Made in the Image of God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Holy Trinity Sunday + June 11, 2017

Readings: Genesis 1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20


There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that is often called one of the best episodes in the whole seven seasons of that TV series. I’m not sure I’ve even seen the whole episode, but still its story sticks with me; I think about it all the time.

That story — translated as well as I can from nerdy language — goes something like this: the crew of the starship Enterprise (aka the main characters of the show) come into contact with a spaceship from another world — Tamaria. Although the beings on each ship speak in what we would call English, they can’t understand one another. The Enterprise crew knows most of the individual words that the Tamarians say, but when those words get strung together, no one can figure out what that sentence is meant to communicate.

For instance: Captain Picard ends up on a planet alone with the captain of the other ship. The other captain says, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and then tosses him a dagger. Picard has no idea what’s going on. Is he going to have to fight this man? What does he want?

Eventually Picard and the crew figure out the key to understanding the Tamarian language. Every phrase they say to one another is a reference to a story from their culture. Every short string of words communicates a whole world of characters and emotions and morals. And so when the other captain said just those five words to Picard— “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” — he was telling Captain Picard so much: he was referencing a story about two warriors who were forced to fight dangerous beasts on an island together and then became friends; and when he referenced that story, he was telling Picard that there was a dangerous beast near them; he was telling him he would fight by his side; and he was telling him that he hoped they could become friends; and maybe he was saying even more — all with just five words.[1]

Maybe you actually have a similar language with family or close friends: a bank of stories you draw on together, stories you can reference quickly but that communicate a history of inside jokes or shared memories and meaning. I notice that we Christians do that a lot with our most well-known Bible stories: making quick references to a snake in a garden or “loaves and fishes” and immediately knowing the whole story behind it.

Stories sometimes explain things better than straightforward language or precise definitions. This week during Vacation Bible School, we taught the kids a verse from the Psalms: “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1). In order to help them understand what refuge means, we could have given them the dictionary’s definition: “shelter or protection from danger or distress.”[2] But instead we told them stories: Here’s a picture of elephants at a place called an elephant refuge. The elephants go there so they can be protected and taken care of. What would that feel like?

When it comes to explaining the important, technical words of our faith, I think stories work better than definitions. After all the stories came first: scholars formalized the words and concepts later. We tell the story of a holy man who fed the hungry and healed the sick and made friends with sinners, who preached things like, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” who was executed and raised from the dead. And from that story we get words like grace and salvation, Trinity and justification and sacrificial atonement and hypostatic union. And then too often we trip all over ourselves trying to explain those concepts, or we get into really convoluted arguments with one another, or tie ourselves to the definitions we’ve made, and sometimes the story gets lost — the very story that made us think up all those concepts in the first place, the story that teaches us all those things best of all.

Stories — old stories, new stories — are a better language for learning our faith. Like those short phrases from that Star Trek episode, stories communicate on so many more levels than definitions, and they reach us in a different way.

A theological scholar was once asked to define “grace”, and he said: “Have you ever stared up at the stars on a very clear night. You know how that feels? God’s grace is like that.”[3] That little story is more meaningful to me than any book or essay I could have read on grace.

Our readings this morning bring us a couple of those Christian vocabulary words. First we heard a story of God creating the world; and when it got to the part about God creating humans, we heard: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

“Image of God” is one of those phrases that scholars have picked out of that story and pinned down for examination and definition. How exactly did God create us in the image of God? Does God look like us? Does it mean that God gave us some quality that God has: the ability to create, the responsibility to care for this world, the ability to reason at a higher level than the other animals? There are thousands of years of ideas and debate to inspire us.

I thought of that question — What does it mean that we are created in the image of God? — this week after hearing a story an NPR. It was an interview with Will Bardenwerper, author of a book called Prisoner in His Palace, about the twelve U.S. soldiers charged with guarding Saddam Hussein for the months between his capture and execution.

The interview starts with Bardenwerper explaining how those soldiers reacted when they were assigned to guard “the most wanted dictator on the planet.” He said, “I think one of them just blurted out, we should kill him.” But then Bardenwerper explained how things inevitably changed as they spent time with Hussein. They saw a very private, human side of him: a man under house arrest but still carrying himself with dignity; a man spending his days pedaling a squeaky exercise bike. He would greet them with respect, engage them in conversation, play cards and drink tea and smoke cigars with them.

One of the soldiers developed enough of a rapport with Hussein that when the soldier got word that his brother, back home in the U.S., was about to die, he let Hussein know that he’d be gone for a week and why. “[Hussein] got up and embraced him and said…don’t worry. You’re losing one brother, but I will always be your brother.”

Bardenwerper made it clear that the soliders didn’t suddenly start to think of Hussein as a friend and a good guy. They always wondered how much of his behavior with them was genuine affection and how much was manipulation. They were there to do the job of guarding this prisoner, and that’s what they did. They still knew him as the infamous dictator, they remembered that he was on trial for crimes against humanity; but now they also knew him as a fellow human being.

Bardenwerper said that one of the main themes that emerged from his interviews with these soldiers was how much harder it was to guard someone and then watch him get led away to be executed when you’ve gotten to know him as another human being.[4]

That story told me something about what it means that we are made in the “image of God.” That divine image may be covered up by sin so that it’s hard for us to see in another person (or even in ourselves) —- but still there’s something at the basic level of each human being that we recognize, that we all share, that loves and cries out for love — some part of us that was so obviously created by a good and loving God.

And I think so many of our big Christian vocabulary words — salvation and community and mission and grace — are, in at least one simple sense, about how God helps us to see that divine image in ourselves and in others, how God helps us to pull that “image of God” part of us out from underneath our sin and our guilt and our bad habits and our insecurities and our complexes and whatever else is covering it up— how God lifts that “image of God” in us closer and closer to the surface.

God’s work to lift up the image of God in us is done through relationship: through our relationships with one another, and through our relationship with God. That was obvious in the story of the guards and Saddam Hussein. When we humans really get to know one another, the relationship breaks down our prejudices and helps us see the many layers of each person. It complicates our judgement of one another. It helps us remember that God created each of us and God loves each of us — even the most egregious of sinners. And it is relationship with God that helps to heal and restore the image of God in us.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, and so we are reminded of another one of those big Christian vocabulary words that is endlessly debated and — perhaps more than any other concept — endlessly confusing. But the story of the Trinity is what we’ve been thinking about all along: it is the story of relationship. The Trinity is the story of one God who is, somehow, also three Persons – the story of a God whose very being is relationship.

And that lofty idea of the Trinity was drawn out of the stories of the early church – the stories those first Christians told of how they experienced relationship with God: God the creator, Parent to us all; God the Son, who walked next to them in flesh like a brother; God the Spirit, who spoke in their hearts to comfort and guide them, who prayed with them, who made them always aware of the divine presence.

As the Triune God draws us into relationship, into the divine dance of compassion and loving judgement and never-ending grace, God helps us see the image of that very Triune God in ourselves and in others, and God sends us out into the world to love others and draw them into the “Dance of Trinity” with us. Thanks be to God.


[1] Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Darmok.” Episode 102 (season 5, episode 2). Directed by Winrich Kolbe. Story by Joe Menosky and Phillip LaZebnik. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. September 30, 1991. (Synopsis available online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darmok)

[2] Merriam-Webster.com

[3] Fuzzy memory of a lecture by Elsa Tamez at Vanderbilt Divinty School.

[4] Rachel Martin interview of Will Bardenwerper.“’Prisoner In His Palace’: Saddam Hussein and His American Guards.” National Public Radio Morning Edition, June 5, 2017. Available online: http://www.npr.org/2017/06/05/531536419/the-prisoner-in-his-palace Accessed June 12, 2017.

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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