Monday, July 27, 2015

Sermon: Plenty of Bread

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 26, 2015, Ordinary 17B
Mark 6:35-44

Plenty of Bread

This is an awfully familiar story, isn’t it?
Really, I imagine most of us could come up with the key details of the story before it was even read: the big crowd of five thousand, five loaves and two fish, twelve baskets left over. The only thing missing is the boy with the loaves and fish, which Mark doesn’t include in his account – he shows up in the Gospel of John.
In wrestling with a sermon for this text I was reminded of an old folk tale, which I remember from a children’s book from lo, those many years ago when I was a child, called Stone Soup. In that book’s version of the story, a couple of soldiers arrive in a village with nothing to eat. The villagers are unwilling to help out. Undaunted, the soldiers produce a pot and gather up stones, announcing their plan to make stone soup. Curious villagers look in, and when one of the soldiers suggests that some carrots, or onions, or other small additions would make the soup so much better, first one, then another, and then another villager decides that they can spare those vegetables, so that finally the entire village is able to enjoy a nice filling kettle of soup together.
That’s not how this story goes, of course, although the occasional scholar with a problem with miracles suggests that something like this is what “really happened.” But Mark is quite clear; this crowd is fed with five loaves, and two fish. That’s all. Jesus has the disciples seat the crowd; he distributes bread and fish for the disciples to give to the crowd; and this keeps happening until the crowd is filled, and twelve baskets of fragments are gathered up afterwards.
It’s the Gospel of Luke that is most prolific about stories of feedings or meals or bread broken and shared, but Mark isn’t too shabby about sharing such stories. We have seen meals interrupted by the crowds pressing in on Jesus or by pestiferous Pharisees, and now we get the biggest “food story” of the Gospels, one that all four tell in one way or another.
Maybe this isn’t an accident. The sharing of meals seems to be an attractive setting for humans to use for telling stories to one another. Think, for example, of the number of movies that include food or the sharing of meals as a major framework; Babette’s Feast.  Chocolat. Soul Food. My personal favorite is a little movie called Big Night, about two Italian immigrant brothers throwing a great feast in attempt to save their struggling restaurant. If movies aren’t your thing, consider how many episodes of your favorite television shows involve the family around the dinner table. Or consider how many pieces of art picture food or meals.
Or consider, say, big holiday dinners at your house, or someone in your family’s house. How often does most of the best conversation (or worst, sometimes) happens around the dinner table, or even in the kitchen while the meal is being prepared?  The table is one of the places where we humans connect the most, share the most, relate to each other the most directly and most honestly.
With that in mind, you have to wonder how the folks in this crowd remembered this great sharing of bread and fish after it was over. Did they even realize what had happened? Were they aware how little food had been turned into how much? It’s not as if Jesus said anything about it, or the disciples. Maybe as far as they ever knew, they spent the day listening to Jesus teach and then had a little bread and fish and were on their way.
In fact, they probably weren’t expecting it at all. After all, in Mark’s account, it wasn’t the crowd who got antsy and hungry, nor was it Jesus who suddenly decided it was time for a dinner break. It was the disciples, getting antsy about the crowd, who raised the question to Jesus.
There does seem to be something worth considering here. Jesus was, out of his compassion for the crowds as we heard last week, expressing his compassion by starting to “teach them many things.” The crowds, for their part, seemed to be fully content with the teaching; there’s no indication they were clamoring for food. The disciples, though, were distracted and getting anxious.
Maybe there are times we need to take our cue not from the disciples, but from the crowd.
Goodness knows there is a lot to get done, whether we’re speaking of this church individually or the larger church in the larger world. And goodness knows we are short of hands to do the work. Some of those who claim the name “Christian” seem to have other agendas than doing Christ’s work in God’s world, and some have frankly gotten tired and given up and walked away. There’s no doubt we could use more able hands to be about our work, whether it be with Family Promise or St. Francis or Gainesville Community Ministry or any of the other works we seek to help.
But at the same time, we can’t forget that there are times we just have to stop and listen. We have to stop and be fed. We need to step away from the busy-ness and listen to Jesus teach us. Like the story of Mary and Martha, when the former sat at Jesus’s feet while the latter let herself get caught up in the busy-ness of being host, this story reminds us that sometimes it is our role to be nothing more than Jesus’s guest.
I wasn’t kidding earlier; we need folks to help with Family Promise next month. But don’t forget that even amidst the work and need, it’s not just a politeness; it’s an absolute necessity for your spiritual health to, at some times, stop, listen to the words of Jesus, and be fed by Jesus. And this is something the crowd recognized that day. And they didn’t end up starving for it.
What it looks like today to be taught and fed by Jesus obviously isn’t quite the same as it was in this story. It may be time reading and meditating on the scriptures. It may be seeking out your Sunday School class or a Bible study or other class we’ll do this fall. It might be joining the choir and being ministered to by the act of making music in worship of God. It might be a vacation you haven’t taken in years. Maybe it’s getting one of these hymnals and drinking in both old favorites and new songs.
But somewhere along the way, there comes a time where you have to, for your own sake and for the sake of those who care for you and rely on you, sit down and be taught and fed by Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly (509)
Hymn Mini-Festival:
                  Gracious Spirit, Heed Our Pleading (287)
                  One Bread, One Body (530)
                  Sometimes A Light Surprises (800)
                  Come! Live In the Light! (749)
Loaves Were Broken, Words Were Spoken (498)
His Eye Is On the Sparrow (661)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Sermon: Compassion For the Crowds

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 19, 2015, Ordinary 16B
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Compassion For the Crowds

While it has now been more than four years since I last taught a music history class, I have been fortunate, through the modern miracles of electronic communication and social media, to be able to keep up with many of my friends and colleagues from that part of my life. One of those friends, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, recently shared on Facebook a number of pictures and posts from one of his scholarly trips through Africa, including in the nation of Rwanda.
I’m going to guess that most Americans know Rwanda, if at all, as the place where one of the more horrific modern episodes of genocide occurred just over twenty years ago, in which members of the larger Hutu population tried to wipe out the smaller, but more politically powerful, Tutsi. While in Rwanda Mark visited one of the memorials erected in the wake of and recovery from that genocide. Part of the display at that memorial attempted to give some kind of background or context to how such an event could happen. One part of the story sought to clarify one part of the answer in the country’s colonial past.
The colonial powers in Rwanda, first Germany and then Belgium, were confronted with these two main populations, Tutsi and Hutu; the Tutsi were evidently the rulers and more militarily powerful, while the Hutu were reported to be more numerous and more prominent in the country’s agriculture. The problem was identifying exactly who was Tutsi and who was Hutu; if there were racial or ethnic differences at one point in history, they were far less prominent by the time the colonialists were in charge. In order to exercise control, those colonial powers, according to this memorial, devised their own categories.
One example: any family that owned x amount of property (say, ten cows) was designated a Tutsi; any family with less was a Hutu – this despite the centuries of cohabitation and mixed marriage that had greatly reduced any previous racial differences. The colonial powers then proceeded to rule through the Tutsi and discriminate against the Hutu. This division (along with a lot of other factors) animated new conflict between the peoples, leading to decades of intermittent warfare culminating in the 1994 genocide.
In short, the Germans and then Belgians saw crowds and thought first of how to control them, how to dominate them, how to play those two groups against one another for their own benefit. Would that we could say such behavior was rare, but sadly history and honesty do not allow us that luxury. When we have to acknowledge that we’ve been party to such sowing of division in our own time, the Christian church should blanch with shame, particularly when we see in today’s gospel how Jesus saw crowds so completely differently.
The passage looks like a throwaway at first, or merely a connecting tissue from last week’s story of Herod and John to next week’s miraculous feeding of five thousand. When we look closer, however, we see that buried in this short excerpt, and its counterpart from the end of the chapter, is nothing less than the gospel in practice.
The disciples are returning from their first independent mission, and Jesus sees that – among other things – they are tired! They’ve been traveling and working hard, and Jesus’s first plan is to get them away for a time of rest and recuperation. This itself is a compassionate response to his disciples and friends, which is not so surprising; showing compassion on those we love is difficult enough, but it is something we can do, and something we expect to do.
What happens next, though, is where the whole idea of compassion is put to the challenge. As Jesus and the disciples are headed across the Sea of Galilee to seek that rest, somehow those on the shore are able to see or to know that Jesus is out there on that boat, and somehow are able to race the boat and arrive at their landing point before the boat does.
Think of it; you’re exhausted, you’ve “been run ragged” as we might say, and just as you think you’re getting away or getting a chance to rest, here come a whole lot of new demands on your time and energy. I’m going to guess, that if you’re anything like most people, compassion is not the first reaction that comes to your mind or soul.
Jesus, though, saw these crowds and had compassion on them. Understand what Mark means when we see this word; its Greek source is an utterly wonderful word, σπλαγχνιζομαι (splaghnizomai), a word with anatomical origins. Its most literal meaning would be something we might express as having your insides all churned up. This is not compassion as an abstract, distant reaction; it is compassion that is true to our English word’s Latin roots as well – “feeling with” or “suffering with” another, to the degree that their grief becomes your own, their loss your own.
We do know this feeling, to be sure; we experience it when one of our own loses a family member or a loved one, or when a major tragedy strikes in the world. It actually isn’t that hard to feel compassion for those we know and love, and for those whose suffering and loss are clearly seen and understood.
Compassion as a default reaction, though, is much more difficult. But this is where Jesus’s heart is as he sees these crowds. While we might look and see only a bunch of people or a new burden, Jesus sees, as verse 34 says, “sheep without a shepherd.”
Just as this passage overall is much more than a mere linking passage, this phrase ‘’sheep without a shepherd” is loaded with significance, and well beyond such familiar passages as Psalm 23 or Jesus’s “I am the good shepherd” discourse in John 10. As far back as the book of Numbers we find Moses praying to the Lord to raise up a successor to him, in chapter 27, so that the Hebrew people would not be like “sheep without a shepherd.” The book of Ezekiel also addresses this idea, in a passage that both denounces the “false” shepherds as those who feed themselves instead of the sheep, and promises to rescue those sheep:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep/ You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…

The excerpt from Jeremiah we read earlier takes a very similar tone to Ezekiel, condemning the rulers who are not good shepherds to the flock and adds the promise “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock…”.
In the novel The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene portrays the central character, a fading old whiskey priest, reflecting on the struggle he feels in caring for or feeling compassion for the people of his flock, compared with the deep, profound love he feels for his (illegitimate) daughter. He thinks:
One mustn’t have human affections – or rather one must love every soul as if it were one’s own child. The passion to protect must extend itself over a world – but he felt it tethered and aching like a hobbling animal to the tree trunk.

I dare say many of us can relate to that struggle.
We see crowds around us. We read our newspapers or hear the news on the radio or television or online. What people do breaks our hearts, or inflames our anger. And it’s so hard to feel compassion.
Or maybe we’re more like the Peanuts character Linus, exclaiming, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand!” Someone close to us breaks our heart or inflames our anger. And it’s so hard to feel compassion.
But Jesus sees the lost-ness, the loneliness, the adrift-ness of the people, and compassion is his default reaction. And in his compassion…”he began to teach them many things.”
There are times when we need to feed people who are hungry. There are times when we need to shelter those who are without shelter, clothe those who have nothing to wear, seek out healing or relief for those who suffer physically. But many are the times when the thing we need to do most is speak the good news, to speak love and peace and healing and wholeness to those who do not know love or peace or healing or wholeness.
The events of verses 35-52 we will hear in the next two weeks. When those events are done, another boat ride commences, and this time when Jesus and the disciples land the crowds gather up quickly. Many healings happen in this place, as the people of the region gather up all those who are sick and bring them to Jesus. Even the marketplaces become venues of healing, as the sick are brought in on mats and laid before Jesus’s way, with people begging merely to touch the fringe of his cloak. The echoes of earlier stories in Mark are thick here; people being brought to Jesus on mats recalls the four who tear a whole in the roof to lower their sick friend to Jesus in Mark 2; touching the fringe of his cloak brings to mind the woman with bleeding from Mark 5. Here the more traditional scenes we have come to expect in this gospel play out – crowds swarming around Jesus seeking healing for their physical ills.
Taken in tandem, these two seemingly throwaway passages turn out to be nothing less than the kingdom of God come near, the very thing we have been watching for since the first chapter of this gospel. It is both in the feeding and healing and in the bringing the good news that we “get it right” when seeking to be followers of Christ. And as radical or utopian or farfetched as it might seem, when enough people who call themselves Christians actually get around to being followers of Christ, seeing with the compassion of Christ and loving with the love of Christ, this is what the world will look like.
Theologian Douglas John Hall suggests that this passage offers no less than the answer to the two most basic questions that come of our religious striving:
(1) How does your God view the world? – the basic theological question; and (2) How does your God ask you to view the world? – the basic ethical question.

In short, our God sees the world with compassion, and calls us to do the same.
For the compassionate Shepherd who rescues the sheep without a shepherd, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Though I May Speak” (PH ’90 335); “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (PH ’90 387); “When Peace Like A River” (Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal 840); “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” (PH ’90 408)

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sermon: Requiem For a Prophet

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2015, Ordinary 15B
Mark 6:14-29

Requiem For a Prophet

This is a strange story.
Or perhaps it’s not so much a strange story as it is a strange story to be telling now, at this point in Mark’s gospel.
We’ve been following this gospel for some time now, catching some of it before the Easter season and resuming the journey after Pentecost. We’ve seen the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; a number of miraculous healings and exorcisms, causing the crowds to throng around Jesus to the point that it became impossible to travel in the cities and towns; we’ve observed the first stirrings of opposition from religious leaders from Jerusalem, as well as the embarrassment of his family; and, after a couple more healings, last week we saw Jesus face the rejection of his hometown folk who “took offense at him,” and send out his disciples on their first “independent” mission. Now we get what looks at best like a sidebar, in which Jesus is quite absent except as a point of discussion at the royal court, and a flashback revealing how things finally turned out for John the baptizer. Remember him?
We had met him back at the beginning of this gospel, out in the wilderness preaching and challenging his hearers to repent. Jesus, you’ll remember, shows up to be baptized by John, and then is driven into the wilderness for a period of temptation. Meanwhile, the last we hear of John is in 1:14: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
We’ve come back to that last part many times since then. But that first phrase of verse 14: “Now after John was arrested…” Wait, what? This seems like a big deal, something that deserves more than a throwaway phrase.
Well, maybe Mark agreed with that sentiment. For whatever reason, five chapters later, our author suddenly returns to John and picks up his story after his arrest by Herod. It turns out that story didn’t end well.
First, though, we get an insight into just how much Jesus’s reputation is spreading. It turns out that the authorities in the Temple aren’t the only bigwigs who have taken notice of Jesus and his following. Unlike those Temple authorities, though, the level of concern in the courts of King Herod runs more towards idle, bemused speculation than serious interest and wariness.
One might imagine the conversation, something like this:
“So, how ‘bout this Jesus fellow?”
“Who? What’s this?”
“You know, this rural rabbi making the rounds up in Galilee, doing all these healings and miracles. The one who’s got the prayboys over at the Temple all aflutter.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about him. Big miracle worker. So what about him?”
“Who is he? I mean, obviously he can’t just be this hick-from-the-sticks preacher, not with all these things going on around him. So who is he, really?”
“Well, there are some talking about him as if he’s John the baptizer come back from the dead. You know that would drive Herod crazy.”
“Yes, but there are others who say he’s Elijah returned, or a prophet like the old prophets who used to roam around this benighted kingdom and make kings’ lives miserable.”

When the chatter made it to Herod’s desk, though, it stopped being idle. One can imagine Herod turning pale as a sheet, eyes stricken with fear, mumbling to himself, “It’s John. I had him killed, and John has come back to get me.” And then, as if suddenly remembering that he hadn’t gotten around to telling that story, the author now does so.
It’s a pretty sordid story, and one that has lived on in the arts and culture in a way that few such New Testament stories have done. Aside from the obvious “biggies” like the Crucifixion or the Nativity, this particular story has been one of the most fertile subjects for painters, novelists, playwrights, and even composers of any of the New Testament. Aside from a number of paintings, probably the most famous such artistic products are the scandalous Oscar Wilde play Salome and the also-scandalous opera by Richard Strauss based partly on that play. For arts lovers, those products may actually be unhelpful in reading this story, so a moment to clear away the clutter is appropriate here.
First of all, get that “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the Strauss opera out of your head. The girl in question was a younger girl, possibly no older than the little girl raised by Jesus back in chapter five. For another, you’ll note than in this account she isn’t even given the name “Salome”; rather, Mark sticks her with her mother’s name Herodias (although there’s some uncertainty about whether Mark is actually trying to refer to “the daughter of Herodias herself”). The name “Salome” is given in extra-biblical accounts like that of the Jewish historian Josephus. So bear in mind that what Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss give us is, as you might expect, quite an exaggeration of the original.
Not that the story doesn’t have its own intrigue. Herodias is more than willing to use that young daughter to get Herod to do what she (Herodias) wanted, and what Herod could have done at any time. A whole roomful of courtiers and hangers-on are on hand to see just how Herod (who in this telling is nobody’s idea of a great king) handles this particular pickle.
But perhaps the most intriguing, or maybe most curious part of the story is: why had Herod kept John alive for so long?
He, as king, could have had John executed at any time. He didn’t even have to bother with imprisoning him, really, although it might have been expedient in order to keep the possibility of a revolt by John’s followers under control. He could have had any crowds dispersed or put down and then had John killed. Instead, for some reason, he keeps John around, not only letting him live but even going to hear John occasionally, even though he had to know they only thing John was going to do was to condemn him for stealing his brother’s wife.
In the end, though, political expediency won out. Herod, like any politician, lived in mortal fear of appearing weak, and once he was put on the spot there was nothing to it but to have John’s head served up on the requested platter.
So, what then to make of this story? There are a few lessons, some obvious and some less so.
Maybe the easiest lesson is that speaking truth to power is not always rewarded with success and honor. Sometimes it just gets you killed. While history offers a multitude of examples of this tendency, one of which I was reminded this week was William Tyndale, the sixteenth-century English scholar who determinedly produced the first complete translation of the Bible into English drawing directly from Hebrew and Greek texts rather than Latin translations. For his trouble, Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned for a year, then finally executed by strangulation, after which his body was burned at the stake. Even as vernacular translations were appearing across Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, Tyndale’s effort to bring scripture into the language of the people brought him to a violent end. Tyndale is just one example; students of history can probably come up with many others who confront the powers that be, and end up crushed by them.
Not all such persons ended up executed, of course, and we today are fortunate to live in a place and time where we don’t face execution or other such punishments for speaking truth to power. It still can cost us, though, particularly when one looks at powers other than the state. The ability of large corporations, for example, to crush those who speak out against their practices is something that should frighten us all. So it still remains true that speaking truth to power can not only be rejected, but cause harm to us as those trying as best as possible to follow Christ.
There’s another lesson, though, in that wishy-washy way Herod keeps going back to hear from John, one that gives a preacher like myself great cause for concern. In a way, there might just be a fate worse than facing punishment for speaking truth to power; the fate of, in trying to proclaim the news of the kingdom of God at hand, of being reduced to an entertainment, or a sideshow.
I think that’s a fear for preachers in particular, yes, but not one irrelevant to anyone trying to be a follower of Christ. They’ll come back to hear us, sure. They might even commend our preaching, or our music or whatever aspect of the church’s worship or practice strikes their fancy, but nothing really happens. The sermons or anthems go out and are heard, but … nothing. Nothing changes. Nothing “takes,” and everything goes on the same as it always has been.
I fear in some ways that this is how the Christian Church in general, particularly in the United States, passed much of the twentieth century. We built our big fancy buildings when we had the influence that came of being something people just had to be part of. We put out our radio shows – like, say, “The Protestant Hour” or the old broadcasts by the likes of Bishop Sheen – and, comfortable in our place, were content to be simply influential, without much actually happening.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we thought we had found our place in society, when in fact society had found its place in us. 
Then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves on the outside looking in. Finally people had noticed that the church wasn’t really doing anything with all that influence, at least not anything that really made anybody’s life better. Things like racism, or sexism, or poverty, or all manner of injustice were rolling along unchecked, and instead of making a difference or at least speaking up against these injustices it seemed like large chunks of the church were getting all bent out of shape over what went on in people’s bedrooms. Faced with this kind of disconnect, society decided the church wasn’t really worth the trouble anymore, and they’ve been drifting away ever since.
So now, we try to speak, even try to speak up against real injustice, and society looks at us and says, “that’s cute.” And they go on about their business, and we remain on the fringe, looking irrelevant, more like a curiosity than a serious messenger with good news to proclaim.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that Mark is engaging in some literary foreshadowing here. The final result of John’s encounter with Roman power is not exactly like what happens to Jesus later in the gospel, but the effect is pretty similar – except, of course, for the small detail about Jesus not staying dead. And it’s hard not to wonder if Jesus, fresh off rejection in his own hometown, doesn’t have some inkling of this. You have to think Jesus knows what happens to those who speak truth to power in the age of the Roman Empire.
And yet Jesus didn’t go silent. Jesus didn’t retreat from his mission. Jesus didn’t stop acting out of compassion for the crowds that continued to flock to see Jesus, and Jesus didn’t stop lighting into the Pharisees and scribes when they continued to nitpick at Jesus and the disciples. The ministry, the mission continued, and Jesus continued to proclaim the kingdom of God come near, and the good news.
And that’s our mission as well. Whether we face opposition or bemusement, our call continues to be to proclaim the kingdom of God come near, and the good news. And for that call, enduring and unchanging, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90):
#482                  Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
#418                  God, Bless Your Church With Strength
#409                  Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice
#420                  God of Grace and God of Glory

That's one kind of legacy...

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sermon: You Can't Go Home Again, But You Can Still Get To Work

Grace Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2015, Ordinary 14B
Mark 6:1-13

You Can’t Go Home Again, But You Can Still Get to Work

In the movie Love and Mercy, now in theaters, there’s a scene in which Brian Wilson, the former Beach Boys musician and subject of the film, persuades Melinda, once girlfriend and future wife, to drive him home. As she drives by his directions she is surprised to see a neighborhood of rather small houses, not what she had been accustomed to from him. He corrects her; “I’m not asking you to take me where I live; I want you to take me home.” Sounds wonderful, like the perfect ending to your typical Hollywood movie.
It doesn’t quite turn out that way, though, as when the two arrive at the street where they’re supposed to turn left, there’s nothing there; the road ends, and there’s nothing there but metal guardrails and a standard diamond-shaped yellow sign that says END; it is a literal dead end.
Maybe it’s not a perfect metaphor for what happens to Jesus in this scripture from Mark 6, but it’s not bad. We should probably acknowledge, though, that to some degree Jesus might have brought it on himself.
Remember a few chapters ago, at the end of chapter three, Jesus’s family comes looking for him, to take him home because (as they say) he was out of his mind and possibly embarrassing them. Jesus’s answer at the time was to gesture around the crowd and to say that the ones who did the will of his Father were his brothers and sisters and mother. You have to figure that word got around back in Nazareth, and the home folks may well have been predisposed to be a bit suspicious of Jesus or maybe even hostile towards this uppity kid (even if he was at least thirty by this time) who disrespected the family.
Their reaction actually brings to mind another popular culture reference, in this case a song once recorded by the bluegrass duo of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (and later by Ricky Skaggs), the title of which is so characteristic of a particular attitude that it later became the title of a book about country music: “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’.”  Really when Lester Flatt sings:
Now looky here gal don’t you high head me
For I ain’t forgot how you used to be
When you didn’t have nothin’ / That’s plain to see
Don’t get above your raisin’, stay down to earth with me

…is it all that different from the way the locals react to Jesus, as Mark describes it in verses two and three?
They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

And then the awful capper: “And they took offense at him.”
Don’t get above your raisin’, stay down here with us.
You can practically hear “who do you think you are?” in every word. Because these folk knew him, they took offense at his teaching and healing. Because they knew his mother and his brother and sisters, they presumed that they knew him, and all this highfalutin’ preaching and casting out demons and healing was apparently too presumptuous for the local folk to abide. How dare you? comes the unspoken retort. How dare you think you have anything to tell us? How dare you think you’re better than us?
And they took offense at him, and in a way even beyond those scribes and teachers from the Temple in Jerusalem. And it’s the kind of offense that people – even good Christians – can take at us, when we really get serious about following Christ.
You might remember from last week that we were roughly reminded, for example, of the degree to which racism is still a plague on American society and politics and culture, in the wake of the murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and a number of suspicious burnings of African-American churches across the South. In our own denomination, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is in touch with those churches in their localities to see what kind of aid we Presbyterians might be able to offer to those churches in their time of recovery and grief. (You might remember that we heard from our local PDA coordinator in a minute for mission a few weeks ago.) Even now, some of those fires continue to be investigated as arson.
But a new development has followed in the wake of those murders and burnings. About twenty different female pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina had, in recent weeks, been receiving threatening letters from an unidentified source, overlapping the time of the events in Charleston. Apparently a man, identifying himself as an “Apostle Prophet,” took it upon himself to decide that God’s call on those ministers was obviously not real, because they were women, and to use intimidation and fear to drive them out of the pulpit. Sexism is at least as perennial as racism, and equally as evil.
Yet there are those, in our country and our culture, and even in God’s own church, who would tell us to keep silent on these evils. Some politicians would have us keep silent because they need the votes of those people. Some pastors would rather us not rock the boat, let’s just keep everything peaceful and quiet and not get anybody all disturbed. Some would tell us to quit making our country look bad, particularly around the Independence Day holiday that just passed yesterday.
If we are ever tempted to listen to these voices, what happens after the rejection in Jesus’s hometown should jolt us out of our quiet.
You will notice that Mark does not care about our delicate theological sensibilities; he flat-out says that Jesus “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Let’s face it, healing a few sick people  doesn’t seem like it should count for so little to us, but Mark doesn’t mess around with worrying about the reaction of the locals or how Jesus was “amazed” at their unbelief.
Rather, Mark tells us Jesus went right back to work. He went right back out into ther other towns in the area and went right back to teaching. He didn’t let the disciples mope either; he sent them out in pairs and put them to work, giving them “authority over the unclean spirits” and putting them on the road with little more than the cloaks on their backs and the staff in their hands. If the people of the town refused to hear them, their instructions were to move on to the next place; if their word was heard, they were to stay and continue to preach and heal.
Folks, we have a lot to learn from this. Here we are, not a huge church by any means, and maybe not in the trendiest or most elegant part of town. We’re part of a denomination in which some of our largest and richest churches have taken offense at us and run away as fast as they can. We’re kind of traditional and many of us are kind of old in a culture that idolizes the young and contemporary and “hip”. We still come to this table, every now and then, and engage in a ritual that some of the younger and more contemporary and “hip” churches in our land, maybe even in this town, have forgotten or tossed aside. We are, intentionally or not, on the “wrong” side of a lot of the divides that crisscross our nation, our culture, and our church.
And yet Christ’s call to us is not to indulge in a pity party. It isn’t to worry about how we in the church in general or this church in particular can be popular again, to be as big and important as we were in the 1950s or 1960s or whatever idealized era you may remember. It isn’t to try to be “influential” or “trendy” or whatever buzzword is getting tossed around these days.
Our job is to follow Christ out into the world and teach and preach and heal. Our job is to go out and proclaim that message that Jesus proclaimed, as Mark told us, at the very beginning of his ministry: “the time is at hand, and the kingdom of God is come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Good news. Not news that drives people away because of their race or orientation or anything about them. Not news that divides us or sets us at one another’s throats, or news that tells us to keep silent in the face of hatred or injustice.
It isn’t about being in good standing in society, or “having pull” with the right people in town, or even being good patriotic Americans (even if Independence Day was yesterday). If our call is about anything, ANYTHING other than knowing Christ and making him known, bringing healing to those who need healing, and proclaiming the news of the kingdom of God come near, then we’re doing it wrong.
It’s time to get on board and get on with Christ’s work in God’s world. It’s time to get out there and bring the good news, no matter how small we feel. It’s time to be witnesses.
For a call to go out and bring healing in the world, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “God of the Ages” (262); “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (562); “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (563)

Told ya it was a book too...

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: Grab the Hem

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2015, Ordinary 13B
Mark 5:21-43

Grab the Hem

Healing. You would think this would be one thing we humans would unanimously agree is a good thing.
Working my way through the halls of the local VA hospital it wasn’t hard to see examples of why any of us would be downright jubilant if Jesus were to show up in the flesh and run rampant through the halls, healing patients left and right.
You would think this would be one thing we humans would unanimously agree is a good thing. But somehow, it isn’t always so.
One thing that sometimes gets in the way of this longing for healing, something that many of us fall prey to at times, is the slight problem that in order truly to desire healing, one needs to be able to admit that one is sick. And we’re not always good at that.
“Oh, it’s just a sniffle. It’s nothing.”
“I just didn’t get enough sleep last night.”
“It’s only a tickle in my throat, no big deal.”
Of course, before you know it, you’re in bed wiped out with the flu or something worse. We don’t admit we’re sick – maybe we feel like we have too much to do, or it’s too late to get someone to sub for us, or who knows what excuse we use, but the illness fells us in the end because we refused to admit it was upon us.
This isn’t a problem for either of the protagonists in today’s scripture. Jairus, the local synagogue leader, has seen his daughter’s condition worsen steadily until she is on the brink of death. While the religious authorities in Jerusalem might have disparaged Jesus’s healings as the “devil’s work,” Jairus evidently didn’t care; if there was any chance this itinerant rabbi could heal his beloved daughter, he would do whatever it took to get it to happen. In a scene that must have shocked the locals, Jaiurs threw himself before Jesus and begged him to come to his home and heal his daughter. Jesus agreed and the two, and Jesus’s disciples, began to make their way through the ever-present crowds around Jesus towards Jairus’s house.
It is in the midst of this travel that our second seeker enters and even interrupts the story. Mark is fond of these “sandwiches” in which one story is inserted into the midst of a similar or related story, allowing us to see the two in tandem and perhaps compare them to one another. While both are stories of people seeking healing, the contrasts are at least as notable as the similarities.
Jairus, a significant person in the community, comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter. It turns out she’s all of twelve years old. While infant or childhood mortality was certainly more prevalent then and there than here and now, no parent was willing to let their child go without a fight. We can certainly understand Jairus’s determination to do anything he could to bring his daughter back to health.
Our second seeker, though, is about as different as possible. She gets no name in the story, not a surprise given that in the context of the time she would have been about as insignificant as it was possible for an adult to be. She seems to be a widow, with no family to care for her or to speak on her behalf, and such a woman had no legal or societal status, now matter how often the lawgivers and prophets of the Old Testament implored the people of Israel to care for and deal justly with the widows and orphans among them.
At one point she apparently had some resources, but they were consumed in the struggle to find treatment for her malady, one which the old King James Version called an “issue of blood.” It was constant, it was debilitating, and it was sufficient to render the woman ritually impure, unable to participate in the rituals of the Jewish religion.
Having no one to advocate for her, she had to take matters into her own hands. And she had been trying to do so for twelve excruciating years. A cavalcade of doctors had done their worst, apparently, while bringing her no relief and possibly leaving her in worse condition.
Perhaps surprisingly, historical scholarship has actually given us a few of the possible remedies that might have been inflicted upon a woman in this condition. Charles Powell notes a few of these:
§  Carrying on her person the ash of an ostrich egg wrapped in a cloth;
§  A sudden shock;
§  Drinking wine mixed with a power of rubber, alum, and garden crocus;
§  Or, eating a batch of Persian onions cooked in wine while the doctor intoned, “arise out of your flow of blood.”
For possibly these or other remedies, from a virtual cavalcade of doctors, the woman had been relieved of all her money, leaving her destitute as well as sick.
No one had to tell her she was ill and in need of healing. Still, she didn’t choose to approach Jesus directly for a cure. We aren’t told exactly why; Mark tells us that she believed she would be made well if she simply touched his clothing, but doesn’t tell us why she didn’t simply come to Jesus directly. The culture of ancient Israel offers a few possibilities. She might have feared that if he knew her condition, Jesus might refuse to heal her for fear of being made ritually unclean himself. It’s also possible she feared that he would refuse to hear her, a poor widow with no man to speak on her behalf, simply because that’s what men typically did. She might have felt that in her condition she would simply be unable to get through the crowd enough to speak to Jesus directly.
Whatever the reason, you’ve heard the story; she somehow gets through the crowd and touches some part of his garment, and is healed of her long, debilitating illness. Somehow Jesus knows that something has happened, even in the midst of the jostling crowd, and in the end the woman does meet Jesus after all, and hears Jesus speak to her as a “Daughter,” and hears him say that “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Did you catch that? “Your faith has made you well…be healed of your disease.” Now, I lot of theological discussions of this passage will get deeply involved in explaining or understanding the idea of the first phrase – “your faith has made you well…” and I’m not saying that it is not a challenging thing to most theologies to read a statement that seems to attribute the healing to the woman’s faith. I think, though, that part of the answer to this lies in the way Jesus is dividing two phrases that we tend to read as meaning the same thing.
When we peer into the Greek, it gets more challenging; the word that the NRSV translates as “made you well” is more often translated when it appears in other verses as having to do something with saving. That leads a lot of preachers off on an unprofitable bunny trail about how “salvation” comes – whether by human faith or God’s work – when the more challenging and on-point question here is, “You mean there’s a difference between being healed of illness and being saved, or made well, or made whole?”
There’s more to being well than just not being sick.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes if we know that, subconsciously at least, when we pray. We pray for healing for our own sicknesses or the illnesses of those we love, but there are things that we need to be truly whole, to be truly saved from harm, to be truly well, that we don’t always recognize about ourselves, and that if we’re honest we would just as soon not submit to the full-fledged healing of Jesus.
If nothing else, our country has had demonstrated in the last couple of weeks just how much un-wellness still remains in society, particularly white society in relation to black society. The murder of nine members of an AME church in Charleston, by a young man fond of wrapping himself in the old Confederate battle flag, ripped open old wounds that remained present and raw for many, many blacks in the United States, while many whites had allowed themselves to be convinced that such wounds no longer existed – that there was no more racism in American culture.
Even as the following days seemed to offer some miniscule signs of hope; when whites and blacks came together to pray and to weep; when cities and statehouses removed from their grounds the flag in which Dylann Roof so loved to wrap himself – not only did voices of hatred continue to be raised; in the past week six primarily African-American churches in the South have been burned in acts officially reckoned as arson. The plague of racism will not go quietly, and not without a great deal of baring of souls and shedding of tears. And we shouldn’t pretend that racial hatred is the only such wound on our society that will require restoration in order for us to be made well, or made whole, or saved from harm. And it’s an open question just how much of our society, and even how much of the church, is really willing to put forward the faith needed to be made well.
It upsets the order of things, truly being made whole. It takes us out of our comfortable places and the ways things have always been. It might just set us against our friends. It might be inconvenient.
But if we truly want to claim our faith to be real, to be faith in and towards Jesus, our salvation to be in Christ alone, then we will inevitably be drawn to this, to giving up on and walking away from these comfortable failings. We will inevitably have to confront these ongoing brokennesses in us, whether they be lodged in our own attitudes and beliefs or whether simply in our unwillingness or fear to confront them in the world around us.
Yes, it is easy to ask for physical healing, and we are toldd to do so. But that can’t be the only healing we seek. Being healed of our illnesses can never be mistaken for being made whole or well or even for being saved. Until we can look around the whole word, until we can see all of the men and women out there as sisters and brothers, people Christ calls us to love; we are clinging to brokenness. We are not seeing just how sick we really are, and are not bringing all our sickness and brokenness to Jesus.
Until we are ready not just to reach out and touch the cloak – until we are ready to grab hold of the hem of that cloak and never let go until we know full, real, complete healing – until we are willing to give it all up, perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt the Master. Perhaps we should let him move on to that sick girl.
But when we are ready, when we know our brokenness and our sickness and can no longer stand that brokenness and sickness, then let us reach out and grab the hem of that cloak and never let go, until we are made well.
For total healing, not just the physical kind, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” (462), “Come Sing to God” (181), “O Christ, the Healer” (380), “There Is a Balm In Gilead” (394)
Credit: (it's generally very funny, and on point as well)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sermon: Divided Houses and Rearranged Families

Grace Presbyterian Church
June 7, 2015; Ordinary 10B
Mark 3:20-35

Divided Houses and Rearranged Families

It’s been a while since we’ve been in the Gospel of Mark, and (at least when I’m here preaching) we’re going to be in this gospel for a while. It seems proper then to reacquint ourselves with the beginning of the book and how we got to the place where we find ourselves today. You might remember that this gospel jumps directly into the story, with no birth narratives or any kind of preliminary material; we find John the Baptizer proclaiming in the wilderness and Jesus coming to be baptized by him; after a spell in the desert Jesus kicks off his public ministry with the proclamation that might well serve as the thesis statement for the whole gospel, found in verse 15 – “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (If you’re the type who finds it useful to memorize verses of scripture, I’d suggest adding this one to your memory banks if only because we’re going to come back to it over and over again in the upcoming weeks.)
Jesus then calls his first handful of disciples, and soon follows his first miracle, an exorcism performed in the synagogue, followed by the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Word spread quickly, and multitudes came to be healed by him, whereupon he set out to preach around Galilee, only to come upon a leper seeking healing; when he did so, the leper (disobeying Jesus’s order) spread the word all around, so that Jesus couldn’t even go into the towns or cities due to the crush of people seeking healing from him. That’s roughly the first chapter, about where we left off.
In chapter two and the early part of chapter three, we start to see the first opposition to Jesus, coming not from the common folk but from the religious authorities. When a group of friends pulls a hole in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend to Jesus, a group of scribes objects to his words to the man, “your sins are forgiven.” Then the scribes and Pharisees object to Jesus’s eating with “tax collectors and sinners” after the call of the tax collector Levi to be a disciple, and then they object to the disciples not fasting, and then they object to the disciples’ plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath. Finally, after daring to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees are already seeking to conspire with the Herodians to have Jesus killed, and that’s only in chapter three, verse six. So you could say that things have gone south very quickly.
At the same time, though, despite the opposition of the religious leaders, the people continue to turn out in droves to see Jesus; today’s story starts (rather in the middle of things) with the observation that the crowds were so deep that no one could even eat. But the crowds aren’t the only ones who show up (uninvited, it might be said) at this apparent dinnertime. There are two different groups who have come for Jesus, and we get the stories of their appearances told in “sandwich” form, one inside the other. Wrapped around the appearance of the scribes from Jerusalem is an attempted intervention by Jesus’s family; specifically his mother and his brothers. Let’s deal with the scribes first.
It is no small deal that these scribes have appeared, and that they have come from Jerusalem. Imagine the Vatican itself sending out a delegation to investigate a kerfuffle in one of the local Catholic churches in Gainesville. Just in case the reader hasn’t been paying attention, the very appearance of these scribes from the seat of Jewish practice should alert us that Jesus’s activities are causing serious concern among the religious authorities.
We’ve already noticed that the Pharisees and Herodians are in conspiracy against Jesus; these scribes, who may or may not be part of that plot, seem to have come to this remote town for the particular purpose of discrediting Jesus. Since the crowd knew all about the healings and exorcisms Jesus had been performing (quite possibly the crowd contained some of those people who had been healed or had had demons cast out), these scribes sought to discredit those healings. In doing so, though, they put themselves in a position for Jesus’s most direct, most stinging charge against them.
Apparently, according to these scribes, Jesus was able to cast out demons by the power of…none other than the head demon, here called Beelzebub.  It must have sounded like a great rhetorical flourish, and one of those unanswerable and unassailable ways to discredit a troublesome character forever; “he’s in league with the devil…” has sometimes been an effective charge for whipping up a mindless frenzy against a person, almost as good as “she’s a witch!”
They weren’t counting on Jesus being ready for that kind of charge, though, and frankly they weren’t counting on Jesus being better at rhetorical argument than they were. For one thing, accusing someone of being in league with the devil might be intimidating, but when the subject is what power by which Jesus is casting out demons, the accusation doesn’t hold up very well once you look at it rationally. Why would Beelzebub be working through Jesus, or anyone for that matter, to cast out his own demons? How does that even make sense? Jesus of course tears apart the very idea with a line that would be often cited throughout history, by the likes of no less than Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War – “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” If the devil is casting out demons, then the devil is already defeated.
But that’s not all Jesus has to say; he then launches into a parable about breaking into the house of a “strong man” and binding him up in order to plunder the house. This might sound odd in this context, until you put it together with its context; the strong man is no less than Beelzebub, and the one binding the strong man and plundering his house is Jesus himself. It’s not just that Jesus is not casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub; Jesus has power over not just the demons but Beelzebub himself. 
Finally, though, comes the most powerful charge against these scribes, one which has become one of the most misused and abused verses of scripture ever. After saying that people can be forgiven for “whatever blasphemies they utter” in verse 28, Jesus continues that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, for it is an eternal sin.”
There are two problems with how this passage gets used as a “clobber verse,” one with which certain types of Christians beat up their perceived enemies. First of all, know your Greek. Whoever blasphemes, whoever is blaspheming, whoever is continuing to blaspheme the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven – how can you be reconciled to the God whom you are calling demonic? But whoever ceases to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? 
And secondly, don’t invent new and convenient meanings for “blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.” This isn’t a random verse inserted into the story. This act is defined by its context; the scribes see Jesus doing the works of the Holy Spirit, and attribute them to the devil. They see people being healed of all manner of illnesses, they see people being delivered from the demons that torment them, and they refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit in it. This isn’t about “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” or committing suicide, or any number of other things we presumed Christians are eager to condemn.
Far from the kind of sin that it is easy to read into others, this is the kind of thing we had better be extremely careful about engaging in ourselves. Christians have a pretty bad habit of condemning based on particular beliefs or doctrines. We are pretty good heresy hunters. But when we become so obsessed with doctrinal purity that we refuse – not fail, but refuse – to see the work of the Holy Spirit in those “others” we are just as guilty as those scribes who got so hung up on Sabbath laws that they accused Jesus of having a devil in him.
Meanwhile, Jesus’s family is also present, trying to get into this crowded house, apparently to take Jesus away. The NRSV suggests that “people” were saying that Jesus had lost his mind, but in truth the people who were saying this were most likely Jesus’s family themselves.
Jesus’s response to the news that his family was coming for him sounds like the worst nightmare of “family values” crusaders. Jesus basically ignores them. Doesn’t even acknowledge their existence. Instead, he turns to the crowd, the healed and the demon-dispossessed, the poor and the outcast, the sinners and the tax collectors – and sees his family. “Here are my mother and my brothers!” he says. He then offers the counterpart to that difficult verse 29: “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
And there’s the crux of the story. Beyond dogmas and rules, beyond even family ties and blood relations, there is the imperative to live into this “kingdom of God come near,” to echo Jesus’s claim from chapter one. There is this imperative to be led of the Holy Spirit. There is the imperative to follow Christ, to live like Jesus, to be truly Christlike instead of merely Christian. To participate in the healing of the world and its people; to be a part of the casting out of those demons that torture us in the modern world, whatever name they may take; to be instruments of God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s love; this is what it means to be a brother or a sister of Jesus, a “joint-heir” with Christ to borrow Paul’s phrase from last week.
This is how the Holy Spirit is seen to be in you. This is how the world knows you are followers of Christ. When people are healed, rescued, restored, reconciled, and brought to new life, let us never, ever be the ones giving credit to the devil. No; be Jesus’s family. Be the one doing the will of God, and so be Christ’s mother and sister and mother.
For the call to be part of the family of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “This Is My Father’s World” (293), “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” (383), “Come, Risen Lord” (503), “I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” (369)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon: Three In One, One In Three

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 31, 2015, Trinity B
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Three in One, One in Three

Today is Trinity Sunday, the last major Sunday observance before the liturgical calendar stretches into the long, green processional of Ordinary Time, at least until October or November. It’s a curious commemoration, one in which instead of a particular event, a theological concept is the subject of the day. And it just happens to be one of the trickiest doctrinal concepts of all being marked, one that contains a whole host of possibilities for leading the pastor astray.
Indeed, the early history of the church is dotted with theological attempts to grapple with the doctrine of Trinity, which later came under official condemnation of the church and led to creedal statements attempting to steer believers away from such unorthodox beliefs. Some tried to argue that one or the other of God the Son or God the Holy Spirit was somehow “less equal” to God the Father, such as Arianism, Psilanthropism, or Pneumatomachianism; teachings that stress the unity of God to the point of denying the Trinitarian nature of God, such as Patripassianism or Sabellianism; or teachings that stressed either the divine or the human nature of Christ to the exclusion of the other, including Nestorianism, Monophysitism, or Docetism, the latter of which taught that Jesus’s entire physical existence was an illusion. That would make the whole Holy Week and Easter cycle rather superfluous, to say the least.
Even attempts to draw analogies to explain the Trinity end up running aground on some sort of heretical concept, even such famous attempts as the three-leaf clover or shamrock supposedly used by St. Patrick of Ireland to explain the Trinity. According to those who spend way too much time thinking about these things, Patrick (had he actually used that metaphor, which is not certain) would have been guilty of partialism, or the teaching that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit individually could not be regarded as God, but only the three in combination could truly be regarded as “God.”
Even those attempts to explain the Trinity that actually pass theological muster can be more convoluted and confusing than helpful. Take this line from the Athanasian Creed, one of the earliest of creeds, created as a doctrinal response to some heresy or other:
“Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit.  The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite.  Eternal is the Father, eternal is the Son, eternal is the Spirit; And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.”

It’s little wonder that one of the most popular social media memes of the last few weeks has been one which offered the following advice to pastors preaching on Trinity Sunday: say nothing, and show pictures of kittens. I fear, though, that somebody out there is sharpening up their critical knives for an argument that kittens are somehow heretical.
Not helping the cause is the fact that scripture nowhere explicitly states or develops anything that could be truly called a doctrine of the Trinity. That is not to say that the idea of the Trinity isn’t there; it is only to observe that the concept is more or less assumed without ever being explained to any degree.
One could point to the stories out of the Book of Acts that we’ve been examining since Easter; as Jesus – God the Son – is about to be taken up from the disciples, he promises that the Holy Spirit – God the Holy Spirit – will come to the disciples to empower them to proclaim the good news. A similar, and even more explicit, formulation is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, in the Great Commission, in which Jesus commissions the disciples to go to all the nations and make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). 
Similarly the language of Trinity is found embedded in today’s readings from Romans and John. Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus could easily have been used for last week’s observance of Pentecost, particularly in its observation of the qualities of the Spirit, here being described by no less than God the Son.
Paul, grappling with how to explain the great eternal inheritance of believers, makes recourse to the language of Trinity as well. The Spirit (as in God the Holy Spirit) becomes the enabler of believers, the one who enables us to put to death the works of the flesh and to be “adopted” as children of God (the Father), and joint-heirs with Christ (God the Son).
In short, scripture is a lot less interested in explaining the Trinity than it is in describing how God has moved and acted in the world, using language that expresses “God in three persons,” to quote the first hymn we sang today. And yet, as the second hymn of the morning puts it, “God is one, unique and holy,” even if “never single or alone.”
Trying to nail down exactly what’s going on in the doctrine of the Trinity ends up seeming like a fool’s errand. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe, in fact, it has a very beneficial effect on us, when we come to realize that the more we demand certainty out of God, the more we demand that we must know exactly what’s going on, the farther we are from actually following and living in the Spirit, living a life that looks as much as possible like the life Christ lived. That the Trinity is, is one thing; trying to dissect in fine detail what exactly that is or how it works might just be what John Calvin would call “inessential.”
Still, though, there are some important lessons we can take from the understanding of God as Three in One, One in Three – enough to justify a Sunday on the liturgical calendar.
For example: If God is Three in One, One in Three, God is inherently community – “never single or alone,” to return to that hymn. If even God lives in community, how can we possibly think we are suited to go it alone?
Let’s extend that a little further. We are taught from way back, alluding to Genesis, that we are created “in the image of God.” Most of the time we tend to interpret that as saying that each one of us, individually, somehow reflects or contains something of the image of God even in our finite created-ness, and I don’t particularly intend to argue against that, but what if the idea of God as Trinity, Three in One, One in Three, opens up another possibility here? What if it is in all of us – the whole, messy, beautiful diversity of humanity – that we see the image of God? Might that possibly change how we relate to one another? Might that challenge us to take yet more seriously the whole business of being a church, being a community, being together as followers of Christ, taking care of one another? One would hope so.
But there’s also another angle to this whole business, that God expresses God-ness in three, specifically.[i] Not two: three.
Think about it. Two is an “even” number; three is an “odd” number. We say “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” We speak of the “odd man out,” or of being a “third wheel.” We speak to each other “face to face” or “one to one,” not “one to one to one” or “two to one” or “one to two”.
A three-way conversation, for example, requires more energy than a conversation between two people. There are two different trains of thought or perspectives to keep up with, not just one. It can be difficult for us to focus equally on two other folks instead of one; we can, if we’re not careful, end up being the aforementioned “third wheel” as the other two end up chatting merrily away. Three is work.
Even with God we can sometimes face the unwitting temptation to “dualize” God, particularly we in more mainline denominations. We can’t really ignore God the Creator, the one we most often simply call “God.” And the life, and teaching, and death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes up the core of our faith, and indeed the very one who is our way, truth, and life. Given the prominence of those two “persons” in our theology, the third “person” of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, can fall into a kind of neglect or forgetting (particularly when we haven’t just observed Pentecost a week ago), despite the theological reality that it is the Spirit who most represents God with us in our now, in our everyday living and acting.
Even the historic confessions of the church can sometimes seem to fall into this trap. Look in your bulletin at the Apostles’ Creed, the Affirmation of Faith we will speak together in just a few moments. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” is the very first thing we say, and it’s hard to say much more than that. There follows a very substantial evocation of Jesus Christ, all the way from being “conceived by the Holy Ghost” to his being “seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And then…”I believe in the Holy Ghost…” and without any description or explanation we’re immediately off to the church. Not much of a way to speak of the third person of the Trinity. They didn’t cover this in church history or worship classes, but I can’t help but wonder if this is why we observe that day, and do so the week after Pentecost to boot; to shake us out of our tendency to “dualize” God and forget the full triune communion through which God relates to us and through which God abides with us.
It can seem a little messy at times, it can be unwieldy, it can be hard for us to comprehend, and it certainly isn’t easy to understand. But this is how God interacts with humanity across time. One can even argue that the Bible reflects this in its unfolding of God’s action in humanity; the Old Testament, the Pentateuch in particular, reflecting God the Creator, God’s choosing and delivering of a people; the Gospels unfolding the intervention of God’s Son in the world; and God the Holy Spirit unleashed in the world in the Book of Acts and thereafter.
God relates to us as community; God relates to us in a way that challenges and illuminates how we relate to each other. We may not be very successful in explaining the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from it.
For the God who is Three in One, One in Three, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Holy, Holy, Holy” (138); “God Is One, Unique and Holy” (135); “We All Believe In One True God” (137); “Come, Thou Almighty King” (139)

[1] I am indebted to Karoline Lewis, “Dear Working Preacher: The Necessity of Three,” Working Preacher 24 May 2015 (; accessed 30 May 2015.