The Trinity: A Doctrine Worth Believing

Trinity Sunday, today we celebrate the three-in-one, the one-in-three. Today we hold the feast of the life of God: Father, Son, and Spirit. Today traditionally, the preacher begins with some jokes about the difficulty inherent in this teaching. Oftentimes that is because the rector has wisely assigned Trinity Sunday to an unsuspecting assistant. Watch out Marc, next year you’re tackling the doctrine. The other traditional jokes are math jokes. Today is the day we celebrate that God is bad at math 1+1+1= 1. God has an issue with arithmetic.

We live in a time that is uncomfortable with doctrine. I’ve heard The Episcopal Church described as “non-doctrinal,” as if not having doctrine was a selling point. Come over here to our church. You don’t really have to believe anything to be a member! In a sense that is true. We don’t have litmus tests. I won’t ask you to sign a statement of faith. I am serious when I say, “whoever you are, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome here.” But don’t mis-hear me when I say those words. Don’t hear me say I don’t think belief has value.

The Trinity is worth believing, even though the doctrine didn’t develop until two or three hundred years after Jesus’ death. Scripture doesn’t use the word “trinity,” and these two short passages from Second Corinthians and Mathew’s Gospel are the only places in the whole Bible where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are mentioned together. The early church fiercely debated, even fought battles over this idea of Trinity. They say that many of the bishops that turned up at the Council of Nicea were missing ears, eyes, or arms. They had been to war over this doctrine.

Is a doctrine really worth fighting over? Is it worth losing life and limb? The early church mothers and fathers believed this teaching was valuable. Belief has value. Faith is worth the wrestling. For me, this doctrine of the Trinity, this teaching of the Triune life of God, is life-giving. This morning I want to talk about just two ways I find the Trinity, and idea, a doctrine, to be worth believing. I want to talk about the Trinity and creation, and I want to talk about the healing potential I believe the Trinity presents to our divided world.

First: Creation

In that long reading from Genesis we heard about the “seven days” of creation. Know that I do not believe that creation happened in seven literal days. I don’t view Genesis as a Science textbook, a cosmological or geological record. Genesis is theological. Genesis is the story of God’s relationship to creation.

Did you notice the moment at the very beginning? Darkness covers the face of the earth, and a wind from God sweeps over the waters. Even in the first sentences of the Bible there is interplay in the inner life of God. Then God spoke: “Let there be light.” And immediately Christians turn from Genesis to the first chapter of John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So in the beginning, if you splice together Genesis and John, you have God’s Spirit and God’s Word named alongside God the Creator. There is interplay in God’s life, even in the Biblical stories of creation. God is not some static stoic creator, but a dynamic relationship. And God is not done with creation, until humanity has been created.

Meister Eckhart the Christian monk and mystic once explained the inner life of the Trinity, and the creation of humanity this way:

“The Father laughed, and the Son was born. The Father and Son then laughed together, and the Spirit was born. The three then started laughing and humanity was born.”

Now, the early church teachers would have come after Eckhart with a sword because he makes it sound like God created the Son and the Spirit. Hopefully they would’ve been assuaged when he said: “it’s poetry!” In that poetry we have an image of the joy, of the laughter, of the relationship at the heart of God’s life. God is about relationship. Humanity is meant for relationship, with God, with fellow humans. We are not in this alone.

We life in a time when our relationships are strained. We can see the evidence on an ecological level. Oceans are rising. Ice Sheets are melting. Species go extinct with regularity. If God had made creation a democracy, I’m not sure humanity would when another term as leader. My vote is with the dolphins. I say that kiddingly, but the more we learn about our planet, the more we learn about an intricate balance of relationships that keeps our biosphere in motion. If we are going to survive, we have to learn to live together. To borrow a term from Eckhart, we have to learn to laugh together, to laugh together with creation, or we might be doomed.

I don’t want to lower the stakes here. I am concerned about the state of our planet. I’m worried for the future of our species. Yet, here’s my hope. This ancient belief, The Trinity, for me provides the diagnosis. We live in broken relationships, with one another, with creation, with God.

But if the Trinity provides a diagnosis, the doctrine can also give us a clue where to look for treatment.

“Learn to laugh together,” Eckhart would say.

As we were traveling down in El Salvador last week, my friend Grace made a fascinating observation. Some of you know Grace. She has a Sunday morning job at another church that keeps her away from our worship services, but she often serves with us at the Trinity meal for the hungry and she comes to evening programs. She came with us to El Salvador, and Grace had a real insight into why I, and so many people say they feel “at home” in the country. People often remark on the hospitality they find in El Salvador, it is a hallmark of the culture. Salvadorans take the time to greet you, to ask you how you are, to really listen.

Grace noticed that, among the Salvadorans, people weren’t “on edge” politically with us, in the way we seem to be with each other in the United States. When she said that, I thought, yeah.

Have you felt this “on-edge-ness”? Have you found yourself not really listening to another person, just readying your “talking points” on a particular political topic? I know I have. Have you found yourself on the receiving end? I’ve said something that set off a reaction from another person. I’ve even set off a set of “talking points” I agreed about. Someone recently tried to convince me that we need stronger gun laws, because they thought I had said something I didn’t. We are on edge.

Grace noticed, in El Salvador, the edge was off. People spent more time listening to one another, and less time correcting. Now stay with me for a moment, because I think Grace’s observation has something to do with the Trinity, with the life of God.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that “on edge” tension can be called “dualism.” We are set up, in our culture, to see “this” or “that,” “black” or “white,” “male” or “female,” “gay” or “so-called straight,” “conservative” or “liberal.” (The truth is dualism is in El Salvador as well, but sometimes cross-cultural encounters can break through). But dualism is a trap, says Rohr. We are taught to look for the other, the opposite, and to oppose. We don’t hear nuance. You are with us or against us. That tension of the two poles, the opposites, is not of God, Rohr says, at least not how we understand God in Trinity. Trinity breaks apart the idea that there are just two options. There is always a third way. We can move past dualism. What does non-dualism look lie? Like all the colors of the rainbow.

Today at church we’re wearing our rainbows. We’re standing with the thousands in Washington DC, and around the country, marching for equality for the LGBTQ+ community. Being a member of that community has also challenged me to grow past dualism. The LGBTQ+ community have been spiritual teachers for me. Every time I think I have our community fitted into little boxes in my mind, sorted into “this or that” they challenge me to expand. Heck, every time I think I know the acronym for my community, we add a letter. Now we have Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and “Q” (which stands for Queer and Questioning). Then this year we decided to add the symbol “+” for all the groups not named in LGBTQ. I try and keep Holy Communion on the leading edge of welcome to the LGBTQ+ community, and so I added the “Q” to our sign this year, but then I got distressed when I discovered that our letter and symbol kit for the sign outside doesn’t have a “+.” I’m sure God will forgive us this year, but I’m looking into ordering more symbols. I figure I’ll be proactive and I’ll by some emojis while I’m at it.

The spiritual wisdom of the ever expanding LGBTQ+ community is, I believe, the same wisdom in the Christian teaching of the Trinity. God is one, and yet God’s very one-ness is a dynamic diversity. Every time I think I have God nailed down, sorted, defined, God surprises me. Saying God is three-in-one, one-in-three, it is to say that at the very heart of God is a love of difference, and the ability for difference to come together in unity. God’s very life is an embrace of diversity.

The Trinity leads me to ask: What if we treated one another as equally beloved? What if we encountered difference not as a problem to be corrected but as yet another facet of God’s image? What if we didn’t set ourselves up for opposition, but listened and laughed, and added letters onto the description of our community? What if we learned to listen to creation, and to adjust our use of resources to live in better balance? What if we trusted that God was with us in this dynamic search?

Those “what if” questions for me are worth the asking, and more. Those “what if” questions may be our only way forward. This is why I think belief matters, why if you are still walking the journey of faith, I invite you to consider the Trinity. It’s not a cosmic joke. It’s not bad math. The Trinity is a description of God’s life: The triune God, diversity in unity, the loving-laughing non-dual force behind creation. The Trinity can bring hope in a world of broken relationships.

Do You See That Woman? Ruth, The Widow’s Mite, And God’s Perspective

Do you see that woman?

Have you heard of the Bechdel test? The test is named for the cartoonist and playwright Alison Bechdel, recently famous for her Tony Award winning musical “Fun Home.” She came out with the test in a comic strip back in 1985. The Bechdel test is a pretty straight-forward way to analyze a movie or other narrative work. To pass, a movie only needs to meet three criteria:

1) The movie has to have at least two women in it.
(bonus points if they have names)
2) The women have to talk to one another
3) about something besides a man.

A surprisingly small number of Hollywood blockbusters pass the test. Even today, movies that feature long conversations between women that don’t have to do with men, they’re not likely to get studio backers. These movies are also not likely to draw big audiences. We live in a society that still literally values men and men’s stories far more than women and women’s stories.

Which is part of what makes the Book of Ruth so remarkable. We live in a time where the Bechdel test exists, and is being applied. The storytellers and writers who developed the texts of the Bible did not live in a time like ours. History has been written by the winners, and for a long time the winners have been men. The Book of Ruth shows us that sometimes, sometimes, in our sacred text, you can find another perspective. Society may have historically valued one gender, one orientation, one race, one perspective. But God has been working God’s purpose out, (and I know this comes as news to you at The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion) but it turns God doesn’t just work through rich white straight men. Our God is the God of the least likely characters.

The story of the Book of Ruth puts women at the center. Naomi and Ruth are an unlikely pair. Naomi finds herself a refugee. With her husband Elimelech and her sons Mahlon and Chilion she leaves Bethlehem because of a famine. The family comes to Moab looking for food. Mahlon and Chilion marry local girls, one of them named Ruth. Naomi’s husband dies, as do her sons. Chilion’s widow leaves looking for better prospects, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi destitute. She decides to return to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, an act of love. “Your God will be my God, and your people will be my people” Ruth says. Our story today picks up when they are back in Bethlehem, and Ruth has been keeping them alive by gleaning in the fields. Two women rely on one another to survive, and as we learn today, come up with a plan.

The narrative in the Book of Ruth finishes with one of the most radical lines of the Bible, the line that ends our reading this morning: “A son has been born to Naomi. They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” Why is this radical? Why, Mike, with all this great story, would you read a genealogy to us? How can a genealogy be radical? Because it tells us that David, David, the quintessential ubermensch, the epitome of power and privilege and masculine domination. David, the king, upper hand of history, David owes his existence to a couple of unruly women, who had the gall to talk to one another, to plan, and to fight for their survival.

It’s more than that. Naming a book of the Bible for Ruth is radical because Ruth is a double outsider. She’s a woman. We’ve covered that. She’s also a Moabite. That identity means something in ancient Israel. Remember in Genesis after Sodom was destroyed? Lot leaves his land and his wife (recently turned to a pillar of salt). He and his daughters make their way to some caves outside Zoar. The daughters realize the family line is about to go extinct, so they get their father drunk and seduce him. Lot’s daughters conceive sons, one of which is named “Moab” meaning “from my father.” That’s the story the Israelites tell about their ethnic neighbors. As a Moabite, Ruth is a supposed descendent of this illicit match. Ruth is an ethnic and sexual outsider, and Ruth is King David’s great grandmother. What is God doing?

Before we transition, I want to say a word about s-e-x in the text. As you can tell from the story I just told about Lot’s daughters, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t shy away from sexuality. Our text this morning is no exception. When Naomi tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s feet, yeah, that’s a euphemism, but again Ruth makes a radical assertion. In this story, a woman’s sexuality is liberating. Most of the time in the Bible, men were making decisions about women’s bodies (Like when Lot offered his daughters to the men of Sodom, or when Ruth’s great grandson David interrupts Bathsheba’s bath). But Ruth makes her own decision. As the Scripture scholar Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams puts it succinctly in her commentary: “She consents.” Never undervalue consent. Ruth makes her own decision about her own body, a decision which brings her closer to a worthy partner, Boaz.

This text is strong stuff, I’ll grant you. In the Book of Ruth we learn that God can use women, and God can use sex, to work out God’s purposes. Our society today may still not be entirely comfortable with either idea, but here it is in the Bible. This book is good news if you’ve ever felt like an outsider. The book is good news if your perspective isn’t always valued. Ruth is good news for you, if your romantic life isn’t quite a fairy tale. This book is good news for you, and for me, and for all of us, because it tells us that God uses surprising characters.

We’ve already talked about the genealogy at the end of Ruth, but I want to talk about the beginning of our passage. Naomi tells Ruth about her plan because she wants it “to be well” for Ruth, to be well. Around a thousand years after the writing of the Book of Ruth, a woman mystic named Julian lived in Norwich England. Among many revelations she received from God was a simple phrase: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Naomi and Julian, a thousand years or more apart, understand the same truth of God: God seeks our well being. All shall be Well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

These women’s words have been a great comfort to me on many dark nights of the soul. When I lived in Honduras, I used to use Julian’s phrase as a prayer. I repeated the words again and again as I passed rosary beads through my fingers. “All shall be well, and all shall be well.” I needed the reassurance so far from home, so far out of my comfort zone. As I struggled with Spanish and struggled to comprehend the poverty and violence of Tegucigalpa, these words were a life raft for my prayer life. They helped me gain perspective. God works, always, for our well-being, even when we can’t see God working.

In the words of the psalm:

God gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.
God sets the prisoners free;
God opens the eyes of the blind; *
God lifts up those who are bowed down;
God loves the righteous;
God cares for the stranger; *
God sustains the orphan and widow.

Those words all describe God’s pursuit of our well-being. God lifts, and loves, and cares for the stranger and the orphan and the widow. God is working for the least likely characters. God is using the unlikely actors, and because God is who God is: All shall be well. No matter how dark it might seem in our world, all shall be well. No matter how difficult our lives may appear, all shall be well. No matter what the world tells you about you, God is working that you may be well. It’s a question of perspective. Do we hear the doomsaying of the world, or the hope of God? Do we listen to the naysaying of the world, or the loving voice of God? What’s your perspective?

This question of perspective lies at the center of our Bible, of our Gospel, of our faith. The Scripture invites us to see the world as God sees the world. Can we give up the lenses the world gives us? The dark lenses that focus us on the powerful and privileged? Can we pay attention instead God’s action, God’s mission, among the poor, the women, the outsiders? If we want to see God in our world, we have to look to the characters our world deems unlikely.

This perspective is at the heart of Jesus’ question to his disciples this morning. “Do you see that woman?” We know this story well. We hear it often as the church goes through its annual fund-raising season. The widow’s mite. The story is a story of perspective. The widow’s two copper pennies are worth more than all the gold of the rich lawyers and scribes. In the eyes of God, our giving matters, no matter the number of zeros behind the integer. The way of Biblical generosity is not a simple mathematical formula. Yes, but there’s so much more.

Do you see that woman? Have the disciples eyes have been drawn to the long robes of the scribes? Have their ears been distracted by the long prayers? Beware, Jesus says, the powerful and privileged are devouring widows’ houses. They like to show their faith off. They like to display their wealth and education. They like you to think it is a sign of God’s blessing, God’s favor. Jesus wants us to see: economic success is not a sign of a great faith. Do you want to see great faith? Do you see that woman?

Jesus points to an unlikely character, a widow giving just two pennies. That’s faith, he says. That is the work of God. That is generosity. God is paying attention when we are distracted by the world. God is working God’s purpose out when wealth blinds us. If it has ever seemed the world has given up on you, take heart, God is paying attention when society can’t be bothered.

If our scripture tell us anything this morning it is this: watch what the unlikely characters are doing when it seems no one is watching. Watch out when women talk together, about something other than men. Those women very well might be plotting the work of God. Because God is in the business of using the unlikely characters. God uses unlikely gifts. God could even be in the business of using you.

Our world needs some unlikely characters, some unlikely stories. Our world is addicted to a narrative that says some people aren’t valuable. Our world believes the doomsayers. Our world needs a word of hope.

What unlikely story will you write? What unlikely ministry will our church be a part of? What unlikely plan is God hatching to turn over the perspective of the world?

Do you see that woman?

To Believe or not to Believe?

A buddy of mine at seminary and I have been having semi regular bouts of walking and theologizing.  We’ve been discussing belief a lot around here.  Often this takes a very negative, if comical form.  Someone calls someone else a “heretic” because they express doubt about the perpetual virginity of Mary, say, or wonder about the physical resurrection.  Theological debate then begins around what constitutes true Christian faith.  Do you have to believe in the virgin birth, or the physical resurrection?  Is faith the denial of science for the sake of the miraculous?  Does that take us all the way to denying evolution?

In the midst of all of this I keep returning to questions of epistemology, the study of knowledge.  Where does knowledge come from?  What is true?  What is belief?

I think we’ve come to associate belief and truth with a scientific process of proving hypothesis in this period of human history.  We tend to think that knowledge comes from gathering observable data and testing patterns in that data.  Something is true if we can observe and measure it.  For most of human history this wasn’t the way of thought.  Applying the scientific method to stories in the Bible leads us to wonder if a cold front pushed back the Red Sea or if Lazarus was comatose.  We tend to hypothesize about the miraculous.

I think this involves importing a modern view of scientific truth onto a set of stories that weren’t meant to be tested as “data.”  For earlier people, truth was narrative.  People understood that story, poetic meaning, commitment embodied truth.  We were defined through relationship.  Truth wasn’t found by testing data, but by finding resonance in poetry, art, story.

Understanding this definition of truth is important as we approach Christian belief.  I’m not sure the creeds were set up to say “all the physical evidence to the contrary, I believe…”  Believing in the Incarnation may have less to do with wondering how exactly it was that Mary came to be pregnant, and more to do with understanding that God sees humans as worthwhile enough to share life with.  Whatever is scientifically probable, the deep truth being affirmed is that God loves us enough to dwell among us.  However it is that Jesus is resurrected, the deep truth is that he overcame all barriers, even death, to show his redemptive and liberating love to the world.

God is in very nature improbable.

So what does believing in the resurrection look like?  Is it a thought process denying the truth of science, or does it mean we hope against hope for new birth in the lives of the suffering around us?  What does faith in the incarnation look like?  Does it mean we assert that Mary was forever a virgin in our minds, or does it mean that we stand up to the powers of the world that tell us we are worthless because we trust in the God who chose us as neighbors?

If we hold on to tightly to our beliefs, they become blunt instruments useful for bludgeoning and not much else.  If we are able to hold them gently, we might just be surprised that resurrection, incarnation, and miracles, are not stories of old but living truths available in our world.  Faith becomes playful rather than painful.

What do you believe?  How do you believe?

Playful faith...Seminarians dressed up to watch a VTS soccer game.
Playful faith...Seminarians dressed up to watch a VTS soccer game.