Saturday, June 06, 2020

Our loving, liberating, relational God

To think of and describe a God who is both one in three and three in one is almost impossible to accurately describe, so we fall back on analogies. And that can be… well… embarrassing.
Every year for a few years now, someone will inevitably post on social media (at least in my on-line silos) a Lutheran Humor video showing St. Patrick trying to describe the Trinity to a couple of Irish peasants. It’s like a three-leafed clover, he says, or how water can be ice, or water, or vapor, and so on. And each time, the peasants object, saying how he has just committed some classic heresy (“Oh, Patrick! That’s modalism!” “Oh, Patrick! That’s partialism!” “You’re the worst Patrick! I mean, really!”). Finally, Patrick gets exasperated and blurts out a rapid-fire recitation of the Athanasian Creed, to which the peasants say “Well, okay. Why didn’t you just say so?”
We get ourselves all tied up in knots. Even in our own parish named for the Trinity, there are only two symbols of the Trinity in the whole place… the big window over the high altar which, while lovely and which is meant to invite us through the Sacrament into the Gates of Heaven, also depicts God as the Old Guy, the Crucified Dude, and the Bird. The other image is so high up on the wall at the opposite end of the church that it is out of reach. Which is too bad, because if you think about it—or really, stop trying to overthink it—it is really rather simple.
If you read the scriptures enough, and listen carefully enough, one truth becomes inescapable: Godself is best known in relationship.
That is for me the chief witness of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. We see it again and again: From Genesis where we hear about God walking in the Garden looking for Adam and Eve who have hidden themselves out of shame, to God’s encounter with Moses on the mountain, to the voices of the prophets, right down to the incarnation of Jesus, and even to the vision of Revelation where heaven comes to earth and God gathers all people. The very nature of God is relational. And we, being created in the image of God, are by our very nature relational beings.
This is why the dual crises we are facing now cuts so deep. They are crises of relationship. The global COVIS-19 pandemic that keeps us apart is a crisis in relationship. We are not made to be kept apart because we are built in the image of a relational God.
And the stark revelations (to white society, that is) of deeply ingrained racism in all aspects of our society reveals an ongoing abuse of power that distorts the fundamental dignity of each person, shows us how deeply the sin of racism is a sin against our relational God.
Bishop Frank Logue of Atlanta writes:
“Before God created everything we see and know, there was a communion of three separate persons of the Godhead who created you out of love, for love. Not just one being, but relationships and communion, before time and forever. This is why you were created: to be in healthy, loving, generative relationship with God and all creation. And out of this web of relationships comes both your salvation and the redemption of all creation.”
The word Trinity never appears in the Bible. Yet in today’s Gospel, the Great Commission tells us to baptize new followers of Jesus in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We read a different Trinitarian formulation in Second Corinthians, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
The word “racism” doesn’t appear In the Bible, either. It’s not on any of the Apostle Paul’s lists of sins in his epistles, Jesus doesn’t utter the word from his sermons on the mount, on the plain, or from the boat.
But Scripture tells us a lot about oppression and the work of God to break its power and free people from it From Moses thundering before Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” to Isaiah proclaiming a fast from injustice, to Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple, we see that when God seeks to heal human sin and bring us back into relationship, racism is at the heart of what God seeks to eradicate and heal.
The first Christians weren’t deep theologians, at least not in the academic sense, when they started following the way of Jesus. They prayed and fasted, they cared for widows and orphans, they held everything in common, they told others about the Risen Jesus. Not because of some treatise or manifesto, but because it seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. It was the right way to live, and the right way to be with each other.
It turns out that renewed relationship was a key sign to those around them of God at work in their communities. And when they baptized and brought a new person into their community in “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” they were speaking of a God who is known in relationship.
The creation story that we heard this morning reminds us  that our very humanity, our very diversity, the qualities we share and the things that are unique, are in their essence part of imago dei, the image of God.
This is why the coincidence of global pandemic and our corporate rage at racism and all kinds racial violence in the deaths of Breanna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and so many more is so very important. Because we are made in the image of our relational God, the sin of racism cuts to the very heart of what it means to be human. Racism destroys and distorts human ecology on its most basic level, by regulating and destroying relationships.
In his classic book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese describes the lengths to which slave owners would go to distort and destroy the relationships among the people they enslaved. They would break up families, take away children, change their names, regulate what enslaved people could learn, even manage and control how enslaved people would care for their sick and bury their dead. Why? Because they knew if the people they enslaved were to experience unhindered relationships, they would find their dignity, discover their courage, and break out of their bonds.
Every oppressive regime knows this—from Jim Crow to the Holocaust to the Gulag to the reservation system and the so-called Indian Schools, to el los desaparecidos—the pattern has been repeated. And as soon as the oppressors teach people in bondage to read the Scriptures (thinking it would pacify them) it is always the beginning of the end. Because the Scriptures introduces oppressed people to Moses, Jeremiah, Ruth, Micah, Isaiah, Mary, and Jesus. At the heart of the scriptural narrative is a people seeking liberation following a God who is present, empowering, and relational.
Jesus time and again quoted the heart of the Law: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The great commandment is relational. We love God and we love people in a deeply interconnected web of relationships. When we come to love God more, we find the heart for people that God has, and so the love of God draws us to other people. Loving other people fully means seeing them as God sees them, and so loving people can also draw us to God. And that is how Godself is best known in relationship! God’s people are best known in our communion with one another. That is why we were created: to live in holy relationship with God each other, and creation. It why respecting the dignity of every human being is at the heart of our baptismal promise.
God is a relational God, and God is also a God of hope! Hope is faith that looks forward. The present pandemic and our (apparently newfound) consciousness of the sin of racism is driving us to appreciate and re-evaluate our relatedness and see the ecology of our relationships differently.
Early Christians practiced their faith well before they landed on the language of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They experienced the fullness of God in the communities where they lived. We are invited also to live out our faith now and let our language flow from that. At the same time, we are invited to see the language of the Trinity not as some distant theological concept but as a gift to us from people who have walked this same path ahead of us.
We are God’s people made in God’s image. And just as God cannot be contained to one image, so we cannot be contained to one culture or expression. And as the fullness of God is found in relationship of the Trinity, so the fullness and grace of humanity comes when we discover liberating, life-changing, and loving relationships that overcomes privilege and break down the barriers of racism making us more fully the people God made us to be.

Trinity Sunday worship at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA may be found here

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