Archive for June, 2011

This is Good

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011

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

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day which traditionally can include much theological hairsplitting. In the synoptic gospels, the picture that is presented of Jesus is primarily human, rather than divine. In the early church up into the 4th century, there was hot debate over the nature of Jesus and of his relationship with God and the Holy Spirit. Around the time of the Council of Nicaea, in 325 CE, you couldn’t catch a cab or stand in line anywhere and not get into a debate over the nature of Christ!

Coincidentally or not, June 19 is in fact the anniversary of the Nicene Creed that established what we call “the Trinitarian formula:” Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In 325 CE, Constantine called together the 1800 or so bishops of the church from all over the Christian world, except for Britain, and a substantial percentage of them started meeting on May 22. By June 19, they had come to an agreement that the Father and the Son are of the same substance and are co-eternal: “very God of very God,” as the creed phrased it. They gathered again in 381 and fine-tuned it into the form we know today.

This ancient statement of belief is recited every Sunday in Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and many other denominations, and is only explicitly challenged by Mormans, Jevohah’s witnesses and a few others. Most Protestant denominations have written their own creeds, or simply don’t use any, but their theology can be found in the content of the creed nonetheless.

The UCC has an interesting relationship with creeds. The Nicene Creed, among many others, is accepted as a “testament, not a test of faith.”  Yet, in addition to the ancient creeds, we also have a beautiful statement of faith which I commend to you—it’s on the UCC website.  Even the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which believes there is “no creed but Christ,” has a statement of faith which is based upon the Nicene Creed.

Of course, long before the birth of Jesus humankind struggled to give meaning to the concept of something greater than itself. Meaning was created largely through stories of the beginning of their tribe or world. The ancient Babylonians told an interesting creation story of how Tiamat, a female deity of chaos, eventually was shaped into the earth and the heavens. The Enuma Elish, as it is called, is full of intrigue, murder and violence. In preparation for revenge against the lesser gods who murdered her first husband, Apsu, she created eleven monsters that rival anything in Marvel Comics. Here are a few: the Viper, Mad Dog, the Dragon, Great-Lion, the Sphinx, Scorpion-Man, and the Centaur. Marduk, one of the lesser gods, and the patron god of Babylon, rips her body in two and makes one-half the earth; with the other he creates the skies. Other gods complain that the death will mean more work for them, so out of the blood of Tiamat’s second husband, Kingu, Marduk creates humans to do all the necessary work.

This is the story that the ancient Israelites heard while they were in captivity in Babylon. And they set out to tell an even better story, about a much more loving God. These were the years that the book of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, began to be written down. What a different picture! The only similarity is that both stories discuss the waters of chaos as a precursor to ordered creation. Instead of petty gods busy with scheming and violence, the Book of Genesis speaks of a loving God who brings light out of darkness; who creates with beauty and joy and who rests after exertion, sanctifying the seventh day as a holy day of rest which all should observe.

The Book of Genesis, with its earth-central creation story lasting only seven days may seem as odd to us today as does the Enuma Elish. We know so much more about astronomy nowadays. Did you see the news stories of the gamma ray bursts? Usually these bursts of energy disperse in minutes, but scientists observed some lasting for days back in March. Now someone has learned that they were caused by a black hole in the center of a galaxy that was eating a star! Can you imagine? And to make matters more unsettling, this isn’t taking place now, but 3.8 billion years ago. It just took that long for the light energy to get to us. 3.8 billion years!

Now that we have amazing telescopes to see distant stars and scientific studies that have tapped the secrets of the genetic code, how can the poetic view of creation in Genesis mean anything in the modern world? Unfortunately, too many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters have caused havoc in school systems by insisting that Genesis is the only permissible view of creation. They believe that God did in fact create the world in 7 days, whereas astronomers place the Big Bang at 13.7 billion years ago.

I do find the scientific concept of a Big Bang Interesting. It sounds uncannily like Genesis, when God separated the light from the darkness, and stretched the heavens out.

The Book of Genesis is still relevant today, but not for factual accuracy of how the world is created. What is important to take out of this wonderful story is first of all its theology of a loving God who delights in all creation, and the ever-present Spirit, whose wind swept over the face of the waters when the earth was still a formless void. God created living creatures, and humankind in God’s image; found them good; and blessed them all. God’s love for the earth should be plain from the New Testament, too, since God chose to be incarnated as one of us, on this very earth, in the person of Jesus. Our gratitude should be overflowing for such a generous, loving God.

How then, can we misuse creation, knowing that God finds it good, and that we are made to be like God? That is the fundamental question that Genesis raises for us in our time, not any wrangling over the length of God’s “day!” What does it mean that God put humankind “in dominion” over creation? If creation belongs to us, does that mean we are not a part of it? Historically, humanity has taken dominion to mean that we are in charge of all natural resources and living creatures, and justifiably able to do what we will with them. But what if “dominion” means stewardship; as in “being responsible for, and taking good care of creation?” That is a different picture altogether. We have not acted with responsibility, much less good care. We have allowed our use of natural resources not only to deplete them, but to poison the earth for future generations. And never mind about the future–some of our manufacturing today constitutes “environmental racism”—we have created poisoned air and earth near the most vulnerable and marginalized of our population.

What does it mean for creation that we are viewed by our society not as caretakers but “consumers?” The picture of the black hole eating a star comes to mind. A tremendous percentage of our economy is based on consumer spending; I read recently that economists are pleased that “consumers” are using credit cards again! If society defines us by our things, do they belong to us or we to them? And what does our definition as consumers mean for our generosity; our giving to church and nonprofits?

Turning to the New Testament again, Jesus’ wish for us is to be good stewards, too. Jesus didn’t preach about the earth very much, but his overarching concern was our care for the marginalized and those who need to hear a word of healing. The scripture we read today is the very end of the gospel of Matthew, when the risen Jesus makes one last appearance to his disciples, and gives them final instructions to carry on without him. Traditionally, this passage is known as the “Great Commission.” I’m sure the disciples felt that Jesus was giving them an impossible task. It seems that way to us, too! We are to go to all nations, which in the disciples’ time meant to the Gentiles; to us it means the unchurched, that large portion of society which indicates “None” when asked their religion. We are to make disciples of them, and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (This is as close as Matthew gets to a theology of the Trinity.) We are not to worry about our lack of resources, or our own inadequacies, or to engage in any theological hairsplitting. Just go, teach and baptize. A tall order indeed, and one that we will interpret differently from many of our brothers and sisters.

But essentially, it comes down to this: trusting in God’s mercy and ever-present creative drive; while being open to Jesus’ grace, healing and forgiveness; and participating in the strength, loving connection and spiritual gifts that come to us from the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we haven’t a prayer! And as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 13:13, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”