This week, we got the new edition of Rolling Stone magazine at our house. For a long time, I thought Rolling Stone was just a music and entertainment magazine, but over the last couple of years, I’ve discovered that it also covers social justice topics, politics, and a variety of other issues. So this week, I read an article about the disappearing middle class. We all know about the economic situation our country is currently facing; some of us have felt the impact forcibly and directly, and some of us have just had to pinch pennies a little more. And while I’ve been hearing about the disappearing middle class a lot in the news, “those people” never really had a face until I read this article. The article focused on a couple of individuals and families, who were now living in their cars. One woman had owned her own plant nursery in Arizona, but now she was living in her van. One couple, he had been a construction worker, and she had worked odd-jobs, and their 13 year old son were living in a pickup truck. A father, a military veteran, and his two daughters had been living in an RV. They had done everything they could to “stay afloat” until they couldn’t do it any longer. And now, they were trying to find a way to swim ashore.
There are storms in our lives that need stilling. This is a basic fact of life. As I make pastoral visits and talk to people who come by the office looking for help, many of us are worried about our health, or the health of our spouse. We worry about our aging and infirm parents. We are trying to just “stay afloat” until the job market gets better. We’re doing the very best we can, and the storm keeps tossing us around.
When the disciples got into the boat to go across the Sea of Galilee, they got in just as they were that day…perhaps they were tired, hungry, and a little anxious about what was next for them as they traveled with Jesus. Jesus, however, got into the boat and fell asleep. That’s not to say that he wasn’t hungry or even a little anxious, but he was clear in his ministry…to reach out to others; to go to “the other side”.
Now according to Mark, while the disciples and the sleeping Jesus are on the boat, they encounter a terrible storm, which tosses their fragile boat around so much that the disciples are fearful that they might die. So they beg Jesus to get up, saying “Do you not care that we are perishing?” And here’s the part I love…Jesus doesn’t answer their question, instead he confronts the storm by saying “Peace! Be Still!” He doesn’t waste time giving the disciples a lecture about how to bail out water. He doesn’t wake up grumpy. He doesn’t get anxious, meeting the disciples with anxious energy, thereby raising their own anxiety level. He addresses the storm with calmness. He is a non-anxious presence in a critical moment, which allows him to be present to his distressed friends.
But he also doesn’t let them off the hook either. Once the storm has been stilled, he asks of them “why are you afraid, have you no faith?” He doesn’t say “There’s nothing to be afraid of”. Obviously, there was a lot to be afraid of in that moment for the disciples. However, his questions remind his friends, that even in scary, frightening moments, God is with them. Yes, Jesus cared about the state of the disciples on the boat, but he was there with them, in the midst of the storm. And, he answers their pleas and prayers by stilling of the storm. He is providing them with concrete proof that he, God-incarnate, was with them.
When I was in my second year of seminary, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was on the other side of the country at a time when I wanted to be home offering him support. But my dad was very courageous. He refused any kind of chemo or radiation therapy, causing my mother and me a great deal of anxiety, but did alternative therapy instead. Part of his therapy was to walk. During his walks, he would pick up long sticks and take them home to clean and polish, and turn them into hiking sticks. Since that first walk, my dad has probably made 100 of these hiking sticks. He gives them to people he thinks need them because he believes it is his “ministry”. You see, during the storm of cancer, my dad found that God was there with him…and always had been. Dad is 6 years cancer free.
Maybe we don’t live in our cars. Maybe some of us won’t ever be diagnosed with cancer. But my guess is that each of us has faced, are facing, or will face a storm in our lives. And those storms will be scary; they will knock us around and perhaps make us feel like we’re drowning. And we will call out asking God, “Where are you? Don’t you care?” And the truth is that Jesus will be there in the midst of the storm with us, with his arms extended wide, saying “Peace. Be still.”
This Sunday’s gospel (Mark 3:20-35) is full of potential sermon fodder. And certainly, scholars, theologians and commentary writers have had lots to say about Jesus being asked if he is possessed by Satan, his rebuttal, and then his rejection of his family. There’s really too much to consider in this passage for just one Sunday sermon…we’d be here until next week working it all out.
As a third year seminary student, we all had the joyous experience of taking the GOEs—the General Ordination Exams. These exams are fraught with anxiety. For two years, all you can think about is what kinds of questions will be on the GOEs, who will read your responses, and if you’ll pass. Then there’s the fear that if you fail a section, what will happen…will you have to resubmit, will your Bishop decide not to ordain you, will you have “wasted” three years of your life, just to have it all come to a screeching halt because of one test!?! And then the week of GOEs arrives…four days to answer seven essays. These are the longest four days of your life! Your brain hurts daily. You develop cramps in your wrists and fingers from typing. You drool over dinner and collapse into bed each night just to do it all again the next day. My GOE experience, in case you haven’t guessed, was exhausting. But now, years later, I’ve forgotten most of the questions…except one. The ethics question was “Are there any acts which are intrinsically evil?” This question has haunted me because I failed the first time, I was given a chance to rewrite my answer, failed again, and then had to be flown to the Examining Board of Chaplains in Los Angeles to give an oral defense. They got so frustrated with me, that they ended up giving me a new question because I refused to change my answer. And my answer was “yes…there are acts which are intrinsically evil”. I based my answer on the writings and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who believed that anything that took you away from the love of God, was an act of evil.
That’s what leads me to Sunday’s gospel. The authorities and Jesus’ family have been watching Jesus perform healings, touch the untouchable, eat with the outcasts, and preach about the Kingdom of God in a way that was pretty revolutionary for the time. There was concern that perhaps in all this, he had become possessed or lost his mind. Their concern wasn’t evil in itself, they were truly worried for him, but they were anxious that his teaching and behavior would bring down the system of religion that had been well established. They were concerned that he was working in a way that was contrary to the norm. And this is what was driving their anxiety and questions.
But Jesus responds with this great question, “How can a house stand when divided?” In other words, how can we be together if there’s in-fighting? How can you trust in God if you’re always second-guessing? How can you bring about the Kingdom of God when you can’t make the leap from religious dedication to openhearted love for all? This is the essence of what Jesus is talking about. If we’re too worried about who’s in charge, who’s in control, who’s in and who’s out, then what are we doing? How is that being responsive to the Kingdom of God? So yes, Jesus’ openhearted love and inclusion feels a bit chaotic. It’s unruly and messy.
And that’s what he’s getting at when he says his mother and his siblings aren’t his family. The children of God aren’t the ones who have it all figured out and know how to play by the rules, and know what’s “right”; the children of God are misfits, outcasts, and often marginalized. They are the outsiders and the imperfect. They are everyone…the disciples, you, and me. Those who surround Jesus, who dine with him, who are healed by him, who sit at his feet, are beautiful children of God in all their imperfection.
This lesson is also about discerning the acts of the Holy Spirit. As I’ve said before, the Holy Spirit is wild, powerful, and passionate. But when the Spirit is present, there is healing, love and welcome. When the Spirit is not present, there is anger, bitterness, and hate.
By now you may have heard about the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s open table resolution. This resolution came from the diocesan convention that was hosted by St. Mark’s two years ago. At that convention, there was unanimous agreement that in this diocese, all are invited to the Eucharist…regardless of age, denomination, or baptism. Since then, the diocese asked a group to work together to create a resolution and theological reflection to be sent to General Convention this summer. As part of that group, I sent the materials to General Convention, and have since been interviewed about the work of the group and the diocese on this matter. I realize that for some, this is an incredibly difficult issue because it is unprecedented in our Episcopal tradition and church history. But I also realize that for others, and particularly for those who receive communion when they’ve been told “no” in other times and places, that this is a matter of Holy Spirit work. It is messy theologically, it seems chaotic compared to the “way we’ve always done it”, and some have argued that priests who practice distribution of Holy Communion in this manner should not be ordained. Very similar arguments to what Jesus was facing in the gospel passage from Mark. And yet…the Holy Spirit always finds a way to unbind us, to show us how to heal and love and welcome one another.
Desmond Tutu once said, “Goodness is stronger than hate”. The love of Jesus, present in the acts of the Holy Spirit, is stronger than the evil that binds us. The Holy Spirit overcomes those acts which are intrinsically evil…hatred, oppression, exclusion, domination, and all the “isms” of our world, when we are open to receiving it. When we are bound up by evil, we are a house against itself. A family not united. We will fall apart.
But goodness is stronger than hate. Jesus’ invitation to us to be among his family, children of God, overcomes our struggle with evil. Jesus invites us to witness and participate in the Kingdom of God through actions guided by the Holy Spirit, bringing us back to the love of God.
The Father is Creator of all things.
The Son is the Redeemer of all creation.
The Holy Spirit is the Advocate for all.
The Father is the One who is above all the world.
The Son is the One who is with us in the midst of the world.
The Holy Spirit is the One who is within us.
The Father is the Origin of all who live.
The Son is the Goal of all who live.
The Holy Spirit is the Guide of all who live.
I found this description of the Trinity while I was scouring the internet for creative thinking about this Sunday. It comes from the blog “Blue Eyed Ennis”. At the end of the page, there was a photo of a dog with an ice pack on his head. That’s pretty much how I feel when I think about trying to explain the Trinity. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with since I was about 9. I can pinpoint that age because that’s when I was going through my baptismal preparation classes with the minister at Warrenton Baptist Church. Part of why the theology of the Trinity gives me a headache is because I desperately want to have a better understanding of it than I did when I was 9. I want to have a grown up understanding, an adult understanding, a mature understanding. But then again, Jesus always said to have the mind of a child.
In the Gospel reading from John (3:1-17), we have Jesus educating Nicodemus on the ways of this Trinitarian God. Traditionally, Nicodemus has gotten a bad rap. He has been understood as the “curious one”…one who could only talk to Jesus at night, while defending his Pharisee brothers during the day. But the other places in scripture that Nicodemus appears are when he argues that Jesus has not gotten a fair trial, and when he takes spices to the tomb for Jesus’ body. One scholar argues that Nicodemus is really a work in progress. That he starts off questioning and perhaps skeptical, but grows in his understanding and love of the message of Jesus. Perhaps the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that we have in this John passage is in the midst of that progress. Perhaps it’s the kind of conversation we’d have with Jesus if we were trying to understand a new teaching.
So let’s take a look at the conversation…
Nicodemus is a Pharisee. This means he is one of the Jewish religious leaders. As part of this group, and as part of his Jewish identity, he believes he is among God’s chosen people. In order to be Jewish, you needed to be born of a Jewish mother. And yet, here is Jesus, also a Jew, saying that to be a child of God—to be among the chosen—biological lineage isn’t what matters…what matters is that you are born in the Spirit…that you receive God in your heart. In other words, anyone can be a child of God. We interpret Jesus’ teaching to mean baptism and repentance.
Being a child of God is no easy task though. It calls us to a new model of life. It calls us to be inclusive and welcoming. It calls us to love one another. It calls us to confront injustice. Being a child of God is about being a disciple. Being a child of God is an experience of growth. We begin with questions and skepticism, we grow through healing and reconciliation, and we age and mature through the resurrection.
Being a child of God is also about living in community. We don’t live in isolation, oblivious to the sorrows and joys of the world around us. We live among them. We move and live and have our being in the challenges and triumphs of our neighbors. Being a child of God is about new birth in the Spirit that isn’t subject to human control, but is deeply affected by the human condition.
So what on earth does all this have to do with Trinity Sunday and trying to understand the theology of the Trinity?
One of my favorite Trinitarian blessings is “May God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer know you and be with you each and every day of your life”. It’s the one I give at the altar rail when someone wants a blessing. It’s the one I gave my parents and Matt when I was ordained. It’s my favorite because it says something about who God is and what God does. God is the Creator—God creates and gives life. God is the Redeemer—incarnate in Jesus, freeing us from the sins, slavery and bondage of this life, and revealing the love of God. God is the Sustainer—powerful, breathing, and alive through life’s journey.
God is a community. And part of our responsibility as children of God is to also live in community. As children of God, we are called to be good stewards of our creation, forgive one another and ask for forgiveness, and be present to one another in life’s journey.
The 7th century theologian, John of Damascus understood the Trinity as “perichoresis”—“dancing around”. He imagined the Trinity as three dancers, holding hands and dancing in harmony, with a shared purpose and mutual love. As children of God, people born anew in water and Spirit, we are invited into this dance.
So maybe Nicodemus wasn’t just trying to get clarification about the inclusive nature of Jesus’ teaching, but maybe he was also trying to find his place among the ever expanding children of God. Maybe he wanted to know if he’d be invited into the dance.
In You—Holy One—we live and move and have our being.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.