Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Ordinary 14 Yr B: Beware: tall poppy syndrome

Sermon-in-potentia for Sunday 5th July, focusing on Mark 6:1-13
Consider the poppies of the field …

Their seeds stir beneath the wasted soil,
Moving, reaching upwards, breaking out and rising
Rising towards the sun.
Consider the poppies of the field,
scattered red amidst the swaying, golden barley,
Tall, red, bold: prophets -
Singing songs of praise to the Holy One.
Tall poppies. 

It was one of those amazing purple-golden hazy late summer evenings. I was on the bus, taking the very winding way home… and coming around a corner, a field filled with gently rippling barley – more shimmering gold on that already golden evening… and scattered throughout, scarlet splashes – patches of glorious red poppies. Breathtaking. The landscape like a prophet telling forth God’s wonders. The bus stopped a moment to let me bask in the beauty of it all – well, to pick up a couple of passengers, but why let facts stand in the why of a nice story?! We drove on. The golden barley and the red poppies fell away from sight. I eventually got home… still in a bit of a wonder about the interplay of colour and landscape and light and...sense of connection and yet mystery of God. One of those ‘gosh’ moments –a ‘numinous’ moment.... It was years ago, and the picture stays with me still.

Tall poppies. One of those terms we Aussies use to describe people who have been extremely successful in some way: fame, fortune or however success might be measured at any particular moment. Tall poppies: people outstanding in their field, as it were. Every now and then, someone seems to come from out of nowhere – from humble beginnings, or difficult background – they have a particular talent or idea, almost the air of the prophet about them – though not always proclaiming the glory of God… people get wind of the story and it takes off. The ‘underdog’ is cheered on… until, having succeeded… somehow, the crowds say: ‘enough. You’re getting too big for your boots. Who do you think you are, anyway? We knew you when you were just a snotty-nosed kid running about in nappies.’

Tall poppies. One thing common to both the poppies in the field and the poppies who are people… is that they’re torn down. The poppies are destroyed in the harvest by the farmers, and the other poppies are destroyed – knocked back down to size by a harvest of … jealousy or incredulity or cynicism… I’m not a psychologist and I’ve never really got my head around why people actually do this anyway: but it’s a strange human phenomenon, this so-called ‘tall poppy syndrome’. But one sad element arising from it can be found in a comment made to me a long while back when I was working for a family caring for two young teenage girls: they were great – fun, pretty, kind and clever but…. One of them was talking about her school work: she said she knew she could do better, a lot better in fact, but did what she needed to in order to be in the middle – she didn’t want to be top of the class: she didn’t want to ‘stand out’ - that way led to bullying. …If you stand out, expect rejection.

Tall poppies. ‘Tall poppy syndrome’. Jesus knew what it was to be a tall poppy – to be different, to be acclaimed … to be rejected. In our passage from the gospel of Mark this morning, we get a glimpse of tall poppy syndrome unfolding in Nazareth, where Jesus and the disciples have arrived. Nazareth: Jesus’ hometown. He is once again amongst family, friends – a warm, safe space of welcome. The homecoming of the local boy ‘done good’. Except that this homecoming is not as welcoming, not as warm, and perhaps not even as safe a space as Jesus and the disciples may have wished for.
As seemed to be his usual practice, Jesus went into the synagogue on the sabbath, and he began to teach. The crowd – people who had grown up with him, people who had known him all his life… were astonished. You can almost see them looking at Jesus and then at each other, eyes slightly popping out of their sockets in surprise. Wow! Gosh! Now there’s a thing! And then the questions begin… But how? But why?... But… hang on just a darned minute! …And then the statements, the labels, the rationalisations… but this is Mary’s kid – yeah – y’know, Mary’s kid – not sure about Joseph, y’know what I mean? Who does he think he is, anyway? Well, I reckon he has some cheek to stand up there and tell us how we should live our lives… ha… he can talk – instead of wandering about the countryside he should be at home taking his family responsibilities seriously. Illegitimate… Irresponsible…
Seemingly, there was a lot of offended muttering, amidst the sound of feathers being well and truly ruffled.

And Jesus looked at them, and he, in turn was astonished… astonished at their unbelief… and spoke of prophets not being recognised, not being honoured in their home town and that it had ever been that way in Israel’s history. If you stand out, expect rejection…
And, taking the disciples, he quietly wandered off to other villages teaching wherever he went. And then sent the disciples out in pairs… they were to stick their heads above the parapet… they were to talk about the good news of the message of God… and in doing so, to stand out and to be rejected… like tall poppies.

Tall poppies. Prophets – proclaimers …and I don’t mean the Scottish band of that name! People with a message… Tall poppies make us uncomfortable … Down through the ages prophets have had a bit of a reputation for being a bit odd, a bit prickly, a bit challenging.
And the message of Jesus was challenging: so challenging that the folks in Nazareth took offence – my Greek is pretty awful, but the work here for offence is skandalon – from where we get our English word ‘scandal’. Jesus literally scandalised them with his message… which was to go out and proclaim the reign of God… regardless of cost to self, regardless of the bonds of family ties… to live the message by engaging in healings and exorcisms, and by setting the oppressed free. To be bearers of the good news of the breaking in of God’s reign both in word and deed. To be and bear good news for the poor even if it meant leaving all you’d ever known in order to proclaim it. (1)

Jesus was challenging the very structure of society, and community, and family. Saying uncomfortable things to those who thought of themselves as chosen, as special… who looked out at the world and perhaps felt they were a cut above the rest, a little bit better, and who because of that, perhaps imagined God’s love being available only to … them. And Jesus was turning that idea on its head. He was scandalising them by saying God’s love went beyond their boundaries – that they couldn’t ring-fence God in and keep God for themselves. And in response, society, community, and even family rejected the message. It was just too much.
And the message of Jesus is still challenging… and still scandalous… because the message of the breaking in of God’s reign is one which overturns the whole way society currently functions… the scandal of the message is that it proclaims the breaking down of systemic structures of power that reek and creak and which are rotten to the core… it is a message of liberation of the oppressed… it is the message that there is another, better way: it is the message of love – God’s love for the world and humanity; our love for our neighbour… and for ourselves – which goes beyond, which goes deeper even than the way we understand family ties... in one sense, it enlarges family to include the whole of humanity and creation… The scandal of the message is about love – love that doesn’t create a fence in order to keep people out… but love that breaks down the fence… a radically inclusive love which liberates all of us... taking us beyond our boundaries and way of being. And it’s the message, as Jesus’ followers, that we are to proclaim… and in doing so, to expect rejection… to be cut down, like tall poppies.

Tall poppies: we come back, full circle… who are the prophets in our midst, I wonder? I suspect that Prophets come in many shapes and sizes and ages… Do we listen to the message? And does the message offend us – scandalise us? When we reject certain people… on the grounds of colour or age or gender or orientation… does that rejection – that exclusion from the community of God’s people – become our version of not honouring folk as potential prophets in our midst? Do we ring-fence God’s love to keep God for ourselves… to keep God in and everyone who we don’t like… out? And if we do so, do we end up closing ourselves off from new thoughts, ideas, ways of doing things… which might open us and the community we are a part of to new and exciting possibilities?

Tall poppies… poppies are usually associated with Remembrance Sunday… Maybe though, poppies in the context of our bible text this morning provide us with another kind of remembering: poppies seem to pop up all over the place – whether in golden barley fields, or in cracks in the pavements, or in the Botanics… perhaps, when we wander past a patch of poppies they might also serve to remind us to honour the prophets who are in our midst… and not cut them down… and to keep open to the scandal of God’s big love – which no amount of ring-fencing can contain.

Consider the poppies of the field …
Their seeds stir beneath the wasted soil,
Moving, reaching upwards, breaking out and rising
Rising towards the sun.
Consider the poppies of the field,
scattered red amidst the swaying, golden barley,
Tall, red, bold: prophets -
Singing songs of praise to the Holy One. Amen



(1) Bill Loader - http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost5.htm

Sunday, 28 June 2009

jump on in and mind the crocodiles



Locum begins tomorrow.

Keys and church mobile duly handed over.

Funeral already boo
ked in for Thursday and visiting next of kin tomorrow.
Another f
uneral looming.
Did I really want a gentle easing in?
Nothing like jumping out of the starting blocks with a 'bang'!
Guess I've often
found the best learning curves are often those where you've just had to jump in and swim like fury.
Actually, come to think of it, that the way I did learn to swim when I was a kid - I just jumped in.
Hmmm, the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

Dissertation countdown:
seven weeks to go.

Just ...
keep...
breathing.
And avoid bungee jumping onto crocodiles.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

'leafy suburbs' and lections

On Friday, 12.30pm, a small rite will take place: ceremonial handing over of church keys and church phone. I start locum in 'leafy parish in the burgh' on Monday - poor blighters. Looking forward to it... although I do hope the Minister has a church to come back to.
Not so sure I'm looking forward to trying to finish my Master's diss at the same time however, but nothing like a wee challenge!

The first lesson already learned: double-check the lectionary readings when you decide to go slightly 'off' lections. Having drafted my worship planner for 2 months, I realised there were several Sundays around food and bread and decided to leap off lection for the 19th. Was aiming to use the omitted bit from Mark for that Sunday, which was Jesus walking on water. Sermon title and outline for worship sorted. Except the following Sunday, I shall not be conducting worship as it's an ordination anniversary celebration. Lovely celebrating anniversary minister will be using the lections of course... including John... which is the story of Jesus walking on water. Ahhhhh.
Note to self, remember to check the small details!
Other note to self, stick with the allotted lections!
It reminds me a wee bit of the church noticeboard advertising Sunday services:
Sunday morning sermon - 'Jesus walks on water'
Sunday evening sermon - 'Looking for Jesus'

I shall be looking for Jesus on the 19th, but probably not near any water....

Friday, 19 June 2009

Friday Five... Life is a verb

This week's Friday challenge from RevGalBlogPals site : Life is a verb...
From the book of that name.

1. What awakens you to the present moment?
The dulcet tones of Sarah Kennedy on Radio 2, Mon- Fri. The not-as-dulcet tones of DIY from my upstairs neighbour on weekends - although he is wonderful, I hasten to add!!

2. What are 5 things you see out your window right now?
I'm in the research lab, at my desk and the window to the outside world is never, ever cleaned by the university. 5 things perhaps a wee bit ambitious:

sunlight hitting the dust on the window;
styrofoam coffee cup on the window sill;
a smoking, mobile-phone using postgrad - owner of said coffee cup;
more smokers - kitchen staff from the Witchery across the road who use the wynd as a place for fag-breaks;
a tour bus on it's way back down the Royal Mile from having deposited tourists at the Castle [lab is tucked out of site about 50 yards from the Castle entrance];

Hmmm, it's not really inspiring, is it? We do get tour groups coming into the wynd to be told a story about the Covenanters and some random woman sings 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross' - this at about 3pm. It is rather odd to see tourists so excitedly taking photos in what is, essentially a dead end, small car park filled with cigarette butts....

3. Which verbs describe your experience of God? forget, remember, wonder, listen, chat, puzzle, [repeat cycle ad nauseum]

4.
From the book on p. 197:
Who were you when you were 13? Where did that kid go?
Grotty but nice junior high school kid who danced in her bedroom to ABBA and played copious amounts of tennis. She's in there somewhere, having travelled from Australia to Scotland with me... and ABBA is still occasionally danced to!

5.
From the book on p. 88:
If your work were the answer to a question, what would the question be?
What processes of restitution and reconcilation are found in Knox's Order of Excommunication, 1569, and am I losing the will to live and even care?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Ordinary 12 Yr B: sermon - 'Stormy Weather' - Mark 4: 35-41

Several summers ago, the Times newspaper carried the following story:
A young girl who was blown out to sea on a set of inflatable teeth was rescued by a man on an inflatable lobster. A coastguard spokesman commented 'this sort of thing is all too common.'
Given the gospel reading, this story conjured up some very odd images in my mind as I contemplated the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea...watching all sorts of odd inflatable objects - teeth and lobsters included - pass them by.

I used to sail a lot when I lived in Australia, but thankfully never encountered the kind of storm that the disciples were hit with when crossing the Sea of Galilee. And what is really striking in the story is that these were tough men, several of whom were experienced sailors, fishermen who made their living from the sea. And they were terrified... which just emphasises the absolute severity of the storm that they were faced with.
The other striking thing about the story?
In the midst of the raging storm, the howling gale, the lashing of the waves and the boat being thrown about like a wee matchbox...
is that at the other end of the boat Jesus is sound asleep, totally oblivious to what's going on. While physically he's there with them, in every way that counts it seems that he's not.

It had all been so very different just hours earlier. Jesus and the disciples had been surrounded by eager crowds - so many in fact that Jesus had hopped in the boat and was teaching from it. He told them parables: stories about a sower sowing seed, lamps and bushels, mustard seeds. The crowd was receptive, it had been a good day and as day had crept into evening, he said to the disciples 'let's cross over to the other side.' They sailed away from the shore, from the crowds, and, as Jesus - exhausted from his teaching, exhausted from the crowd's demands - sailed into the land of Nod, the boat sailed into a sudden and unexpected storm.

Within the space of a few hours, it felt as if the disciples' world had turned upside-down. They had been happily chuntering along, things had been going along nicely, smoothly and now... quite literally, they felt swamped and all at sea and scared.
And so, they woke Jesus up... Jesus who had managed to sleep so soundly in the midst of the turmoil that it made the disciples feel even more afraid and abandoned and alone.
They woke him up, and you can almost hear them yelling at him in their fear:
'Teacher, don't you care? Don't you care that we're about to die?!'

They'd done everything that they knew how to do to weather the storm. They were at the end of the resources; at the end of their rope. They'd learned, as they had walked with Jesus, that he had extraordinary powers and abilities. They'd seen his heart of caring compassion. And here, on what felt like the worst night of their lives, they looked to the person they exptected to help them...
and Jesus was sound asleep.
'Don't you care that we're about to die?'

Sometimes in our own lives we find ourselves chuntering on quite happily in the normal, cheery, humdrum routine of our lives. And then something out of the ordinary happens that completely shakes our very lives to their foundations:
the job we thought secure disappears because of the credit crunch;
a sudden illness occurs;
a relationship or friendship founders through a misunderstanding, or because of some ill-judged words;
we grieve the death of someone we love....
So many unexpected things that come like storms in our lives, creating chaos, causing confusion... and like the disciples we can feel scared, and abandoned, and alone... as if Jesus is asleep at the back of the boat, while we're in turmoil.
And in the same way that the disciples did, we find ourselves almost yelling:
'don't you care Lord?'
and we might add:
'are you so indifferent to all this mess, this stress, this pain, that you can sleep right through it?'

And yet, while the disciples felt - and while we might feel abandoned by God's seeming indifference...
we ... are... not.
We cry out 'don't you care, Lord?' and perhaps find the answer to our question, our heart's cry as we remember parables:
the parable of the mustard seed and resting in the shelter of God;
the parable of the sower and God's abundant, extravagant love...
We're reminded that God loves us beyond our wildest imaginings, that God's love is everywhere, ever-present - even in the midst of the worst of storms.
And... it's absolutely okay to cry out to God - and even shake our fist.
Like the disciples, when we cry out to God, we're doing exactly the right thing. In fact, God invites us to cry out:
we're told to ask, to seek, to knock... to pound on the door of heaven.

Paradoxically, even though Jesus rebukes the disciples for lack of faith, the very act of crying out demonstrates that somewhere, deep in the core of those who cry out is enough faith to know that they - that we - will be listened to.
I wonder if underlying the rebuke is more a question of:
'why didn't you ask me first?'
'why did you try to do everything you could under your own strength... and only when everything else had failed, call me? Last...!'
You can almost see the disciples as the waves break in and the storm is furious. They do the one thing that is left to do.
They'd done everything else...
they finally get Jesus involved - they cry out.

And we cry out... and sometimes I wonder if that sense of abandonment by God is more due to our own habit of just getting on with things, and forgetting to ask God in the first place... not quite seeing that God's in the boat?
As the disciples, and as we find ourselves in the places of storm and tempest we cry out to God: 'don't you care, Lord?'
And as we do, we find out that the God who we thought was absent, or asleep, has actually been there with us all along,
right in the midst of the storm,
right there in our boat, wide awake,
right there hearing our cries,
right there feeling our pain...
and even though he knows we're sometimes so very slow to understand just who he is, and that his love is both abundant and ever-present...
in the midst of the turmoil, in the midst of the storm,
Jesus, the storm-stiller, the peace-bringer, brings us to a place of calm and gets us through the storm and across to the other side.

The disciples woke Jesus saying 'don't you care that we're about to die?'
And in response, Jesus got up and said three things:
to the wind: 'be quiet'...
to the waves: 'be still'...
and then, to the disciples: 'why are you frightened? Have you still no faith?'
And then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
And the result?
They were all relieved, had a good laugh, and sailed to the other side singing a cheerful song....
Well, that's what might have happened if the story had been re-written as a Hollywood movie - but we know that's not what happened.
The result, according to our writer, is that the disciples were still terrified, but now not of the storm. The disciples were terrified and they asked each other:
'Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him.'

Having cried out to Jesus and expected him to do something, Jesus indeed does do something:
something so utterly unexpected, so utterly astonishing, that they are forced once again in their journey to think again about this man they are following.

Much of the turmoil in our lives isn't simply the turmoil from outer circumstances, it's the turmoil that churns within us, tearing us apart. We cry out to God and then, to our astonishment, we discover that God comes. In fact, that God is already here. God is not absent, but present, and God speaks to the storm that is within our turbulent and tossed spirits.
God, who knows our cry, knows what it means to be in a boat swamped by the storm, and yet has the power to give peace and strength and help even in the midst of such incredibly difficult, very scary circumstances. The disciples cried out for peace and God, made flesh in Jesus, met them at their point of need.
And as we cry out to God, God meets us at our point of need as well, because God is right here in the middle of all our need, our despair, our pain, our chaos, our fear.

The disciples - who knew what a storm was like - watched Jesus answer their cry... and knew that they were in way over their heads.
'Who is this?'
And it was to be a question they would find themselves asking again and again and again as they journeyed with him... thinking they knew him, thinking they had his measure, until something extraordinary would happen along the way to teach them that they were on a life-journey of discovering who this Jesus was.

Again and again, as the disciples, and as we, continure to follow Jesus, part of the ongoing, unfolding discovery is that we are following no ordinary man.

And in a post-script to the story, thinking about that earlier story from the Times - in my mind's eye I can almost see the small boat sailing across the now becalmed sea, to the other side, and Jesus quietly smiling to himself, as he watches various inflatable teeth and lobsters floating gently by....
...

the PROJECT2: go! you know you want to...

There's not been humungous lots of time to publicise what is looking like a pretty darned marvellous happening this coming Saturday. Nevertheless, drop everything and go, go, go if you can to:
thePROJECT2: In The Flesh
not an old Blondie song, but a small but perfectly formed wee festival of arts, music, liturgy, thinking/ discussion space and emergent knitting. And if that doesn't work for you, how about a 'scratch' Mary Poppins? Below is just a sampler of wot's on offer:

'10 Things They Never Told Me About Jesus.' John L. Bell explores facets of the personal life, relationships and ministry of Jesus which are seldom the stuff of preaching or conversation...

'Comusicka' - Jane Bentley began her musical journey whilst doing a three year stint with the Iona Community, discovering that, for her, it was more fulfilling to do music with, rather than for people

A seed… or a weed? Stewart Cutler is leading a workshop called - A seed…or a weed. Apparently the kingdom of God is like a seed… or a weed or something. So who’s planting? And what’s sprouting and growing and developing and emerging around Scotland?

Alternative futures - how art can capture the imagination? Beki Bateson is leading a workshop called - Alternative Futures, how art can capture the imagination. Walter Brueggemann suggests
“Every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of the imagination. Beki Bateson is Festival Director of Greenbelt Festivals and Chair of the Amos Trust - a human rights charity nurturing local responses to injustice.

Andrew Philip - Described by Michael Symmons Roberts and Ambit magazine as a poet to watch, Andrew Philip was chosen by the Scottish Poetry Library as a “New Voice” in 2006. His chapbook, Tonguefire, was published by HappenStance Press in 2005, followed by Andrew Philip: A Sampler in 2008. His poetry has appeared in various publications

Also...
Jake Tatton - Jake Tatton, is many things, artist, minister, vagabond. Jake has been an ordained minister for the Metropolitan Community Church since 2006 and is currently pursuing a Masters of Ministry Degree at New College, University of Edinburgh. An active and out member of Scotland’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Jake continues to work with young people

Iain Archer

We See Lights

FISCHY MUSIC

Rob MacKenzie

Andrew Phillip

Doug Gay

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Salvation Savings??!!

And so, after a lovely day of lunching, then surprise afternoon tea, then surprise dinner... I arrived home to find in my letter box this promise in big, bold lettering: 'Salvation Savings'...
Marvellous, I thought, wondering if there might be a BOGOF offer: get one salvation, get another free. Sort of like a get out of jail free card but with an eternal context?

Well, given my student status, I thought this a potentially viable idea and yet the words of good old Dietrich Bonhoeffer did keep popping up in my head and worrying away at the stupendous deal on offer: 'Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.'

'Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'

I looked more closely at the piece of paper in my hand, offering me deals on salvation... Pizza Hut special offer in conjuntion with the new Terminator movie, apparently. Not sure if the 'moral' of the story is to avoid cheap pizza, but... like lunch, afternoon tea and dinner today, salvation's free: Now there's a special offer! :)

Monday, 8 June 2009

the welcoming church welcomes you, sorta


An excellent day yesterday visiting, and later lunching with, 'Stockarees'. Am really looking forward to filling in there while Anne's away in July and August.
Bumped into a pal at church who was on a 'checking it out' mission. Later on that day we were having a blether about her experience of the church welcome. The Stockarees got an overwhelmingly positive response from friend.... I suspect in part because their kitchen is definitely not like this one!!!!!


------------------------------------------------------>     [cartoon by Dave Walker]

Saturday, 6 June 2009

'God is a Sputnik'... and other Trinitarian musings

A sermon for Trinity Sunday...

About ten years ago, I remember sitting in a church one Trinity Sunday. It came to that time in the service for the all age address. The minister was a great guy, with a wonderful beard which he'd stroke thoughtfully during services. He came to the front, looked at the children looking at him and asked them:
'Today is a very special day in the church year...does anyone know what it is?'
Fifteen little faces continued to look up at him...
blankly. Eventually a small child squeaked, somewhat hesitantly 'Sunday?'
whilst correct in one way, clearly this was not the answer the minister was looking for. Cue stroke of the beard and the [very hearty and enthusiastic] statement: 'It's Trinity Sunday!' Cue more blank looks from the children. I began to sit up and watch with interest, to see just how the minister was going to explain the mysteries of the Holy Trinity to the children. It went something like this:
Thoughtful stroke of beard....
'What's the big bit of water sitting next to Edinburgh?'
... more blank looks.
'That's right, the Firth of Forth. Imagine that's a bit like God. Then, if you were to go up to the mountains, right to the source of the Forth, imagine that's also a bit like God.
...yet more blank looks, accompanied by stroking of beard as well as the whirring of the grown ups minds imagining the scenario being proposed.
'Well, if you went to the other end, where the Forth comes out to the sea, well... that's a bit like God too.' By this time the whole congregation was doing an imaginary exercise in the geography of the Forth.
'Well, they all look different, but... er, um, really, they're the same. If you were standing on the shore, you wouldn't really notice. If you went up in a hot air balloon, you might see how all the different bits connect... in fact, imagine you were in a sputnik [cue strange 'pop' sound], well, that's a bit like God!!'
He ended on that note, exhausted from his exertions... to utter silence, as the entire congregation sat there, puzzled, thinking: 'God is a sputnik??'

So here we are: Trinity Sunday. Nick Fawcett calls it 'a day which perhaps captures the imagination less than any other in the Christian year.' To a point, that's understandable, for rather than historical events, this date in the church calendar is concerned with abstract doctrine which has perplexed theologians and everyday beleivers alike for centuries.

For 2 000 years we, as the church, have tried to do the impossible: to describe God, who is ... essentially indescribable. To put into finite, limited words the infinite, unlimited God. After lots of huge theological debates, the church came up with various formulae such as the Nicene Creed and the Athenasian Creed. The Athenasian Creed describes God as Trinity in this way:
God the Father: incomprehensible.
God the Son: incomprehensible.
God the Holy Spirit: incomprehensible.
Someone once said that when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity, 'we're like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a ballerina!'
Perhaps, at this point, we could all possibly just pack up and go home, muttering under our breath 'okay, got it, God's incomprehensible. Time for a cuppa then.'
Or, we could try to tease out a way that we can begin to comprehend the incomprehensible - well, at least a little.

One way of trying to sort through this incomprehensible doctrine of the Trinity, and our infinite, unlimited, incomprehensible God, is thinking within the context of something we do understand in part: relationship. A chap called Robert Watson said of creeds and formulas that 'the formula doesn't save us: love does.' The power at the heart of the universe is love. God...is...love. Christ is the most complete form of love who ever walked the earth, and the Holy Spirit is Christ's love among us at Pentecost. The essence of the Trinity is love...relational: community love.

An earlier version of the Iona Community's morning office had the words: 'God in perfect community.' And one way that might help get us thinking about this perfect community of our God who is one and yet three, is by looking at Rublev's icon, painted about 1410. It depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at Mamre - but is often interpreted as a depiction of the Trinity. As is usual in icons, the image is full of symbolism, designed to take the viewer into the mystery of the Trinity. And the way it's presented, the way the figures in the picture are portrayed, imply that each of these figures is in relationship to the other. Let's have a closer look at the picture.

First, let's look at the faces of the three figures: they're identical, indicating their 'one-ness'. Their unity - the nature of their relationship - is indicated by the way their heads incline one to the other, almost making an outline of a circle. This shows how they're bound together as one by a common will and mutual love: love unites them.
Look at their clothing: each wears something that speaks of their own identity:
the Spirit is shown wearing green, symbolising new life and growth;
in the middle, the Son is clothed in brown, symbolising the earth - his humanity... while the gold stripe speaks of his kingship;
on the left, the Father wears a shimmering ethereal robe: the One who is Creator can never be fully seen by his human creatures...
yet... common to all is the colour blue - the colour of the heavens, symbolising divinity, and their unity.

As we look at this particular representation of God as Trinity, can you sense the movement, the interaction...as the Father gives to the Son, the Son is constantly returning praise and glory to the Father, and the Father and the son give to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit constantly draws everything back to the Father and the Son. Rublev's icon shows a relationship of mutuality, of equality, of love which is non-hierarchical, and which works cooperatively and in harmony.

As we continue looking at the icon, we can see the three figures sitting around a table. Look closer: in the foreground there is an open space. The Spirit points to this place, inviting us to sit at the table, to complete the circle. What is suggested by this composition is that God is not turned in on Godself, endlessly contemplating divine perfection, but God turns outwards, in love towards the world, and towards us. It's like the nature of God's love spills beyond the relationship within God's self: God reaches out to us and invites us in to a relationship of love - with God. As with God's love spilling beyond the relationship within the Trinity to each one of us, that love spills beyond each one of us, building relationships with others, and with the world - the whole of creation.

As we think about this icon of God, God who is in harmonious relationship with Godself, God who is united in a common will and in mutual love, what implications does that have for us? Because in Genesis we're reminded that we are created in the image of God. And in our readings, and in Andrei Rublev's attempt at describing God, what we see revealed is an image of God in relationship - Father, Son, Holy Spirit... of God who is the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer... of God the Beloved, the Lover and the Love.
However we name those different aspects of God's nature, the stress, the emphasis, is on shared equality.

In a world that seems to thrive on a divide and conquer way of being, in a world that thrives on hierarchy and power at any cost - which you see in microcosm if you watch 'The Apprentice' - the One in whose image we are made calls us to reflect in the world and to the world something totally other, something completely subversive and radical:
to build relationships not founded on the need to dominate, but to build relationships of mutuality, respect and love - which intrinsically understand that all human beings are made in the image of love, in the image of God.

So, when we see situations where people are denied the opportunity to reflect God's image because of situations of oppressive, crushing poverty...
when we see situations where the image of God is veiled because of hunger, lack of clean drinking water, lack of shelter - in a world that has the resources to feed and shelter every one of us...
when we see situations where those who are created in God's image are beaten,
raped, tortured, unjustly imprisoned... what is it that we should do?
What can we do?

Our calling - and as Christians we are a called people - our calling is to go into the world, whether it's somewhere beyond our borders, or in our own backyards...
our calling is to go to the dark places where the reflection of humans created in God's image has been concealed, or diminished or in some way obscured... and and in and with and through the power of the One who calls us...
to break down the structures of injustice,
to bring light into the darkness,
to bring life, new life, in situations that seem to be a living death,
to bring love into those barren landscapes where love is sorely lacking.

We are a called people, God's people in the world, called to do all of this so that God's image - God's likeness - in human beings is once again revealed and reflected and restored... and brought into harmonious relationship:
with each other,
with the world,
and with God, One-yet Three who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.
As we look at the icon once more, we're reminded of God:
who is Trinity,
who is in relationship,
who offers us a model of mutual love and common will - a model on which to build our lives as God's people in the world, committed to living in relationships that have at their heart love, mutuality, service:
a love that is modelled on God's overspilling love which creates a place at the table for all.

And thinking back to childrens talks on God as Trinity...
I have a strong hunch that God is probably not a sputnik...
But I have an equally strong hunch that as we are immeasurably loved by the God who is in perfect community, so we are to reflect God's love - God's image - and be a community of love, because:
we believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirity,
the Three-in-One and One-in-Three,
God in three persons,
Blessed Trinity.
Amen.