Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sturdy

Sturdy
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 15, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 John 2: 12-17


Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
            Amen.

I'm going to break with tradition today, and save the scripture reading for the end of this sermon so that it is in the perspective of the rest. . . it's from the 1st of John's epistles, and so it is about love, and God, and loving God. . . for that is what those great letters are about, but here the sermon by way of introduction I will preach.
So often in the church calendar we have days like today where there is a church remembrance and it coincides with a secular holiday. There are many times where Pentecost lines up with Memorial Day. . . but this year where Easter was much later in the month of April we have today, Father's Day, and it is also Trinity Sunday. The week after Pentecost always is. . . It is as if now all the three parts of God have made their appearance in the story, the last with the Spirit coming last week at Pentecost, and so now we can celebrate God complete and in three this week. It may also be because, after the birth of the church at Pentecost, one of the first great watershed Theological debates, schisms, and then coming together in Council. . . which is the pattern for most church doctrine. . . one of the first was all about this doctrine that has inspired so much confusion and mystery since its inception: The Trinity.
I remember a few years ago when I first preached on the Trinity on this special day of remembrance someone told me that such Theological issues aren't what it's all about anyway, no one can know afterall, and it's all just hocus pocus really. . . . His words, not mine, but he did and does have a point; there has been much division and trouble concerning the doctrine of the trinity throughout the centuries. It is the biggest issue that Muslims, at least at the beginning,  have with Christianity. . . God is one, not three, dividing God creates a polytheistic, rather than monotheistic model, and such is simply idolatry afterall in their minds. Christians, at least Orthodox ones, do not see the nature of God in three and one in this divided way, though. Is the nature of God important to ponder and consider and think about, especially if it sets people apart against one another? Is it better to just focus on ourselves and what we can know, focus on the law and righteousness and being a good person, focus on Jesus and Salvation and redemption instead? It's an important question to consider, especially if it divides us, but on the other hand for Christians, in the west, this one doctrine has been the one source that has unified Western Christianity, being one of the few traditional pieces of Orthodoxy that survived the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation. When so much divides us, names, the primacy of the Bible, the importance of tradition, what communion is about, what baptism is about, when to do it, what it does, who should be and who shouldn't be, how church government should work and be organized. All these questions divide Western Christians, but the Trinity is one of those few things so many people agree on.  Therefore it is really come to be the standard for what is considered orthodox, the dividing line between orthodoxy and the rest. For better or worse it is a part of our history, a part of the faith of our fathers, and so a part of the faith of us, and for that reason I think important to talk about from time to time, and to commemorate this Sunday every year, representing the end of the Easter Season, the last of the special days where white adorns the sanctuary. Next week it is back to green, ordinary time, and it's green and ordinary for a while. . . all the way to the end of November when we look at Christ as the King, but today we look to the Trinity. . . so let's do it, though it may just hurt our brains to do so.
So today we get two, Trinity and Fathers. As I was studying, pondering, deciding what to talk about, I was thinking about the juxtaposition of these two ideas, and maybe I was thinking about the history of the doctrine of the Trinity as well, and its unifying definition of Orthodox, like I've just been talking about, but somehow part or all of this at the same time was going through my head, but when I was thinking about Fathers and Trinity the first thought that came into my head, the first word that popped in, like I was playing a word association game became the title I chose for this sermon today: "Sturdy." Sturdy because a three legged table is the right amount of legs to get the first taste of what we consider sturdy, and sturdy because I am blessed to have a Father in my life who has been sturdy for me. And maybe that has something to do with it. The blessings of Fathers and the blessings of faith are often linked, and when they are all the more sturdy. Our fathers, our parents give us our first foundation of faith. . . and I use the term parents here in its widest form possible because oftentimes it's aunts, uncles, grandparents, church friends, and so many more who become parent-like to a child. There is a real truth to the fact that all adult/child relationships have that kind of import. . . which is a truth that should inspire and intimidate us at the same time. The faith that we share with our children should be sturdy for them. . . and this world is greatly in need of sturdy things, because so much of what we have to deal with is much more shakey.
In this world we live in, that philosopher's call postmodern, truth has become a shakey thing. It is a relative thing, and unknowable thing, a doubted thing, a challenged thing, and therefore completely shakey. . . we get to form it for ourselves, by ourselves, on our own, again shakey. . . for what we think is true, no matter what, right? So many of my students have this ingrained in their heads. They accept it as unquestionable fact (with no realization of the irony of such a notion), but if you get them in honest moments, where you can ask questions beyond the surface, it is amazing how fast the presupposed sturdiness of relativity, gets lost in the actual shakeyness of I don't know. And I don't know is a good answer, it's much more honest answer than, "I make my own truth," and allowing yourself to realize you don't know is actually beginning of knowing. . . it's like the rock bottom where sturdy can be built, whereas so much of our society and our viewpoints are built on seemingly safe, but completely groundless notions of the relativity of truth.
And this is where the doctrine of the trinity comes in. It is mysterious, it is confusing, it is unknowable, but in that unknowability is its charm, its power, and its import, because it leaves so much to the unknownness. I touched on it a little bit last week, when I was talking about the Holy Spirit, and how that ethereal part of the Trinitarian God allows the size of God to be bigger than our narrow minds. It brings the tangible documented acts of God in the past and does not allow our minds to box God in them because you could, and people do. There have been movements in seemingly faithful worship which do exactly that. They make God just a creator, they make God just a redeemer, and God is each of those things, both of those things, but God does not end there. . . and real faithful worship has to acknowledge the scope of God beyond the past into the very presence of our lives now and in the future. But at the same time people also try to remove the past and focus just on the Spirit, seeking to ignore the law and the prophets, the creation, the crucifixion, whatever it is. . .it misses the sturdy totality of what God really is. The Trinitarian concept of God brings a real balance to our understanding of who God is and what God is, not in a limiting way, but in a challenging, an expansive way, a way that pushes us from our comfort at the same time it gives us real comfort. The table metaphor is a good one, because faith grows shakey when we seek to take away one of the legs of the table.
And perhaps that is exactly what our post modern or whatever you want to call it world often seeks to do. In a false attempt to make things more complicated and sophisticated it actually overly simplifies things, and then rejects them for being way too simple. So much of what people reject about God or religion, as I have observed, is not the large Trinitiarian depth of God, but a narrow shaky idol that only represents one piece of what they think the whole would be. They may say things like, well God is much too rigid for me, I don't believe that God creates such wonderful diversity and then makes a bunch of rules that narrow that very existence. The Trinitarian God is bigger than that concept of what God is. You may hear something like, and I've mentioned this slogan before. . . morality is doing what is right no matter what you are told, and religion is doing what you are told no matter what is right. . . neither the person who believes that statement is true about religious people, nor any religious people who fit into such a statement represent a much larger Trinitarian concept of God. . . you see there is always more, and its more complicated. . . and trying to make it simple, makes it not easier to grasp and make a part of your life, but easier to reject, or find wanting, when the sheer scope of the Trinity isn't easy to grasp, and also isn't easy to reject. It's simple enough to find wanting. . .not simple enough to reject.
But the Trinity not as a reality, but as a doctrine, is dangerously close to that kind of simplicity. If it becomes simply a check box of belief, like you either believe it or you don't, it becomes way too easy to accept, find wanting, and reject. . . because it's just words, just an idea, but the reality, the part that hurts your brain to think about, is what matters. . . let it hurt, let it leave you wanting more, living shakily in the mystery. . . it brings you ironically to a much more sturdy place. Yeah it seems a paradox, but so much of Christianity is a paradox. I think of the famous prayer of St. Francis. . . and all of its opposites.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
Yes it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. . . and it is in losing ourselves in the shaky mystery of the Trinity that we find the hard rock sturdiness of faith in God, bigger and beyond any box we could ever try to put God into, or maybe it would be an envelope, for that two dimensional idol of God, could just put on paper and stowed safely like that, but the Trinity busts God out of the envelope, off the paper, and into our very lives.
You may think to yourself that it would be hard to understand such an idea, and you'd be right, and then you may also think that you have to understand something to teach it, understand something to pass it on, understand something to seek to instill it into someone else, and this being Father's day, where we celebrate special parent, again big definition of parent, relationships with children, I want to dispel that fallacy. Understanding here isn't the goal, teaching this isn't about teaching knowledge, but about showing love.
So now I want to read the scripture passage for this morning because it puts a lot of this into perspective and reminds us what it is about, children, father's, and  young people:

12     I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.
13     I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.
14     I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever. [1]

The world likes to make the simple sophistocated and make the sophistocated simple, so that it can take it, own it, wield it, or reject it. . . let us seek to love instead. . . for the Love of the father shows us what it is all about. . . more than we could ever imagine. Amen.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Jn 2:12-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.