Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What DO we believe?

Good morning… and Happy Trinity Sunday!

Yes, here we are, once again, at the beginning of what we call “Ordinary Time” – which for us begins the week after Pentecost and stretches like the Sonoma Valley into Spring and Fall and the early days of Winter, one long green swale of ordinary life, populated by sheep and vineyards and ordinary people just trying to get by, until we get to Advent, at which point everything ordinary abruptly ends.

Trinity Sunday usually features long-winded and abstract sermons about arcane matters of Hellenistic and Neo-Platonic philosophy.  These are sermons that try to help us make sense of that which makes absolutely no sense.  Actually, I suppose that could be said about every sermon; but in this case, preachers actually go out of their way to explain the unexplainable.  Trinity Sunday sermons are often filled with strident over-confidence and easy answers – as strident and easy as the topic is difficult.  

The image comes to mind of the Great White Hunter from the days of the British Empire, manfully marching into the dense Amazon jungle, slashing his way into the heart of darkness, blissfully unaware that his army of indigenous baggage handlers has long since stopped following him – because they know better.
So don’t worry, I’m not going to charge too far into that jungle – for one thing, I know better, and for another thing, I rather prefer your company.

You might have heard that, beginning a week from this Wednesday, I’ll be leading a 4 week class entitled “My Favorite Heresies.”  Actually, I’ve just changed the title to “My Favorite Heretics” because my heretical friend, Chris Bell – the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Theist who works across the street – will be joining us for two of those 4 sessions, to defend the heresies of Arianism and Pelagianism.  For my friend, Chris, that’s just the beginning of his apostasy – he also claims to follow several other heresies, including Arminianism and Socianism – thus confirming our worst fears about Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Theists….  

Actually, I have no idea what Socianism is… but I’m sure it must be evil….
And this is kind of the point, I think, about ancient church doctrines generally speaking, and the Trinity more specifically: we are so far removed from the worldview that gave rise to these doctrines that they take on a kind of museum-like status.  And worst of all, they give us the impression that these arcane ideas, no matter how difficult they are to comprehend, must nonetheless be believed.  It’s like what Allen Jones used to say, that Christianity can sometimes seem like a religion that requires us to believe ten impossible things before breakfast.  Sometimes it feels to me like the doctrines of the church are the brussel sprouts at the wedding banquet, which you have to eat if you want to get any of that cake.  And this is a terrible way to think about your faith.  

A few years ago, somebody in one of our Inquirer’s Classes asked whether, instead of being invited to affirm the mysteries of our faith as found in the Nicene Creed, we could be invited instead to just consider them.  That was such a perfect expression of our condition that I think I’ll never forget it.  Which leads me to the discuss something that I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time: What are we supposed to believe in this church?  What do we make of the Nicene Creed?

Someone the other day came to my office and asked me that, point blank: What do Episcopalians believe, anyway?  

Those of you who know me, or have long experience with the Episcopal Church, can imagine the vague and evasive answer I may have given to this question.  I often talk about the Episcopal Church as a kind of giant smorgasbord: we lay out before you all the resources of Christianity – the creeds, the scriptures, the traditions, the history of our faith, the music, the rituals – but one thing we tend to avoid is telling people that in order to be saved, they MUST choose this creed and this scripture and that tradition.  Instead, we say, here it all is.  The job of the church is to lay it all out for you, help you understand it all, and let you choose what is most nourishing and delicious for you.  Now, we might, like a good parent, encourage you to eat your brussel sprouts, because they contain iron and folic acid or whatever; we might even cook them in butter and cheese so you might actually try them; but we will never, ever do what my grandpa once did to my brother when he was 8, which was to forcefully open his mouth and shove them in there.  I won’t go into the details of what happened after, but suffice it to say it was memorable, and the word “projectile” comes to mind – which pretty well sums up the mess that other churches have on their hands when they think they can force-feed anyone the truth.  

Now, as you might imagine, this explanation was not particularly helpful to the young man who showed up in my office – because for someone who was new to our church, he wanted some indication of what he was getting himself into.  And I can’t blame him.  Which leads me to my second answer to the question, What must Episcopalians believe?  And that is to point to a prayer book, and say, “We’re more interested in how we pray than in what we believe.”  

This, as true as it is, did not seem to satisfy my visitor either.  Which led me, finally, to the third and final answer, which was to turn to the Baptismal Covenant, as found on page 304 of our prayer books.  Here, we actually find specific things that all persons who are baptized into our faith are expected to believe.
You’ll notice it is in two major parts.  The first part is the Apostle’s Creed – that ancient statement of belief that is based on what is called the “Old Roman Rule” which dates back to about the year 180.  And the second part of the Baptismal Covenant is the section of vows that we make as we embrace this way of life. 

Most of you have probably heard me talk about this before so I won’t belabor the point, but the important thing to remember is that, if we were to be true to the ancient understanding of the word “believe,” we would probably do better to translate it as “trust” than as “belief.”  It makes a huge difference to me, and draws me closer to the original meaning of the creed, if I say the word “trust” instead of “believe:” 

“I trust in God the Father…. I trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God….  I trust in God, the Holy Spirit…”   When we replace the word “believe” with “trust”, we skip over the modern hang-up around “what we think is true” and let ourselves consider instead the trustworthiness of this God we proclaim.  

Last week I was brushing up on my reading about heresy and came across the excellent point that the problem with a lot of the heresies is that they make too much sense.  That is, they reduce the paradoxical and mysterious and impossible nature of God with a version of God that makes more sense:  Jesus can’t possibly be both fully human and fully divine – so let’s say he’s one or the other.  And what the early church fathers kept saying is, no, we refuse to reduce the mystery of God to something that we can fully comprehend.  What makes God worthy of our devotion is precisely the thing that drove the heretics off the deep end: the absurd, impossible notion that God becomes flesh and lives among us.

Which leads me to the other thing you’ve probably heard me talk about, which is that it is helpful to think of God as a Verb instead of a Noun.  That is, the key to understanding who anyone is is to focus on what that person actually does.   What does God do in this Creed: God creates heaven and earth; God is born into the world, where he suffered at the hands of a despot and was killed – etcetera.  Focus on what God does in the faith of this church and you’ll be so much better off than the people who get all hung-up on trying to figure-out the essence of God.

And then finally we come to the vows – and again, here we focus on the Verb, this time, on what we will do in response to the actions of God.  We will continue in the teaching; we will persevere in resisting evil; we will proclaim the gospel by word and example; we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, we will strive for justice and peace.  

This, in a nutshell, is what we believe.  We believe in a God who is active in the world; not only throughout the ages, but here, in our own lives, by the choices we make, and the promises we make to one another.  God is found in what we do.   

One of the worst things that ever happened to our religion, I think, was this notion that we are saved by virtue of some kind of esoteric thought process – as if, if we could only manage to swallow those brussel sprouts of ancient metaphysics, if we could only somehow find a way to twist our minds into the pretzel logic of some kind of magical formula like “Jesus died for my sins,” then we’d be fine.   

Wisdom tell us that the truth is much simpler, and far more difficult.  The Christian journey really begins when we commit ourselves to a godly path, and then discover that we can’t do this alone.  The spiritual journey is a lot like mountain climbing: if you want to scale a large hill or even a small mountain, it’s possible to do it alone; but if we want to take on the truly magnificent mountains, the really transcendent ones, we can only do it with others.   As we get closer to the summit, we rely more and more on the team of people we came with – including the invisible folks, the angels and the saints.  And then, even with all of their help, we will inevitably come to the point of failure.  And that is when we call upon the name of the Lord.  We can do nothing without God’s help.  

This is why we’re in such a good place here at Incarnation these days.  It’s not because of what we say we believe so much as what we actually do, together, that makes us a light to others.   Because God comes alive for us in what God accomplishes through us.  God comes alive for us whenever we break bread together; God comes alive for us whenever we share our food with the hungry, God comes alive for us whenever we see the eyes of Christ in the eyes of our neighbor, God comes alive for us whenever we proclaim our deepest truth with respect and reverence, God comes alive for us whenever we stand for peace and justice in this world.  

And so that is what we do, with God’s help.  Thanks be to God.   

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