God is Beyond Understanding and that is Actually a Good Thing

-Boticelli
-Boticelli

Holy Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 29

Romans 8:12-17

John 3:1-17

Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important and brilliant theologians throughout all of Christian history, endeavored to write a comprehensive account on the Holy Trinity. He spent about 30 years working on a 500 page tome. After all that work from this giant in the faith, Augustine wrote this on the last page of his great work,

When the wise man spake of Thee in his book, which is now called by the special name of Ecclesiasticus, “We speak,” he said, “much, and yet come short; and in sum of words, He is all.” When, therefore, we shall have come to Thee, these very many things that we speak, and yet come short, will cease… O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Thine, may they acknowledge who are Thine; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by Thee and by those who are Thine.

-St. Augustine, On the Trinity

http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/trinity/1528.html

To explore the Trinity is to attempt to plumb the very depths of who God is and Augustine acknowledges that anything he writes or says about God fall short of the fullness of who God is. In an apocryphal story, Augustine took a break from writing and took a walk on the beach. There he saw a young boy with a shell scooping ocean water into a small hole dug in the sand. Curious, Augustine asked the young boy, “What are you doing?” The young boy replied, “I am trying to empty the ocean and put it in this hole.” You can probably guess where this is going. Augustine tells him that such a task is absurd and patently impossible. The boy turns around and tells him that his task of exhaustively explaining the nature of God in the Trinity is just as impossible of a task and then disappears.

The point of the story seems to be about keeping our pride in check and watching out that we don’t believe that we can limit God to a set of rules- even if that rulebook is 500 pages long and took three decades to write.

If God is so big and mysterious why bother celebrating Trinity Sunday where we focus our music, our Scripture readings, our prayers, and our preaching on something that nobody understands anyway? The doctrine of the Trinity explains that God is distinctly three separate persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but somehow is still just one God. This declaration about who God is flies in the face of all logic and reasoning. God is big, mysterious, and “up there.” So what? What does that matter for us today who are bound by reason, logic, and are “down here?” Continue reading

God’s Mystery Basket

chopped basketI really like the reality cooking show/contest, Chopped. In this television program, four chefs from around the country compete to make the most delicious and creative dishes as determined by a panel of celebrity chefs. The quirk to the show is that the contestants must use all four food items included in the “mystery basket.” Sometimes the items are familiar and reasonable like smoked pork chops or radishes. Sometimes the items are unfamiliar or less commonly used like quail eggs or celeriac. Sometimes the items are just plain cruel like jellybeans in the appetizer round or used coffee grounds in the entrée round.

I know, I know, it is very silly, but chances are if you have seen this show you know how intriguing it can all be. I like to imagine being a contestant myself. Maybe one day they will have a special clergy competition… I can dream, right? Anyway, I love to imagine that I am a part of the competition. I get a little bit smug when I see some of the ingredients. Pork ribs, dandelion greens, vegemite, and gummy worms? Hah! That’s mere child’s play. I could make delicious, but certainly unconventional pork fried rice. It is probably just as fun when I get completely stumped. Marrow bones, cheese curls, spam, and caviar? Nope, now I am stumped. With baskets like that I am glued to the TV wondering, “What the heck are they going to do with that?” Some of the chefs fall flat with the especially odd baskets, but others seem to make something delicious out of the seemingly not delicious combination of items they were stuck with.

The church is a lot like Chopped. God has given us many gifts, passions, languages, and resources to proclaim God’s unconditional love to the world. Sometimes we might have just the right combination for ministry and it is very obvious. Good organizer, beautiful singing voice, great cook, and welcoming personality? Got it. We could put together an open mic night with dinner and the money we make could go to Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. But there are other times when we might not be sure how our gifts fit in. We all have those skills and gifts that are on par with receiving cheese curls in your mystery basket. But our chef is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit can do some pretty amazing things… even with cheese curls.

We saw the incredible ability of the Holy Spirit to bring together all kinds of unharmonious ingredients into a beautifully composed dish. At the church’s first Pentecost we saw people gathered together who spoke many languages who were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs…” (Acts 2:9-11). Each of these very different peoples were able to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in their own language. Each “ingredient” was highlighted, but together they composed a beautiful dish.

This is no less true today. God the Holy Spirit is still gathering the many different people of the world with their many different gifts and serving the Gospel of God’s unconditional love to the entire world. As we are called to participate in the ministry of Christ sharing God’s love with the world, let’s ask ourselves with great wonder and excitement, “What is in God’s mystery basket now?”

With You Always

Day of Pentecost

Russian Orthodox Icon
Russian Orthodox Icon

Ezekiel 37:1-11

Psalm 47

Acts 2:1-21

John 15:26-27a; 16:4b-15

Larry Van Pelt woke up one night to find himself inspired to undertake an art project that he believed God was calling him to do. He was inspired to draw pictures of people doing everyday tasks, but with the addition of Jesus in the frame. His idea came from the very end of Matthew’s Gospel when a post-resurrection Jesus promises the disciples that, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

The resulting artwork is very sincere, but if I am being honest, I find it a little odd. Jesus is shown clapping for a juggler, guiding the hands of a barber, and giving directions to a biker. The artwork is OK I guess, but it seems a little bit creepy imagining Jesus standing right behind you no matter what you are doing. He just stands there and stares at you as you are laying down carpet, chopping down a tree, or playing the french horn.

Creepiness aside, in some ways I kind of like the idea that Van Pelt explores: Jesus is with us in the mundane and everyday type of things we do. He is cheering with us and for us in our joys, he is weeping with us in our sorrows.

That, however, is just one aspect of who God is and how God accompanies us. Jesus wept with those who were weeping at the death of Lazarus, he ate with those who were lonely and outcast, and he prayed with his friends. Jesus also shook things up quite a bit. He challenged religious leaders, he flipped over tables in the Temple, and no one gets crucified for being a nice wallflower.

We probably see the transforming, turn-the-world-upside-down kind of accompaniment most clearly in the person of the Holy Spirit. Between Jesus’ death and the day of Pentecost fifty days later, the disciples are a quiet, private bunch. They are constantly hiding behind closed and locked doors for fear of receiving the same fate as their crucified friend and rabbi. The appearance of the resurrected Christ inspires the disciples to share the good news with each other, but even then they aren’t exactly shouting it from the rooftops for all to hear. They are speaking, “Alleluia, Christ is risen,” in hushed whispers. It makes sense though. Jesus was killed under the accusation that he sought to establish a new kingdom of God that would topple the Roman empire. He was crucified as an insurrectionist. If his followers go around shouting that Rome failed to kill him and Jesus was still alive, Roman officials would probably want to have a not-so-friendly chat with them about these anti-patriotic claims.

It isn’t until the Holy Spirit blows through their quiet and closed hiding place that the disciples get real bold, real fast. When God’s Holy Spirit falls on them with wind and fire, the disciples begin telling everyone about the things they have kept among themselves for fifty days. Then, they shout “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” from the rooftops and more than that, they say it in all languages so everyone can hear. When the Holy Spirit got involved, the Good News of life defeating death could not be contained any longer.

The Holy Spirit is still at large and that means it is still blowing open doors and transforming us and the world to new ways of experiencing and sharing the love of God.

The Holy Spirit descended on Sara Miles in San Francisco less than 20 years ago. Sara Miles joined the church through an invitation to Holy Communion and after eating this meal, she was inspired by the Holy Spirit to live this meal. She was swept up with a desire to share Holy Communion with others and other meals for those who were hungry for it. Miles ended up starting a simple food pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa’s church in San Francisco which grew into a network of about a dozen food pantries in the poorest parts of the city that regularly feed hundreds of people. The Holy Spirit made the following story possible:

One evening in St. Gregory’s kitchen, after everyone else had left, I heard a confession from a pantry volunteer, who’d brought me what she said was a ‘secret’ in a shopping bag. She had a cast on her leg, and kept looking over her shoulder anxiously, and she made me close the kitchen door. Her boyfriend, who beat her up regularly, had been threatening to kill her, she said, swallowing hard.

“I thought, this is a church, it’ll be safe here,” she said, unwrapping a dirty dishtowel from around a huge .357 Magnum revolver. “I took out the firing pin.”

That’s what church was for, I realized: a place to bring the ugly, frightening secret you couldn’t tell anyone else about. I checked that the gun was disarmed, and stuck it in a cookie tin in a locked closet beneath the pantry shelves. I didn’t mention it to anyone from the Sunday congregation. The woman moved away, to stay with a sister in Sacramento. A month later I did tell Steve.

“You must be kidding,” he said.

“Isn’t this what church is for?” I said.

“Uh, yeah,” said Steve. He looked scared, and like he wanted to laugh at the same time. “Whoa, that’s a really big gun.” We drove down to the local police station, and I walked up to the officer on duty. I was wearing a crucifix and a fairly respectable sweater. “Excuse me, I found this in our churchyard,” I lied. “Can you please take it?”

There’s nothing like being a middle-aged white lady, I told Steve as we drove back. The cops had gathered around the officer who unwrapped the package. “Holy sh–,” said one of them. “Excuse me, ma’am.” They passed it around, gingerly, and let me leave after I insisted I didn’t want to make a report or get a receipt.

-Sara Miles, Take This Bread,

The Holy Spirit creates the church through this life-giving word about a Son who died with us and makes it possible to rise again with him- the one who defeated death. This church that the Holy Spirit makes is the kind of place where you can bring everything that is big, frightening, ugly, or a secret.

God turned the world upside down and carried Sara Miles along with its transforming tumult. Where could God be calling you? Where is the Holy Spirit blowing us? What loving change is at work in our churches? Our cities? Our lives?

If we are among the pessimistic types we might feel a lot like Ezekiel standing in a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel is standing in middle of death and hopelessness itself. God asks him if those dry bones can live. Ezekiel answers, “O Lord, you know.” One way of reading his response could be that he is making a very deferential, pious statement of faith. “God, you know whether these bones can live or not because you control all life and death.” But another way to read it, and the one that sounds more realistic to me, is that Ezekiel honestly cannot answer the question and deflects it back to God. “I can’t say that the bones can live. They are long dead and long without hope. You know the answer better than me, God.”

The bones do live though. God’s Spirit blows into the bones and gives them new life and God’s Spirit continues to blow into our bones. We too may be standing in a valley of dry bones- the dry bones of our city, of our homes, of our lives. God is with us in those places of dry bones weeping with us and standing with us. But in addition to that, God is with us breathing new life into us and turning our world’s upside down when they are wrong-side up.

The Day of Pentecost is not just the “birthday of the church,” as if it were something that we commemorate as a gone and done event. Today is the Day of Pentecost too. The Holy Spirit is still with us- always. It is blowing open our closed and locked doors, it is carrying us off to proclaim the Good News of God’s love for people of all languages to hear, it is bringing life to the dry bones.

How the Holy Spirit is Kind of Like Bill Murray

Ascension of Our Lord

Acts 1:1-11

Psalm 47

Ephesians 1:15-23

Luke 24:44-53

The story of Jesus wasn’t over and it isn’t over. The story of Jesus’ radical welcome, unconditional love, reconciliation, hope, salvation- in short, Good News- did not end when reason would have you believe that it should have ended. The story of Jesus did not end when he was crucified and died. The story of Jesus did not end even after he had defeated sin and death and was raised from the dead. Now we see Jesus taken up into heaven. His feet have left the earth and is hidden behind a cloud in the sky. You’d think that now would be a good time to end this story of Jesus, but no. The story of Jesus continues on.

The disciples have just heard Jesus tell them that he is going to be taken away. The disciples ask the resurrected Christ if the kingdom of Israel will now finally be restored. Can we get back to the good old days? We would love to see the Davidic monarchy restored and Rome to get their butts handed to them like they deserve. They have a limited view on what the Kingdom of God can look like, so Jesus tells them that he is going away and they will witness and participate in the building of this Kingdom soon. They are to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to descend on them and they will see what this Kingdom really looks like. Spoiler alert: it looks like people from all over the world finally understanding each other, it looks like men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, everybody and anybody being brought together to experience the unconditional and transforming love of God. It looks like peace and reconciliation between an occupying soldier and a poor Jew whose rabbi was just killed by an occupying soldier. It looks like a rich and sexually scarred man having a Bible study with one of the pillars of the early Christian church. It looks like love.

As Jesus is saying these things he rises up into heaven and the disciples are watching until they can’t see him anymore.

And they just stand there. I like to imagine that their eyes have a blank look to them. Their mouths are hanging open, catching flies. Maybe after a few minutes a little bit of drool starts to drip out of the side of their open mouths.

Then, two angels show up to snap the disciples out of their hypnosis. “Men of Galilee! Why do you stand there staring up at the sky? This Jesus is going to come back in the same way you saw him go up. You standing there watching the pot isn’t going to make it boil any faster.”

Jesus is coming back, but that doesn’t mean that the story of Jesus is put on halt until he does. The angels snap the disciples out of their hypnosis so they can be awake to the activity of God. The disciples are brought back to planet earth, so they can remember Jesus’ promise to them. The Holy Spirit is coming and they are going to see what this Kingdom of God really looks like. Jesus tells them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. If they stand around staring up at the sky, they are going to miss the incredible work of God that is happening all around them.

This Holy Spirit that the disciples are waiting for is a lot like Bill Murray. Bill Murray is a very funny and very famous actor, but he is infamous for showing up in unexpected and pretty common places. Continue reading

Joy

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:44-48

I John 5:1-6

John 15:9-17

This South African song was written in 1984- a time when one might think it absurd to sing “All our hearts are filled with gladness.” But the people of God sing on with conviction, defiance, and joy knowing that God’s love is still present in midst of great suffering and sadness.

Jesus said:

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Are you kidding me? Joy? Now? In the middle of this? Jesus, you are nuts, delusional, and maybe a bit disconnected. How can you be telling us to have “joy” when there doesn’t seem to be much to rejoice about?

The readers of John’s Gospel certainly didn’t have much to rejoice about. The Christian Church started off as a religious community within Judaism, but by the time John was written, they had been kicked out of the synagogues. This had a couple of really terrible effects. First, it removed Christians from their established places of worship and cut them off from their established communities of people. They were alone. Second, it put their very lives in jeopardy. Rome had, more or less, a list of recognized religions of which Judaism was one. Anyone who practiced a non-recognized religion and refused to worship the emperor was deemed an “atheist.” Being an atheist was punishable by death. Being kicked out of the synagogues, Christians could no longer call themselves Jews and were therefore classified as atheists. By the time when I John was written the church is already being actively persecuted. Christians are being hunted and killed by the Roman government.

And Jesus is telling them to have “joy.”

And Jesus is telling us to have joy.

How can you rejoice when you’ve lost your job and you are wondering how you are going to scrape together enough money to put food on the table, pay the rent, and pay your family’s medical bills?

How can you rejoice when you’ve just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and you don’t know whether or not you’ll live another day and who will take care of your loved ones when you are gone?

How can you rejoice when a son or daughter is killed in a war abroad or a war on the streets?

How can you rejoice in that?

Maybe we are getting it wrong. Maybe we are mixing up “happiness” and “joy.”

Happiness, to me, seems to be mostly a feeling. It is a lightness of heart. It is the opposite of sadness. Joy is more than a feeling. Joy still exists when sadness is present and maybe even thrives in the midst of sadness. Joy is knowing that a relationship exists. Joy is a type of faith that trusts God’s love to be present even when we don’t have anything else to hold onto but the joy itself. Joy is hearing God promise to love you and to be with you to the end of the age, and actually believing it. Continue reading

Christ the Vine

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Year B

Christ the True Vine Orthodox Icon 16th Century
Christ the True Vine
Orthodox Icon
16th Century

Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

I have been doing a lot with the Sacraments this week. This week seems to be the Sacrament week. It all began last Sunday when our Confirmation class began its exploration of the Sacraments with a study of Baptism. Then, on Monday, I taught a First Communion Class. On Wednesday our Synod hosted a ministerium day where church leaders from all over the state came together to talk about the Use of the Means of Grace- particularly about whether or not unbaptized people are welcome to the table for Eucharist. Now, we come to today’s texts about the Ethiopian Eunuch’s spur-of-the-moment Baptism and Jesus’ speech about being the Vine.

This week has me thinking about the Sacraments quite a bit and I am convinced the more I think about it… it is really confusing stuff. Continue reading