Archive for Trinity

The Way of Subtlety and Comfort

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by timtrue

Luke 4:1-13

1.

Jesus has just been baptized.

That was quite an amazing event, wasn’t it?

For one thing, the Holy Spirit showed up. Up until this point in the story, we didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit.

And then, to boggle our minds even more, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus bodily, like a dove.

For another thing, a voice from above spoke. “You are my Son,” it declared, “the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

This voice called Jesus “Son.” By simple inference, the voice belonged to a parent, a heavenly parent, God.

So, okay, let me get this straight. The Son was there; the Holy Spirit too; and also, by inference, the Father?

Why, that’s classic Trinity!

And thus from his baptism we’ve just learned something amazing and mind-boggling about Jesus’ identity!

And that’s just the first phrase of today’s Gospel!

What comes next is even more mind-boggling.

Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit; and Jesus is led by that Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted for forty days by the devil.

If we clean up the sentence a little, it really says: The Holy Spirit leads God the Son to the devil.

Wait a minute!

Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the devil? It almost sounds like they’re working together.

But I thought the devil was God’s enemy! Just what kind of collusion is going on here?

2.

Let’s talk about the devil today, shall we?

Just who or what is the devil? Can we make any sense of him at all?[i]

Is the devil a spirit?

If so, then I guess we don’t need to take him very seriously. After all, science has taught us that our world is material. We don’t talk about or even believe in spirits anymore—ghost stories of a bygone era.

Well, then, is the devil a personification of evil? Because evil, after all, is real.

Ah, but there again we see a breakdown. For evil is a misguided understanding of our world. Rather, things fall apart; systems collapse; people suffer maladies of the mind. It is our task to repair the brokenness. Science is pointing the way. With enough tinkering, we can fix anything.

So, then, is the devil just some kind of abstract idea?

Maybe. But, if so, it’s a silly idea. Our reason and experience are enough to show us that!

Do you see the difficulty? The devil has been so misunderstood and otherwise battered back and forth from age to age, from culture to culture, that we simply don’t believe in the devil at all anymore—or if we do it’s some lame caricature, a personal being sent to tempt me into something scandalous—sexual misconduct or embezzlement.

“The devil made me do it,” we say.

But I don’t read anything anywhere about the devil being involved in any way when the Prodigal Son ran off and blew his inheritance on a wild life. If the devil didn’t make him do it, why should it be any different for me?

3.

I wonder: Maybe our world doesn’t believe in evil anymore precisely because we have cheapened the devil to a comic-book villain.

But what if we do take the devil seriously? What if, instead of seeing the devil as a red-skinned man with an athletic physique, a rather fashionable handlebar mustache, and a scary laugh—what if we consider him more as the Evil One, or maybe as the archetype of evil? Would we then also take evil more seriously too?

Whatever else you think of the devil—of Satan—whatever material and spiritual notions form your worldview—I’m asking you to set these aside for a while.

Okay?

Now, think about organizations you know, collective bodies with which you are familiar: churches, schools, companies, corporations, cities, nations.

Doesn’t each of these entities possess a kind of corporate personality?

We talk about school spirit. Don’t we mean by this a kind of overall feel of the place, some intangible sense that makes the school different and unique from another, similar school?

So, we can also speak in the same way about larger entities. For instance: Google has a corporate personality; and Google’s corporate personality is very different than Yahoo’s.

So then, what about for nations? Doesn’t the United States have a corporate personality—the spirit of our nation? And it’s much different than the spirit of, say, Mexico or Canada.

Corporate personalities are a thing. But how do you qualify them? They’re bigger than any one person or policy. They transcend changes from one administration to the next. The cast changes but the story stays the same.

Have you ever noticed? Over in the book of Revelation, John addresses letters like this: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus”; “To the angel of the church in Laodicea”; “To the angel of the church in Smyrna.”

I think this is what John is getting at: corporate personalities. He personifies these corporate personalities by calling them angels.

So, what if we wanted to write a letter to the corporate personality of our fallen world? To whom would we address our letter? An angel, perhaps? A fallen angel?

1 John 5:19 says it this way: “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.”

Our fallen world has a corporate personality. And this corporate personality has a name: Satan, a. k. a. the devil.

And the Spirit led Jesus to this devil in the wilderness, where he was tempted for forty days.

4.

So then, what about these temptations?

First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread. The fast was over; Jesus is famished. So why not? Looking ahead, wouldn’t Jesus do just this anyway—command bread into existence—when he feeds the 5,000? Doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.

Second, the devil tells Jesus that all the kingdoms will be his in an instant, if he will just worship him. But this was something the Jews were hoping for and expecting anyway, that a messiah would come and sit on the throne of David. And, anyway, Jesus is already King of kings and Lord of lords. So, again, what’s the big deal? Is this even a temptation for Jesus?

And third, Jesus is tempted to cast himself off the pinnacle of the Temple. He knows he’s going to die for the sins of the world. What is Satan’s ploy? Trying to scare Jesus away from the cross? Does Satan maybe not understand that Jesus will in fact truly and surely die when he is crucified?

Not quite sure what’s happening here; but, yet again, it doesn’t seem like that big of a temptation for someone who understands the profound mission before him.

If nothing else, the devil is subtle.

You know what I think is happening here? The Jewish world has long been expecting a messiah who would come and deliver his people from hunger, oppression, and ultimately death.

And that is in fact what Jesus did!

But the real temptation is to do these things according to the corporate personality of the world—the old way—not according to Christ—the new way.

5.

As Christ’s disciples, let us take heed.

The old way is tried and true; the new way, on the other hand, requires creative energy and innovation, an exploration into the unknown. The old way has been proven effective over time; the new way poses risks. The old way brings comfort; the new way, Jesus’ way, brings uncertainty.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to stick with the old way? The path of least resistance? Especially if it works?

The devil does not come to us as a fiend or bogeyman, standing on our shoulder and whispering in our ear, tempting us toward this or that scandalous sin.

Okay, maybe now and again.

But much more often, evil—and evil’s archetype, the devil—tempts us with subtlety and comfort.

But, if evil is as subtle as I say, how do we know the difference between temptation and blessing?

The answer is where I began: with Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” that voice from heaven spoke; and the Holy Spirit descended upon him bodily, like a dove.

The answer is with Jesus’ identity. When we know who Jesus truly is, then we can discern between the old way and the new, between the way of subtlety and comfort and the way of love.

[i] In the discussion that follows I rely on Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces that Determine Human Existence, Chapter 1. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986.

Quality of Life, Trinity Style

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by timtrue

Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_nicodemus

John 3:1-17

1.

What do we mean when we talk about “quality of life”?

It’s not just how wealthy you are, though financial well-being is a part of it.

Nor is it just about your health, though physical well-being fits into the picture too.

And it’s not just about social status, though relationships play a part.

Quality of life, we know, is a combination of all these things—and some others—how they work together in an integrated way to make your individual situation, whatever it is, most enjoyable for you.

Some people have serious health concerns. If this is you, then you know you don’t just give up and say, “Oh, well, guess it’s just a thorn in my flesh.” Rather, you seek the best remedies available. Maybe you will never experience full health again. Nevertheless, by keeping other areas of life in balance you can experience daily a high overall quality of life.

Or . . . how many stay-at-home moms have never daydreamed about dropping the kids off at daycare in order to land a job and bring in some extra income—income that you know will both make ends meet and give your family some extra “play” money?

Yet the stay-at-home moms I know also willingly make the extra-income sacrifice precisely because they want their children to experience greater stability in home life.

Quality-of-life questions are tricky. But achieving that sweet-spot quality of life is just that: sweet!

2.

Well, thus far I’ve deliberately avoided the subject. But let’s bring it in now: religion. Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?

For Nicodemus, his faith was a crucial factor.

Today, Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus comes to Jesus confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks.

His confusion indicates, among other things, just how important to him his faith is.

Nico—can I call him Nico?—is a part of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership that, according to John, is so vehemently opposed to Jesus in the first place. That Nico comes to Jesus at night, under cover of darkness, suggests how risky it is for him to seek Jesus out; and how much of a risk he was willing to take on account of his faith. His health, his wealth, his social status—he lays his quality of life on the line for his faith.

And the conversation isn’t easy. Jesus talks about being born from above and Nico only understands what it means to be born from below. Jesus talks of the Spirit; Nico of the flesh.

Jesus teaches the teacher of Israel that for those born from on high, the highest quality of life is initiated by God the Father, available through the redemption of the Son, and continues through the ongoing, everyday presence of the Spirit.

Jesus teaches the teacher that God is not as he has always thought, but is instead Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit.

The conversation ends with Nico fading into the darkness, seemingly as confused as ever.

3.

We’ll come back to Nico. But first an excursus. I want to tell you about a book I’ve just read and found to be utterly and simultaneously fantastic and profound. It’s called Circe.

Any fans here of Greek mythology? If so, you probably recall the adventures experienced by the Greek hero Odysseus after the fall of the city Troy. One of these involved the witch Circe, who turned Odysseus’ men into pigs and back again; and at whose island home he stayed for a year as a guest.

Odysseus’ adventure enters this book; but only briefly. For he was a mortal; but Circe is immortal. She is a witch-goddess, to be more precise. And this is her story, covering some 10,000 years of ancient history.

She was born daughter of the Titan-god Helios. And thus, through her eyes as a bystander—for daughters didn’t dare interfere with their fathers’ schemes—the reader comes to know the Greek and Roman pantheon in an enlightening way: from a lesser goddess’s—that is to say a female’s—perspective.

These gods lived outside the moral universe of humanity. And thus they cared little for human beings. Truth be known, they cared little for anything but themselves, especially the most powerful among them, like Zeus and Poseidon and Helios.

At the same time, they loved to be worshiped—through the groveling prayers of humans and their sacrifices. And so, quite sadistically, as Circe relays, the gods of the pantheon inflicted pain and suffering on humanity in order that humans would grovel and sacrifice for their pity.

Point for the moment is the pantheon had no love—for divinity or humanity!—within it.

Circe, on the other hand, cared deeply for mortals. She thought it unfair and unjust for the gods to treat mortals with such contempt.

So, one of the things Circe does is find clever ways to rebel against the dysfunctional deities through favoring mortals, especially the weak and marginalized. Another thing Circe finds herself doing—and this runs much deeper to the heart of her story—is increasingly to desire mortality for herself; for only through mortality, she feels, will she be able to love as deeply and genuinely as possible.

In other words, she desires to be transformed through love.

It’s a brilliant book. I couldn’t put it down—I read 119 pages at my first sitting! The author’s name is Madeline Miller; and it’s only her second book. Her first—equally as brilliant—is The Song of Achilles.

Both are excellent reads for understanding the Hellenistic mindset so prevalent in Jesus’ world.

4.

And that is why I bring this book up.

This book captures the religious mindset of the broader world in Jesus’ day; which was of a pantheon of gods who cared little for humanity—other than their groveling prayers and sacrifices.

The Hellenistic world feared its gods—whether a pantheon or just one god over all. And such a mindset—fear!—does little to improve quality of life.

Now, Nicodemus was a part of this Hellenistic world!

As you know, Nicodemus didn’t worship the Greek and Roman pantheon. He worshiped the god of the Hebrews—the same God, he thought, that he saw in the man Jesus.

But there’s a crucial connection to draw here.

The gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were incapable of human love. So, too, in the minds of most people in the Hellenistic world, including most Jews—so, too, was a god who created the world and forever since watched over his creation as an aloof and distant king.

Thus was Nicodemus’s god to him.

Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, feared his god. Nicodemus—Nico—offered prayers and sacrifices to his god. Nico may have even loved his god in some way—in the way that we love a movement to which we belong—that is, with a kind of human love.

But, for Nico and most everyone else in the Hellenistic world, could his god actually love him? It was an entirely foreign thought. How was it possible that a god could love humanity? How could it be that a human being could be born from on high?

And yet, Jesus teaches Nico, today (my emphases, obviously):

  • “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
  • “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  • “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Father.

Son.

Spirit.

Love.

Today, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that God is not a pantheon of dysfunction. Neither is God absolutely monotheistic, unable to love co-equally and co-eternally. Rather, God is three-in-one, from eternity past, before there ever were heaven and earth and time and space, always loving and including the other, co-equally, co-eternally—forever and ever, God is love.

And the mind of Nico, the teacher of Israel, is blown.

5.

Fortunately, this is not the only place Nicodemus shows up in the Bible, fading back into the darkness whence he came, apparently confused. In fact, he shows up two more times, both in this Gospel.

In chapter 7, members of the Sanhedrin command the Temple police to arrest Jesus without probable cause. Nicodemus is there; and he calls the Sanhedrin out for their injustice—only to be ridiculed by them. He sympathizes with Jesus, not in the dark now but in the light, before his peers.

His social status, wealth, and even his health don’t seem so important to him now.

And he shows up again in chapter 19, in the full light of the sinking afternoon sun, to carry the body of Jesus with another formerly secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, to a tomb.

Through God’s love, Nico has been transformed. His quality of life is on a new plane. He has gone from a life of flesh to a life of the Spirit; from thinking God is distant and aloof to experiencing, first-hand, relationship with and even within the Trinity.

For God is love.

So then, to answer my earlier question, “Where does your faith fit into your quality of life?” it transforms it beyond anything you could ask or imagine.

Canaanite Confrontation

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 15:10-28

1.

What’s going on in today’s Gospel? Was Jesus a racist?

I mean, he comes across as fairly harsh, doesn’t he?

A Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for him to have mercy on her and her daughter. And at first he doesn’t answer her at all.

Why not? Why doesn’t he at least turn and acknowledge her? If he can’t help her, why doesn’t he at least let her know?

Instead, nothing.

But she doesn’t leave.

We know this because the disciples start to pester Jesus. “Send her away,” they say, “for she keeps shouting after us.” She’s embarrassing us, they say. Do something to make her stop, they plead.

So Jesus responds—not to the woman but to his disciples—“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

Only to Israel? But I thought God sent his Son to be the savior of the world. At least that’s what it says over in the Gospel of John! Why does Jesus focus on the exclusive race of Israel here in Matthew?

And if this isn’t already bad enough, after this woman has been calling after him for some time; after she has embarrassed the disciples; after Jesus says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel; and after she comes and kneels before him and pleads, “Lord, help me”—after all this, Jesus calls her and her daughter dogs.

It is not fair, he says, to take the children’s food—the food that rightfully belongs to Israel—and throw it to those outside of Israel—to those less than Israel—to the dogs, he says.

And if you’re like me, you’re left to wonder: what in the world is going on here?

Was the man Jesus a racist?

2.

Some folks want us to think so.

Jesus was a Hebrew, after all, God’s chosen race; and this woman was not. She was a Canaanite.

And if you know your Old Testament history, then you know that the Canaanites were one of the people groups that God said to destroy totally.

In Deuteronomy 7:1-2, for instance, God, through Moses, says:

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you—and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them.”

Men. Women. Children. Animals. Totally destroy. In a word, Genocide.

I’m not talking here about terrorists, cults, or hate groups like Neo-Nazis or Skinheads. This is the people of God’s Old Covenant.

What are we supposed to do with scripture passages like this? What are we to do with today’s Gospel?

Was Jesus a racist? Is God racist?

Some folks want us to think so.

I’ve just named a few groups who twist religious beliefs into the fabric of their wicked ideologies—terrorists; Neo-Nazis; Skinheads; religious cults.

And, sadly, just this week the news has shown us crimes related to these ideologies—and even some serious political fallout!

But—this may surprise you—I’m not talking just hate groups. I’m talking Christians too, some of them mainstream Christians, maybe even Christians living right next door to you.

People you and I know—people we may even study the Bible with—believe that God prefers one group of people over another; or, to speak more bluntly, believe that God is racist.

3.

Now, can I just stop here for a moment and interrupt?

I want to make something clear.

Absolutely and unequivocally: I believe racism is wrong.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth?

In the beginning, God created humanity in God’s own image. Whatever else this means, here is dignity.

Dignity: being worthy of honor and respect.

Everyone!

Mutually!

Does this remind you at all of the Trinity? It should. For that perfect, divine dance is what God is calling each of us into; into that perfect image of God.

And how can there be any such thing as racism there, in the co-equal Trinity?

Whatever else you may think about God or Jesus; whatever you feel about those men who used cars as lethal weapons in Charlottesville and Barcelona; whatever grudges you might hold against individuals who in your mind represent an entire race of people; whatever bitterness and resentment you still harbor towards the 9/11 aggressors—hear this truth today: God has created all humanity in God’s image.

God’s image, every single individual human being—regardless of race, skin color, creed, sexual orientation, physical capabilities, attractiveness, intelligence, political ideologies, socioeconomic status, or any other distinguishing category you wish to name.

Is this not a self-evident, absolute, unequivocal truth? Racism is wrong.

And thus, no, God is not racist. God cannot be racist. God’s nature will not allow it.

Yet people make god into their image, don’t they? They fashion for themselves idols after their own likeness.

But that’s another sermon for another day. . . .

4.

To return then, what is happening in this episode with Jesus, the Canaanite woman, and her daughter? What do we make of Jesus’ apparent harshness towards them? Why does Jesus refer to them as “dogs”?

Here’s what I think is going on—I’ll just name it; and then I’ll attempt to explain it:

I don’t think Jesus is being harsh with the woman and her daughter at all—or racist, or prejudiced, or bigoted, or arrogant, or whatever.

I think, instead, Jesus is demonstrating just how harsh the Jewish leaders had made their own religion.

Now, my attempt to explain: from the broader context.

This episode in Matthew is the third time Jesus has had some kind of confrontation with the Jewish leaders.

In the first two episodes—both times—Jesus answers his opponents by referring to Hosea 6:6; which says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Two times before, Jewish religious leaders confronted Jesus because he had violated their traditions in some way. And two times before, Jesus had responded with words. It is not your traditions that matter, he said, as much as a heart for God.

Today’s passage follows a third confrontation.

His opponents just asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

Why do your disciples break our religious traditions, Jesus?

Jesus has already answered this question—in the past; twice already, as a matter of fact. God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

So this time he doesn’t answer—not with words, anyway.

Instead, the first thing Jesus does is explain that it is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out.

To overlook a human tradition—not to wash one’s hands before eating—is not going to defile or corrupt someone. But to overlook God’s true law of love and mercy—that defiles and corrupts.

Thus, when the Canaanite woman confronts Jesus, he does not answer his opponents a third time verbally. Instead, he shows them that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

When the Canaanite woman first approaches Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me,” his silent response shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples how they themselves would have responded.

When he says that he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel, he is espousing well-established Jewish traditions, which maintained that the coming Messiah would save Israel alone.

And when he says the word dogs, he is saying exactly what the Jewish leaders would have said if they were in Jesus’ shoes.

Yet this is not where the story ends. Jesus shows the Jewish leaders and his disciples their folly by demonstrating where their traditions take them.

This is not where the story ends: Jesus then goes on to praise the Canaanite woman beyond anyone’s expectations.

“Great is your faith!” he exclaims. And in an act of divine mercy, he heals her daughter then and there.

Then and there he shows his opponents, those lovers of tradition: God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

God’s infinite and unbounded mercy extends to all peoples. God’s love cannot be bound by race or any other human invention.

5.

So, let’s get practical.

Racism is wrong; we’re agreed on that.

Yet throughout history, people—even in our own day; even some of our very neighbors; maybe even some of us—have utilized religious beliefs and traditions to support their heinous racist practices.

We saw this play out recently in Charlottesville and Barcelona.

Yet if racism is wrong—and it is—then utilizing our religion to support our racism is doubly wrong.

So what can we do about it?

It begins with us as individuals. Each of us must examine his or her own heart. Where do you find yourself expressing subtle prejudicial tendencies? In your words? In your actions? In both?

Look for them. And where you find them, repent.

Next, we must examine ourselves as a corporate body. Do we—and here I mean St. Thomas of Canterbury, and more broadly TEC—do we unconsciously practice favoritism toward one group of people over another?

Again, where we find these tendencies, we must repent.

And a third suggestion is to look around the community—your family, your workplace, your church, local organizations—and confront racism where you see it.

Ugh! Did he say confrontation? But some of us don’t like confrontation.

Yes, I did. And, yes, I know: I’m one of them.

My counsel to those who fear confrontation, including me, comes from last week’s message: Who Needs a Board when your Eyes are on the Lord?

Jesus has left us with a mission. It’s not beyond our capabilities. But sometimes storms arise.

Individual and societal racism is one of those storms. Confronting it is frightening. So frightening, even, that it can wreak havoc on our faith!

Yet what does Jesus say to his disciples?

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Beloved, through Jesus, we shall overcome our fears; through Jesus, we shall overcome racism.

Transfiguring Decline

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2017 by timtrue

My inaugural sermon at St. Thomas of Canterbury, last week, Transfiguration Day, August 6. just so happens I was able to touch on a lot of themes that characterize my ministry.

Luke 9:28-36

1.

Today is Transfiguration Day.

Imagine what it must have been like on that actual Day of Transfiguration for Peter, James, and John.

Who was this man, Jesus, exactly?

Yes, he’d called them away from their routine lives, offering a message of hope, redemption, and salvation. His was a good message. And convincing! So they’d left their routine lives and followed him.

And they’d witnessed him teaching, proclaiming good news to the oppressed and marginalized. They’d seen him perform miracles. Why, they’d even seen him raise a person from the dead!

But, really, was Jesus any different than the string of other messianic figures who’d popped up from time to time in the ancient world? Surely he wasn’t really God himself! He was a great teacher, a profound spiritual leader, and a healer. No doubt about it! So, godly, yeah! But God himself?

He leads these three disciples up a mountainside. And near the top, something spectacular, amazing, wonderful, and terrifying happens. Jesus, this great, godly, spiritual friend and leader, actually lights up!

What? How does a person light up? How does a person, shrouded in the darkness of a cloud, suddenly become illuminated brighter than the noonday sun?

And then, that voice! “This is my Son,” it booms, “my Chosen; listen to him!”

So, the disciples are left with few options. Either, one, they’re going insane; two, they’re dreaming; or, three, this man Jesus, their spiritual leader, teacher, friend, and healer, is actually who he says he is; and he is actually doing what he says he’s doing.

If we go with option three, Jesus is not merely a man, not merely another messianic figure to rile up an oppressed world; but he is actually God incarnate.

And that means—if we go with option three—that means he is accomplishing what he said he would. Namely, he is ushering in an entirely new age. The old is passing and the new has come. The kingdom of the old world, of humanity, is fading into darkness; whereas the kingdom of the new world, God’s world, is becoming more and more apparent, all around us!

What an exciting day for me to begin my tenure at STC! Transfiguration Day!

2.

One of the last sermons I preached was on Trinity Sunday, June 11. So, naturally, in preparation for today’s sermon, I’ve been drawing connections between the two, between the Trinity and the Transfiguration.

An important connection stems from the relationship within the Trinity.

Consider this: if God is Trinity—one-in-three and three-in-one, as our theology maintains—then God has always been this way. Always! As in, before the cosmos was ever created; as in, after the cosmos is fully transfigured into the new heavens and earth. God has always been three-in-one and one-in-three—outside of time and space, inside of time and space, always!

That means God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has always and will always be in relationship!

Well, what do you imagine this relationship to be like?

Do you imagine that it is characterized by one boss and two subjects? Does the Father employ the Son and the Holy Spirit to do his bidding?

If so, I imagine there would be disagreements, arguments, fights, and other kinds of divine drama taking place continuously. I imagine the Christian Trinity would then begin to look more like the Greco-Roman pantheon, where, for example, the lesser god Hermes deceives and manipulates the greater god Zeus in order to get his way.

But that just won’t do. For that understanding of the triune God—hierarchy—actually contradicts the definition of three-in-one and one-in-three.

Instead, the Trinity lives and dwells together in perfect unity, in perfect harmony, co-equally, and co-eternally. God, the Trinity, is love.

Huh. Sounds like something some ancient guy named Jesus once said, eh?

And that—that perfect harmony, unity, and co-equality—is what Jesus said he was doing. The Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus in his incarnation was ushering in, invites us to be a part of the very Trinity.

3.

Now, the early church seemed to catch on to Jesus’ message—right up until the turn of the fifth century or so.

The early church called together ecumenical councils—meetings of bishops all over the world, as far as Christianity had spread—to hammer out theological differences.

You know what the chief focal point of these councils was? The Trinity.

And from these councils a statement of faith has descended to us, largely unchanged; a statement of faith whose primary theme is the Trinity; a statement of faith we still confess together weekly.

We call it the Nicene Creed.

But around the turn of the fifth century, things began to change in the church. One bishop began to feel more important than another. And so he became the archbishop. Another responded by calling himself another fancy term: metropolitan.

One Christian city—or center—called itself more important than another. Oh, they were all important, to be sure. But one had to be in charge, after all. I mean, come on! It’s simple common sense. For all that Trinity, Pie-in-the-Sky idealism, we can’t really function in co-equal relationships after all, can we? One archbishop must be in preeminent authority over all other archbishops and metropolitans. One archbishop must be the, shall we say, Papa, aka Pope?

And so, around the turn of the fifth century, church government became hierarchical.

Just like ancient Roman government.

And thus, then, the church looked more like ancient Rome—with its emperor and senators and equestrians—than it did the Trinity.

But I thought Jesus was ushering in a new era, an era of harmony, unity, and co-equality.

I thought his followers would no more be subject to the oppression of the secular establishment, like the hierarchical structures of the Roman government.

I thought, too, they would no more be subject to a religious establishment which capitalized on fear to dominate its subjects.

I thought the Transfiguration was not simply about an individual man being transformed before the eyes of a few other individuals.

I thought, instead, the Transfiguration was about fundamentally altering all of the cosmos: about transforming the world from darkness to light, from death to life, from oppression to liberation; about eradicating hierarchy so that all humanity—no, all creation!—should dwell together in unity, harmony, and perfect love; in that divine dance that is the Trinity!

4.

At one point in my Trinity Sunday sermon I asked my audience to imagine what church might look like today if that turn-of-the-fifth-century change had never happened.

What if the church had continued to develop its theology and understanding of a co-equal, co-eternal Trinity? What would it mean for our liturgy? What would our music sound like? What would our art look like? What would our architecture feel like?

These are good questions for us to consider too. For today, as in the day of Jesus, a transfiguration is taking place. And it’s affecting you and me, STC, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, mainline Christian denominations in the US, even Christianity all over the world.

Church isn’t what it was forty years ago. Attendance is down. People who do attend aren’t attending for the same reasons they used to. Church no longer satisfies the social longing it once did. Missing church is no longer the social taboo it once was. On the pragmatic side, people aren’t giving as much as they used to.

All this leaves church leaders (like me) scratching our collective head. What about rents? What about missions? What about our dues to the diocese? Is our way of doing church still sustainable?

It’s a kind of transfiguration. Around the world on this Transfiguration Day the church is experiencing a profound change.

Very interesting that my first Sunday celebrating at STC is Transfiguration Day, eh?

So: Transfiguration Day is about much more than the transfiguration of an individual man—a good teacher, spiritual leader, and healer. Jesus’ Transfiguration destroyed all ideas of him being anything less than God incarnate.

Transfiguration Day is also about the church’s transfiguration.

It’s time to destroy all ideas that we are anything less than a divine institution. It’s time to leave behind the old models—the old hierarchies, the top-down leadership, the idea that “Father knows best,” and so on—and return to the even older models of Trinitarian relationship, of divine dance, of harmony, unity, and love.

From Spigot to Rivers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2017 by timtrue

Water_spigot[1]

John 7:37-39

“‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit.

1.

The Holy Spirit, Jesus says, like living water, will flow out of the believer’s heart.

It won’t just be the trickle of a low-flow spigot, he says; but rivers.

However!

Is this what we see in churches today? When we look around, do we see rivers of living water flowing forth from Christians, quenching the spiritual thirst of this parched land?

Yes, our land is parched. Yes, we’re thirsty.

We see spiritual thirst, for instance, in our individualism.

Culture tells me to be independent, self-sufficient, and confident in my own abilities. It’s a tempting message, especially when society is so accommodating to my independence.

I get in my car. I drive to the Starbucks I choose. And I order a café mocha, my favorite drink, except not as it appears on the menu but as I prefer it, with half the sweetener and twice the chocolate! Then I return to my home to watch my TV programs that I’ve pre-recorded to suit my schedule—after I run through my favorite apps that I’ve customized to my iPhone.

Ever wonder why it’s called the “i” Phone?

But, notice. This message is not all it’s cracked up to be. The “i” on the iPhone is lower case. You are actually quite dependent on others, whether you care to admit it or not.

And have you seen what this message does to relationships—or, should I say, to individuals trying to have relationships with other individuals?

“It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said. And yet that’s all most people seem to want anymore: to be left alone.

In the end, the water that independence sells us leaves us thirsty.

Likewise, there’s spiritual thirst in society.

Perhaps our societal spiritual thirst is seen best in the decline in mainline church attendance over the last four decades. Other spiritual are waters out there—spiritual waters that today seem more attractive than church. Their sellers have done a good job at marketing them, at making them more attractive.

I think we Christians are more to blame for this decline than those sellers though. For, if the unchurched or de-churched could actually see our living water, like the woman at the well, they would want it.

But they don’t see it. Which is our fault. Because—my thinking anyway—it’s not flowing out of us.

Oh, it’s there all right—living water. It’s just not flowing out of us. Instead, it’s bottled up inside our independent selves.

Thus we see spiritual thirst all around us; thirst that can only be quenched by the living waters of the Holy Spirit, by the living waters that we possess. So, let’s get it out there already!

2.

Speaking of the Holy Spirit, today is Pentecost Sunday. It is the day in the Church when we recall the Holy Spirit descending from heaven and entering all peoples.

This is a big day on the Church calendar, right up there with Christmas and Easter!

Now, God sent his Son to be Incarnate from the Virgin Mary. And we definitely see this remembered and celebrated in our churches today—also in the world around us. Christmas and Easter festivities abound!

But God sent the Holy Spirit too. And the Holy Spirit is a lot like Jesus: another Advocate; God dwelling with us.

So, when’s the last time you walked into CVS and heard Pentecost carols playing from the speakers overhead? (For that matter, just between us, Pentecost hymns in our own hymnal are few and far between–and not very catchy!)

When’s the last time you walked down the greeting card aisle to buy some Pentecost greeting cards to give to your beloved friends and family members?

And why don’t we practice longstanding cultural traditions that involve a big, cuddly dove? A dove to descend our chimneys, maybe, and give us gifts? Doves fly better than reindeer, after all. Or red plastic dove egg hunts in our church courtyards? Doves actually lay eggs, after all, unlike bunnies.

No, by and large, we forget about Pentecost.

Maybe we should just get rid of it then, eh? Time to move on already—get with the times! Maybe we should just give up trying to figure out who or what the Holy Spirit is and just eliminate him, her, or it from our theology, liturgy, and practice.

3.

Who is the Holy Spirit anyway? Or, to frame it another way, what if we were just to get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

The Creed tells us who the Holy Spirit is. We say the Creed together most Sundays, including that section about the Holy Spirit: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” and so on.

But what do these words really mean? They all seems rather nondescript.

There’s this line: “He has spoken through the Prophets.” I get that one. Sort of. I mean, there were these fringy people in the Old Testament stories who stood their ground against dictators and despots; and how could anyone have done that unless they were empowered by something divine—or at least something supernatural, or unnatural?

But how do we make sense of the lines that follow?

“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. / We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. / We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

What in the world do these words have to do with the Holy Spirit?

Maybe nothing. Maybe they’re just some important bullet points that the Creed compilers felt compelled to include somewhere—like a kind of faith appendix statement.

Anyway, why couldn’t the Creed compilers have been more concrete, like they were with respect to Jesus?

Jesus! He was born of the Virgin Mary, tried before Pilate, crucified, died, and rose again on the third day. Also, he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Yes, Jesus is easy to believe in. It’s all right there in the Creed, concrete, before our eyes.

So why do the words about the Holy Spirit have to be so abstract?

To which I say, yes, they are abstract. The Holy Spirit is a bit confusing—and has been for the entire history of the Church.

But notice this: everything about the Holy Spirit in the Creed has a communal focus.

The Holy Spirit spoke through individual prophets, yes. But why? It was to rouse a collective people, a nation: to pray as a people; to convict a nation of its societal sin; to rouse the nation to justice—which is just the profile of corporate love’s face.

And as for those other statements?

One holy catholic and apostolic Church means our communal faith with all the saints of all the ages.

Our baptism is our entrance rite into the one fold of God.

And as for the resurrection of the dead? Every single person who walks this earth will die. You cannot get more communal than that!

So, what happens if we just get rid of the Holy Spirit altogether?

We lose our prophets, our teachings, our conviction, our prayers, our communion, our baptism, our justice, our love.

You see, a god without the Person of the Holy Spirit is like a swimming pool without water. What’s the point? It has form and function but fails to serve its purpose.

If the Holy Spirit is not flowing from us like rivers of living water, what’s the point? We might testify of God’s form and function; yet what good are our testimonies when we fail to accomplish Christ’s mission?

4.

So, how do we get the living water of the Holy Spirit to flow out of us?

Well, it looks like the stuff I just mentioned—Spirit stuff, I call it: corporate belief, prayer, communion, baptism, justice, and love. Or, to use the words of our patron, it looks like “love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”—the things St. Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”

And that starts with each of us, as individual followers of Christ.

What? Did I just say individuals?

Yes!

I know many of my messages talk about our salvation, faith, belief, and so on in a corporate way. I’m not waffling on this theme! The Bible is clear throughout: Jesus’ mission is not to save individual souls from a world that is hellbound; but to save the world, the cosmos, all of it, by redeeming and restoring it to its rightful state. He’s already redeemed it, by the way; and now it’s up to us, his corporate church, to restore it.

But here’s the thing.

Do you remember what I said about that spigot? Jesus did not say, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow a trickling spigot of living water.” He said rivers.

But an individual, trickling spigot is better for a dry and parched land than nothing at all.

The living water of the Holy Spirit starts with each one of us. Each one of us would do well to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit. See what this looks like in Galatians 5. And to help us, St. Paul also includes a contrasting list, “the works of the flesh,” he calls them, the things that shouldn’t flow from us.

And when this living water begins to trickle from you, even if you are a low-flow spigot, well, hey, at least it’s something! And when a second low-flow spigot opens up nearby, why, its trickle joins yours and the two become a bigger flow.

And a third trickle combines to make the flow bigger still.

And so on, each one of us intentionally committing to live a life characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, until our individual, low-flow trickles become a brook; our brooks a stream; our streams a creek; and our creeks, eventually, mighty rivers of living water, to renew and revitalize a parched and dry land.

Come, Holy Spirit!

No Triangulation in the Trinity

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

FatherTim

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.

2014 Lent 28

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2014 by timtrue

NGC6960

I Corinthians 13

Love never ends, says Paul.

But what about its beginnings?

Seriously, this is a question worth pondering.  Has love always existed?  Or is it something that came into being somewhere in time, back in the ancient past, maybe when the first rational animal committed a selfless act?

It seems reasonable to say that love has always existed, doesn’t it?

But be careful.  Especially if you’re an atheist.  For if you want to say that love has always existed, to do so is akin to saying it is not a created concept; or to saying it is eternal, that it has no beginning, regardless of whether there ever was a big bang or not.  That puts love beyond time, and thus likens it to the trans-religion concept of God: existing both within and without the dimensions of space and time.

So if you want to say that love has always existed (as I do), then you’re somehow connecting love to God whether you admit it or not.

Perhaps then the being we call God should instead be named Love.  Not a bad idea.

But there is another way of seeing love; namely, as an attribute of God.  Love never ends, yes.  But love never begins either.  It has always been, is now, and will always be.  And this is because it is a part of who God is.  In this sense love is not a god, but similar to truth, beauty, and goodness, three other eternal attributes of God.

Are you with me?

But here is what makes love different from anything else, including truth, beauty, and goodness: it is outward.

Put yourself in that beyond-time-and-space realm mentioned earlier.  Here is where God alone dwells.  God has always dwelled here; God will always dwell here.  This means that God was here forever in the past, infinitely and eternally, before creation began–sun, moon, stars, planets, supernovae, all of it!

Now, here, in this beyond-time-and-space place, God could possess infinite truth, beauty, and goodness easily enough.  But how could God possess the type of love described in I Corinthians 13?  God could have thought it up, sure.  God could have determined to create a world in which beings existed in God’s own image, male and female, and that these beings would selflessly put one ahead of the other, that they would love one another.

But that would make love a created concept.  And that would mean that love is not really attached to God’s being–unless God took on that attribute after it had been created, which would mean that God was at one time less complete (and thus less perfect) than God is now.  But this is impossible.

No, love has to be an eternal attribute of God.

But, to return to that infinite and eternal beyond-time-and-space place, God could not possess love unless God had some way of expressing love, of putting another first, selflessly.  But God dwells here alone.  So with, for, and to whom can God express love here?

Tricky conundrum, eh?

For the atheist, love has to be a human invention, by definition.  But humans are no more than rational animals that operate by the same Darwinian principles as any other species.  They should be self-centered, not selfless.  Yet agape love, a love humans are capable of showing to one another, puts others first: it defies survival of the fittest.

Love also baffles the concept of a monotheistic God.  The God of the Jews and the God of Islam have always existed, eternally and infinitely in the past.  But they are alone in that beyond-time-and-space place.  So for them love cannot be an eternal and infinite attribute.

Love is indeed a baffler.

Only the Christian God provides an adequate answer.  For only the Christian God is seen as triune, three-in-one, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, existing infinitely and eternally in perfect perichoresis (a kind of divine dance).  Only the Christian God possesses community.  Only the Christian God allows for one person to put another first eternally and infinitely.

Love, then–the kind of love explained in today’s reading anyway–is what convinces me more than anything else that Christianity contains the truest expression of religious faith.

Love never ends.