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Meditation for Memorial Day

A Theology Fit for a Picnic

Romans 5: 1b - 5

Proverbs 8: 23-31

It happens that in most churches across America, Memorial Day, a national holiday is celebrated within days of the Christian holiday of Trinity Sunday. The first great holiday weekend of summer, the time for picnics, parades, and early trips to the beach, happens to coincide with the commemoration of a religious holiday that focus our attention on one of the most difficult of Christian doctrines. What a coincidence. What a challenge for preachers to tie together these completely unrelated and in some ways contradictory themes. The Trinity being for most people one of the more complicated of doctrines -- obscure, abstract, and oh, so serious. And a three day holiday weekend with its parades and picnics being just the opposite -- concrete, right down to earth, and so much fun! Some might even be asking why on earth I would want to draw any connection at all between things that are obviously so dissimilar. Well, in a simple, declarative sentence, here's my point: If we could bring just some of the enjoyment associated with picnics into our theology, while at the same time recognizing that God is as much the provider of our picnics as of any of the other things that constitute our daily bread, then thinking about God would suddenly become a whole lot more fun, and even our moments of gaiety and pleasure would take on added moment and meaning. So let's spend just a few moments tying these two things that at first seem to be so far apart together. And let's see what progeny this unlikely marriage will produce. Let's take just a few minutes to ponder: a theology fit for a picnic.

First let's consider the Trinity. One of my colleagues vividly remembers the first time he became aware of just how difficult and obscure the doctrine of the Trinity can be. He writes -- "I remember as a teenager being in church and reciting the Athanasian Creed. (Yes, it was still said in those days, which gives you an idea of how old I must be!) We got to the bit which reads, 'The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.' The man sitting next to me muttered, too loudly for comfort, 'The whole damn thing incomprehensible!'"

Obviously there are many people who share that man's feeling! The mystery of the three in one and the one in three is sufficiently obscure and mysterious that many people simply put off thinking about it altogether. After all, when one comes home in the evening after a difficult day at the office, when the dinner needs cooking, and the kids are clamoring for help with their homework, then the last thing in the world you want to think about is the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Incomprehensible indeed!

All of us who are engaged in the ministry sooner or later come across the opinion that the Trinity is at least irrelevant, and perhaps even nonsensical. So why would we want to speak of God as Trinity at all. It seems so illogical to want to confuse the simple idea of one God with something as confusing as the three in one. It was no less important a figure in our history than Thomas Jefferson who wrote as follows: "When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding reared to mask from view the very simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught to us since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples." Many reading these words might agree completely; might even say, "that's just the way I feel too!"

So how can I respond to this powerful sentiment? Well, in the first place, it's important to keep in mind that the God who is revealed in the Bible, the God whom Jesus taught, the faith in which we have been nurtured, and the hope we have for the future of the world, really isn't all that simple. And when we set out to worship God, wouldn't it be prudent to insure that the God we are worshiping is actually the Creator of the Universe, the very God who inspired Jesus Christ, the same God who is active in our world today, in other words no less a God than the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of our lives and not some lesser substitute? Are we actually going to be better off trying to tailor God to our own need for something simple and easy -- rather than standing in awe before the actual God in whom we live and move and have our being? Even if having faith in God proves to be difficult and complicated at times, isn't it far preferable to worship and glorify the actual living God, than to come up with God Lite, simply because such a God may be a whole lot easier to understand. Or as Saint Augustine once wrote: "If you can understand it, it's not God."

In our lesson from St Paul's letter to the Romans the apostle speaks to a group of Christians who were only beginning to realize that being a Christian in this world is never simple or easy. Life, in other words, is not always a picnic. He spoke to a people who would probably experience some real sacrifice and suffering for their faith. Yet the passage opens with these words. "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand." So our passage begins with what appears to be a simple declarative sentence. "We have peace with God." And in this vein Paul continues: "We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God." But how quickly Paul moves on to things that are not so simple, or easy. "More than that," he continues, "More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings." Here suddenly we have one of those apparently contradictory marriages of two dissimilar things so typical of the Christian faith. Here Paul brings together the apparently contradictory circumstances of suffering and joy. "We rejoice in our suffering." How can this be? How can anyone find joy in the very state of mind which seems to be joy's very opposite, namely suffering. Well in a few short phrases Paul shows exactly how it is that these unlikely partners are in fact married together. "Knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit." Note that in Paul's mind one does not proceed directly from faith to joy. The route is circular and round about. The roadmap to real joy is anything but straightforward. "We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us." We rejoice in suffering in other words not because we are either sadistic or masochistic, we rejoice in suffering because of what it produces: namely, endurance, character and hope. And it does not produce these great qualities of soul in and of itself, but only because of the work that God is able to accomplish in and through our suffering.

Now it's interesting to note that this passage from Paul has been one of the cornerstones in the history of our church, this passage was part of the foundation upon which the theologians of the early church erected the scaffolding that we have come to describe as the doctrine of the Trinity. But even for Paul the Trinity was not so much a doctrine as it was a way of describing how it was that one could make the seemingly impossible movement from suffering to joy. And of course, even for Paul, this movement was not simple or easy. In fact, it was such a mysterious, paradoxical process, such a challenging and difficult thing to explain, that Paul just knew that it was a gift from God. And he resorted to a metaphor to describe what had happened in his own life -- it was like the love of God being "poured" into his own heart through the power of the "Holy Spirit."

So it was out of the complexity of human emotions and out of the mystery of human life that this concept of the Trinity began to unfold in the mind of the apostle Paul. At it's best this whole notion of the Trinity is like that. It has some power and some utility not because it's a good idea, but because it matches and expresses what we experience of God in our own lives.

Take our Old Testament lesson as a further example. This takes us back to a still earlier stage in the development of this idea of the Trinity. There in the book of Proverbs, the writer speaks of wisdom. Within the book of Proverbs, as in wisdom literature generally, wisdom is actually referred to as a person who keeps God company. Here is wisdom speaking, "Ages ago I was set up, at the very first, before the beginning of the earth. ...When God marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside the Lord, a creative companion, I was God's delight, rejoicing in the presence of God always, taking pleasure in the world which God was creating." (paraphrase, Proverbs 8:1ff) In fact, some scholars find in this passage, evidence for the proposition that the early Hebrews saw in God not a single person, but a multiplicity of persons. So that when the God of Genesis speaks at the very creation of the world, saying, "Let us make humanity is our image," the plural is important. The idea of God from the very beginning contained the idea of community - to think of God is not to think of some lonely being who dwells in the distant heavens. To think of God is to think of a being whose very nature contains the idea of relationships. God understands family, God appreciates the importance of community, God is family and God is community -- that's one of the things this passage from Proverbs and this notion of the Trinity is telling us.

sophiaThere's a wonderful book entitled: Great Women of the Bible in Art And Literature. It's an impressive coffee table book, illustrated with some of the great artwork of the world. On the cover is Michelangelo's painting from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- the one which is certainly familiar to each and everyone of us. God reaching down to create Adam with that pointed finger that is surely one of the most memorable images in the whole of western civilization. But as we remember the Michelangelo painting we normally forget one crucial detail pertinent to the writers theme -- women of the Bible. When he told the creation story as it is written in the book of Genesis, Michelangelo read these words -- "Let us make humanity in our image." -- and he seemed to be aware as well of our text from the book of Proverbs in which Lady Wisdom is God's companion, taking such delight in the work of creation. So that when you look at what Michelangelo has painted your eye goes first to the hand of God reaching down to give life to Adam -- but as you take a second look, you see right there behind the Creator, this lovely figure of Lady Wisdom, Sophia. Arm in arm with God at the moment of creation -- some people say that her face is the most beautiful female face that Michelangelo ever painted. And there clearly is delight in her eyes, the same joyful and even playful spirit described in the book of Proverbs as being so characteristic of wisdom. Just the sort of person one would want to have along on a picnic!

And furthermore in Michelangelo's painting alongside, God and Sophia, there are the children, those delightfulcherubs. These too seem to convey the playful, creative energy that is so much a part of the very being of God. So that in effect Michelangelo captured in paint what the writers of the Bible captured in words, that God was not an isolated Supreme Being. God is in fact something more akin to the host of a great, cosmic picnic. Surrounded by wisdom, and all those cherubs, and we realize that far from being more complicated and more complex than it needs to be, this notion of the Triune God only begins to capture the breadth and the depth of this great constellation of persons we refer to as God. In the end God is not only a Trinity, God is the sum total of what every person on earth has ever conceived of God, and so much more.

So that in the end what we find when we explore the biblical foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is something far less serious and far less sober than we have ever been taught concerning God the three in one. For me, this happy coincidence of having Trinity Sunday come up right in the middle of Memorial Day weekend allows me to emphasize certain aspects of God's nature that we are likely to ignore when we take our theology too seriously. Having such a holiday happen on the very day we commemorate the Trinity reminds me that simply getting together as a family for hamburgers and hot dogs, taking delight in each other and in the world God has created, these things are not just activities we pursue when the serious business of prayer and worship are over. In fact, the spirit of a good picnic echoes and reflects something of the Holy Spirit, in which we live and move and have our being. In fact, there is wisdom to be found in merely being playful; in gathering for something as ordinary and as simple as a holiday picnic, we are expressing something of God's own nature. And the very God who empowers us to find joy even in suffering, certainly empowers us as well to find the Spirit of God at work even in a picnic. Thanks be to the triune God for these and every good gift of life. Amen.

Romans 5: 1b - 5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Proverbs 8: 23-31
[23] Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
[24] When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
[25] Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
[26] before God made the earth with its fields,
or the first of the dust of the world.
[27] When God established the heavens, I was there,
when God drew a circle on the face of the deep,
[28] when God made firm the skies above,
when the fountains of the deep were established,
[29] when God assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress the divine command,
when God marked out the foundations of the earth,
[30] then I was beside the Lord, like someone skilled in the crafts;
and I was daily God's delight,
rejoicing before the Lord always,
[31] rejoicing in the inhabited world
and delighting in all the children of God.

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.