Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2016

In the mid-2000s, one of the most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was Debbie Downer. Rachel Dratch played a dour woman who could turn any occasion into a chance to talk about something devastating. About to order a steak at a family reunion? Debbie will tell you all about Mad Cow Disease. Excited because Tigger hugged you at Disney? Debbie will remind you about how a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfied and Roy. After every one of these tidbits, the camera zoomed into Debbie’s face and a sad trombone noise played. “Wah, waaaah”.

Let me tell you, Debbie is on to something!

There is a lot of suffering in the world. We live in this in-between time. Jesus has come and lived among us and done the work of our salvation, but we are still waiting for the Kingdom of God to come to full fruition. We are still waiting, longing for a world without sin, a world without suffering.

The biggest questions we get as clergy are around questions of suffering. And so, before we get to Paul’s perspective in Romans 5, I want to talk a bit about suffering in general.

Today we’ll be talking about three broad categories of suffering, although I’m sure if we put our heads together we could come up with more! For today’s purposes we’ll talk about: Suffering because we are part of an imperfect creation, suffering because of human sin, and suffering because of institutional evil.

First, we suffer because we are part of a creation that is not perfect. Our bodies have millions of cells that all have to work perfectly together for us to be healthy. And even if we are healthy our entire life, eventually the mechanical parts of our body just wear out. We are finite. The website Humans of New York has been doing a series about childhood cancer at Sloane Kettering. One of the doctors interviewed said:

Twelve thousand kids per year get cancer in the United States. But the extraordinary thing isn’t that cancer happens. The extraordinary thing is that cancer doesn’t happen more often. Every human life begins with a single cell. Trillions of cells will form from that single cell. During this process, the DNA will rearrange itself hundreds of times to form all different types of cells: muscle, nerve, bone, blood, connective tissue. If you look at these cells under a microscope, each one has special properties. They all have codes that tell them exactly what to do and exactly when to stop doing it. The complexity of this is extraordinary. There are numerous fail-safes at every level to prevent mistakes. How is it possible that it ever works correctly? There are trillions of chances for something to go wrong. God, it’s unbelievable. The longer I study cancer, the more I’m in awe of the healthy child.

Each of us will end up suffering because we are physically or mentally ill, or because someone we love dies, just as a consequence of being a created human being in a creation that is imperfect. We don’t think a tree has disappointed God if it gets Dutch Elm Disease. In the same way, getting cancer or being depressed does not mean you have failed God somehow, it is just part of being a human being.

Second, we can suffer because of human sin. This one is pretty obvious. We suffer when our partner commits adultery. We suffer if we are hit by a drunk driver. We suffer when someone is unkind to us. But our own sin can make us suffer, too. St. Paul was deeply familiar with this phenomenon. In Romans 7 he writes,

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

We want to go to the gym, but sloth overtakes us. We want to eat well, but greed or anxiety entices us to eat too much. We mean to be kind, but we lash out defensively. We intend to be faithful, but the lure of the old high school flame is powerful. That kind of inner disconnect can cause enormous suffering. We find ourselves making choices that harm us and the people around us, but we cannot seem to stop. I’m telling you, Debbie Downer. Wah Waaaaah.

Finally, institutional evil, or oppression. Whether intentional or unintentional, societies can inflict suffering on communities, often the poor. Think of the effects of uranium mining on the townships of Johannesburg. Think of the legacy of housing discrimination in this country. Think of those factory workers in the third world who work in abominable conditions to make clothes for westerners.

In the June issue of The Atlantic, Paul Tough writes about what happens to children who are raised in systemic poverty. He writes,

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have demonstrated with increasing clarity how severe and chronic stress in childhood—what doctors sometimes call toxic stress—leads to physiological and neurological adaptations in children that affect the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.

These children suffer from the consequences of broken creation, and because of human sin, but also by this larger more complicated system that exists around them and makes it difficult for anyone in their community to affect change.

So, this is all fairly depressing. Why, then does the Apostle Paul tell us to rejoice in our suffering? Does he want people just to stay where they are and suck it up? Does he see suffering as God’s discipline for us? Is God an uptight nun, ready with the ruler to smack us when we get too out of hand?

No, Paul says we can rejoice in our suffering because of what God has already done for us and what God is doing for us.

Through Jesus Christ, God has blessed the human experience, including suffering. Rather than human suffering being something separate from God, Jesus makes human suffering into something that God experiences. Jesus experienced betrayal and pain and death. His father experienced the suffering of watching his Son die. Rather than protecting himself from suffering, God chooses to fully enter into our life experience and join us. When we suffer, God is alongside us.

God even forgives us for the suffering that we cause. While we may never be able to make good choices, never be able to live a perfectly healthy and holy life, God chooses to eliminate any distance between Godself and us. Through Jesus’ resurrection, God forgives us our sins and sends the Holy Spirit to pour love into our hearts.

It is this love of the Holy Spirit that transforms our suffering. In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

Paul is addressing a community likely experiencing persecution for being Christian, so he is speaking to a particular kind of suffering. In chapters 5-8 of Romans, Paul is explaining the cosmic power of God who has changed the course of history and of the human position in the universe. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has once and for all defeated the powers of death and in. In Chapter 8 we get the wonderful speech about how absolutely nothing can separate human beings from the love of God.

Paul is not lecturing the community in Rome about having a stiff upper lip. He is inviting them to live into their new identity as people who have absolutely nothing that separates them from God. Not even their worst sufferings can separate them from God. Now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, those sufferings can actually be transformed into experiences that can shape their character and perspective.

Suffering does not get transformed because we have a stiff upper lip or because we try really hard to have a good perspective. Just like our salvation, suffering gets transformed because God chooses to do it. The Holy Spirit is the actor here, not us. When you are suffering, it is not your job to try to grow your character from the experience. There is no pressure for you to make something good out of something terrible. That is the Holy Spirit’s job.

Many, many people at Sloane Kettering shared their stories of suffering with Humans of New York. We heard from parents and their children who survived cancer and parents of children who did not. Some entries were almost unreadable because the pain of their subjects was so palpable.   But by sharing their stories, Humans of New York raised $3.4 million dollars from its readers to donate toward cancer research to help find cures for children’s cancer. Those who suffered helped create hope, just by sharing their stories, even if they were feeling hopeless. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and does not always show up in the ways we hope it will. The Holy Spirit’s job is not to protect us from pain, as much as we would like it to. But the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are constantly at work in our lives, shaping us into the people they have created us to be. They will not abandon us. Thanks be to God.




Trinity Sunday, Year B, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.

The Trinity is like a clover.  It has three parts, but is one thing.

No, no, no.

The Trinity is like an apple.  It has skin, meat and the core, but is one apple.

That’s not quite right.

The Trinity is like water.  Water can exist as a gas, liquid or solid, just like the Trinity exists as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

Well, that doesn’t quite do it, either, does it?

For as long as there have been preachers and Sunday School teachers, we have been trying to find a way to express the idea of the Trinity—that we believe in one God, who exists in three forms.  It took early Christians 325 years after Jesus’ death to hammer out exactly how they wanted to express this idea.  325 years!  In the meantime you had tons of arguments about which member of the Trinity existed first, and whether one member generated the other, and whether Jesus was really God or whether he was a human who was turned into God.

It was about this point in theology class where our brains began churning at a dangerously high rate of speed.  Words like homoousia and co-eternal and consubstantial were tossed around the room as if they would clear up this tricky business once and for all.

So, before we veer off into dangerous territory, let’s take a deep breath and a step backward, and look at what the apostle Paul has to say about the Trinity.

First of all, Paul is not familiar with the term Trinity.  If we asked Paul what he thought about the Trinity, he would just stare at us blankly.

However, if we asked Paul about the relationship between Jesus and the Father, or Jesus and the Spirit, he’d have quite a bit to say! At the risk of being completely reductionist, when Paul describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Paul sounds like he is describing a family.  Not any family you and I know.  This family doesn’t squabble over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car or who gets the last drumstick of fried chicken.

In his letter to the Philippians, when Paul describes the relationship between the Father and Jesus, he uses a liturgical hymn popular in his time.  Part of it says:


Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

. . . .


Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend

For Paul, the members of the Trinity are a family who are always lifting each other up. In this hymn from Philippians, Jesus is humbling himself before God and God is exalting Jesus. Their relationship is wholly mutual.

In the Gospels, Jesus always listens for what his Father would like him to do and shows perfect obedience, even when obedience leads to death.  Jesus feels so close to the Father he refers to him as Abba.  Abba could be translated as Papa, a term of endearment.  Their relationship was a tender one.

The Holy Spirit empowers the church to tell the world about Jesus, to ensure that the Father and the Son will be worshiped across this globe.

One imagines the members of the Trinity in a holy dance, never jockeying for position or striving to be best, but exhibiting perfect love and respect.

That pretty much sounds like your family, right?

The Trinity is not a family we can recognize.  We can kind of wrap our minds around the Father-Son dynamic, but I’m not sure where the Holy Spirit would fit into our limited understanding!  Is the Holy Spirit mom?  A really interesting cousin from California?  Ultimately the metaphor of the family is only slightly more helpful that the metaphor of a clover or apple.

But!  But in our passage from Romans today, Paul tells his readers,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Paul claims that the Holy Spirit gives us a spirit of adoption—that we become God’s children through Christ.

Paul is claiming that this family of the Trinity, this family marked by perfect love and humility and generosity wants to include US in the family.

Paul is claiming that Christ, who came to earth and DIED for his Father, is willing to have us share in his inheritance.


Does the Trinity really think this is a good idea? Humans are terrible at being in families.  We argue over whose turn it is to visit our father in the nursing home.  We complain if we don’t get the same amount of ice cream as our sister.  We scream bloody murder if our brother hits the button on the elevator before we do.  We destroy families over inheritances.   Why would God want to adopt us???

I have about a half dozen close friends who have adopted children and two themes I have seen in each family are these.  First:  The parents long for their children years before they are adopted.  The parents do not know who will be their child, but they love that child and long to include them in the life of their family.  I bunked with my friend Maggi at a retreat a dozen years ago, just when she had begun proceedings for adopting her first daughter from China.  As we drifted off to sleep, we talked about this daughter, who might not even have been born yet, and Maggi’s voice was filled with love as she said her name.  Caroline.  Her name would be Caroline.

Caroline and Maggi celebrate a decade together this weekend, and have welcomed another sister, Betsy in the intervening years.  Even before Maggi saw a picture of her daughters, they were real to her in her heart.

Second:  Once that child is adopted, she becomes wholly and completely of that family. That child belongs to that family.  Through and through.  Forever.

My friend Alex, who has adopted three beautiful children, once said to me, “Sarah, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to carry these children in my body, but even if I had given birth to children, I would want it to be to these children.”  My friend Alex loves her children.  Completely.  No other children could take their places.

And maybe the experience of adoptive parents gives us a little glimpse into the mind of the Trinity.  Maybe the Trinity was so overflowing with love, it decided to share that love. Maybe the Trinity even longed for us. Maybe the Trinity wouldn’t trade us for any other children. The Trinity claims us for its family.  We belong to the Trinity, through and through.  Forever.

Children are not adopted because they understand their parents, or because they are good or smart or talented.  Children are adopted because a family’s love and longing overflows its boundaries and can’t help but to love more.  The Trinity adopts us because of who the Trinity is, not because of who we are.  And the Spirit invites us to join Jesus in calling the Father, Abba.  This adoption is not a formality. The Father wants us to love him, to feel protected by him, to call him pet names.

Not only does the Father offer us intimacy, but offers us intimacy at great cost to himself.  The Trinity is willing to threaten its very existence, to lose part of itself, so that we might be included in the family.  Christ is willing to die so that we might live with the Trinity forever.  What family does that?  What family sacrifices one of its own members for children who don’t even deserve to be part of the family?

In the end, the Trinity is not like a clover, or an apple, or water.  Water cannot love.  Apples cannot long.  Clovers cannot embrace.  But the Trinity is not quite like a family, either. No family could go to the lengths and depths of love and sacrifice that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit go through for us.  No brother would lose his life for unworthy siblings and then welcome them into the family with open arms.

And yet, this mysterious, complicated Trinity does.  This mysterious family breaks itself open and welcomes you inside into perfect love.  You.  You.  You.  Welcome home.  This is your family.


Trinity Sunday, Year A, 2008

Is an anatomy textbook more true than a C.S. Lewis novel?

These are not questions we can answer.  An anatomy text book and a novel are trying to do two completely different things.  An anatomy textbook certainly has lots of facts in it, (Did you know an adult human body contains 206 bones?), but a textbook tells us nothing about our soul.  A C.S. Lewis novel has not one fact in it, but it tells us an enormous amount about what it means to be human.

So why people look to the first chapter of Genesis for scientific information about the beginning of our world is a mystery to me.  The first chapter of Genesis is not a scientific text.  Remember, it was written somewhere between 950 and 500 BCE, and Descarte did not write about the scientific method until 1637 CE.  That is more than two thousand years later!  If the authors thought modern Christians were using their writings to argue scientific points about how and when the earth was created, I think they would roll their eyes.  After all, the authors did not even understand that the world was round.  The dome they refer to in this passage is the sky.  Their understanding was of a flat earth, with a bell jar of a sky laid upon it.  If you read Genesis with a scientist’s eye, you miss the point.

So, if the authors of Genesis were inspired by God to write this passage, but is not a scientific text, than what is it?  Our reading today is part of what Biblical scholars would call mythology literature.  Now, we hear the word myth, and we think it means the same thing as a lie, but that is not what mythology means here.  Mythology is a form of writing that a people uses to describe a mysterious event that they did not witness.  The creation of the world is a common subject of these stories.  The Sumerian cultures that surrounded the Jewish people had their own version of the same story.  By writing this story, the authors are trying to understand who they are, what the earth is and who their God might be.

And just like a poem or a C.S. Lewis novel, the creation story contains an abundance of truth and beauty that can teach us about God and humanity.

First of all, let me just brag about the literary beauty of this passage.  Genesis may have been written three thousand years ago, but the author uses a very sophisticated parallelism here.  Notice that the first and fourth days are both about light.  The second and fifth days are both about water.  And the third and sixth days are both about the earth.  See, the motivation of the order of Creation in this passage is not scientific-the order is literary.  The stars and the sun and the moon were not created after plants and trees, but it is more pleasing in a literary sense to have the balance of the parallelism.

And this passage does not have parallelism for parallelism’s sake.  This literary choice tells us something about God.  The entire arc of the Creation story is the idea that God turns this chaotic, formless, watery nothingness into an orderly, fruitful, life-filled something, and the parallelism echoes that.  In the Creation narrative, God pushes the chaos out beyond the confines of the dome, and forms boundaries that enable light to shine, plants to grow, and animals to walk the earth.  God does not eliminate the chaos; he establishes boundaries to protect us against it.  Through both the form and the content of this passage we learn that God is always moving from chaos to order.

But the chaos still breaks through occasionally, doesn’t it?  In the last two weeks the chaos has broken through in the form of tornadoes across the United States, a cyclone in Myanmar, and that horrific earthquake in China.  This occasional, deadly and terrifying breaking through reminds us that we live in tension, and that the world can still be wild and wooly.

But chaos is not what God desires for us, God seeks to protect us and guard us and encourages us to seek order, as he calls for us to have dominion over and be stewards of this wild and wooly creation.   We are to subdue the chaos and bring order.  And we have.  We have cultivated fields and domesticated animals and pruned trees.  Unfortunately, we’re learning that too much dominion, too much subduing can lead us right back into chaos.  Finding the balance, finding the tension between chaos and order is difficult business.  Our adult forum class on the environment today, should help us with this balance.

As we go deeper in the passage, we learn even more about God, and about ourselves.  We are told that “God made humankind in his image:  male and female he created them.”  We are made in the image of God!

What does it mean to be made in God’s image?  None of us knows exactly.  Perhaps it means that we are creative like God is creative.  We have the capacity to imagine and act on what we imagine.  We can paint and sing and sculpt and build. Or, maybe being made in God’s image means that we are relational, like God is relational.  In the very first chapter of the Bible, God refers to himself as “us”.  We don’t know if the “us” refers to cherubim and seraphim or whether God was already hinting at his Trinitarian nature.  In any case, God chooses to act and reflect in community rather than as a solitary being.  There is a reason that a fundamental part of experiencing both Judaism and Christianity is community.  We gather together, because God calls us as community, not as individuals.  We worship together, because God knows it is not good for us to be alone.

And when God is done making us, he looks us over and says, “Indeed, it was very good.” This is about the most exciting thing I’ve ever read!  This image of creation is so different from the story in the second chapter of Genesis, when humanity immediately starts disappointing God.  So much of religion is focused on our sinfulness and our need for salvation, but in this glorious-and brief-moment, before we start lying and fighting and murdering each other, God looks us over and approves of what he has made.  In fact, he not only approves of us, he also gives us his blessing.

And God never sways from his commitment to us.  From that first blessing he remains committed to being in relationship with us.  He sends us leaders, kings, prophets, poets and finally Jesus and the Holy Spirit so that we can remain in a loving relationship with Him.  There is no way to measure or prove this love of God’s.  This love cannot be titrated or weighed or computed.  But this love is truer than any historical fact, any scientific treatise or mathematical equation.  This love is as true as the light in the skies, the water in the seas, and seed bearing plants on the earth.


Trinity Sunday, Year C, 2007

I spent last week at Virginia Seminary, at an annual residency as part of the First Three Years Program.  This residency is a time to reflect on our ministries with our seminary classmates, hear each others’ stories and learn.  Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s program was storytelling-I don’t think Chuck secretly influenced them, but who knows!

The first story we read was called The Expert on God, by John L’Heureux.  It begins like this,

From the start, faith had been a problem for him, and his recent ordination had changed almost nothing.  His doubts were simply more appropriate to the priesthood now.  That was the only difference.

As a child of ten, he was saying his evening prayers when it suddenly struck him that Catholics believed in three gods, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.  He blushed and covered his face.  What if the kids at school found out?  They were Protestants and therefore wrong, but at least they had only one God.  Instantly it came to him that there were three Persons in one God.  It was a mystery.  He was very embarrassed but very relieved, and he actually looked around to see if anyone had heard his thoughts, and for the rest of his life it remained for him a moment of great shame.

This beautiful short story begins with a young boy’s meditation on the Trinity.  For him, this contemplation is a shameful experience because initially he thinks non-doctrinal thoughts about the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity has caused a lot of problems for many years.  We in the church like to get our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed.  We don’t like to leave room for error, so we describe abstract theological concepts until we’re blue in the face.  Many churches won’t let you join them until you sign off on their interpretation of doctrine.  The doctrine about the Trinity is tricky, because it is really important to us as Christians that we only worship one God.  But, scripture tells us Jesus was not only God’s son, but was fully God himself.  Scripture also tells us about the Holy Spirit, who pre-existed with the Son and the Father. 

Theologians have been trying to wrap their brains around this for a long time.  The Bible never expressly lays down a theology of the Trinity, so it has been up to the church to develop one.  The Councils of Nicea and Constantinople in 325 and 381, respectively, dealt with the question and developed the creeds we read today.  The consensus was that there was one God, one Divine essence, and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all made of that essence.  Theologians fought over the words essence, subsistence, substance-words you and I might think mean the same thing!  As I was preparing for this sermon, I was reading some of John Calvin’s work on the Trinity and at one point he starts making fun of other theologians’ descriptions of the trinity.  He calls Augustine’s explanation on the Trinity, “extravagant.”   Those doctrine wars can get downright nasty!

The little boy in our short story grows up and becomes a priest, but continues to have deep doubts about faith.  He has these doubts in a very systematic way and takes turn doubting the Trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, in order, and never more than one at a time.  He gets so caught up in doctrine that he isolates himself socially and has no personal friends.  His doubts become his life.

As I mentioned before, nowhere in Scripture does the Bible lay out the doctrine of the Trinity for us.  Nowhere does Jesus sit his disciples down and start lecturing about the Divine essence of God and how Jesus is a subsistence of that divine essence.  No, when Jesus talks about the Father or about the Spirit, Jesus talks about relationship.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his close relationship with his father-how Jesus bases every decision on following his Father.  The Father feels pain when Jesus is killed on the cross. Jesus also describes how the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus and speak truth about him.  Jesus describes how the Father sends forth that Holy Spirit.

All three persons of the Trinity are caught up in this beautiful relationship in which they bring honor to one another, love one another and stay completely attuned to one another.  Theologians call this the immanent Trinity-Think of an image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in some kind of holy dance “up in heaven,” dwelling in glorious realms on high.

In the last few decades, theologians like Catherine LaCugna have been developing the idea of the economic trinity. Though the idea of the immanent trinity is beautiful, they believe the image of the members of the trinity in deep relationship with each other is incomplete.  The economic trinity is not a trinity that is interested in the stock market.  Here the word economic refers to the idea of exchange, in the sense of how the Trinity interacts with its creation, particularly human beings. 

After all, if there is anything about which the Bible is explicit, it is the members’ of the Trinity relationship with human beings.  God the father creates us and loves us, Jesus offers us grace, the Holy Spirit guides us.  In effect, the members of the trinity are opening their arms and inviting us to participate in the dance of their relationship.

The priest in our short story gets invited into this relationship in a very intense way.  He is driving home after church on an icy Christmas Eve, when he has decides to give up his faith, which for him, is deeply doctrine based.  As soon as he’s made this decision, he notices a car accident.  He pulls over and enters one of the cars, and encounters a dying teenage boy.  Even after renouncing his faith, he pulls his anointing oil out of his pocket and says the last rites.  He holds the boy for a  long time and the story ends when the priest is able to tell the boy.  “I love you.  I love you.  I love you.” 

Though we first think the priest giving up his faith is tragic, soon we realize that in giving up his faith-which was incredibly rule and doctrine bound, he is able to open himself up to true faith in God-relationship.  He is able to be an open vessel that communicates God’s love to a dying boy. 

While this short story is a grim one, it reflects what can happen when we let go of doctrine and open ourselves to relationship with God. 

All of us will doubt elements of our faith at some point or another.  Even I, occasionally, will have a moment in the middle of the Eucharist in which I think to myself.  “Well, this is a strange ritual we have here.”  The important part of faith is not believing all the right things at the right time, but to be in relationship-in relationship to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and in relationship with each other.

There are different kinds of knowing.  In German they are distinguished by the terms “wissen” and “kennen“.  Wissen refers to the knowing of facts-You can “know” John Calvin was born in 1509, or that the Trinity is one essence, but three persons, or that the person of Christ dwells in the Eucharist.  Kennen refer to the knowledge of another person, or something more intimate.  Kennen has connotations of time spent together, face to face.  Kennen invokes the image of something familiar and loved.  We may “know” all about the Trinity, but that does not mean we know the Trinity. 

Spiritual maturity comes with knowing not just the facts, not just the doctrine, but knowing the persons of the Trinity.  We come to know them through study, but also through prayer and reflection.  We nudge open the doors of our hearts and take the risk of letting the Father, Son and Holy spirit in our hearts.  Doctrine is the bowl in which the relationship is help, but the relationship is what is really important.

Today, we celebrate the baptism of little Madison-as she begins her own relationship with the Trinity when we baptize her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we also celebrate our own relationship with the Trinity.  Thanks be to God.