Sunday, May 08, 2005

Trinity Sunday: "In the beginning..."

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” In my mind’s ear I always hear the opening words of the Bible set to music, sung by a chorus of thousands, and accompanied by an orchestra with offstage trumpets and trombones. Alternatively, I hear it read by James Earl Jones, who has a voice so deep and resonant that I’m sure even God is envious.

However, today the focus is not on creation but on the Creator. The first chapter of Genesis begs the question, “Who is this God who created and creates, who spoke and who speaks yet?” And the church throughout the ages answers by telling us that God is Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Eternal Majesty, Incarnate Word, and Paraclete.

But before we come to the doctrine of the Trinity, let’s consider another way of naming or knowing God. When you meet a stranger, after you have asked their name, the second question is likely to be, “What do you do?” And that more fully identifies or names that person. “I’m Barry, and I’m a priest.” Or “I’m David, and I’m a city planner.” So if we were to interview the God of Genesis and say, “Help us to know you better. What is it that you do? What is your job description?” On the basis of the first chapter of Genesis, God might say, “I speak, create, and rest.”

First, God speaks. “Let there be light, and there was light.” Cue the brass choir, timpani, and lasers. Cue the Big Bang. When God speaks, people listen, and things happen. When we speak, there are no trumpets, timpani, or lasers pouring light into the void. It would be as futile for us to try to materialize a cup of coffee by saying, “Let there be Starbucks,” as for us to say, “Let there be light.” But God speaks with power and authority; our words seem puny in comparison. Or are they?

On Trinity Sunday we hear God speak the heavens and the earth into being, but last week on Pentecost, we heard Jesus’ followers also speak a new world into being. And here we have a clue to the Trinity: God puts divine power into our speech, too. As I said last week, words are powerful. They create and they destroy. The doctrine of the Trinity arose out of the church’s experience of a God who was not only in heaven but also on earth. They found God beyond them and also among them, and yet they knew that God was one. So gradually they began to name this God among them as the Holy Spirit. As they told the new story of how God had come among them as Jesus of Nazareth, they discovered that their words had power.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives a commission to his followers that is largely about using words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And note that he commissioned them in the Name of the Trinity. Do not discount the power of words. The followers of Jesus converted the world not only by martyrdom but also by telling a new story, more persuasive than the old ones. The Star Wars’ movies thrive not only because of their special effects, but also because the story of the courageous Jedi battling the Dark Lords has captured out imagination. Go and tell the story, and watch how powerful your words can be. Watch new worlds spring into being.

Secondly, God creates. We are not only like God in being able to speak powerfully; we are also like God in being creators. Note that I did not say that we are like God in being creative (although I think everyone is creative, too). All of us create. Is your job routine, boring, and humdrum? Are you retired? Are you unable to work because of some handicap? It doesn’t matter. You are still a creator. The chief way that both God and humans create is through love. Love is the most powerful creative force in the universe.

The answer to the old question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is simple. Because of love; specifically, because God loves. To be sure, God loved before the first whale swam in the Pacific or antelopes grazed on the Serengeti or before there was a single star in the Milky Way. God loved before all these things because God is Trinity. But God created because it is the nature of love to create and the nature of true creativity to love.

Love creates. When you fall in love with someone, doesn’t a whole new world come into being? When you vow to love someone until death do you part, you are vowing to create a world with that person, however slow and painstaking the process. Parenting is largely about loving a child into being, in other words, parenting is about creating a new world, or at least a new corner of an old world.

Finally, God rested. What are we to understand about this assertion that God rested on the seventh day? Does God get tired? Does God need to take naps? A rabbinic tale might help us to understand this. The rabbis say that the Holy One filled all immensity before the world was and there was no place where God was not. Neither was there any room for a world, for God was all and in all. So God drew back the robe of the Divine Glory to make room for a world. The rabbis explain that this means that God gives the world room to be itself. God is not merely the divine watchmaker, nor the world just a piece of wind-up machinery. Rather, God created the kind of world in which the world and all its inhabitants also have the power to create. God makes the world so that it makes itself, for only so can the world be itself.

What I understand by Genesis’ statement that God rested is that God drew back a little. God granted the world (and especially human beings) a degree of autonomy. We now have the responsibility to create as God created, to love as God loves. Where things are amiss, we are to set them right; where the world is broken, we are to mend it. Another helpful idea from the rabbis is tikkun olam, which literally means “repairing the world”. Tikkun olam, repairing the world is the task God has given us to do.

One of the early Church Fathers said that God became human so that humans could become gods. In other words, God became human so that humans could fully share the divine life. We already share the divine life to the extent that we tell God’s new story, love one another, and participate in mending the world. The God Who Is Three and One has placed the divine image in each heart. Our task is to live into that image and so share the divine life.

And so to God our Mothering Father, God the Incarnate Word, and God the Holy Spirit, ever three and ever one, be blessing and honor and glory and majesty, both now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Religion and Politics: A letter to The Atlanta Constitution

On May 2, Joel Bookman of The Atlanta Constitution published an editorial entitled "Faith should be personal, not political." I agreed with his overall conclusion but not with the route he took to get there. Here's a link to his article followed by my letter to Bookman about his editorial.

Dear Mr. Bookman:

Like you , I am outraged by the attempt to place far right jurists on the federal bench via an assault on the Senate’s filibuster rule, but I’m troubled by your reasoning. In your editorial of 5/2/05 (“Faith should be personal, not political”) I believe you reached the correct destination but took several wrong and potentially dangerous turns to get there.

You state that one of the “traditional values of the American people” is that “religion should never be “injected directly into politics” and that “…religion and politics, when mixed, inevitably corrupt each other.” Not so. Religion has been “injected directly into politics” a number of times in American history, mostly with beneficial results.

In spite of Jefferson’s celebrated “wall” between church and state (a good thing, in my opinion), religion has an important role to play in the public square. Jefferson himself wrote in the Declaration of Independence that one of the “self-evident” truths we hold is that “all men are created equal [and]… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” he was injecting religion into politics. Or when Lincoln opined in his second inaugural address that the Civil War had been God’s “scourge” upon America for “the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil,” he was making an explicitly religious statement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was injecting religion directly into the political bloodstream when he began every one of his marches and demonstrations with prayer or when he received the Nobel Peace Prize and proclaimed that “I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed and nonviolent redemptive good will will be proclaimed the rule of the land.”

The practice of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam cannot be merely private devotional exercises. These faiths lead their followers to take certain positions that have public implications. The abortion debate is a good example. Some Christians are persuaded by the Bible and the church’s teaching that human life begins at conception and deserves the protection that all human life enjoys. Other Christians are equally persuaded that human life does not begin at conception and that a woman’s right to exercise control over her body outweighs the rights (if any) of the fetus.

Religious ideas, like all other ideas, have the right to be considered in the intellectual and political marketplace. The public square should neither privilege religion nor exclude it. However, the public square is a religiously-neutral location and once there religious ideas are on an equal footing with all other ideas. In the church (or synagogue or mosque) it may be enough to say, “Thus says the Lord…” but that does not work in the public square. In the free marketplace of ideas, reason and pragmatism hold sway. Abolitionism and equal rights for African Americans were conceived in prayer and Bible study, but they prevailed in public because their advocates argued and won their debate through passion, reason, and the willingness to put their livelihoods and sometimes their lives on the line.

The wall between church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) and state exists to prevent the imposition of a state-endorsed religion upon the American people. It should not prevent the faithful from fighting for their convictions using the time-honored tools of persuasion. We cannot and should not (and it would be dangerous if we could) exclude religion from the public square. Religion speaks with many voices and these voices have as much right (no more but no less) to speak out on issues that confront us as any other voice. To make religion purely personal and private (as you call for in your article) would impoverish our public conversation. Furthermore, it would require a drastic revision of American history beginning with “We hold these truths…” and ending with “I have a dream…”

Yours sincerely,

The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D.