This Trinity Sunday sermon owes much to John Shelby Spong’s book a “New Christianity for a New World” You can listen to the sermon here then watch the tail end of the Wolf Blitzer interview mentioned in the sermon.
In the midst to the devastation and debris that was left of the town of More, Oklahoma, it was all to clear that the power of the tornado that whipped through such a heavily populated area had left behind the kind of destruction that tears not only the foundations of buildings but also of lives. In living rooms around the world millions of people watched as the news media descended on what was left in the wake of nature’s wrath. One particular news report is still reverberating around the Internet. I had just come from my office where I had spent the afternoon, reviewing the Doctrine of the Trinity in order to write this sermon. My wife Carol was in the kitchen cooking supper and I sat down to catch up on the news events of the day. I tuned into CNN and there amidst the rubble of More Oklahoma was the familiar face of Wolf Blitzer. It was the day after the tornado and the big name newscasters had been rushed to the scene in time to provide color-commentary on the evening news. Wolf was interviewing a young mother named Rebecca Vitsmun who was holding a squirming her 19 month old, toddler Anders in her arms. The young mother gave a blow-by-blow account of her narrow escape from. All afternoon Rebecca was paying attention to the weather reports. Rebecca was not from More, but rather from New Orleans and so she was not used to tornado warnings. She’d grown up with Hurricane warnings and so her first instinct was to evacuate the area. But her husband and neighbours had told her that the safest thing to do would be to take shelter. Six-teen minutes before the tornado struck the weather service issued a warning to take shelter. As Rebecca’s husband raced home from work, this young mother grabbed her laptop, a mattress and her toddler and took shelter in the bathtub. Huddled in the tub covered by a mattress she anxiously watched the reports on her laptop. Tracing the path of the tornado, Rebecca realized that the tornado was headed straight for her street. Rebecca’s New Orleans’ instinct kicked in and with her baby in her arms she jumped into her car and without taking time to put her baby in the car seat, she drove as fast as she could out on to the freeway where she pulled over and put Anders into his car seat and then drove some more. After the tornado, Rebecca reunited with her husband, and they headed back to what was left of their home. The bathtub was so full of debris that it was clear to them that Rebecca’s instincts had saved her life.
After telling her harrowing tale, Wolf Blitzer congratulated Rebecca for saving her baby’s life and then said to this young woman, “You gotta thank the Lord.” Rebecca was clearly taken aback by the comment and hesitated. I held my breath, annoyed as hell at Blitzer for asking such a stupid question. Rebecca’s hesitation gave Blitzer the opportunity to move on, but no he just had to have an answer, and so he persisted. “Do you thank the Lord?” Rebecca gave Blitzer the kind of look that says, “Are you kidding me?” Then Rebecca gave Blitzer an answer that he sure wasn’t expecting from an American from the heartland of Oklahoma; Rebecca smiled as she answered, “I’m actually an atheist.”
As Rebecca laughed awkwardly, I cheered so loudly that Carol came into the room to see what was going on. I was so proud of that young woman for not going along with Blitzer’s nonsense. Who in their right minds would believe in a Lord who would pluck one family out of a bathtub and let seven children die in an elementary school? I mean, if this Lord that Bilitzer is so willing to give credit too is such a great rescuer, why didn’t this Lord change the twister’s path and send it out over the cornfields where the only damage it could do would be to crops?
I know they say there are no atheists in fox-holes, but I for one think that that bathtub Rebecca was hunkered down in was indeed a fox-hole and I’m delighted that when all was said and done, she and little Anders were saved by her instinct for survival. As for this Lord of Blitzer’s, well, judging by the awkwardness that Blitzer exhibited after Rebecca stood her ground, I can only guess that this reporter misjudged the situation. Blitzer a city-slicker from New York, assumed that all the local yokels must be bible-thumping Christians, and he probably thought that his question would have received a mindless ra, ra, yeah God, kind of response from all Oklahomans. I trust he won’t make that mistake again. I kind of feel sorry for him, because after all it only took a few hours before some televangelist’s were suggesting that God did indeed send the tornado to teach people a lesson. According to some bible-thumpers, if people prayed hard enough they would have been saved. Some even went so far as to suggest that the tornado was punishment for gay marriage.
I’ve got to say, that I’d love to find a way to send Rebecca a cheque to help her recover from the devastation. If I could, I’d send her a note thanking her for her honesty and telling her that this particular pastor would rather be an atheist than believe in Mr. Blitzer’s version of the Lord. If his portrayal of God’s interference in the world is the best our culture can offer, I suppose we only have ourselves to blame. For far too long now too many churches and too many Christians have allowed an image of God to stand tall; an image that no thinking person could ever believe is anything more than an idol of someone’s sick and twisted imagination. So, I don’t blame Wolf Blitzer for his faux pas. In fact, judging by the amount of media coverage his interview has received, I’m actually grateful to him, for beginning the kind of conversation between atheists and believers alike that should continue until we can finally put the idol we have made of God to rest once and for all on the dung heap of history.
It’s long past time for us to revisit the old images and imaginings and cast the idols out from our midst. I know that it’s Trinity Sunday and today, I’m supposed to be explaining the doctrine of the Trinity to you and you know that I would if I could, but I can’t.
So me tell you another story. It’s a story right out of the last chapter of Jack Spong’s book “A New Christianity for a New World.” The chapter is entitled: “The Courage to Move Into the Future.” In it Jack tells the story of a student he had at Harvard, who was pursuing a Master of Divinity Degree. Kathrin Ford, like many women who have taken on the task of preparing themselves for a career in the church, was struggling with the constraints of a patriarchal institution that the church has become and was wondering if the church, as she had experienced it, would ever be open to the direction she felt compelled to travel.
Jack describes the experience of being in class listening to her preach a sermon like this: “She stood before us quite still, quite silent, then she began. Slowly at first, she painted with words the picture of a town facing a major flood. The rains came with such relentlessness and over such a long period of time that the river rose dangerously. The people formed sandbag brigades to protect the tings they valued. The sandbag walls rose, but the floodwaters rose faster. Soon water covered their fields, drowning first the wheat, then the canola, then the onions. The people, seeking safety inside their homes, watched with a sense of helplessness as their livelihoods were destroyed before their eyes. They wanted to flee, but their roots were too deeply planted; they were so totally attached to the values enshrined in their farms and town that they felt they could not leave. Still the river kept rising. It now covered the first floor of their homes. As they watched their family photographs—symbols of their past—curl up and float away on the water, they felt they were losing the very meaning of their lives. Soon their physical sustenance was so endangered: the floodwaters covering their town began to seep into the ground, contaminating their ground-water. Their homes were becoming unlivable. If they stayed in this place, they would surely die. Yet something powerful and relentless inside themselves continued to urge them to remain where they were. Rationally they knew they had to leave, but emotionally they were immobilized.
Katie Ford described this scene with evocative images that kept her classmates raptly attentive. Yet they had no idea where she was going with the image or this theme, nor did Jack. Then with all of them caught up in her symbolic description of a killing flood, she began to speak the words of the Christian creed, beginning with the phrase, “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” This creed, she said, like that flooded town, “has become for me an unlivable place.” She then described the history of creedal formation. The creeds were “a response to debate,” she said, “designed to tell who was an insider in the Christian faith and who was not. A creed is a border-maker,” she added, fashioning her developing definition. No Christian creed is “a full statement of faith,” she continued. It is only the Christian community’s ecclesiastical “response to arguments.” All the undebated issues, she said, have been left out. That is why in the creeds “there is no mention of love, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the kingdom of God being present in our bodies and souls, no mention of God as the ground of life.” The creeds have fallen on us, she asserted, like the rain over the centuries. They have been repeated endlessly, shaping our minds and our souls to the point where we cannot think of God outside the forms they affirm, or the boxes they create. They have permeated our land, shaped our values and yes, even entered the intimate assumptions of our living space. “Drop by Drop,” she said, our religion, as it come to be embodied in our creeds, has given us “a profoundly dangerous doctrine of God.” It has covered our fields, she said, and destroyed the very crops that Christians are supposed to harvest as their livelihood. It has contaminated our groundwater. “We have been drinking in the Father God our whole life.”
“This creed,” she argued, “has, like that flood, rendered our traditional religious dwelling places no longer habitable.” Yet this creed, and the definitions that arise from it, are so powerfully present in our emotions that even when we judge it to be a destructive document that is killing our very souls, still it whispers, “You cannot leave. You will be lost if you wander. You must stay where you are.” But we cannot stay. The price is too high.
These creeds have give us a God, she said, “Who caused the death of his son, the damnation of disbelievers, the subordination of women, the bloody massacre of the crusades, the terror of judgment, the wrath toward homosexuals, the justification of slavery.” She went on to delineate that God of history: “The Father almighty God embodied in the creeds is a deity who chooses some of the world’s children while rejecting others. He is the father who needs a blood sacrifice, the father of wrath, the father of patriarchal marriage, the father of male ordination and female submission, the father of heterosexual privilege, the father of literal and spiritual slavery.” She examined and dismissed the ways various church people have tried to address the “unlivability” of the creeds, the no-longer-belivable quality of the Father God as traditionally defined. Some do it, she said, by nibbling or tinkering around the edges of reform. Making God-language less masculine and more inclusive is a positive step, she conceded, but it does not go deep enough. The real issue, she continued, “is that God is not a person. God is not a being. God is Being itself.” There was stunned silence in the room as Katie drove her conclusion home. This God, who is “Being itself, is not the father of life,” she countered. “This god is life.” Our creeds, she concluded, have now made it impossible for us Christians to continue to live in the place to which these creeds have taken us.”
That story mirrors my own dilemma. These are exciting times in which to live in the church. I believe that we are living smack dab in the middle of a reformation. I’m not alone in that belief. Reformations may be exciting but they are not the most comfortable places to be. I confess that there are days when I long for the Blessed Assurance of a bygone era. But the rains began to fall a long time ago and the waters have been rising and it’s time to go. This old boat might have sprung a leak or two, and there are quite a few souls who’ve felt the need to abandon ship. But she can still float. I believe that it’s up to those of us who are still aboard not to scuttle her, but to begin to bail her out. Fortunately there’s still enough of us left and if we start bailing know we just might be able to trough enough water over-board to get us where we need to go.
The God we tried to capture in the creeds with doctrine of the Trinity is too small. God is not a person. God is not a being. God is Being itself. This God who is Being itself, is not the father of life. This God is life. This God who is life, is reflected by a rainbow in the sky; a rainbow that shines forth even as the rains continue to fall, a rainbow that promises that there is nothing in life that can separate us from God; not even our carefully crafted, held and recited creeds. While the nostalgia for a simpler time might make us reach for the familiar, and the creeds, like old movies and popular songs from a bygone era, just might let us return momentarily to our childhood, we have lives to live. There are people to meet, places to see, new worlds that beckon, worlds full of people pondering the mysteries of the cosmos, worlds full of people trying to explain their encounters with the Divine, worlds that refuse to be held captive to creeds or dogmas, worlds where people are eager to explore the wonders of creation and speculate on the nature of our Creator, worlds beyond our abilities to imagine.
At our best we Christians are a resurrection people who are more resilient than our institutions. We can confront our questions and doubts and live. The antidote to the creeds is to stop debating how Jesus is like God and to ask ourselves, how is God like Jesus? Perhaps then we can begin to understand that the more we live like Jesus the more we can recognize God in us. Perhaps then we will rediscover the truth Jesus exemplified, and live as Jesus taught us to live, loving God and loving our neighbours.
I’m pretty sure that there are millions and millions of people out there who do not know the creeds and who couldn’t care less about learning about our creeds and doctrines. But I’m very sure that there are also millions and millions of people out there who do know about Jesus, and I’m pretty sure they are interested in getting to know people who embody the teachings of Jesus.
This ship may indeed be old, and she may have more than one or two leaks, but her timbers are sound, and she’s brought us a long way, I think she’s up to the task of sailing beyond the boundaries of our safe harbour, out there into the vast unknown, where there are such wonders waiting to be discovered. Sailing upon the turbulent seas of a new Reformation is about as unsettling as life in tornado alley. These uncharted waters upon which we sail may frighten us from time to time, but the new lands they will lead us too promise to be lush enough to support life. I for one can’t wait to explore these new territories.
Benediction: God is not a person.
God is not a being.
God is Being itself.
This God who is Being itself,
is not the father of life.
This God is life.
lives and breathes
in with and through us.
now and forever. Amen.
Shadow and Substance is a great Hymn of the Day for Trinity Sunday: view it here