Spiritual but not religious? Beliefs matter.

The Feasts for Newbies: Trinity Sunday (Part One)

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Trinity Sunday is that feast in the Christian Year that is about a doctrine rather than an event. And let’s be honest, doctrine sounds like divisive, dusty stuff. You may be one of the many who avoid doctrine with, “I’m spiritual but not religious, I feel no need of your divisive, dusty doctrines. I have the real thing.

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I am sympathetic. Experiencing the Holy One is certainly where it is at, but the “spiritual but not religious” answer is a bit too pat. Here’s why: My son’s college offshore sailing team just sailed the Annapolis to Newport race. My son was navigator. Getting ready for three days offshore meant lots of prep work – 20 hours pouring over charts, marking shoals with yellow and red highlighters.

Saying, “I have the real thing,” though, is like standing on the dock looking out over the water excited about how beautiful it is on the shore. Why would you want to pour over dusty doctrine instead of enjoying the shore? For the same reason a sailor learns his charts. Yes, charts can be divisive – people will argue over which route to take. Yes, it is boring to turn from actual water to paper facsimiles of ocean. My son, who invested hours in those charts, agrees with you: Charts are boring.

They are also necessary. At least they are if you want to get someplace truly amazing. Standing at the dock is fine. But making landfall in Newport and seeing the great homes of the Gilded Age from the Sea is truly amazing…and you can’t get there without charts. Theology is our chart. Doctrine is the vetted, agreed upon experience of thousands who have sailed before – utterly necessary to go anywhere truly spectacular.


When we are young we think that what we want is to appropriate spiritual wisdom as it fits us, the way we would pluck entrees at a cafeteria, picking what “fits” us. But what we need is not a “spirituality” of our own contrivance, but to surrender ourselves to something, someone greater.

One can be vaguely “spiritual but not religious” on the humid shore in Annapolis, or you can venture into the open ocean and journey to the perpetual cool breezes of the Rhode Island summer. At Pentecost, Christians are empowered to get off the dock and experience the real thing. but doctrine is the chart warning us of the shoals, and pointing us toward deep waters. And the doctrine that really matters, the single doctrine that all other doctrine hangs on is the Trinity. Here is why:

We humans spend our lives answering the Great Questions…questions we hoped would get answered in college only to be told, “Don’t talk about that. Get a major that will score you a good paying job, here’s a beer and a condom, stop thinking so deeply!” But the Great Questions stalk us through life like store security follows suspected shoplifters. Those questions include…

  • Why am I here? (The God Question)
  • What went wrong? (The Pain Question)
  • How is it fixed? (The Salvation Question)
  • Who am I to be? (The Existential Question)

You might be surprised to find out that the early Christians camped out on the first question: Why am I here? The God Question. They realized that if one gets the God Question right, everything else works out. Unlike many other theological questions, the answer to the God Question is specific, agreed upon by all Christians: The God who made us is the One who reveals himself as a Tri-unity…one God in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The God Question is how we ended up with the Nicene Creed. It took 300 years to articulate One God in three Persons. The Nicene Creed Christians recite is a very broad statement. All major branches of Christianity: Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Pentecostals…all stack hands on that really, really, really broad answer to the God Question. Unlike later confessions which sought to define what Christians should believe, the Nicene Creed is the least one must believe to be considered Christian by other Christians – the minimum admission to the Christian “playground” of the Holy Trinity. “Without the Trinity,” Christians say, “no harm, no foul, but you are just not one of this tribe.”

A later creed, the Athanasian Creed would elaborate…

“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.”

They are three and they are one. And they are both at the same time.

That matters because beliefs have outcomes. What we believe about God seeps into everything we are and do.

For example, a Mormon friend once asked me to read the book of Mormon and ask God if Joseph Smith is a true prophet. I said I would if they would return the favor and read Hebrews 1 about Jesus being the final revelation of the Father, and ask God if Joseph Smith might be a false prophet. That sounded fair to me, but my friend objected strenuously, “No!” I asked why. In exasperation my friend stammered, “What if God lies?” That sounds shocking to most ears, but when your God is an exalted human, as he is for my LDS friends, God telling a lie isn’t so crazy. But when your God is an uncreated being of infinite, complete and self-contained love…a being who shaped the cosmos out of a desire to share love, the joyful dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with humanity, well, deception is simply an unthinkable violation of that being’s very nature.

So yes, theology can be hard work. But is a good work. The question boils down to this: Will you be satisfied to have a narcissistic, humid little experience from the dock when the offshore adventure of eternity beckons?

Pull out the charts and do the work of learning the doctrines of the faith. They chart the boundaries of the journey of love that has sustained the generations. The captain of our souls invites you aboard.

Trinity Sunday Sermon Link


“Get your head in the game!” Seeing our need for a Savior.

Plains, trains and automobiles

A Sermon: Luke 3:7-18

John has quite the attention getter for his message. I wonder what it would do to Sunday church attendance if preachers today opened sermons the way John did: “You guys…You. (pointing around the room) Guys…are a bunch of poisonous snakes. What are you doing here? Who warned you that God is about to play whack-a-mole and you’re the mole?” As I recall, the first lesson in high school speech was “Don’t insult your audience.” John the baptizer apparently took a different elective.

Last week we learned that John was appointed a task even more difficult than his outfits and diet: Preparing the way for the messiah. How does one prepare the way for the Savior of humanity? What does one do and say to “make straight the paths of the Lord”? The answer was a one-word message: “Repent!” Repent is a word your Bible translators left un-translated. Literally it means: “Change your mind.” Today we might say, “Get your head together!”

When John was preaching this sermon Jesus was still under wraps… he has not yet began his 3-year public teaching ministry. Not yet come, in his words, “to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)

How does “getting our head together” prepare us for Jesus’ coming? Receiving a savior presumes we realize that we need one. That, in a nutshell, is John’s task…

Story: Remember the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles? Steve Martin is stuck on a trip home for the holidays with a somewhat deranged shower ring salesman played by John Candy. In one scene they get turned around while driving at night. They end up on the wrong side of the freeway. A car on the other side of the guardrail realizes the error and the couple inside furiously motions for Martin and Candy to roll down the car window. The couple in the car shouts at our protagonists, “You’re going the wrong way!” “What?” “You’re going the wrong way!” Martin and Candy are oblivious. They think the couple frantically warning them wants to race…then, when they hear the warning, assume the couple is drunk. After all, they reason, “How would they know where we are going?” Finally, Steve Martin realizes that he is looking at the wrong color road stripe. He looks up and sees two sets of semi headlights bearing down on them. In shock Martin begins to breathlessly warn, “truck, truck!”

…Is there any doubt today that we as a culture are going the wrong way? And what is a culture but a collection of individuals. The conclusion is inescapable: If the culture is going the wrong way, it is all of us. To quote the Blues Brothers: “You, me, them. Everybody. Everybody.”

We are going the wrong way.

In the shadow of the events at the Sandy Hook school 3 days ago, we cannot deny the effects of evil and sin and societal breakdown and failed solutions. One would have to have their heads deep in the sand to not be painfully aware that the world is going the wrong way. Sandy Hook wasn’t even our first mass-murder this week. That happened in Portland. In seven previous mass-murders this year alone, 41 other people have died in 7 other mass shootings.

Our world is broken. We are broken. If we are honest we will admit that most of us are but a few missed paychecks, a few bad months, a few broken relationships, a few bad decisions, and a little bit of self-medication away from unraveling our lives. There but for the grace of God go we.

And it is no longer enough to play the rugged individualist card. We live interconnected lives. What I do with my life matters to you. What you do matters to me. What we do matters to our neighborhood. We cannot say, “Stop worrying about me…take your hands and your laws off of my life.” Every freedom I have involves a corresponding responsibility upon each of you. And, in a time of social breakdown, we must all pull together, lay aside our rights and step up our responsibility for the common good. We must, “Get our heads together.

In verse 8 John is saying, in effect: “Are you God’s child? Then live like it! Don’t live off of yesterday’s spiritual accomplishments…don’t claim some spiritual pedigree.” John points out the obvious: “trees that don’t bear fruit get cut down and burned so that other trees might bear fruit.” This isn’t necessarily anger. It is just reality. In every realm of life, if we don’t get the job done, someone else will.

How did the crowd respond to John’s “Get your head in the game!” Message? They ask the obvious question: “How?”

3 times 3 groups ask “How?” The crowd. The tax collectors. The soldiers. “How do I live like a person with my head in the game?”

It is the right question. For them. And for us.

John gives them obvious advice that makes sense in their context: Share. Don’t cheat. Be satisfied with your pay…obvious for them, and still pretty obvious for us today.

I see three implications in this passage. Two are overt. One we learn later when Saint Paul comments on the meaning of the Christ event:

First: Come humbly. Humility is the hallmark of a life ready to receive God. Live in a way that is open-hearted to God. Let God continually change your mind. Humility is the mark of one who walks with God. So come humbly.

Second: Live Selflessly. As a result of our humility before God, live a life that lays down our wants for other’s needs. The world really needs us to…but more than that, because turning from our self-centered sinfulness always has the effect of proving to us how unable we are to actually pull it off. Living selflessly leads to the third implication:

Third: See your need for a savior.

John is reminding the crowds of God’s law: the Old Testament standard. The law functions like that measuring stick at Disneyland. The one where if you aren’t big enough you don’t get on the good rides. The Law is the measuring rod to reveal to God’s children that we don’t measure up. Paul said it like this: “…if it had not been for the law I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” (Romans 7:7-12) The law is God’s yardstick to make us realize how much we need a savior!

How does the message “Get your head in the game…”and bear the fruits of repentance” pave the way for the One who is to come? The more God increases the more our pride decreases. That is why Paul says, “O wretched man that I am.” (Rom. 7:24) It isn’t self-loathing. It is glory-of-God-awareness. More than a few old saints have told me that the closer they get to the God, the more aware they become of their fallen-ness and God’s great goodness.

What is the result?The people were filled with expectation.” They ask John if he is the one they are waiting for.  We all cling to hope. Like Jamie Foxx, who at the BET awards in November referred to “Our Lord and Savior, Barack Obama,” we are always looking for a Savior. But like the President who rolled his eyes at the comment, John is very clear, “Another is coming after me whose shoes I am not worthy to untie.” And the one who comes will also have his own baptism: “the Holy Spirit and fire.”

What does being immersed in the Holy Spirit bring? Jesus said in John, “He will bring to mind all Jesus taught us.” (John 14:28) And,  “He will convict of sin, righteousness and judgment.” (16:8)

Conviction is a divine invitation to allow God to work. God is love, but loving us involves helping us to become most fully the person we were made to be, and when we allow trees not bearing good fruit to grow up in our lives, well, the Holy Spirit helps with that.

In verse 17, John uses a final word picture, that of “His threshing floor.” A threshing floor was a flat spot in a breezy area. A farmer would throw his harvest in the air so that the heavier grain would fall at their feet while the breeze could blow away the dead chaff. The harvest was collected. The chaff? It is burned. That was what you did with garbage before landfills.

We all have chaff in our lives. John’s message is that the time is right to expose the chaff in our lives to the wind of the Spirit. The time is right to let God blow that which hides the harvest away.

Do you have something against another? We are going to be reconciled in the Passing of the Peace. Use that time to make it right.

Is there something between you and God? We are coming to the Lord’s table. We will come as we ought: on bent knee, with open hands. Offer to God whatever it is the Holy Spirit is convicting you is in the way.

If you have not yet, placed your life in God’s hands. Put your trust in God and receive God’s gift of life in Christ. Come forward and ask one of the ministers to explain a relationship with God.

John’s final sentence this morning: “with many exhortations John proclaimed the Good News.” We don’t think of exhortation as a part of Good News. But if we do not have a diagnosis we do not want to drink the medicine.

Here is the exhortation: Let God blow away the chaff.

Here is the Good News:

-We are forgiven by God as a gift purchased by God’s son on the cross.

-We are adopted as God’s own children as a gift.

-We have growth in faith and knowledge and wisdom as a gift.

-We have a calling to participate with God in extending his Kingdom A.

*All is gift.

And the way to receive any gift is with thanksgiving…hands open and a smile on our face. That is what “Eucharist” means: Thanksgiving.

It is almost Christmas: the celebration of God sending the gift of his Son. Christmas is not OUR birthday. And yet, the world received a gift. That is why it is so important that we Come Humbly, Serve Selflessly, and See your need for a savior.

As we await Jesus’ coming at Christmas, to walk among his creation, and to purchase victory through his passion, let us, as the old Eucharistic prayer says, “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.