Sunday, May 18, 2008

Made for Ubuntu

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York on Trinity Sunday: Genesis 1:1--2:4a

Once again, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called The Message comes through with a fresh sound to a familiar text—the Creation story.

Let us make human beings in our image, making them reflect our nature, so they can be responsible…[so] he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature.

What does it mean to be made in the image of God? Many things—it is like a multi-faceted diamond, this reality. Peterson gives us two things it means: reflecting God’s nature and to be “godlike.”

The latter may stun us. It is one thing to say we are made in the image of God, quite another, perhaps, to say we are “godlike.” Isn’t that a sin, to think we are like God? Isn’t that what gets Adam and Eve into trouble in the story that follows this one?

I think there is a difference—a fine line perhaps, but still a difference—between being God and being godlike. Being God makes us equal to God—in charge of things. Being godlike makes us not God but like God, not in charge of things, but, as Peterson translates, responsible for them.

So the word “responsible” is a check on any power that being “godlike” seems to give us. There’s another check on this power, a bit more subtle, and something we Christians bring to the equation—the Trinity.

We are made to reflect the nature of God. What is God’s nature? The primary answer for Christians is “the Trinity.” It is God’s nature to be one-in-three, three-in-one.

The concept of the Trinity is a difficult one to grasp—always has been and always will be. Preachers traditionally dislike this Sunday because of the seemingly impossible task of “explaining” the Trinity. I don’t mind it so much myself, partially because I accept the fact that there is nothing to explain. I can no more “explain” the nature of God than I can “explain” my own nature, or yours.

The Trinity does not so much “explain” or “define” God as lead us more deeply into God’s mystery. God is One—that is fundamental—but when we peer deeply into the mystery of God we see something we do not quite expect. We see community.

If the Trinity tells us anything about the nature of God it is this—that community is at the very heart of God’s nature.

Therefore if we are to reflect this nature, we too must have community at our very heart. We are not made to be alone. We are made to be in relationship. Our very personhood depends upon other persons, some of our choosing, many not of our choosing.

I was well into my twenties before my adolescent rebellion toned down. I spent many years trying not to be like my parents. That is not an unusual thing, to test out and assert one’s autonomy. But there came a day when it suddenly dawned on me that the person I was depended on the persons my parents were and there was nothing I could do about that. “Son of Willi and Patti Hopkins” is a fundamental part of my identity. Of course, other relationships are constantly affecting my identity: spouse of John Bradley, priest of this parish, friend of this person and that person, uncle and one and on. Every person with whom I am in relationship deeply affects who I am.

I am made for community. You are made for community. And in that we are godlike.

The word “community” alone is not quite enough. Peterson gives us the right adjective to put with it. We are made for responsible community, community that has a particular way of being and doing. Community of responsibility, community of stewardship, community of generosity, community of hospitality, community of mutual, ever growing and ever changing identity.

There is a word for community like this in South Africa. The word is ubuntu. Ubuntu is an ancient African concept popularized by Desmond Tutu. It doesn’t translate into English very well. It is another multi-faceted diamond. It means all those things I just said: mutual identity and responsibility, stewardship, hospitality, generosity. It means living in solidarity—community—with all that is.

Ubuntu is what we were made for, and it is another way of expressing what we mean by the Trinity, the very nature of God.

We Christians believe not only that God is by nature Trinity but that all creation is as well. All creation is by nature community, responsible community, ubuntu.

Where’s the Trinity in our relationships? It’s pretty simple really. There is me and there is you and there is our relationship, the community we make, that is not just me and not just you, but a mysterious third thing that depends upon both of us to make it.

St. Augustine said long ago that the Trinity was the Lover and the Beloved and the Love between them.

Now what difference does this make in our lives?

It makes a difference that we are made for community and not for autonomy. Who each one of us is and what we do affects everyone and everything with whom we are in relationship. There is no such thing as a solitary self. “No man is an island,” as the poet and priest John Donne once said.

We are responsible for one another and in the biblical vision this “one another” is wider than we can possibly imagine. It is those we like and those we do not like. It is those known to us, and those who are strangers. Our lives are dependent upon one another, in as wide a circle as can possibly be.

That means when lives are damaged in the community around us, we are damaged. When a life is taken, like 16 year-old Daniel Davis’ life this past week, a piece of our life is taken. Our identities as members of this community we call Rochester are affected. We cannot pretend otherwise and be true to our biblical story.

So when another young life is taken on our streets we must ask, what is the response of responsible community? Sometimes the answer to that question comes very hard. But it begins by knowing that we absolutely have to ask it. We cannot let the murder of anyone, much less a child, drive us into a greater sense of autonomy where we have the illusion of safety. We cannot say, “That’s a tragedy but it really doesn’t affect me.” The first and most important step is to say, “This does affect me and calls me to greater responsible community.” That is Trinitarian acting, ubuntu.

On a brighter note, the renovations we are dedicating today are an act of Trinity, of responsible community, of ubuntu. We as individuals gave to this parish community and a need is being met, a need for deeper accessibility and hospitality. Our identity is changed by what we have done. We have been generous, we have cared for one another, and whenever we do that, God calls it “good.”

The good news today is that deep in the heart of God is community, and this means it is deep in our hearts as well. We are made for it, ever deepening, responsible community.

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