentecost started long before the disciples were waiting in the Upper Room for the arrival in the spirit and it would continue long after the Holy Spirit spilled out into the street.  This story is a not so subtle reminder that Pentecost is an uncontainable, immeasurable, and unscheduled event.

You can’t plan for something you ought to be living and embodying every day.  We don’t plan to breathe, see, walk, touch, feel, love, or exist.  A Pentecost existence is a well-rounded Christian existence which says, “I may not be able to tell you the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but I’m trying to live in balance with all three.”  You know what it’s like to have a car with tires out of alignment or balance.  Over time, it can do a great deal of damage to your car. You want to get it fixed.  Spiritually, you can live out of Trinitarian alignment.  Yes, your, “Father Gods” and your “Sweet Jesus’” can all be lined up correctly but if they Holy Spirit isn’t in the mix or smoothing out the rough spots, you’re going to end up in the ditch.  Let the Spirit keep us out the ditch.

Pentecost is also about language, real honest to God spoken language; the kind you can buy a Rosetta Stone for, take a class online to learn, or travel to another country to speak.  Pentecost as recorded in the Bible isn’t about speaking in a special prayer language known only to the angels.  Look at what the text says:

 “They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.  They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all of the people who are spiking Galileans, every one of them?  How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?  Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own language!”

We hear them in our own language.  I want those words to linger for a moment.  Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire.  Greek was the commercial language.  If you wanted a  deed notarized, you needed some Latin.  If you wanted to sell your fish, you better know enough Greek not to be cheated.

People had been talking about Jesus for over three years now.  By this time, news of who Jesus was and what he taught had made it into Greek and Latin.  Most people knew a little Latin and even more Greek.  It’s one thing to hear about somebody, even a great prophet and teacher who people say rose from the dead in a language that’s not your own, a language you only use once a month to sell your grain.  It’s another thing to hear those same stories “in our own language”.

Hearing it your own language changes everything.  Your language is yours.  It’s full of sounds, inflection, tones, meaning, and nuance that are unique to you, your family, and your part of the world.  So while the fire, commotion, and rushing wind are darting all over Acts 2, it’s easy to miss what else God is doing.  God is simply speaking to the hearts of diverse individuals in words they can understand.  You don’t get more tangible than this.  I believe God wants us to get it.  Look at the amazement in the crowd!  They’re not used to hearing from God in their own language.  Have you ever been to a far away land, in another country, and suddenly heard another English speaker.   What a joy it was to speak to someone else in English when you’ve been speaking Russian for months on end!  That may have been how they felt.  Someone knows me for me; here is someone I can talk to and someone who wants to talk to me.  The Pentecost experience means that God wants to hear from us because we now speak the same language.  In an instant, it goes from a little weird to exciting.

For those of you who haven’t noticed, I’m bald.  I can’t remember the last time I had hair.  It was 1990 something or other.  I’m to the point where I’ve stopped caring.  However, because I’m bald I have to be careful about getting sunburned on top of my head.  My bald “bros” out there know what I mean.  Unless you’ve got a good glaze up there, your head will catch on fire.  It’s not a pleasant feeling.

At Pentecost, Luke tells us “individual flames of fire” alighted on each one them.  This symbolized their baptism by the Holy Spirit.  Their heads were on fire.  Whether you are bald or not, Pentecost is about the Spirit lighting your head on fire.  Let your heart be the kindling which helps the Holy Spirit ignite your head.   The Holy Spirit sunburn should be self-evident, so you speak the gospel in ways that that people will understand, so that the world will want to have conversations with us, in a Pentecost that happens every single day.

How Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Informs My Pentecost Journey

1. Many different people, with various backgrounds and understandings of God, are living in one big neighborhood.

2. It’s a challenge for our neighborhood to be a community. We like to be with people who look, talk, and act like us. It’s hard to cross the street to be friends with others who might be different.

3. Our neighborhood is defined by stories the tell each other.

4. We tell our own stories in our own languages. We want to be heard, respected, and taken seriously. Use kind and gentle words.

5. Even when we don’t realize it, God helps us tell our stories. God gives us words to say and songs to sing when it’s hard to communicate with those around us. In this way, our story becomes God’s story. God’s story becomes our story.

6. Listening to others is part of being a good neighbor. When we hear God’s words in different places from unexpected people, we become more aware of God’s presence.

7. God isn’t something you can count or contain. God simply is. Open your windows and let God breathe into the world around you. You can let God loose in the neighborhood!

8. God’s spirit is a like a warm fire on a cold day, a toasty mug of chocolate cocoa, a hug from a friend, or your sweater on chilly afternoon. You are warmed in a way that says, “I am home”.

9. When God pitches a tent beside the castle in your neighborhood, don’t be surprised if some people ask silly questions. You’ve not had too much to drink. Tell them to imagine the joy at coming back from the dentist with no cavities; times 100! That’s how you feel!

10. You have special gifts to tell the world something important. God is proud of you.