Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Community and Intimacy . . .

     One of my colleagues here in Iowa posted on Facebook this week “Trinity Sunday: That special Sunday when every member of the clergy feels the need to dazzle their congregations with their theological education, and that special Sunday when every member of every congregation really would rather that we not.” All kidding about the Ceiling Cat and lolcats aside, there is an uncomfortable truth in that post. As a church, we set aside a special day when we specifically talk about a mystery. More often than not, it ends up being a day when assistants and substitutes “get the honor” of preaching to a group such as this. I always ask, whenever anyone approaches me to tell me in the next couple of weeks how bad the sermon was, whether it was given by their regular clergy or someone else. If it was a substitute, I ask them to show a little more grace. If it was the regular clergy, then it is fun to explore what set them on edge or turned them off. At an “average size” church such as ours, however, there is no avoiding of the problem of preaching on the Trinity for the regular clergy. And with school just ending, there was no way to foist this privilege onto George or Robin or anyone else’s shoulders by taking an early vacation.

     It is just as well, however, because the Trinity has been much in my mind since my spring travels back east for Human Trafficking. As many of you know, I stopped in at my seminary. One of my professors was finishing up her PhD in theology (she finished a few weeks ago). A sociologist has pointed out that our society, for all its technological innovation, is becoming more isolated. We used to have friends and neighbors. We would gather on front porches, in bars, in homes, and at all kinds of places to interact and cement those relationships. That has certainly changed. Nowadays, we have “Twitter” followers (or those we follow), “Facebook friends,” “online pals,” and other such detached relationships. They are not detached in the sense that they are not real (there are other human beings on the other side of the relationship, after all), but they are detached in the sense that the depth that used to describe our most important relationships is missing. If I ask a parishioner about a particular comment on one of their posts, I usually get the “hey, it’s not like we are friends in rl (real life), we’re just fb friends” excuse. It is a very telling answer. People may have a 1000 Twitter followers, hundreds of fb friends, lots of listserv co-posters, but how many friends do we have in real life.

     And, lest you think this is a new phenomenon, I was reminded yet again of the truth of Ecclesiastes by another professor. He sent me a link to a Phillip Jenkins sermon from over 100 years ago. Phillip Jenkins was an Episcopal bishop from the early 1900’s. In this Trinity Sunday sermon of a century ago, preaching on our Isaiah 6 text, he was complaining that men (we were a little more sexist then) like to praise and glorify doubt. When speaking of high and lofty things, such as God, human beings tend to like to celebrate what is not known. Ignorance, we like to pretend, is bliss. Worse, we place our focus on the wrong knowledge. We begin to think we are the measure, that we are the determiners of what is to be valued. And, the end result is that the glory to which God calls us is obscured by our “man-made” efforts and idols. Sound familiar? His solution? Rather, God’s solution? Sometimes our forests of achievement need to be laid bare. We need to be reminded of the glory to which we are called, and the glory and righteousness of the One who calls us each by name.

     Much as with the bishop of a century ago, this professor with whom I was speaking wondered whether the reminder of the doctrine of the Trinity was the cure for what ails society. Clearly, her advisor thought she was on to something, and the faculty at Gordon Conwell agreed that might have a solution to a problem confronting churches around the country, else the degree would likely have been denied. As I have reflected on what she shared of her work and some of the ministry to which I am called, I wonder that we diminish ourselves by relegating the consideration of the Trinity to a single Sunday each year? I wonder that we withhold necessary medicine for that which ails us when we send unsuspecting or unprepared clergy into the pulpits on this day?

     Both in the Church community and outside the Church Community, there is an antagonism toward certainty. I get that uncertainty outside the Church. They have no reason to trust anyone or anything. Those old institutions which we used to esteem have proven themselves fallible. Even the Church, through the actions of unsavory individuals, has earned a reputation outside itself for being no better an authority than any individual conscience. Truth, as one comedian often jokes, has been replaced by truthiness. Think I am wrong? How many here think government and elected officials really care about you and your situation? Is that the same position you held three decades ago? How many of us gathered here think that the companies for which we work or worked, giving an honest day’s labor for an honest day’s wage, really care or cared about us and our welfare? Did you feel that way a decade or two ago? Did your company? And, to be sure, the Church has had enough high profile failures to convince everyone that we are a bunch of hypocrites. Between the embezzlers, the scam artists, the pedophiles, the cheaters, the tax fugitives, and whatever other group that happens to be in the headlines at the time, it is no small wonder that people quit looking to the Church for answers.

     But in the Church, many have fallen prey to the same whispers of doubt, to the very ignorance which Bishop Jenkins was decrying more than a century ago.  And rather than causing us to delve deeper into the writings which He has revealed to us, many in the Church choose to celebrate the uncertainty.  Who can really know the mind of God?  How do we know what He really wanted us to know?  God really doesn't hate sin, does He?  After all, He says He is love and love cannot hate, right?  We are smart enough to figure out which parts of Scripture were God-breathed and which parts of Scripture were the editorial result of human beings.  For reasons known only to God, we seem to forget that He is a revealing God, that He tells us what we need to know about Him and about relationship with Him.  We convince ourselves that we cannot really know Him, and the world hears and watches and turns away from the One who would save them, the One who created them.

     This lack of certainty or lack of Truth has terrible consequences for those in the world around us who have forgotten or have never heard who it is that calls them. There is a terrible shallowness and a terrible sense of isolation plaguing our society. many in the world around us fear they are unlovable.  We eschew real friends for FB friends or Twitter followers. We give up on getting to know others in real life, and spend our energy and efforts creating superficial relationship via technology. How many of us here know a single person who complains of finding a mate for life? How many of those complaining spend most of their time, energy and effort looking via the computer, only to be disappointed when the other is pretending to be different than they are in real life? One of the pernicious evils of the addiction of pornography is the simple fact that fantasy does not match reality. Men who “don’t have a problem” but continue to look find their senses dulled to the women around them. On too many occasions I have had to counsel couples where the man is simply not excited by the real woman in his life. Add to that fear the magazine covers in our supermarkets and it is no wonder that young girls have a crisis of image. Heck, I frequent an imaginary world where somewhere around 12 million people change their cartoon characters like my 4 year old daughter changes outfits to suit her mood. I can have a heartfelt, agonizing conversation with an individual on line, only to see that toon deleted in the weeks and months ahead.

     I could go on and on of the problem. Hopefully, as you reflect on my words, God is speaking into your hearts where this “superficiality” seems to reign in your life. Hopefully, it is not within your life, but in the lives of those with whom you work and live and play. I say hopefully, because this day we remind ourselves of the God who calls us back to Him, of the God who desires nothing more than to embrace us as prodigal sons and daughters returned to ourselves and to Him.  And if there is a superficiality in your life that He is bringing to mind, it is not too late.  The same God who forgives and redeems your life stands ready to cut that superficiality out of your heart.  But it is by no means easy for us.

     Trinity Sunday is that day where, to use Bishop Jenkins words, the Lord strips our forests bare. Over the seasons of Lent and Easter, we have spent time concentrating on the human condition and God’s work to restore us to Him. The only begotten Son has come down from heaven to teach and to restore. He has come to do the Father’s will and to reveal that will to us. Upon His Ascension, we have waited impatiently for the coming of the Holy Spirit. As much as we would have liked for the Son to stay with us, we know it is for our own good that He ascended. He has sent the Spirit to equip us to do amazing works to the glory of the Son and of the Father. Given the way our liturgical season and readings have progressed, it is easy to see why some people might forget the importance of the Trinity. You see, we spend so much time focusing on the will of the Father who sent Him, on the work and person of Christ, and on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that it is easy for us to forget the Unity of that Mystery. Put another way, we can sometimes get too focused on the Persons of God that we forget the Oneness of God. To be sure, our liturgy reminds us each week during the Nicene Creed of that Mystery of the Trinity, but do we really digest what we are saying? If we find ourselves isolated, if we find ourselves seeking meaning, if we find ourselves shallow, I would assert that we do not.

     You see, an important part of the Gospel related by the Trinity is the simple truth that you and are called into, and completed by our participation in, the community described by the Trinity. Lamentably, we buy into the world's idea far too often that we are captains of our own ships and masters of our own domains, when in truth, everything bows to His will and His command. We love to think we are in control.  But when we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us recognize our floundering, our impotence.  Of course, for gracious reasons beyond our understanding, God calls us back into complete community with Him. That description in the Garden of Eden is not fanciful. You and I were created to enjoy complete fellowship with our Creator. That is the end He had in mind for each one of us! That is the calling to which He calls each one of us and those in the world around us!

     For too long we have sat idly by as the world bought into the myth of the Enemy of God. We might be good at sharing our faith when it comes to redemption from sin or relating powerful healings in our life. But when that insidious sense of isolation crops up, how do we behave? What is our story? How do we tell the other in our life that they were created for so much more? For those of us who have forgotten the mystery of the Trinity, we may well be impotent in the face of such radical individualism. But for those of us who recall the mystery, we have been given an awesome reminder.

     Best of all, it is not dependent upon philosophical proofs. It depends only upon His revelation. Had He chosen not to reveal Himself in this manner, you and I could never have apprehended such a teaching on our own. We accept it as a basic tenet of our faith because He revealed it to us by the loving God who came down to save us from our sin and from our selves! Brothers and sisters, the truth and hope of the Trinity is that we need never be alone again. You and I and the whole world is called into an eternal community, an eternal community of true love, true joy, and true hope. So strong is His desire to draw us into that blessed relationship that He chose to act to redeem us, to make us worthy of being in that relationship again, even though our own efforts failed miserably. And even when, through well-intentioned but misguided efforts, we forget that simple truth that we were made for community with Him, every now and again He lays our forests bare, that we might be reminded of that for which we were created and have our being. Will we make mistakes? On this side of the grave you can count on it. But on the other side of the grave, you and I will be swept up into the relationship for which we were formed, a relationship describe by some theologians as a holy dance, and by others as an intimacy which this world cannot know. We may not know how it works. We may have to accept the Trinity on faith. But, if the One who revealed that about Himself is true and trustworthy, no other doctrine has a greater implication on our lives. And no other teaching of the faith speaks to the superficiality and sense of aloneness which plagues the world. We would do well, when confronting that hopelessness and sense of isolation, to remember the glory of the Trinity, which He reveals to us and calls us to, not just in this life, but for all eternity.


No comments: