Year A, Trinity Sunday
June 15, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
I so appreciate Trinity Sunday. It is one of the few Sundays in the church year where it is actually acceptable to unapologetically break out systematic theology. Systematic theology is, in the words of the almighty Wikipedia “the branch of theology that formulates an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christian faith and beliefs.” We are called upon to practice, pray and think with rigor and precision; we must ponder challenging, even triggering pronouncements like the Creeds, that as heady as they might be, have real impact on the life and practice of the Church. Exciting stuff!
I appreciate Trinity Sunday most because it is a clear call for us to engage in the central and abiding mystery of the Holy catholic Church: The nature of God’s self. That’s half the reason I get up each morning, thinking about God. The “utter depravity” of Calvin, “absolute dependence” of Schleiermacher, von Balthasar’s “Theo-Drama” and Kaufman’s “serendipitous creativity.” It can be very exciting, and, when done well, can really have a profound impact on how we encounter God in Christ in our own lives and how we understand the workings of the world. My systematics professor is the person I most credit with my re-conversion to Christianity and finding my vocation as an Anglican priest. Read Lewis’ Surprised By Joy or Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and see how theology can save; some of us at least. And then we have a week like we had this week, and I am just dismayed.
Troutdale, Oregon became the 74th school shooting in the 19 months since the horror at Newtown. 74! Eugene/Springfield has intimate knowledge of the horror of such violence. And in the 16 years since the Thurston tragedy, access to military style weapons like the kind I trained with in the Marine Corps, has uniformly increased across the country. Big guns are big business. Most school shootings have involved military-grade weapons that were procured legally by the shooters, or by taking weapons from their own homes that family members failed to safeguard. Since Newtown more laws have been passed limiting restrictions on than have been passed limited access to such weapons that have no place in civilian hands to begin with. Our legal framework has failed. And I am not speaking as some knee-jerk, liberal anti-gun activist. We live on an active ranch in Oregon: we have guns. A gun is a required tool in our context to harvest livestock, put down an injured animal, or to address encroaching predators like fox, coyote and cougar. Putting an individual’s “right” to own incredibly dangerous things, like military weapons, for sport or recreation or sense of security over the safety of the whole is myopic, selfish and ridiculous. And the line about “good guys with guns” was disproven in the Las Vegas shootings last week. Like the President pointed out, in an uncharacteristically honest critique of our culture, this kind of thing doesn’t happen in other developed countries, and when it does, it is an anomaly and action to reform access to weapons is swift, like in Australia after the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996. (and Australia is no liberal paradise). What is wrong with us? What are we so scared of?
And then as of the writing of this sermon, forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were on the outskirts of Baghdad. They control ¼ of the country now, captured heavy weapons we left for the Iraqi army, emptied the banks of hundreds of millions of dollars and now control major oil and electrical grid infrastructure. Falujah, site of the heaviest US fighting since Viet Nam fell to ISIL back in January. This is not a flash in the pan moment, the landscape has changed. For 13 years we fought an ill-conceived war entered into on absolutely false pretenses, a war justified by lies that everyone knows and no one admits to. And with the events of this week, even the illusion of any actual gains in the region due to our imperial incursion are evaporating as quickly as a puddle in that desert in June. I was involved in street protests as the 2nd Gulf War ramped up and even the most dramatic predictions by peace activists have turned out to be conservative: it is much worse than any of us ever dreamed. What is wrong with us? What are we so scared of?
It is very simple, really: there is a gulf between how we want the world to be and how it is. It is another kernel of original sin: our inability to apprehend the true nature of things, of how things truly are, or to get to the base of it, our inability to relate to God in God’s self. Right from Genesis chapter 2, when Adam and Eve realized that they were naked. Yes, they were naked. That wasn’t the problem: the problem was having a problem with being naked; the problem was being ashamed of, in disagreement, in conflict with the way things actually are. Conflict between how we want things to be and how they actually are is tragically definitional to us humans, from our most basic, personal, individual encounter with the world, to our collective relationships, those we have as defined by our religion or nation or nation-state.
We want everyone to have perfect freedom, freedom to do whatever they want so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others: that is the desire. The actuality: too many weapons in circulation in our current cultural milieu make Columbines and Aurora’s and Sandy Hooks apparently inevitable. It shouldn’t be true, we don’t want it to be true, but it has happened 74 times in 19 months. At what cost do we defend how we want it to be? We need to deal with the reality that is and NOT the one we want.
We want to continue to live as we do, drive as much as we want, eat as much of whatever we want to eat, recreate as lavishly as we want to. That is what we want; that is not how it is. It is a house of cards, a shell game of finite resources. Our entire economy is utterly dependent upon low cost raw materials (most importantly oil), cheap labor, and unregulated markets, all things maintained by the age-old paradigm of Empire. That is exactly what Rome was after. We invaded Iraq as clumsy retribution for the humiliating attack on 9/11 AND to preserve our resource intensive life-style; this is the epitome of Imperial thinking. Our desire is that here, we keep living as we have been, and the idealistic, gratuitous face of empire preaches that we can bring our standard of living to everyone. That’s the desire, that’s how we want it to be. In actuality, there is not enough in this world for everyone to live as we do: that is an indisputable fact.
There is a difference between how we want the world to be and how it actually is. Who in your own life is completely satisfied with everything? How you feel about yourself, your body, your work, your financial situation, your relationship with your spouse or family or friends… are all of these categories exactly how you want them to be? No; of course not. Unless you have a singularly blessed life, are a true spiritual adept or have dismally low expectations, how our individual lives are and how we would have them be if we had our druthers don’t match up. But that there is the point: it isn’t up to us.
We don’t have control over anything but our reactions. That is a fundamental truth about human existence and is a central message of Jesus Christ. We are not in control. The vast majority of problems that we encounter individually and collectively are due to our inability and unwillingness to accept that. So imagine if we thought we had the full story about God, that we knew what it was all about? That we made decisions, real permanent life and death decisions for ourselves, our children and communities and more dangerously, for people across the world based on what we think, on our opinion about the fundamental nature of being? A retired Army general recently said that the Iraqis just didn’t want it as much as we did. What, didn’t want the American Empire to thrive as much as we did? Didn’t want their country to be built in our image? Imagine that. I don’t think they did want it as much as we did.
Karl Barth was intensely suspicious about ability to understand ultimate truths because he lived through the Nazi reign of terror, a terror brought on because a few thought they knew how it actually was and imposed that on everyone they could. They didn’t have a corner on the truth; neither do we. It is not that we can’t handle the truth, it is that we can’t really know what real truth is and we certainly can’t be trusted to keep notions of truth and self-interest apart. That is why Jesus preaches most urgently “Repent and believe! The kingdom of God is at hand!” We don’t have the full story. We don’t have control. Surrender. Empty yourself. Follow Jesus to God.
This is why the doctrine of the Trinity is so essential: it is illogical, irrational. True that and thanks be to God. It cannot be captured by logical, rational thought, contrary to the will of systematic theologians. That stanza from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.” that we started with captures that perfectly. “Our little systems have their day;/They have their day and cease to be/ They are but broken lights of thee,/And thou, O Lord, art more than they. Broken lights. Whispers on the wind. Still small voices. Niggles in the back of your brain. Fleeting inferences. Existential humility. A posture of gratitude. These are the fruits of worshiping our Triune God, a God simultaneously so intimate and so alien as to defy all reason, and inspire all love.
Our hubris is our downfall and history is littered with examples: Achilles. Pharaoh. Rome. Imperial Britian in 1947 India; the US in Viet Nam, 1975; Troutdale and Mosul on Monday. But approaching those “broken lights of thee” with bowed heads and bended knees; putting our ears to the ground to hear the chatter of the dead and the yet to live; having faith in the fleeting lives and glimpses of goodness, beauty and holiness we encounter on our journeys, holding as ultimate a doctrine, a notion, a dream of God that defies human domestication, cooption and perversion; in these practices we have a chance to transcend our broken natures and find our salvation in the broken lights of a Triune God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. AMEN.