Pastor Jeni Grangaard
For Glyndon Lutheran Church
June 3rd, 2012
Holy Trinity Sunday, on hand-me-down faith
Being the youngest child, I was pretty familiar with the concept of hand-me-downs. Some sporting equipment from my brother. Some clothes from my sisters. Some rules that were made from rebellious mistakes said siblings had made. Some traditions that mandated that youngest never gets to sit in the front seat, or the youngest has to do the dishes, or the youngest never chooses what we watch on t.v. Are the youngest children among us with me?
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday in the Church Year. I can’t help but feel it’s another hand-me-down. Tradition from the church to impose its doctrinal baggage on us. Hasn’t the church learned that to be relevant, it needs to ditch archaic words and rituals? Holy Trinity Sunday. Father-Son-and-Holy Spirit Sunday. What does that even mean?
We baptize, of course, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, at Jesus commands in Matthew 28. But the word “trinity” does not actually appear in Scripture. It is a doctrine, or a belief that has been written down by the church and carried on through tradition.
Doctrines can feel like hand-me-downs. Like things we’re supposed to wear even though they’re worn out or they don’t quite fit right. But we wear them because we’re supposed to and because we don’t really have anything else to wear.
Doctrines can divide us. What once was helpful, become ways for people to say who was right and who was wrong; who was in and who was out; who belonged and who did not. Doctrines feel like boxes into which we place God, even though I am sure there is a doctrine about how God doesn’t fit nicely into boxes.
But when we get to the core of doctrines, when we recognize that actual people wrote them, we can start to recognize that doctrines are ways that people try to make sense of who God is. They are words written to try to comprehend the incomprehensible. The trouble is, when they are handed down and accepted as plain fact, we are not able to make sense of who God is for ourselves, we are not able to say for ourselves who God is for us. Our faith then becomes something we put on, even though it doesn’t quite fit right and even though it’s quite worn out.
Tertullian, an early church father said, Christians are made, not born. We become followers of Christ not only out of tradition, and not because it is the only option, but because Christ has come into our lives, called us by the gospel, shaped and still shapes us. We have become followers because Christ has bid us to come and die to ourselves and live in him and for others.
Otherwise, faith doesn’t make much sense. Otherwise, faith is something we do and not something we are. Otherwise, faith seems like a bunch of doctrines and rules to accept.
And we know that faith is more than that.
I do think that one of the reasons the church at large is struggling is because it expects people to wear its hand-me-downs without engaging what new thing God might be doing. It assumes that Christians will be born and it doesn’t worry about making them. It expects the momentum of tradition to carry faith forward.
And we know that faith is more than that.
As we know, tradition is not bad. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Those who have gone before us, those who have experience in what we’re experiencing now have much to tell us. We do what people have done because we know it works.
Instead of trying to explain to you what the Holy Trinity is, I can stand on the shoulders of the Desert Fathers who compared the members of the Trinity to Light. God the Father is the source of light; Jesus the Son is the light that illumines or gives light; God the Holy Spirit is the warmth when you feel the light. It makes sense, sort of.
We stand on the shoulders of giants and we look into a world they could never see. We can learn from them, and then we can add our own learnings, our own experiences, our own traditions.
What words would you put around your experience with God?
We often look to and read from different parts of the bible. The bible has many authors, many people who penned their holy happenings. In confirmation we say, inspired by God, written by humans. The bible is basically experiences of God written down and kept and then passed down through the generations. First they were spoken and then later written. People kept adding their encounters with God, trying to make sense of life beyond their own. We stopped adding new books to the bible in the year 300 or so, but that doesn’t mean that our encounters with God have stopped. How many here have read books like “Heaven is for Real” or “The Shack” or Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” or anything about St. Francis of Assisi or Theresa of Avila or modern day mystics like Sara Miles or Shane Claiborne? God is still alive and at work in this world.
We look back in order to look forward. We look back in order to look into our own lives. Doctrines, Scripture, Tradition are gifts for us, resources to help us live well and live for others.
So take, for instance, this weird little story from the book of Isaiah. It starts out strangely: In the year that King Uzziah died… But it’s the story of one person’s encounter with God. Isaiah is in the Temple, the dwelling place of God. It’s not like a church. And God isn’t a nice gentle God here. God is experienced as something to be feared. This is the God whose name is so holy that you can’t speak it. One could not see this God’s face and live. Isaiah recounts the angels flying around God singing Holy, Holy, Holy, a song we joined as we opened our worship today. Some scholars say that the angels were not singing, but screaming, for to be in God’s presence was agony, because God was so powerful. And here enters Isaiah. A man of unclean lips, here meaning to “draw near with their mouths and honor [God] with their lips, while their hearts are far from [God] and their worship of [God] is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13). Here enters Isaiah, who is terrified because he does not feel qualified to be in God’s presence; he does not feel that he belongs. He is a man of unclean lips. But a strange thing happens. His lips are made clean. He is made right before God. He belongs. He then finds purpose to speak words of trust to a wayward and faithless nation. There is something here about God not calling the qualified, but qualifying the called. There is something here about how God comes into our lives and we are never the same. There is something here about how God encounters each of us in particular ways and sends us out for particular purposes.
Faith is to be passed on, yes. But faith is experienced and encountered in particular ways for particular people in particular times and particular places. What works for me, might not work for you. What works for you, might not work for your child or grandchild. But God is at work in them.
Take from John’s Gospel, the story of a God who comes to us even when we don’t know what to believe, a God who comes to us even when we can’t make sense or comprehend what God is doing. Without our assent or knowing, God comes not only for us, but for the whole world. That’s what Jesus says. Not to condemn the world, but to save it. To love it. To heal it. God calls us into that work.
God isn’t picky, God is particular. God isn’t picky; God takes in all sorts of characters. But God is particular. God has chosen you. God has claimed you. God has called you.
So take with you all the hand-me-downs of tradition, all the hand-me-downs of doctrine you want. Use what’s helpful. Struggle with that which seems strange. Wrestle with what seems impossible. Stand on the shoulders of giants and see into the world that God has called you. Learn from Scripture, but learn also to speak of the amazing grace that has given you new sight in this old world. Take that and go where God is calling. For where God is calling, God is leading, and where God is leading, God is loving, and where there is love, God is doing a new thing.
David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher”