A homily preached at St. James Episcopal Church on the First Sunday after Pentecost. June 19, 2011. Matthew 28:16-20
Have you ever had one those times when you just could not seem to connect with someone---no matter how hard your tried? Back when I first started working at the Rescue Mission I struggled to earn the trust of the people on the streets. It was like there was a hard wall between us. There was this attitude of, “How could you possibly understand what it’s like to be in our shoes?” Sometimes it felt to me that because I had not been in legal trouble and I had never been homeless that people automatically assumed I had a Mr. Rogers mixed with a “holier-than-thou” outlook on things. Of course, reflecting back on it now, I didn’t help myself out much by doing stupid little things like wearing a coat and tie to work on some days.
I want to tell you about the day that all began to change for me. Ironically, it started out as a coat and tie day. Several years ago there was a store near the shelter that has now has gone out of business. The owners moved to a different state years ago. This particular business had a dumpster near the back entrance of our shelter. Quite often new guests at the shelter would mistake that dumpster for ours and throw our trash into it. Our trash bags were a different color than theirs and if they spotted them one of the owners would call us and I would respond by apologizing and retrieving our trash. We try to be good neighbors to the businesses that border the shelter property. So that morning I marched over to our neighbor’s dumpster in my coat and tie thinking that I would simply pick up a couple of bags off the top of the heap, only to discover that I could not reach our bags because they were at the bottom of the massive dumpster. It was empty except for our trash. So I went and got a broom and climbed up on the outside and began to try to fish for them so I could lift them up and out with my broom handle. I strained and stretched and I could almost reach the biggest bag. That’s when I felt my weight shift and the next thing I knew, Mr. coat and tie here was down in the bottom of this tall dumpster in a couple of inches of stagnant water. To make matters even worse, the broom I was using had pierced the trash bag it had just as I slipped. The bag was torn open and our garbage was floating around me in the cesspool on a hot summer morning.
Something inside of me just snapped. There was yelling that morning---lots of unholy yelling echoed from the bottom of that empty dumpster out onto Seventh Avenue. I angrily began to pick up the scattered items and toss them out of the dumpster. It must have felt good to have something to take my anger out on because I started launching them straight up into the air, high over the dumpster and outside. I imagine it must have appeared to be some bizarre volcano of trash raining down on the pavement punctuated by screams and shrieks coming from the belly of the beast.
Finally, after it was all cleaned out and the fury had subsided, I struggled back up over the wall. I felt and looked like a soldier climbing out of a foxhole after battle. To my utter horror, a crowd had gathered. Many of the people I was there at the Mission to serve were standing there with their mouths open in disbelief. I thought, “Oh no, this is it. I lost it. I have blown it. They will never respect me after this.” Suddenly, to my surprise, they burst into laughter. A couple of guys even applauded. Somehow, in that moment I became human and real to them. I was less than perfect after all. I did not always have it all together. That dumpster ruined a suit, but it broke through the wall and I was able to begin to form relationships with the very people I was called to serve. That incident made me accessible to them and in turn they became accessible to me.
Our Gospel reading today contains one little phrase that does that for me when it comes to the disciples of Jesus.
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
“But some doubted”---this is not simply Thomas, doubting because he had not yet seen the risen Christ. This is after the risen Christ has appeared to them and after they worshipped, but still it some doubted. This little phrase is so honest and so troubling for Church’s traditional portraits of the disciples after the resurrection that many people have tried to explain it away. My New Interpreter’s Study Bible finally concludes with the comment on this verse: “The presence of doubt… indicates the community of disciples is not perfect.”
I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I am delighted that the Gospel writer makes note of it because it’s through that little phrase that these disciples become accessible to me and where I live. They become real human figures with the same struggles and weaknesses and doubts that we have.
One of the surprising things for me about being ordained is that when I wear the collar people will come up and start talking about church. Sometimes complete strangers will just come up and tell me what they think is wrong with church---not St. James, just church in general. It makes me sad when I hear people tell me that they feel alienated because of they have doubts. Usually it goes something like this. “I felt so out of place with everyone else saying the creed when I am not sure I fully believe all of that stuff. I felt like a hypocrite because I had to say the creed like this (fingers crossed behind back).”
People should never feel like their doubts are causing them to look on from the outside. We are not a community of perfect faith that always believes everything with 100% certainty. We are not now and we were not all the way back in Matthew 28. That did not disqualify them from being a part of the community back then and it should not now. What we have to do is stop pretending that we always have it all together.
The things we struggle with and the doubts we have are honestly probably the very same things that others sitting in pews around us are alsostruggling with at any given time. We do not come to this table to worship together because we always have perfect faith. We do not come to this table together because we have somehow earned our way onto some sort of Divine dean’s list. We come together because Jesus invites us to come to this table to receive grace together!
I wish that I could say that I always have this perfect faith. I wish I could stand up here and tell people I am that guy, but I am not. There are times when I say the creed and my heart just sings it our like the ancient poetry of faith it is. However, there have been many times in my journey when that was not the case. That does not mean I give up and walk away from the community of faith. It’s precisely in those moments that I most in need of remaining connected to the community of faith. Those are the times when I sit back and listen to the community affirm the faith and the faith of the community carries me.
When we are in community there are days that we carry others and there are days when others carry us. That is truly what is at the core of what we celebrate today.
Today is Trinity Sunday. The doctrine of the Trinity is not some abstract doctrinal puzzle to sit back and do mental gymnastics with. It is God’s love song about the Divine community that is God. Love cannot exist alone by itself. Our spiritual ancestors said that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each fully God, but none of them are the totality of God alone without each other.
Self-giving love to each other is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity and it is the model for our life together in the community of the church.
In that lengthy reading Genesis this morning we heard: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
In other words, we with the capacity and need for community. We were designed to be in relationship with others. Our faith is designed to be shaped and formed and strengthened in community with each other. Community is the only soil in which we can grow and make disciples as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28.
The Roman Catholic Bible Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has described the difficulty of trying to teach the academic study of the Scriptures to graduate students who come to school without any real faith background in church where they could witness how the Scriptures are heard and applied and lived out in community. He says it’s like a medical student trying to learn about the human body from simply dissecting a cadaver without having ever seen how a living body looks and moves in motion or the life that shows up in a person’s eyes in love or laughter.
I would daresay the same thing about the doctrine of the Trinity. When we try to have a discussion about the Trinity divorced from a living experience of community, then the whole thing becomes this dead, abstract discussion that simply causes our eyes to glaze over.
In the 5:00 service last night we baptized Josie Jordan in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit just as today’s Gospel instructs us to. It was wonderful. I love baptisms. They are my favorite services. To be baptized in the name of the Trinity is to be welcomed into and warmly embraced by the community of faith here on earth that is a reflection of the Divine community within the Trinity. That’s why baptism is not a private affair. It is a communally witnessed event where those who are gathered are asked, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his or her life if Christ?” And we answer: “We will’ And then we all renew our baptismal covenant where we promise with God’s help to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”
Community is the only soil in which we can grow disciples as Jesus commands in our Gospel reading. It’s the only way we can be equipped to fulfill the Great Commission. We will either do it together or we will not do very long at all. Community with each other sustains us for long haul of carrying out God’s great mission.
Beside my bed I have a National Geographic with a pull out about the giant redwood trees in California. I have never seen a giant redwood tree, but getting out there to see them is really up on the top of my bucket list. I mean to do so one day. I cannot tell you how many times I have pulled that magazine out and read that same article over again and again before falling asleep at night In my reading about them I came across a very interesting fact. Those majestic trees, that reach so high you often can't see their tops, actually have a very shallow root system. It’s amazing that tress that tall and heavy are able to withstand the harsh weather and winds of the High Sierras and yet some have done it since the glaciers were retreating.
How in the world can they do that with a shallow root system? It is something called “the grove factor“ where trees grow in close proximity to one another. What happens is the roots reach out in all directions and they get tangled up with the roots from other Redwoods. The roots grow together, intertwining with each other and creating a stabilizing root bed that helps each tree continue to stand. A lone Redwood tree growing by itself wouldn't last long, but a Redwood forest can last for thousands of years.
It’s that kind of community we are called to live in within the church that allows us to weather the storms and overcome the seasons of doubt. It allows us to do more than survive. It’s a place where our mutual faith can flourish and thrive in a way it could never do in isolation from others.
My brothers and sisters Trinity Sunday is our invitation to hear the Spirit calling to do the work of living in community with each other---- when it’s easy and especially when it is hard, because in the end the sum of our common faith together is always stronger than the individual parts.