Trinity Sunday 2019: No Throne, No Heresy

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An Arian baptistery build by an Arian king, Theodoric the Great, in Ravenna, Italy 5th century

What do these books have in common:
“Harry Potter,”
Marc Gellman’s, “Does God Have A Big Toe?”
and Martin Buber’s, “I and Thou.”
Give up?
They are the books I used
in the last three years
to avoid preaching about the Trinity.
Once again this year,
I am not going to talk about
the very sexy idea of the Trinity –
at least not directly.

One core reason I am an Episcopalian
is that we claim to be a non-doctrinal church.

Now that doesn’t mean
we don’t have any doctrines, because we inherited
a whole bunch of doctrines from before
the English Church broke away from Rome,
and before the American Church
broke off from England.
What it does mean
is that we do not have any new doctrines
that we did not inherit from ancient history.

But most important to me,
what this means
is that we do not have anyone
or any group of anyone’s
with the authority to create,
measure, or demand
conformity to any doctrine.
You see, The Episcopal Church
in the United States
was created by recovering revolutionaries
who were allergic
to kings and princes and ecclesiastical authorities
telling them what to do and what to believe.

In fact, the last time The Episcopal Church
was forced to put someone on trial for heresy,
it was a retired assistant bishop from Iowa
who had ordained an openly homosexual man
to the deaconate.
It was 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago.
Ten conservative bishops
brought the charges
and ten other bishops
were empaneled to be judge and jury.
All the attention of that 1990’s trial and verdict
was focused on the denomination
dealing with homosexuality,
but ordaining GLBTQ folks as clergy
was not the most monumental result of that outcome.

In their final verdict,
the judges drew a distinction
between the “Core Doctrine” of the church
and “other matters of faith,
belief, practice and morals.”

They said that while there were church laws
meant to protect core doctrine,
matters of faith, belief, practice, and morals
were matters of conscience,
and no ecclesiastical body
had the authority to direct individual conscience.

Further, matters of faith, belief, practice,
and morals are subject to change
whereas the core doctrine is not.

Here is the pivotal part.
They defined core doctrine
as “the story of God’s relationship
to God’s people
found in the New Testament teaching
about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.”

That is interesting on a number of counts.
Basically, by implication they said
that in The Episcopal Church
there is no one
and no church body
with the authority to dictate
or define
or prescribe doctrines and beliefs
for matters beyond the New Testament.

Well, we also know that all church doctrine
is well outside of the New Testament
and that both the Old and New Testament
are profoundly and endlessly interpretive.

This is where the Trinity comes in –
it was the first major conflict within Christianity.

It surfaced as a struggle between
Athanasius and Arius,
and their fight was over the concept
of what would become the Trinity.
It was a fight that caused riots and vigilantism
and spread across the Mediterranean.
Was Jesus human?
Was he God?

Was he God appearing as human?
Was he an illusion?
Was he a human who then became God?
Was he created by God
or did he exist eternally with God?
It was a huge fight
with a cacophony of answers, and
with people willingly violent
in opposition to one another.
The argument was only resolved
by the coercive power of Roman imperial authority –
and even then, not completely.

As we likely all know, the emperor Constantine
called together the first council
of the newly imperialized religion
in Nicaea in the year 325.
It was held specifically in order
to resolve the fight between the opposing forces
of Athanasius and Arius.
At first Arius was rejected
and sent into exile,
and Athanasius was embraced and lionized.
But before too long,
Constantine rehabilitated Arius and his theology
while exiling Athanasius.
The Creed went through a variety of version
and is basically a committee document
that took fifty-five years to draft.
Athanasius’s version of the Trinity won out.

But Arianism didn’t go away.
It was the form of Christianity
that converted the Germanic tribes,
who in turn, when they sacked Rome,
re-established it for a while
within the Roman empire.
Even today not all Christians are Trinitarian,
and not even all Trinitarian in the same way.

That panel of bishops installed
to hear that 1990’s case,
basically said that there is no heresy
if there is no one or nothing
with the authority to determine orthodoxy.
(Thanks be to God).

Now you may be thinking
that this has nothing to do with you and me –
just some esoteric church history.
Not so.
You see, like all religions,
The Episcopal Church
has inherited some stinky doctrines
that are products of imperial power
trying to imprint its own image on Christianity.
In fact, all the doctrines we inherited
are an attempt to define
the edges of acceptability –
guarding the entrance, so to speak,
to keep heretics out.
But that simply won’t fly in the 21stcentury,
at least not in our culture.

As I keep pointing out,
we live in a scientific culture
and it permeates everything.
It doesn’t matter whether we hated science
in school and never took another class
after biology,
you and I have been formed
and shaped by scientific culture
as if we loved everything about it.

If we take it apart
and really look at it,
scientific culture
is utterly corrosive to religion,
and that is not all bad.

Let me give an easy example.
Let’s pretend we are scientists
whose research has turned up a new finding.
We are pretty doggone excited about our finding
because it could bring us a lot of recognition,
and research dollars,
as well as promotion.

So what is the first thing we do?
We submit our research and findings to scrutiny.
We publish it.
We lay it out in a completely transparent
and vulnerable way.
Because we don’t get any credit
until our peers and colleagues
have been able to verify our work independently.
If our findings are important,
they will be attacked and inspected and probed,
and attempted to be disproven
or proven.
That is a crucial element
in the culture of science.
Proving and disproving ideas –
manhandling them
and kicking them around like
a soccer ball.
That is part of the scientific method.

On the other hand,
in traditional religious culture
an authority makes a proclamation
and expects all followers to tow-the-line and agree,
and in both history and the present,
religious groups have been known to savagely
attack those who dare to question it.

In fact, if we question authoritative proclamations
about theological truths,
we may be subject to ejection,
rejection, even
eternal damnation.
Now aren’t you glad science doesn’t have
eternal damnation
in its quiver of weapons?

So whether it is the pope or the Dali Lama,
anyone who proclaims a truth
and expects the world to follow along
just looks foolish in the 21st century.
Religions keep demanding
that people fit in if they want to belong.
But the more that religious authorities
insist that followers adhere to their doctrines
and point to the authority of their own voice,
the more ridiculous they seem in our world.

So this is not just history,
it matters to how we become
and act like community today.

I want to end with an idea
beautifully voiced by Brene Brown
in her book, “The Gift of Imperfection.”
She talks about the difference
between “Fitting in and Belonging.”

She points out that when we are trying to fit in
we are adapting our behavior,
our ideas,
our way of thinking,
our customs and
worse of all, even our self-image
in order to be accepted.

But when we belong,
we belong because we are fully accepted
for who we are,
just as we are.
So, belonging is a healing experience –
because we are able to be ourselves
in our common brokenness,
with our personal insecurities
and pain showing.
As a result, we not only grow in self-esteem
we deepen in compassion.

But sadly, the traditional way
of becoming a member of a Church
is to fit in
by accepting and adhering to
pre-determined beliefs and behavior.
We have to believe the right things – orthodoxy –
and we have to act the right way
according to a morality pre-determined
by those in religious authority.
We have to love the right kind of people
and not the wrong kind of people,
determined once again,
by those in authority.
We have know how to think
and how to act
in order to fit in.
In short, we have to change
and become somebody else in order to belong.

Now every denomination and every congregation,
has unspoken requirements
based upon
and theology.
While we have broken down
many of those barriers
in many Episcopal congregations,
the very idea of “Church”
still smacks of fitting in rather than belonging.

I still struggle personally
after all these years,
with this tension between
fitting in and belonging in The Episcopal Church.
I accept the doctrines we have inherited,
like the idea of the Trinity.
I accept them as historic features of our tradition,
and I think of them as heirlooms
that have been passed onto us.

But they are not the lenses through which
I perceive and interpret the world or God.
Sure, they have some influence,
but not nearly as much as 21stcentury
theology and science.

Can I be myself in the Church
and acknowledge before
my brother and sister clergy
the full spectrum of what I do and do not believe,
and the very small wisdom
I can commend?
No, not really, not most of the time.
But it is important to acknowledge
that a big part of that is me:
as in a lack of courage to be myself.
When we are unsure of ourselves,
or when we harbor self-doubt
and wounded self-esteem,
our Church or family or friends
cannot make us whole.
All they can do
is welcome our whole selves in
and not require us
to be someone or something
different in order to belong.
So part of the work is always ours,
our own inner work
of self-acceptance.

Belonging begins with accepting ourselves,
truly accepting ourselves
as we are
and not as we think
we are supposed to be.

Then, when we get a little bit of that self-acceptance,
we can step out and take the risk
to see if we truly belong
to family, faith community,
or another part of the community.
Do we truly belong
or are we are just fitting in
by adjusting who and what we are
in order to be accepted?

It is not a one-and-done process, of course,
nor is it a finite place we get to.
It is an ongoing and moving target,
this sense of belonging
that comes from a combination
of self-acceptance
and hospitality.

Doctrines and proclamations
belong to an earlier era of Christianity.
What we know and acknowledge now
about Jesus is that he hosted a community
in which anyone belonged –
a radically open community for anyone
who could bring themselves to the table.

Jesus’ community
was not about fitting in
it was about belonging.
Jesus’ community was about coming to the table
as we are in the fullness of our personhood
and being embraced and loved.
Jesus’ message
was all about how we already belong –
about how we belonged
even before we could accept ourselves.
His community was all about demonstrating
that gracious sense of belonging.

So we have our work cut out for us,
you and me and Trinity Place.
We have the inner work of self-acceptance,
and we have the community work
of authentic hospitality.
They require courage,
and the gracious presence
of a power greater than ourselves.

I believe that we all share an ache to belong –
to be with people and in a place
in which there is absolutely no question
that we are fully embraced
with all of our woundedness,
and all of our weirdness,
and all of our peculiarities.

The only way we ever get to such a place,
is with a deep and courageous
that can bring us into belonging;
and then, to meet a community
that knows how to extend authentic hospitality.

I pray that is who we are.