WHY DOES THE TRINITY MATTER?

Following Sunday School last week, I asked one of our kids what she learned.

“Nothing,” she said.  (That’s not an uncommon response from lots of kids, but this was strange for this particular child.)

“Nothing?” I responded. “Surely you picked up something?”

“It’s the same thing we heard last year,” she said, “the Trinity, God is three and also one.”

I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people, like that 9-year-old, are so far beyond being tired of Christian preachers asserting dogmatic truths that they’ve started to feel as if Christianity is nothing more than a wierd code language, and some of us some of the time as part of our commitment to grow deeper and help change the world are forced to listen to words which don’t actually convey meaning.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that those who are not in churches and not likely to darken the door of any church are a lot like many within those sanctuaries — wondering about the purpose of their life and how they can help make this world a more just and equitable place and if they care, whatsoever, about what Christians are doing on Sundays they’re probably wondering “Why? What’s the big deal? So what? What’s the point?”

It’s not important whether one understands Christianity.  Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance — that God is one and in three persons.  For starters, this is hardly comprehensible.  And, on another level, understanding it doesn’t really matter.  Ask yourself, instead, what difference it makes.  That’s what the world’s asking, and it’s a very good question.

In short, the Trinity makes a difference, a big difference.

The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t officially settled until the Council of Chalcedon in 381 A.D.  That doesn’t mean that everyone still agreed, but it’s interesting that a lot of years passed between Jesus and this church council.  In that time, there was a lot of wondering and figuring stuff out and discerning and talking but, if you haven’t figured out by now, there was also a whole lot of arguing, screaming, kicking out and fighting.  The story of Christianity, in many ways, is also the story of a big, drawn-out family argument.  Perhaps you’ve experienced or, maybe, started one.  The table erupts into contention, everyone’s involved even if they don’t want to be, and as much as you want to walk away and scream and say “I’m done with all you people!” you don’t.  No, they’re still your family and as much as you don’t know why you love them you still do, in spite of your radically differing opinions about whatever it was that started that argument.

That’s a real gift, the gift of different opinions and arguing parties.  A brief journey through the story of how early Christians wondered and wandered toward a definition of the Trinity might highlight some of this.

In the pages of the New Testament, there’s no doctrine of the Trinity, but there is a threefold understanding of God and in places where the context wouldn’t otherwise demand it.  The Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early-second centuries, such as Ignatius of Antioch, didn’t concern themselves with figuring out dogma – they were too busy tending the lives of growing congregations – but God is clearly affirmed as creator and Jesus is not only Son of God but also “our God” (as in Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians) and a triadic formula is often used.  Justin Martyr and other Apologists of the early second century began to develop an understanding of how the one God can be both eternal and, at the same time, also revealed in the Son.  Using logos — Greek for ‘word’ and ‘speech’ – Justin affirmed that God is one but, just as your own speech comes from within your own mind, so too does God bring forth something of Godself from time to time.  Building on that, Irenaeus (late second century) developed a more thought-out understanding of how the Spirit plays in all of this: there’s an economy in God, Irenaeus taught; God’s nature is one but, at various points, God’s Word (Son) and God’s Wisdom (Spirit) are disclosed.

Irenaeus’ “economic trinitarianism”, as it’s called today, sparked fervor because many felt it denied an essential part of the Christian faith: monotheism.  And in the third century there was a backlash against emergent trinitarian thinking, leading to the belief that there was no distinction in the Godhead.  Into this argument stepped the third-century theologian, Tertullian, who not only affirmed the one-ness of God but, going beyond Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, also showed that in God there are three unique, distinct persons.  Tertullian’s synthesis of Latin and Greek philosophy with emerging Christian doctrines remained central for some time, until in the fourth century a preacher from Alexandria named Arius returned the original fear that all of this denies the belief in one God.  Arianism was so popular that it led, in time, to the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D., figuring out the relationship between the Son and the Father) and Chalcedon (381 A.D., addressing the first question as well as dealing the Trinity).  Both Councils officially denounced Arianism as heresy and proclaimed that the Son is fully God (so we say in the Nicene Creed: “…God from God, light from light, true god from true god…”) and that there are, in fact, three distinct persons in the one God.  This we call the Trinity.

Perhaps this sounds like one of those big family blow-outs in which everyone’s argued about something for so long that someone, at some point, says “What is it we started arguing about again?”, at which the entire table erupts in laughter.  Surely, parts of the story I just told do sound a lot like starting World War III because someone forgot to put out the salad dressing!

But there’s a reason why this conversation got started, and there’s a reason why it turned into an argument and why it took so long to get worked out.  There is a why?, a so what? to this entire story and that is far more important to know than the answer itself.

The Trinity is essentially a very profound and progressive understanding of God.  The desire which fuels all of this is the search for a way to understand with some degree of comprehension that God is both eternal, true, for all time and, at the same time, new and fresh and living.  You know that God is, and if you’ve ever flirted with atheism – or tried it out for a while – you know, I’ll bet, the limits of cutting off all possibility of something beyond, something else, something more to life.  But just because you experience an open-eyed wonder you might not be entirely comfortable with feeling locked into a belief system which seems to assert with dogmatic authority that there are things you must believe about God.  You want to be rooted in something true, something lasting, something real … and yet you don’t want to get stuck.

The reason why Christians stumbled upon the idea of the Trinity is to explain these real-life issues.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both rooted in God but not bound by that rootedness, tied to something real but not restricted by that tether, not cut-off to the ways in which God is revealing new riches and, yes, challenges.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both religious and spiritual, both rooted and open.

A catch-phrase for many is that they’re “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  Ironically, there are so many ‘SBNR’s that even though it feels to them like something avant garde it’s a lifestyle which is so caught up in the mainstream that there’s no real substance, if anything there’s a palpable absence of meaning.  (It’s not dissimilar to the experience of buying some new fancy outfit that everyone says is the latest in fashion while you also know, as you’re making the purchase, you’re going to dump it in the second-hand shop box in less than a year.)

We are living in a new apostolic age, and it’s much more similar to the early centuries of Christianity than these latter ones.  This is not to say that the answers and the doctrines are invalid or, somehow, less valid.  I am saying, though, that the challenge for us is to get underneath our dogma and listen and respond attentively to the voices and experience of real women and men, people who are really searching and quite honestly struggling to make meaning in a relatively unmoored world.  The democratization of technology and widespread availability of information in our western, internet-connected world has not only led to a greater dissemination of knowledge but also, ironically, a profound disconnect for many with what it feels like to have an intellectual, spiritual home — a native language, a base-line understanding of how the world works.  The challenge and, I’d say, gift is that we live in a world in which people are free and sophisticated enough to ask, with integrity, why? and so what difference does that make?  And when they ask this question they are really, truly wondering and searching and yearning for something that sounds like a refreshing place to lay their spiritual and intellectual heads … but not get stuck there.

This also means that we are free, in fact we are expected to no longer simply give the answers to the test but share with a compelling narrative that our faith is progressive and open-minded, that we are spiritual people who are seeking and, when we stumble upon the Holy, we pause in the presence of a living God.  Because of that, then, we’re unafraid to put down roots and journey deeper into the heart of that mystery, that God who is eternal and true and yet, at once, involved in this world and revealing something new, indeed “new every morning.” (Lam.3:23)

…..

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on, you guessed it, Trinity Sunday. May 26, 2013.  For the full text, click here.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

“The things of the world are ordered and designed to shadow forth spiritual things.  It is apparent and allowed that there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works.  The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: viz. by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.”

Jonathan Edwards, Images of Divine Things (1728)

……….

In 2006, 32,000 acres of the Boundary Waters, the pristine wilderness in far northern Minnesota, was devastated by a raging forest fire in the Cavity Lake area.  There was obvious concern for the welfare of that ecosystem – the glorious Balsam Firs and animals who made it their home – as well as concern that it would diminish the attraction and draw of that destination place for outfitters and hikers.  We’ve also heard, all along, that forest fires are an essential and necessary part of nature’s course.  That’s true, on one level, and not, on another.

University of Minnesota forest ecologist Lee Frelich said that if people tried to suppress or control fires over the last century or so, the forest would look pretty sad.  “You would get essentially a sea of Balsam Fir,” Frelich said, “then the budworm would come, and it goes out and kind of kills half the trees. So you’d have this kind of crappy, half-dead forest which is full of brush and branches and which is not very attractive for people or wildlife.”  Fire can enrich topsoil by speeding up the process of recycling nutrients, and it can effectively take care of grasses or shrubs which would grow too quickly and crowd out sunlight for other species and trees.  Fire is a necessary part of a forest ecosystem.

Even more fascinating, to me, is that certain living things have become fire dependent.  The cone of the jack pine, for instance, has within it a waxy substance that only opens when sustained heat comes from below – and even then it doesn’t release its seeds until another 20 minutes have gone by, obviously essential to the species’ survival lest the seed get dropped on a fire raging below.  Frelich further explains: “In the case of the jack pine, the seeds germinate much better if the leaf litter has been burned away. Jack Pine, in fact, has drier foliage than other species of trees which makes it easier for a fire to run through Jack Pine. It is almost as if they purposely promote fire.”

There is a whole system, it seems, that’s not only adapted to fire, it’s dependent on it.  Nitrogen, for instance, is a major portion of the air we breathe and a basic building block of compounds that make up plant and animal tissues, especially proteins.  Jim Peterson, in Evergeen, notes: “Nitrogen is a marvelous fertilizer, but to do its work it must first be fixed – combined with other elements to form compounds green plants can use.  The heat from fire transforms nitrogen into more easily absorbed organic compounds that fuel photosynthesis, the process by which plants, including trees, capture visible light energy and convert water from the soil and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen.  Glucose is then converted into other organic compounds.  In trees, these organic compounds are converted to wood fiber.”  Fire is not just necessary, it’s essential.

When God comes again to Jesus’ followers, days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the images are provocative, violent, and stirring: the sound the disciples hear is “the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” (Acts 2)  Fire is, here, a lively and animating force, giving them new capacity and spirited courage.  But it’s also, as we’ve seen in the book of nature, a destructive, crippling force.  This image of God’s revelation is profound when understood in both of those senses.  This is how God comes to us, a fire which burns off the dust and dross of our old life but also, we fear, consuming it entirely – even destroying that which we hold on to and treasure, that which we feel might save us in time.  There is new life in this living God; we know that in our minds, at least.  But it’s hard to think about salvation when the old-growth forest of your private world is being ripped through with the licking flames of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask us to become, spiritually, fire dependent.  There are those Christians today and throughout the ages who do a much better job of relying and depending on that devastating fire – the Pentecostals of today are very much related to the mystics in the Christian tradition.

Even if we’re not fire dependent, though, we could stand to be a little less fire averse.  While it’s true that fires have long been a part of a given forest’s internal ecosystem, and that all of this happened long before we came on the scene, it’s not necessarily the same as the devastating tragedies we witness summer after summer, destroying homes, in some cases taking lives, and altogether wreaking havoc in the American southwest.  Historically, at least, these were small and somewhat more contained fires, helping the ecosystem get rid of waste and nourish the soil; Peterson notes, in Evergreen, “they traveled close to the ground [and] most of these fires were not very intense.”  “By contrast,” he continues, “the crown fires that now frequent the Southwest don’t have any redeeming value. In fact, their ferocity is difficult to comprehend: flames moving fast enough to overrun birds in flight, burning hot enough to crack boulders, melting topsoil’s organic layer into a waxy glaze that is impervious to water. The flooding that follows often strips stream channels to bedrock, washing away every vestige of fish habitat.  So the irony: our early attempts to contain wildfire—a societal decision made some 80 years ago— simply postponed the unexpected but inevitable return of even larger fires and more destructive fires.”

The irony indeed is that, like in the natural order of things, we have so tried to make ourselves immune to the kind of low-level flames which are, in fact, good and healthy that we’ve actually brought about even more devastating and consuming fires.  The attempt to make oneself more fire averse will, in the end, be one’s own downfall.  Even if we can’t make ourselves, like those mystics of old, reliant on the Spirit’s flame, we’d be wise to find ways to make our spirits and hearts a whole lot less averse to Her power.

It’s much more godly and, I’d say, a whole lot easier to live this way, anyway.  It’s healthy to have a form of spirituality that is open, not closed; inquisitive, not dismissive; willing to be changed or taken in new directions, not averse or resistant.  If you are rooted in God and you trust God, wholeheartedly, what seems new or different is actually part of God’s drawing out the story of redemption. In fact, this is what it means to follow and worship a living God.  I’ve always valued what the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan once said: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

On this point, I find the response of the crowd in Acts 2 interesting: most of those who heard the apostles speaking different languages were, scripture records, “amazed and perplexed.” They were also honest, saying to themselves and one another: “What does this mean?”  That’s a perfectly normal question for an odd, unexpected, even chaotic series of events.  But we often leap-frog over that question on our way to judgmental interpretation or our own spin (or uncritically adopting another’s spin).  Even on that first Pentecost, not all were so open-minded.  Some, maybe more than some sneared and in their negative judgment automatically dismissed the event, labelling the apostles a bunch of drunks: “They are filled with new wine.”

At that, Peter preaches a pretty thorough sermon.  Over the years, I’ve read Peter’s sermon as a definitive, erudite, and bold exposition of the faith, only it’s now a faith revealed in an astonishingly different way.  To be honest, that kind of spirituality can be off-putting, as well.  Those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ aren’t necessarily looking for the answers, given in black-and-white, and if we read Peter’s sermon as a kind of take it or leave it proposition, we might as well leave behind an increasingly vocal majority of American people who genuinely want what we call the Holy Spirit but, in equal measures, are tired of Christian dogma and assertiveness.  Outside these doors and, I know, sitting in these pews are people who are genuinely looking for a community of seekers, a gathering of ordinary folks who want to live with the questions and wonder, together: “What does this mean?”

Looking at it from another angle, though, perhaps Peter was wondering aloud, a seeker himself, drawing into the present the seeds of the past.  Perhaps Peter was simply bringing forth Joel’s words – words which had lay dormant for centuries but were nevertheless imbued with a holy force.  It reminds me of another interesting aspect of the Boundary Waters fire: after the 2006 fire, wild geraniums suddenly shot up everywhere.  A type of perennial known as Bicknell’s Geranium, a geranium which only germinates in direct sunlight, was long buried under all that clutter and leaf litter, just waiting for it to be burned away.  “That site had last burned in 1801,” forester ecologist, Frelich, said: “Those were 200-year-old seeds germinating.”

Describing what visitors would see in the growing seasons immediately following the 2006 devastation, Frelich described a picturesque scene, albeit one that’s radically different from a forest previously dominated by imposing Balsam Firs: “Raspberry plants can have seeds that have been in the soil for decades, and those will sprout,” Frelich added. “Blueberries will sprout from their roots underground. By the end of the first summer, you’ll see Fireweed, which has a bright pink flower.  By the fourth and fifth years, that’s when the berries are the most prolific. Raspberries, blueberries and berries of all sorts. By then, the saplings of trees will be four or five feet high. That’s when it’s really ideal for moose — birch and aspen that are their favorite thing to eat, and there will be billions of them, and they will all be within reach. In an 80-year-old birch forest, the moose is not going to be able to reach the crowns of the trees. But in a young forest like that, they have all the food they want. The population of Black-backed Woodpeckers will go up. You don’t see many of them in mature, closed-canopy forests, but after these big disturbances, by a few years later, you can be sitting there and eating lunch and a dozen of them might fly by.”

An amazing and beautiful landscape, all right there, all along – just waiting for the old-growth to be burned away, waiting to behold the truth that nature conveys: our God is not dead, our faith is not placed in a cabinet of cherished, fading memories, our convictions are not of a bygone era, nor has God forgotten us.  The One we worship is a living God, and ours is a living faith.  Because of which we wonder, aloud, and are unafraid of doing so: “What does this mean?”

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Pentecost Sunday, 19 May 2013

FREE TO WORK BENEATH THE SURFACE OF THINGS

Christians do a great job of celebrating Christmas and Easter, but it’s really Jesus’ ascension which ‘seals the deal.’  Forty days after Easter, Luke tells us in the sequel to his gospel, Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11), Jesus ascended into heaven in front of the eleven disciples: “…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (v.9)  They stood there, watching and waiting.  At that moment, similar to Easter Day, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” (v.11)  Immediately, they set about to work, no longer dependent on Jesus’ earthly presence.  Immediately, they did what they knew they were capable of doing, spreading the good news in word and deed.

That’s a great question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”  Most of us are conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere, not within.  Why do you stand looking up to heaven?   Because we’re so conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere we’re also lousy at practicing freedom. When we talk about freedom, then, we tend to think about being free from something — from others, from expectation, from binding laws.  That’s not what God means by freedom.  For God, freedom is not being free from something.  It’s being free for something.
Christianity is a religion of freedom, but be careful: what Christians actually celebrate is that we are free, in fact, to exercise the better angels of our nature, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s phrase.  We are free, truly free for the exercise of higher spiritual values.
All of this, we say, is because Jesus took up our nature, our humanity, with him.   Without the Ascension, we’d never get around to doing what we’re capable of doing.  Without the Ascension, we’d be sitting around, drifting aimlessly, acting like wild-eyed children, practicing the freedom which is really lawlessness, or waiting for another leader, monarch, dictator, self-help guru or diet commercial to tell us what to do.
The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, taught that our material nature is already in heaven, at least in part: “Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.”
And Brooke Westcott, the 19th century Bishop of Durham (England), wrote: “By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words ‘in Christ,’ the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. … He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
It could be said, in a sense, that Christians gather to re-learn and practice a freedom which this world does not, cannot teach.  We gather and enjoy and engage, as Bishop Westcott said, “the surface of things” — we make friendships, build community, serve the needy and oppressed.  But we are cognizant, at the same time, that we’re also, everyday, “working beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration.”  A freedom such as that is not to be missed.

THE HOME OF GOD

On a Saturday afternoon several weeks ago in Kentucky, a former Roman Catholic Carmelite nun, Rosemarie Smead, was ordained a catholic priest.  For obvious reasons this made something of a splash; perhaps some of you heard about it.  (Click here for a story.)

Rosemarie Smead ordained a priest, Saturday 27 April 2013. Source: Reuters

This past week, in related news, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freiburg im Breisgau, Robert Zollitsch, said at a conference on reforming the church it’s time for the Roman Church to at least consider ordaining women deacons.  This doesn’t have as much drama as the first story, but it may have more staying power and, if so, it’ll have much longer-term interest.

These kinds of stories are not only interesting because of what they report but what they represent – why it is that they get buzz.  Apparently, lots of people want to hear about this.  I’d suspect it’s because some dominant strands of Christianity show an apparent foolishness and close-mindedness about women.  The Reuters report about the Kentucky ordination cited a poll which revealed that 70% of American Catholics say they would be in favor of women being ordained priests.

Contemporary Christianity is, for some of us, recovering from a centuries-long failure to appreciate women in leadership positions.  The official reason the Roman church gives for why women can’t be priests is because Jesus chose twelve men.  That’s true, at least on the surface.  But I’m often struck that people who say they read their bible or those who claim to know the heart of the Christian tradition, inside and out, often fail to notice what’s actually going on there.  One doesn’t have to read between the lines; there’s no hidden story in the New Testament: the male-dominated Christianity that excludes women from leadership positions is not the kind of Way which Jesus practiced, and it’s not the religion of Jesus’ earliest followers.  Let me be very clear: for Jesus and the bulk of early Christianity, I can find no distinction between male apostles and female apostles.

Women are not only characters in Jesus’ life but, in fact, key players.  Jesus chose twelve male followers but it can hardly be argued, after looking up from the pages of any gospel, that there was only a set and select group of disciples.  Jesus’ mother, Mary, not only says “Yes” to God’s intervention in her life, she also ministers alongside him – all the way to the very end.  Jesus’ best friends were a trio of siblings, Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha – whose home Jesus often retreated to in Bethany.  In John’s gospel, the first person to whom Jesus reveals he is, in fact, the Messiah is a woman: a Samaritan woman at the well.  And the first witnesses to the resurrection, the very defining concept of our Christian faith?  Women, all of them.  Then there’s Mary Magdalene, about whom much has been added through the ages, some of more ancient years designed to blacken her character, some of more recent years to take away the spotlight from her genuinely faithful relationship to Jesus.  Whatever you’ve heard about Mary Magdalene suffice it to say that the New Testament presents her as a shining exemplar of a truly great disciple and, no less, apostle of the Risen Christ.

Jesus’ gender inclusion continued in the movement which kept alive his spirit.  In Acts of the Apostles chapter 16 you meet a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.  Paul met her and several other women in Philippi on one of his travel journeys.  Lydia became interested in the story of God reconciling the world in Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized.  Moreover, she became a major patron of the early church and founded a church in her home.  It should also be mentioned that Lydia is a self-made woman, of sorts: purple cloth was incredibly expensive, being made from a crushed shell from the Mediterranean sea basin; that’s why purple is the color of royalty — those of means and wealth were among the few who could afford such a dye.  There’s no Mr. Lydia:  just a wealthy, well-to-do, and self-assertive woman who helped the Christian movement significantly.  Read on and you learn of another couple who were leaders and apostles, Priscilla and her husband Aquila (Acts 18).  To the Galatians, the Apostle Paul stated emphatically that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)  The earliest forms of Christianity, just like Jesus’ own gatherings, were not only gender inclusive but they seemed to know no distinction between God’s acting through male or female leaders, for all indeed are one in Christ.

An all-male priesthood was made by us.  Not Jesus.  Not his earliest followers.  A hierarchical church which differentiated between women and men at some fundamental levels with exclusive consequences for leadership positions was also made by us, not Jesus.  And even though gender distinctions can also be found in the New Testament – most notably in the so-called household codes in which there’s an apparent pecking order: children obey parents, women obey husbands, husbands obey God (Eph. 5:22-6:5 or Col. 3:18-4:1) – the time of writing and origin of those documents seems to have more to do with a religion adopting the ethos of its culture and surrounding Roman imperialist society than following the clearly egalitarian and radical love-ethic of the God whom they knew as Emmanuel.

If you hear these words of mine as something like a politicized call to action or civil rights manifesto about inclusion for inclusivity’s sake, I apologize.  That’s not my intent, well, not my primary intent.  I’d like to take this another step, and at least in closing go a little bit deeper.  There is a spiritual message here.

Obviously, I don’t have an issue with raising up women in ordained leadership positions in the Christian church.  I do have an issue, however, with women being thrust into the maintenance and continuation of a centuries-long, male-dominated institution which has become known, for many, as “Christianity.”  This religion founded on the Way of Jesus is not enriched if we do little more than add women to the roster of traditional male roles.  (Interestingly, many of my female clergy friends have often remarked on how weird a feeling it is to put on the clerical collar for the first time.  Even priesthood’s dress itself – a backwards collar, no less – is a distinctly male article of clothing.)  I think what many are searching for is balance.

I don’t think that that 70% of American Catholics who say the church should be open to ordaining women as priests would be satisfied, entirely, by knowing that the celebrant or preacher or person baptizing their son or daughter could very well be a woman.  I think that that 70% is saying, in other words, they are tired of the ways in which the Jesus Movement which seemed so clearly bent on equality and life and justice became, in fairly short order, obsessed with power, position, posture, and wealth.  I think they’re calling for balance, at the very least, between the church which acts very much like a kingdom of this world and has, for centuries, nearly perfected an ethic of exclusion and judgment to now use its considerable wealth and voice to speak again the values of its Head: Jesus the holy child of God who modeled for us something truly profound and life-giving.

Whenever Jesus in the New Testament seems to describe what he’s about and the type of thing he’s trying to do, I’ve noticed he talks in surprisingly intimate, relational, domestic terms.  In the middle of his farewell address to his followers, according to John, Jesus urges them to love one another and goes on to say “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Jn. 14:23)  What a rich and intimate expression: Make our home with them.  There’s no institution or power or organization here, no politics or positioning or structure.  The image Jesus uses is blissfully tangible, direct and comforting: home.

There is an untold level of transformative power in the home.  Home is where the heart is, we say.  Home is where real change, real growth, real life happens.

While in Chicago, I taught for years in a Roman Catholic high school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy.  The Sisters of Mercy acted like good daughters of the Pope but under the surface – and you didn’t need to scratch too deeply – they were open-minded and spirited radicals, committed to doing works of justice and mercy wherever it was God was sending them, no matter what the church’s official leadership said.  (Case in point: they hired me, an Episcopal man, to teach theology to Roman Catholic girls!)  I loved the Sisters of Mercy for their spunky and radical spirit, and I value their tradition very much.

CATHERINE McAULEY
1778 – 1841

Founded in nineteenth century Dublin by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy live and practice an intentional and, as I said, radical ministry that is, at the same time, kind of quiet.  They founded schools and hospitals, orphanages and what Catherine called ‘Mercy Centers’ – places which transform society from the inside out.  Catherine McAuley once remarked: “No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women.”  This thesis, currently being tested with success in Afghanistan and other developing countries, is not predicated on sweeping political or structural changes.  Rather, Catherine argued, it’s about changing the values of the home, where women, at least in the nineteenthcentury, made their decisive mark.  If you can change the values of a home – if, for instance, because of her education a woman knows she has the power to exercise choices in life – then you change the neighborhood.  If the neighborhood changes, so might the city.  If the city, then the society, and if the society then, perhaps, the world.

I wonder what it might be like if Christians started exploring these cozier, homelier (*by which I don’t mean ‘unattractive’) and, frankly, simpler values of the One who lived as one of us: the Messiah who asked us to keep love alive so he and the Father will “make their home” in us.  Many are already striving for this balance and there’s much good news here.  For this very reason, I have to say that smaller churches such as St. George’s, Valley Lee are uniquely able to grow in vibrancy and vitality much more so than bigger church institutions – most notably those Cathedrals and dioceses and denominations which are shrinking and, if not shrinking, struggling to do little more than keep alive the tradition which built them years ago.  Perhaps the tradition of an overtly institutionalized Christianity is, these days, drawing its final breath.  If that is the case, and I suspect it is, we can say one positive thing: Jesus is not going anywhere.  Jesus is very much alive.  Nor is the movement Jesus began slipping away, but perhaps his Way which is predicated on those more intimate values of love and family, the home of God among us, is, these days, finding new life.

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From a sermon at St. George’s Church, Valley Lee, Maryland, preached on Sunday, 5 May 2013.  For the full text, click here.