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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 15, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 4:1-30 and Luke 5:1-11
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Maybe I should begin with a confession – that this sermon title is perhaps a bit of false advertising. When someone invites me on an adventure, I expect it to have some excitement and to end with a sense of “that was fun.” I’m not sure that’s where I’m going.

The second thing I should do to start with is to show you a little video clip. I know I showed this two weeks ago, but the difference between knowing your why and picking your appropriate what is going to be important in this sermon.

When you know your why, your what has more impact because you’re walking in or toward your purpose.

Our scripture readings cover a lot of territory. Last week we heard Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus. Today, we pick up right after that. Though not as immediate as in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, Jesus’ response to being baptized is to go off by himself into the wilderness to pray. Jesus fasts, a prayer form that some find very helpful. After his fasting has gone on for quite some time, instead of having a deep communion with God, Jesus has an encounter with the personification of temptation and rationalization.

I think what’s happening here is this: At his baptism Jesus experienced some clarity of his call. His why became clear. Let the people know that the liberating love you know and that they should love in that same way. What wasn’t clear yet was his what. This is certainly one way of looking at these temptations.

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by magic. Wow the people by turning stones into bread. Fill their bellies and they’ll follow you. And you can have whatever you want in the process. “Public influence and private indulgence – if you just use your miraculous powers to acquire whatever you desire!”[1]

Maybe one way to fulfill your why is by gaining political power. Bow down and worship evil and you’ll get all the kingdoms of the world. On this path, “self-seeking power, not self-giving love, reigns supreme.”[2]

And then there’s this one: Following your why won’t kill you. Go ahead and jump of the top of the Temple. The fall won’t kill you. God won’t let that happen to his beloved child. That notion that fulfilling your why may cost your life? Forget it.

Jesus comes out of the desert not just with clarity of his why but also of his what, at least some of the whats he’ll not use. “He will not use his power for personal comfort and pleasure. He will refuse unscrupulous means to achieve just and peaceful ends. He will not reach for spectacle over substance.… [He won’t be] driven by a human lust for pleasure, power, or prestige.”[3]

He will be empowered by the Spirit, and he will be willing to pay the ultimate price. And if we want to join the adventure … are we willing to let the Spirit empower us, and are we willing to pay the ultimate price?

Following his desert experience, Jesus goes to his hometown, and on the Sabbath, he goes to synagogue. “There is a time in the synagogue gathering where men can read a passage of Scripture and offer a comment upon it. So on this day, Jesus stands and asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll until he comes to the passage that speaks of the Spirit anointing someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.”[4]

That’s exactly what he experienced in his baptism. That’s a wonderful summation of his why. That’s his mission statement. And he says so. Jesus sits down – “a teacher’s customary posture in those days. He offers his amazing commentary – notable for its brevity and even more for its astonishing claim: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in you hearing.’”[5]

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-6-17-42-amHow’s that for an inaugural address? I checked something out this morning. Jesus’ inaugural address could have been tweeted – with room to spare.

“Imagine if a prophet arose today in Panama, Sierra Leone, or Sri Lanka. In an interview on BBC or Al Jazeera he [or she] says, ‘Now is the time! It’s time to dismantle the military-industrial complex and reconcile with enemies! It’s time for CEOs to slash their mammoth salaries and give generous raises to all their lower-paid employees! It’s time for criminals, militias, weapons factories, and armies to turn in their bullets and guns so they can be melted down and recast as trumpets, swing sets, and garden tools. It’s time to stop plundering the Earth for quick corporate profit and to start healing the Earth for long-term universal benefit. Don’t say “someday” or “tomorrow.” The time is today!’”[6]

Who would listen to that? I think such a prophet would be ignored by the vast majority of people, especially by people in power. The only people I can think of who would listen would be people who know the pain of oppression and violence. Only people who would hear hope in these words would listen. Anyone who would hear these words threatening their power and prestige would ignore this prophet or try to make the prophet seem like a crackpot.

Jesus hometown crowd is impressed that their hometown boy is so articulate and intelligent and bold. “But Jesus won’t let them simply be impressed or appreciative for long. He quickly reminds them of two stories from Scriptures, one involving a Sidonian widow in the time of Elijah and one involving a Syrian general in the time of Elisha. God bypassed many needy people of our religion and nation, Jesus says, to help those foreigners, those Gentiles, those outsiders. You can almost hear the snap as people are jolted by this unexpected turn.”[7] Jesus is telling them that this good news that has been fulfilled in their hearing isn’t just for them. It’s for all humanity.

The only sense I can make of what happens next is that Jesus’ hometown synagogue feels betrayed. How could the promise God made through the prophet Isaiah to the Jews be for everyone? The crowd quickly flips from proud to furious. They are transformed by their fury from a congregation into a lynch mob, and they try to push Jesus over the edge of a cliff. They might as well be trying to push him off the roof of the Temple.

If Jesus didn’t have the clarity of his why, everything would have fallen apart just as it began. If Jesus hadn’t wrestled with some of the whats, seeing which ones would go against the very character of his why, he might have taken his calling in an unfruitful direction. He needed his time in the wilderness “to get his mission clear in his own heart so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans or intimidated by the threats of furious critics. If we dare follow Jesus and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s good news as he did, [if we dare to join the adventure,] we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.”[8]

“Jesus managed to avoid execution that day. But he knew it wouldn’t be his last brush with hostile opposition.”[9] He continued his preaching and healing. And soon he began inviting select individuals to become his followers.

In our second lesson, we heard about his calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John to be his first followers. If you’re a fan of the gospel of John, you’ll hear echoes of John resurrection story that takes place at the lake and involves a significant fishing success. But it’s the final words of the passage that most interest me: “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.”

They left everything and followed him.

“As with aspiring musicians who are invited to become the students of a master-musician, this was a momentous decision for them. To become disciples of a rabbi meant entering a rigorous program of transformation, learning a new way of life, a new set of values, a new set of skills. It meant leaving behind the comforts of home and facing a new set of dangers on the road. Once they were thoroughly apprenticed as disciples, they would be sent out as apostles to spread the rabbi’s controversial and challenging message everywhere. One [does] not say yes to discipleship lightly.”[10]

bonhoefferI am currently reading one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books, The Cost of Discipleship, considered by many to be his most important book. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, a theologian, an anti-Nazi dissident, and a key founding member of the Confessing Church – a movement to keep the church separate from the Nazi party and faithful to Jesus. The Cost of Discipleship was published in 1937, during the rise of the Nazi party, and in some ways may have served as Bonhoeffer’s time in the desert as he prepared for what his ministry became under Nazism. Let me share just one quote from this book, all of which is appropriate at this point in the sermon. And please excuse the non-inclusive language of this 1930’s German, recognizing that when he says “man,” he means “person,” and the pronoun “he” for this person should really be “he or she.”

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.… The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake.”[11]

It occurs to me that “the world Christian is more familiar to us today than the word disciple. These days, Christian often seems to apply more to the kinds of people who would push Jesus of a cliff than it does to his true followers. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the power and challenge of that earlier, more primary word disciple. The word disciple occurs over 250 times in the New Testament, in contract to the word Christian, which occurs only three time. Maybe those statistics are trying to tell us something.”[12]

The adventure Jesus invites us to join is one that involves leaving everything behind. It is an adventure that begins with dying. And then it moves to discerning Jesus’ good news for today and working to make it real.

As we move into a time of quite, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or

… a time when you went through some hardship or temptation that prepared you for a later opportunity; or

… the dangers of being captivated by the support of your loyal fans and being intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics; or

… the image of Jesus standing near you at your work, calling your name, and saying these two words to you, “Follow me.”

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 20, page 92. Retrieved from

[2] Ibid, 92.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 93.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship [Kindle version], location 1279-1286. Retrieved from

[12] McLaren, op. cit., 94.


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Isaiah 40:9-11 and Luke 1:67-79
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I wonder what it is like for Cubans today. With Fidel Castro’s death on Friday, I wonder what sort of dreams and hopes, what sort of griefs and fears average Cubans are feeling. Fidel Castro took power in 1959. That means that 75% of the Cuban population has only known the Castro form of Communism and a Castro at the helm.[1] Are they feeling grief at Fidel’s death? Are they feeling like there is a power vacuum (even though Fidel handed power to his brother Raúl eight years ago)? Are they fearful that they may lose all they’ve known, or are they hopeful about changes that might be able to come? Or maybe they’re feeling a combination of these things.

I wonder what it is like for people in Syria and Iraq who live in the shadow of ISIS. Are their lives filled with fear or are they (at least some of them) somehow holding on to hopes and dreams?

And I wonder what it is like for the refugees – whose who fled Cuba generations ago and those who have fled ISIS in this generation. Is there hope in their fleeing or is it only desperation? Do they hope to return home or have they oriented their lives to the new land they how inhabit?

Brian McLaren points out, “Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires, and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires, and dreams. And when they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by picturing the future to which that harmful behavior will lead.

“One of the most important prophetic compositions was the Book of Isaiah. Most scholars today agree that at least three people contributed to the book over a long period of time, but their combined work has traditionally be attributed to one author. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were situated in the southern Kingdom of Judah, just before the northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and colonized by the Assyrians. The prophet saw deep spiritual corruption and complacency among his people and warned them that this kind of behavior would lead to decline and defeat.

“That defeat came in 587 BC at the hand of the Babylonians. After the invasion, many survivors were taken as exiles to Babylon. Chapters 40-55, often called Second Isaiah, addressed those Judean exiles, inspiring hope that they would someday return to their homeland and rebuild it. That soon happened, beginning in 538 BC under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. That era of rebuilding was the setting for Third Isaiah, chapters 56-66.”[2]

Imagine with me for a moment what it was like for the people of Second Isaiah. Imagine what it was like for those who had been forcibly removed from their homes and taken into exile by the Babylonians. Yahweh, they believed, had promised them this land, but a foreign army had conquered them, removed them from their homes, and sent them into exile. Yahweh’s home was in Jerusalem, but they were forced to live in Babylon. Yahweh’s house, the Temple, had been destroyed. Where and how could they find hope?

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Minidoka National Historic Site. The swimming hole

Not that I was trying to mimic Isaiah, but my sabbatical can be divided into three parts. The first part was a great road trip that took me up the coast, across to Glacier National Park, south to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and back home. It included, almost by accident, a stop at the Minidoka Internment Camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho. There is very little at the National Historical Park now: mostly open fields and gravel paths; a few concrete pads that were the foundations of garages and warehouses; a collapsing root cellar. The sentry tower and barbed wire fence are reconstructions. Only one of the original tarpaper barracks remains; the others were demolished or sold to farmers in the area, but only to white farmers. None of the internees were allowed to purchase any of the buildings or equipment that was deemed surplus after the war.

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

Minidoka National Historic Site. Family barracks

At its height, there were over 9,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens incarcerated in the camp, making Minidoka something like the fourth largest community in Idaho at the time. These thousands upon thousands of people of Japanese heritage are America’s 20th century exiles. Like the Babylonian army, the U.S. Army forced these people out of their homes and businesses and placed them in concentration camps.

According to the stories I read and heard at Minidoka, it was only through community that they were able to find hope. And, while the United States built the barracks, it was the people concentrated in the camp that built the community.

Of course, the internment of people of Japanese ancestry is not the only exile in United States history. The government’s treatment of the people who were here first, the Native Americans, was our original forced exile. I won’t rehearse the history; I can’t; I don’t know all of it. I know just enough of the Trail of Tears and the concentration on “Reservations” and the violations of treaties and the attempts to “kill the Indian” to save the child to know it was a story all too similar to that of the Judean exile in Babylon.

Aside from the elections, there was one news story that held my attention during my sabbatical: the story of the Standing Rock Sioux protesting the routing of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred lands and along and under important water sources for the Standing Rock and everyone downstream of them. Up until the past few weeks, the mainstream news media were pretty much ignoring the story. However, because the Dakota Access Pipeline is new fossil fuel infrastructure, organizations fighting climate change were paying attention, and that got my attention starting in August.

On one level, this story sounds like every other story of the Indian Exile: white people with their police and military and corporations and courts giving Indians the shaft. Again.

But something different is happening this time. The National Public Radio podcast, “Code Switch” notes that the history “of indigenous people fighting to protect not just their land, but the land, is centuries old.” But this time, “The scope of the resistance at Standing Rock exceeds just about every protest in Native American history.”[3] The big thing that’s different is that Native tribes and nations from across North America, in both what is now the United States and what is now Canada, are showing up in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. Not only that, but indigenous groups from around the world are offering their support.[4]

This gives me hope, this community and solidarity that is growing around the globe. And because of that solidary (at least in part), this is now about way more than a particular pipeline in a particular place. What’s happening along the Cannonball River is becoming a clash of ideas and systems that have been at odds on this continent for five centuries. The thing is, because the Standing Rock are grounding their movement in prayer, this clash has the real potential to work itself out in a way where we are all transformed and we are all winners. And that gives me hope.

“To be alive is to desire, to hope, and to dream,” Brian McLaren writes.[5] Unfortunately, throughout human history, “some of us desire power and kill, enslave, and oppress others. Enslaved and oppressed people hope for liberation. Wilderness wanderers desire a promised land where they can settle. Settled people dream of a promised time when they won’t be torn apart by internal factions, ruled by corrupt elites, or dominated by stronger nations nearby.”[6]

If we read the prophets and the gospels in the Bible, one thing will be clear: While God loves everyone, God takes the side of the enslaved and oppressed, the wilderness wanderers and exiles, the people yearning for justice and peace. We heard the words in today’s scripture lessons.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The Lord God … will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

And there’s so much more in Isaiah.

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Isaiah 42:1-3)

Isaiah’s words and images inspire so much hope that Jesus and his followers quote this book more than any other writer.

“Many other prophets added their own colors to this beautiful vision of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, people’s hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. For Malachi, the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. Joel describes the Spirit of God being poured out on all humanity – young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Amos paints the vivid scene of justice rolling down like a river, filling all the lowest places. And Daniel envisioned the world’s beastlike empires of violence being overcome by a simple unarmed human being, a new generation of humanity.

“In the centuries between the time of the prophets and the birth of Jesus, these prophetic dreams never completely died. But they were never completely fulfilled, either.… [So] their dream lived on. It remained alive in people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and even among humble shepherds who lived at the margins of society.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a desire, a dream, a hope for the future.”[7] To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to believe that the promised time is coming and that the promised land will be received. It is what we pray for every time we say, “Thy kin-dom come on earth.” But that is only a wish and not true hope if it does not spur us to action. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to translate hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.

Now, as we enter a time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything for the sermon or scripture readings that caught you attention; or
… recall a time when you kept hope or lost hope; or
… the imagery from Isaiah (“He shall feed his flock …”), and how you would translate that imagery from the ancient Middle East into imagery from today’s world; or
… an image from today’s scripture readings – hold it in your heart, in God’s presence and let it inspire a simple prayer.

[1] “Cuba Age structure,” Index Mundi, (accessed 26 November 2016).

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 14, page 64. Retrieved from

[3] Leah Donnella, “The Standing Rock Resistance Is Unprecedented (It’s also Centuries Old),” Code Switch, (posted 22 November 2016; accessed 26 November 2016).

[4] Just as an example, Maori have set up a Facebook page in solidarity ( and have sent people to pray and stand in solidarity to the protest camps.

[5] McLaren, page 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 65-66.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 31, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, and John 3:1-17
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

A couple days ago, Episcopal Church Memes[1] on Facebook suggested that the best way not to commit heresy on Trinity Sunday is not preaching, but showing pictures of kittens instead.  I expected the next meme to say something like, “The best way not to put your congregation to sleep on Trinity Sunday: say nothing and show pictures of kittens.”

Well, I’m going to risk it today.  I’m going to preach.  I hope you not only stay awake, but stay engaged.

I’m not too worried about the heresy charge.  Since both of our denominations are non-doctrinal, non-creedal churches, there is no doctrine or creed for me to violate today.  Other denominations are not so lucky.  And just to prove my point – a little satire about St. Patrick.

The concept of the Trinity has some value to me.  I appreciate how the doctrine of the Trinity invites me to consider how God was (or is) present in Jesus.  It encourages me to wrestle with that Christian claim that God is incarnate in Jesus.  Of course, my brain starts to hurt if I think about Jesus being God but also the Son of God.  That sort of makes him his own father, which the doctrine of the Trinity tries to avoid by claiming that while the persons of the Trinity are each God, they are not each other and there is only one God.  It makes for a nice diagram, but I don’t know how helpful it is to my spiritual journey.

A pretty diagram, but not really helpful.

I like the concept of the Trinity because my adult experiences of God are so different from my early images of God.  The concept of the Trinity allowed me to hold on to both old images and new images by calling them different persons of the Trinity.  Now I’ve let go of those early images of God, replacing them with images that often aren’t even visual, but still, multiple images, multiple experiences.

This brings me to one of the points I want to make in today’s sermon:  We all have images of God.  In the first commandment (at least as I was taught to number them), God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  The second commandment says, “You shall not make for yourself an idol …  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”  This has been interpreted to mean that we shouldn’t make art, at least not depicting anything in creation.  That’s a little extreme, it seems to me.  I see the admonition to be against worshipping our images, whether they are physical or something we create in our minds.  And even though we’re not supposed to worship our images, we all create images of God.

We are a visual species, and so it is natural to create an image or images of what can’t be seen even though we are in relationship with it.  Images help us explore what we believe.  For instance, the banners along the sides of the sanctuary have invited me to reflect on how modernity has attempted to define God, to put God in a box; but the Spirit of God breaks down barriers, busts open boxes, and asks us to consider how what we think we know about God might be too restrictive, too incomplete, too limited.  I find reflection helpful because the images I hold, especially the primary image of God that I hold at any given time influences, even dictates, how I relate to God.

One of the earliest images I had of God was a combination of the Lincoln Memorial and Santa Claus.  God sat on a throne, a huge throne.  The God who sat there had a very human form.  This God was a huge, male, human – only not human because he was God and so much bigger than humans.  And this God had age, wisdom, and the beard of Santa.  This God knew when I’d been bad or good, so I’d better be good for goodness sake.  I don’t know how much this image emerged from my own mind and how much it was influenced by art.  Michelangelo’s God creating Adam, painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, is similar to this early image of God.  Perhaps he and other artists influenced me.

I find this image strikingly similar to the image of God in our passage from Isaiah.  Isaiah describes a vision of God.  God is a “he” who speaks and wears a robe, sitting on a high throne, in a great temple – actually the great Temple.  Seraphs attend him, singing his praises.  Confronted by this majesty, Isaiah is overcome.  He recognizes his sinfulness and experiences guilt.

I know that many people are uncomfortable with the word, “sin.”  Some hear the word and hear judgment not from God but from other people.  Others hear the word and feel condemnation.  I want to reclaim the word “sin.”  Sin is very real.  It also need not carry all the shaming energy it seems to.

“Sin is having our loves out of order.”  The columnist David Brooks said that during a radio interview about a week ago.[2]  I wish I had said it, but credit where credit is due.

Sin is having our loves out of order.

Do you remember what the first commandment says?  “Don’t have any gods before me.”  There is a tacit acknowledgement that there are other claims on our attentions and affections in our lives.  God’s just saying, “Keep those loves in the right order.”

So, confronted by his vision of God, Isaiah said, “Woe is me, for my loves are out of order.  Yet even still, I’m having this vision of God.”  And God responds to Isaiah by “blotting out” his sin.  In acknowledging that his loves are out of order, Isaiah opens himself to forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  And, reconciled, he opens himself up to hearing God’s call.

This moment of forgiveness and reconciliation is a powerful enough moment to have inspired art – a word image inspiring visual images.  Some are as concrete and literalistic as this one.

Others capture a greater sense of mystery, like Marc Chagall’s “The Prophet Isaiah.”  Isaiah and the seraph are there.  There’s another character in white at the top of the painting that might depict God – but I think it’s an angel or another heavenly being.  And in the background, there’s lots going on.  For instance, in the upper right, there are animals and people that make me think of the image of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah will later proclaim.  In the lower right, there is a mother and child; the blue paint makes me think this might be Mary and Jesus.  In the lower left there is a scene that is hard to decipher, but the palm branch makes me wonder if it is of Palm Sunday.  And in the upper left, we see the crucifixion.  What is Chagall saying about Isaiah, sin, redemption, and Jesus?  That question is fodder for another sermon.  If I’m right, that Chagall didn’t include God in this painting, that decision suggests something about his personal image of God.

I think that part of the reason Nicodemus had such a hard time understanding Jesus was that Nicodemus’ personal image of God didn’t align with Jesus’.  Nicodemus was a literalist.  He “was under the influence of a religious tradition that taught a faith that was to be managed, protected, and guarded.  Yet his late-night visit with Jesus revealed some heart longings that had not completely left him.  Perhaps he expected a dialogue in dogmatics, but what he got from Jesus was poetry.”[3]

Of course, the Greek anothen having multiple meanings wasn’t helpful either.  “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “no one can see the kin-dom of God without being born anothen.”  “What do you mean we need to be born anothen?  No one’s gonna crawl back inside their mother’s womb to be born anothen.”  Jesus was using the word “anothen” to mean “from above,” and Nicodemus was using it to mean “again.”  I think that if Nicodemus could have embraced an image of a God that keeps reaching out to us, that keeps calling us to new life, he might have understood what Jesus was saying.  But I suspect Nicodemus’ God was stuck in the Temple.

As I said earlier, I find the doctrine of the Trinity helpful in only a few ways.  Mostly, I find it to be a headache, and that is especially true when I think about it literally.  On the other hand, when I think about it metaphorically, poetically …  The image of the Trinity is what I have found fruitful.

In attempting to explain the Trinity, that is, in attempting to explain the unexplainable, ancient and more contemporary theologians have actually created words.  One of those ancient words is perichoresis.[4]  The use of perichoresis gets really technical, but at its root, the word is about the relationship of the persons of the Trinity.  The perichoresis of God is that nature of the persons of the Trinity that has them going around and making room for each other.  Play with that image – the persons of the Trinity going around and making room for each other.

God is a dance.  And this dance is done in relationship, the persons of the Trinity weaving between and around each other.  God is a God of relationship.  God is not a static, transcendent, separate, omnipresent being.  God is not the great judge on the great throne with the great beard of my childhood image.  God is in relationship with Godself and desires nothing more than to be in relationship with you and me.

“God is a verb much more than a noun,” writes Richard Rohr.  “God as Trinity invites us into a participatory experience.  Some of our Christian mystics went so far as to say that all of creation is being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a ‘Fourth Person’ of the Eternal Flow of God.”[5]

Paul writes that we’ve been adopted by God.  And not just adopted, but been made heir – co-heirs with Christ.  God has drawn us into relationship at the same level as Christ.  “We talk about the Trinity as God being three-in-one … in order always to add one more – and that’s us, all of us, an infinite ‘plus one’ through which God’s love is made complete in relationship with all of God’s children.”[6]

Or, put another way, we are invited into the dance.  Amen.


[2] I don’t remember which radio program on KQED-FM I heard him say this, but I almost immediately tweeted it, and that was at 8:41 p.m., 22 May 2015.

[3] Nancy Hastings Sehested, “Born to be Wild,” Sojourners, (accessed 26 May 2015).

[4] “Perichoresis,” Wikipedia, (accessed 26 May 2015).

[5] Richard Rohr, “Meditations on the Mystery of the Trinity,” quoted by Mike Morrell,, (accessed 26 May 2015).

[6] David Lose, “Three-in-One Plus One!” …In the Meantime, (posted and accesses on 25 May 2015).


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