Archive for May, 2016

No Triangulation in the Trinity

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by timtrue


Romans 5:1-5

For preachers, Trinity Sunday is perhaps the most feared Sunday of the year.  It exposes us.  It shows our deepest, most hidden (and maybe even treasured) heresies.  For how does one talk about God—the divine—using human words—human symbols, subject to human error and finitude?

Ever try to explain the mathematical concept of infinity to a kid for the first time?  Where do you even start?

You think, ah, numbers; so you say, “Okay, think of the largest number you can imagine.  Can you imagine a trillion?”

Then you write out the number for a visual, a one with twelve zeroes following it, with a comma before every group of three zeroes.

Then you say, “So, what happens when we add one to a trillion?”

And the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess we get a trillion one.”

And you clap your hands and dance a jig and otherwise express your amazement at this special child’s display of absolute brilliance.

But then you mess it all up by asking, “So, what happens when you add one to infinity?”

And, naturally enough, the astute child answers, “Uh, well, I guess you get infinity one.”

But instead of clapping your hands and dancing a jig, now you say, unwisely, “Nope.  You still have infinity.”

And now the once astute child is left standing there scratching his head, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!

But you’ve just tried to explain an abstract concept beyond all numbers by using concrete numbers.

Well, such is the preacher’s task on Trinity Sunday: to try to explain an abstract concept that is beyond our finitude and limitations only to leave us all, in the end, scratching our heads, confused, despondent, miserable, wretched, or worse!

But what if we do something a little different this year?  What if, instead of trying to shed a little more light on this difficult-to-see topic, I don’t try to explain it?  What if, instead, I ask us simply to accept it—to accept that the trinity, one god in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just is?

I mean, after all, this is our confession of faith, our creed.  We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.  We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.  One god in three persons.

So, what if the trinity is our starting point, our premise?  What sort of conclusion might we draw?

Well, let’s try it and see where we end up.

So, God is trinity.  This is our starting point.  God has always been and God will always be triune.

Another way to say this is that God in trinity exists both inside and outside our world, or, both inside and outside our dimensions of time and space.

So, let’s go back to the beginning.  No, let’s go back to before the beginning.  In the beginning, the Bible says, God created the heavens and the earth.  It stands to reason, then, that before the beginning—before any heavens and earth were created—God still is.

Now, I’m not trying to give some big lesson in cosmology here, saying that I have all the answers, that you better believe in a literal, six-day creation or you’re not saved; or that evolution debunks the Bible; or that, for crying out loud!, only the Big Bang theory makes any sense.

Rather, I’m trying to remove everything but God from the picture.  I want us to envision God entirely alone—entirely by God’s self, if you will—before any part of creation was created.  Picture God alone, outside of our physical dimensions of time and space.

And, when you do, yes, even then and there—even outside of time and space—God was, is, and will be triune.

This is our premise.

Now, what kinds of inferences might we draw from this picture of God existing by God’s self, outside of space and time?

I can think of at least three.

The first inference is that God is, was, and always will be in relationship.  And I’m not talking about with us!  God is in relationship with us, sure.  But outside of time and space, God alone is in relationship with God’s self.  This can’t happen if God is simply one god in one person.  But our premise is one god in three persons.

A second inference builds from the first: since God is in relationship with God’s self; and since God is three persons, God is community.

“Two’s company, but three’s a crowd,” the old saying goes.  This is because it’s much easier for two people to get along than for three.

An episode from my boyhood comes to mind.  I had a best friend growing up.  His name was John.  John and I met when we were four, in YMCA Indian Guides (a name that wouldn’t fly now).  We were close friends through high school, till we went our separate ways in college.

One Saturday we found ourselves together at a park, playing.  But there was a third boy there too, an older boy—we were maybe 9 and he was more like 14 or 15—a boy neither of us knew.  This third boy came up to me, said hi, introduced himself, and said, “Hey, that boy over there called you a liar.”  And he pointed at John.

A few minutes later I noticed this older boy pull John aside, whisper something to him, and point at me.

A few more exchanges like this took place and before we knew what had happened John and I were exchanging blows.  Yeah!  Fisticuffs!

After a few minutes we stopped our fray and asked each other why we were fighting.  When we realized why, that this older boy had been the cause, we looked for the instigator but he was gone.

Point is, two persons get along just fine; but bring a third into the mix and things can get nasty in a hurry.  The psychological term for this is triangulation.

But the trinity of persons in God gets along just fine, in triune relationship, without triangulation.  This is community the way it’s intended.

The third inference to draw sounds extremely familiar: God is love.  God exists in perfect relationship and community.  Each person of the trinity gives and takes exactly what he should, balancing self with others, a finely tuned triad.  And what is such harmony but love?

Love is and was and always will be.

Theologians through the millennia have put together these three concepts—relationship, community, and love—summarizing them with a fancy theological word: perichoresisPeri– is a prefix meaning “around,” like in the words periscope and perimeter; and choresis is where we get the word chorus from, meaning (originally) “dance.”

The word perichoresis, then, assigned uniquely to the trinity, signifies an extremely complex divine dance, where each person of the trinity knows his part and the parts of his two partners; each giving and taking just enough and not too much.  Perichoresis is continuous relationship, community, and love.  And it is beautiful.

And because these things exist beyond all time and space, we can say they are attributes of God: a part of who God is.  Relationship, community, and love have always been; just like God has always been!  They are not human inventions.

But when we return to the physical world we know of time and space; to our created order; to our day and culture; to the particularities and peculiarities of our day-to-day lives, we can sure mess these things up, can’t we?

Relationship, community, love—these are attributes of God passed on to us humans.  We tend to mess them up, yeah!  But don’t lose hope.  They’re gifts from God!  And when we grow in these areas, the result is beautiful.

And so here is the conclusion we reach: relationship, community, and love are attributes of God.

And this is why I’m a Christian.

There are many religions out there that make a lot of sense.  Have you ever wondered what if you’d been born into a different family, or in another part of the world?  Would you have accepted the religion of that culture over Christianity?  Where would you be today?

There’s a lot of talk in our culture about all spiritual roads leading to God.  I don’t know.  Maybe this is true.  Who am I to say?  If God is above all else a god of love, as our New Testament claims over and over; if love truly wins, then, yes, I can make room for this idea in my thinking.

But here’s the key point for me: what makes Christianity shine above all other religions is love.  Only in the Christian, trinitarian understanding of God can love be an actual attribute of God—a part of who God is.

You can’t say this about the other great monotheistic religions of the world.  In both Judaism and Islam, God is simply one god in one person.  Outside of time and space, one person has no other to love, no other to be in relationship or community with.  Love must therefore be a creation of God, not an attribute, existing only within the realms of time and space, not outside or beyond them.

The same could be said for the various sects claiming to be Christian, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They don’t believe in the trinity, but only in a god of one person, a god who by nature does not possess as an attribute a love toward the other, a love that is outward.

Moreover, you can’t say that love is a divine attribute for the pantheistic religions of the world.

Hinduism has more than 300,000 gods.  Yet it is ultimately reduced to one impersonal, apathetic prime mover, unable to love another.

It is similar for the Greek, Roman, and Norse pantheons.  In each case, there is a multitude of divinities; yet created by earlier forces; which in turn were created by earlier forces still; and so on until at the beginning there was only one, dispassionate, unmoved and unmoving mover, incapable of outward love.

You can’t say that love is an eternal divine attribute for the Buddhist either.  Indeed, the Buddhist understanding of divinity is fundamentally at odds with the Christian understanding, more atheistic than anything else.

And, perhaps it goes without saying, love cannot be a divine attribute for the Atheist.  There is no god for the Atheist—with the possible exception of the self, or the human animal.  But even the Atheist can’t deny that we catch glimpses of love all around us in our world.  So, the Atheist must ask, where does love come from?  If the harsh theory of natural selection is all that governs us human animals, as most Atheists maintain, where can an other-focused love fit in at all?

For all other religions, love can only ever be a human invention.  It is only the Christian religion that understands love to be a part of who God is.

So, too often on Trinity Sunday we preachers try to argue a case for the trinity.  How can we be sure there even is a trinity?  How can we prove that one god exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  How can we even begin to understand this idea?  And so, too often, we try to explain using words and analogies that are always and everywhere subject to finitude.

But if we just accept the doctrine of the trinity, that we don’t know how or why but the trinity just is, then we end up at a remarkable place.  God is love.  Love is, has always been, and always will be.  It’s not a creation.  It’s not a human invention.

And it’s why Christianity makes sense.

Grandpa’s Pentecost

Posted in Family, Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2016 by timtrue


John 14:8-17, 25-27

You may or may not know, my grandpa Emmett died this week.  He was one day past 99 and a half years, so we might as well round it to an even 100: born Nov. 12, 1916; died Friday, May 13, at about 7pm.

With him passes nearly a century of wisdom, humor, and selflessness.  He leaves behind his dear wife Peggy (whom he married just seven years ago); his five children (all adopted, by the way); and a vast assortment of grandchildren, nephews, nieces, great-nephews and great-nieces, great-grandchildren, and even some great-great-grandchildren.  Quite a legacy!

Emmett’s boyhood brought him from California to New Orleans, where he witnessed his mother—my great-grandmother—navigate her way through a failed marriage to his stepfather.  By adolescence he found himself back in California with his sister and their single mother; struggling to make ends meet in a day when women just weren’t single.

His mother found work building airplanes for the military.  Today we remember her and other women she worked with as Rosie Riveters.

Anyway, something in my grandpa clicked during these adolescent years.  He graduated high school and drove on over to Burbank one day, diploma in hand, inquiring about work with an airplane company called Lockheed.  That airplane company hired him.

Life was now good.  Emmett could now help his mom make ends meet.

But soon—after a certain December day in 1941—he found himself confronted with the possibility of having to join the military.

Instead, however, the people at Lockheed pulled some strings.  Emmett, they said, is involved with a special group of researchers in a place in our organization we call the Skunkworks.

That special group, we know now, was responsible for developing such secret aircraft as the SR71, a plane that for many decades held the record as the fastest of all aircraft.  Lockheed needed Emmett.  He never enlisted.

He then met, fell in love with, and married a woman.  I never learned her name.  Their relationship was fast and furious, like the aircraft he worked on.  In their young, fast, and furious love they decided to adopt a war baby, a girl born March 3, 1945.  They named her Cheryl.

But motherhood and other burdensome responsibilities were apparently too difficult for Emmett’s unnamed wife: he woke one morning to find a note on the pillow next to him; she’d left him and Baby Cheryl forever.

Emmett decided to pool his resources with his single mother.  Together they bought a house and raised Baby Cheryl.

For the next nineteen years, Emmett worked faithfully and tirelessly to provide for this household of three spanning as many generations.  He’d commute from Reseda to Burbank while Granny got Cheryl off to school each morning, picked her up each afternoon, shuttled her back and forth to her cousin Annette’s for play dates, and otherwise raised her.

Then at nineteen, Cheryl moved out and married a dapper, just-graduated-from-UCLA engineer named Dan.

And then—only then: only after he’d faithfully and tirelessly raised his adopted daughter Cheryl for nineteen years and she’d gone off and got married—did Emmett try again to succeed in the realm of romantic love.

Her name was Peggy.  And she brought four children in tow.

Not so fast and furious this time, he fell deeply in love again; and so did Peggy.  They were soon married.  And again Emmett went through the legal process of adoption.  And just like that he found himself with five children, ranging in age from 12 to 22.  Imagine that!

And just like that (!) everything settled into place.  What so recently had seemed chaos was now calm.  And Emmett played no small part in bringing this calm about.

So, by the time Dan and Cheryl had been married for a few years and I was born, this big, happy, stable, functional family was what I knew.

Whatever had occurred in this family’s history didn’t matter to me.  What I cared about was the here and now; and here and now before me (for the next 48 years) was one of the most wise, witty, and selfless persons I’ve ever known, Grandpa Emmett, a calming force, again and again, in our chaotic world.

And you know what else?  He taught me how to wash my eyeball.  Yeah!  Check this out!  <Demonstration.>

So: you know how it is.  We, his family—his five adopted children and all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren and nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews and everyone else—we miss his legacy.

Especially now, when the grief is still fresh, we miss him—his teachings, his jokes, his example.


Do you think it was really all that different for Jesus’ disciples?

They’d just spent three years of their lives with him.  They’d listened to his teachings.  They’d laughed at his jokes.  And they’d pondered his example.

Who was this man, that even the wind and the waves obeyed him?  Who was he, that at something so simple as his word armed men fell away?  Who was he, to say that no one can come to the Father except through him?  Who was he to bring calm and order to a chaotic world?

He’d left behind a legacy.

But now that he was going away, now with the freshness of the resurrection still playing with the happy end of the disciples’ emotional spectrum, the thought of Jesus leaving them was almost too much to bear.  Hadn’t they just endured the grief of his death?  How would they be able to cope with his absence again?  How would they be able to carry on his legacy?

It is into this emotional roller coaster that Jesus sends his Spirit.

The world is crazy.  It’s chaotic.  It opposes the truth that Jesus is and brings.  But the Spirit continues Jesus Christ’s legacy, bringing calm to a chaotic world.


Let’s revisit now the idea that John’s Gospel breaks the fourth wall.

If you were here two weeks ago—today’s Gospel actually overlaps some with that one—I talked about how John the Evangelist often comes out of his story into the present lives of his audience to make a point.  I likened John’s story to an imaginary rendition of The Wizard of Oz, where right at the tensest point in the movie, what if Dorothy suddenly turned to the camera with a snarky expression on her face and asked, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

It doesn’t happen, of course; but that would be to break the fourth wall.  And that is exactly what John does, several times in fact, in his Gospel.

He writes to an audience living two or three generations after Christ’s death and resurrection—two or three generations after the Day of Pentecost.

Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven.  He is no longer with his disciples.  And now they’ve been kicked out of the local synagogue.  What are they to do?

Through the story he tells, then, John breaks the fourth wall and comes into the present-day story that his community is living out.

“Do not be afraid,” he tells his audience directly.  “Jesus has sent the promised Advocate, his Holy Spirit.  And this Holy Spirit will guide, comfort, and teach us.  Do you see what Jesus promised to our forefathers, the first disciples?  And look around us!  That promise is still happening with us, nearly a hundred years later, despite the trials and chaos we now experience.  Do not let your hearts be troubled.  The Holy Spirit is with us.”

So, my grandpa’s story is something of a fourth wall for me.  I hope it is for you too.

Grandpa Emmett wasn’t a theologian.  He never taught Sunday school.  He didn’t read theological books or become an EfM mentor.

But when trials and chaos came his way and to those around him, he trusted the same words St. John wrote to his community so long ago.  The Holy Spirit was Emmett’s Advocate throughout his life.  The Holy Spirit brought Christ’s peace to Emmett in times of uncertainty.  The Holy Spirit guided Emmett through the way of truth.

And, Emmett’s century of life tells us, the Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives, advocating, guiding, and comforting us through the chaos of our world.

The promises Jesus gave to his disciples and the promises St. John gave to his community—these promises still hold true today.

Thank you for leaving me with this legacy, Grandpa.  May you rest in peace.

Follow up note: I’ve since learned that my grandpa did in fact enlist in the Army for a short time in 1945.  After boot camp and being sworn in, he was released because of the recent adoption of Baby Cheryl.  He returned to Lockheed something like two months after leaving for the Army.  The war ended very shortly after that.  He was thus a veteran, a thing I did not know until his funeral, when a decked veteran showed up and performed Taps while the coffin was lowered into the grave.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2016 by timtrue


John 14:23-39

Do you know what I mean by the term breaking the fourth wall?  It’s a dramatic term, to refer to an actor who momentarily breaks out of the story itself in order to address the audience.

So, for illustrative purposes, imagine a movie we’ve all seen, The Wizard of Oz.  Do you remember that scene where the wicked witch flies over Dorothy and her cohort and writes a message in the sky?

We, the audience, hear the witch coming—a sound something like a whistle to represent an accompanying wicked wind, I suppose.  We then see what Dorothy sees—a small speck up in the left corner of the sky, a speck that we can only guess is the wicked witch—if we squint our eyes really tightly and tax our imaginations.  We then hear the witch’s cackling laugh, followed by some foreboding words, something like, “I’ll get you, my pretty; and that little dog of yours too!”  And then we see Dorothy’s terrified facial expression as she clutches Toto ever so tightly.  And, finally, we see the sky again, this time with the wicked witch as a small speck on the right side of the screen; and written across the sky is the message, “Surrender Dorothy!” skywritten magically from the tail of the wicked witch’s broom.

Do you remember this point in the movie?

My father in-law does!  The way he tells it, it was just here, at this point, just when the wicked witch wrote these words in the sky—little Jeffy was about four years old—“where I lost it,” he tells us.  “That’s when I just knew Dorothy was a goner!  Up to that point I’d held it together.  But at seeing the words, ‘Surrender Dorothy,’ I just couldn’t take it anymore.  And I began to cry.”

Poor little Jeffy!

But what if—let’s imagine for a moment—what if, right at this point, right at the height of all this serious, scary drama—what if Dorothy all of a sudden comes to her senses, looks straight into the camera, and says, with a snarky expression on her face, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

Now she doesn’t do this, we all know—perhaps my father in-law best of all.  But if she were to do so, that would be to break the fourth wall.  She would come out of her story and into the audience’s.  Get it?

It’s not soliloquy.  For in soliloquy the actor never actually leaves his or her story and comes into the audience’s.  But neither is it narration, for a narrator is in the audience’s story, always removed from the story being viewed.

Nevertheless, breaking the fourth wall accomplishes what soliloquy and narration accomplish—temporarily taking the audience out of the story of the moment and simultaneously moving it forward—usually to great, and often very humorous, effect.

Like the recent movie Deadpool.

I haven’t seen it personally, but I understand Deadpool succeeds marvelously here: the story of a Marvel Comics character, Deadpool, ever aware he is trapped within the medium of a comic book.  Throughout the duration of the movie, time and again he stops whatever he’s doing to face the screen and offer the audience some snarky commentary; often producing explosive laughter.  Those who’ve seen the movie are left to wonder if perhaps Deadpool’s frequent success at breaking the fourth wall is in fact his only real superpower.

Anyway, that’s what I mean by breaking the fourth wall.

So, why do I bring all this up?  Because, a lot like Deadpool, St. John the Evangelist frequently breaks the fourth wall.

Do you know this about the Gospel of John?  Perhaps you’ve heard this, or studied this in a Bible study.

The Gospel of John was written last of all the Gospels, sometime between the mid-80s and the year 100 or so.

Mark was written first of all, probably around the year 70, around the time when a Roman commander named Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple at Jerusalem.  We know this because there are echoes of the destruction of the Temple in Mark’s Gospel.

Matthew and Luke probably wrote their Gospels a few years later, for they offer more echoes of Jerusalem’s fall; and some subsequent echoes.

But none of the synoptic Gospels—nothing in Matthew, Mark, or Luke—suggests that Christians had begun to congregate and be persecuted as a sect or group.

Yet these echoes abound in John’s Gospel.

John 9:22, for instance, says (emphases added): “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Again, John 16:2 says (emphasis added), “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

And again, John 20:19 reads (emphasis added), “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

In other words, there is a threat of excommunication that shows up commonly in John’s Gospel; but such threats nowhere show up in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  The logical conclusion is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke must have been written before Christianity was recognized by the Jews as a contrary sect.

But John—whether on purpose or by accident—breaks the fourth wall.  He breaks out of the story being told, the story of Jesus’ life, in order to give his audience some commentary regarding their very specific plight: of being excommunicated from their community’s synagogue.

We just heard three examples of John breaking the fourth wall.

And here, in today’s passage, we see a fourth example.  Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus a question; and John breaks the fourth wall in Jesus’ answer to Judas’s question.

“Lord,” Judas asks, “how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?”

Judas is looking around him and scratching his head, just like John’s audience was looking around them, scratching their collective head.  How is it, Judas wonders (how is it, John’s audience wonders), that only a few of us—only a small group of us—seem to know the actual truth?  I mean, there are all these other people around us, all these Jews hanging out in the synagogue (or, if you will, the mainstream church) week after week.  Well, why is it that they’re not getting it, that they’re not recognizing you, Jesus, as the Messiah?  Why is it that only a few of us seem to be understanding what you have come to teach and to offer the world?

Does this question ever bother you?

Let’s cut to the chase here.  The present day Christian church is in a tight spot.  Quantifiable evidence has tracked incontrovertible decline over the last four decades.  Why is this?  Why is the church in decline?  If Jesus is the true Savior of the world, then why is the church shrinking?

But it doesn’t stop here.  Why is it that the group of people least represented in the American church today is the twenty-somethings, the millennials?  If Jesus is the truth, and no one comes to the Father except through him; if he is the way and the truth and the life and all that; if he is in fact the true Word of God, then why isn’t it obvious to the millennials?

But it doesn’t stop here.  For, if Jesus is the true Messiah and Word and Way and Truth and Life, then why are there so many other religions around the world, religions that either relegate Jesus as just a good man or teacher or flatly reject him altogether?  If he is truly human and truly divine—God, very God—then why don’t more people see him for what he is?

But it doesn’t even stop there.  For, if Jesus is the answer to all the world’s problems, then why has more unjust violence been done in his name than good?  Why the Crusades?  Why the longstanding violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants?  Why all the warfare in the Middle East?

If Jesus is truly the Messiah; if Christ truly is the way to the Father; if Christianity’s main message is love, the first and great commandment, then why aren’t more people seeing it?  Why is it only the few?

These were the fears of the Johannine Community, John’s original audience.  And—guess what—these are our fears too!

So, John breaks the fourth wall here and provides an answer to his audience: he provided an answer to the Johannine Community, his audience back then; and he provides an answer to us, his audience today.

  • Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.
  • But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

When my father in-law was a little boy watching The Wizard of Oz and he lost it—when he began to cry, right when the wicked witch wrote that terrifying message in the sky—imagine what his response would have been if Dorothy had broken the fourth wall; if she had stopped her panic, looked right into the camera, and said, “Would you get a load of those lame special effects?”

One thing’s for sure.  Little Jeffy would have been shaken out of his immediate context, out of his fear.  Little Jeffy would have been jolted out of the scary drama that was Oz and into a greater reality.  Little Jeffy would not have lost it.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe he would’ve laughed.

Today, John has done for us what Dorothy did not: he’s broken the fourth wall.  And he’s done it for our benefit.

The world’s a fearful place.  It’s full of serious, scary drama, like Oz: drama we can get so caught up in that we fail to see beyond the fourth wall to the greater reality, to the audience, that great cloud of witnesses.

But today, even if for but a moment, John has broken the fourth wall.  See beyond it!  Catch a glimpse of the Greater Reality!  And let it to shake you out of your fear, out of your immediate context, out of the scary drama of our world.

And maybe even—I don’t know—maybe you will be able even to laugh.