Sunday, June 19, 2011

Three Stories

2 Cor 13:11-13

All right folks, here we are and it’s Trinity Sunday, and that means we won’t have a LOT to do with the Bible today. The word “trinity” is found in the bible exactly zero times. It’s a post-Biblical concept.

Suzanne read a blessing – since I missed it I bet some of you did too so I’ll read the last words again: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” That is about as much as we get. “Christ, God, and Holy Spirit.” There’s also a Commission in the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells his disciples to go out into the world baptizing people in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And there is also a funny little verse way back in the beginning of it all, where God says “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

The bible has some scraps and pieces of information that helped us to come to an understanding of God. And on the surface, the Trinity just looks like an organizational tool: condensing and aligning three important stories about God.

But what’s interesting is that when we put the three stories together, we get another story – a story about relationships. A parent loving a child, a child trusting that parent. One person starting some work, and giving it to another to finish. Three people working for a common goal, living in harmony and unity. A Trinity is a unity of three. Not a hierarchy, with Father on top and Spirit at the bottom – a unity of three equals. A community.

It’s all a bit ridiculous, of course. God’s not a person. God doesn’t have hands and feet, or a gender, or a brain. For that matter, then, God does not have three brains, and six hands. And God is certainly NOT two old men and a ghost.

Sometimes we try to come up with alternate wording for the Trinity. Mother, Child, and Womb has been suggested… works for some, doesn’t for others… Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is a great old standby, but it sounds a little bit as if it’s just one person with three hats, three things to do. I could go out and get three part-time jobs, but that wouldn’t make me a Trinity. And when we just describe God’s tasks, we run the risk of abstracting God. The Trinity is three particular stories – not a set of abstractions.

As abstractions go, there are way too many ideas floating around that would have God be, by definition, the top of a hierarchy. God would be omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnicompetent – all the omni’s – a solitary monarch, high up on a throne in the clouds, with no need to interact with anything else except maybe to squash something or smite someone.
Guess what. That’s not God. That’s a monster.
Images of God matter – because no matter how you believe you were created, we all do re-create ourselves in the image of the God we believe in. If we believe God is authoritarian and strict, we become rigid and controlling. If we believe God is creative, we give ourselves permission to be playful. We create ourselves in the image of the God we believe in.
What the doctrine of the Trinity tells us is that we, also, ought not to be solitary monarchs, power-grabbers looking for a nice high throne. On the contrary, God’s image, in which we are created, is interdependence among equals, with hospitality for one another.

Today I want to share with you some images of this Triune God…

Three stories.

God looked down at her hands. Muddy from a day’s work, molding mountains. But it sure was fun work. Watching continental plates crash oh-so-slowly together, keeping a look out for volcanos, opening little springs of water that would cut into the face of the mountains. She could play with this stuff forever and never get tired. She loved watching a mountain stream clean out everything in its way, leaving bare rocks uncovered beneath it. She loved the sharp crags that turned into bright snowcaps, and she loved the green foothills with their soft gentle curves.

God had just recently brought mammals into being, and she loved watching them, wondering where each new species would find its home. She watched as they changed her mountains, the goats eating shrubs down to the stem, the beavers turning streams into ponds. She was wondering what to do about the erosion on a hill that the buffalo had just overgrazed… but she had plenty of time to see about that.

What God really wanted to do next was to work on that new creature. She was going to create it from the soil of the ground, and she had picked a terrific spot to dig that up. Fertile, reddish, rich and damp soil. She knew it was going to be a wonderful creation. She turned the dirt over and over in her hands, kneading it like clay, playing with different shapes. “In Our image,” God mused, “according to our likeness.” She made two legs and laughed out loud as they started twisting and kicking. She made an arm and pushed it in where the shoulder should be – and the little dirt creature pushed back. This was definitely more fun than molding mountains. She made the head and eyes and nose, and used her fingernail to slice a little mouth open. Immediately a flood of speech burst out – “Hey God, why didn’t you make me another arm? The kneecaps are really sticking out, don’t you think that’s poor planning if I fall? Hey, God, I also had an idea about that mountain over there. It’s too steep on the north side….”
God quickly put her thumb on the groundling’s mouth and held it there until she had made it some ears.

When the groundling’s body was complete it said “great! Can you let me down now and let me start fixing things around here?” … but God knew that one creature could never contain the Divine Image by itself. She put the first groundling to sleep while she fashioned a second. Soon they would create another, and God’s threefold image would begin.

God looked down at his hands. They were tied in thick rope and scratched where Pilate’s soldiers had so roughly handled him. He knew that this earthly adventure was coming up to a finale of some sort. He struggled to stay awake in the early morning cold, knowing that he could be called in for his trial at any time. Even in the quiet of his cell he could tell that outside, the drumbeat of the crowd’s frenzy was getting faster and faster.

Ever since Jesus had seen the groundling push back in the Creator’s hands, he had known that there was hard work ahead. He knew that it had been a risk all along to create such powerful and free creatures as humans… but even more, now, he knew that it was a risk to keep loving them. Of course he could abdicate responsibility at any time. He could deny his love for these hurting and hurtful people, call it quits, call in some angels, break the ropes tying him like Samson, fly out of the court before everyone’s watching eyes – but then he wouldn’t have shown people what it is to be fully human.

Jesus almost couldn’t stand it when miracles happened at his hands. Yes, he wanted to see people healed and changed and living new lives, and he was grateful when this happened – but when the crowd saw a miracle, they’d go ooh and aah as if it had been fireworks, and they would be clapping too loud to hear when he said “you could do this too. Your heavenly Father will hear you when you ask.”
It was sad to see people walking around like slaves, wasting their potential – when they were made in the image of God! Even his disciples so rarely understood. He’d say “no – you can do it too – just step out on the water with me –” but then they’d bow down and worship him, which was the last thing he wanted. He wanted them to join him, not put him on a pedestal.
He was working up a little sermon in his mind. Maybe if he’d explain it this way they’d get it: “To be fully human is to be a reflection of God. All that I have comes directly from God, because I just don’t get in the way. If you trust God, you can do anything!”

Who was he kidding? His chance of getting to preach one more time was about the same as his chance of getting a fair trial.

Well, he would have no miracles, today. He was here to show people what it meant to be a child of God, to truly bear God’s image, to love until the end. No tricks, no gimmicks. His hands would stay bound until someone untied them.

God looked down at her hands. They were cradling a small child in a hospital bed, and although none of the grownups in the room had managed to catch sight of them, God was finally satisfied that the child knew her hands were there. The Spirit’s hands were so hard to see, of course. Even when someone did see them, so often they’d chalk it up to coincidence or just good luck. Intuition often took the credit, as if intuition weren’t just one part of being created in God’s image. But it didn’t matter much to Spirit, as long as hatred was changed to love, despair to hope, sorrow to joy, darkness to light. That was her work, and there was a lot of work to do in this room today. The child was actually the most open to the Spirit, and was settling down peacefully to prepare for surgery, but the parents were distraught to the point that almost no consolation could seep through their fear. God wrapped each one of the parents in a blanket of trust and hoped that they’d take it in. Then she winged a quick dose of graciousness to the doctor, whose first reaction to the parents would have otherwise been “calm DOWN already,” and a measure of serenity to the hospital chaplain. She reminded the nurses of the gentleness within them, and gave the anaesthesiologist a extra burst of cheerfulness. Routine stuff, really. None of it was beyond the scope of ordinary human life. But ordinary human life is all in the image of God. Today God knew that she might go completely unnoticed, even by the chaplain. A few minutes ago she had been midwifing with a fearful new mother… empowering a janitor who needed to stand up for his rights… and inspiring a young and starry-eyed nursing student. None of them gave her the credit… mostly they’d forgotten that they had a spirit of any kind within, much less a divine spirit. But it didn’t matter, as long as her work was being done.

God looked down at God’s hands, held in a circle around the dinner table. Of course when you’re God you don’t technically need to say prayers before dinner. But they had a habit of gathering like this, expressing gratitude to one another, enjoying one another’s presence and sharing a meal. There was laughter today, Jesus had knocked over a chair in his typical human clumsiness. There was deep love expressed, great admiration for one another, and a willingness to pitch in and help where the other one needed it. How lonely it would be to do all this alone… with no one to laugh with you, cry with you, and suffer the pain of loving with you. How hard it would be to do this dance alone.

Take a moment and look down at your own hands, created in the image of God. I wonder what work they will do… whose hands they will hold… whose tears they might wipe away… what they will create.

Three Stories”
Take a moment and look at this icon. It is an old and famous picture of the Trinity…. I want to draw your attention to one thing about this picture. Look -- at how the circle is not closed. There is space at this table for you. The Trinity is not a closed community – it is open-ended and hospitable. You are invited in, to share, to feast, to work, and to dance with the members of the Trinity. Bring your work to the table – bring your fears, your sorrows, your joys. And then reach back out of the circle, and take someone else’s hand to bring them in. We belong to one another, and we belong to God.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Holy Impatience (otherwise known as the Ankle Monologues)

Last week, in a burst of courage, I emailed my doctor saying "don't you think my ankle is taking, oh, well, just a little bit too long in healing? It having been a year already?" and he emailed back "yes" and within an hour a podiatrist called me saying "could you come in for an appointment in an hour?"
(Kaiser Permanente definitely has the internal communications down pat. Thumbs up for that, KP!)

So I went in, trembling, and grateful that I hadn't had more than a minute or two to think about what might actually be wrong with my ankle. Because, well, my ankle was last year's problem - I was done learning from that mistake. Sometime last winter the physical therapist dismissed me to self-scheduled aftercare, and said it'll be slow but sure. So I filed "ankle" in the back of my brain, settled into the self-abnegating practice of Holy Patience, and simply postponed everything I wanted to do, like hiking Mt. Bald, and Mt. Tam, and Tennessee Valley, and the AIDS walk.

I'd learned a lot of spiritual lessons, of course, like grace and humility and new priorities. So many lessons, in fact, that my ankle seemed to be, by now, not much more than a collection of Ideas and Learnings, of Humblings and Challenges. The ankle had ceased to be anything much like an ankle. I no longer thought of it in terms of leaps, or turns, or waltzes, or climbs. I'd even stopped thinking of it in terms of ligaments or tendons, strength or stretch.

It took some good friends and family members to gently push me and say, basically, "you deserve to have a working ankle." I went ahead and emailed the doctor, all but assuming he would answer "You're not spiritual enough. Practice patience." So it was scary when he agreed - "yes you deserve a working ankle."

My ankle is Not Okay, and if the steroid treatment doesn't loosen scar tissue, I could need surgery. That's scary.

What's scarier is to think about how quickly I shut myself up, shut myself off, denied myself the hope of a healthy ankle, and sanctified it under the name of the virtue - Holy Patience.
Impatience is holy too. Check out some psalms. That's the virtue I need to practice today. Today I need to push, demand, stand up for myself, and stop apologizing for the air I breathe. I need to know that I am good enough to deserve healing, and that, being a paying KP member, I am entitled to a doctor's care. Maybe I'll even get brave enough to ask God for some healing, although I'll have to get over the hurdle of wanting not to take up God's precious time.

Today I invite you to take a look at whatever it is you consider a virtue... and wonder about its counterpart. Could the opposite be a virtue, too? Patience - Impatience. Humility - Pride. Diligence - Playfulness.
I wonder....

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kick those cans

Bold statement of the day: storing up too much extra food can be theologically dangerous.

I’m talking about those cans and boxes in your pantry. Yes, you. Your little Annie’s Mac & Cheeses, lentil soups, refried beans, ricearonis, whatever it is you store up. Theologically dangerous. Yes, I said it. Watch out.

I wouldn't counsel utter foolishness, of course. I know a good deal when I see one. As a matter of principle I won’t say no to 75% off. And certain places can really get me going. When I’m house shopper (we divide it up – one person to the farmer’s market, one to TJ’s, one to Safeway) I find it much harder to shop at Safeway than the farmers’ market. At the farmer’s market, you look around and see what’s good, and guess how much a hungry household will eat in a week, and I almost never have a problem with going over budget. We can only eat so much in a week. At Safeway I’m constantly tempted. They know how my brain works. They offer 50% off sales, or even worse, they say “buy one get one FREE” and my brain sees “free” and says “well it would be a sin to leave that to go to waste, I’d better help them out here.” I end up spending way over the weekly budget and we end up with stacks and stacks of 60-percent-off pasta. We eat it, eventually, of course.

There is a theological side of this story. Ellen Davis talks about the “manna economy” of the desert, and the “empire economy” of Egypt. When the Israelites were enslaved, they looked around and saw silo after huge silo of stored grain. They may not have had direct access to it, but it was there in case of famine, courtesy of Pharoah’s food policy programs. In the desert it was the polar opposite – their manna was not physically capable of being stored. It would rot overnight. Forget building a silo – you'd have to live day to day. The manna story shows the economic implications of relying on your food directly from the hand of God – if there is no storing it up, there is no taxing it either, or running an overpriced supply chain out of Pharoah’s silos. Everyone gets what they need - no more, no less.
The manna economy does not come easily in the real world. We are keepers, storers, hoarders - and recently TV shows have shown us the dark underside of that strain that runs through our culture. It is not that unusual for people to have cans in their closet that end up expiring before they can eat them all – because so many sales have convinced them they absolutely MUST take this cheap little can of food home with them, store it up, feel secure against potential disasters.
It’s a funny philosophy… to think that God would somehow love the perishable food more than the imperishable… and might even want us to face the world without a prudent reserve… but it must come from something like the same theology that says “blessed are the poor” and other such backwards things.
What is your personal food theology? What does your pantry or fridge say about your relationship to God? Or have you intellectualized it out of that realm completely?