Friday, May 24, 2013

Trinity Sunday and the God of Paradoxes

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the day in which theologians around the world struggle to express the utterly abstract, unexplainable concept of the Holy Trinity. I was talking to a pastor at text study this week, asking how he preaches on it. He said, well, there are some metaphors you can use... the three states of water, an apple, an egg. I've heard some different ones over the years, but none of them really manage to capture the ethereal, otherworldy triune God. The metaphors fail, not for lack of faithfulness, theological understanding, or trying, but because ultimately trying to apply a concrete metaphor to something that is, by its very nature, not concrete (at least 2/3 of it is not concrete, anyway), is impossible. God is too vast to be summed up as an apple seed or egg yolk, and too real to be summed up as water vapor. So what do we do with this (ha) unholy paradox?

I was talking about the conundrum with my fiance, P, who is a huge nerd. He's actually a math professor, if you want to know, and studies really abstract stuff that I usually end up looking at like Rorschach inkblots. ("Oh, this diagram has pretty colors... it reminds me of a rainbow. This one looks like a pony!") Because he is who he is, he also has a passing interest in string theory (yeah, I know, don't we all?). When I brought this up to him yesterday he said something that I will try to explain: God is like the cosmos. God is immeasurable and incomprehensible in scale. God is the force that created everything, that designed a universe so vast we can't understand it, down to the quarks and strings and dark matter and whatnot. And yet somehow, that same God that created all of that vastness also very concretely created us, and gives a care about us, so much of a care that God actually came down in the most concrete possible form to us: Jesus, fellow human being. In the exact same way that God is involved on a macro scale with all of life and creation, God is also involved in microcosm right there in the form of Jesus. But in order for us to comprehend, it has to be to a scale that we understand. Distinct, human, having a will and person of his own, but also fully a part of that same cosmos and Being that is God. Now, he didn't have an explanation for where the Holy Spirit comes in, and my idea is in dark matter. Scientists estimate that only about 4% of the matter in the universe can be accounted for, which leaves about 96% mysterious stuff that somehow holds it all together--some sort of weird gravity that keeps the out there stuff and the in here stuff all stuck together. It's present, and everywhere, and without it we would fall to pieces.

Okay, so I'm not a physicist. Although this metaphor is, like all of them, far from perfect, it encapsulates a truth about God that the even more concrete examples fail the grasp--and that's the scale of God. This is a God that IS in those massive planets and black holes and mysterious empty spaces and supernovas and everything else, but is also inextricably linked to us. God is of a scale that we can't comprehend, and so in order to meet us, God became concrete like us in the form of Christ, to love us, walk with us, suffer with us, and redeem us. And the Spirit acts going between the out there and the down here, drawing near to us so that we can experience God even though God is beyond our imaginings. I think this touches on a truth that both allows us to use our feeble metaphors, and poke holes in them: God is in all, and so is represented in all of our silly ways, cosmic, mystical, concrete, apple, egg, state of matter, in nature, in us, between us, around us.

There is no good way to explain the Trinity, because we live here in a world limited by the laws of physics like gravity, linear time, single dimensions, and entropy. But in the same way that we experience our world and the universe and relationships with loved ones, we experience God in many different ways. God is a God who wants to reveal him/herself to us, and I believe is not above doing that in any number of ways. Sometimes it feels like almighty omnipotence, and sometimes it feels like Jesus-in-the-face-of-a-stranger, and sometimes it feels like the Holy Spirit rushing into a room like we talked about last week at our first week of Pentecost. Fundamentally, God is a God who is both cosmicly huge and minutely present in all of the tiny little moments of our lives. When we think of this, it can make us wonder like the Psalmist: "What is man that you are mindful of him?" And then know that the answer is simple: we are beloved, cherished, precious. Important as a star and tiny as an ant all at once. But only a God who is as great and vast as the universe could do what Jesus did for us, and care as much as that, and hold all our tiny lives and problems while also holding Jupiter and Andromeda. And so we sit back and fathom the mystery of a God who is this and that, here and there, with and away, tiny and vast, and try to live in such a way to work out whatever unimaginable, incredible plan that kind of God is working in our universe.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Today's sermon:

I want you to humor me for a moment and breathe. I know you're already breathing, but I want you to close your eyes, relax your shoulders, and take a big breath in through your nose so that it fills your whole gut. If you don't feel your stomach expanding, you're not breathing deeply enough. Let it fill you and then exhale slowly. Now do it again while I talk to you a little bit... Chances are you are sitting near somebody. Do you realize that you are breathing the same air as them? In fact, you are breathing the same air as the person sitting farthest from you in the room, and if you want to be technical, since we don't live in a giant air-tight space ship, we're kind of all breathing the same air as people across the country, and across the world. Breathing suddenly seems a lot more intimate, doesn't it?

You can open your eyes, but you probably want to keep breathing now... A while back I had the opportunity to talk to a native American woman, who told me that in her tribe breath is considered divine. God breathes into us and we inhale, and when we exhale, God is breathing us in. We are sharing breath with God. The idea isn't so far removed from our tradition either. The same word that we read in Genesis for “spirit”--ruach--also means breath. The ruach of God moved over the water—and things started to come into being. We hear about the breath of life in the Psalms, and in Ezekial, where God commands the prophet to “prophecy to the breath” and the bones that had been dry and dessicated come to life. Breathing is more than just a physiological action—it is the force that animates us, and gives us the potential to move, to act, and to be alive. There's something cool about the way that we are tied together, all of us reliant on this primitive action of sucking in oxygen and converting it to CO2. We are incredibly, vastly interconnected with each other and with God.

Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival. It was called the Feast of Weeks and celebrated the giving of the law to the people of Israel. It seems a little counterintuitive to us Lutherans who so often put the law at odds with the gospel, but the giving of the law was (and still is) seen as a joyful occasion. It was a way for God to be present in human communities, by helping us to live. It's no coincidence that the birth of the Christian church would coincide with this celebration. It was a day when the words Jesus had spoken about the advocate—the Spirit—coming to be present in his stead came true. It was another day in which God radically invaded our world. And how did this happen? The sound like a rush of wind filled the room. This was a “pnoe”, the Greek version of ruach and the same word that is used for Spirit or breath of life. And God's presence was suddenly revealed in a new way, literally igniting a flame on the apostles and compelling them to speak languages they didn't know, preaching the Word, sharing, spreading, revealing the reality of who God is, who we are, and what God is doing for all of us. Imagine what your ministry would be like if you could suddenly speak Russian or Chinese or Spanish depending on who you met. The Spirit of God became known to us on Pentecost, showing us our interconnectedness by allowing the Word which is universal to be heard universally.

When you breathe like you did just now, you are sharing in something. When you live on this planet, you are sharing space and energy and purpose with millions of people that you've never even met. We are connected with people who are totally different from us because that same Spirit that moved over the water in the beginning is the Spirit that moves inside and among us, declaring that all of our different callings and lives and ways of being are ultimately sustained by the same creator, and that our sin, brokenness, and pain are ultimately conquered by the same Lord. It gives you a different perspective on Jesus' words in Matthew: “What you do to the least of these, you do to me,” doesn't it? It gives a different flavor to your service, or apathy. When you walk by a person paralyzed by grief or loneliness, you are walking by a part of the community of Christ, a part of Christ himself, and a part of yourself. But in acknowledging a person in need, you have named that person as a sibling to you, as a son or daughter to Christ, and an heir to the kingdom of heaven just as you are an heir. And that is what Pentecost is about—it's about God's presence being made known boldly, coming down and going out as God did in the very beginning.

Take another deep breath. You are still breathing. You have been breathing since your first cry, and you will be breathing until your Spirit returns to God. The same way that you don't just breathe on your birthday, Pentecost isn't just one day, because God isn't present just one day. Pentecost is every day, and it's up to us to recognize the Spirit as it is present and working among us, and to allow ourselves to be open to that activity. When was the last time you felt the Spirit really moving? I felt it this Monday at our Taize worship service, as the Spirit settled down over us as we sat silently in prayer. I felt it whispering to me 'these are your brothers and sisters, these are all God's people.' I have felt it moving in silence, and I have felt it moving like a strong wind—in the rush of tears during a moving hymn, like a loud voice calling for peace within fear and panic, and in the face of a stranger. It is in you and around you, and you are an instrument of it.

So how can you allow yourself to be moved by the Spirit? Sometimes it just gets up and sweeps you away, like, for example, when you find yourself suddenly moving to Minnesota to start seminary against all your better judgment and reason... But sometimes it nudges gently. I think that prayer and discernment within the community are vital, and because we are so connected we need to pray for each other, and help one another discern where we see God's activity. We have been given an awesome task to boldly declare God's love and promise to our sibling neighbors in the world, so breathe. Inhale the breath of God, and let it fill you up, so that you have the air to walk wherever you are meant to go, and to do whatever you have been strengthened to do.

Let us pray... God of wind and silence, of all people and all languages, reveal yourself to us daily as you did on Pentecost. Show us where to go, so that we can boldly go out into the world, declaring that all people are daughters and sons of you, heirs to your promise, and recipients of your grace. In the name of Jesus, who walks with us, and the Spirit who breathes life into us. Amen.