Monday, June 4, 2012

Words about God

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 2012

It was hard not to be amused by the following 2003 headline from The Onion, the satirical newspaper, that was making the rounds online this week in honor of Trinity Sunday: “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity”. The rest of the article continued:

HEAVEN—Calling the Holy Trinity "overstaffed and over budget," God announced plans Monday to downsize the group by slowly phasing out the Holy Ghost. "Given the poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost's duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision," God said. "The Holy Ghost will be given fewer and fewer responsibilities until His formal resignation from Trinity duty following Easter services on April 20. Thereafter, the Father and the Son shall be referred to as the Holy Duo
What’s really funny about this—to me—is the projection of worldly assumptions onto the Trinity. The Trinity as a business; God as a boss; the Holy Spirit as an employee (so much for the three persons of the Trinity being co-equal and co-eternal). If we experience scarcity and downsizing, then so must God.

Now the Onion is funny because it’s extreme… but don’t we do this all the time? Don’t we project our earthly, worldly, 21st Century American New Yorker assumptions upon God all the time? It’s certainly very present politically in our culture—just as one example, the situation with American nuns and their struggles with the Vatican is quite clear. The nuns, from their perspective, are focused on the poor, healthcare, and education, because they believe those are God’s priorities for mission. The Vatican and their emissaries want them to focus on abortion and gay marriage, because they believe those are God’s priorities for mission. Both positions are reinforced and informed by the location of the people who hold it—the women in ministries surrounded by the poor, the sick, and the young, focused on getting things done and making lives better; the bishops in theological conclaves, focused on concepts and overarching rules and directing an international institution. 

But we have always projected our experiences in this world onto God, from people’s first experience of God—and it’s not always a bad thing, because it gives us the language of metaphor to give voice to concepts and ideas that do not otherwise translate easily into words. We call God Father not because God is literally male or literally our parent but because as Jesus and Christians experienced God, that relationship was similar to the best of human experience of fatherhood: God was loving, God was wise, God had a set of rules we needed to follow. So we call God “Father, ” and it’s a good metaphor. But it’s still only a metaphor—and one that breaks down for many people. If you had a bad relationship with your earthly father, this is not an image of God that’s going to work for you.

Jesus speaks in the Gospel today in metaphor and it confuses Nicodemus to no end: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Nicodemus is picturing trying to climb back into his mother’s womb so that he can be born again, instead of realizing that Jesus must be talking about something else: about how passing through the waters of Baptsim is like being born again. And Jesus’ response to the confusion, when he speaks about how if Nicodemus cannot understand the earthly things, how can he possibly understand the heavenly things, sounds to me like a way of saying that we need these earthly metaphors, and we need to understand them, and work with them, and live them so that we can begin to approach the heavenly things, which are beyond words and language. But to remember that those words are not, ultimately, definitive about God. In other words, don’t confuse our words about God with God.  

Today is Trinity Sunday, the epitome of days where we consider how we describe God, how we talk about God—the God who is one in three and three in one and mysterious and accessible all at the same time. We use the words, “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” to describe our God. We use the words “only-begotten Son” and “of one substance with the Father” and “proceeding from the Father and Son” and other phrases to describe the idea that there are three persons in the Trinity (even as there is still only one God) and how they relate to one another. These words have been hammered out through the centuries by Christians to articulate our faith in the best way we know, and so they have great honor and power. They are our theology—literally our words about God. But they are not God. 

One of my pet peeves is when clergy introduce the Nicene Creed by saying something along the lines of “Let us now proclaim our faith in the Nicene Creed.” Our faith is not in the creed. Our faith is in God, and the words we use to articulate and profess that faith are the words of the Nicene Creed. 

What are your words about God? One of the points I made in our confirmation class last month was that every one of us is a theologian—we all have words about God. Some of our words about God we learned as children, others we learned as adults; some we learned in church others we learned out in the world. How do you describe God to yourself… to your children… in your prayers? Is God loving, distant, paternal, ambiguous, or clear? What name do you call God when you pray? Those are your words about God, and they come from myriad sources and they are vital—and so worth taking the time to really think through and evaluate and challenge and pray with. And they are influenced by our culture and our education and our worldview, which are not bad things—the people who wrote the Bible were influenced by all those things too—but we should be aware of those influences, not to try to eliminate them and strip down our faith to something pure and unadulterated, because we can never do that. But to have that humility that says that our words about God are not God, so they will always be imperfect, and they will always be up for change as we learn more and as God is more fully revealed to us.  

One of my most frequent typos is that when I type “theologian”, I often accidentally type “theologician”, which I envision as a cross between a theologian and a magician—someone who does theology by magic. Theology is not magic—our words about God do not suddenly—poof!—conjure up a God who fits that description. Nor is it a refined art reserved for those who have some seemingly magical gift for knowing more about God than the rest of us.

The creeds are a good starting place for us to define our words about God, because they are—in the case of the Nicene Creed—the result of the bringing together of the first 300 years of Christianity and the scriptures, stories, lives, and theologians who were so fruitful in expressing their faith. But what is your experience of saying the Creed? Does it resonate for you? Or is it just another part of the service?

There’s a clever video on Youtube (see below) that I shared with the confirmation class that is about saying the—in this case—Apostles Creed. It opens with the question, when you say the creed, are you being real or a robot? Is this something you really believe—with all the attendant texts and beliefs that have informed it and come out of it—or is it something you’re doing on autopilot? It ends with these words, good to take to our hearts on Trinity Sunday:

“It’s not a proclamation,  it’s a prayer… that saints have made in faith.  It’s a prayer where sinners find their hope.  It’s a prayer where God shows his love.  Don’t just say it.  Pray it. Love it. Live it.”           


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