Posts Tagged ‘orthodoxy’

20101108-082626.jpgIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

I have told the story before of my friend Fr. Thomas, the Greek Orthodox priest. We got to know him when we moved in as his neighbors during our time in Palestine. If you were going to craft a caricature of a Greek Orthodox priest you wouldn’t end up with someone as magnificent as Fr. Thomas. Everywhere he went, he wore his black robe and black hat. His grayish white beard flowed down onto his chest, and his long hair in back was tied up in a ponytail.

Fr. Thomas was never quite sure what to do with us Presbyterians. We weren’t Catholics, which was a plus in his book, but we were Protestants, which had historically had little to do with the Orthodox church. Over time, he learned to trust us. One Friday, I rode with him down to Tubas, a little village to the south of the one in which we lived. The 50 or so Christians there lived among 17,000 Muslims.

As we stood by the side of the road waiting for a car, Fr. Thomas turned toward me: “You Protestants.” I waited for the accusation that came next. “Why don’t you cross yourselves?” I paused, thinking about how Protestants had distanced themselves from Rome, probably throwing out some practices because of guilt by association, and I decided I had more to learn by listening than talking.

“Don’t you see?” he said. “These three fingers represent the unity of God in Trinity! And these two are the humanity and divinity of Christ, born from the womb of the Virgin Mary! He is True God from True God, descended to be one of us. He rose again, sits on the right hand, and will come again.”

“Oh, that! We’ve got that. Here’s the church, here’s the steeple…”

We are better in community than we are on our own.

Today we mark Trinity Sunday. In 2016, the Trinity can come across as one of those archaic philosophies that might have made sense back in 325 but not anymore. We are monotheists, but believe that God is in three persons? Jesus is God, and also God’s Son? Let’s just skip all the complications and boil it down to “try and be nice to others.”

Let’s be honest. Christian faith comes with a series of challenges. First, we claim to find eternal meaning in a collection of books written almost 2000 years ago, intended for a Middle Eastern sheep-herding, olive harvesting people. Second, we are guided by doctrines like incarnation and the Trinity that grew out of ancient Greek philosophical notions about life, the universe, and everything. And third, we live in a culture that runs counter to our faith – especially among those whom we would consider our fellow adherents, treating Christianity as a national tribe of self-defense rather than a sacrificial way of selflessness to a world in need. Why bother?

Because we are better in community than we are on our own.

Look. The Trinity, as a doctrine, might seem like impenetrable philosophical gymnastics. God is Father, God is Son, God is Spirit. Father is, and isn’t, Son; Son is, and isn’t, Spirit. Spirit is, and isn’t, Father. Three, and One. It’s like steam, water, and ice. Or like idea, word, and breath. Or like one finger with three segments. Does any of this help? And if it does, does it help us to understand something about God, or what it means to have faith in that God?

If nothing else, here’s what I hope the Trinity suggests to us today: the essence of God is community. God is one. There is no god but God. And that same God, the source of all that was, is, and will be, is expressed in the community of Trinity. The Father needs the Son. The Son needs the Spirit. The Spirit needs the Father. They all need each other for their holiness to be made real.

And what that means for us, those of us who want to reflect the character of God that we know and love, is that we are meant to be in community; because we are better in community than we are on our own.

When Paul and Timothy write to the church in Corinth in our lesson this morning, it is the sense of being knit together as people of faith that emerges in their writing. Paul and Timothy know that the Corinthians are suffering, a suffering that Paul and Timothy empathize with and even share in. In that suffering, they write, they are connected to the suffering of Jesus himself.

One summer, I worked as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital outside of Chicago. I visited one day with a young woman who had come in because of a nasty infection, only to get another one at the hospital. In abject pain and sleepless nights, she looked up on the wall and saw what was on every room in the hospital: Jesus on the cross. It was as though, she told me, Jesus was saying to her, “I know your pain. Your pain is my pain.” And being joined with Jesus’ suffering, she said, gave her great comfort and strength to endure.

As Paul and Timothy tell the Corinthians, it is the prayers of the Corinthians that give Paul and Timothy hope and perseverance. We are better in community than we are on our own.

This is why we form churches and worship together and serve together and become members – to be in community, to strengthen, challenge, and grow our faith in Christ.

We are better in community than we are on our own.

The Orthodox liturgy Fr. Thomas celebrates is a complicated liturgical dance. From the intricate clothing to the detailed instruments, everything tied into Scripture and theology – perhaps nothing more than the Eucharistic bread.

The bread itself bears a stamp that is baked into it. There is the shape of the cross, with “Christ is Victory” written three times down the middle. As the priest prepared the bread for the liturgy, he takes a golden knife in the shape of a spear, piercing the bread, carefully taking out a piece, and placing it on a plate, under a tent of sorts. This represents the grotto in which the Christ child was born.

The priest then takes the piece of Christ-bread and mixed into the chalice of wine, the body and blood coming together. He then cuts pieces of bread for the patriarchs and matriarchs of faith, the prophets and angels, the disciples, apostles and saints of the church, and mixes them into the cup. Then, as members of the congregation come forward to whisper their prayer requests to him, he cuts out pieces for each of them, mixing those into the wine.

Finally, the congregation processes forward, as the priest spoon-feeds the communion mixture to each of them. Much like the prophet Isaiah’s lips were purified with the burning coal, so the members of the congregation are being purified, the spoon representing the tongs that held the coal.

In other words, in communion, Orthodox Christians are united with this whole stretch of God’s salvation history: stretching back to creation, through Noah and the flood, sweeping through Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, into the birth of Jesus, his ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection, catching up Paul and Timothy and the Corinthians, and on into the present day, with hope for what is to come. All of this is done in community: the sufferings and joys alike united in that cup, and shared by all who are there, bearing one another in grief and celebration, all of it tied back into Jesus himself, the one who lived life out of death, redemption out of suffering, hope out of despair.

And that’s what we do today at this table. In form, it looks very different from what Fr. Thomas brings to his people. There is no spear, no spoon, no grotto. What we do have is bread and cup. And as we share in these things, we do them together, because we are better in community than we are on our own.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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I had fascinating conversations with you all last week after my sermon. Many of you commented on how you read the parable of the generous landowner, and its focus on payment, as largely a metaphor for how God dispenses grace. One of you commented playfully, “sounds like Marxism to me.” But here’s my question: can’t it be both? Isn’t it possible that Scripture works on multiple layers at the same time?

This question came up for me again as I read the Exodus passage (17:1-7).  And I couldn’t help but read it with my eye on ever-increasing gas lines and economic woes giving us all pause and concern. And I never, ever want to be in a place where I am speaking for God; I pray that I’m more humble than that. But as I took my own anxieties to prayer this week, this answer came as clear as a bell: “Do not be afraid.”

This is not a promise that there won’t be difficult times; there will, very likely, be times of wilderness and desert and thirst. But God provides. The rock is split, and water comes out. Maybe it’s not in the way that we want or expect, but God provides nonetheless.

And it is with this surprise that I turn to the Matthew text (21:23-32). In it, Jesus draws on this Biblical tradition of playfulness. Think about when Pharaoh approaches the Israelite midwives who are supposed to be preventing the Israelites from breeding. Their response? “Oh, those women are so robust that by the time we get there, the child’s already born! What can we do?”

Jesus, most often when he’s dealing with questions of authority and with the religious authorities, uses a similar kind of playfulness to get his point across.

The context for today’s lesson is in the midst of Holy Week. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem, has flipped over tables in the Temple, and is now teaching just outside. When he is confronted by the religious leaders, they want to know what authority it is that he brings to this teaching. And Jesus, rather than answering their question (as usual), offers them a question of their own: “By what authority did John the Baptist do the things he did?”

They confer. And ultimately, it is fear that drives their lack of answer. If they say “by God’s authority,” then they fear their peers and that their own authority will be undermined. If they say “by human authority,” then they fear the crowds that are following Jesus. So they say nothing.

One way of seeing this exchange is that the leaders are trying to trap Jesus. Instead, he traps them. They are caught up in their own words and exposed for the frauds that they are. But is it possible, perhaps, that Jesus is actually offering them a way out, a hopeful question that they might see the error of their ways, repent, acknowledge that they were/are wrong about John and him and come into God’s presence?

The parable comes next, which might shed more light on our conversation. Two sons are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. The eldest says “yes,” but goes off to do something else. Maybe play Guitar Hero or something. The youngest says, “no,” but then decides to go work any way. In a way, Jesus is setting up a conversation about words and works. Which is more important: to say that we believe in God and the promises of resurrection, or to live as though we do? The ideal, of course, is for our works to flow from our words. We say one thing and we act in concert with that which we say. But then again, any of you who have parented a two year old know that “no” can sometimes be taken with a grain of salt. But if we are set up into a choice between one or the other, the parable suggests that it is our works that trump our words.

Jesus uses this parable to show how the leaders ignored what it is that John did; he may have not been saying things the right way to them, but his acts showed a righteousness and a presence of God far beyond what they could manage, even though they were saying “all the right things.”

And it is here that Jesus gets downright provocative: “tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kindom of God ahead of you.” The worst elements of society, those tax collectors who took money from the Jews and gave it to the foreign occupiers, the Romans, those traitors, they got it. Those prostitutes, those who are not only ignoring God’s ways, but those whom we see as being shunned and cast out by God for doing so, they got it. You think you’re the best; but you may have it backwards.

And then he ends with this nugget: “You did not change your minds and believe in him.”

Friends, we’re in the midst of another political season here in our nation. And it is always presented to us by both parties that a person who changes their mind is the worst thing possible. Maybe that is true in the world of politics; but in the world of faith, there is always the chance to repent, to turn to God, to say that we have been wrong and desire to follow in the path God sets before us.

Who are those modern day prostitutes and tax collectors? Who are the ones whom we, chief priests and elders of the faithful alike, despise, consider traitorous, deem beyond God’s love? Friends, God is saying “yes” to us, with open arms inviting us into that vineyard. What is it that we will say and do?

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