The Sabbath; Not just for the religious!



When I was a kid I spent part of one Sunday afternoon at the home of my friend, Buddy. Buddy had never invited me over on a Sunday, and that afternoon I learned why. It was the Sabbath and his parents “honored” the Sabbath. They honored by sitting quietly in their living, reading their Bibles. Buddy and I sat on the floor and were not allowed to play, or even to talk. It was so quiet I could hear the echo of their clock ticking, a sound that forever reminds me of being extremely bored. I lasted less than 30 minutes, and forever after that when I hear the words “honor the Sabbath,” I yawn.

50 years later I have a very different idea of the Sabbath, the topic of last week’s sermon.

Here are some of my random thoughts on Sabbath.

The Sabbath does not have to be Sunday, especially if, like me, you are someone who has to work on the Sabbath. It can be any day of the week set aside for re-creating your soul. It may or may not involve worship, so don’t assume if you are going to keep the Sabbath, you need to do it on a Sunday.

Sabbath keeping is not just for Christians and Jews. Anyone can enjoy a Sabbath. (After all, college professors get a Sabbatical, which has nothing to do with their faith.) It is a time to recharge, a time to slow down, a time for re-creation.

Marva Dawn reminds us that Sabbath activities should be intentional. It is not a day we just let happen, but a day we plan for things to happen–unless of course your plan is to let things happen! But if your life is like mine, “letting things happen” means putting yourself at the disposal of the latest emergency.

Ideas for your Sabbath

  1. Turn off your phone
  2. Stay off social media
  3. Enjoy nature; take a walk, or a drive. Go to the lake or river or the shore.
  4. Indulge in relaxing hobbies. Play golf, if that relaxes you (it does not relax me!) Build a model, work in your garden, take pieces of wood and make something of it, learn something you have always wanted to learn, play music, listen to music.
  5. Read. Think. Go to a movie. Cook an elaborate meal, just for the heck of it, and take time to eat it.
  6. Go out for coffee with friends. Go out for coffee alone.
  7. Spend time with your dog.
  8. Make love. (Jewish rabbis were kind of expected to make love to their wives on Friday nights.)
  9. Just sit.


Walter Brueggemann makes the case that the Sabbath is a resistance activity. The world expects us to produce, to buy, to consume. Work, work, work, build a little house and die. But for Brueggemann (and this was the major theme of my sermon) the Sabbath is our way of saying we have value even when we are doing nothing.


Books on the Sabbath

Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, by Walter Bruggemann

 Quotes: “Thus I have come to think that the fourth commandment on sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses … along with anxiety and violence.”


“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”


“The way of mammon (capital, wealth) is the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness without any Sabbath. Jesus taught his disciples that they could not have it both ways.”


“I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. Imagine having a sacrament named “thanks”! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are “weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care” receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed.”



“The Sabbath rest of God is the acknowledgment that God and God’s people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production and so dispatched, as we used to say, as “hands” in the service of a command economy. Rather they are subjects situated in an economy of neighborliness. All of that is implicit in the reality and exhibit of divine rest.”


“That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.”


“We used to sing the hymn “Take Time to Be Holy.” But perhaps we should be singing, “Take time to be human.” Or finally, “Take time.” Sabbath is taking time … time to be holy … time to be human.”


“But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising and its great liturgical claim of professional sports that devour all our “rest time.”


“Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms. Whereas Israelites are always tempted to acquisitiveness, Sabbath is an invitation to receptivity, an acknowledgment that what is needed is given and need not be seized.”


“we may consider the sabbath as an alternative to the endless demands of economic reality, more specifically the demands of market ideology that depend, as Adam Smith had already seen, on the generation of needs and desires that will leave us endlessly “rest-less,” inadequate, unfulfilled, and in pursuit of that which may satiate desire.”


Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting,  by Marva Dawn

“A great benefit of Sabbath keeping is that we learn to let God take care of us — not by becoming passive and lazy, but in the freedom of giving up our feeble attempts to be God in our own lives.”


“One of the greatest gifts for my life as one who serves God is observing the Sabbath. Celebrating a holy day and living in God’s rhythm for six days of work and one of rest is the best way I know to learn the sense of our call – the way in which God’s Kingdom reclaims us, revitalizes us, and renews us so that it can reign through us. Before we can engage in the practice of our call, we need to be captured afresh by grace, carried by it, and cared for.”


“We definitely do not conform to our culture if we choose not to be dominated by possessions or by the anxiety to acquire more of them, but decide instead to give away much of what we have and use what we have been given as good stewards who desire to enjoy the things of God for the purposes of God.”

“If we lived more simply most of the time, our feasts would be distinctive events. As it is, since most Americans have all kinds of special things to eat every day, for many the only way to make Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts uncommon is by eating more. It would be good if we could restore the concept of feasting not as something to regret (don’t we all have to lose a few pounds after the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s season?), but as a delight.”


As they say in Fiddler on the Roof, “Good Sabbath!”

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A Day Made to Fit

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(Note: On June 3 our congregation took up a special offering to help refurbish the playground at Bear Creek Park. We chose that day because June 1 is International Children’s Day. It was also Communion Sunday. As usual the texts are at the end.)

The reason we are taking up the special offering for Bear Creek Park today is that June 1 was International Children’s Day, not to be confused with the International Day of the Young Child, which was in April or International Child’s Day which is in November or International Day of the Girl Child, which is in October. And we shouldn’t forget May 25, National Missing Children’s Day.

Of course parents get their day. There is Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Grandparent’s Day, and to make sure we didn’t leave anyone out, Parent’s Day, the last Sunday in July, and if that doesn’t do the trick, we have Family Day the fourth Sunday in April.

All those families need Good Neighbor Day, September 28.

We are a patriotic people, and to show it we have Loyalty and Law Day, both on May 1. September 17 is Citizenship Day, which is part of Constitution Week, which makes me wonder why Bill of Rights Day, December 15, is not also celebrated that week. although I am not sure why we just don’t celebrate all these on September, 11, Patriot Day. We are also a diverse people, so we have German American Day, Columbus Day, Leif Erikson Day, and General Pulaski Day, Greek Independence Day and Tartan Day.

There are a host of people who get their own days. I already mentioned General Pulaski and Leif Erikson, but others include Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman Day, Cesar Chavez Day, Malcolm X, and the Wright Brothers.

And you! Did you know that you have your own day? And your day does not come from a presidential decree, or a congressional declaration. And it’s not just once a year. It is once a week, and it comes straight from the top–from God himself.


Your day, your special day, is the Sabbath.

The fourth Commandment says,

 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

We are so used to a seven day week, with Sunday’s as a day of rest, that we forget just how radical that notion was when it was first introduced. The idea that you, and your family, and your servants, and your slaves, and your livestock and any one who happened to be visiting your town got a day off was unheard of. Chores had to be done, food had to be cooked, life had to go on, but for those early Jews there was one day, one day that was set aside and made holy.

The problem though is that the initial impetus for the Sabbath became a series of injunctions that were more concerned with what was forbidden on the Sabbath, rather than what was encouraged. The Gospel Lesson today shows us just how far away from the original intent the rules and regulations about the Sabbath had become.

Jesus and his followers are walking on a sunny Sabbath day. Perhaps they were out later than they thought they would be, or perhaps the walk took longer than they expected, but they started to get hungry. The come across a grain field. Jesus looks at his disciples, and at the grain, then reaches out, and plucks a few ears, rubs off the husks, and starts to eat it. They are amazed, and maybe even shocked because they know that picking grain is forbidden on the Sabbath.

According the Pharisees you are to do no work on the Sabbath, per the Ten Commandments. That includes agriculture, which includes picking grain from a field.

Yet Jesus and his disciples do that. They were hungry, so they ate.

Some Pharisees see him and they point out to him that this is against Holy Law. He is breaking the sabbath.

Jesus tells them a story about David, and how, when David was hungry, he did something much more drastic than pulling on a few heads of grain on the Sabbath.

He is referring to episode in I Samuel 21 when David was fleeing from Saul, and he went to the high priest. He had some of his followers with them and they were hungry. Now in the building where the high priest worked (this was before the Temple was built) was an altar, and on the altar was the Holy Bread, or Bread of the Presence. According the book of Leviticus, there should always be bread on the altar, which is replaced every Sabbath. It was for God, and for God alone, and was called the Bread of the Presence because it symbolized the presence of God at the altar. The bread sat between two sticks of frankincense.

David is running from Saul, he comes into the altar because that is a sanctuary, a place where Saul cannot get at him. He has left Saul’s court in a hurry, and took with him only the most trusted of his companions and now they are hungry. So guess what he does–he eats the Bread of the Presence.

And apparently it was good. And to the priest’s great surprise, he was not smote by God. He actually lived to tell the tale.

So Jesus reminds the Pharisees of this little event in the life of David which they are not too happy to hear.

The very next thing that happens is Jesus goes to the synagogue and sees a man with a whithered hand. Jesus knows everyone is watching him, especially after his little snack out in the fields, but, Jesus being Jesus does not really care what they think. He sees a man in need, and he helps him, and Jesus does not care what day of the week it is. He sees the need in the man’s eyes. He sees his desire to be made whole, to be able to work again to be able help his family. So he heals him.

He could have waited another day. He could have said to the man, “Today is the Sabbath. Come back tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do with that hand. But that is not what he does. Instead, staring the Pharisees down, he says, “Stretch out your hand,” and when the man offers his hand, Jesus heals him. He is making a point here, which goes back to what he said to the Pharisees who saw him picking grain in the field. “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Jesus is making a specific point, not just about the Sabbath, but about the entire law. But for today, we’ll stay focused on the Sabbath.

How many of you remember Blue Laws? When I was a kid, I was working on a model on a Sunday afternoon. I ran out of glue, so I rode my bike to the store to get some more model glue. I found a store that was open, found the glue, took it to the counter, and they refused to sell it to me, because of Blue Laws. Apparently in North Carolina they could not sell things on the Sabbath that would help people have fun.

I wonder if they people who made those Blue laws ever read the Gospel of Mark, specifically this story. Because it seems from reading this that doing relaxing things, like making a model, is exactly what the Sabbath is all about.

The fourth commandment is about taking time off from your work week, to sit and enjoy God and God’s creation. The words, Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy, means to set it aside as a special day in the week. Making it holy does not mean that we spend the whole day doing “religious” things. It means we do what we can to make the day special. Holy simply means set aside.

We need the sabbath, and not just as a day of rest. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, writes:

“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

 In other words, the sabbath reminds us that we are more than what we do, what we make or what we buy. On the Sabbath none of that matters. The master of the house is on the same level as the servants in the eyes of God.

For most of our lives we are judged by what we do, not who we are. As we celebrate the Sabbath we learn that we are valuable to God while we are resting and re-creating our souls. We do things, not because we have to do, but because we enjoy them.  The world around is driven by many things, many of which are antithetical to Christianity. In the world, you have to produce something, you have to do something. In the early 2000s, I made several trips to Russia, and the aim was partnering with Russian Orthodox churches. Each time I came back I was asked, “What did you do,” and when I said I had met a lot of Russians, I heard the question repeated– “But what did you do?” People back home wanted action. They wanted to hear about souls saved, food distributed, ministries started, sermons preached. The fact that there is intrinsic value in just getting to know other people was totally lost on them.

The Sabbath reminds us that we, you and I, have intrinsic value apart from what we do.

According to Bruggemann, the Sabbath reminds us that God is not a workaholic, and that creation does not depend on endless work. And so the Sabbath also reminds us that while each and every one of us is important, the Universe does not depend on our work. It also depends on our rest.

The Sabbath is a gift, given to each and every one of us by God.

It was never meant to be an oppressive time, a day when all fun is banished, and we have to be somber and serious like undertakers.  Keeping the Sabbath should be joyful. It should enhance our lives, not diminish them. We should be able to look forward to the Sabbath, not dread its coming. We should greet the Sabbath like an old friend, the kind you never get tired of seeing.

Holy Communion cross in cupThe Sabbath is a gift–just as this bread and this cup are gifts.

When I was growing up, my brother and I could go play on Saturdays after we done all our chores–mowed the lawn, raked leaves, carried out the trash, whatever. Our free time had to be earned. Now that was a good life lesson for us, but that is not the way the Sabbath works. We don’t earn our Sabbath time. It is given to us, given to us by God.

We do not earn this meal–it is given to us by God.

Both this meal and the Sabbath are given to us in love. That is why we say we celebrate communion, and why I think we should also say we celebrate the Sabbath. Our intrinsic value is not defined by how much we have attained or produced or accomplished. Our intrinsic value comes to us because we are children of God. And the Sabbath, the day which was made to fit just for us, is a reminder of God’s great love for us.



Mark 2:23-3:6

Pronouncement about the Sabbath

23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

The Man with a Withered Hand

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

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What is the Still Point?



Someone asked my why I call my blog and author page The Still Point. The phrase comes from T.S Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton. The full quotation is:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

The poem is about…well, it is impossible to explain, because it ranges over a variety of topics, but here Eliot is talking about how we can try to move beyond our time bound existence, and come to a place that some call The Eternal Now.

When I taught life-style groups on the behavioral health ward of Fairbanks Memorial Hospital I would often tell patients, “All you have is now. The past is gone, and the future is not here. If you miss the moments you are in, you are missing out on your life.”

The dance of life takes place at this Still Point. It is a place for both reflection and action, but not for busy-work. When you are caught up in a song, and dance like no one is looking (which is about the only way I dance–although the Redhead does occasionally see me strut my arhymatic stuff), when you captured by a luscious landscape, when you lose yourself in the person you love, when you are doing something you love and forget all about time and its passage, you are in the Still Point.

When you worship, and feel connected to God and the Universe, you are in the Still Point.

One of my parishioners asked me if preaching was hard work. “Not when it’s going well,” I answered.

“How do you know when it’s going well,” they asked.

I didn’t use these words for my answer (I think I told that I just know, and they understood that), but I know it is going well when I enter the Still Point.

IMG_1595Today I built a planter box. It was the fourth one I had done, and so I could sit back and enjoy the work. I didn’t have to constantly think about what I was doing–I just did it. That’s the Still Point.

The subtitle for all this, which is the running theme of my life, is connecting faith to popular culture, music and politics. For me faith, which takes many forms, is the overall theme of my life. I can no more live without faith than I can live without oxygen. But faith is a tricky thing. In the movie Serenity, Shepherd Book, who is kind of like a monastic, tells Malcolm that he needs to believe.

Malcolm: Ah hell, Shepherd, I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.

Shepherd Book: When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?

I echo Shepherd Book’s words. Faith is much more than what we do at church. For me, I can best exercise my faith as a pastor, but I know that is not true for others. I know many of faith, some of whom go to church, many of whom do not. All of them seek some form of the Still Point though.

My prayer and hope is that through the words found here, people will find a way to their own Still Point.




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Coffee and Ritual


Morning Mocha

To call what I do every morning “making coffee” is like saying when the pope is celebrating a high mass that he is “doing religious things.”

IMG_1627The ritual actually starts the night before when The Redhead grinds my beans for the morning. No whirl grinder for us. She uses my great-grandfathers wooden, hand crank coffee mill. The burrs are almost worn down from a century of usage, but it still works, meaning that it gives me the coarse grind I need for the copper French Press coffee maker. She fills the kettle with water, and makes sure the lighter for the gas stove top is in plain sight. Now at this point you may think The Redhead is going overboard to pamper her husband, but you will soon see she benefits from this arrangement as much as I do.

I am always the first one up, and after checking the news on my phone to make sure we are not at war or under martial law, I stumble down stairs where my French Press awaits me. I light the burner. After my water is on its way to boiling perfection, I set about making her coffee.

The Redhead does not like hot drinks. Her choice of morning beverage is iced mocha, three shots, extremely light on the chocolate. So the I turn on the espresso machine and make sure it has enough water for a sixteen ounce iced mocha.

IMG_1626The first large major purchase the Redhead and I made together was our first espresso machine. I don’t remember the model, but it served its purpose for about two years before it gave up the ghost and went to machine heaven. It was, shall we say, adequate. Between the time we bought our first machine and when were in need of a second, I had done a lot of research on espresso machines, and most, I learned, were barely worth the money they cost. Miraculously (and yes now I do believe in the power of prayer) I found a brass, hand pull La Pavoni espresso machine for about $400. They person who owned it received it as a gift and it was just way too complicated for her to use. I knew it was probably a $1500 machine, and I scooped it up immediately. (That was also the largest purchase I have ever made without consulting her, and she appreciated my decisiveness.

After the La Pavoni is heating up the water in its boiler, I get the fixin’s ready. One of her favorite black metal insulated cups, six ice cubes, two thirds filled with milk. Time to grind the beans. One of the concessions I made to modern coffee technology is our grinder. I used to use a brass, Turkish hand grinder, but it took so long to grind enough for her three shots, the Redhead felt sorry for me, and bought me (and her) an electric burr grinder one Christmas. (It could be used for my coffee, but even at its lowest setting it does not the grind coarse enough, which means an unpleasant sediment in the coffee.)

Cup ready, coffee ground, time to start pulling shots. This is tricky work on the La Pavoni. You have to tamp down the grind in the basket just enough–too loose and you get a runny mess, too tight and it doesn’t flow well. Then you have to pull it with just the right pressure. (I once saw a James Bond movie where he used a hand pull espresso machine to make a cup for M, and I have to tell you he might be great with the ladies, but given what I saw, I would never drink his coffee. He pulled the handle like he was pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit.)

IMG_1628While I am pulling the second shot with my right arm, I am adding the chocolate to the espresso with my left hand. It takes fifteen short pumps on the container, because I don’t squirt it straight from the Hershey’s bottle. We have a special chocolate pump.

By this time my water is boiling, and I pour it over the beans. This is where I add some variety to the morning ritual. Sometimes I add cinnamon, sometimes a couple of shots of chocolate, and every once in a while I might add almond extract. But I usually drink it black.

I stir mine with an old wooden chopstick we had lying around–it used to be a tan color, but now it is a deep chocolate-coffee color–and then I stir the chocolate in hers.

It’s time to add the chocolaty espresso to hers, and to push down the filter on mine. I pour it into one of the two cups I normally use, and take hers and mine upstairs. I give the Redhead her coffee, set mine on the bedside table, then do my devotions.


There are few things in my life that involve this level of ritual. I am really good at flying by the seat of my pants, and most of the time that is how I take off and land. But making coffee is different.

One of the reasons for the ritual is that it is the first task of the day, performed while I am just barely conscious. Because the ritual changes very little, it is ingrained in my consciousness, and I don’t have to pay a lot of attention to what I am doing. There is the occasional morning when I pour orange juice in her cup instead of milk, but I usually catch that before I add the precious espresso.

The only other area in my life where I practice ritual to this level is worship. I lead two services at the church I serve, and while each service has its own distinct identity, the two services rarely vary from week to week, and the various is usually pretty predictable. First Sunday of the month is communion, third Sunday is our noisy offering, in the summers we don’t have a choir at one service, so there is no introit or anthem, but essentially it is all the same week after week.

You might think the highly predictable nature of our worship services would make them mundane, even boring but the opposite is true. Worship should be exciting, not because you have no idea what the pastor or worship leader is going to do next, but because you have no idea what God is going to do next. When the service careens from song to spoken word with no discernible rhyme or reason,  people spend more time trying to figure what the hell is happening and what will happen next rather than kicking back and listening for the voice of God.

Familiarity breeds capacity–the capacity to hear unexpected things.

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Ordinary Time


The last Sunday in May was Trinity Sunday, which means the next few months, from June until November, we will be in what the Church calls Ordinary Time.


I had a parishioner in Alaska who took great offense at the nomenclature. “No time is Ordinary,” she would remind every year about this time. “All time is God’s time.”


While I agreed with her on the last point I still think Ordinary Time is a great concept. When I was a kid I remember a story about a kingdom where the ruler decreed that everyone had to serve cake at every meal. At first it was wonderful, especially for the kids. But as time wore on it became less and less appealing, until finally everyone, including the kids, were sick of cake. “Not cake again!” they cried at every meal, like a child complaining about green beans or broccoli.


For me, Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, are like cake. But you can’t live off cake. C.S. Lewis said that while mountaintops are exciting, food is grown in the valleys. It is not how we respond to extraordinary situations that define us; it is how we respond to things on a day to day basis. Advent and Lenten devotions are great, but how we connect to God in the off times, the Ordinary Time is what really defines us as Christians.

The first Sunday’s text of Ordinary time is about how the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.  I’m not sure that was intentional, but it was providential. We need to recreate which leads to re-creating. The way we live our faith in ordinary times is important, because that determines how we will react in times of crisis, and also how deeply we can celebrate in times of joy.

So, enjoy Ordinary Time!


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Last week I preached on the Trinity. Here are a few things that did not fit into the sermons, but which I find interesting.


The early church fathers were very hesitant to use the words “persons” (in Greek, hypostaseis) of the Trinity.” While references to a Father, a Son and a Holy Spirit are all in the Bible, the word “Persons” are never used to refer to them.  Eventually Athanasius and others were willing to talk about the three persons, if coupled with the conviction that God was one essence or being (ousia in Greek). So the first essential formulation of the Trinity is that God is one Being (ousia) but three persons (hypostaseis).


d0a002c4ae259c522c7788a8dc1fd334While people use different things to represent the Trinity (Shamrocks being the most popular, as passed on by St. Patrick) formal theologians use a different symbol, as seen in the image here. This is an essential. The Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Son. The Father is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the Father. (Confused yet?) But all are God. This goes back to the idea that the Father, Son, and Spirit are unconfused.Trinity


When I preach on the Trinity, I usually talk about how the essence of God is best seen in relationships. God is not an impersonal “Force” a la Star Wars, but an interaction of relationships. Without relationships, God would not be the
Christian God we worship. This opens the door for our relationship with God.


Books on the Trinity

These Three Are One by David Cunningham

David is a fellow Duke graduate now a theology professor, but don’t let the last part scare you off this book. This is an excellent over view of the most important aspects of Trinitarian theology, and while it might take some work to get through some sections, for the most part the average lay person could read this without difficulty.


God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life by Catherine LaCugna

If you ever wondered why theologians pondered the unknowable essence of God, this is the book for you. LaCugna gives some practical implications of Trinitarian doctrine.


The Trinity by Philip Butin

Philip gives a good, basic historical overview of the Trinity, connecting ancient theology with current trends His basic idea is that the Trinity actually makes God more accessible to us, and helps us be more accessible to each other.

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Christian Math: 1+1+1=1



What does God Look Like?

There was a little boy in Sunday School class drawing a picture. The teacher asked him what he was drawing and he said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”

“Well,” the teacher said, “No one knows what God looks like.”

“They will when I’m finished,” said the boy.

I admire his optimism, but I have doubts about what he is trying to do–honest doubts based on people who had gone before him.

Twenty-seven centuries ago, the prophet Isaiah enters the Temple in Jerusalem. It is dark in the anteroom. Candle light flickers on the stone walls. The air smells of incense, coal from the grate that heats the room, and blood from the sacrifice of animals. It is dark and dank, but for Isaiah it is also a place of refuge. King Uzziah is dead, and with his death came the end of an era. He had reigned for 52 years, and had provided stability for the people. However toward the end of his reign storm clouds had arisen in the North. Tiglath-Pileser III had become king of Assyria, and he was making motions of taking over the smaller kingdoms around him, among which was Judah.

The future of Jerusalem was uncertain, precarious even. The uneasy alliance they had forged with their much larger neighbors to the north and to the east was starting to unravel.

And in the temple, Isaiah saw the Lord.

In this passage, Isaiah gives us an…interesting description of the seraphs who were attending God–six wings cover various parts of their body, but he doesn’t even try to tell us what God looks like. All we know is that he saw God as if sitting on a throne, and whatever he was wearing filled that enormous room.

We jump ahead around 700 years, and we find Nicodemus coming to Jesus.  He has some questions for him. Nicodemus has come to Jesus, at night, which is probably significant, not because Nicodemus is afraid to be seen with Jesus (he was after all a very influential man), but because night is a symbol of the darkness in his head and heart as he tries to figure out how God and Jesus are connected.  He knows somehow that Jesus is closely tied to God (“we know that you are a teacher who has come from God” he says) but that is about as far as he can get. Jesus tells Nicodemus about God and the Holy Spirit, but what he says ends up puzzling this very learned rabbi. All the talk of being born from above or born again, and spirits blowing in the wind, and most radically, a God who loves the world and who does not judge people–a God who saves people–only leaves Nicodemus more confused than when he first came to Jesus.

Nicodemus can see Jesus, the man standing before him, but he can’t see who Jesus really is.


The Trinity

Last week, you may remember, was Pentecost, and we had a description of the what happened when the Holy Spirit came down on the early disciples. We did not get a description of the Holy Spirit however. What we saw was what the disciples looked like when the Holy Spirit came down on them.

One theme that occurs time and time again the Bible is the impossibility of seeing God. Not just seeing God–the impossibility of containing God within our own heads and hearts. No matter how big our heads and hearts, God is bigger, and when we think we have God down, when we think we know all we need to know about God, when we think we have a handle on God, that is exactly the moment when we have lost God.

Today is Trinity Sunday. If there is any day in the Christian calendar that reminds us of the mystery of God, it is this day. The doctrine of the Trinity is, if not the most confusing, the most convoluted of doctrines. We believe in One God, not Three, but this one God has three persons. And the deeper you get into it, the more confusing it becomes. For example you may think that the Trinity is like, God the Father in the Old Testament, Jesus, God the son in the Gospels and God the Holy Spirit from the time of Jesus on, but the good people who have the Trinity condemned that idea as a heresy. You may want to split it out into different job descriptions, like we do in the alternative to the Doxology–God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sustainer, but…once again the people who came up with it said, “No, no, no! Heresy!”

I like the clover analogy best. One plant, three leaves. Other people like the analogy of the orange; peel, fruit, and seeds. Some people talk about the nature  of H2O, ice, water, steam. Over the years there have been countless attempts to explain the Trinity in a way people can understand, but almost every attempt to explain the Trinity ends up with some one shouting, “heresy!”

So, why bother? Why do we hang on this confusing, impossible and seemingly outdated doctrine? Why does it get its own Sunday? Why do I have to preach on this every single year?


Why a Trinity?

Well, for one reason, it is the best explanation we have for the three types of appearances of God in the Bible. Jesus prays to someone he calls the Father, and then tells the disciples that they will receive power when someone called the Holy Spirit drops in on them. Paul says that Jesus was involved in creation, and that the Holy Spirit is what keeps us alive. In the Old Testament the Spirit comes down on prophets and kings, and and often God self-refers as “We.” These are just a few of the places that led the early church fathers to the doctrine of the Trinity.

All in all, it was their way of preserving the presence of the the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit found in the Bible while not losing the idea of there being only one God. In Christian math, 1+1+1=1

I admit, it makes no rational sense. This is not something you could ever prove with any certainty. And in reality, the Trinity itself is essentially a metaphor for the complexity of God. It serves to remind us that we can never fully “get the God thing down pat.”


Unknowing God

I said earlier that people are not able to describe God. That does not mean we can’t say anything about God, but it does mean that whatever we say is, at best, provisional. Anything we say that limits God also limits our understanding of God. Your God is only as big as your imagination–and your love.

The author of the Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual guide from the 14th century says that we have two ways of experiencing God–through our knowledge and through our love. “To the first, to the intellect,” he says, “God who made us is forever unknowable, but to the second, to love, God is completely knowable by every individual.” This echos a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:  “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.”

Our minds will only take us so far into the mysteries of God, and the Trinity is forceful reminder of just how soon we get caught up in the intricacies of the Divine nature. We should not be surprised that our overall knowledge of God is limited. We have a hard time getting to know each other. James B. Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company and namesake of Duke University and the Duke Power electrical utility, both found founded by his son Buck, once said there were three things he did not understand–Electricity, the Trinity, and his son Buck. Now having said that, he was the owner of an electricity company, the founder of Trinity College at Duke University, and the father of Buck, whom he loved.

We have a hard time knowing things, and some things are far beyond our grasp, but we can always love. It is not my aim to understand my wife and children as much as it is to love them. Understanding without love is cold and clinical. Understanding without love turns people into patients or clients. Love makes them human beings in our eyes.

Wendell Berry said, in a wedding sermon, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed.” Well the Trinity certainly is a baffler. It is a mystery. Look to me for guidance here and I cannot explain it. I can give metaphors and analogies, some of which are helpful, but how can 1+1+1=1? I don’t know. I don’t know.

Embracing the Mystery

I cannot explain it. I can only encourage you to embrace the mystery with awe. When we hear about the Trinity, when we say the words, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” or, as my colleague Dr. David Cunningham suggests, “Source, Wellspring and Living Water,”  we are saying something beyond our rational understanding, but not beyond our loving understanding. When we think of the Trinity we think of a God who is infinite in complexity, so far beyond our understanding that we can only come with approximations about who God is.

Trying to understand God is like trying to understand our place in the universe. In 1995 a scientist pointed the Hubble Telescope to a blank region of space and let it record for 100 hours. As far as anyone could see, it was a totally deserted area. What they found was amazing.  The “nothing” that the telescope was pointing at was stuffed with galaxies. Not just stars and planets, but whole galaxies. 10,000 galaxies in what was previously thought to be a blank region of space. Each galaxy was between 100,000 and 1.5 million light years across. That means it is so large it would take a beam of light 1.5 million years to get from one side to the other. But from our perspective, it is too small for us to see with the naked eye.

And God is bigger than that. It’s at this point that all attempts at explaining must stop; this is where prayer begins.

          Heavenly Father, Gracious Son, Powerful Holy Spirit,

Words cannot express, nor thoughts contain

The awesome mystery of your love’s domain.

Echoing the prayer of Patrick the Saint,

Who gave love to you and others without restraint,

We rise today through the strength of the Trinity,

The Three in One, the One as Three.

And through the mystery we pray

That we might be One with Thee today.




Isaiah 6:1-8

1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”


John 3:1-17


1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?


11″Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.


16″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.


17″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.”


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