When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Father George has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theology is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise. Back when I was a curate getting the Trinity Sunday assignment, my rector encouraged me with the sunny observation that, listening to a sermon in almost any church on Trinity Sunday, one could be practically guaranteed to hear heresy.
As I started preparing to preach on this Trinity Sunday, however, I thought, “I have an out, a handy escape hatch” because today is not only the church’s feast of the one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, it is also the secular, some say “Hallmark,” holiday of Father’s Day. So, I thought, “I’ll talk about Father’s Day and if the Trinity decides to show up, well … that’ll be fine.”
Lenten Journal, Day 21
God, I’m depressed. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
Going through Lent without the regular support of a faith community while also recovering from major orthopedic surgery and observing the state of American politics and the state of American Christianity really has me in a blue funk and I can feel the “black dog” prowling around in the fog. It’s too much. Maybe this retirement thing, or the surgery, or both were bad decisions. “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
I’m pretty certain that checking the New York Times and the Washington Post, Facebook and Twitter is occasionally a bad idea, maybe frequently a bad idea.
Children, as those of us who have had or who have been children know, grow in their ability to communicate. Vocabularies grow. Grammars develop. They move from simple one- or two-syllable concepts – such as “Mama” or “Dada” or “NO!” – to more complex ideas.
When my niece was a toddler, she put together two concepts – negativity and certainty – in a way that was confusing to some adults. When asked if she would like to have something, say a food, she would answer, “Not sure.” If she had understood sentence structure or the concept of adverbs, she would have said, “Surely not!” But she didn’t yet understand those things: she understood negativity – “not” – and certainty – “sure” – and put them together in a way that made since to her.
Not to her grandmother, however. My poor mother never did get it that “Not sure” didn’t mean that my niece was undecided, so she would try to convince the girl that liver or broccoli or whatever was something she should try. But “Not sure” did not mean indecisiveness; it meant quite the opposite. “Not sure” meant “Dig-in-the-heels screaming-fit absolutely not; don’t try to change my mind.”
Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.” They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times!
But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.
For recreational reading these days, I’m into a novel entitled Winter of the Gods. The premise is that the ancient gods of Greece are still with us, immortal but relatively powerless beings blending into the human world around them. The story is set in current-day New York City where the goddess Artemis, mistress of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo, lives and works as a private detective. As the novel opens, Selene (as Artemis is called) and her partner Theo, a professor of classics at Columbia University, are consulting with the NYPD about a bizarre murder. What they know, and the police don’t, is that the victim is Hades, god of the underworld.
This is the first death of an immortal god in millennia and the rest of the gods are thrown into turmoil. They have to join forces and work together to solve the murder before another one of them killed. This is difficult because if the Greek gods are nothing else they are a dysfunctional family. After all, they are all descended from Kronos, the divine son of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth. Kronos overthrew his parents and ruled during the mythological Golden Age. He married his sister Rhea and fathered several children, but prevented strife by eating then as soon as they were born. Eventually, Rhea grew tired of this and tricked Kronos into not devouring Zeus, who overthrew Kronos and cut open his father’s belly and freed his brothers and sisters.
As a theologian and a preacher, I am very glad I don’t have that mythology to deal with on a weekly basis! Finding something good to preach based on the stories of that dysfunctional family would be a task I don’t think I’m up to.
Some of you may have heard of Brooks’s law, which has to do with the time it takes to complete a software project. It’s similar to the general law of diminishing returns in economics. Professor Fred Brooks of the University of North Carolina first proposed the law in 1975; it holds that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” Each additional worker must be trained and adding more workers increases the need for intercommunication between them so that, at some predictable point, the efficacy of adding more members to a task group is cancelled and doing so lengthens, rather than shortens, the schedule.
I didn’t know about Professor Brooks and his law until I started researching this sermon, and I only learned about it because in the early pages of his book he cites the Anglican theologian Dorothy Sayers and her theology of the Trinity. I will come back to Ms. Sayers and her helpful analogy for the Trinity, and later I’ll return to Brooks’s law, but first I want to share with you some of the metaphors for the Trinity, that peculiar understanding of God that we Christians hold and that we focus on each year on this, the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost.