Better than investigating the mysteries of the Trinity

John 3:1-17
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”…
“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.” (Read the whole passage)

We last heard the story of Nicodemus back in January. As part of our trial through the Narrative Lectionary we heard his story in the lead up Lent, and his confusion was one we resonated with. Jesus is being especially confusing in his conversation with Nicodemus. And today is no different, but we hear this story again for a different reason. We hear it for its connection to the feast day that we celebrate today, and the way this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus speaks about God. 

Holy Trinity Sunday is a celebration a thousand years old… as the church tried to reign in the heresies taught by earlier missionaries to newly conquered peoples in Northern Europe, bishops of these northern kingdoms ordered the celebration of Trinity Sunday in order spread right belief.

And since then, the practice has stuck. So once a year, on the Sunday after Pentecost, just before we begin six months of green Sundays in order to hear the teachings and parables of Jesus, we remind ourselves what good and proper Christians believe. 

And we believe in the Trinity – God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Co-equal, co-eternal, all of one being, yet distinct persons. But not divided by identity or purpose, instead all of the same essence, all of the same God. Three in one, one in three – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

Simple right? 

Now you can all explain the proper, orthodox understanding of the Trinity?

Maybe you aren’t ready to teach a Sunday School class on the Trinity just yet? Well in fact, most of the things we teach about the Trinity are wrong, especially those children’s sermons where the pastor pulls out water in 3 states, or a pie or an apple in order to explain how God is one yet three. Usually what ends up being taught it one of the many heresies of the early church. 

In fact, the only thing that might be completely reliable about Trinitarian doctrine is as soon as you try to teach it, you are likely to become a heretic. 

And so you might wonder, why does the church set aside one Sunday each year to talk about this doctrine describing God rather than tell the stories of God and God’s people and God in Christ like we do all the other Sundays. Why do we have a day that is supposed to be for making us believe the right things, where we so often we end up teaching the wrong things? Why observe this Sunday at all and not stick to the regular program that we know and trust?

Trinity Sunday feels like it leaves us with this murky, mysterious, hard to explain doctrine of the church. The one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

And yet, some of the haziness and fogginess of our understanding of the Trinity just maybe says more about what it means to live out this Trinitarian faith – this Christian Faith, than a solid definition of the Trinity. Because the challenge in understanding Trinity feels a lot like the challenge of trying to make sense of what it means to be a part of this mysterious and confusing family we call the Church. Just like we know that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all of the same God, we might not be very clear on just how it is that these three pieces come together into one God. And in the same way we know that we are are brothers and sisters in faith, and that our little community at Good Shepherd is just one part of a larger Body of Christ, we might not be clear on just how it is that we all come together into one Church.

In fact, most days we probably wonder just what is God doing with us… and why is the business of faith so rife with uncertainty.

Perhaps it is fitting here (at Good Shepherd), one part of the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry, that we observe and celebrate Trinity Sunday today. Perhaps our understating and clarity around Trinity feels pretty similar to our understanding and clarity about our future… in particular about the announcement (your pastor) made last week regarding the call to serve the shared ministry. Already we have been journeying towards something we that we do not fully understand and that we are not sure of. Coming together with 4 other congregations to share pastors and how all of that is going to work between 5 points, one full time pastor, one half time pastor and one supply pastor for the time being. 

As if that wasn’t enough, my announcement that I am not taking the call to serve the shared ministry and rather beginning a search for another call actually means that I am going to technically remain the pastor of Good Shepherd a little longer than we thought. Yet… I am still in the end going to be serving as the regional pastor… but in an interim capacity. And all of that is compounded by a new search for a candidate whom God is calling to this new ministry, while I search for what God is calling me to next. 

If we thought Trinity was confusing… just try understanding the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry for a few minutes.

So maybe struggling to understand Trinity for 2000 years has really just been practice for trying to understand just what God is up to with us at any given moment. 

Or maybe… just maybe, understanding isn’t what this is all about. Nicodemus didn’t leave the conversation with Jesus today seeming to understand any more than when he first showed up. 

Yet, Jesus reminded him of something important… and in the midst of all the confusion of Trinity and the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry, the reminder is the same for us. 

Here in this place, the things that we do understand and know and trust will remain the same.

God still continues to gather us as the Body of Christ – the Church. 
God continues to hear our confessions while offering us mercy and forgiveness. 
God continues to open our hearts and minds to hear the word, the Good News of Jesus Christ. 
God continues to stir our hearts to faith because of that same good news. 
God continues to bind us together in prayer and peace.
God continues to welcome us to the table of the Lord – the communion of the saints where we share in the feast of heaven. 
God continues to offer us Christ’s very Body in order that we might become that which we eat –  bread for the life of the world. 
And God continues to send us out transformed and renewed to be workers in the Kingdom. 

And all of that happens because of the God who has named and claimed us in Baptism, the risen Christ who has shown us the way to new life, Jesus who meets us here week after week. 

Whether or not we understand the Trinity and whether or not we know just what is going to happen to us as a congregation and fledgling new ministry in the Interlake, God’s promise to us remains… ‘how’ it all works is not really for us to worry about. God is assuring us that here, among this community and family of faith, that the things we need are still given – that Jesus continues to meet us here in Word and Sacrament. 

As Martin Luther’s right hand, Philip Melanchthon wrote about the Trinity, 

“We adore the mysteries of the Godhead. That is better than to investigate them.”

Or in other words, better than understanding the Trinity and how it all works, is to gather together in worship and communion as the Body of Christ. 

And the Mysterious Triune God who calls and gathers us together will do there rest. The Trinity will continue to bring us into New Life, found in Christ. 

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That’s not how faith works

*As I am currently on vacation, here is a guest sermon from Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker, whom you can find on Twitter @ReedmanParker and on Instagram: creedmanparker

Gospel: John 17:6-19

[Jesus prayed:] 6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. (Read the whole text)

Here we are, the end of the Easter season. Seven weeks later, many stories and experiences of new life – unexpected life. These stories begin with grief and loss: death, an empty tomb, and no body. They do not begin in a place of joy or jubilation, or even peace. They begin from a place of fear and anxiety. From a place of not knowing what the future will hold.

In this season of Easter, these 50 days between the Resurrection and Pentecost, we spend a lot of time within the setting of that first day of the week. And the starting place for most of the these stories is so far from what the worship committee plans. The faithful women, the disciples, those who followed Jesus, are in a state of shock and disbelief. They can’t see Jesus when he stands before them, they don’t believe the testimony of others – at least not at first.

Like us, the early followers of Jesus, the faithful women, the disciples, have ideas about who God is, and how God acts in the world, how God acts through us. And what they were seeing and hearing didn’t match those expectations. Those ideas. Their long held beliefs.

Like the disciples, the faithful women, the early followers of Jesus, it’s hard for us to see, to understand, to follow Jesus, God, even when God is staring us right in the face!

But these stories don’t stay in a place of disbelief or lack of sight for long. Because God stays with those people – God stays with us – until they see. Until they believe.

Seeing what was previously un-seen. Believing in what previously was un-thinkable, un-heard of, un-imaginable.

Jesus lives. Alleluia!

New life, it turns out, is full of unexpected, unanticipated realities. Ask any new(ish) parent, and they will likely tell you, “this was not what I expected”. New life is hard work. Navigating these new realities, navigating not only the new life, but the new life and role as parent not easy. Not by a long shot.

And for all the planning, all the reading, all the advice and preparations, the most accurate version of what to expect when you’re expecting is to get ready for the unexpected. It would be a short book.

And maybe that’s part of the problem, part of the challenge for us – the un-expected. the un-planned.

Like it or not, we like to know what to expect. We like to know what’s ahead of us. We like to follow the rules. Or at least know what the rules are, so we know what the consequence is of breaking them!

We see this throughout scripture – how rule-bound the Pharisees become, not being able to separate the rule of law from the spirit of the law. Good and faithful people become so rule-bound that they are unable to see how God is at work in and through the ways and means and people that were above or beyond the rule.

Today is no different. In our first reading from Acts, we encounter the disciples taking up the task of choosing who from their community will fill Judas’ spot as a disciple after Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

This community, and this group of people in particular, has already been through a lot! They want, and probably need, someone who they can trust. Someone they can depend on. Someone who won’t betray them the way Judas betrayed Jesus. They want to ensure that they “get it right”. As though getting it right will somehow ensure that they will not be disappointed again in the future. Or worse, that they will disappoint God in their decision making. That not getting it right, will somehow reflect upon their faithfulness.

But we know that even when we follow all the rules, when we follow the letter of the law, when we attend to every detail – it’s still possible to be disappointed. It’s still possible to not get it right, not all the way anyhow.

And that’s the rub. When we’ve done all the things we’ve been taught to do, and still find ourselves wanting… waiting… hoping for things to turn out in a way we can predict and anticipate. And then disappointed when they don’t.

But here’s the thing: that’s not how faith works. It’s certainly not how God works.

Note how the disciples put so much time and effort into choosing the correct candidate to take Judas’ place. Note the “rules.” Has to be a man, has to be someone there from the beginning, has to be someone who has witnessed the resurrection. [Only] two qualify. We learn their names. Lots are drawn. A man was chosen. And we never hear from him (or the other guy) again….

Because God was busy calling Paul. And Lydia. And the Ethiopian Eunuch. And so many more who weren’t in the narrow subset of ideas about who could be God’s messengers.

This is who God is. And this is who God reveal’s God’s-self to be over and over and over again. When God’s people become so rule bound that they cannot see God’s unconditional love and mercy, God chooses Mary to mother God’s son. Jesus arrives in a lowly stable and leaves the world by a procession on a donkey and hanging on a cross. And in his life, Jesus chooses the least likely candidates to help him proclaim God’s message to the world. He hangs around with the weirdos and the misfits, the outcasts and the strangers no one wanted – or by virtue of following the law – ought to be hanging around to be ritually clean. Jesus does all the things the law, the rules, tell him not to do. Talk about unexpected. This is who God is. Unexpected.

God does the unexpected. That’s what new life is – unexpected. The way God uses us is unexpected. How we get to live out God’s love and mercy in the world usually unexpected.

And so too, for us here gathered at Gimli Lutheran Church, maybe wondering how on earth is God working in and through us? Maybe you are feeling like you’ve followed all the rules and are still coming up short. Maybe you wonder where God is in the midst of this time of transition – between pastoral leadership, as the place and prominence of the church – not just here, but towns and cities, in families and communities changes.

Like the faithful women and the disciples on that first morning of the resurrection, we might feel like we are staring into an empty tomb. Like the disciples after Jesus’ ascension, we too might wonder how to find a leader to help us grow in our faith and equip others to know about Jesus and this great love God has for us.

But God does not wonder about us. God knows us inside and out. God knows our deepest desires and longings. God knows our fears and our dreams. God knows both what we want and what we need. And just like the early disciples, God is already out in the world calling forth new life, new leadership for this community. God is already stirring in us new life, new ideas, new ways of being that we can expect will be completely unexpected to us. This is who God is. Unexpected in the grace extended. Unexpected in the mercy given. Unexpected in the ways God continues to bring about new life in us and throughout the world.

A Millennial Pastor with a Blog

The first church I served out of seminary was a small open country church, literally on a quarter section of farmland just 25 minutes outside of my hometown Edmonton. In my first week, a couple of knowledgeable members of the congregation took me on a tour of the 6 acres of land that the church sat on. The church and parsonage on one end and of course the cemetery on the other. As we walked to the cemetery in order to meet some of the “older” folks of the congregation, one of the members told me about how he remembered when electric lights came to the countryside. [All of sudden it wasn’t just blackness when you looked outside of the farm house at night, you could see your neighbours.] The other member told about how her parents would heat rocks in the wood stove in order to put them under their feet in the horse drawn sleigh, which they rode to church in winter. 

And there I was making notes of all this on my iPhone, of course.

For 3 years this community frozen in time loved this weird kid pastor from the city who liked to be emailed and texted rather than called, even though the same phone line rang in both the church and parsonage. 

But during those years, there was always something of a disconnect that I just couldn’t put my finger on. And it really wasn’t until I started ministry at my 3rd church two provinces away in Manitoba that I started to figure things out.

I like to call my first summer here in 2013, the summer of millennials. The first of us had just turned 30, the world was about to discover we existed. Rachel Held Evans a blogger you may have read, wrote a piece for CNN called, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” And all of a sudden we were everywhere. 

Everywhere but church that is. 

If you look around mainline denominations these days, particularly in Canada it is pretty rare to see millennials in church, let alone as pastors. In fact, here in Manitoba there are only two millennials serving Lutherans churches – my wife and I. 

Yet…getting the youth back seems to be of a chief concern for many churches these days. And by youth, we mean people under the age of 50. 

Being a millennial serving a church desperate for young people to come back has been a weird and mind-boggling experience. 

My wife often likes to say that while we graduated from seminary ready for the church of today, no one got the church ready for us. Churches want millennials in the pews, but aren’t exactly sure of what to do with a millennial in the pulpit. 

Still with the arrival of millennials and the the generational lens it provided, I finally began to understand what wasn’t connecting between me and the people I had been serving. My experience of faith, and in particular church, was fundamentally different than that of the mostly older generation of people in the congregation. I do not remember the glory days of bursting full Sunday Schools, regular potlucks that could feed the 5000, churches being built on every street corner and pews full of families with 4.2 kids and a stay at home mother with time to volunteer. Nor am I grieving the loss of this church… The church that I know and grew up in and love and am called to serve has always been aging, shrinking and struggling to pay the bills. 

The churches that I have served so far in my time in ministry have been primarily ones centred around different generational cultures than my own. The frames through which the world is seen, and the references and images used to make meaning are not mine. So ministry has been a constant exercise in commuting to another culture, often resulting in feeling like an alien in a foreign land. Nadia Bolz-Weber, another blogger and pastor you may know, calls this a cultural commute. 

Every time someone makes reference to leave it to Beaver or Hogan’s Heroes, or Beattlemania or where they were when JFK was assisinated, all I have is a blank stare to offer in return. Still, I have had to go and look up all these references, so that I can speak in the cultural language of the people I serve. But the commute isn’t always a two way street and when in a sermon I reference a meme from twitter or a scene from an episode of The Walking Dead, I can hear the crickets chirping in the background. 

And so to begin thinking through what it means to be a millennial serving different generations, I started a blog. The Millennial Pastor – An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. I never expected anyone to read it, it was just a place to organize my thoughts and experiences. 4 and half years, and over 500,000 visitors later, I am starting to sense that I may have hit a chord with some people. My experience pastoring declining, grieving churches and doing so as a millennial is resonating with the experience of others out there. I am still regularly surprised when people who aren’t my parishioners or my mom tell me that they are reading my blog. 

That being said, I don’t think my blog is about figuring out the answers or offering solutions to the struggles we face as church. Rather, I think of the exiles in Babylon with the prophet Ezekiel. He preached about the destruction of the temple for 5 years before it finally sank in. And it is taking the church some time to accept where we are now, rather than looking back to where we used to be. 

The thing is, along with the message that we are where we are, is also the reminder that God is with us now as much as before. And in fact, the church we are now just might be the church God is calling us to be. Because it is the church we are now and the church that God is calling us to become, that will be church for the next and future generations.

Now I just need to keep repeating that for 5 years and it might sink in. 

*This is the manuscript of presentation I gave at an ecumenical continuing education event on May 9, 2018 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.