More Than Life Itself

Posted by secondchurch on June - 21 - 2019

In the liturgical year as it is observed by most Christian churches, today is Trinity Sunday.  For a non-trinitarian like me, it is something of a challenging theme.  I’m not alone in that challenge.  I know I’ve mentioned before a group of women clergy on Facebook to which I belong.  It is pretty typical for there to be comments about upcoming Scripture, seasons, and preaching challenges.  A few weeks ago, one member posted a blog she had written about the historical roots of the Trinity.  She wrote: “the word “trinity” appears nowhere in Christian writings prior to the close of the 2nd century; for at least 150 years after Jesus death, there wasn’t even the word trinity. Tertullian (a theologian from the beginning of the 3rd century) is credited with defining the Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he also noted that the idea was not a popular one.  The theology of one god in three persons wasn’t part of Christendom for another century when it was defined and codified after a church fight in the First Council of Nicaea in 325, a fight that resulted in the Nicene Creed being forced upon all who called themselves Christian, and the excommunication of all who didn’t agree. The Apostle’s Creed, another strongly Trinitarian statement of faith, was not written for yet another century.  In other words, the theology of the Trinity came pretty late in the developing church, hundreds of years after Jesus came and went.”

Well, I remembered from seminary reading all about the battles during the Council of Nicaea and the writing of the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds, and I remember how strongly I concluded at the time that the Trinity was so limiting on God!  That Facebook blog generated lots of comments, of course – both critical and supportive.  One in particular caught my eye:  I have always felt that the Trinity is a best shot (at the time) of understanding a God that is multifaceted. What of Sophia? I also have a somewhat lower Christology and I don’t necessarily think of Jesus as being God, although I think He is at one with God.  And then a few minutes later from that same writer: I typed that, and I have to tell y’all that I am having anxiety over having put that out there so plainly. I sometimes feel like I am in the closet of non-Trinitarianism.

Her anxiety reminded me of an experience I had when I sat before a Committee on Ministry in New Hampshire for my “periodic review”, when the Committee does a kind of wellness check-up on clergy.  I had two parishioners with me – the president of our congregation and the chair of our Personnel Committee – two truly outstanding leaders in the congregation.  In general, the conversation was fairly benign, until one questioner asked the three of us to reflect on how we see the Holy Spirit moving in our congregation.  My two parishioners stumbled a bit with their answers, and when it came to me, I said, “actually, that’s not language I use very often in our church”, to which the questioner replied, “Oh, I know – that’s why I asked.”  I haven’t attended a periodic review since, and God willing, I never will again. 

I suppose when I say that it is my life’s work to discern the will of God and live it, and that my goal in ministry is always to help a congregation be faithful to the will of God as they experience it, those phrases might be substituted with words about the Holy Spirit, but I will always resist dividing God up into three parts, or sixteen parts, or a hundred parts.  God is God, and we who believe in God all experience God in many ways.  Some know God in three ways.  I know God in a thousand ways though, I am certain, it is the same God we know.

Which leads me to wondering what religion actually is, if there can be so much variety within its parameters.  According to a definition from Wikipedia, religion is “an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.  Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to create meaning in life or, more traditionally, to explain the origin of life or the Universe.  From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, religions tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws and a preferred lifestyle.”

Anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, psychologists, and just about everyone else, have attempted to define religion, either to defend it or defy it.  I like the definition William James offers in his book ‪The Varieties of Religious Experience – “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individuals in solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”.  By the term “divine” James meant “any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not” to which an individual “feels impelled to respond with solemnity and conviction”.  By that definition, we are a group of people gathered to ponder together about what we consider to be divine, and to respond with solemnity and conviction.  Did you know that’s what we do here on Sunday mornings?

When we dig deeper into the meaning and definition of religion, we soon stumble over the sources of authority for our opinions.  There is history, of course, and anthropology, sociology, psychology – all these have greater or lesser authority, depending upon our interests.  There are the deep and lasting traditions of religious practice in community – prayer, liturgy, preaching, music, and in the Christian Church, the sacraments of baptism and communion.  And there is personal emotion.  It’s frustrating to me how much weight people give to unexamined personal emotion.  For example, I feel (emotion) proud whenever I see the American flag, therefore patriotism must be a religious experience, so the burning of the flag must be sacrilegious.  Or, I am moved to tears by my love for my children, therefore family relationships must be sacred. Can you see how an emotional response carries religious authority?

In the first church I ever served, years ago now, I remember choosing hymns for worship on Father’s Day.  In the hymnal we used at the time, in the index under Father’s Day, every hymn listed made a direct connection between the fatherhood of God and human fatherhood.  Every single one!  The most flagrant was “Our Father by whose name, all fatherhood is known.”  There was nothing even remotely similar under the heading Mother’s Day.  So isn’t it easy to see how men, especially fathers, might find their religious experience defined by this over-identification with God?  If God is a father, and I am a father, I must be like God.  Thankfully, mothers do our best to disabuse fathers of this misconception.

Well, so far this morning I’ve focused on the challenges and limitations of language to describe both the divine, and our human religious experience.  So now let me turn to another way to perceive God.  Since I love Scripture, I’m going to look to the words from Proverbs to help us try to understand God, who is, after all, larger than life itself.

As you know, the Bible contains a wide variety of literary forms.  There is narrative and history, poetry, liturgy, parable, persuasive writing and editorializing, rules, chronologies and genealogies. There is also wisdom literature, which is found in Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, a few of the psalms, and the Wisdom of Solomon.  These books of wisdom – all found in the Old Testament, contain some of the most difficult of all Biblical verses to understand.  Wisdom literature presents unsolvable quandaries.  It rarely soothes or reassures.  It challenges and confounds.  I wonder sometimes what Jesus thought about wisdom literature since, after all, these were his Scriptures. 

In today’s passage from Proverbs, Wisdom is personified, the first of all God’s creations.  Before the waters were divided from the land, before human life evolved, Wisdom was God’s partner, God’s delight, a joyful witness to all God’s creation.  Wisdom is described as God’s feminine partner in creation, which certainly makes more biological sense, doesn’t it?  Is Wisdom — the female sometimes identified as Sophia — the third person of the Trinity, otherwise called the Holy Spirit who, with the Father created the Son?  The early Christian church suppressed that imaginative possibility as just a little too sexual – the idea that a male God had a female partner whose offspring was Jesus.  As my children used to say whenever they saw Warren and me kissing – eeeuuuwwww.

But this incredible text from Proverbs creates a powerful image of God’s adoring and beloved partner in creation.  This partner of God’s was a witness to God’s creation of the universe.  “I was there”, she says.  I watched, and I was at his side, and I witnessed the creation of the sea and the heavens.  Wisdom was there from the very beginning, rejoicing and delighting in the beautiful world and delighting in the human race.  This image of a divine being is beautiful, feminine, nurturing, sustaining.  Her name sounds funny to our ears when we attempt to personify the entirety of God in three persons – Father, Son, and Wisdom?  

But let’s look at that.  There is the Creator, the life-force beneath the wonder of evolution, the miracle of the atom, the single cell, the mountains and valleys and oceans and rivers, the beating heart, sight, sound, touch and smell.  And there is the Messiah, the Redeemer, whose life-work was to reconcile a broken humanity with its Creator, who saw the world filled with oppression and rigidity, suffering and indifference, and demonstrated a different way to live.  And there is Wisdom, a spirit of life-passion, the breath of the freshest dawn, the breeze through the hot city, quiet and stirring and renewing.  There are these three – a trinity, to be sure. 

But let’s suppose for a moment, that there really is only One, just One Being – God who does a thousand things in a second and one thing for eons.  There is just God who created, and loves our sinful selves, who breathes new life into old structures and institutions.  There is God who is mystery.  There is God who translates black dots and dashes into music.  There is God who heals the broken heart, the grieving soul, the wounded spirit.  There is God who made so many things funny, most especially our silly selves.  There is God who is the genesis of hope.  There is God who heals, God who loves, God who forgives. There is God, who the ancient Church described as knowable in just three ways.  But on this Trinity Sunday, let me audaciously suggest that we embrace the possibility that God is more a trinity of trinities of trinities of trinities – infinite and infinitely complex, yet miraculously still One. 

Well, let me close with this testimony to a more inclusive, expansive, and altogether holy way to imagine God.  She is many things, including Wisdom herself.  God-Wisdom humbles the proud, strengthens the weak, urges us to be gentler, more quick to forgive, eager to relinquish.  He is rejoicing.  They are perspective.  God-Wisdom enables us to see ourselves for the miniscule, insignificant, pin point specks of dust that we are, the brightest stars, the loveliest notes, the most delicate petals of all creation.  She is the full, passionate embrace of life, however temporary it may be.  He is air, which is felt, but not on our skin, heard, but not with our ears, known, but not with our minds.  God is ancient memory and future hope. 

Some things just can’t be defined.  Any attempt is, by its very nature, limiting.  And I’ll tell you something, I just never want to limit God.  Amen.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

June 16, 2019

Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor

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