Imago Dei

Homily for Trinity Sunday Year A
St Mark’s Episcopal Church
Richmond, Virginia
(Virtual Worship in the Time of Pandemic)

Lectionary Readings:


I don’t understand…

I’m hearing that phrase a lot these days. Maybe you’ve heard it, too. Here are a few real-life examples: “I understand the protests, but I just don’t understand all the violence”; “I don’t understand why people won’t wear a mask”; “I don’t understand why we’re still struggling over civil rights after all these years”; “I don’t understand why we can’t re-open…” ; “I don’t understand what the big deal is over the statues”; “I don’t understand why the color of my skin makes me a target for the police”; “I don’t understand why I’m invisible unless I’m angry”; “I don’t understand why all this is happening…”

The list goes on.

So here we are, on Trinity Sunday, gathering virtually together at a time where there is so much that we don’t understand. We might not even understand why there needs to be a special day on the liturgical calendar designated to focus on a heady, theological doctrine of the Holy Trinity. But like so many things we do as community, perhaps we can walk together into this cloud of unknowing, holding open the possibility that God gives us gifts when we gather to worship God together. On this day as we read, mark and inwardly digest the scriptures and the prayers that form us and feed us in our common worship, my prayer is that the gift we will receive is deeper understanding.

I was talking with a friend and academic colleague this week about what happens when we reach our limits of understanding. She shared with me a story of one of her mentors…sort of a legend in the field kind of person…who taught his students about what to do when they got stuck in a dense reading or hit something that was difficult to comprehend. What most often happens, he explained, is that people stop and skim ahead to see if whatever it is they are trying to get somehow makes better sense or is illuminated in the next few sentences. The temptation to skip on ahead is powerful but — it turns out — isn’t really helpful to learning. He went on to suggest that what we really need to do when we come across something we don’t understand isn’t to go forward, but to go back. Go back what you thought you knew and get a better grasp of it, to more fully understand what was leading up to that point…build a more solid foundation and study it more deeply until you’re ready to take in the new information.

It’s some good advice, and not just for graduate school.

So, let’s go back. In this week where our human understanding fails us, it’s interesting that our readings take us back to the beginning. As I have read and re-read this creation narrative during this tumultuous week, there was one resounding phrase that I heard over and over again. Did you hear it this morning, too? And God saw that it was good.

Let’s just pause there, before going forward. Do we really understand that? Do we truly understand that we…us…all people who on earth do dwell are created in the image and likeness of God? We say it, sometimes. But do we really understand ourselves and each other as Imago Dei: images of a beloved God?

If we can’t understand that…and I tend to think based on the way we treat each other we don’t fully understand that…then maybe instead of plunging ahead into stories which try to explain the fallenness and depravity of the human condition…or our own tendency to place certain groups more easily within our understanding of God’s belovedness than others…then we need to stop and go back even further. Maybe we need to revisit God’s vision for creation before the breath of God moved across the waters. Maybe we need to re-engage the idea that all of God’s creation emanates from God’s Self.

What does our scripture and theology teach us about the nature of God’s Self?

God’s Self is revealed to us in human history through relationship. Our lectionary readings give us some good examples. From the very beginning God is in relationship with creation, giving life and reflecting on its goodness. Those into whom God breathes life and provides for share the responsibility for the care and keeping of God’s creation. Our reading from Genesis reveals the reciprocity and relationship which are built into all of creation from the very beginning.

In our second reading Paul, having spent the better part of two epistles engaging in conflict management with the power-grabbing leaders of churches in Corinth who were falling apart at the seams closes with a reminder of who God is: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Paul reminds the church that God’s nature is not revealed in three separate, competing entities…God in these three manifestations is One and so we must also be one.

In the Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples…witnesses to the resurrection…are still filled with both fear and doubt, struggling to understand. And Jesus met them in that very place, where the profound knowledge of God in the person of Christ was revealed in their worship right there in the midst of their fear and doubt. That’s right…something we can totally relate to: worship in the midst of fear and doubt. This is the context in which the Great Commission is given: go into the world, even in the midst of your fear and doubt, and invite others into this divine relationship.

You see, when we go back and revisit these narratives we begin to see a common thread: the inherent and eternal goodness of the divine relationship…what we call the Holy Trinity…as the source of creation, reconciliation, and rebirth in our own lives.

Our understanding of the Holy Trinity doesn’t need to be an abstract lesson in spatial relations, filled with charts and graphics and semi-heretical metaphors. Our understanding of the Holy Trinity is an invitation extended by God who is relationship. There is a moving reciprocity, a divine dance of creating, redeeming, sustaining goodness from which God speaks creation…yes, including the creation of humanity…of us. We are made in the image and likeness of God. And God saw that it was good.

So, how does all this help us in our own dilemmas of understanding what’s happening right now, in this world in which we live?

You see, it matters that we have a God of relationship, the eternal “Singular They” of the Holy Trinity. The questions of understanding that we offer up…to God and to each other…are wholly different if they are asked in relationship, rather than as a rhetorical device that demands a singular, authoritarian truth or a dead end to our learning.

Imagine “I don’t understand” not as a stopping point, but as an invitation into deeper relationship: with history, with people different than we are, with our own well hidden biases and sensibilities about how the world should be. “I don’t understand” can be a statement that separates us and allows us to skip over the hard parts, or it can be an opportunity to go back and go deeper into a relationship of truly transforming knowledge, with God’s help.

The relationship that God holds out to us in the form of the Holy Trinity is an example of mutuality and reciprocity, of giving and receiving the creating, sustaining, restoring nature of God’s Self Love and God’s Love for God’s people. That relationship is also possible among the products of God’s creation…that which God created and saw as good. Our relationship with God involves deep, foundational understanding of that creating, redeeming, sustaining love.

Can we open our hearts and minds to hear new perspectives? God Creates.

Can we love in the presence of fear and doubt? Christ Redeems.

Can we move toward justice when structures seem immovable? Spirit Transforms.

So, I invite us today into deeper understanding. Don’t skip over the hard parts. Avoid the temptation to rush ahead to words of comfort and peace without first struggling with the hard work of repentance and reconciliation. Move into the fullness of the creating, redeeming, sustaining nature of God’s love for God’s people and be willing to enact this same mystery in reaching out beyond your zones of comfort and familiarity.

No Justice.  No Peace.

If we want to do the hard work of racial justice and break down the barriers that divide us by gender, sexual orientation, poverty, education, class, ability, age, ideology…then we are going to have to go back to God’s vision of creation as good, and recognize that to see someone or some group otherwise is to stand apart from the intention of God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. When our understanding is colluded by systems of oppression, we have to break down the outrageous nature of oppression, not hide in the shadow of not knowing. The only way we can do that is to go back to God’s vision, and seek out that goodness in the world that God has created, and to go forth into the world with that vision to live out the Great Commission even when we are surrounded on all sides by fear and doubt. The only way to do this work…truly do this work… is to revisit what we really mean when we say we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And we can’t even do that last part until we truly understand the depths of belovedness extended to us and all people as created in the image and likeness of God.

Seek to understand. Go back to learn and relearn when things get hard. Go forth boldly to proclaim the creating, reconciling, sustaining love of God for all of God’s people. And the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Amen

No Justice No Peace

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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