Not My Monkeys

babboonThere’s a funny phrase going around Facebook that I’ve taken a liking to. It goes like this: “Not my monkeys. Not my circus.” It seems to be a Polish saying that, in a playful way, reminds people not to get involved with things that really do not concern them. These things are usually the sort that get us fired up. We become emotionally invested in somebody else’s business, and then can’t disentangle ourselves from the drama that ensues.

It’s like the monkeys from the traveling circus have gotten loose and are running amok causing chaos all over town. Now, it’s part of my nature to want to jump into the fray when things go wrong. The temptation is there to do something – to try to restore order, to keep the monkeys from hurting themselves or others. There’s just one problem: I have no idea how to handle monkeys.

A troop of primates on a freedom spree would make a monkey out of me. Before I know it I’d be calling for help myself and contributing to the chaos rather than resolving it.

The people that know how to handle the monkeys are the circus people – where the monkeys came from. It’s up to the circus people to corral their beasts and to be responsible for their crazy-making monkeys. They’re the best ones equipped to fix the mess they’ve made – not me. The best thing I can do is stay out of the way so they can do their job. They’re not my monkeys. It’s not my circus.

How often have you found yourself running around, trying to solve other people’s crises, only to find out it’s making you crazy?! I’m willing to bet we’ve all had the experience of trying to make someone happy who simply cannot be pleased no matter what we do. It’s a no-win situation. Creative people that we are, we try to satisfy every possible need. Stubborn people that we are, we don’t know when to quit. Naïve people that we are, we often fail to remember that we are not responsible for making others happy. Trying to please everybody all the time is not your monkeys. It’s not your circus.

In our Gospel today, Jesus ran into this same kind of situation. The people around him complain that he’s not satisfying them. No one likes to be criticized. None of us wants to hear people say that our best isn’t good enough. It must have been particularly hard on Jesus to hear these put-downs when Jesus is trying to save them – he’ll soon give his very life for these same people in a last act of giving all that he has to give. “You didn’t do what we wanted you to do!” They said. They don’t seem to appreciate what he’s trying to do for them. But Jesus isn’t rattled by their harsh words. Instead, he calls out the no-win situation.

They compare Jesus to John the Baptizer. They decided John was a demon because he neither ate nor drank. How could someone call himself a man of God and not spend time sharing a meal with others like civilized people do? John isn’t good enough to have a connection to God. That’s what the people say.

Then here comes this Jesus guy. Sure he teaches and heals in the name of God, but he’s clearly a glutton and drunkard because he both eats & drinks with people – and you know what sort of people I’m talking about. How can he call himself a man of God if he goes around eating other people’s food and drinking so much wine all the time? Jesus isn’t good enough to have a connection with God. That’s what the people say.

This is a clear case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s no way Jesus can reason this out with them. They’ve already made up their minds that this is how things are. They’ve set the crazy-making monkeys loose and have no interest in bringing them back to their circus. They would much rather be entertained by watching Jesus try to catch them all. To their dismay – and to our great relief – Jesus doesn’t take the bait.

Jesus did what Jesus was there to do, and nothing more. He came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. He wasn’t there to live up to other people’s unreasonable expectations of him, or play their games, or to try to make everybody happy. Remember how people said they expected the Messiah to be a mighty warrior, or a great king, and how perplexed they were that he was born into poverty?

It was clear within Christ from the beginning what his goal and purpose was, and that’s where he kept his focus. Had he tried to conform to everybody else’s expectations, Jesus might never have gotten beyond the stable in Nazareth.

In our Gospel, we learn from the master what it means to exercise healthy self-differentiation. But this lesson isn’t exclusively in the Gospel. Today we get to see a range of the progression to this very healthy state of being.

In our first reading from Zechariah, we meet up with the people of God as they return from exile. One of the big reasons God’s people find themselves in exile is because they lost focus on themselves: they are God’s people; they are to be distinct among the surrounding nations; they are to maintain the integrity of the people they became when they entered the Promised Land. The Exodus was a long process of learning to understanding themselves, and God wants all that work of formation to continue.

But God’s people became wooed by all the fancy things they saw in the nations surrounding them: great armies, flashy temples, lots of bling. They saw all the trappings of others and began to think that if they didn’t have those things too, they were somehow lacking. So they began to mimic what they saw. In the process of this monkey-see-monkey-do (I say that ironically), they also took on the self-destructive tendencies that were not so apparent.

Now we pick up the story of Israel after their realization that God made them just right in the first place. They finally understood that their value was purposely unique – not lacking because it didn’t look like or act like the people all around them. Hallelujah! and thanks be to God for realizing that healthy self-differentiation is a great gift from God!

The amazing and grace-filled feat of getting to this place of self-awareness is easier said than done, however. If you’ve ever tried to assert yourself to a dominant personality, you know how hard it is. In our Epistle, we find Paul working out the difficulty of this.

Paul frames this tension as a struggle within himself. The things he wants to do, that he characterizes as desires of the flesh, are those things that his culture deemed perfectly ok. Not everything that culture says is perfectly okay really is. I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of that within our own culture. For Paul, he personalizes it to an interior struggle between what he knows God is calling him to be and do, versus what the dominant culture would prefer of him.

The interesting thing to note in this lesson is that Paul doesn’t come to a resolution about it. He remains in the lifelong tension between these two competing forces. What he concludes though, is that his relationship with God in Jesus Christ is the only reliable way of living with the tensions of life. It is by keeping the teachings of Jesus in the forefront of his thoughts and actions that he can find that delicate balance of successfully living and working with the people all around him, and maintaining the integrity of discipleship to Christ.

Paul really is speaking in very practical terms – even if it reads more like his typical round-about logic. We’re all stuck in the tension of staying true to ourselves and discerning God’s unique call for our lives, while living with the expectations of others. They’re not necessarily the same thing. The trouble comes when we confuse unreasonable expectations for reasonable ones, or think that our entering into another’s chaos can somehow fix it.

I want to underscore an important detail about this lifelong process of maintaining a healthy self-differentiation. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he writes, “I have become all things to all people.” This is one of those lines people like to throw out when they think they can successfully manage the lives of everyone around them. What we read from Romans was written some time after 1st Corinthians. So somewhere along the line Paul realized that it actually isn’t possible to be all things to all people. It isn’t possible to please everyone all the time. It was pretty arrogant of Paul to say that. Even Jesus didn’t go that far.

And that brings us back to the Gospel. We are called to imitate Jesus, as his disciples. What we learn today is how to call out no-win situations for what they are, and to avoid getting caught up in other people’s drama. Some people will never be happy no matter what you do, so do your best to not get sucked in to no-win situations that will only leave you exhausted: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It’s not possible to corral someone else’s troop of escaped monkeys, and unreasonable for others to expect you to.

We witnessed the joy of Israel when they finally learned this powerful lesson. But the difficulty of imitating Jesus in this way is affirmed by Paul. Learning to recognize your own limitations, and set healthy boundaries for reasonable expectations is not a lesson mastered once and for all. We all will spend our lifetimes re-establishing where our responsibilities end and others’ begin. The good news today is especially for those of us weary from carrying heavy burdens.

It’s not always easy to see when the Master uses humour in his teachings, but today we get a good look at it. Jesus brings a little levity to the teaching by comparing the unreasonable people to children. It’s a little bit of an insult, but more playfully drawing their attention to the boundary infraction that are the games they expect him to play. He adds a little lightness to the situation. If Jesus can get away with a gentle jab like that, surely we can make light of our burden with a playful calling out invitations to get involved with other people’s chaos: not my monkeys – not my circus. And that’s the good news.

Trinity Sunday

trinityThere’s this video (Youtube video: Lutheran Satire: Teach the Faith by Making Fun of Stuff, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” by Hans Fiene & Matthew Carver) that the Bible Study group watched on Tuesday that presented the conundrum of trying to describe the Trinity. In the video St. Patrick was asked to explain the Trinity in a way that was easy to understand by regular people who don’t have all the fancy education of theology school.

He begins with describing the Trinity like water. It comes in three forms: solid, liquid, and vapor. The people St. Patrick is speaking to interrupt him to call out that explanation as modalism. Modalism is a heresy from the year 381. It argues that God is not 3 distinct persons, but merely reveals himself in three different forms, similar to the way water reveals itself in three different forms but is not really distinct.

St. Patrick tries again. This time he describes the Trinity like the sun. The sun is a star, and it gives off light, and heat also. Arianism! The listeners interject. Heat & light are not the star, but creations of the star. In the 4th century, a guy named Arius tried to argue that Christ and the Holy Spirit are creations of the Father & not one in nature with him. Long story short: things didn’t go well for Arius.

St. Patrick is undaunted and tries one last time to describe the nature of the Holy Trinity. He says it’s like a three-leaf clover. You know the classic St. Patrick image, right? Well, this explanation – sentimental though it may be – qualifies as yet another heresy: Partialism. Patrick’s listeners are very quick to jump on this one. In Partialism, the heresy states that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons of the Godhead, but are different parts of God, and each only comprises 1/3 of the divine.

Poor St. Patrick. He tried really hard to illustrate the nature of the Trinity, and all his efforts failed. Finally, out of frustration he blurts out an abbreviated version of the very academically rigorous Athanasian Creed:

[read fast] “The Trinity is a mystery that cannot be comprehended by human reason, but only through faith as confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed; which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons, nor dividing the Substance; that we are compelled by the Christian truths that each distinct person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.”

It’s crystal clear now, right? That is pure orthodoxy, sisters and brothers. You just rattle that little gem off to anyone who asks, and you can’t go wrong. That Athanasius sure did have the Trinity buttoned down, didn’t he? Full disclosure, the Athanasian Creed also includes the following statement: “There are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible.” Nice safety clause Athanasius. You see what he just did there? Did you see that? That’s a 6th century version of this [shrug]. So now, 15 centuries later, I and all my colleagues are standing in our pulpits going… uh, the Trinity is like a… a three-leaf clov– no. Uh… it’s like a… [shrug]

I think, if we really did understand the Holy Trinity of God, it would be like living in a life-sized spoiler. We’d already know the outcomes of everything. What would be the point of doing anything? It would put us in an existential crisis, wouldn’t it? We would find ourselves in the dicey position of having too much power. With the confidence of divine justification, we could do whatever, whenever, to whomever, with no need to consider what collateral damage our actions might create for others.

There’s a saying from the author Anne Lamott that goes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” If we completely understood God, it would be too easy to confuse our personal preferences with God’s will. [repeat] That would be a dangerous place to find ourselves in. History shows us time and again what humankind is capable of doing when it believes that God is on our side. As it is, we already do a thorough enough job of executing judgment on ourselves and others without the certainty of knowing if it’s exactly what God would do.

The mystery of the Holy Trinity lets God be God, and do what God does, as God wills, without our meddling. We get to worry about how we ought to live the life that God gave us. And that’s quite enough. So in the words of Athanasius… [shrug & nod].

That said, we are still left with the original conundrum of the Trinity. We confess our faith each Sunday using the Nicene Creed, which is a statement on the Trinity, so this mystery is part of who we are, our purpose for being, and is a central tenet of our faith system. Certainly we ought to be able to say something intelligent about it.

We’ve come to the conclusion that God exists as three persons, but we don’t worship a pantheon. It’s perfectly reasonable for non-Christians to ask us what we mean when we talk about God in terms of Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, no one likes to be put on the spot with such questions. Just look what happened to poor St. Patrick! We would feel much better if there was a nice tidy explanation that we could rattle off that was clear, concise, and reasonable. But the truth of the matter is: there isn’t. Better minds than ours have wrestled with the concept of the Trinity for two thousand years, and the best of the best of them ended up defaulting to the incomprehensibility of it.

If we have to describe the Holy Trinity, it’s easier to say what God *is not* than it is to say what God *is*. It’s probably more accurate too. God is not a forest. God is not a mountain. All the things we might hold up to say that God is not, may in fact contain a sliver of resemblance to the nature of what God is. God is not forest, but… Like an ancient rainforest, God the creator, stands in silent witness to the activities of humanity. God provides for our needs just as forests provide for our needs. Trees provide material resources for a variety of things. Forests are places where we can go to get away from it all and still our frantic minds. God is like this, but God is not a forest. Insert some other thing in place of forest and try to work this out for yourself. It’s a fun exercise.

God is not Plutonium. Plutonium provides a virtually endless supply of energy in the form of radiation. We can’t see this radiation, but we can feel it. We can observe its effects on other things. Its power is vast, and we like to think that we can control it. Left to its own devices however, Plutonium is out of our control. God however, is not Plutonium. This exercise is called “negative theology.”

I personally get more out of discerning God with negative theology than trying to struggle to remember positive theology. The heresies are like landmines out there. You need a good map to avoid stepping the wrong way! Ahhh… perhaps a map is a better way to understand the Trinity. A graphic illustration is worth a thousand than words. On the cover of your service bulletin I‘ve put the classic trinity symbol. You’ve probably seen this before. The Trinity may be most clearly illustrated as a triangle. A triangle is a good way to illustrate the three persons of God. God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all there. They all have equal size. They’re interrelated, but distinct. They don’t contradict each other. It’s hard to contradict, when the contradictions are part of the explanation! The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, but the Father is God and the Son is God. Nope. No contradictions there. The irony of this is that the act of trying to understand God in a triangle graphic will have us going in circles.

But here’s the thing… This is what gets us off the hook for Trinitarian theology. There is beauty in mystery. There’s grace – even in the incomprehensibility. You see, if God were understandable, comprehensible, there’d be no need for God. If we can figure out and succinctly explain the creator of all things seen and unseen, then there’s nothing left to know; nothing more to learn. There would be no more adventures; no curiosity. Human experience ends precisely where it begins, and life would be just a matter of running out the clock of existence. Salvation would be superfluous. Grace would be incidental. And the hope of faith could be so well-calculated that it would be rendered powerless. Life would be reduced to a dull procession of inevitables.

In this divine relationship we have with God, moments of grace are experienced as surprises in our lives. We feel the hand of God when we’re not looking for it. There’s a playfulness in God’s relationship with us. There’s an exchange of joy. It doesn’t matter how it happens. The inner workings of grace and forgiveness, of salvation and redemption don’t matter. All that matters is that those things are there, and they come to us when God knows we need them the most, when we’re open to receiving them. God gives us good things from God’s own self.

All of our decipKeystone-copshering of the mystery of God doesn’t make God love us more, or elevates us higher than everything else. If anything, the backflips that Trinitarian theology requires probably gives God a good chuckle… in whatever way God does that. All the while we’re tripping over ourselves to describe and explain the Holy Trinity, I’m sure God is laughing and laughing. I bet we provide great entertainment for God. Perhaps Trinitarian theologians could be best described as the Keystone Cops of Christian theology: everything works out in the end, but we sure do complicate things on the way there. Perhaps the most important purpose for Trinitarian theology in the divine-human relationship, is to keep joy flowing from God to people, and back again.

Sisters and brothers, if you must explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and if you know nothing else about it, know this: God is love. God is good all the time. God speaks to each of us in whatever way it takes to get the message across. We don’t have to complicate the relationship for it to work. We might not understand God perfectly, but we don’t have to. And ultimately, we are all saved by the workings of some beautiful unknowable grace. And that’s the good news.