Canceling the Series on Faith and Politics, or, Watch Out What You Ask For

In First Samuel, the people pester God for a King so they can be like all the other nations.  God bitterly accedes to their request, warning them through Samuel that they will be sorry (1 Samuel 8).  I guess we’ve come a long way.  I offered to present a sermon series on faith and politics, and found it was roundly rejected….

What became clear to me is that. on the whole, we are not yet ready to hear anything regarding the meaning of faith for our political life.  The very conjunction of the words “faith” and “politics” acts as (to use a buzzword) a dog whistle, prompting a strong reaction before people can even hear what I’ve said.

I made the case in a June 16 post that my approach to faith and politics would be very different from how most preachers do this.  Most preachers try to sneak in political content and see how far they can get away with it.  I suspect many preachers want to feel like they are making what political difference they can, but as I suggested in that post, the result is often a self-righteous and theologically irresponsible statement on a big, “hot-button” national issue that will mean nothing anyway.  (Will you change the way one or two congregants vote in an election?  And so what?)  Others I think want to reorient the political values of the congregation on a larger and more meaningful scale, but this is done with manipulative rhetoric, typically forcing a political issue into the Bible or cherrypicking texts.  How is this loving and respecting your congregation?  Isn’t this just doing what our whole country is descending into: seeing each other as political obstacles to be manipulated by any means necessary?

Anyway, I already made the case that I will have no part in this kind of thing.  But I also argued that just politely avoiding all political content is no solution.  The Gospel is about a way of being a people, thus all that stuff about the “Kingdom of God.”   We’ve already gone way too far into making the gospel a purely private, personal matter–about how I find personal peace and forgiveness and perhaps life after death.  Jesus shows little interest in such a small scope of concern.

That aside, we have already been affected and changed by the growing polarization of our culture.  We are more and more dividing into two tribes, Red and Blue, and that division goes right through our denominations and our own congregation.  Must I say the obvious?  Trustees are Red.  Missions and CE are Blue.  (Obviously there are exceptions, but the tendency is striking.) We have self-segregated, like the whole country is self-segregating.  It would be naive to think that just staying the course is possible.  If we don’t address this openly and transparently, then Red and Blue will only more and more become our new Jew and Greek.

As I said, I discerned that we are not yet ready to address this matter transparently.  I received a kind note of concern to my previous post.  But I also received a very different note.  This one made its way to my inbox by accident.  It was from a congregant who was writing someone else that the pastor is going to preach on faith and politics, and complaining that “looks like we are not going to church in the fall.”  The message urged the friend to “READ his blog.”  There was also a disparaging comment about my pastoral care, which–though I’ve never been proud of how much pastoral care I provide with my 25 hours a week–was misinformed.

First of all, I write this blog as a way to explore ideas with my congregation, with the advantage that here it is easy to get feedback and continue conversation.  (I wish the “comment” feature was a little easier to use, but it is a free blog site.)  I expect more from the congregation to just scanning the blog to find something incriminating about me.  That’s how the Pharisees listened to Jesus (not to push the parallel too far).  Instead, I expect that you either won’t have time to read everything I say, and it’s not like it’s all drops of golden sunshine; or that you will read in good faith, thoughtfully considering what I say and telling me very directly when you read something that you find disagreeable.  You shouldn’t be trying to “catch” me.  That’s not what a community founded on love and mutual respect does.  I recognize the fact that pastoral authority can be frustratingly undemocratic; but you all have ways to express your disagreement directly and constructively, and many of you have seen how open and encouraging I am to this.

Second, the email I received exactly confirmed my point, that without addressing this issue head-on, we will simply continue to split more into Red and Blue.  The author was using (perceived) political issues to build a coalition along political lines against me.  But that’s exactly what I said was the problem that I was working on avoiding!  We should not be confiding with the people we already agree with politically about how those other people are so wrong and dangerous.  But that’s what was going on in that email, and I’ve heard people on the left in our congregation do the same thing.  We are already poisoned, all of us.

But whenever we continue in our very bad habit of talking about each other in the third person, creating coalitions against one another, I will counter the only way I know how: by being even more direct.  I went over to the household that produced that email; the author wasn’t in, but the spouse was, and I had a very good conversation–listening and talking–and explained how what I am trying to do is essential to what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, as well as to survive and thrive as a congregation.

I received no other strong reactions against my proposed sermon series.  But I still am postponing it.  (Note: not forever!)  I received from church leaders cautionary words, which is fine.  But no one said to me: “Yes, pastor, I hear what you are saying and see why this is so important.  We need this.”

But I think we do.  I can’t force it on you; that would be counterproductive and an abuse of authority.  So I am going to push us onward in another way.  Instead of the proposed series on faith and politics, this fall I’ll have a series on spiritual growth.  I’m creating a spiritual self-evaluation that will call on each one of us to discern where we have yet to grow in our faithfulness to God and to each other as a church.  I think we need to remember and put into practice the fact that our life in God is an endless path of growth and sanctification, even though we are already reconciled and united with God in Christ.  But the ramifications of that necessarily take up a whole lifetime.

So we are not by any means off the hook, only all the more on it, and I’m going to start reeling you upward.  Because we will not get anywhere in our need to become a people committed to a shared way of life before God, just by listening to what I have to say.  Our only way forward is to rise up together toward Christ.  Our whole life needs to be one of repenting and being converted by discerning Christ in each other.  The goal will be something higher than any of us possess right now, but we can only get there with and through each other.

And the authority my words carry is nothing I own.  It is never about just listening to my say-so.  Even so, my life is a constant testing of myself before God, and constant striving with God for the blessing of truth, and I constantly come out limping.  Even when I seem to have won a blessing, I am never sure whether God didn’t just pretend to let me win this one.  (See my sermon on Jacob.)  You also must wrestle with what I say, and put yourself to the test before God.  And finally our strivings must not be done alone, but together.  We are Congregational, which means no one else is going to help us figure out the truth of God.  It’s all up to us.  We should be terrified at this.  But one thing is clear in the Bible: Where the terror is, there also is the glory of God.



Aug. 6: “…Yet My Life is Preserved”

The sermon enjoyed a better reception than I expected.  Could it be I kept it to 12 minutes?  

Romans 9:1-5 ; Genesis 32:22-32

We began by recognizing and respecting our bodies as a blessing and an integral gift to seeking God. And then we recognized our individual self, our personal concerns, and set them before God in prayer. This is right and good. God warmly cares about each one of us, wishing that each of us thrive and enjoy our created life.

I wouldn’t want to stop there, however. We’re not really God’s church and kingdom if we don’t go beyond our personal concerns. I was reminded of this by a former student of mine who, I was delighted to learn, is now going on to pastoral ministry. And it is always humbling to learn something from a former student. In a seminary article she made this observation about churches like ours, that are mostly white and middle-class: “[These churches] that I have encountered view the role of the pastor to be one of comfort and taking care of members. With this view of the pastoral role, faith becomes a mostly personal endeavor and a personal affair. Not only is the prophetic voice lost, but the pastor’s individual voice can also be lost.” Amen, Judith. She wants our churches to go beyond personal faith concerns to address the issues that shape our common world, especially racism. I humbly agree with my former student. I do hope that she will discover pastoral care to be a beautiful part of ministry, one that ultimately deals with the same humanity as does the church’s witness on social issues. About the latter I have more to say, but I am saving that for my blog.

But according to our bulletin (which is a sneaky way of saying “according to me,” because I pretty much wrote the bulletin), we have moved on from the Self segment and are now in the Spirit segment of our service. In this segment we rise above our personal concerns and, primarily through the mysterious reality we call God’s Word and reflection on it, we seek to attain a unity of mind. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” And later he adds, “We have the mind of Christ.” If we can have a unity of mind and purpose based on a transcendent union with Christ, then when we actually enact being a community, being God’s people and kingdom, which is what we do in the last segment of worship, our work together will be vitalizing, conflict-free, and really potent.

Now unity of mind doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or think perfectly alike. Being the Body of Christ means learning to love and honor our natural diversity. I certainly don’t mean we all should think like ME. I get really tired of my own mind. But part of our life together involves striving to be mindful together about following God in our world today. It’s typically my job to lead this, but we can’t really attain Spirit, unity of mind, unless you keep me true, like my former student Judith just kept me true. So starting today, I’m going to try to not run all over the place during fellowship hour, but plant myself at one table to listen to any thoughts you have on the sermon or service, including this kooky experiment in four-parts. Come sit down with me and share freely. My list of virtues is short, but I do take criticism very well.

Also this August, I want to focus on Old Testament texts. I’ll say more on that as the month goes, and more on Paul’s continuing attempt in Romans to come to terms with the Judaism he was raised on. I know we all love to read the New Testament. It’s an excellent witness to our faith when it was fresh and young and vital. But guess what: it isn’t that anymore. We are much more like the ancient Israelites of the second temple period, or maybe even those living in exile and captivity, than like the early Christians of Acts or Paul’s churches. Like the writers and compilers of the Old Testament, we live our faith in the wake of a long and tired struggle with corruption and flagging energy, and we often have a hard time understanding who God is in the midst of all this. While usually the New Testament speaks as if everything has been made so clear and final through the light of Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament often compels us to be honest about our own questions and puzzlement about God.

Take today’s reading about Jacob’s all-night struggle with whoever that was. Having heard it, even though it may be a familiar story, are any of you left with the illusion that the meaning and moral of this story is simple and clear? That’s what a lot of people would like to expect from the Bible, and from the preacher: a simple, clear message to help us keep on keepin’ on. The only clear message I imagine any of us got so far is, “Don’t eat that thigh muscle that is on top of the hip socket.” If you are satisfied with that carving tip, you may stop listening to the rest of the sermon.

The story is utterly perplexing to us, especially in English and with no context. I could unleash a mountain of scholarship on you and explain the three or more puns involved in the story. If you love puns, then Genesis is your book. This story alone draws on a pun between Jabbok and the word “to wrestle” and well as “Jacob;” a second pun between the name “Israel,” introduced here, and the word from “striving;” and a third pun between Peniel (or was it Penuel?) and the phrase, “face of God.” Of course, those puns only work in Hebrew, and they just aren’t as fun when you translate them.

There’s also so much to be said about the context and setting of this story. Jacob is re-entering the land promised him by God. On the way out to start his family, he had his famous dream vision of the ladder to God (nicely alluded to in our Anthem). On the way back, he is under a dire threat that everything he has gained—his wives and children, his wealth and flocks, his father’s blessing which he stole from his brother (and who knew such a thing could be stolen?)—all this and his very life might perish at the hands of his angry, red and furry brother Esau (who in this story symbolizes the nation Esau or Edom, Israel’s neighbors who are kin but often hostile.) This story brings us to another dramatic climax in the Genesis story, like the one I left off with in June, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As in that story, today it looks again like the whole promise and plan of God might not come to pass. The promise of prosperity and descendants, given originally to Abraham but also as a promise to “all the nations,” including us, looks like it might go belly up after all, for Jacob and everything he has might be destroyed. This time the culprit will not be a God who bafflingly decides that all of the sudden he wants a sacrifice, but Jacob’s own trickery coming back to haunt him. Esau is understandably furious.

I think there’s a profound point standing behind this sibling rivalry. Israel as a nation, though chosen by God and charged to be holy and unique, was in many ways just another nation, living by all the tricks and machinations that nations use to get one up on their neighbors. Each of our churches is also, in many respects, just another human organization, seeking to compete for attention and resources, like any organization. Why do we, in our lowly, ordinary humanity, deserve to think of ourselves as chosen and blessed by God, as an incarnation of God’s very kingdom? I think Jacob is wondering, as we might also wonder, why he deserves to inherit such a blessing—why not Esau, or anyone else. And we are close to Jacob’s plight in another way, for we also are well aware, now more than ever, that our two churches might not live forever. Will the inheritance be passed on?

Like Abraham in his trial when called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob shows that he is willing to put everything on the line for God. He has already sent a big portion of his flocks and wealth ahead as a gift to Esau, hoping it will appease him. Then in our passage he sends his wives and his children across the Jabbok river. He is left alone. Alone the uncertainty of his life’s outcome. With no family to distract him or to help him pretend there is no crisis.   Alone in not knowing what God has in store for him.

Then the story gets really weird, but as weird as it gets, amid all those puns that don’t work for us, the amazing thing is that we still feel like we are at the brink of a great and compelling mystery. A man appears and wrestles with Jacob. Or was it a man? It also seems to have been an angel of God—or was it God in person, this stranger who refused to give his name? Stranger still, Jacob seems to get the better of the man / God, who, like a vampire, seems to be desperate to leave before sunrise, and begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob doesn’t let the man / God go until he blessed him, making Jacob a serial blessings-stealer. Then the man/ God renames him, saying “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob himself gets in the last pun, this time on the name Peniel, which he riffs on by saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He says this because it was thought that God was so holy, and so incomprehensibly beyond us mere mortals, that were we to see God directly, face to face, God would blow our minds.

It’s all very strange. But maybe that’s just what we need a little dose of. We get in the habit of trying to make church very normal. And so we emphasize the normal good things that we do as a church: some will say we encourage fellowship and instill good values, others will say we serve those in need and those who are neglected and rejected. All of this is good. Who would object to any of that? But perhaps we’ve made ourselves so normal, so commonsensical, that neither we nor anyone outside can remember a compelling reason to come to church and attend to the “Spirit” section of worship, especially when folks can find fellowship, values, and social justice outside of the church if they want to.

But where else can you strive with God, and overcome God? What a bafflingly fresh way to think about what we do here. We usually talk about how God has blessed us and given us so much, and didn’t even hold back God’s own son, but gave him up for our sakes. God just gives and gives, and we respond with thanks. But I think this weird Jacob story is showing us the underbelly of our religion. We take from God. We appropriate God as our own. We do claim God is present with us, do we not? Implying that God is more present here than elsewhere? And that we are particularly blessed? and we exert ourselves, not without some wounds, in our struggle to overcome God and claim this blessing. Who is more guilty of this, more like Jacob, more perilously near to being a blessing-stealer, than I? Don’t I pretend to have God in my clutches, to have overcome the mysterious and unknowable one, when I supposedly tell you what God wants you to do? This also is faith; not just a grateful, obedient receiving from God that we know from Abraham, but a terrifying and audacious grappling with God.

And God lets this be done by Jacob. God lets us us get away with claiming his name and authority, and forcing a blessing from it. God even lets humanity wrestle him to the cross. Maybe if we let the Jacob story shock us into seeing what we are doing here in a new light, we will take church less for granted. We too will, like Jacob, be amazed that we have come this close, as close as sharing a meal, to the God whom man cannot see face to face, and yet our lives have been preserved.



Fever, Sin, and the Doctor’s Office

Perhaps you share my cursed flaw.  You think that you are a reasonably intelligent person and should be at least listened to by a doctor when it comes to your own opinions about what ails you.

Thus it was that I found myself in the doctor’s office today.  I’ve had cold symptoms for two and a half weeks, particularly a persistent cough.  Silas had the cold first, briefly; Jessica got it the same time but was mostly over it after a week.  Five days ago, if not earlier, I discovered on my first day back from the beach that I had a fever:  a respectable 101.3.  By nightfall it had subsided, but it returned again in the late morning or around noon.  The next day I went to see a doctor.  He was incredibly casual, listening to my chest two quick times through my shirt.  I don’t believe he checked my glands or throat.  He told me I have a URI (upper respiratory infection) that was stubborn and causing the fever.  He decreed it was not bacterial (his notes said that he “educated patient that the fever was viral, not bacterial).  Perhaps he feels constantly put upon to prescribe antibiotics, which, true enough, should not be over-prescribed.  My chest is clear, he concluded (if quickly), so it must be viral.  Besides, as he said in his notes, studies show that antibiotics administered after the normal 7-10 days of a cold typically do not help.  Why attend to the particular of a case when you have statistics?  I should add that he was friendly, rather funny, and maddeningly breezy about the whole thing.  I had never had a cold or flu like this, that suddenly turns into a fever after two weeks.

Meanwhile, I friend mentioned something he had seen about a new tick born illness.  I found the article on anaplasmosis.  Apparently it attacks white blood cells.  Interesting match of symptoms.  Fever.  I had experienced a loss of appetite most of last week, long before I detected a fever–and that wouldn’t go along with a cold (unless it was a flu I had).  Tiredness, which only lately had become a problem.  No rash, unlike Lyme disease.   There were other symptoms that didn’t match, but the disease manifests itself variously.

I was by no means convinced by one article that I must have this disease.  I know that we non-physicians have our hypochondriacal tendencies.  And I hadn’t discovered a tick bite for a few months.  I found engorged ticks on me in April and in May, but I never had a rash.

But I was enjoying the puzzle of it all.  Why this fever, so far into a cold?  And why was I not getting better?  Then I a fun hypothesis came to me.  What if I contracted anaplasmosis back in May, even, but it didn’t manifest itself?  It often only shows up in people with compromised immune systems, esp. the elderly.  What if I was keeping it in check with my immune system until I caught a cold in late July, and then with the added stress on my immune system, the anaplasmosis bacteria got the upper hand?  Could it then start to manifest the symptoms of fever and fatigue, while also impairing my white blood cells from getting rid of this cold.  And why can’t I beat this cold, anyway, if my lungs are clear and I have no sinus infection?

I enjoyed my hypothesis and respected it as such–a long-shot blind guess badly in need of expert testing.  But worthy of a Doc Martin episode!  I looked forward to going back to the doctor.  Since three more days had passed, and my fever had persisted (lessened but not nullified by taking acetaminophen), it was time.

Of course I was going to be crushed and disrespected.  What, should I dare to consider myself a partner in my own diagnosis?  Who do I think I am?  The doctor–a different one–was pleasant.  And he did a better job.  He checked me out more thoroughly, and discovered a whistle going on when I breathe.  (He even let me hear it, which was fun.)  I made the mistake of mentioning early on that I had read about anaplasmosis.  I think he was alerted that he has a patient who has read something and has convinced himself that he has it.  I am sure this happens frequently.

So he reached the conclusion–not, oddly, seeking any additional tests–that I have something in the vicinity of bronchitis and perhaps a touch of pneumonia. (Not exactly precise.)  The first doctor had perhaps missed it.  But he would give me antibiotics.

I was expected to simply receive this and be grateful–which to some extent I was.  But I asked: “Could it be anaplasmosis?  I’ve had tick bites.”  Everything about his body posture was dismissive.  He didn’t look up.  “No,” he replied.  Perhaps I had the temerity to ask why not, or maybe he just added: “Tick-born illnesses are never URIs.”

Well, no shit, I wanted to say.  I already said I got the cold from my son.  He didn’t understand my argument at all, but he made it clear that he had no interest in my ideas.  Imagine, for instance, if he looked up and said, “Why do you think so?”  And then I made my case, which would include loss of appetite and the fact that the fever seemed to precede an evident infection in my lungs.  Then he could say: “Ah, that’s interesting.”  (This, after all, is how I used to respond to my students when they brought up ideas that I knew, from training in my expertise that far outstrips what this doctor has in his.)  Then he could review why my symptoms do and do not match that of anaplasmosis.  I would then feel like I had been listened to, even if his diagnosis stood.  As it is now, I can’t even tell if he gave the idea any serious attention.  I’m not even sure he knows much about anaplasmosis–a few years ago there was once case diagnosed in Hamden County.  But that’s why you have conversations, so that you both have an understanding.  Instead, I leave feeling disrespected and not listened to.

Imagine if I acted like that with my congregants?  If every time someone shared something that occurred to him when reading the Bible, I made it clear that his opinion is irrelevant, because I am a professional and he is not?  Pastors and professors can’t get away with such arrogance.  Why can doctors, when the issue is not the Bible or an Ibsen play but my own damn body?

I hope he is right.  But, while I’m no expert, I also know something about the philosophy of science.  I would not be surprised if this doctor never read Feyerabend, or Kuhn, or Foucault.  But he showed the classic symptoms: disregard what doesn’t fit into your current paradigm; police the borders of your professional identity.  It’s amazing how good scientists can be at shutting down the pursuit of truth.  This is one of those ironic guises of sin, when human beings, because of many factors but certainly pride among them, do the very thing they want not to do (Rom. 7).

And–not to get too puffed up with my own pride here–but what if my hypothesis were correct?  What if lots of people could carry a low-grade infection of anaplasmosis that doesn’t manifest itself until you contract something else, and then it contributes to that infection being much more stubborn.  These describes what many people have told me in the past year.

Now, look what I have done.  I have opened the internet door–and fortunately I have very few readers–to a mass panic and ‘alt-science’ movement, perhaps akin to the destructive theories about the dangers of child immunization.  Now everyone will be paranoid that we all have anaplasmosis!  I loathe such pseudoscience.  But now I understand a little better what feeds it: the unscientific arrogance of some professional physicians.

“Moana” and the Gospel

As I near the end of my vacation, my thoughts are beginning to turn again to the church in the world.  Today we took an indoor break at the Cape with Jessica’s family to watch a movie for the kids: the 2016 Disney movie Moana.  Silas had watched it on the plane sitting next to me several weeks ago and enjoyed it.

It is a very fine movie; all of us agreed, children and adults.  I am about as suspicious of Disney as anyone, but I am powerless to resist a moving and inspiring story decked out with catchy music and stunning animation.  There are also many important accomplishments in the movie I could dwell on: a strong female lead, a sympathetic portrayal of an often neglected culture, a plot that undercuts the appearance of an evil villain.

A worry crept in as I was swept along, nearly to the point of tears in some scenes.  How can the church compete–if that is the word–against a production so slick, so ideologically admirable and non-threatening, and a message so uplifting?  (But what was ‘the message?’  “Be true to yourself and your vocation?”  There was a strong theme of self-determination there, but set within an admirable communitarian ethic: Moana is supported and respected by her people and motivated by wanting to help them.  Ecology certainly factored in–relevant at a time when people in the region are facing severe consequences of climate change.  The mythology and theology of the movie were a bit of a jumble.   The origin of all the evil seemed to lie in a likely culprit: Maui was not loved as a child.  But the flaws here were inoffensive and did not get in the way.

I believe the Church cannot allow its particular story to be bowled over by the impressive feats of popular culture, even when done right.  Let’s not be churlish and resentful–we can admire where appropriate.  But the story of Jesus Christ and our union with him is not lacking at all by comparison with what is on offer in the theaters.  And the inspiring uplift that films provide is no substitute for lifelong practices within community that ought to be what we find at church.  So long as what we commit ourselves to is finally an alternative to the world of “products,” we will never have to worry about “competing.”  And I for one do not want to go up against the juggernaut that is Disney.


Satan Unabashed

This is such a sad story, even though no one was killed: ISIS destroys Al Nuri Mosque

Those in my congregation love our church building, but imagine a much grander version that had been around for 1000 years, blown to bits.  No one needs to be convinced that ISIS is evil; I could cite another story this morning that they are shooting families with children who are fleeing the battle, trying to frighten people into remaining so they will be human shields.

Many of us are so embarrassed by the idea of Satan, the devil.  I read Silas a version of the temptation of Jesus by the devil the other night, and in response to his questions found myself offering a clever metaphorical explanation of the devil, assuring him that an actual devil doesn’t exist like a person.  And I believe that, of course.  It goes with our Christian faith that Christ has conquered Satan, and also that in Christ grace has been extended to all, even the fiends of ISIS.  That’s why we pray for enemies.  We’ve also seen invocations of a real Satan used to great harm, by Christians and others.  Perhaps too conveniently, my disbelief in the devil also go along nicely with modern, Enlightenment, and liberal values in the inherent goodness and rationality of each person. True enough also.  No baby is destined to become an ISIS thug.

But then people fall into a path that leads them to love death and destruction.  We’ve seen recent examples of this by white and sometimes Christian terrorists, too.  Happily, they act alone.  ISIS manages to embody this same evil spirit on a grand scale, pushing a love of death beyond all bounds. Despite our sincerest hopes for them and our optimism that is embarrassed by words like “evil”–not to mention all the words that no longer ring with gravity, like “nefarious,” “villainous,” “dastardly,” words that only call to mind clownish images like Snidely Whiplash– these people continue to demand our belief in Satan.

We do not need to dwell on them to excess, but I can’t help think of how somewhere, ISIS commanders are admiring a sight like I am now admiring–tall trees set against a blue sky.  Somewhere they are feeling with delight the sun on their face, as I am now feeling delight.  And somewhere a little deeper than that, Satan is ruling within them.  And not in me, thanks be to God.



June 18, 2017: “Trinity Time”

Since our Children’s Sunday was last week, I moved Trinity Sunday to the 18th,  I felt like the sermon was a bit too busy.  The main point I set out to make is that the Trinity reconfigures our experience of time.  But based on the reading from 2 Cor., I went off on an interesting digression about grace as distinct from love.  I used the Genesis 1 reading as an enacted call to worship, connecting it to the elements of light, water, and flowers in our worship space.   

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20


We are celebrating Trinity Sunday today. Immersing ourselves in the mystery of the Trinity will be quite a leap from the “Life for Others” sermon series during the seven weeks of Easter. There I emphasized that the essence of the Christian faith is simple and practical. If you can live for others, you can be a Christian; there are no great leaps of intellectual comprehension or belief required. That’s still true. But while I want to continue to emphasize that we welcome a flexible and diverse approach to belief in this church, this is an appropriate time to revel in the richness of traditional Christian faith. For on this Sunday we have just reached a milestone in our church year. Over the last six months our liturgical year has celebrated the presence and work of God in our own likeness as Jesus the Christ, and two weeks ago we celebrated the continuing work of Jesus Christ among the disciples in the form of the Holy Spirit, all according to the plan and all to the glory of God the source of all, the one we call Father. So after these six months, we are now in the position to survey and admire the totality of God’s works as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in what have been called three persons, but we might also call these three dimensions of God’s one being. This is the Trinity, and already it sounds superfluously abstract and intellectually vain—a delight for theological nerds that is lacking in any practical importance. I think it’s a shame, but we are used to thinking about the Trinity as mostly pointless speculation about God’s eternal being, far removed from our everyday life in the here and now of time.

But I noticed that in each one of our readings today, words evocative of the Trinity show up in relation to time. The Trinity is hinted at in the very beginning of creation in Gen 1. It appears again at the very end of Paul’s contentious letter to the Second Corinthians. And the Trinity is invoked as Jesus sends his disciples out on their mission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, along with the promise that Jesus will be with us until the end of “the age.” So it seems that the Trinity is not just about the arcane truths of God in heaven; the Trinity ought to frame our whole relation to time, which means that the Trinity is all about here and now.

Now, I have labored hard to understand the Trinity; I’ve read many explanations of the Trinity; and I wrote one myself in an academic journal, which I think holds its own against the many others out there. [Story] This labor has helped me understand God, but also what we do here in church and what really matters about what we do. And it has even affected my understanding of the world all around me. And not just understand, but love God and the world better.

I’m pretty sure that clarifying the Trinity is not going to solve all our problems. But it is just possible that some of our confusion, lack of unity, lack of direction; some of our hesitance to really live into the Christian faith, comes from this dark cloud that forms in our mind whenever we hear the word, Trinity. “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to know about that, and I’m supposed to believe in it. But I don’t know how, so I’m just going to pretend it’s not too important for right now.” We can’t be sure how much that dark cloud is affecting us until we dispel it with the beautiful luminosity of God as a one in three.

That will take some time. It’s not a matter of a quick and easy formula. A good explanation of the Trinity leads you to the brink of what lies beyond comprehension. I can’t just define the Trinity for you, and you have it. Along the way to really understanding it, you also have to understand everything else afresh, now seeing it in light of the Trinity. After all, everything is created by God, right? And if God is three-in-one, then that will leave some kind of stamp on everything God made, including time—which we fancy can be adequately understood by a watch and a calendar app. But already in the very beginning of time, as Genesis 1 describes it, we see the Trinity present, or at least alluded to. The triune God is already there in the beginning of all things. We see this first when Genesis tells us that “a spirit from God swept over the face of the waters,” although the word “spirit” can also be translated as wind or breath. We never hear anything else about this spirit in chapter one. It’s mysterious. You get the sense that this windy Spirit is perhaps stirring up the water, “making waves,” quietly bringing about momentous change. But the Spirit is invisible; like the wind, you only feel and see it by its effects. And surely, God is also invisible, and we never see or completely understand God.

But God doesn’t just silently move and blow, God also speaks. “Let there be…” In most of the world’s creation stories, the gods form and shape something (that goes for Genesis 2 also), and sometimes the gods have to kill a beast in order to create. It’s so unusual in Genesis 1 that God creates so calmly and peacefully by speaking the Word. As it happens, the word, “Word,” is one of the key words that Christians use for the second person of the Trinity, also called the Son. John begins his Gospel by evoking Genesis 1: “In the beginning / was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The language is simple but the idea is very difficult: the Word was with God and was God. How’s that work? Welcome to the Trinity.

Now, what does it mean that part of the reality of God can be described as “Word?” A Word is simply anything God does or says, typically through a spokesman, that unlike the invisible movement of the Spirit, becomes a permanent marker by which we can recognize God, or identify an action as typical of God. A Word of God is repeatable, visible, and intelligible. A Word can take the form of a command, or a promise. It can be a saying of the prophets or a parable of Jesus. The Word can also be a song, or a ritual like our sacraments, which we repeat in order to better understand God and our relation to God.

But here in Genesis the primary Word is, “Let there be.” God is letting all this non-divine stuff come into being, all organized by the fundamental differences that make up our world, as between day and night, land and sea, and the great diversity of living creatures. God isn’t engineering all this stuff. Genesis doesn’t describe how God lets it all be. There shouldn’t be any problem saying that God lets the universe be by way of the scientific theory of the Big Bang, or that God lets the diverse array of creatures be / by way of evolution. God isn’t portrayed as a micromanager In Genesis. Just as one who lets be. And God doesn’t say so, but we are told that God saw that all of this diversity was good.

Now, what does it mean to let something be by pronouncement, while silently judging to oneself that it is good?   I think we call this “grace.” As in the reading we had from Second Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In his closing Trinitarian benediction, Paul doesn’t start with the first person of the Trinity, the “Father,” but with the second person, “the Son,” the Word, whom he identifies as Lord Jesus Christ. And Paul associates grace with Jesus Christ, just as he associates love with the Father and communion or fellowship with the Holy Spirit. Now why, you might ask, does Paul associate grace with Jesus Christ and love with God the Father? Well, let’s keep in mind that all of these qualities belong to God. But Paul’s way of assigning a particular divine trait to each person of the Trinity can help us understand why there is a three-ness to God.   And the most visible and identifiable and repeatable characteristic of God, made known to us by the Word of Jesus Christ, is grace.

Grace, charis in Greek, means having favor toward someone or having a good disposition toward someone. In Paul’s use of the word especially in Romans, grace is something unearned from God, the result of a free gift. God’s good favor is something we don’t earn or deserve, something that isn’t obviously and self-evidently our right or our property. Paul mentions the “Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and then “The Love of God.” These are not quite the same. Parents know that they love their children. Spouses know of their own love for the other. But we all get angry and dismayed with even our dearest loved ones. And we all feel guilt and shame at what we do, or at least at our strange and uncontrollable inner thoughts. It isn’t always obvious in our anger and dismay that we love those most dear, and it isn’t always obvious that we should be loved by those most dear. That’s why it needs to be said. We need to say, and to hear, the words, “I love you.” Love needs to be a stated commitment, because what you are committing to is not yet mutually firm and fully in place. As true as this is in human relationships, it is much more true for God’s relationship to humanity. God tells the Israelites through Moses, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Neither part of that commitment was obvious; neither part could be taken for granted. Words both affirm what is not yet obvious, and make it possible for us to aim at fulfilling that commitment.

It is not obvious that the Israelites were God’s people; they never really fulfilled that promise, just as we, the New Israel, have yet to fulfill that promise. It is not obvious that human beings are created in the image of God, nor that we have a justifiable dominion over a planet that we are placing in peril. It is not obvious that we have some special favor or grace from God, a special calling or honor, when you consider the awful things we do or let happen. We need Jesus Christ to reveal this far-from-obvious grace to us. We need a Word of grace that we can perceive outside of us to this effect, assuring us of our favor with God. It needs to be objective and to come from outside of us, because we do not usually feel worthy of God’s favor; true enough. But also, in a way, we really are not worthy. We really are sinful, our world is a mess and all of us are tainted by and implicated in our messed up world, especially when we consider the absolute holiness and perfection of God. And Jesus Christ is this perfected Word of Grace from God, both assuring of God’s forgiveness and also embodying in himself a humanity that is truly faithful and just and loving, like we all should be. Jesus is the pride and joy of all humanity, which otherwise often has little to show for itself.

That is why Jesus is also our judge, the one who will come to judge the world. We’ve told ourselves “God is love” until those words barely have meaning any more, or at least they have long since ceased to pack a punch. That’s why, first of all, Jesus Christ is the grace of God, because through him we realize that God’s love is not our right or entitlement. Jesus Christ is grace, because he brings both the good news of God’s mercy as well as the awakening to our need for repentance. Christ Jesus remains ours and yet is distinct from us, one standing apart from us and taking our place.

Only through him and the grace Christ represents do we properly arrive at what Paul calls “the love of God,” or we might say, the love of the Father, the first person of the Trinity, the source and destiny of all. This deepest dimension of God’s being is, whether we realize it or not, invisible and incomprehensible to us. This is the God who told Moses, “You cannot see me face to face and live.” If we arrogantly assume we know exactly who and what God is, we will quickly end up with an idol, a little god of our own making who is indeed a false god, a golden calf. The God of love can also become our idol, a god created according to our need, an idol we make to give us assurance, rather than to be our Lord. Only when we know this incomprehensible God through the Word, through Jesus the Christ, crucified for the sin of the world and risen to bring the world reconciliation, can we know the love of God, without making that loving God into our idol—as if all if right with us and the world, it only needs a heavenly sheen of blessing. No. The world is God’s creation but it has all gone wrong; the Kingdom of God comes to turn our world upside down, and Jesus Christ will come again to judge the world. And yet: God has offered us peace and reconciliation in the midst of this quagmire, a world where children die unnecessarily every day and the world shrugs. This is a troubling paradox, this grace amidst our fallen world. Only a paradoxically triune God can hold together grace and love with a world so unworthy.

We are now in ordinary time, which covers the six months or so from Pentecost until the new liturgical year that begins with Advent. We’ve just finished hearing the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension as our own story, the story that tells us the most important truths about ourselves and all humanity. And that time concluded with the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples, giving them the power to be the community that continues to testify to God in Jesus and that acts as the continuing presence of Christ and of his kingdom here on earth, while awaiting what is to come (that’s who we really are, folks). This has been Trinity story time, a story about the Son and the Spirit granting the world a participation in the glory of God the Source and End of all, beyond all time.   This is what time is for us: it comes from a past of timeless truth with the Word, continues into an open presence with the Spirit, and leads us into union with the Eternal God.

It is an open-ended story. 2000 years later, despite some fresh challenges, we still have everything in this room to be the Spirit-filled Kingdom in Christ’s name, participating in God’s eternal life here and now. The Bible is still our extraordinary window onto divine truths, even if we have to work a little to interpret its truths. Our sacraments are still effective in connecting us to our origin in Jesus as our Word of God. We don’t have to live one day after another, same old same old, until our allotted years come to an end. We can instead live each day in the drama of Trinity Time. Each day can begin with God the creator as its ultimate origin; each day can be made possible by the grace of Jesus the Christ, who has revived human life so that it can experience mercy and love amidst terror and heartache; and each day can bring us the feeling of the Spirit rippling across our depths, moving us by a power we don’t own but that we cannot deny. What a shame that we just got all the pieces of the Trinity in place for Trinity Time, right as summer is starting and most of us are about to scatter (including me). Don’t forget about the Trinity this summer. Repeat Paul’s nice benediction in your prayers every day. Let it sink in to you, let take you over, and it will bear you up and sweep you along like the perfect wave at the beach. Come summer’s end, I want Trinity Time to start here in earnest.

There is neither Red nor Blue in Christ Jesus, part 1

In the fall I am planning on a sermon series addressing the intersection of political attitudes and the church.  This article is precisely on point for that topic.  Partisanship in America is becoming more and more hostile, as this NYT piece documents: Partisanship worsening-NYT.  I think the import of this for the church is clear.  The church needs to be a place where people can come together across the political spectrum, just as it was from the start a place where Jew and Greek, slave and free, and men and women could come together as one.  The UCC and other churches have rightly focused on racism; but as the above article purports to show, prejudice is now worse across partisan lines than across racial lines.  (Prejudice, it should be noted, is only one part of racism; the economic factor has no corollary in the partisan divide.)

Just bringing people together will do some good for our social cohesion.  But it will not by itself help us mend our political vision to find commonality.   Besides, it is not the church’s God-given mission to promote social cohesion.  Jesus hardly did that!  (“I come not to bring peace but a sword…”)  So for both reasons, our coming-together needs to have some political content; we need to work toward crafting a shared political vision.  (“Political vision” here just means ideas about how to live together in a society.)

I am thinking carefully about how we can do that as a church.  I am highly critical of how churches typically do this, whether on the right or the left.  Both sides have thoughtlessly promoted and even called down divine sanction on our growing partisan divide.  Those on the right have done so more forcefully and therefore with more harm, I think, but those on the left have dominated small, old line denominations like ours (the UCC); so I feel a keen responsibility to challenge those nearest to me.

Here’s some guidelines I have come up with so far.  Please comment on these and give me your thoughts and advice!

  1. It should be made clear from the outset that a pastor in the pulpit does little good by advocating particular government policies.  I have no government officials in my congregation.  The most I could do is sway some votes, which would almost certainly have no effect anyway.  The real point of pronouncements on public policy seems to be to make the preacher feel like he or she is making a stand.  But such a mostly ineffectual stand would cause political division for no purpose, unless the proper understanding of the gospel is at stake.  As I’ve written about elsewhere, political advocacy from the pulpit should focus on local political issues that can actually be affected by our involvement.
  2. That also means that ‘hot button’ political topics should be avoided.  Our political-media machine has effectively used polarizing topics to organize our political discourse into polarizing issues (abortion, gay rights, social programs).  A dialogue on politics in the church will be refreshing if it looks at fundamental political ideas: what is the meaning of freedom? What is the nature of a human being?  What is our highest good?  These are topics that the Gospel can shed real light on.
  3. That the Gospel is the source of light here will be all the more evident and convincing if the preacher contrasts the gospel message with political views of both the left and the right.  The worst offense is cherry-picking biblical passages to match one’s pre-determined political bias.  A politics based on the gospel will not be nationalistic, nor will it be secularist; it will not defend tradition and our ways, nor will it defend individual rights as such; it will not justify economic disparities, nor will it take purely economic equality as the chief goal; it will not be libertarian in either a conservative or liberal way.  I am convinced that partisan thinking and the polarized structure of our political discourse has resulted in simplistic and false thinking for us all.
  4. Because a gospel politics will provide little support for libertarian or nationalist views and will tend to be critical of economic disparity, a gospel politics will tend toward the left on these matters. (It is hard to square the Bible with the conservative side of these views.  On the other hand, the personal moral relativism that crops up on the left will find little support in the gospel.)  What needs to be made clear, then, is that this “gospel politics” applies first and foremost to the political values that the church considers as a body politic.  The question of how they apply beyond the church to our national political institutions should be left quite open.  For instance, it is impossible for the church as a church to subscribe to libertarianism, but one could still argue that libertarianism is the best ideology for governing our national political policy.  In any event, public policy should be crafted by paying careful attention to social scientific research, which is not the domain of the preacher.  But for the church’s political action, social science is not as relevant.

My thinking about how to talk about politics in church continues to evolve.  It helps a lot to listen to people in my congregation as full-bodied, complicated human beings who also express political views!  Again, please click on “comment” to share your thoughts.

I know most people–nearly everyone–is uncomfortable with the topic of faith and politics.  But avoiding it, or dealing with it as we have done, is not really working.  And the crisis in our society around politics is undeniable.  If the church can’t find a way to bring us meaningfully together, we will be failing in our calling.  And already the church has been horribly scarred by politics; the wound is already inflicted and we need to find a way to heal.  Look at Protestantism: we are almost perfectly divided along ideological lines between the old-line denominations and the evangelical denominations and movements.  Christ’s body is already rent asunder.  Is this a peace worth preserving?