Doing Theology for Ourselves, Old First Sermon 05.22.16

Doing Theology for Ourselves, Old First Sermon 05.22.16

When I planned my preaching schedule months ago,
I was going to speak today about the social tension that a Trinitarian outlook sets up.
I could not have known then, but these days, one can’t imagine we need any more friction in this society!

But I think we’d do better
if we were held more accountability between the extremes,
between a dangerous social isolation that veers to alienation and
the sorts of fusion that turns other groups into the enemy and us into a violent crowd.

In Western culture, with all our individuality and self-interest,
we easily lose our sense of connectedness, belonging and responsibility.
It seems this is increasingly a problem in factionalized, even polarized, contemporary North America.

In other social settings,
some specific subcultures and
the cohesion of some micro-communities (often created on-line)
even certain families,
there’s a tight-knitedness that becomes enmeshment
and can make individuation the challenge
and self-determination and accountability the losses. .

These days,
as more and more about our world becomes unsure, even volatile
some more “trinitarian social tension”
— separate but inseparable —
could be useful,
…keeping more of us in the hard to maintain but precious space
created between individuality and mutuality.

*******
But this week,
with Trinity Sunday bearing down on me,
and the Pentecost balloons failing to come back down,
I decided to do something else with today’s namesake theological construct that hearkens back to the 4th xx.

Trinity Sunday is a somewhat ambiguous day in the church calendar.
Looking back in recent worship services,
it’s quickly clear from our language
that at Old First we comfortably refer to Jesus and the Holy Spirit along with God.
But rarely do we put them all together — in that series so well-known it almost just rolls off the tongue
…in the overt trinitarian affirmation.

Essentially, outside of baptism,
we rarely act or affirm “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

I’m enough of a skeptic to wonder about or even doubt doctrines
the church or church people get too caught up in pushing.

It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with knowing God as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit;
that’s not only my inherited picture image; it’s how I have seen God working.

I find it sensible, even helpful to accept that God reveals Godself
as Creator of all things seen and unseen,
as Word made flesh and
as Holy Spirit
(though I am fond of adding the glyph “one God mother of us all”.

But I do know church history enough to remember this assertion, long ago,
was a definitive ecclesial chess move (to be a bit euphemistic)
— silencing, even stamping out some unwelcome, dissenting voices.

I understand that the church, like any community (and each of us individually)
needs some self-descriptions and even boundaries for the sake of having an identify.

But when a doctrine comes to claim such unquestionability
that it can limit rather than promotes our ability to recognize God…

…or when we try too hard to fit a doctrine into biblical texts that only barely suggest it,

…or when we allow a rather complex and heady concept about God’s activity in the world
substitute for
or edge out real-life experiences of God…

…Then I think we’ve mistaken Theology for something it is not.
We’re worshiping the window
that’s only meant as an aperture through which we see some light
We’re worshiping the window instead of staring into the distance where we might discern at least some outline or imprint of God.

* * * * * * *

I worked with a colleague, Eric, at a church in Brooklyn who was obsessed with the Trinity.
It meant everything for him, promised some doctrinal correctness,
on his personal pilgrimage to the right,
from the wayward Presbyterianism of his youth
to the Southern Baptist assurance he found in his adulthood.

Holly, he located more music that included explicit Trinitarian affirmations
than I could believe existed.

He left me wondering what made him so afraid of
failing to name the 3 persons of the Trinity in immediate succession!
The Unitarians (or their ancient forebearers the Aryans) must have been a night terror for that boy!

The sustenance and support he drew from repeating “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” was missed on me.
I used to ask him to explain to me how the Trinity, in his heart and mind,
answered not only any and all questions about God.
But even further how it absolved all the mysteries we experience in life.

Each Sunday he’d tell me how he thought I’d done preaching,
but his only real metric seemed to be whether I had been overtly trinitarian or not.

Sometimes, church, I worry that dogmatic correctness is about avoiding the messier places of our lives,
where our feet not only touch the ground but also get muddy, and
where feet firmly planted on life’s path is the only place where we are to experience God.

So, today, instead exhorting some appreciation of the Trinity,
(where no explanation is really adequate),
I’m going to invite you to do some actual theologizing yourselves.

My second boss in ministry used to call me and the other seminarian, Ashley, “the young theologues.”
We always thought he was making a little fun of our earnestness.
But now I think he was actually naming something important about our vocations, and about Christian living.

Today, in light of the Trinity, I want us all to consider being theologues.
Actually, I believe, in light of our faith, we are all to be do theology all the time, all throughout our days.

What I mean is that a crucial characteristic of faith
is not just looking for but understand and describe what God is doing.
That’s a big assignment.
A dynamic exercise in expanding your imagination and believing things that seem impossible.

In other words, the Council of Nicea aside,
the Trinity isn’t the only way we can know God!
As a construct humans have come up with,
it is limited and finite, like our humanity itself.
…Just one attempt of the church to articulate our experience and understanding of God
in a particular time and place.

I’m not overturning the Trinity.
I’m just asking us to add to it with our attempts to describe our experience of the presence, power and peace of God.
In our own words, and with our own images.

As your pastor, I want to insist that our faith,
and its theology,
cannot be something decided long ago,
never to be questioned, revisited, reinterpreted or experienced again.

Theology, church, is really just our language for God.
As such, it’s as radically contextual and dynamic as all other language.
It’s alive.
Changing and evolving.
Developing with history, culture, the church and individuals, like the Divine herself.

Can you imagine then — there’s theological slang,
and different theological accents
as surely as there’s technical theological language and theological baby-talk
(What do you think Jesus calling God Abba, daddy, was?)

Do any of us have a complete picture of who God is?
Can anyone figure God out?
(Maybe that’s why the church preaching absolutes sounds so suspect to so many people?)

Ours in not a God set in stone.
But a living, moving, hard to grasp much less stop God.

Inherent to being the church is endeavoring to locate God in our own lives
and to describe God’s activity in our world.

*******

Last week, I asked you to dedicate the next 7 days
to seeing where you might recognize God’s power and peace…

I shared in this week’s E-pistle some of the places people at the Outreach SLG had noticed God.

Maybe some of you have something to share…
The sermon today will end in a minute with the experiences you contribute.

But let me set your witness up this way:
Beloved, theology isn’t something that only church fathers
from the first five centuries of church history can do.
Nope, we need the church mothers and the church kids and the single people too —
we need everyone to be doing theology.
To be empowered, confident, articulate.

Why? Because people often don’t find meaning in doctrines that feel like throwbacks to last or the first century.
And not many of us can make much of teaching that’s preached from the pulpit like the law.

If we want theology, faith, the church to matter,
then it’s got sync with or even spring from
our experience.

Church and faith aren’t about theology for theology’s sake,
or doctrine for doctrine’s sake,
or being right for being right’s sake.
They are about love, how God loves us so we can love ourselves and one another.

Church and faith are about recognizing God’s love active in the world.
They are our humble human attempts
to describe Divinity
that is and always will be independent of and beyond us.

Church is faithful when its sketching God in motion and trying and describe the difference God or God’s movements make in our lives.

Mimi Copp Johnson couldn’t be here this morning
(she’s at another church for work, speaking about immigration),
but she asked me to share her realization:
Deuteronomy 26. Verse 5.

She explains it’s come up curiously a couple of places for Mimi this past week.
A verse she’s not sure she had ever heard before.
It reads:
“Then you shall declare before the LORD…My father was a wandering Aramean….

For Mimi, it’s a call to safeguard the well-being of dislocated people migrating in search of security.
And in the current seas of hatred for folks arriving at others doorsteps,
this verse suggests to Mimi that
Christians should be speaking of our own migration stories —
how God means for us to lift them and share them to make us and others more compassionate.

Jane Acevdo can’t be with us this morning either.
She’s finishing up teaching a p/t class in Pittsburgh today,
But she wanted me to tell you how she’s seen God at work this week.

It’s been the first time all 5 of her siblings have been together — without a funeral to attend — in 6 years.
As they worked at closing up their parents house, actually there was a public auction of the contents of their parents’ home…

With all this going on around them,
suddenly the barriers and the difficult histories that have often kept them apart seemed to melt away.
And they were sharing Memories and emotions that haven’t been present for years.

Jane said, “Mom was looking down on us; and God was working on and with us…”

Ok, did anyone else see some of God’s power and peace this week;
…who’s courageous enough to share something you experienced this week…

Joanna R., Adam S., Darla, Holly, Julius, Robin, Woody and Tony M. all had experiences to share.

Thank you. Imagine if we all always had such an experience to share?

After we sing the hymn, with Theo, one of our theologues!, accompanying on the wind chimes (that tinkly instrument that is going to sound like angels!…)
for our Affirmation of Faith this morning,
We’re going to use the people’s witnesses we just heard —
I’ll take the liberty to summarize the stories in a few short affirmations
that the congregation can repeat after me…