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Genesis 1:1-2:4a & Corinthians 13:11-13
As I sat to write at the end of this week, I tried to find a way to synthesize these two passages – the story of creation itself and the call of Paul to be perfect in the truth. But I couldn’t leave alone the experiences of three different iftar dinners I have attended over the past few days as my Muslim siblings break their fast for the day during the holy month of Ramadan. I add to that the news late Friday of the death of a UCC colleague and friend, the Rev. J.F. Wickey, who I worked with on so many critical issues. And then we add Friday – another shooting in north Tulsa, a young black man with health issues who needed help and got bullets.
I’m not sure how to weave all that together, except to say this – these are the times I am grateful for my seminary education, for the gift, and sometimes curse, of thinking theologically. I know how I feel about these things in my gut, and what my head says and where my heart is, but the theological part is somewhere in between all of that. It wonders – where is God in all of this? Who is God in all of this? These are the times in which what I believe, what I hold faith in, really matters.
At the end of each service we say, “Go in peace, pray for peace, wage a little peace and love one another. Every. Single. Other.” This is not a neutral phrase. It comes from somewhere and from something. It comes from the revolutionary claim from Genesis that we are all created in the image of God. We know that the words from the founding documents of this nation, “All men are created equal” didn’t mean “all men” when they were written, they meant just males, and only certain males. But our history is, in part, the expansion of that phrase to mean more and more people with each generation. And so too our faith life is the story of wrestling with the claim that we are all created in God’s image. And if we believe that, then we have to examine very closely the way we engage with the world.
How we will react to Muslims when they are scapegoated and ridiculed? Will we celebrate iftar with them or attend rallies that ignorantly protest sharia? How will we embrace people whose sexual or gender identity is in a minority, especially when the church has historically been a great marginalizing force? Will we open our eyes to see the long standing reality of police interaction with brown people and make sure that the Joshua Barre case isn’t only about Joshua Barre, but asks us to demand that our own policing forces – TPD and TCSD – engage properly with all people? If we really believe that God loves all people, which I believe we do at Fellowship UCC, then we cannot stop when that belief, when that radical claim, challenges us or makes us uncomfortable. This, my friends, is what theology is, much more than developing doctrines or creating dogma…thinking theologically means developing the capacity to expand our ideas about God when we encounter things that don’t fit with our previously held concepts. It means being willing to take a bold assertion like “made in God’s image” and follow that out to its conclusion, despite the numbers of ways we try to domesticate that theological claim on us. AND it means being willing to listen for God’s voice from the most unlikely of places, including our own tradition, which we progressives often throw out with the bathwater.
This is Trinity Sunday, a time in the church calendar to celebrate, or perhaps try to debunk, the doctrine of the Trinity, which claims, in traditional language, that there is one God who eternally exists as three distinct Persons — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It also has nothing to do with any of the scriptures read today because you will not find the word Trinity in scripture, nor will you find an expressly formulated doctrine of the Trinity. Now some might say that it was created by early church fathers in response to the church growing ever closer to the empire, in this case “thinking theologically” as a means of control of orthodoxy. Others might say that the doctrine of the Trinity represents one of the ways we have to decolonize our theology, handed down us as Gospel Truth, when it’s really something else altogether. After all, we all have experienced God as the ultimate reality, like the vastness of the milky way on a clear night, so large as to be unapproachable. But we also experience the Holy in our own flesh, in our pain and joy, in birth, life and death. And then we experience God as a guide, something that is present in life and available, pushing and pulling us when we pay enough attention. The Trinity can be a way to say that all of these are certainly God, but not just one is God. It can be, as it is often called, a holy mystery, beckoning us into a deeper, even mystical understanding of the ways we experience God, especially a God who is still speaking…still creating.
Almost three thousand years ago, the ruling class of Israel, the priests and the scholars, were just returning from exile in Babylon. They were a people who had been demoralized. They had spent a couple of generations held under the thumb of a hostile oppressor, imprisoned in a foreign land, stripped of their culture and religious concepts, told again and again what mattered and what divinity meant. When they return from exile, there is a temple to rebuild, a nation to restore, but none of that can start until they first repair the damage in their own souls. They need to be able to imagine something shaped by their own experiences. And it begins here…in the beginning. Reinterpreting the creation myths of the Babylonians, the Enuma Elish, which forced upon them by their oppressors, the priests and theological thinkers begin to write their own story:
In the beginning when God was creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Into that formlessness, that chaos, God speaks. Into a very hopeless situation, full of despair and darkness, God speaks. Into a place described by the Hebrew word, tohu, which means desolation and nothingness, God speaks. And what happens when God speaks? Darkness is separated by light, chaos is brought into order, life comes from the nothingness.
Thinking theologically, they envision a God who speaks light into our darkness, order into our chaos, life out of our nothingness. This mythic tale of creation is a claim on who God is and how God works, the One who has created and is creating still. And it speaks to them where they are, returned to Israel, with challenges and hopes, harsh realities and difficult circumstances. As Lisa Sharon Harper writes in her book, The Very Good Gospel, How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, “It is important for us to note that in the creation story, God does not obliterate the darkness, rather, God names it and limits it – puts boundaries on it.” In the midst of personal loss, social struggle, sacrifice and pain and chaos, we say as an act of faith that the darkness does not have the final word, that it is limited by a God who has spoken life into existence and continues to be the ground of our being. It does not mean that there is no darkness, or there will never be darkness again, but it does remind us that God said, “Let there be light.”
When we say, “God is still speaking”, it is in part so we will continue to listen because the problem comes when we take our theological musings and make doctrine out of them. You can tell me that this is the way that you experience God and I’m in, but as soon as you insist that it is also the way that God is, set in stone and absolute, you’ve lost me. I can believe in the Trinity as an act of theological wonder, as an experience of divinity. But I don’t believe it as a doctrine. And I can read the creation stories of Genesis as inspirational and theological claims on us, but not as a science textbook. But I still read and believe in my own ways because I need all of those people who do think of them as doctrine and fact…thinking rationally tells me I don’t, even using my gut tells me I can cast them aside, but thinking theologically, all of us in God’s image, means I can’t. We’re connected.
I continue to be compelled by the vision that the writers of Genesis had so long ago. The notion that we are all created in the image of God in a day and age that viewed only kings and queens as representative of divinity was absolutely radical…as radical as the claim that young, black men convicted of felonies, and people with mental illness, and undocumented immigrants and transgendered people of color and genderqueer Muslims are also all created in the image of God is today, in our time. And yet, both are theological thoughts. They are natural extensions of the claim that we are made in God’s image…well, if “we” are, then who is “we?”
That’s what the writers of Genesis first wondered when they envisioned a God who said something different about hierarchies. And then what the prophets said to Israel when she forgot that assertion. It’s what Ruth said to Naomi and Peter said to the Ethiopian eunuch, and what Jesus said when he encountered the Canaanite woman at the well, and the Roman centurion seeking healing. Now we are here to continue that work. Here we are, as the writer of 2nd Corinthians said, called to examine ourselves, even to test ourselves to see if our faith is alive. Here we are, in our time and place, called to see God in our experiences, sometimes as flesh, sometimes as Spirit, sometimes as vast eternity – but always as God. Here we are, called to think theologically, to see what should be, imagine what could be and to hope for what will be.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.” I believe that to be true. And I equally believe that this will be made real in all of us – our stories – we who have spent some time thinking theologically, we who strive to hear the voice of the Spirit whispering in our ears and to take our faith lives seriously…bound to the story of our faith, to the faith of the centuries, with it’s right turns and wrong turns, with it’s stars and it’s scars…bound together with a God who comes to us in many ways, and one way. For we cannot do this alone, we need one another — “Every Single Other”, and we need to mean that when we say it, or we need to stop saying it.
And I don’t think I can stop saying it, because as many times as I don’t see it, as often as it gets rejected by a world seemingly bent on division and oppression, I still believe it…as if it were creation itself. What do you believe?