But Remember Who God Is

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Pentecost + June 3, 2018

Readings: Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6


There are some things that Christians say a lot that are true and important to really remind ourselves of from time to time: God’s ways are not our ways. God knows better than we do. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Being a disciple of Christ requires us to sacrifice.

Sometimes, however, people apply these principles in mistaken ways — ways that lead to harm that is not actually part of God’s will.

The hot topic in America’s Evangelical world right now is the story of Paige Patterson, a pastor and major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently stories have surfaced in which Patterson gave sermons or counseling advice addressing women in abusive marriages. He advised them to stay in these marriages — to stay in these homes, forgive their husbands even while the abuse continued, and even to face more abuse — in the hope of saving their husband’s souls.[1]

I can muster up some generosity and say I think Patterson really was motivated by his understanding of scripture and God’s will in matters like divorce, forgiveness, and eternal salvation. But when his attempts to teach faithfully were causing his parishioners to come to him with black eyes — in a society where 50% of female victims of murder are killed by their husbands or boyfriends[2] — he should have stopped to re-evaluate, to pray, and to study scripture. Would our God who, throughout the Old Testament, sends prophecy calling out kings and leaders for their treatment of orphans and widows and those without power — want women to stay in dangerous relationships? Would our God, revealed in the compassion and justice of Jesus Christ, really ask victims to bear responsibility for those abusing them? Or was there another, more faithful way to care for both the abuser and the abused?

History is full of examples like this, examples of people who were, perhaps, honestly trying to be faithful to God, but whose judgment was clouded by the sins of society or their own personal desires. Americans argued — with biblical arguments — that slavery was the will of God. Politicians argue with pastors who advocate on behalf of people who suffer from poverty, saying, “Well, y’know Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you,’ so this is just the way things are.” (By the way, when Jesus said that, he was referencing Deuteronomy, and that whole commandment says: Since the poor you will always have with you, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land”[Deut. 15:11].) One of the things that breaks my heart the most is when people are diagnosed with something horrible or injure themselves badly and spend a lot of time wondering, “What did I do wrong, that God would do this to me?” That’s not the God we see in Jesus.

So yes, we need to remember that God is beyond us, that God’s ways are not our ways, and sometimes that’s going to be annoying or hard or require sacrifice — but we also have to balance out that teaching with teachings about who God is, what God desires, what God thinks is important.

I think that’s one of the things Jesus was trying to point out when he challenged the Pharisees on the right ways to observe the sabbath.

Macklin_Vol_6-22-medium

John Opie and William Bromley, The Macklin Bible, “Christ Healing the Woman on the Sabbath Day” (1799). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

But first, a side note: I think it’s worth saying the Pharisees might not have found Jesus’s teachings about sabbath observance all that heretical. Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” and he asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” before answering his own question by healing a man on the sabbath.

The Jewish Rabbinic tradition — which grew out of the Pharisees’ movement — actually sides with Jesus on these points. Their teachings from the time of Jesus include sayings like: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it,” and, “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”[3] There’s an overriding principle in Jewish law which says that preserving life is more important than observing other laws.[4] This rule comes from ancient interpretation of Leviticus 18:5, in which God said, “You shall keep my statues and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live.”

So, probably, what went down between Jesus and the Pharisees was not exactly a disagreement over interpretation of sabbath law. Rather, the Pharisees had already decided they didn’t like Jesus, and they were trying desperately to catch him doing something wrong so they could publicly accuse him and get those crowds of people to stop following him. But Jesus kept just toeing the line, doing things that were just a little scandalous and daring the Pharisees to say something; but Jesus could also turn to scripture and tradition to prove that what he was doing was right.

I read a webcomic this week where the writer remembered back to being a child, to a Halloween where she was sent to school in a dinosaur costume. And being in that costume — being a dinosaur — made her feel powerful, like the rules didn’t apply to her. So when her teacher told her to sit in a circle with the other children, she suddenly felt that dinosaur-power fill her, and she rebelled. She ran around the room, knocking over chairs and toys, grabbing a handful of pens, and scribbling manically on the walls. Then came the showdown: a moment of stillness while the teacher stared her down and demanded, with all her teacher’s authority, “Give me the pens. Now.”A pause as the child stared back at her teacher, deciding…and then she threw the pens right at her teacher’s face.[5]

I imagine that moment in the synagogue felt almost like that to the Pharisees. Jesus, we’re watching you. Don’t do it. Don’t heal that man. It’s the sabbath. We’re the teachers here, and you know what we say about the sabbath. Don’t do it, Jesus. And Jesus looked them right in the eye, reached out his hand, and healed.

Of course Jesus chose these moments of rebellion very carefully. He was making a point. He was, for instance, claiming his own authority over and above that of the Pharisees. I know the law as well as you do, and maybe better; I know that what I’m doing is in line with God’s will. Just try and tell me it’s not. He even put himself in the place of King David: as David had a mission that deserved special dispensation, so did Jesus. Claiming that he deserved the same as the greatest of Israel’s kings was a big claim indeed. No wonder the Pharisees wanted to discredit him.

But, to work our way back to my original topic: this sabbath healing was also an opportunity to draw people’s eyes to God’s real purpose for the sabbath law, and to the central purpose of Jesus’s mission — to draw people’s eyes back to what God is like and what God cares about.

Our first reading for today, from the book of Deuteronomy, told us about the reason God commanded the Israelites to observe the sabbath as a day of rest. God said: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” We could sum that up: Remember that God saved your people from forced labor; now enjoy this day of rest. The sabbath is meant as a gift, and as a day to remember God’s gift of freedom, God’s gift of salvation, and to give thanks by celebrating and enjoying the gift.

Jesus’s mission was to bring those gifts of freedom and salvation to even more people.

So one sabbath day, Jesus met a man with a withered hand. A man who either was injured or born with that difficulty; who probably has trouble finding work; who had, maybe, spent a lot of time anxiously wondering what he’d done that made God curse him. So when Jesus met that man on the sabbath, he knew how to best observe the sabbath law: by granting that man the gift of healing and freedom.

And yeah, maybe it was a little scandalous. The man wasn’t in mortal danger; couldn’t you wait till tomorrow to do the work of healing, Jesus? But Jesus’s mission to bring freedom and salvation was too urgent and too important to be so scrupulous about the sabbath.[6]

And what does that tell us about God’s priorities?

It’s really easy for us to focus too much on the idea that “God is above us, we need to just surrender and obey God,” so that we end up making obedience to laws more important than God’s mission to save people and free people. Or, actually: we end up making our interpretation of God’s laws more important than God’s main mission.

God is bigger than us. God does give us commandments that are difficult. God does ask us to step out of our comfort zone, to do things we don’t want to do, to sacrifice, even — sometimes — to suffer. But think of those things as, like…facts about God.

Who God is, is even more important than that. We can’t know what God wants from us without first knowing who God is. And the God we see revealed in both the Law and the Gospel is a God who cares for people, and not just our souls, but our bodies and our minds, too. God cares for our relationships and our societies and our planet.

If the teaching we’re hearing doesn’t seem to match up with who God is — if it harms rather than saves — it’s worth turning back to the scriptures and seeing what the message really is. That’s what Martin Luther would do. And, according to today’s gospel reading, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do, too.


[1] Ed Kilgore, “#MeToo in the Pews: A Backlash to the Southern Baptist Patriarchy,” New York Magazine, 9 May 2018. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/05/metoo-engulfs-southern-baptist-patriarch-paige-patterson.html Accessed 3 June 2018.

[2] Camila Domonoske, “CDC: Half of All Female Homicide Victims are Killed by Intimate Partners,” National Public Radio, 21 July 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/21/538518569/cdc-half-of-all-female-murder-victims-

are-killed-by-intimate-partners  Accesed 3 June 2018.

[3] Quoted in Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6”, Working Preacher, 3 June 2018. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667 Accessed 28 May 2018.

[4] Simon Glustrom, “Saving a Life (Pikuach Nefesh),” My Jewish Learning. Online: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/saving-a-life-pikuach-nefesh/ Accessed 28 May 2018.

[5] Allie Brosh, “Menace,” Hyperbole and a Half, 2 October 2013. Online: https://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/10/menace.html?m=1

[6] N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 25-28.

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Thoughts on the Holy Trinity: Um, Something Happened.

Written for the ELCA Southeastern Synod Assembly Gathering Worship + May 27, 2016

Readings: Holy Trinity Sunday – Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15


We are Lutheran.

(No one told me I had to start my sermon by stating the theme for this year’s assembly, but I figured that since this is the gathering worship for a weekend with a theme, maybe that would be a good place to start.)

So: we are Lutheran. I’m sure many of you already recognize that phrase as one of the four emphases Bishop Eaton introduced to help the ELCA dig deeper into its identity and mission. The four phrases are: We are church. We are Lutheran. We are church together. We are church together for the sake of the world.

This weekend we are invited to think about deeper meanings of that simple phrase: “We are Lutheran.” And as I thought about that phrase in the context of the Southeastern Synod Assembly, I thought: being Lutheran in the South is a very different experience than being Lutheran in other parts of the country.

Some of you with sharp ears may be picking up on the accent I’m still trying to lose: I’m originally from Minnesota. And up there if you say to someone “I’m Lutheran,” you might get the response, “Oh, what church do you go to?” or even “ELCA? Or Missouri-Synod? Or Wisconsin?”

But here in the Southeast…not so much. Down here if we say “I’m Lutheran,” we might hear back: “What’s that?” or “Are y’all Christians?” or even “Um…do y’all worship Martin Luther King Jr.?” I really enjoy when I’m riding in the hospital elevator in my female body and clergy collar, and the other passenger looks me up and down warily before saying: “I didn’t know ladies could wear those” or “I have a friend who’s Catholic,” or just hands me a tract about how to properly read the Bible.

What most of our neighbors are trying to figure out about us Lutherans can probably be summed up in one of their most common questions: “Do you believe in Jesus?” And if we are feeling open and generous instead of snarky, we might hear Jesus’s ancient question to his disciples echoing down to us through our Baptist and Church of Christ and non-denominational brothers and sisters: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29; Matt. 16:15; Luke 9:20). “Who do you say that I am, Lutherans?”

There are many “correct” answers to that question. Today’s worship service is focused on the Holy Trinity, and that leads us to think about Jesus’s question — and the questions of our neighbors — in a particular way: as Lutherans we are trinitarians, people who emphasize the Holy Trinity in our worship and our understanding of God.

So who do we say Jesus is? Jesus Christ is the Son of God, one Person of the Trinity, which is one God. In the words of the good ol’ Athanasian Creed: “The Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. […] So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three Gods but one God.”

Is that a clear enough answer, Guy in the Elevator?

When this Holy Trinity service rolls around, and we preachers are forced to address that doctrine, it can be very tempting to try and make clearer sense of all those words I just said — to come up with a good “elevator speech.” God is One; God is three…in-One. God is three-in-one like water, which is one thing but can appear as ice and liquid and vapor…but not really because that’s really a version of the heresy of modalism, which doesn’t adequately maintain the distinctiveness of the three Persons of the Trinity. Ok, so, God is three-in-one like an apple has three parts — the skin, the fruit, the core — but is still just one apple…but not really because that’s really a version of the heresy of partialism, which just makes each Person of the Trinity one-third of a whole, which is not really the point of the Trinity. Ugh. We just can’t get it right.

I’ve come to think that all that struggle to explain the Trinity is getting the purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity backwards. The concept of the Trinity is not something to be explained. It’s purpose is to explain: to try and explain Christians’ experiences of God. And when we think of it that way…well, of course the Trinity doesn’t make any sense! How are we supposed to make sense of God?

That reminds me of a story I heard about an intro-level theology class at a college somewhere — a class on “the study of God.” On the first day the professor stood at the front of the class and said: “God. Now, whatever you imagined when I said that…you’re wrong.”

I don’t remember anything so dramatic from my religion classes. The closest I can get to that legendary theology class is the title of a lecture in one of my New Testament courses.[1] It’s a title that has stuck with me for years, a title I still use all the time to help me interpret the Bible or work through ideas about God or the Church. That title is: “Something Happened.”

That’s one of the most unspecific phrases possible. It could be the title of a lecture on chemical reactions or Stonehenge. But in this case, “Something Happened” pointed to the first disciples’ experience of Jesus. Something happened, something world-changing, through Jesus of Nazareth. Something happened, and it made those first Jewish Jesus-followers re-read the Hebrew scriptures in a new way; it made them give up the lives they’d been living to become wandering preachers, even to become martyrs. Historians, scientists, believers, doubters can argue about what exactly that “something” was — but we can’t deny that something happened to change so many lives so drastically.

Something happened. And that’s really the point of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, too: something happened. Something happened to change the way early Christians thought about God. Something happened, and talking about God as one, talking about the one true God…suddenly that language wasn’t big enough to capture their experiences of God.

 

Today’s gospel reading tells one version of “something happening.” Jesus was in the midst of saying goodbye to his disciples, right before he was arrested, tried, and executed. He told them about how his work and his message would continue even after he was gone. He said, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” and in that distinctive Gospel-of-John way, he talked about how the Spirit will declare what the Spirit hears, which is from the Father, but which is also from Jesus because everything the Father has is also Jesus’s, and Jesus and the Father are one…it gets all mystical.

I think the point of it all is the connection: No, Jesus will not be physically present in the way he had been. Yes, something new is coming. But that something is also the continuing work of Jesus, who is also the continuing work of the God of Israel. Something happened in Jesus Christ, and that something is new, but also totally connected with the Creator. Something happened after Jesus died and was raised — something we refer to as the Holy Spirit — and that Spirit is new, but also totally connected to Jesus and to the Creator. And somehow we cannot help but talk about these three experiences as three distinct Persons, and yet we have to admit that they are really all One.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity reminds us that something happened — in fact, lots of different somethings happened — and we need to take in a wide, wide view of God’s mission.

Without the doctrine of the Trinity we might stick to a one-dimensional view of God, something like: God created the universe and all the natural systems that make it tick, then stepped back to watch it go. The Holy Trinity reminds us that Christians have experienced God not only in creation, but also in ways that break into our world more startlingly. The first disciples experienced God in the man Jesus Christ. We continue to experience God through the ongoing presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit, comforting us or messing up our lives, guiding us and challenging us.[2]

In the same way we might be drawn to focus only on God in Jesus Christ, forgetting that the saving work of Christ is also part of the creation and re-creation of the entire world. Or, we may be drawn to focus only on the Holy Spirit’s wild transformations of ourselves and the Church, perhaps forgetting that the Spirit is also part of the ancient work of the Father and the Son.

The oneness of God is bigger than the oneness we tend to imagine — and we need to be reminded of that, for the sake of God’s mission to our world and in our lives. If we are content to imagine a smaller God or a distant God, we risk seeing a smaller role for ourselves as disciples, but God calls us to be part of enormous, world-changing work.

This gets back to the story I told earlier in the sermon: the theology professor who reminded his students that whatever we imagine when we imagine God, it’s wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but incomplete. Our images and imaginings of God can’t contain God. They’re not big enough.

The idea of the Holy Trinity keeps us from settling, from thinking we’ve got it figured out. It forces us to keep being — well, confused — but also awe-struck.  If the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is doing its job, it shouldn’t be making us ask mathematical questions like “How can three be one and one be three?” It should be making us ask questions like, “How is God breaking through my expectations?” and “Where is God happening now?”

Something happened. But just as importantly, something keeps happening. It breaks in to our everyday lives in acts of radical grace, in moments of heart-wrenching wonder, in the experience of peace that passes all understanding. And it calls us from our routines and our addictions and our selfishness and our wrongdoing; it calls us to new ways of living and being in the world — to be part of its holiness. This everlasting dance of unity and newness: this is what the Holy Trinity calls us to be a part of.

Let us pray. God of delight, your Wisdom sings your Word at the crossroads where humanity and divinity meet. Invite us into your joyful being where you know and are known in each beginning, in all sustenance, in every redemption, that we may manifest your unity in the diverse ministries you entrust to us, truly reflecting your triune majesty in the faith that acts, in the hope that does not disappoint, and in the love that endures. Amen.[3]


[1] Timothy H. Polk, Introduction to the New Testament, Hamline University, St Paul, MN, Fall 2009.

[2]  Mary W. Anderson, “So Explain it to Me,” Christian Century, May 20, 1998, http://christiancentury.org/article/2012-05/so-explain-it-me

[3] Trinity Sunday, Year C, May 22, 2016, Thematic Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=262