Listen to the sermon here
So, today is Picnic Sunday and Trinity Sunday all rolled into one. As your preacher, on Trinity Sunday my job, is to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to you. As a Lutheran preacher, I have been trained to go to our creeds in order to explore what our forbearers have traditionally confessed to be true about the nature of the Trinity. And on Picnic Sunday, my job on is to preach a short sermon so that we can move on to enjoying our picnic. I wish for all our sakes that I was that good a preacher. If I could explain the Trinity to you, I would but I cannot, so I will do my best to keep it short. As for the creeds confessed by the Lutheran Church, well I haven’t been able to profess my faith using our traditional creeds for a long time now. I can say however, that: Martin Luther himself wasn’t able to explain the Trinity even though he wrote volumes and volumes on the subject. The concept of the Trinity is an ancient tradition that attempts to make sense of the Mystery that we call God. God is a Mystery, and mysteries by definition, are in and of themselves unexplainable.
So, let me tell you a story. It’s a story right out of the last chapter of John Shelby 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; that’s the degree you need to be a pastor in a mainline denomination like ours. 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 things 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 given 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.”
This 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. The Church, 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 and 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 through enough water over-board to get us where we need to go.
The God we tried to capture in the creeds with the 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, tightly held and routinely recited creeds. While the nostalgia for a simpler time might make us reach for the familiar, and the creeds, like some old familiar hymn, just might let us return momentarily to that old-time religion, that was good enough for grandma, we have lives to live, and a picnic to enjoy. 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. This is the creed that Jesus taught and lived. Not the Apostles’ Creed, not the Nicene Creed, and certainly not the Athanasian Creed.
Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbours as you love yourself. LOVE, is Jesus creed. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we see that God is LOVE. Not a person: LOVE.
You and I we experience the LOVE that is God in many and various ways. As for the nature of the LOVE that is God, as near as I can tell you on this picnic Sunday is that Being Itself, is LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE HERSELF. As for this church of ours: it may indeed be like a ship cast adrift in a storm. But there is indeed a rainbow on the horizon. I hope that you can see in the colours of that rainbow the beauty that lies at the very heart of reality, the beauty of the LOVE that IS.
The church may indeed be like a leaky ship cast adrift upon troubled waters, the church may even be about to sink, but any skilled mariner will tell you that if you see a ship that is sinking, you do whatever it takes to save the ship; especially if there are any hands on deck. This ship may 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.
God is not a person. God is not a being. God is Being itself. This God who is Being itself, is LOVE. This LOVE that IS God is not a being, this LOVE that IS God is BEING ITSELF. LOVE that Lives and breathes in with, through, and beyond us. Now and forever, LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE HERSELF.