cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, this twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, the disheveled spaceship captain and smuggler Malcolm Reynolds, who had lost his Christian faith in an interplanetary civil war, kneels down in front of a statue of the Buddha while disguised as a woman and mockingly says, “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket.” This comment is, I think, evocative of the discomfort both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have with petitionary prayer. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion about selflessness and self-sacrifice and love of neighbor? How could we possibly make that fit with getting down on our knees and giving God our grocery list of needs and wants?

That sentiment might only be intensified over these last few weeks as so many so relatively close to us find themselves without their homes or livelihoods. When they have lost so much, we might be wary to bring our own petty wants before the LORD. I think this is what prompted one of my friends to post as their facebook status:
I don't care if your electricity is restored, please stop praying
- God
I should note this was almost immediately after the hurricane, before the utter seriousness of people going weeks without power made itself clear. But when I objected that I couldn’t imagine God ever saying “please stop praying,” no matter how superficial the subject of the prayers might be, I was told, “but it was still funny.” I’ve listened to friends complain about their mother-in-law’s habit of praying for finding good parking spaces, or their sibling’s prayers for the success of his business. Countless times I’ve encountered critics pointing to two groups of fans of rival sports teams, or rival political candidates, praying to the same God that their respective team will win, as if that was nothing more than an absurdity.

It would be wonderful if we were all perfect people whose only desires were high-minded, for world peace and an end to global poverty. But we’re not perfect people; we’re human beings, our very nature wounded by the reality of sin.

But that’s okay. Because that’s where Jesus Christ, who is a perfect person, the only perfect person, comes in. And because of this, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This refers, of course, to our ultimate hope, that we will come to share in Christ’s resurrection. But it also applies to all of our little hopes, our petty desires, our secret wishes, our hopes for the future. We approach God as who we are, wanting what we want, and it is a good and rightful thing to put those needs and desires before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. We trust in Jesus to wash us clean.

For me the best example of this is found in Psalm 137, in which the psalmist prays that the heads of babies might be dashed upon the rocks. Clearly, this is not a righteous desire for a person to have. But given the historical context of the psalm, amidst the Babylonian captivity, it is arguably a very human one. And so Scripture provides us with this example set among many examples of how to pray of a person in their human brokenness reaching out to God from within that human brokenness.

The great Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The God who took on our human nature and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mother in order to suffer a painful death on a cross wants to be invited into our suffering, our longing, our weakness. Don’t get me wrong, God is present with us in our suffering whether we extend that invitation or not, whether we are aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t appreciate being given the invitation anyway.

These are the dynamics at work in our Hebrew scripture passage this morning.

By many standards, Hannah had a comfortable life, with a husband who loved and supported her. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She wanted a son--a daughter wasn’t good enough!--in order to keep her husband’s other wife from mocking her.

And so, as is good and right, she brought her desire before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. And “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD.’”

No doubt Penninah too prayed to the LORD, asking God that she might earn the love and favor of her husband which had been given to Hannah instead. And yet, unlike Hannah, Penninah did not receive what she had asked for. Indeed, there is a story found in the Jewish midrash which provides a fate even worse for Penninah: “Hannah would give birth to one child, and Peninnah would bury two; Hannah bore four, and Peninnah buried eight. When Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah feared that now she would bury her last two children.”

God did not give Hannah what she asked for and deny Penninah because God loved Penninah any less than Hannah. Nor was it because Hannah knew some special way to pray in order to ensure the result she wanted, to force God’s hand. No, it’s just that, in this fallen world, it’s a simple fact that we don’t always get what we want, no matter how hard we pray, no matter who we are.

And no matter what the Rolling Stones might say, neither do we even always get what we need. Every fifteen seconds, a child dies from hunger-related causes somewhere on Planet Earth. That’s a problem worth praying over. But prayer alone isn’t going to the solve the problem.

Prayer is not a magic spell or a letter to Santa. God is not a genie in a bottle.

Hurricane Sandy did not hit the shores of our region because people didn’t pray hard enough. Nor was it to punish the godlessness of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. Barack Obama was not re-elected President because God likes Democrats better than Republicans. Nor was it to pave the way for the Antichrist, as Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries suggested before the election.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against this type of superstitious thinking in today’s Gospel passage. The earliest written of the four canonical gospels, St. Mark’s gospel was probably written in the immediate wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple, the center of Jewish life and religion. Like a flood-displaced North Jerseyan or our Texan pastor, the Jewish community found their very world turned upside down and inside out. Part of the evangelist’s task, then, was to help them understand how to make sense of the significance of this sort of event of seeming apocalyptic proportions in terms of their Christian faith and practice. And Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Jesus warns us against those who come in the name of Christ and yet lead many astray, the pastors and pundits who would turn hurricanes into instruments of a wrathful God and elections into the first phase of the apocalypse, who would have us make a false choice between religion and science, who twist and pervert our faith so it stands in opposition to the God-given gift of human reason, who use our scriptures and traditions as weapons with which to bludgeon.

Hurricane Sandy hit our shores because a tropical storm came in contact with a cold front which intensified it and propelled it towards our region. Barack Obama was re-elected President, for better or worse, because he received more votes in the electoral college than did his opponent.

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Christian prayer is not--or at least should not be--an attempt to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want. Instead, it is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God. But equally important is the fact that we need to be open to being transformed ourselves when we pray. This is the very essence of prayer.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
The Gospel According to St. Mark

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the river Jordan by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: "You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests."

Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.

Scot McKnight in 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed, 25-27:

At the center of the Shema is the God of love, and at the center of the God of love is the word “one”- and that word “one” is a dance. Let me explain briefly. When Jesus said in John’s tenth chapter that he and the Father were “one,” every Jew who heard him thought of theShema: “Here, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord isone.” Now Jesus was claiming that he and the Father were one. So somehow there were “two in one,” and, as the church gradually began to comprehend, there were actually “three in one.” The Jesus Creed derives from this “three-in-oneness of God.”

How are the three “one”? Here are Jesus’ own words: “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” The oneness of the Father and the Son is the oneness of mutual indwelling of one another. Now, if we add to the Father and the Son the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, we arrive at something distinct to our Christian faith: the Father and the Son and the Spirit are one because they indwell one another. They interpenetrate one another so deeply that they are one. This “oneness” is often called by theologians the “dance of the Trinity.” God is almost, to quote C.S. Lewis, “if you think me not irreverent, a kind of dance.” God is, to change the image only slightly, the dance of rope in the Celtic knot.

The same theologians often call this oneness of God the
perichoresis, a Greek word referring to mutual indwelling. To say the three are one is to say the one God is a community of mutually indwelling persons where each person delightfully dances with the other in endless holy love. This perichoretic dance is the love of the persons of the Trinity for each other- the Father for the Son and the Spirit, and the Son for the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit for the Father and the Son. Theologians and philosophers remind us that this perichoretic love is the origin, the tone, and the standard for all the love in the universe. There is no other love than God’s love.

Tony Jones in “Comp Three, Question Three” (an imaginary conversation with Jürgen Moltmann)

TJ: Doug, on this same theme, you have publicly wondered if the concept of the Trinity has run its course – this, of course, is a significant part of Dr. Moltmann’s corpus.

DP: What I think is that the doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated by Augustine and his peers, solved a certain problem at a certain time. Back then, people were saddled with this Greek concept of God as a distant, removed Being who wanted nothing to do with this earth, this creation. So, when these people inherited the story of Jesus, they had a bog problem to solve: how could the distant, removed God have possibly come to Earth? The concept of that was preposterous to them!

So the doctrine of the Trinity was of great help to them in getting over that dilemma. By conceiving of God as three persons or three parts, they could say that God did come to Earth, and he also stayed in heaven…and he also still dwells here today and still dwells in heaven.
Not only is this concept of a three-part God foreign to a holistic Hebrew-Old Testament mind, it is also becoming more and more unnecessary today. We don’t have the same Hellenistic philosophy mind-set of the Early Church. The people in my community, at Solomon’s Porch, have no trouble believing that God is holistically related to the entirety of creation. That’s just not an issue for us. Quantum physics? Nano-technology? Now those are issues that beg for theological consideration. But God becoming a man? That one is no problem.

JM: But, Doug, what I want to challenge you on is the beauty of the concept of the Trinity. Yes, I agree that when it is used as a rationalistic proof for the deity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Trinity falls short of its full theological potential. But instead of thinking of it rationalistically, I’d like you to consider it aesthetically. The Trinity affords a great deal of theological creativity to you as a pastor and preacher, and to the people who write the music for worship in your community. Don’t disparage the concept just because it’s old. Now, I don’t want you to idolize it, as some do, just because it’s old, but I don’t want you to disparage it, either.

Think of the Trinity as the dynamic, eternal dance of God. Doesn’t that jibe with your church’s desire to be a place of laughter and joy, a place where the body is honored, where worship is more than just words? I read the book about your church, and I think that Solomon’s Porch would be very well served by a robust and vibrant doctrine of the Trinity. You can talk about “following God in the way of Jesus,” and I am fully supportive of that, but part of your role as a pastor is to help the people paint a picture of God that is so beautiful that they can’t help but to follow him – that they can’t imagine following anyone else. I think the idea of Trinity as perichoresis would be a great help to you in that task.

TJ: It’s true that, just last month when I talked a bit about the Trinity at Solomon’s Porch – when I introduced that concept of the perichoresis – there were many who resonated with that idea. One man, a truck driver named Frank, said that he had been introduced to that idea just the previous week in Eugene Peterson’s new spiritual theology, God Plays in a Thousand Places, and he loves the idea. He said the world is moving so fast, it’s changing so dynamically, that it seems like we should have an image of God that is dynamic and changing.

DP: Listen, I’m open to it. I just don’t want us blindly following along with this doctrine or that doctrine because that’s the way they believed “back in the day.”

JM: Then we are of one accord. But I want to encourage you to explore the richness of the Trinity, because I am quite sure that you and your church will greatly benefit from it.’




Questions for Discussion

1. What do you think of the doctrine of the Trinity as put forward by McKnight and Jones? How is it similar to or different than your understanding of the Triune God?

2. When we begin new journeys, we often have a dance, from high school proms to wedding receptions. How is the “dance” of the Trinity at the River Jordan similar to or different than this?

3. When you begin a journey, what type of “dance” do you want from your community--and who is that community?

4. How can you be a part of that “dance” for others?
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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